Have you ever passed a mechanic’s workshop that advertised MOT’s while you wait or, worse still, read a piece in a newspaper that said in the 1970’s? Or maybe you have sat through a party political broadcast that used a lot of meaningless psychobabble like we will be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime or we now have to operate within shifting paradigms? We all now live in an age of information overload, with media that can produce billions of words a second, and the language we use for communication is changing faster than the speed of light…….and much too fast for the likes of John Humphrys, stalwart of the Today programme on Radio 4.
Humphrys has a long-standing reputation (which he likes, by the way) of being the grumpiest of grumpy old men, and his manner of interviewing the great and the good (and I mean that metaphorically, of course) betrays his utter impatience with people who seldom speak plainly or, for that matter, to the question. For that he receives an equal amount of praise and criticism from the general public, but he will never reform his ways. But if you want to encounter Humphrys at his light-hearted best at being grumpy, Lost for Words will be an excellent read.
He is not a linguistic expert, nor someone who has any special academic qualification for commenting on the use of language, but as a journalist for over 50 years, he has been exposed to a lot of abuse of the English language, and the ‘University of life’ has taught him a thing or two. Although whole chapters are dedicated to the misuse of grammar and syntax, and the misunderstanding of basic English words (like disinterested for example) and so on, I found his chapters on the abuse of the powerful emotive force of expressions (which he divides into boo phrases and hurrah phrases) to be the most intriguing. Although this volume was written back in 2004, his reflections of the abuse of language by politicians at that time shows a clear lead through to the kind of language and fake news that is being exploited by today’s ruling classes. Couple that with a general refusal to answer direct questions by substituting tired mantras (remember Theresa May’s strong and stable government mantra), and we should not be surprised with the rise of populist leaders today.
The subtitle to his book is The mangling and manipulating of the English language……..if I had been tasked with the duty of writing his subtitle, I might have been tempted to use the noun manipulation instead of yet another gerund. But then that’s me….
As an inveterate traveller myself and an inordinate consumer of travel literature, it has been clear to me for many years that there is no such thing as a single genre of ‘travel literature’. Travel comes in many forms (cruising or long-distance walking, for instance), has different durations, connects variously with the people and cultures along the route, stays in one place or flits between several destinations, and many other variations. People who choose to write about their experiences can resort to as many different sub-genres of travel writing, some engaging but, sadly, many not so engaging. Being a traveller does not guarantee any special powers of communication, no matter how fascinating the journey was. Because of the nature of my own travel (long distance on a bicycle) my diet has always been top-heavy with the observations of people who ‘take the road less travelled’ and are not afraid to expend a bit of perspiration on their peregrinations. But travellers of my kind invariably skim the surface of the people we meet and the places we visit.
John Greening, on the other hand, has created a two year narrative from his time in southern Egypt in his recent volume Threading a Dream. Rather than a ‘moving-on’ experience like the long distance traveller, this is very much a ‘staying-put’ experience with his wife, Jane, as VSO volunteers in the early 80s, with plenty of ‘moving about’ amongst people and places within the country. The nett result is a growing familiarity with his environment, a deeper integration with the people and their way of life, and a burgeoning understanding of where Egypt as a nation has come from, and where it might be heading in the future.
There is something more deeply satisfying about this kind of travel literature compared to the restless meanderings of the independent trekker. John Greening, in fact, can be safely Dewey classified amongst the august body of literary travel writers, but I will make a distinction here between those who travel just to write (like Bill Bryson) and those whose writings have emerged as a result of their travels. Threading a Dream falls into the latter category and earns my respect all the more for it.
For many readers whose travel reading is limited to the Sunday supplements and the occasional ex-pat offering like Driving over lemons, this may not be the kind of book for taking to the beach or reading in snatches before falling asleep. But for those who want to get beneath the skin of a nation, its people and its history as seen by a couple of young inexperienced teachers who were hungry for contact with all around them and, in the case of the author, was also on the cusp of a writing career as a poet, Threading a Dream will be an intriguing read, and well worth the effort.
