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This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Also, check out my mission to listen to 200 years worth of 'songs named after dates' here.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Book Review: 'The Raw Shark Texts' by Steven Hall

Rifling through the bookshelves at my grandmother’s house a few years ago, I discovered that my grandfather used to make pencil notes in the fronts of the books that he read. His intentions, I suppose, were a little like my reasons for writing book reviews on this blog – a way of processing his thoughts on what he had read, what he could learn from it. In one of them (possibly something by Samuel Butler), I found the phrase ‘too much philosophy, not enough plot’. Now, I like my books with a dose of philosophy, but I also understand the need for an engaging story, so when I heard about The Raw Shark Texts, it seemed to be just the sort of thing I was looking for. This book shares DNA with works by Umberto Eco or Scarlett Thomas (and it was no surprise to see that latter named in the acknowledgements page), blending the conventions of a tight thriller with big philosophical ideas. We meet our protagonist, Eric Sanderson, with no memory of his past or his identity – the victim of a Ludovican thought shark, one of many species of conceptual fish which have evolved to swim in the ebb and flow of human ideas. With no memory of his previous life, Eric is already in critical condition, and it seems that the shark will return to eat away at his consciousness until there is nothing left.

Thus starts a journey into ‘unspace’, the nameless service roads, carparks and passageways which form the cracks in the modern world, to find the one person who might be able to help. Along the way, Eric is joined by ‘Scout’, a young woman using unspace to hide from a shadowy and terrifying being known as Mycroft Ward. I do not want to spoil Ward’s secret, but he is one of the most original and unsettling antagonists I’ve read about recently. Scout’s explanation of Ward’s backstory is one of the novel’s finest moments, and it is just a shame that he stays too remote to feel like a real threat for most of the book.

In some ways, this is very much a novel about how it feels to be hunted, with Scout and Eric both running from forces which will not stop. The idea of ‘unspace’ is also an attractive one – a sort of alternate world which is both mysterious and mundane, and easily believable to anyone who has ever explored and abandoned building, or looked into the organic, messy ways that cities grow.
Scout is a well written character – plucky and adventurous, but forced to live in a self-imposed exile which cuts her off from the real world. She also acts as a useful guide, helping us to understand the world that Hall presents us with.  Though his portrayal of the relationship between Scout and Eric, Hall demonstrates and understanding that even if a fast paced thriller, tension comes from the dynamic between characters as well as from external threats. However, Hall also creates a connection between Scout and Sanderson’s dead fiancée which is never satisfactorily explained. Novelists are entitled to maintain a sense of mystery, but this one opens up possibilities which do not feel entirely consistent with the rest of the story.

Mention of Clio Aames, Eric’s fiancée, brings me to another element of the novel. Alongside the tense thriller, we are given a picture of grief over the loss of a partner and a relationship which seem almost too perfect. This is made somehow more poignant by the fact that the protagonist has no memory of anything which happened before the start of the novel, and can only find out about one of the defining parts of his life the same way we do – by reading a fragment of a story written by his previous self. His most significant relationship is essentially something which happened to somebody else.

The novel is particularly interested in identity and memory. Eric draws a clear distinction between himself and ‘the first Eric Sanderson’. Our memories of others can affect their identities too. We like to think our dead loved ones live on somehow in our memory, but  Hall makes clear that this is just a version of that person – an image seen from only one direction and distorting as we get further away: Hall calls attention to this idea in making the relationship between Eric and Clio seem so perfect. I wonder if the same principle applies to living people too; our ideas of them may not match up with their ideas of themselves, and our true identities probably lie somewhere between our own self-images and the images that others have of us.

The question of identity is taken in a chilling new direction by the Mycroft Ward subplot, which spoilers prevent me from detailing here.  That’s the great thing about fiction – you can take and idea and stretch it to breaking point while retaining the emotional impact which the abstractions of philosophy sometimes lose. In the end though, the novelist must come to some sort of resolution. After spending the majority of the novel feeling like an imitation of the first Eric Sanderson, our protagonist is able to become the real thing, combining his new experiences and adventures with those aspects of the original that he has been able to glean from the record his predecessor left behind. While the ending wraps up some of the philosophical questions a little too neatly, Hall is able to draw the thriller plot to a satisfying conclusion.


The Raw Shark Texts is not a perfect novel. It experiments with extracts of ‘found’ texts and with the shapes of the text on the page in ways which never feel fully realised, and in times of intense action the author adopts a rather breathless, fragmented style of writing. Words flying off the paper. The reader struggling to maintain footing. An author overusing the present participle. Perhaps it is just the grammar nerd in me which objects to this, but I found that while the lack of a proper main-verb to anchor the sentences helped to create a sense of pace, it also jarred me out of the world of the novel and back on to the train, where Eric Sanderson and the Ludovican existed only as names on a page. Despite these criticisms, this is an ambitious and entertaining read which largely succeeds in balancing philosophy and plot. There is also a cat called Ian, and as I would recommend the book for that reason alone, we are both lucky that Hall does such a good job.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Book Review: 'Trilogy' by H D

Back when I used to skateboard (an unusual way to start a discussion of Modernist poetry, I know, but bear with me) watching promo videos of professionals doing interesting things always made we want to get out there and have a go for myself. This is how I felt when I first read Trilogy. During my final year at university, one of my assignments was to put together a collection of poetry, and I threw myself into the task. Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s North, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Ted Hughes’ Crow, I tried to combine elements from myth, religion and history to say something about our own time. Then, a little over a year after I finished my degree I found a woman who had done the same thing, so much more elegantly and subtly than I managed, for hers.

The three books which make up Trilogy[1] were written in London during the height of the Second World War. The war itself seeps in and out of the poem – sometimes it seems very far from the events and ideas being described, others it bubbles to the surface. It is most evident towards the beginning of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book, and I wonder whether the poem began life as a civilian war poem before expanding into something bigger. In the poem’s opening section, the speaker walks through once familiar parts of London, her ‘old town square’, and sees where railings have been taken ‘for guns’. Amid the ‘mist and mist-grey’ of the bombed-out city, she sees echoes of Egypt where, like the wrecked houses of London, the temples and tombs are doorless and ‘open to the sky’. In the wreckage of everyday life, ‘poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum.’ These connections seem to predict the city’s destruction, but the ‘frame held’ and some essence of the city endures, leaving the speaker with a sort of survivor’s guild which leaves her contemplating why she has been able to survive, and what purpose art can serve against such destruction.

Actually, H D never really seems to doubt that poets can justify their existence, and parts of The Walls Do Not Fall grows out of a defence of art against the suggestion it is ‘pathetic’ for poets to try to express world issues or that there is no need for activities which are not obviously or practically useful (incidentally, Norman Pearson’s introduction to my Carcanet edition is invaluable in providing background information). After referring to books being reduced to ash, and ‘old parchment’ being used ‘for cartridge cases’, H D responds to a direct challenge (‘what good are your scribblings?’) with a reminder that ‘we take them with us beyond death’. The question of the usefulness of art is as relevant as ever today, in a world which seems at least as complicated than that of World War Two, even if the threat is not as clear or as imminent: How should the artist respond to acts of terror, to the rise of demagogues, or to such levels of global uncertainty? For H D, the answer seems to go beyond simply bearing witness, it is a core part of human existence, going right back to ‘in the beginning was the word’. We do not get a straightforward defence of poetry’s usefulness – rather, we are given a demonstration of how it can weave a web of complex ideas, connecting vastly different times and circumstances to hint at (but not necessarily reveal) some underlying truth. In this collection, poetry becomes a form of secular magic.

