Review – “Antic Hay” – Aldous Huxley

Antic HayAntic Hay by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Antic Hay, but found its second half better than its first. The novel starts slowly, and when the protagonist, Gumbril, meets his intellectual and arty friends in London and thus introduces us to them, I almost despaired. Certainly, Huxley was a bright and intelligent young thing, and his friends certainly would also have been intelligent and intellectual and arty. However, when somebody tries to capture the essence of such situations they inevitably fall flat – what is charming, witty, intense and clever when you’re twenty-three, drunk and an Oxbridge graduate, can sound rather fey, precious and irritating when you’re sober and went to a red-brick university (or none at all!).

The novel is essentially plotless and episodic, but in the second half the episodes become more connected, and at last Huxley starts talking about people, real people, or at least the kind of people I might know. People who have relationships, and succeed or fail at them. The cyphers begin to develop into characters. Yes, it’s still a satire on the kind of people in the Bloomsbury set, but it begins to have more feeling, and I could empathise with characters.

In many ways this books is similar to Crome Yellow. But it is perhaps too long. There was a feeling that wheels were spinning a bit too much at the beginning. If this book had been as short as Crome Yellow, and had concentrated more on character development, then it might have been as entertaining as Crome Yellow.

Nonetheless, it was entertaining enough to keep me reading, and picked up just at the right point to prevent me dropping it.

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Review – “The Private Future” – Martin Pawley

The Private FutureThe Private Future by Martin Pawley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the first of the books I set myself to read in my challenge to read last year all the books I read up to 1977 that I still own in their original edition.]

When Martin Pawley died in 2008, obituaries were quick to latch onto the seeming far-sightedness of The Private Future. This book of “social prophecy”, The Guardian said, provided evidence of “how penetrating Pawley’s vision could be”. It was, for The Independent “one of his prescient books”. Published in hardback in 1973, the paperback edition of 1974 has emblazoned on the front cover, “With all the force of FUTURE SHOCK” in an attempt to ride the coat tails of Toffler’s publishing wonder, a serious book of cultural analysis that became an international best-seller. The paperback of Pawley’s book was soon remaindered, however; I picked it up in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in 1976 or so.

The book contends that individuals in Western culture are becoming more private. People are becoming islands unto themselves as family and community broke down. What was the cause of this breakdown? Here, the book becomes less prescient, and instead fits into a general pattern of cultural analysis of the fifties and sixties. Among the causes are, of course, consumerism, and the rise of popular culture and the media that carried that culture – cinema, television and radio. “Can these shoals of anonymous commuters,” he wonders, “fed on sports reports and salacious advertising really be called communities? Are these thinly populated, fenced-off brick boxes really the homes of families? Do ten or twenty million of them amount to a society? Surely not.” (p.8) The tenor is very 1970s: “shoals of anonymous commuters”, “fenced off brick boxes”, “sports reports and salacious advertising” – against popular culture, against space, light and suburban homes for the masses, and reducing people to anonymous “shoals”.

Although The Guardian might regard Pawley as “prescient”, his critique is of the extant society, the future he foresaw was very much his now. The conditions for the private future were already there – the future would merely bring further privatisation and the withering of community. This is not a vision for now. As Pawley notes “The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years… ” (p.16). And the society these changes have brought about – in which families have become smaller as children leave home and elders move to retirement homes or nursing homes, in which there are no connections with shop assistants, because ” with modern objects like fridges and freezers, [there is] no need to visit shops as often” – is the society Pawley is describing in the 1970s.

The book itself is rather slim, 200 pages in the paperback edition, and is more polemic than penetrating analysis. There is no bibliographic information, and few references to other sociologists or hard data; the book stands or falls on the basis of Pawley’s insights, rather than evidence adduced from other sources. The books rambles somewhat – for example, because of the concentration on consumerism as a facet of privatisation, there is anti-capitalist rant, yet this somehow feels shoe-horned into the argument. The book is also sometimes contradictory – for example, you might wonder if Pawley desires the private future, rather than being against it. And is he for or against freedom and emancipation? You would think he would be for both things. Yet he rails against the washing machines and fridges that enable women more free time (and thus to work and to become politically involved) because they do not require somebody (usually, in the 1960s, a wife) to visit shops, or otherwise be involved in the community.