This semi-autobiographical novel has the most unusual structure of being a dramatic monologue, between the protagonist Changez and his non-speaking American listener, whom he met in a Lahore tea house. Changez recounts his own story, that of a Pakistani from an impoverished upper middle class background who goes to the USA to study at Princeton University. His degree takes him on a meteoric career with a company that assesses the marketable value of businesses before they are taken over, but his life comes crashing down in the wake of 9/11, when all American citizens of his skin colour become immediate suspects of being collaborators, and his failed love affair with Erica leaves him in emotional turmoil.
He walks away from his high-flying career and returns to Lahore, where a reassessment of his own loyalties to family and country drives him to reconfigure his own national identity, and begin to look critically at American involvement in his own country’s affairs. At the outset of his career in New York, he was asked by a co-worker where he would like to be in 25 years time, to which he answered: ‘a dictator of a fundamentalist Islamic state’. His answer may have been intended as a joke, but his quiet admiration for what the 9/11 attackers had achieved adds an edge to our assessment of the real character of this apparently pro-American Pakistani.
I suspect readers will be deeply divided about the merits of this type of fiction, but it certainly held my attention throughout, and the fact it has been translated into 25 languages and has been shortlisted for numerous literary prizes (including the Booker prize) is, perhaps, testament to it literary value.
A truly absorbing and moving first hand account of an idyllic holiday in the Masai Mara that suddenly turned into something of tragic proportions. Judith (Jude) and her husband, David, had spent a perfect week on safari in the Masai Mara in 2013, followed by the anticipation of a relaxing beach holiday just 40km south of the Somali border. The remoteness of this picturesque beach engendered both its beauty and its danger, and Jude felt uneasy about its deserted tranquillity from the outset. With good reason because, on the first night, they were awoken by intruders, David struggled with one of them, and Jude was roughly dragged off to a skiff, thrown on top of a pile of fuel cans, and taken off on a long journey, to be kept prisoner as a hostage for over six months in Somalia.
What she didn’t know for several weeks was the fate of her husband. She had fondly believed he was still alive and in the process of negotiating her release. She discovered, however, during the first phone call with her son, Ollie, that David had not ‘survived his injuries’. He had, in fact, been shot. What had already been a very difficult experience for Jude turned into something so painful that she wasn’t sure that she could survive.
This memoir is a very well written account of her six months in captivity, of the relationships she struck up with her captors, of her methods of survival, of the notes she kept (which were destroyed by her captors), and of the hourly pacing around her small room to help keep herself physically and mentally fit…….hence the title ‘A long walk home’. A remarkable lady and a remarkable story.
David Sore came to my attention during a BBC documentary about the Raleigh Cycle company a few weeks ago. I grabbed my phone as I was watching, logged onto my local library service, and found he had written a book about his cycle journey around the world, on his modified Raleigh bicycle, in the 1960s. At the age of 25, he began a journey of nearly four years, riding 35,000 miles through 21 countries, and his volume A journey round the world: a cycling memoir is his record of that journey.
Though it is a very commendable self-published account of a memorable, life-changing experience, and could be an invaluable guide to anyone wanting to dip their toes in the world of long-distance touring, it does suffer from a few flaws. Published 40 years after the experience, it relies heavily on his diary notes and latter-day research, and fails to ‘bristle’ with the liveliness and enthusiasm of a recent experience, a point I noted elsewhere with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about his walk to Istanbul in the 1930s.
This ‘chronological detachment’ probably also encouraged a style of narrative that dwells overmuch on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of his journey: food, drink, camping, the gearing on his bike, and the almost mechanical focus on a place-by-place description of everything he encountered. It would have been a much improved narrative had he explored his inner feelings and perceptions more, his reactions to places and, above all, to the people he met. We learn very little of the man himself, what makes him tick, and how people along the way altered his perception of the world.
It is, however, a worthy read, a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and, even through the narrow style of his writing, he does give a flavour of the rigours of the life of the long-distance cyclist.