I am an atheist (albeit, a non-militant one) with very little patience for new-agey, mysticism-as-self-help woo, so it is worth considering why this poem, unashamedly Christian and seeped in Kabbalistic ideas, makes me want to go back and read it again almost as soon as I reach the final lines. I think in part it is because, while H D was a believer, and I am not, we both share a similar view of how religion, myth and mysticism work best – as great archetypical symbols which allow us to express and explore ideas about what it is to be human. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a time of such upheaval, Christian ideas about death and rebirth recur throughout this poem, and seem to be reflected in its three-act structure, but H D also draws from ancient Greek and Egyptian mythological traditions, seeing rhymes and connections between paganism and Christianity, which perhaps reach their zenith in the claim that ‘Amen [king of the Egyptian gods] is our Christos’. For me, this syncretic fusion of concepts is what poetry is all about.

Despite the potential complexity of H D’s ideas, her language is clear, and the pictures she paints are as crisp and vivid as we might expect from one of the founders of the Imagist movement. This is most prominent in each book’s main set piece. In The Walls Do Not Fall, the speaker is visited by a figure described as ‘Ra, Osiris, Amen’, hinting heavily that this figure is also the Christian God, while presenting us with an image which contrasts sharply with the pop-culture image of what God looks like. He is ‘beardless, not at all like Jehovah’, and choses to appear in the ‘eighteenth-century / simplicity and grace’ of a ‘spacious, bare meeting house’. This setting may be a reference to H D’s non-conformist Protestant upbringing, but its controlled neatness also provides a contrast with the chaotic destruction outside. This figure’s appearance seems to answer the question set up in the poem’s opening section: ‘we wonder / what saved us?’ In A Tribute to the Angels, the speaker is visited by a female figure who seems to be connected with the Virgin Mary, but also with several pagan goddesses. This figure carries a book which we are told ‘is not / the tome of ancient wisdom, // the pages… are the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new’, perhaps vindicating the role of the artist in a world which has been altered by global war.

In the poem’s final volume, The Flowering of the Rod, the set-piece comes not in the form of a visitation, but as an imagined meeting between Mary Magdalene and Kasper (of three-wise-men fame), in which she acquires the alabaster jar of myrrh with which she will anoint Jesus’ body. This extended meeting, which takes up the majority of the third volume, allows H D to create her own myth, perhaps as a further attempt to demonstrate the role of art, while also forging a link between Jesus’ birth and his death (the jar of myrrh is said to be one of ‘two jars’ which were ‘always together’, the other being the jar which was given to Jesus at the nativity), which resonates with the Christian idea of Christ’s sacrificial purpose and further explores the theme of rebirth and transformation. While this section is the most overtly Christian part of the poem, it is not as simple as it might first appear. H D includes rumours about Kasper’s identity, where ‘some say he was Abraham / some say he was god’, while Mary Magdalene is linked in one character’s mind to ‘a heathen picture // or a carved stone-portal entrance / to a forbidden sea-temple’. Even in the parts of the book which seem most intimately connected with a Christian message, H D seems determined to make connections between Christian and non-Christian mythologies, with Kasper, who ‘technically… was a heathen’ naming the seven devils which had been cast out of Mary Magdalene as ‘Isis, Astarte, Cyprus… Ge-meter, De-meter, earth-mother / or Venus’, goddesses who had been praised earlier in the poem, and even linked with the same archetype as the Virgin Mary.

There is more to Trilogy than mysticism and close description though. Throughout the work, H D’s narrative voice shifts in its relationship with the reader, and in its level of certainty. At times, the poems’ ‘you’ seems intimate, perhaps even directly addressing the friends to whom the different volumes are dedicated, at others, ‘you’ is positioned as an antagonist – a foil against whom the speaker can expound and demonstrate her arguments. The poem seems to admit the difficulties in achieving accurate expression: the visitation of the female figure in Tribute is riveted with tentative interjections of ‘what I mean is –‘ and parenthetical asides, culminating in a dialogue between the speaker and the imagined reader, in which H D attempts to address any inaccuracies in the impression she has created. In doing this, she explores the imprecision of literary art – with a few words we try to create an approximation of what we are trying to describe, but it is really up to the reader to complete the picture, and the image they receive is not necessarily the same as that which the writer broadcasts. If this is true of something as relatively straightforward as visual description, it must be doubly true of more complex ideas, and this complexity is referred to throughout the poems, with images of poetry as ‘an indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over // with too many contradictory emotions’, or ‘a jar… a little too porous to contain the out-flowing / of water-about-to-be-changed-to-wine’. It is this richness, this ability potential to carry multiple interpretations and to create meanings beyond the sum of its parts which gives poetry its value in an uncertain world.

However, despite its celebration of poetry’s complexity, despite the breadth and sometimes the obscurity of its references, Trilogy is not a hard-slog of a book. Using clear language and a simple form (the poem is made up almost entirely of blank verse divided into two-line stanzas) H D creates a multi-faceted work, which argues strongly for the power of art against a backdrop of war and myth. There are few poets who create such a perfect balance between clarity of language and ambition of scope.



[1] I think it is probably most accurate to think of Trilogy as one epic-length poem in three parts, rather than as three related collections of poetry, so throughout this discussion I will refer to the whole piece as ‘the poem’.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Book Review: 'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson

The next category in my continuing quest to read more widely was ‘travel/memoir’. Under these circumstances, my former tutor, Ian Marchant sprang to mind. Unfortunately, Waterstone’s didn’t have any of his books in stock, and I was reluctant to lose momentum waiting for a delivery (however, if you like beer, and you’re looking for a book which is well informed, erudite and funny, you could do worse than look up The Longest Crawl).

So, with this plan thwarted, and with and impatient fiancée in tow, I settled for probably the biggest contemporary name in the genre. In spite of the old cliché, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by the cover – a vintage travel poster style drawing of the Hagia Sophia, its domes and minarets dwarfing the houses huddled below, while two silhouetted figures look on across a busy straight of sunset orange water.

Neither Here Nor There meanders across Europe. We join Bryson en route to Hammerfest, a small city in the far north of Norway with a name which sounds like it should be a metal festival (and, as it turns out, is), and follow him across fourteen countries (more if you count using modern borders) ending in Istanbul. Bryson is an engaging guide – irreverent, but still able to find glory in his surroundings. He somehow balances a wide-eyed everyman persona with a casual understanding of art, architecture and history, transitioning seamlessly between laughing at smutty paintings in the Louvre, and being awestruck by the grandeur of Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen.

One reason that this approach seems to work is that Bryson constantly positions himself as an outsider. He is as lost in these unfamiliar cities as we are, and his ignorance of European languages is not from a bullish tourist arrogance, but because of an almost Romantic addiction to this outsider status. Bryson revels in happy accidents and unexpected turns of events. This is reflected in his somewhat shambolic approach to his journey, which sees him zigzagging in and out of Germany, and deciding on a whim to skip over half the continent to get from Stockholm to Rome. He is also honest about the mundanities of travel, and we spend almost as much time looking at industrial complexes from the windows of slow, over crowded trains and perusing the lacklustre menus in mediocre restaurants as we do in historic buildings or overlooking sublime alpine landscapes. For Bryson, this is all part of the adventure, and his slapdash attitude to travel is contagious. Within a few chapters, I found myself looking up cheap flights to Bruges in my break at work (unfortunately they weren’t quite cheap enough).

Of course, a solo trip around Europe does have the potential disadvantage that most of the narrative tension comes from finding hotel rooms or train tickets. Bryson remedies this by including anecdotes from a much earlier European adventure with an old school friend, Stephen Katz. Katz acts as a foil to the young Bryson’s enthusiasm, unimpressed by his cultural experiences and more sensitive to the discomforts of travel. The two young men do share a late-pubescent preoccupation with sex and drinking, but by the end of the trip they are barely speaking. The extent to which this tension is exaggerated for literary purposes is unclear, but it seems that the friendship was not unsalvageable, as Katz turns up again in a latter Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods.

