Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 April 2012

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

The first in a short series of articles on the enduring popularity of diaries, including some of the most engaging examples from across a range of styles and times.

The diary as a literary form remains with us and continues to engage and enthral.  What lays behind its enduring appeal?  Firstly, there is the sense of intimacy - we are able to witness (at second hand, at least) events as they unfold.  In the case of political diaries, we are able to gain some insight (depending on the author's proximity to events) into the thinking behind occasions of importance and significance to which we might not otherwise have access.

We are also able to learn about the author in a manner different to that of a biography or autobiography.  In the case of the latter, there is always the tendency (however subconscious) for the subject to portray themselves or their role in events in a more positive light.  The benefit of hindsight works wonders, and the autobiography (particularly in the political sphere) often winds up being a litany of self-justification (when things went wrong) or self-congratulation (when they went right).  This doesn't happen with diaries - we see people's vacillations, indecision, and sometimes their sheer bewilderment at what is happening around them.  What an honest and forthright diary captures is the changes in the state of mind of the author - today, life is hopeless, tomorrow it will be exhilarating.  An engaging diary should remind us that our perspective on the world on any given day is not an irreversible, indelible truth.  Rather, it is a reflection of circumstance, mood and our relationships with others on a given day, and is always subject to change at short notice.

The diary has not been superseded by the blog.  They serve very distinct purposes and so their intrinsic characters will continue to remain separate.  The blog is written with the intention of its being published and read immediately.  It is written with a particular audience in mind and often invites instant comment or feedback.  This undoubtedly affects how we read a blog, as we take it in instalments as they are produced, and this doesn't always provide opportunity for detailed analysis or comparison, or allow us to stand back and take an overview of the author's changing perspectives.   The blog is not designed as a record, more of a running commentary, and so for that reason it will often tend to lack a sense of perspective.

The diary, on the other hand, while also recording events contemporaneously, is nevertheless not designed for immediate consumption.  We are able to digest a longer period of time in one sitting, and so we have more points of comparison and reference.  To push the analogy, we are able to order from the full menu at the outset, rather than simply taking each course as it comes.  The diary often offers such an engaging insight into events because it manages to combine both immediacy and overview at the same time.  We have events being recorded as they unfold, but we can simultaneously gain an understanding of the full story from beginning to end.

With the above in mind, we would heartily recommend the series of political diaries that have been published recently by the former British Labour MP, Chris Mullin.  Mr Mullin, as well as being the author of the 1982 novel A Very British Coup, led the campaign for the overturning of the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.  His diaries cover an historic time in British politics - the birth and rise to power of New Labour including, perhaps most significantly, the time of Britain's decision to join the allied invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As can be deduced from the titles, A View From the Foothills (2009), Decline and Fall (2010) and A Walk-on Part (2011) Mr Mullin was not a big-hitter in the New Labour regime (rising only as high as a junior cabinet minister), but the diaries are all the richer for that.  He is both an insider and an outsider at the same time, with access to the decision-making process beyond the rest of us, while still being (frustratingly, for him and us) a long way from the real heart of the action.

Mr Mullin is a wonderful diarist.  He writes with clarity, honesty and a degree of self-effacement that is extremely engaging.  We share his frustrations at the powerlessness (at times) of the backbench MP, his efforts to fight bureaucratic indifference on behalf of his constituents, and his moments of (admittedly) small triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.  The sections dealing with his elevation to junior minister ranks in the Department of the Environment are especially interesting, as are those dealing with his later return to government in the Department for Overseas Development.  What we see is a principled, decent and honest MP (and as the diaries reveal, the latter is in short supply) struggling against inertia to achieve positive change on behalf of his constituents and the nation.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the diaries is the vacuousness at the heart of the New Labour project that they reveal.  Mr Mullin rightly details the successes of the Blair/Brown years (and despite everything, they did undoubtedly improve the lot of many people in need), but he also chronicles their lack of vision and cohesion.  The infighting, political machinations and sheer opportunism of leading politicians is laid bare and, while none of this should come as a surprise, it is nevertheless a salutary lesson to us all.  This is nowhere in evidence more than on the debates regarding British involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr Blair is revealed to have essentially taken the decision to join the invading alliance of his own accord, with little or no pressure on him from either the electorate or members of his government.  Whether the decision was right or wrong, the lack of consultation, rational debate or disclosure of facts should give us all pause.

Mr Mullin undoubtedly ranks alongside Richard Crossman and Alan Clark as the pre-eminent political chroniclers of their times.  Anyone with an interest in recent international history, the nature of politics or simply engaging, well-constructed writing, should seek them out.

Chris Mullin's website can be accessed here

Chris Mullin writes about the genesis of 'A Very British Coup' in the 'Guardian'







Sunday, 26 February 2012

Classic Books for Boys


Our Man in Havana (1958)  Graham Greene
The archetypal Greene work, the novel is set in Cuba prior to Castro coming to power.  James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is enlisted by the British secret service and agrees  to ‘spy’ for them in order to cover his teenage daughter’s very expensive tastes.  However, Wormold’s spying is at first entirely imaginary, but his life begins to unravel when his fantasy world and the real world begin to coincide.
A classic work for boys in terms of its subject matter, but more importantly Greene’s direct yet poetic prose style has turned many a sceptic into an enthusiastic reader.
Rogue Male (1939) Geoffrey Household
A British sportsman attempts to assassinate Hitler in his rural retreat. However, he is captured and tortured although he finally manages to escape. He then finds himself on the run from a mysterious figure and the two engage in a riveting and deadly game of hide and seek (the scenes in the London Underground are a particular highlight).