In a saner moment, I would never choose to pick up a book about cosmology, but then I had recently read the memoir of Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity, which had led to a second viewing of the film The Theory of everything, so I had to complete the ‘trilogy’ by making an effort to read A brief history of time. It was not the challenge I had expected, even though many of the concepts went straight over my head, but Stephen Hawking very adeptly puts into layman’s language the very complex concepts about time, the universe, black holes and the continuing expansion of the universe.
I never expected to be so engaged, and that probably explains the more than 20 million sales in over 40 languages of a book that would normally be confined to the reading rooms of university research departments. Hawking succeeded in making theoretical physics ‘cool’, even though the vast majority of those who purchased the book (I imagine) have never managed to read it in its entirety, or not at all. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, everyone wanted to have it on their bookshelves, but few have made it a reading priority.
If you have a copy in your bookcase, I would highly recommend re-visiting it. It is certainly worth the effort.
When you discover that Bloomsbury pulled back all the review copies of one of its books before publication to pulp them, because something potentially libellous in its text was exciting a few lawyers, you know that the covers are going to be filled with some contentious thinking.
Brown and Woodhead have endeavoured to write an account of the last 30 years of the history of the Anglican Church, exposing what they think have been all the weaknesses and aberrations that have led to the spectacular decline in church attendance, and the end of a history where the Church was formerly accepted as an institution of the establishment. According to them, the Church is no longer the religion of the state, and its interior self destruction is as much to do with its own internal wars as it is with the general changes in society as a whole.
With so much rivalry amongst the different power bases (the charismatics, evangelicals, liberals and Anglo-catholics, to name but a few), and the radically different perspectives of the Church on continents like Africa and North America, it is astonishing that the Church has held together as a single institution. Then add to that the controversies over the ordination of women and the integration of gay priests and bishops, and you begin to wonder whether now is the time for them to call it a day, and break off into their sundry groups, and seek their own identities.
Jane Hawking, the first wife of Stephen Hawking, was moved to write her memoirs after Stephen decided to separate from her (and eventually divorce her) after 25 years of marriage.
She married Stephen knowing that he was suffering from a rare form of motor neurone disease, which was a progressive disease that would only grow worse in time, understanding that Stephen might only have a few years to live. She threw herself into the relationship with mind and body, made untold sacrifices to nurture her weakening husband, and do everything she could to support him in his scientific endeavours. In fact, initially, she put her own life on hold for the sake of her husband.
This moving memoir is a very detailed personal account of how she coped (or didn’t, in many instances) with Stephen’s altering physical state, his rapid promotion to the status of a world celebrity, of how she managed the upbringing of the three children she bore, her relationship with both sets of parents, her endeavour to complete her own doctoral thesis in medieval Spanish poetry, and the whole panoply of the ups and downs of the very hectic life they led. It is amazing how she simply survived.
At nearly 500 pages, this is the abridged version of her original memoir written in 1999, Music to move the stars, and became the inspiration for the much acclaimed film The Theory of Everything. The book held my attention unfailingly, and I would highly recommend it.
After a tortured childhood, a desperately unhappy spell at Charterhouse School where he was bullied mercilessly, and his fear of the approaching prospect of going up to Oxford University, Robert Graves quickly signed up for service in the trenches at the outbreak of World War 1.
He vividly describes life and death in the trenches; he drank heavily to assuage his fears and calm his nerves; he was wounded several times, once so severely that he was believed to be dead, and his death was publicly announced and relayed to his parents. The fact that an orderly spotted breath in his ‘corpse’, as it lay amongst dozens of other corpses waiting to be shipped out, was a remarkable serendipity. Though he eventually recovered from his injuries, he was destined to see out the war in non-combative military roles back at home.
After his failed first marriage, he met Laura Riding and, together, they left the UK and settled in Mallorca. It was a bitter separation from his homeland, hence the title “Goodbye to all that”.