Part of me would have liked more exploration of the potentially interesting tension in retracing a gap-year style journey as a mature adult, but despite his willingness to share amusing and potentially embarrassing anecdotes, Bryson chooses to keep the primary focus of the book on the joys and trials of travel itself. That is not to say that it is without more serious moments. For example, Bryson’s depiction of Bulgaria at the end of the communist regime, hit by hyper-inflation, and with an almost complete lack of consumer items stifling its nascent capitalist economy. The book often treats the poorer areas of cities as being equally interesting and worthy of our attention as the historic and economic centres, but it is here where Bryson explores the problems with this position and the glamour of being an outsider is replaced with guilt at his privileged position. He can retreat from the bleakness of the town into a hotel which bars local people from even entering. He is desperate to spend some money in the city, but can find nothing to buy.

While Bryson displays his liberal-leaning social conscience here, his depiction of women sometimes seems a little old fashioned. This is less problematic it the sections with Katz, where it perhaps reflects the attitudes of two adolescent men in the 1970s, but becomes a awkward when we find the fourty year old Bryson’s leering at ‘the sort of bottom that made your palms sweat’ attached to a woman in the tourist information office in Amsterdam. I do not think that Bryson in a misogynist, but this perhaps illustrates how society has changed since the book was written in the early 90s. Bryson’s attitude towards the Germans is also indicative of his age and the time the book was written. Like Basil Fawlty before him, he seems unable to look at Germans without being reminded of the war. Given recent events, I was curious to find out what Bryson’s attitude to what was then the EEC and was a little surprised to find that our Europe-loving guide was a Eurosceptic, albeit primarily due to a fear of homogenisation which clashes with his Romantic sensibilities.


Compared to my last two choices, this was an easy book to read – I flew through it in about a week – but Bryson delivers more than melt-to-nothing candyfloss. With humour and lightness of touch, Neither Here Nor There touches on issues of globalisation, and international politics, but overall, it stands as a love letter to Europe, and to the variety of human culture, and to the urge to explore. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Book Review: 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude reads like a history which takes place in a dream. The novel follows five generations of the Buendía family, from the patriarch, José Arcadio’s founding of the city of Macondo, to its destruction many years later. This was my first experience of the ‘magical realism’ genre, and I had been expecting something along the lines of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, although perhaps without the emphasis on horror. In some ways, this comparison is accurate – the ‘magic’ that occurs in the novel is not a force in the world of the story which is governed by an internal logic, as we might find in a fantasy novel, it is somewhere between fairy-tale and surrealism: at times the story’s supernatural elements come as ghosts or as prophetic utterances, at others, they seem more like metaphors which actually take place, like when one family member, who lives in another part of town, dies, and has a line of blood trickle from their nose and across the town, finding its way to the family home. Unlike Kafka though, Márquez does not present us with any close psychological investigation – we are one step removed from the characters, and while we are sometimes told what they think, we do not generally experience events through them.

Another possible point of reference for reading this novel was Wuthering Heights – both are cross-generational tales about families with far fewer names than people (the Buedía’s include four José Arcadios, five Aurelianos, an Aureliano José, an Arcadio and several combinations of Úrsula, Amaranta and Remedios, not to mention seventeen illegitimate Aurielianos), but while Wuthering Heights is very much about how one generation can affect the next, the Buendías seem to move across the years on the impulses of an inescapable fate, rather than motivated directly by the actions of their forebears. Some traits, however, do recur across the generations – fanatical drives towards unattainable goals and a compulsion to unmake and remake the same things over and over again.
While the title gives us a very precise ‘one hundred years’, time keeping within then novel is much less precise. While events fall in roughly chronological order, we might follow one character along one thread of their narrative, only to be told down the line that ‘this was about the time…’ that something key in another character’s plotline occurred a few pages earlier. Some events seem to act as anchor points, referred too long after (or sometimes long before) they actually happen, as memories or pieces of narrative prolepsis; the novel opens with the sentence ‘many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ – both events which become anchor points later on. This can be a little confusing, but the large cast of similarly-named characters is much more of a hindrance in this regard than the temporal vagueness. The anchor points, and the use of recurring motifs help to prevent the novel from feeling unfocused, but it does sometimes seem to lack a clear narrative drive; while there are peaks and troughs, there is no familiar overarching pattern of rising action, climax, falling action. What we get instead is a sense of the epic, even when the novel’s concerns are primarily domestic. We follow entire generations of this family from birth to the grave against the backdrop of a city’s journey from obscurity to prosperity to abandonment, and all the while, history marches forwards with its relentless drive towards modernity.

While they often seem isolated from the rest of the world, the citizens of Macondo are not wholly unaffected by history. Its drawn out, brutal civil wars between barely distinguishable liberals and conservatives, its occupation by an American banana company and subsequent labour troubles, rhyme with the history of several nations in the region. At times, the novel seems to move very quickly through these broad sweeps of history, but some of the most effective writing comes when Márquez slows almost to a standstill.

The multi-generational approach means that this novel covers a much broader sweep of human life than many other works of fiction. Not only do we see childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age represented for us, we see it represented repeatedly across many important characters. Cycles of growth and decline provide much of the structure for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but after a while it is the sense of decline and decay which sticks in the mind. The old frequently outnumber the young in the Buendía household, with a number of characters living far beyond their expected years. Sometimes, like Úrsula or Santa Sofía, work quietly away in the background, holding the household together; some hold on to ancient grudges and regrets, some fall into obsessive routines, some decline into madness. Even those who have died occasionally reappear. The house itself, one of the first built in Macondo, probably ranks alongside the House of Usher and Satis House as one of the great symbolic homes in literature. When the family and the town prosper, new rooms are added, when the family sees a change in matriarch, new furniture is brought in, and when the old begin to outnumber the young, cracks appear until eventually entire wings of the house are abandoned to the ants.


The novel often feels meandering and unreal, but that often seems to be the point. The characters are engaging, if not always fully rounded, and the last couple of pages bring the rest of the book into some sort of focus. I suspect this won’t be my last foray into magical realism.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

On the European Referendum.

Before I start, I should warn you that this is a very long post, and a break from my usual, word-centric concerns. It is however an issue which I feel is very important. For the 'TL;DR' crowd, and for ease of navigation, I will include a bullet-point summary at the end, but the piece is intended to be a coherent argument, so I would recommend making a cup of tea and sitting down to read the whole thing.

Introduction

In under two weeks, we will be asked to make a decision as to whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. This is probably the biggest political decision that our generation is likely to face, and many of us (myself included) feel like we are being forced to make this choice without being given adequate information. Under these conditions, many of us will go to the polling stations armed with little more than gut-feeling. In a way, this is how we always vote – choosing a political party is often an emotional decision which has more in common with choosing a football team than it does with balancing rational arguments – but this time the dividing line is less clear, with most of the media attention focused at the civil war within the Conservative Party. I believe that we should remain in the EU, but this is largely based on instinct. Over the course of this post, I intend to turn this instinct into a rational argument. This will not be a neutral post, but I will explore both sides, I am going to reference where my information has come from so that it can be verified, and I will try to avoid sensationalism.

What advantages does the EU bring?

One of the big problems of this referendum is that the British public does not really have a clear picture of what the EU is for. It is best known for allowing free movement of people within its borders, and for allegedly being very picky about the size and shape of our fruit and veg. One of the problems the remain camp seem to be facing is that many of its arguments for staying are based around abstract economic concepts, which do not engage the public as easily the leave campaign’s appeals to fear and patriotism. But, dry though the details may be, the fact remains that currently we export more goods and services to EU countries than we do to anywhere else in the world (44% of our trade goes there – worth around £226 billion – with the next biggest buyer of British goods and services being the USA at 17%)(source here). While leaving the European Union would not necessarily exclude us from trading with member countries there is no way of telling how long it would take to negotiate a new trade deal, and countries which have trade deals with the EU but are not members (like Norway or Switzerland) are required to follow EU regulations in the production of these goods and services, but have no say in what those regulations are (source here).