Part military survival manual, part thriller, part old fashioned heroic tale, the pace is gripping, the descriptions of the protagonists’ plans and tactics for survival are compelling and right triumphs at the end.  A boy can ask for no more.
The 39 Steps (1915) John Buchan
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Richard Hannay has returned to London from Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when a mysterious man calls upon him and desperately seeks his help to stop a group of German spies known as the Black Stone.  However, when the man is murdered in Hannay’s flat he is forced to go on the run.
A complicated and twisting plot, treachery, betrayal and some good old fashioned murder and mayhem make this the father of all ‘man on the run’ novels and films.  This, combined with the glimpse back in time to a world that no longer exists, makes it a vital and necessary part of every young man’s education.
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) PG Wodehouse
Bertie Wooster finds himself in one of his usual scrapes: trying to reunite his friend Tuppy Glossop with his estranged fiancée Angela, avoiding getting married to the soppy Madeline Bassett and trying to stay on his Aunt Dahlia’s good side so that she doesn’t ban him from eating any more of her peerless chef Anatole’s (“God’s gift to the gastric juices”) sumptuous dinners. Thankfully, at Bertie’s side throughout is the inimitable Jeeves, his gentleman’s personal gentleman, who is always there to ensure that he avoids the ultimate peril.  A classic set piece is the laugh-out-loud scene in which Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle drunkenly presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, which once read will be never be forgotten.
Quite simply, this is the funniest, most well-written, warmly generous book in twentieth-century English literature.  Life would be unbearable without it.
Lucky Jim (1954) Kingsley Amis
The eponymous hero Jim Dixon is a Medieval History lecturer at a provincial university in the north of England. Despite the ironic title, nothing quite seems to work out for Jim and he struggles to find a place in the world, a world from which he feels increasingly isolated.
In this great ‘outsider’ novel, Amis captures the anger and frustration of a young man who sees his way thwarted by those with better connections but far less talent. A must-read novel both for its delicious humour and its fascinating evocation of a grim, grey post-war England.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) Erich-Maria Remarque
Paul Bäumer joins the German army at the beginning of the First World War. He arrives at the Western Front with a diverse group of friends whose fates intertwine. The book focuses not so much on warfare and fighting, but rather the horrendous conditions in which Paul and his comrades find themselves living year after year.
The book is always a favourite amongst boys for its toilet humour, scenes of mayhem and schoolboy pranks that all take place against a backdrop of terrible doom and danger. The last chapter of the book, a single paragraph from which the title is taken, is painfully moving and only serves to highlight the senselessness of conflict.
The Red Badge of Courage (1895) Stephen Crane
The novel is set during the American Civil War and has as its hero Henry Fleming, a private in the Union Army. Much of the book revolves around Henry’s questioning of his own (untested) courage: how will he react in the face of the enemy? In several graphic yet honest depictions of conflict, Henry discovers more about himself than he cared to know.
A truly great war novel in which Crane is interested in exploring concepts of valour, duty and loyalty, but from a surprisingly modern standpoint given the the time at which the book was written.  It is also extremely interesting to read in the light of what society was to learn about the nature of warfare only twenty years later.
Animal Farm (1945) George Orwell
The animals on Manor Farm rebel and overthrow the farmer.  They then assume control of the farm themselves.  The novel (invitingly short!) details the trials and tribulations of the animals as they fight to control their own destiny amid attempts to destroy their solidarity both from without and within.
Orwell’s classic parable of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union is flawless. The writing has a directness that is unparalleled and this, combined with his restless and ruthless search for truth behind ideology, makes this the greatest political novel ever written. However, it is far from a polemic and there are moments of real human (animal?) tragedy that would move even the most dialectically detached Marxist!
Of Mice and Men (1937) John Steinbeck
One of the first credit crunch novels. George and Lennie, two itinerant workers in California during the Great Depression, land casual jobs on a ranch, hoping to “work up a stake” and buy a place of their own. However Lennie, who despite his immense physical presence has the mind of a child, accidentally brings tragedy and misfortune down upon the two friends’ heads.
A road novel, an astute piece of social analysis, a brilliant study in character and dialogue – all of this and more can be said about this masterpiece.  Popular with boys, initially at lest because it’s short (I am sorry parents, but it’s true - this matters a lot!), the story soon engulfs all but the most unwilling reader. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved to tears by the book’s concluding moments.
The Diary of a Nobody (1888-89) George Grossmith (illustrated by Weedon Grossmith)
This hilarious pseudo-diary first appeared in Punch magazine in 1888-89. Mr Charles Pooter is a social climbing, irredeemably snobby clerk in the City and his diary details his everyday life as well as significant social and family occasions. Mr Pooter’s pretensions and lack of self-awareness provide the richest veins of humour, but nevertheless he is a lovable figure and is perhaps one of the finest examples of the inconsequential suburban hero.
This book, helped in no small measure by its charming illustrations, cannot but help to delight. It serves in one sense as a fascinating social document in the way that it lays bare lower-middle-class life in the Victorian age, but is also startlingly modern at times, especially in the depiction of the strained relationship between Mr Pooter and his son Lupin, which is stunningly contemporary in the way it dissects the generation gap and the despair a father feels at seeing his son’s potential go to waste. This is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable books you will ever read.