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 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: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this. Though it gets a little technical in places, and a quick skim of the notes reveals contention within the field that is somewhat breezed over for the sake of a more coherent reading experience, it appealed to me as it matched a view that I had come to over the years. That is — people who do not share my moral and political beliefs are not necessarily bad people; and politicians who represent views other than mine are also not evil people. They simply have a different morality and politics. I choose my morals and politics because they are congruent with who I am as a person. I might try convince others of the rightness of my “beliefs”; but the inability of others to understand or groove with my beliefs does not make them dumb, cruel or selfish.

Despite the technical nature of the book, it is an easy enough read; although it is the kind of book that probably deserves a re-reading at some point in the future. At the same time, it would be good to follow up at least some of  the sources and references in the notes and bibliography (although I was pleased to see I had read at least a couple of the hundreds!). Ah, were there world enough and time for such entertaining diversions.

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