The big economic stuff is difficult to sell though, particularly as we don’t know what would happen if we were to leave. Perhaps we should look at how the EU affects our day to day lives in terms of employment law. It should be noted that, while UK legislation exceeds the minimum requirement for things like paid holiday and paid maternity leave, the European Union was instrumental in implementing these rights in the first place, and guarantees that it cannot be reduced below a certain level. It should also be noted that in some cases, while the UK currently exceed minimum expectations, British MEPs tried to block the initial inclusion of these rights into European law (a full analysis by an employment law specialist can be found here – you’ll have to scroll down below the initial graphic that he is responding to). Keep in mind too that the Conservative party has a track record of trying to opt out of things like the Work Time Directive, which determines how many hours per week employers can legally make their employees work (according to this Independent article).

The European Union has also played an important role in developing and enforcing laws relating to the environment, with legislation governing things like quality of air and water, carbon emissions levels and use of pesticides. Again, these laws would not necessarily be repealed if we voted to leave the EU, but it should be remembered that the UK government has tried to block some of this environmental legislation from being passed in Europe (more detail can be found in this Friend of the Earth Report). There is more to be said for staying in the European Union, but as we are talking about maintaining the status quo, it might be best considered by comparing it with some of the key arguments of leave campaign.

Why some people want to leave, and why I think we shouldn’t.

Cost
One of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving the EU is the cost of membership. It is true that the UK contributed £13 billion to the EU budget last year, once you remove the £5 billion instant rebate (actually more of a discount, as it never leaves the country), but it is also true that £4 billion of the EU budget was returned to Britain through investment in agriculture or in poorer regions of the country (see here). Yes, theoretically if we were to leave the European Union, this money could be invested directly into redeveloping poorer regions of the country, but we have to ask, do we trust the current government (or worse, Johnson and co.) to do this? Just look at what happened to Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

There are two other factors which need to be considered when discussing the financial cost of the EU. Firstly, that £13 billion sounds like a big number, but it amounts to only 1% of total UK spending (According to this YouGov breakdown of how tax is spent). Secondly, we should consider this figure in relation to the benefits that EU membership has for the British economy as a whole. This is a difficult figure to estimate, but according to this New Statesman article, the Confederation of British Industry puts the number somewhere between £62 and £78 billion, a fair return on our investment, given that it also helps to fund the benefits already mentioned.

Immigration
Perhaps more widely discussed by the Out Camp is the issue of immigration. This is an emotive issue which is hard for people to discuss rationally and, while the idea of controlled immigration is not intrinsically racist, it is an argument which attracts racists like flies to a turd. Arguments about immigration from the EU tend to centre around two contradictory strands: that migrants from within the EU are taking too many jobs which could be done by British people, and that migrants from within the EU are unfairly draining the British welfare system.

The second of these claims is easier to unpick. Research shows that people who came to Britain within the EU since 2000 have tended to contribute more in tax than they take in benefits. This picture is somewhat complicated when we consider people who arrived in the UK before the year 2000, as these migrants tend to be older and, like many older people, require additional help to come with the effects of age (source). People in this category have been in the UK for at least fifteen years – surely long enough to justify equal treatment with those who happen to have been born here.

Related to worries about the increased pressure on our benefits system is the concern that ‘health tourism’ is placing unfair strain on the NHS. The figures involved in this are complex, and take into account a number of different groups, including regular visitors to the UK from the EU (people who are resident here for part of the year, like students) and British citizens who live abroad. Remember too that while Britain is a member of the EU, you or I would receive free or reduced price healthcare if we were regular visitors or ‘non-permanent residents’ in other EU countries. If you are really interested in the figures, you can look here. All I’m going to say is that most of these numbers seem to represent visitors to the country who happen to need the hospital when they are here. For the few that do come here specifically for medical purposes, the NHS is not a charity and it should not be treated as such, but if somebodies medical problems are serious enough, and the cost of treating them is prohibitive enough that somebody thought they’d be better off travelling to an entirely different country for treatment, I’m not that interested in hounding them too much over it. In any case, most EU countries have pretty good medical care, so these people are likely to be coming from outside the EU. While Brexit might give us slightly more control over our borders, we will presumably still be open to tourists – unless we’re going to give each one a medical screening, I’m not too sure how leaving the EU would prevent this from happening. And one last word on this subject – hospitals have the option to charge non UK patients for services (outside of accident and emergency) but the costs of recovering this debt is not too far off the amount itself (source).

That other aspect of the migrant debate – that EU migrants are flooding the job market – is perhaps even more emotive. Understandably, people who have been out of work for a long time are not necessarily going to want to listen when people with apparently better job prospects (journalists, politician, English teachers with blogs, for example) tell them that they are losing out on jobs because they aren’t trying hard enough now (the ‘they do the jobs we don’t want to’ argument) or they didn’t work try hard enough at school (the ‘they are better qualified’ argument). I’m not suggesting that completely unrestricted immigration is the best of ideas, but this seems to be how most people think EU migration works. Before we can think about changing Europe, we must first decide to stay, so I’m going to start by looking at the migration situation logically, and then consider some of the facts and figures.

If unemployed British people cannot find work because there is not enough work to go around, leaving the EU may reduce some of the competition for jobs, but it could also plunge the economy into uncharted territory – evidence suggests that over 3 million jobs are linked to trade with EU countries. Jeopardising trade with Europe could put these jobs at risk, leading to an even more competitive job market. In this case staying is our best option.

If there are jobs available and they are being given to people who were raised and educated in the rest of the EU in preference to people who were raised and educated in the UK, we must ask ourselves why. If the answer to that question is that the people from outside of the UK are better qualified, this highlights a problem within our own institutions, and leaving the EU will not change this. Depending on how we leave, we may be able to reduce access to the UK and therefore limit competition but if we do, we may find ourselves with a shortage of skilled workers. In this scenario, our best option would not be to leave the EU, but to better prepare our workforce for the 21st Century economy. If, on the other hand, the reason is that immigrants are taking jobs that British workers are unwilling to do, I suspect the reason lies not in laziness, but in a benefits system which does not make it easy for people to take part time, low paid or precarious jobs, as they may end up worse off than before. Reforming benefits is important, but discussion of it is beyond the scope of this post, and I will not attempt to do it here. I will say that leaving the EU would not make these jobs more attractive, or solve the problems which make British workers reluctant to take them in the first place.

If neither of the above scenarios are true – if there are jobs available, and employers are not choosing people from outside of the UK in preference to people from inside the UK – then we are left with a simpler picture. Finding work is difficult, and has been since the economic crash. Having a larger potential workforce (anyone in the EU who wants to work in Britain, for example) does make this more difficult, but when the economic benefits of being a member of the European Union help to create jobs, and when the European union helps to fund development of poorer areas, leaving is not the best solution. The best solution is to find ways to create more jobs, and to acknowledge that, as finding work in the current economic climate is difficult, we should find ways to better support those who are looking for work, both financially and practically, rather than vilifying them in the tabloid press and creating an increasingly punitive culture within the welfare state.

I suspect that there may be some element of truth in all of the scenarios described above, and again, while I broadly agree with the principle of free movement, I am not saying that we should not perhaps revisit some of the conditions of this principle. Staying in the EU gives us the best position to negotiate this, particularly when we consider the fact that, if we were to leave, but wanted to remain part of the European Free Trade Agreement (the least risky option, economically), then we would likely have to accept the free movement of people between the UK and the rest of Europe as part of the deal, as it is in Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. A fairly detailed account of the issues which would face Britain if it wanted to leave the EU and become part of the EFTA can be found here. So far, I have simplified the situation around immigration in the same way that many in the leave campaign do – by conflating all immigration into the UK. In fact, immigration from outside of the EU has traditionally been significantly higher, and is currently about equal. Even if we were to leave the EU, we would still potentially have large numbers of people coming to live and work in the UK (source).