“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”
John Steinbeck’s self-portrait is Hemingway-esque, and the photo on the front cover of the Penguin edition confirms that comparison. Charley is Steinbeck’s large French poodle, who is going to accompany him on his three month circular tour of the USA, starting from his home in Sag Harbour, New York, heading north to New England, then west and down the Californian coast, crossing back to the east coast via the Mojave desert, Texas and New Orleans. His mode of transport is a pick-up truck with a small caravanette fixed on the back pan (which he named Rocinante, after Don Quijote’s horse), the motoring equivalent of a one-man tent.
This is the story of a man, now in his early 60s, needing to rediscover the people and places of his own native country and, in Steinbeck’s masterful prose, and through a keen eye for detail and an earnest desire to reconnect with the ‘music of the regional dialects and accents’ before they disappear altogether in the age of mass media, we are treated to an extraordinary narrative of a journey that carries the reader along as a willing guest.
I related strongly to his style of travel. Though my mode of transport is the bicycle, Steinbeck chooses the closest equivalent in the world of motoring, and his unpretentious needs and requirements partner the generosity he shows people en route, sharing a cup of coffee or whiskey with others, giving a lift to walking travellers, passing the time of day with lonely people.
His journey is also a time for reflecting and meditating on so many other aspects of his life so, much more than just a mere diary of three months on the road, it also serves as a personal memoir about his own personal thoughts and feelings. A very worthy read.
Travel writing with a difference always excites my curiosity. Norman Lewis’s account of Naples during the year 1944 is not the usual memoir of a personal journey of discovery, but the result of being posted out to Italy as a member of the British Intelligence Service in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of southern Italy.
Lewis came to the posting with a useful command of Italian, learned largely from his Sicilian wife, but the job description that came with the new duties was non-existent. In the early days, they had no idea what they should be doing and, for the next 12 months, much of what they did achieve was the result of following vague orders from on high, with a liberal input of creative imagination. They formed part of an occupation force that was intended to sort out the governance of the south of Italy, long used to the whims and savagery of both the national fascists under Mussolini, and later by the German occupation.
His work was made up randomly of seeking out and dealing with German collaborators, controlling the sale of stolen military goods through the black market, liaising with the local police and people of influence, and dealing with the local Camorra (Mafia). Italy was in a state of crisis and the people were starving. The living conditions were medieval, both because of poverty and the density in which people lived together in squalid circumstance. Typhus, smallpox and malaria were rife. Lewis himself contracted malaria three times during the year.
Although written 30 years later, this memoir vibrates with the immediacy of his experiences, and serves as a perfect snapshot of life that deserves a place in the archives.
Josefina Aldecoa comes from a long line of teaching parentage, especially amongst the women-folk. Both her mother and grandmother were teachers and principals of schools before her. In this short novel Historia de una maestra, Aldecoa seems to be writing in biographical mode, the first-person narrator being her mother, and she featuring as the young daughter. But it isn’t exactly biographical because the dates of the narrative don’t precisely match the dates of her own life.
Set in the 1920s and 1930s in rural Spain, the protagonist, Gabriela, qualifies as a teacher, heads off to Equatorial Guinea in her bid to expand the horizons of her limited world, but contracts malaria and has to return to Spain. She finds work in a village school, meets and marries Ezequiel (also a teacher) and, through their growing involvement in rural affairs, become deeply committed to the new Republican government of the 1930s, which promised to bring major changes that would favour the lives of the poor and landless masses. The narrative takes us up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when Ezequiel was summarily shot for his involvement with the workers’ movement.
This novel is the first in a trilogy, the other titles being La fuerza del destino and Mujeres de Negro.
Having worked as a journalist for the BBC for over 40 years, John Simpson has a long history that provides him with the source material for his memoirs. Not quite world’s end is just one of his memoirs, covering the late 1990s and early 2000s, dovetailing in with his marriage to Dee, and the birth of Rafe (Raphael) their son, when Simpson was 62 years of age.
The whole book is an unruly kaleidoscope of reminiscences, both about his personal experience of world events, as well as the more domestic happenings in his personal life and how they have altered his perspective on the world. From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Russia to South Africa, from Argentina to Bosnia-Herzegovina…… there is hardly a tract of the known world that Simpson hasn’t reported from and, in keeping with the nature of his job, he was nearly always drafted in to report from some of the world’s most dreadful conflicts where, it was not uncommon, he would often put himself and his camera crew in the most compromisingly hazardous situations just to get that key interview or camera shots of the devastation all around him. He talks of such life-threatening situations as if they were just part of the routine of his work…….which, of course, they were.