How prescient, then, was Pawley? How penetrating was his vision? Interestingly, both The Guardian and The Independent were making their comments after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen <i>then</i> quite the power of the social networks </>now</i>? It was easy to concentrate on headphones and the Walkman and the iPod, and view them as symbols of self-sufficiency, of inwardness, of privatisation. And yet, even then, we were already 30 years on from Pawley’s book. Some elements of those notions might have been true. Yet the idea that there were no longer communities, families or other social groupings seems a little misplaced. Certainly, some types of community might have declined – trades unions certainly, the nuclear family to an extent – yet, even in the mid-2000s, other communities had developed, some internet-based (chatrooms, newsgroups), some around media and popular culture (people sharing discussions at work about television programs), some around formal and informal groupings in the real world (membership of the National Trust, for example). With more leisure time (because of those fridges and washing machines) came more time to appreciate nature, or history, or architecture, and to develop local communities based around these pursuits.

All of the above are, I feel, still true. Technology, capitalism, the individualist drive within us, the desire for freedom and liberation might well lead to the decline of some forms of community, but these things also lead to the growth of new communities and the re-organisation of others. The drive to feel part of a community, to be shaped by a community, to take part in community is still there within us, and is now partly driven by social media. Yes, this media is currently divisive, but it enables the creation of communities and cultures that shape and are shaped by us. Yes, it creates echo chambers, but what are these but the reflections of particular communities that still exist “out there” IRL, as we used to say (lol). And, yes, we might interact <i>in private</i> with the devices that enable these communities, as private individuals, but community still exists in these new forms, through these media, just as family continues to exist in new,  changed and sometimes radical, forms.

Reading The Private Future forty years on is not, then, to rediscover a hidden classic that explains the world as it is now. It is a book that attempted to explain some aspects of the world as it was then, a book that seemed unsure if it wanted to stop the process it foresaw or celebrate it. It is, however, in its own, dated, way, an interesting read. It is now a history of the way some aspects of the world once were, and might have become – a retro what-if for a world that quickly changed after the book was written to become something else, somewhere else with different people in it.

A two star review may seem paltry, but in the Goodreads world, that means I thought “it was Ok”.  And if you are interested in sociology, cultural studies, history or politics, and discover this book second-hand, pick it up. You might find yourself intrigued by what it was saying about the private then.

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Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was a prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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Review – “Darkness at Noon” – Arthur Koestler

Darkness at NoonDarkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I enjoyed it this time almost as much as I enjoyed it the first time I read it. When I first read it — in the summer, with the long college holiday stretching out before me — I read it much faster, because I had hours to kick back reading it. It was also the one of the first novels I had read that was so cynical, depressing, hopeless and bleak, so gripped me for that reason.

On a second reading, the novel remains cynical, depressing and bleak. I still felt the same hope as I started the book hope that Rubashov, the protagonist and anti-hero, the representative of the revolutionary old guard who is unjustly(?) imprisoned, would somehow wheedle and weasel his way out of prison. As the book went on, however, I discovered again that although Rubashov might be innocent of whatever charges are about to pressed on him, he is not innocent — he has taken part in a revolution in which others have died, he has sacrificed a lover to protect his own position in the party (and save his own life, perhaps), he has been involved in the deaths of other adherents to the cause, he made little fuss when other members of the council of which he was member were removed and liquidated in the cause of the revolution.