Then there are the benefits of migration. Apart from the previously mentioned fact that migrants have made a net contribution to the UK, the immigration of young, working-age people is a way of spreading the tax burden created by an aging population (as shown in this 2013 study). It also helps us to cope with shortages of suitable workers in specific sectors, for example, recent research suggests that 26% of NHS doctors were trained outside of the UK (source), and 10% were from other places in the EU (source). I haven’t been able to find any statistics, but I very much doubt that there are large numbers of British-born doctors waiting in dole queues because of this. Sticking with the NHS, recent cuts in the number of training places available for nurses (source) mean that we are likely to become even more reliant on migrants to fill these vital roles in our communities.

And migrants don’t just work and pay taxes. They buy things in our shops, they start business, and have families. The ratio might not be a simple one to one, but larger populations also create jobs, as there is greater demand for goods and services. Public institutions like schools and hospitals might be put under increased pressure in the short term, but over time, the increased tax revenue will allow for more investment in these services, balancing out and creating more jobs in the process. Perhaps more important is the cultural impact. Since at least the end of World War Two[1], British culture has been enhanced and expanded through interaction with other cultures. We are lucky to have access to such a wide range of cultural experiences. Some people worry that this is undermining traditional British culture, but I can still get cream tea, watch a football match, drink a pint of Banks’ Mild brewed just over ten miles away from my house, or go watch a Shakespeare play. I can even, if I am so inclined, go Morris dancing. But thanks to sixty odd years of multi-cultural Britain, I can get jerk chicken, rice and peas delivered to my house, watch a Bollywood film at Star City or go to a pub where the Polish chefs serve szwajacar and suflak alongside British pub classics[2]. Again, I know that two out of three of these examples have nothing to do with the EU, but the principle that the mixing of cultures can enrich our experience remains.

Sovereignty
Vote Leave campaigners also love to talk about sovereignty, the power the country has to make its own laws. It is true that as part of the EU, we allow some decisions about the laws affecting us to be made elsewhere, but this is also true of other international institutions, like NATO. If we are concerned about our ability to make the decisions which are best for the country, then we should consider that, if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, it may be best to transfer some of our sovereignty elsewhere (source). Even with this transfer of sovereignty, Britain maintains some element of control through the European Parliament (where we can send MEPs elected within by our European constituencies) and through the Council of the European Union (where ministers from national governments meet to discuss specific policy areas). As a nation, we abdicate some of our sovereignty to the European Union in the same way that as individuals, we agree to live by certain laws in exchange for the protection that the law offers. Ultimately, while we have allowed the European Union to make some decisions for us, the very fact that we are able to hold a referendum shows that we still retain the option to take this transferred sovereignty back – the question is whether it would be advantageous to do so. I believe that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we are better off staying in the EU, and that the leave camp’s arguments about sovereignty have more to do with populist notions of national prestige than they do with any real world benefits.

Human Rights
Related to issues of sovereignty is the issue of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Human Rights Act enshrined in British law in 1998. The current government has said that it wants to replace this with a British Bill of Rights, and some people who want to leave the EU use the Human Rights Act as another example of the loss of British Sovereignty. If this is something which concerns you, I suggest that you look at the list of rights protected by this act, here, and then ask yourself ‘are there any rights here which I do not want?’ Part of the problem here is that some elements of the media have caused us to erroneously think of human rights as something which prevents us from punishing criminals, or requires us to give porn to murderers or KFC to thieves, rather than as a universal standard for how all human beings should be treated. For more information, including a debunking of the ridiculous cases above, look here. If the British public were to leave the European Union because they no longer wished to be bound by the ECHR, it might be the first time in history that people have chosen to be given less legal rights. It would also be futile, as the ECHR is a treaty which is separate from our membership of the European Union, and is instead related to our membership of the Council of Europe – an international body which contains several non-EU states, and which the British government has no plans to pull out of (source).

Security
Some people worry that overly lenient application of human right’s law, combined with the European Union’s open borders policy, has created a threat to British security, particularly in our current age of international terrorism. There are several things to consider here. Firstly, we are not part of the Schengen Area, meaning that we retain the right to carry out passport checks at our borders, so we could still prevent known security threats from entering Britain. Secondly, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium last year were French and Belgian citizens, so even if we were to close our borders completely (which not even the most extreme in the Vote Leave camp are planning on doing) we would still have some risk of home grown terrorism, while our current status allows us to make use of various resources, such as the European Criminal Records System. Leaving would not automatically deny us access to these things, but neither would it guarantee that we can continue to use them (source).

Conclusions

The European Union is not perfect. No large organisation is, but I believe that the benefits of membership far outweigh the risks of leaving. In this post, I have given a large number of reasons, often centred around complicated issues, but in the end, the main issue is whether you believe that our best option in a changing world is to co-operate with our neighbours or to go it alone. From our position in the EU, we can help shape a better future, both for the UK and for people across the continent.


Summary

  • I believe that Britain should remain part of the European Union.
  • Membership of the EU comes with a number of economic advantages which we may lose if we leave.
  • The EU has helped to protect the environment, and workers rights.
  • We are required to contribute towards the EU budget, but this allows us access to numerous benefits, and costs only a small part of our national budget.
  • Immigration has brought benefits to our economy, society and culture.
  • We have given the EU some control over our legislation, but this is a normal part of international co-operation.
  • The Human Right Act is not directly tied to the EU, and why would we want to give it up?
  • Being part of the EU allows for easy co-operation between different countries' security forces.
Further Reading
While writing this post, I have found the following websites to be balanced and informative:





[1] Yes, I know I’m talking about non-EU migration here, but the principle still applies, so bear with me.
[2] The Stile in Wolverhampton, just round the corner from where I used to live.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book Review: 'Waverley' by Walter Scott

I chose Waverley after rolling an eighteen – ‘a book I never finished’ – in my D20 reading challenge, and it is perhaps telling that there has been such a significant gap between this post and my last.

I first attempted Waverley during my second year at university, as part of a module on the Romantics, and it was this novel which caused me to break my vow to finish reading all of the required course material. This book begins a generation before the protagonist has even been born, then proceeds to explain his childhood and education in great depth, and in a style which even Scott himself admits is ‘what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus’. This sustained barrage of exposition was too much for me; I surrendered, and opted to simply write my assignments about a different text.

Returning to it six years later, the long trudge through the first volume still failed to enthral me, and it is not until the twenty-fourth chapter that the main thrust of the narrative begins. After this point, I quite enjoyed the novel, but there was part of me which begrudged the amount of time it took to get to there.  Part of my impatience with the earlier half of the novel stems from a sort of conscientious discomfort around the way that the aristocratic protagonist seems to see no problem with taking off on a months-long jolly around Scotland within weeks of beginning his military career.

Sense of entitlement aside, Edward Waverley makes a fairly likeable hero, in the Romantic bildungsroman tradition. He has a strong sense of honour, but is naïve, and has allowed Romantic novels and tales of chivalrous derring-do to shape his understanding of how the world works. Despite this, the character sometimes seems a little flat – particularly in comparison to others in the novel who are much more memorable. In particular, Scott draws warm, believable comic characters in much the same way that Dickens would a few decades later.

One useful aspect of Waverley’s ‘flatness’ is that he becomes a sort of blank space for the reader to project themselves upon, and it is through his English eyes that we are first introduced to exotic world of Jacobite-era Scotland. This journey takes place in stages, from the comfortable, pastoral England of his uncle’s estate, to the military encampment in Edinburgh, then on to the almost feudal Barony of Bradwardine, and ultimately into a highlands inhabited by outlaws and by tribal chiefs. This gradual march into the unknown has some sense of thematic importance, but unfortunately lacks a real sense of purpose until its final stage.