But the ‘heavy stuff’ is often lightened by personal reflections, the relationships he built up with people, the food and drink he enjoyed, and the fun he had with total strangers. A very good read, and well worth putting it on a short list of books to read if, that is, you enjoy this particular genre of writing.
After all that has been written over the years about the history of the British Empire, you’d scarcely think there was room for one more tome. But here it is, by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman, preceding a television series of the same title which can be played-back on YouTube.
I fully expected to be reading a highly critical account of Britain’s role as a colonizer of a quarter of the world, but Paxman deftly sails a narrow course between the two opposing views. That doesn’t mean that he is not individually critical of individuals, or actions and policies, he is to devastating effect on many counts. He is not averse to lampooning key figures who ‘got it all wrong’ in their enthusiasm to build the empire, and holding up to scrutiny some of the appalling episodes that became key markers on the empire timeline, such as slave-trading, the opium wars, Amritsar and genocide in Tasmania. But in his desire to create some kind of balance, he also highlights atrocities committed by the colonized, such as the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the institutionalized paedophilia, hand-loppings and floggings that occurred in many less-administered corners of the empire.
Although he needed to give more space to the sub-text of his book: “What ruling the world did to the British”, he cannily leaves us to make up our own minds about the oft-stated claim that if any nation is to be subjected to occupation by a colonizer, Britain was definitely the most benevolent of the bunch. I leave you to make up your own mind.
It is a long time since a book has kept my attention riveted for 6-8 hours a day, and sometimes awake into the small hours.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, brought up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, escaped to the Netherlands as a political refugee, eventually becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament, came to prominence when a film producer, Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim extremist, with a knife in his chest affixing a letter addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali. She then embarked on the rest of her life (in 2004) regarded widely as the feminine version of Salman Rushdie, fearing for her life and living with the intense pressure of maximum security.
It is the story of a journey. Not just a physical journey escaping from one country to another, but a psychological and spiritual journey. She had been born into the ‘relaxed’ Muslim society of Somalia which practised excision (genital mutilation), and she describes that experience with painful detail. She joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became evangelical about her faith, but over time, she found many of her questions about the nature of her faith and its treatment of women unanswered. Her father forced her into marrying a distant cousin from Canada whom she’d never met and, on her way via Europe to join him, she made her escape into Holland where she (falsely) claimed status as a political refugee. This chapter of her life was to be the most tumultuous.
Deeply impressed at everything she found in Holland, she gradually lost her faith, became secularized, joined the feminist movement, and began to publicly denounce the practices of the Islamic faith, especially in the area of women’s rights. After the 9/11 attack in the USA, she went on record declaring that terrorism was endemic within the Muslim faith. The murder of Theo van Gogh resulted from a 10 minute film they had made together called Submission, and the letter pinned to his chest called for a fatwa against Ms Hirsi Ali herself, precipitating months and years of isolation and intense security.
In 2005, Time Magazine voted her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is now a naturalized citizen in the United States, has been elected a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University, and is now married to Niall Ferguson, the controversial Scottish historian who also teaches at Harvard.
Nigel Holland, in his early 50s, suffers from an inherited genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which is a motor and sensory neuropathy. Basically, this means that his nerves cannot communicate action messages to his muscles. He was diagnosed in his infancy and, since then, has progressively lost his ability to live independently. He has been confined to a wheelchair for many years, but has never let this get in the way of meeting the challenges of life. In his own words, he may have a disability, but he is definitely not disabled.
This book is a diary of one year in his life (his 50th year) when he set out to complete 50 challenges, which not only included obvious challenges like scuba diving, zorbing and drag racing, but also less obvious ones like making a creme brulée and completing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The whole book is written as a message of hope to his young daughter, who has inherited the condition, and Nigel wants her to know that she doesn’t have to lower her sights in life because of her progressive disability.
