It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city): Read more
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
While the world out there is contorting itself into ever more yogic twists about horsemeat being found in burgers, I thought a little contribution from Graham Greene might be valid. I’m rereading his rather wonderful (dare I say it, quixotic) Monsignor Quixote and encountered this little gem in chapter 1.
After coming to the aid of an out of town bishop, the uber-parochial Father Quixote invites him to lunch in his humble abode. Having to deal with this unexpected guest provokes this conversation with Teresa, his housekeeper. Read more
For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more
One of the most poignant aspects of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is his having to come to terms with his younger (by 3 years) sister’s desperate, chronic illness. She eventually died at 22, as a result of some well-timed medical breakthroughs – but it inevitably took its toll on the whole family. It drove the young Francis even further into books. And to very regular bus journeys to the local public library. Read more
Having considered the importance of stories and fiction in general, Spufford in The Child That Books Built now works through the different stages of growing up, moving from the simplest picture books onto fairy tales. Much psychologising about their significance has been indulged in over the last century or so, and Spufford weaves a careful threat through it all. The crucial thing is to understand why stories resonate:
‘Only those voices from without are effective,’ wrote the critic Kenneth Burke in 1950, ‘which speak in the language of a voice within.’ (p52)
Francis Spufford has gained a bit of a following for his recent Unapologetic – a quirky defence of Christianity which various bloggers have picked up on (I’ve only dipped into it but will read it fully soon and perhaps blog). But he has one of the most surprising and unique literary voices around. I was fascinated by his Red Plenty last year (an extraordinary account, part fiction/part history, of the heyday of Soviet Optimism in the 1950s) and have now just finished his simply sublime The Child that Books Built (Faber, 2002).
Well, at last. I’m on sabbatical. There are various plans of course. Some may become clear on Q in the weeks to come. But the main thing is that it gives the chance to stop, reflect, breathe, and do some things I’ve not yet had the chance to do. One of which is to do a serious reading catch-up.
I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read any of these books. But such is life: you can’t do everything.
It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts. Read more
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. Read more
I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. Read more
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
I am SO grateful to Frankie who suggested I read William Styron‘s piercing and affecting ‘memoir of madness’, Darkness Visible. It was back in July that I ordered it, but only this last Saturday when I read it. It is brief – only 80 pages or so – but gripping. I read it one sitting. It felt like a compulsion – but I know that I will return to it, with greater patience and scrutiny. It was only published in 1990, but is now a classic of its kind. Deservedly. Read more
I would imagine that writing a novel that conveys the power of music is as difficult as writing a song about the spectacular beauty of an African sunrise, or painting the throbbing anguish of raw grief. But when one medium succeeds in conveying the reality of another, unexpectedly different experience, one’s admiration for (not to mention understanding of) both is profoundly deepened. So here are a few books which have helped me to marvel afresh at the wonderful, humanising effect of music. They underline the truth that music is one of the greatest gifts of common grace.
In their different ways, they resonate with that wonderful moment in Shawshank Redemption when the prison is stopped in its tracks by the ineffable beauty of Mozart played over the tannoy, not least because of Red’s (Morgan Freeman’s character) delightful description of it. Read more
I hated this book. I can’t even remember who suggested it or exactly why (it must have been something to do with the work I’m doing on our culture of suspicion and alienation) – but that’s probably just as well! Michel Houellebecq’s ATOMISED came out in France in 1999, and then in English translation in 2000: and caused uproar, scorn and derision, as well as some literary plaudits and admirers. Read more
Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. Read more
The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more