As a modern reader, it is tempting to see Waverley as a story of radicalisation, and the charismatic Fergus Mac-Ivor could be interpreted as a manipulator, guiding the inexperienced Edward Waverley into rebellion. However, we should be careful in drawing parallels with the radicalisation of young men into extremist causes in today’s society. Scott is ambiguous in his portrayal of the Jacobite rebellions, and while he is sure to show that his protagonist is, to some extent, tricked into pledging himself to the highlanders’ cause, he is also careful to include honourable and dishonourable characters on both sides.

Although some of Scott’s best writing comes in his description of the Battle of Prestonpans, his depiction of Waverley’s rebellion is strangely toothless. Despite volunteering with the Jacobites, Waverley seems to spend the majority of his time on the battlefield trying to prevent government soldiers from being killed. This is understandable, as contemporary readers may have found it difficult to sympathise with a hero who commits fully fledged acts of treachery, but it does soften the impact of the protagonist’s eventual disavowal of the Jacobite cause. Similarly, while Scott does offer some brief comments on the effects of war on the landscape, his most emotionally charged description is saved for Tully-Veolan, the great house of the Baron of Bradwardine. Scott is pre-occupied with ideas about inheritance and property, and on some level the novel can be seen as tracing Waverley’s growth into a suitable lord, complete with a suitable wife.

It is not just the rebellion which is toothless: the government’s response seems unbelievably lenient. While Mac-Ivor and his foster brother are put on trial and executed for their crimes (another of Scott’s finest scenes), Waverley and the Baron of Bradwardine receive convenient pardons with very little trouble, and the last chapter seems particularly contrived.

Despite its flaws though, I found Waverley to be an interesting read. While the first-volume is dry and overly-long, Scott does make good use of seemingly incidental details later in the novel. Scott’s self-aware authorial interjections seem to pre-empt Forster’s ‘One may as well start with the letters’ – one of my all-time favourite opening sentences – and serve as a reminder that novels have been experimenting with narrative voice since the very beginning. There are things about the novel’s structure which work very well, and it can be enjoyed as an early example of a historical novel, or as a straightforward adventure story, even if it fails to fully address the moral complexities of civil war.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Book Review: 'The Watchers' by Neil Spring

Warning – while I have tried to avoid major plot details, it is impossible to discuss my thoughts on this book properly without some spoilers.

Cold war paranoia, a remote Welsh village, mysterious objects in the sky and potential military conspiracy. These were the ingredients which attracted me to The Watchers by Neil Spring as I looked around the Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy section of Waterstone’s for the ‘genre’ book of my current reading challenge. I was also attracted by the fact that it did not appear to be part of one of the sprawling, multi-book sagas which are so common in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with long series, but they do not suit my current purpose of reading a wider range of different books.

The term genre is controversial; I could (and might) fill another blog post with my thoughts on the matter, but for this reading challenge, I am considering novels which are given their own section in bookshops to be ‘genre’ and everything in the general fiction section to be ‘non-genre’.

The Watchers tells the story of Robert Wilding, a parliamentary researcher who is sent on a secretive mission to investigate a series of UFO sightings in the Havens, the coastal Welsh village where he grew up. Along the way, he will re-unite with his grandfather – a religious fanatic – and uncover the details of his parents’ mysterious deaths many years before.

Spring makes good use of frame narratives to tell the story, hinting at wider ranging implications of the events on which the novel centres, and eventually setting the scene for a sequel (so much for my choice of a ‘stand-alone’ novel). Particularly interesting is Spring’s use of extracts from parliamentary reports, interviews with survivors and other in-world texts to allow us a range of perspectives and to build tension towards the novel’s climax. This is a much more successful technique than the ‘I thought it couldn’t get worse, but then it did’ style of foreshadowing which Spring somewhat overuses.

The Watchers hits all of the right beats for a thrilling super-natural mystery with a satisfying, action-movie set-piece at the end. It also incorporates a number of elements which I found to be potentially interesting. I like it when books have range of reference points and this one manages to take in noted occultist Aleister Crowley, the Egryn Lights, Ley lines and secret military experiments. The book’s title, The Watchers, refers to the angelic beings mentioned in the apocryphal books of Enoch, who are credited with the promethean act of imparting forbidden knowledge to mankind in the era before the flood. Unfortunately, this aspect of the Watchers is not really explored in the novel, and they become more generic fallen angels.

There is an irony in this, as the idea that knowledge should be shared freely rather than hidden away by those in power is introduced early in the novel: the protagonist’s mother is blinded during a protest about secret American nuclear weapons on British soil, and Robert Wilding is driven in part by his desire to find out the truth of these circumstance and to force the Americans to be more open about their actions in Britain. Wilding’s search for truth is set up in opposition to many of the other characters in the book, from the scared villagers, to the military, to his own grandfather, who are all withholding information from him. The Watchers mythos, which is sometimes associated with ancient alien conspiracy theories, would fit nicely with the story that Spring initially seems to be telling.

Perhaps one reason why Spring ignores the stories of the Watchers teaching mankind skills like writing, astrology, magic and blacksmithing, is that they are simply on the wrong side. While truth, and freedom of information appear at first to be among the books main themes, the power of Christian faith later becomes more prominent. This is an aspect of the book that worked less well for me. I do not know whether Spring is a Christian, or whether he merely found that Christian mythology allowed him the best framework for the story he wanted to tell, but I found this aspect of the book to be annoyingly preachy. One possible reading of the book would be that it tells the story of a character who has is unsuccessfully searching for truth and meaning in his life through secular institutions, but eventually finds it when he casts aside his scepticism and embraces the Christian faith which allows him to combat the power of evil. In this interpretation, it is also noteworthy that (spoiler alert) the local Catholic priest, who had allowed his doubts about Christianity to steer him towards Communist sympathies, ultimately finds that his weakened faith is not enough to protect him, and sacrifices himself in his attempts to save others. However, although I was not carried along by this aspect of the novel, I did find myself rooting for Wilding’s reconciliation with his grandfather, Randall Llewellyn Pritchard, whose apparent fanaticism is justified by the novel’s conclusion.

Despite my (non-militant) atheism, I do not, in theory, have a problem with religious art. The Exorcist (film, not book – which I haven’t read), for example is able to deal with the idea of evil in a clearly Christian context in a way which is both powerful and haunting. I do, however, think that making the ancient evil derive clearly and straightforwardly from Judeo-Christian tradition lessons its impact a little, in that it gives it makes it explainable. Once your eldritch abomination has a clearly definable origin story (complete with a kryptonite as simple as ‘believing really hard’) it ceases to be scary. I also wonder if one reason I did not get along with the novel’s Christian aspects was that I felt a little tricked into it – there were few clues set out for us to pick on, and it felt less like a plot twist, and more like a sudden realisation that I wasn’t reading the book I thought it was. This would, perhaps, have been forgivable if it weren’t for some other plot features which failed to convince. For example (Spoiler alert), the local ‘rotary club which doubles as an evil cult’ reminded me a little too much of the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film Hot Fuzz for me to take it as seriously as The Watchers wants us to.


This is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy here. If you are looking for a straightforward supernatural thriller, and can stomach the evangelism, The Watchers provides a decent Dr Who style mystery combined with a high-stakes ending which, if it had taken place over New York, would not have seemed out of place at the climax of an Avengers movie. I enjoyed Spring’s innovative use of different texts, and he makes good use of classic Gothic tropes such as isolated villages, creepy hotels, ruined castles and pertinent warnings from seemingly crazy old men. I rarely found the novel to be genuinely unnerving – something I think is a key marker of success in a horror novel – but on a human level, Robert Wilding is a relatable and sympathetic narrator and many of the other characters are similarly well-drawn. Unfortunately, these successes did not, for me, outweigh the novel’s failures. I doubt I’ll be looking for the sequel.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Book Review: The Northmen's Fury - A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker

This year I’m using the power of the twenty-sided die to force myself to read more widely. My first role showed a 12 for ‘History, Myth and Legend’, and so I headed into Waterstone's with my Christmas gift card and had a rummage. With everything that has ever happened (and a significant quantity of things that didn’t) to choose from, it was a difficult decision. In the end I let my current obsessions choose for me, and selected Philip Parker’s history of the Viking world ‘The Northmen’s Fury’.