Writing the book itself was one of the 50 challenges, and I would heartily recommend it for its very human story.
Título original: La suma de los días
This work of ‘bio-fiction’ sits comfortably amongst both her autobiographies and memoirs on the one hand, and her novelistic output on the other. She is a consummate story-teller, and she applies her broad-ranging skills to the narrative of her life after the death of her daughter Paula, at the age of 28.
We get the impression that she has written about this period, with all the people that populate it, with the candid freedom of a novelist, as if her subject-matter were fictional with no real-life consequences in the aftermath of publication. After all, it is well-nigh impossible to write truthfully of other people without treading on a few toes in the process.
I suggest this is a piece of ‘bio-fiction’ because I suspect that the book had to have the approval of all the family characters that appear in it. If any had disapproved, it would have gone through painstaking editing, or the characters would have been simply excluded from the story altogether. It is, after all, very hard to write about one’s family when they are all still alive.
I seldom engage with autobiographies that tell a story of rags-to-riches, or ‘how I overcame my life-threatening disability to become the person I am today’. The pattern of such autobiographies is predictable, the author concerned is usually a household name, or even a celebrity, and there is frequently a ‘look at my courageous rise from the depths’ flavour to the narrative. I began reading Nick Charles’ book fully prepared to be disappointed……
…..but I wasn’t. In his late teens, he was heading towards a successful career in entertainment, but he was also immersed in a world and culture of heavy drinking and, before long, the demon drink had taken possession of his life. The succeeding biography is a narrative about his scrapes with the police, his lost relationships with his family, his near-death experiences, and the pathetic people he rubbed shoulders with in the grimy underworld of the alcoholics.
But after nearly 20 years of drinking, he pulled himself together, married, opened the successful Chaucer Clinic for alcoholics, and was awarded the MBE ‘for services to people with drinking problems’, the first person ever to be honoured for such.
A very worthy read.
Curious that I should latterly come across a book, not only describing a journey that I had completed myself, but almost exactly at the same time as the author. The big difference being that Harry Bucknall spent nearly 100 days walking the route from London/Canterbury to Rome (in true medieval fashion), along the ancient Via Francigena, and I had broken with tradition and used a relatively modern conveyance to get me there in a quarter of the time……the bicycle. Cyclists and walkers usually mix very well on such ancient pilgrimage routes, but secretly the walker will probably look on the cyclist as a fraud, a cheat, absolving them of any right to call themselves a pilgrim (in the medieval sense, of course), whereas the cyclist will look down with pity on the walker as he/she labours slowly along carrying a heavy pack, arrogantly sustained with the belief that even riding a bicycle is still counted as ‘travelling under one’s own steam’. I was encouraged by one such pilgrim to try walking it one day, but I had to confess that I was too addicted to the wind-rush and the adrenalin-rush of travelling at 20-30km per hour.
Like a tramp like a pilgrim is a very worthy read. It may lack the sparkle and relentless humour of a Bill Bryson tome, but that is more than compensated by the fact he is a real traveller bearing the hardships and trials of the road, and his interest in the geography and history of his surroundings sustains the narrative well.
Bryson is at his best when anchored to his research desk, surveying the world and its idiosyncrasies with laboured intent, and crafting his reactions in a precise and detailed way. In the past I have cast aspersions on Bryson the ‘traveller’, in works such as Notes from a Small Island, Down Under and (more recently) The Road to Little Dribbling, but Bryson the forensic historian and linguistician is in a different league.
Made in America is a long detailed cursive look at the development of a country, from the arrival of its First Pilgrim Fathers to the present day. With every generation, and with every advance in industry and technology, the English that was originally exported to the new continent is gradually changed, making the language in its ‘pure form’ as used by the mother country look increasingly static and archaic.
To enjoy this 500 page journey through the development of a language, you have to be fundamentally interested in language itself, but Bryson does have the literary ability to get you interested in almost any topic, and this makes an entertaining and informative read for the general reading public.