Rubashov knows too that he is not an innocent, and constantly returns, as he waits in his cell, to memories of the incidents in which he took a willing part, or which he instigated. He also knows that the revolution of which he was a leading light has moved on somewhere else, to a place he no longer quite knows, and occupies a space he himself no longer securely occupies. He no more has the certainties he once had. Statements he has made in his jaded middle-age — innocent statements, he claims — can be misconstrued and can be used to paint him as a counter-revolutionary, a traitor to the new leadership. Koestler himself had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany, and has been implicated in the betrayal of a woman, a fellow traveller, with whom he had been in a relationship. The novel is thus informed by first-hand experience of revolutionary cant and perfidy.

The book is divided into sections based on his imprisonment, then successive hearings with progressively-less sympathetic inquisitors, including psychological torture, and finally a judgement. To say too much about Rubashov’s fate — his demeanour as the hearings continue, and the sentence passed down at what might be considered a show trial — would diminish the intriguing if joyless experience of following his slow descent into the very basement of the bleak world he in part created.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

 

Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Review — The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber & Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber & Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this collection of short stories hadn’t been so short I might well have given up reading it. A sense of duty made me return to it each night. This was, after all, Angela Carter. And yet… Once upon a time — yikes, 35 years ago, as it turns out — I’d read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, and remembered little about it, such was the effect it had on me. And yet… I had once also found a second-hand copy of Love, her fifth novel, and read it with enjoyment. It was thus in the hope that I would find again what I had enjoyed about Love, while fearing that I would rediscover what I’d found in Fireworks, that I picked up The Bloody Chamber.

It was, unfortunately, another Fireworks I’d found. I wasn’t in the presence of stories, or characters, or, indeed interest. I was in the presence of a writer. I was in the middle of an explosion of beautifully-crafted, writerly sentences. I was eating a pudding laced with chocolate and brandy, smothered in double and whipped cream and custard. The taste was too heavy. The writing was so thick that it distanced me. In fact, I managed to read two pages of the final story, ‘Wolf Alice’ without really reading them — as if I’d been driving a car at night, listening to the radio, and found myself twelve miles up the road with no memory of driving them — because they felt simply like another wardrobe of extravagant finery. Two pages had gone into my eyes and whirled around my synapses, yet I had no idea what had happened in those pages — and I had no care to go back and find out. The story likely made as much sense without the two pages as it did with them. Wolves were involved.

I might try another Carter at some time, simply on the strength of Love. But if I do, I won’t be dipping into short stories again, and I suspect I will start with the earlier novels in the hope that the sauce isn’t quite as rich.

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Review — The Good Soldier –Ford Maddox Ford

The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. I had never previously read any Ford Maddox Ford, so didn’t know what to expect. I had no preconceived notions of topic, theme  or style. I thought there might be soldiers.

Written from first person perspective, the narrator might be speaking truth, might be lying, self-serving or just confused. And because of this, my feelings about the others characters, the characters the story is about, wavered and see-sawed. By the end, you might simply think everybody was bad in their own way. Or you might think them just the same as people everywhere. My feelings about them remain in the grey, unresolved middle.

Not knowing where the book was going, nor really what it was about, this Edwardian tale of a fine pair of married couples — one British, one American — soon subverted my expectations by becoming dark and twisty. I think I knew I was going to enjoy it, though, when the narrator, the husband of the American couple, goes on a train journey with the others and completely ignores his wife. Instead, he finds amusement in a cow that is knocked over in a stream by another cow. He laughs intermittently for the rest of the journey, still ignoring everybody else, and not telling them why he is laughing. This shows that there is something… distant and cold, perhaps, in our narrator, something a little cruel.

The novel is well-written. I enjoyed its style, even if it is deliberately rambling and non-sequential. Impressionistic and multi-threaded, it hops about and skates around in time. If you aren’t confused about something by the end of the novel, if you haven’t dropped a thread somewhere, I’ll be surprised. That is part of its charm.

The sheer size of another of Ford’s books, Parade’s End, had been intimidating me. No longer!

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