For a while, when I was in primary school, Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories took up the most space on my bookshelf. Those books first introduced me to the joys of reading and of history, but while I still find the past fascinating, I’m a little ashamed to admit that until I embarked on this project, I had never read a history book aimed at adults. For somebody who has not fostered the skill of reading history, The Northmen’s Fury is perhaps a difficult place to start. This is no fault of Parker’s – he writes clearly and engagingly, but he does so about a contradictory people, and across a field which is both temporally and geographically huge.

One thing that history has in common with the novel is that both concern themselves with cause and effect, but when the primary sources are as sparse and biased as they are for the Vikings, motivations can be hard to follow. While the Vikings had a writing system in the form of runes, they left little record of themselves other than a few monumental inscriptions often following a simple ‘X raised this rock in memory of Y,’ formula. One or two of these appear to corroborate information from the much later sagas, but they do little to help Parker tell the ‘story’ of Norse culture. This largely non-literary, largely pagan culture spent a significant amount of time attacking Christian neighbours who did keep fairly detailed historical records. Add to this the fact that many of their victims were monks – the very people writing those records – and it is little surprise that contemporary sources created the, barbaric picture of the Vikings that remains in many people’s minds to this day. They were, of course, sometimes capable of brutal violence, but no more so than many of their neighbours. Parker tells us of the massacre of the Danes who had settled in England, as ordered by King Aethelred, during which even the children of ‘those women who had consented to intermix with the Danes’ were ‘dashed to pieces against posts and stones’.

When the Vikings’ descendants did develop their own rich literary heritage in the form of the Icelandic sagas, Parker is careful to remind us that they were written down many years after the events described (presumably as the culmination of an oral tradition), and that many of them serve to legitimise the claims of this or that Norwegian royal house. While he acknowledges the potential unreliability of his sources, Parker does not shy away from presenting much information from them as fact – a decision which can be justified by imagining the difficulty and tedium involved in reading a book which presents every single action as something that may or may not have happened.
The difficulty in following the chain of causality is not always helped by the fact that the Vikings tended to travel widely, and Parker’s decision to divide up many of his chapters geographically (although some areas get different chapters for different periods), means that we sometimes have the same historical figure appear in different chapters without necessarily following their careers in chronological order. It should be noted however that Parkers systematic approach is useful in giving a sense of organisation to this history’s vast scope. Those readers who would like an approach which more closely examines the biographies of the period’s key players will find themselves well served by the book’s penultimate chapter: a set piece centred on the dual invasions of England in 1066 which follows lives of each of the three key players up to that point. Parker is seemingly helped here by the more detailed sources available for this period, and manages to shed new light on a period I thought I knew well. The life of Harald Hardrada is particularly interesting: he spent a number of years fighting in the Byzantine empire’s Varangian guard before taking his throne in Norway, and seemed to be the most experienced of the three generals vying for the crown of England.

I do not wish to suggest that Parker himself is responsible for the sometimes confusing nature of the book. He does a very good job of providing readers with a structured history of a people whose motivations are lost to time, and who sometimes do things which seem bizarre to the modern reader. For example, several of the kings of Viking Dublin seem to have abandoned their thrones to take up kingship of York, or vice versa, and at least one later changed his mind, returning to Dublin to oust the relative who had ruled in his place. Adding to the confusion is the fact that it sometimes seems as though almost all of the era’s major figures are called Harald or Olaf, and thus they almost all bear the patronym Olafson or Haraldson.

When I studied A-level Archaeology, the parts I found most interesting were the small glimpses we occasionally get into the lives of people from long ago. It is in these moments that this book is also at its best. For example, the small group of Norse Christians returning from the crusades who took shelter in the Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe on the Orkney islands, and occupied their time in carving coded runes into the walls with messages varying from boasts about the skill of the carver, to praise for Ingigerd, ‘the most beautiful of women’, and even a claim that a large pile of treasure that was removed from the tomb and buried somewhere nearby (probably an example of Viking humour – as Parker points out, the sparse, primitive grave goods we find in stone-age tombs are unlikely to have been of much interest to Norse warriors). While the style here is still very much that of a fiction book, we as readers are in the tomb with the band of crusaders while the storm rages outside.

As might be expected from a history of the Vikings (and probably of any early medieval group) the story we are told predominantly concerns the military elite, with the lives of the everyday folk fading into the background. This is understandable, as the farmers who likely made up the majority of the population had little opportunity to do much that would be worthy of record in sagas or in monks’ records. We do get more of an idea of the lives of ordinary people when Parker turns his gaze across the Atlantic to focus on the settlements of Iceland and Greenland, and the probable forays into parts of North America (interestingly, the Greenland colony, which almost certainly collected resources from the American mainland, made its last written records in 1408, and archaeological evidence suggests that the colony may have survived until the latter half of that century – only decades before Columbus’s discovery of America). In these chapters we are presented with a people who resisted any form of leadership which is too autocratic – both Iceland and the Isle of Mann have claims to the oldest running parliaments in the world – but whose isolation and infighting eventually caused them to submit to Scandinavian monarchies which would later neglect them in times of need.

As well as valuing independence, the Viking people are presented as being great technological innovators whose long-boats allowed them to strike deep inland along river courses, and whose navigational skills allowed them to build up a trading network which stretched as far as Constantinople and the Middle East. Their cultural sphere of influence stretched from Kiev and Novgorod in the east, to the shores of America in the west, but their lack of one unifying government – and their sometimes Game-of-Thrones-esque political infighting – prevents them from being considered as an empire on the scale of the Romans or the Macedonians.  

In the final chapters, Parker deals with the descendants of a small group of Vikings who settled in the  France, and went on to found dynasties across western Europe. He also discusses the 19th Century cultural interest in the Viking myth and acknowledges how parts of it were appropriated by the Third Reich (although he does not mention the ongoing rift between Neo-nazi and non-racist factions in contemporary Germanic Neopaganism), a system of government which would almost certainly have appalled those Vikings who braved the unforgiving North Atlantic in order to avoid what they saw as increasing tyranny in Scandinavia and set up communities which we would now recognise as being run along democratic lines. In this respect it’s also worth noting that the Viking societies seemed happy to trade and intermarry with people of many different cultures and religions, and in areas like Normandy and Russia they eventually became fully integrated with the surrounding people.

This is connected to one of the core things I was reminded of by this book. History is always more complex than we imagine it. In popular culture, Vikings are very much the pagan outsiders ransacking Christian Europe, and while there is an element of truth in this, it is worth remembering that they were also shrewd traders, whose politics were deeply interwoven with their neighbours, particularly in the British Isles. I was also surprised to learn that, while it took a long time for Christianity to become established in the Nordic countries (and Norway had a pagan rebellion as late as the 12th Century), there is evidence that there were Christians in Scandinavia at the very start of the Viking period, and Christians were involved in the settlements of both Iceland and Greenland. This should not be a shock, given the Viking age starts five centuries after the Roman Empire had made Christianity a dominant faction in Europe. One thing about the pop-culture Viking which does seem to be true is their preoccupation with being remembered in stories, and I’m sure the many Haralds and Olafs mentioned here would be pleased to see their names recorded a millennia after they passed into the afterlives of their chosing.

Next time I read a history books, I might opt for something with a narrower focus, but I very much enjoyed this overview of a period I have long been interested in. My next roll of the dice was an eleven, for a genre novel. I opted for The Watchers by Neil Spring. Watch this space for a review.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The D20 Reading Challenge, or 'How I plan to read more widely in 2016'.

I love bookshops, but they also stir a feeling in me which (to my knowledge) there is no word for: a sadness that however many books I read, there will always be good ones which I miss. I’m not much given to biblical quotation, but I’m inclined to agree with Solomon’s observation that ‘of the making of many books there is no end’, and there doesn’t seem to have been any let up in the intervening 3 millennia. And if I’m determined to add to their number, I know that I should be reading as widely as possible.

This is where the problem lies. The modern bookshop presents such tyranny of choice that it’s too easy to give up and stick to familiar names (meaning that you never discover anything new – less established authors are deprived of new readers and you end up with a narrow experience of the literary world). Worse, sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I give up, and leave empty handed.

With this in mind, I decided it was time for a solution – something to push me out of my comfortable reading nook. Turning to the twenty sided die, that universal symbol of geekdom, I devised the D20 reading challenge. It’s simple, just roll the dice and pick a book in that category. Roll, Read, Review and Repeat. The categories are not mutually exclusive, but nor are they meant to be. My version is below, but if you want to try it, feel free to substitute any of the categories with ones better suit you.

1. The canonical novel.
Probably not a controversial choice this, but despite my three years (*embarrassed cough*) of literature A-level, three year English degree, and my current role as an English teacher, feel that I’ve still only scratched the surface of the great corpus of English novels. More controversial is the concept of the canon itself. Not wishing to fall into that debate, for my purposed the canon is defined simply as ‘the novels any serious reader is ‘supposed to’ have read’.

2. 21st Century novel
In pursuing the classics, it is easy to neglect the many novels that are being published here and now. Serious reader (particularly those who want to be writers) should be aware of what is going on around them. ‘Nuff said.

3. A novel which is an old favourite
One of the great pleasures of reading is in re-reading. It is always interesting to return to a favourite book after a number of years to see how your attitude to it has changed. As you reach new stages in your life, different aspects of the novel can seem more important – you may find that you interpret the ideas in the novel differently, or find yourself relating more to characters who didn’t interest you in the past. In the clamour for new and exciting reading experiences, it is important not to forget where you have come from. However, I would have been disappointed if this had come up first.

4. A new novel by a familiar author
‘New’ here meaning ‘one I haven’t read before’. Like anybody, I have my favourites, but there are not many writers who have more than one or two books on my bookshelf. This is a chance to further explore those authors who are under-represented, or to expand my collection of those writers I like the most.

5. A small press, local, or self-published novel
Because I know enough writers and publishers that deserve support, particularly in the Birmingham area. And because easy self-publishing is probably one of the most important developments in modern literature – it would be silly to ignore it.

6. Poetry – A new book by a familiar poet
My reasoning here is, unsurprisingly, similar to number four. This seems like a good place to mention that I am more interested in individual collections rather than anthologies or ‘selected works’ – a stance which probably goes back to being introduced to bands like Pink Floyd at a young age. Poetry collections, like albums, should be seen as one coherent unit.

7. A small press, local, or self-published poetry collection
This is perhaps more important here than it is with novels; independent publisher are the life-blood of poetry, seeming to make up the vast bulk of poetry publishing in the UK.

8. A poetry collection which is an old favourite.
All the things I said about ‘old favourite’ novels apply doubly here. The complexity of how language is used in poetry make changing interpretations even more likely, and its roots in the oral tradition mean poetry is designed to be repeated.

9. Poetry in translation
I used to avoid translated literature out of an immature snobbishness about it not being in its ‘original form’. I only read in English though, so if I kept up this attitude I would be missing out on entire cultures worth of literature. The issues surrounding the translation of poetry are interesting, and it could be argued that translated poems are more like new works which are intrinsically connected to their sources.

10. Poetry by ‘important’ poets
The idea here is similar to the ‘canonical novel’, but I have substituted ‘canon’ with ‘big name’ as many of the poets I am interested in for this category worked in the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the category for bigger publishers and the more famous poets, alive or dead.

11. A ‘genre’ novel
My relationship with genre novels could probably make up a blog post in their own right. For a long time they were all I read, and then there was a (thankfully brief) period of snobbishness around the beginning of my degree. Later, I came to my senses and realised that good writing is good writing whatever it is about, and that science fiction or fantasy writers take their craft as seriously as ‘lit. fic.’ writers. I still don’t read many genre novels though, purely because there are so many books of all different types that I want to read (which is one of the reasons I’m making this list). Genre in the sense that I am using it includes fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime. I accept the argument that ‘literary fiction’ is really another genre, but as that makes up most of my reading, I feel I should include a category to move me into other areas.

12. Non-fiction – History, legend and myth
As great as fiction and poetry are, I feel that it is important to also be well read and well informed about the real world. This is where my reading habits really let me down. Faced by so many exciting novels, I rarely browse in non-fiction for long. This is strange, because I do love learning interesting things, and I’ve always been interested in history in particular. The ‘legend and myth’ part of this category is designed to allow for older texts which include things which people once believed to be true and are there for written as non-fiction (for example, Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, which was written after Iceland had already been Christianised, but which was intended to keep record of the older beliefs which had shaped that nation’s culture). It should be noted that in all of the non-fiction categories, I’ll be looking primarily at books which are ‘writerly’ as well as informative.

13. Non-fiction – Memoir and travel writing
Around the same time that I had snobbishness about genre fiction, I also misguidedly thought that non-fiction is not really literature. This category is dedicated to Ian Marchant, whose ‘life writing’ module in the second year of my degree taught me that I was wrong.

14. Non-fiction – Philosophy, science and the social sciences
If the ‘history’ category is designed to keep me well informed on what has happened, this one is designed to keep me thinking about how things work, or at least how we think they do. That’s the logic behind putting philosophy and science together. Again though, I’ll be looking for books which are writerly as well as informative, so expect more pop-science and less text books.

15. A graphic novel
This is a means of storytelling which I have long thought of as interesting art form in its own right, with a format which is similar to prose, but has an entirely different set of tools to use. However, as there are so many books I want to read, it’s a format which I am still yet to really discover for myself.

16. A short-story collection
I love short stories. I love the brevity and the craft of them. Unfortunately for them, I love novels a little more, so this is an area of my bookshelf that has been a little neglected.

17. A novel in translation
Language and culture are intertwined, and as with poetry, I’m currently missing out on some of the best prose that other cultures have to offer. This category is designed to remedy that.

18. A book I never finished
I’m a fairly diligent reader, so there aren’t too many of these. But there some hangovers from university (The Monk and Waverley, for example) to polish off, and there are also books that have suffered from my habit of having two or three books on the go at once and my tendency to get distracted. It’s time to give them the attention they deserve.

19. Literary criticism, language and writing
These are the ‘how stuff works’ books that I would gravitate towards most naturally. I’ve given them their own category to push me into wider and more far-ranging topics for category fourteen. Their inclusion also reflects the importance of staying up-to-date and well informed in one’s own field.

20. Wild Card
I love the idea behind this category, and it could become the basis of a future reading challenge all on its own. The idea is that when I roll a twenty I will ask somebody whose opinion I trust (a friend or family member, a co-worker, a bookseller) what they think my next book should be, and read that.

Additional Information
I’m calling this a reading challenge because this year I intend to select all of my books like this (with the exception of books I need to read for work or books that I want to read as research for my own writing projects). To ensure breadth of coverage, the first time round I will eliminate categories as they have been selected, meaning that I will cover every category at some point this year. After that all the categories will be restored and repetitions will be allowed. The challenge will last for this year, or until I’ve covered every category. After that it will just be a way of selecting new books if I don’t have a specific one in mind. I haven’t included any drama categories because plays should be seen rather than read.

I’ve started already, throwing a 12 and selecting The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker as my first book. If you’d like to join me, with my categories or with your own, leave a comment below. If you don’t own a twenty sided dice (doesn’t everybody?) you can use this website to generate your rolls.