Review — “One Green Field” — Edward Thomas

One Green Field (English Journeys)One Green Field by Edward Thomas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve liked many of Thomas’s poems (when forced to learn “Adlestrope” when I was fourteen, I took against him, but learned the error of my ways later in life), and have often wondered what his famous nature writing was like. So, I dipped my toe in the luxuriant waters with this short collection of essays published by Penguin in their English Journeys series.

Now, I found in this book what I feared most. I’ve always been wary of nature writing, and the recent increasing interest in it has bought to my attention snippets in magazines and papers, writing that I’ve tended to find a little over-wrought, a tad repetitive, and just a touch rich. And it was the same with the essays in this book. I think I like my writing… with slightly less cream and sugar, let us say, a little less piping across the marzipan.

I can’t count the number of times a moorhen appeared, or pond. Whether it was the same pond or the same moorhen, I’m not completely sure, but there was often a pond, and often a moorhen. I also began to lose my way in lists of flowers, and trees and routes, colours, sounds, leaves everywhere, the textures of bricks and stones and tiles, and it was definitely too much; it all tumbled down in a cascade of adjectives and nouns.

For me, the best essay was “The Village” — I think because it had the feel of a narrative, that there was a little life writing, some biography in it. Of course, there were passages of loveliness in many of the essays, but, as I say, after a while it all became a bit too much. Still, many people greatly admire Thomas’ essays, and find the richness a pleasure. But I think I’ve learned that I prefer the spare fictions of a Maugham, Greene or Rendell. And one idea returned to me again and again as I read through the essays: that I preferred the compression and discipline of the poems, that, for me, Thomas had said everything he needed to say about his love of nature and his connection to the countryside in Tall Nettles.

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Review — “Judgement Day” — Penelope Lively

Judgement DayJudgement Day by Penelope Lively

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first Penelope Lively novel. Her name on spines has followed me around bookshops for the best part of my reading life. But in my drive to read more women authors, I found a couple of Lively’s second-hand, and thought I’d give them a go. She is a prolific author, and the first two purchases were pretty much pot-luck. Turns out that Moon Tiger, the first of the two I bought, was a Booker prize winner. However, I began my Lively journey with the slightly slimmer Judgement Day.

Judgement Day is story set around a church. That might make it sound like some kind of story about religion or belief, but it’s not really about that, although those topics are touched on. We meet the people involved in the church, but not all of them are religious. They are the members of a fund-raising committee — the old church is in need of repair. It is through this committee that various inhabitants of the town meet. There are also a other characters, who are not part of the committee and not interested in the church who nonetheless interact with the central characters and add colour and motivation to the plot.

The central characters are, for me at least, Ruth, the atheist with an interest in church architecture; the ineffectual and doubting vicar, George; the church Warden and veteran of the World War 2, Sydney; and Martin, the troubled child of warring parents who live next door to Sydney.

The story is told from various viewpoints, first one character and then another. Lively chops the viewpoints around quite quickly, with perhaps half a page devoted to one voice, then a page or two to another. Changes in viewpoint are clearly signposted, so the story is easy to follow, and each voice is distinct enough, because of their internal dialog or concerns, to keep the characters straight.

The novel follows the characters as they interact – through the fund-raising committee, or because they are neighbours, or because their children play together. Even though what happens might be considered mundane, still I wanted to know what was happening, what the result of these relationships would be. Because it is a novel, of limited duration, you know there will be a pay-off, a crisis. But how? And what? Why the title? What is, when is, judgement day? To reveal that would be to write a spoiler.

Suffice to say that a novel I thought would be about one relationship was very much about another. And ultimately, it is very sad book. You begin to see a glimmer of hope, changes occurring, a blossoming, perhaps. But that is cut short. And you can see and feel sad lives stretching out beyond the end of the book.

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Review — “Discrimination And Popular Culture” — Denys Thompson (ed.)

Discrimination And Popular CultureDiscrimination And Popular Culture by Denys Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Discrimination And Popular Culture is an early entry into the study of popular culture, so is not beset by theory or post-modernism, and thus is an easy-enough read. It is a collection of relatively non-academic essays, published in 1964. Given the publication date, the essays reflect the popular culture of the early 1960s or even the late 1950s. Even The Beatles are so new they are only mentioned in a footnote. The essays have, therefore, little connection with cultural topics that would fascinate and inform subsequent studies of popular culture.

Youth culture is mentioned in a few of the the essays, yet isn’t given the prominence it would have in later books about culture. The essays seemed to grope for a structure or framework that would enable criticism of that culture. Youth culture pops up, unsurprisingly, mostly in reference to popular music and magazines. The swinging sixties, rock music, 60s film and fashion are notably absent. No David Bailey or Mary Quant here. For modern readers, the absence of photography and fashion as topics would be the most obvious omissions.

As the title suggests, the essays seek to address how consumers should discriminate between what is good and bad in popular culture, or between what is true or false. So, we have essays on advertising, film, radio and television, the press, magazines, recorded music, and design. The last essay in the book, on design, is a surprising inclusion, and feels like an odd-man-out; the essay doesn’t have the same emphasis on discrimination.

Discrimination is the underlying theme of the book. It is the method that enables popular culture to be analysed (and perhaps dismissed as frivolous folly). Discrimination is a matter of education, and this education should should start early. Discrimination between the “bad” and the “good” in newspapers, television, cinema, and so on, can be taught at school, it is suggested. And there’s a sense in which this indeed would be helpful, and the teaching of critical thinking at school is a topic for educationalists even today.

Critical thinking or good judgement as tools for discrimination can be useful for approaching newspapers, news magazines, or news and comment on television or radio. However, for more subjective areas, such as popular music, articles in say, teenage and music magazines, responses to movies, and so on, the use of discrimination sails perilously close to being simply a method to elevate high and denigrate low culture. For example, the essay on film discusses at length what is wrong with the movies The Guns of Navarone and Summer Holiday, while extolling the virtues of L’Atalante and L’Age d’Or — and while I’m sure the last two films are fine films, they are most certainly not “popular culture”. The medium might be popular, but the medium must be distinguished from artefacts of that medium. There are artefacts of the medium that are popular — Summer Holiday — and artefacts that are assuredly not, and are, indeed “high culture”.

Despite its age, the book can sometimes feel contemporary. This is partly because it talks about discrimination and education. Often, nothing seems to have changed. Newspapers mislead, or should be considered entertainment rather than news; television is banal; to make money, movies appeal to a wide audience rather than being the best art they can be; magazines for teenage girls concentrate on fashion and sexualise their readers too early; and so on. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. Replace some of the media discussed instead with the Web, phones and streaming, and the plaints sound familiar even now.

So – the two star review is not because the book is tedious or unreadable. It is, indeed, fine, it is okay. And because of the time at which it was written, you might find yourself gently smiling at such quaint turns of phrase as:

… this very same music, played at maximum volume in a youth club, would encourage a lively jiving session and a general atmosphere of exuberant vitality.

The essays are, however, unlikely to cause you to reappraise your views on popular culture, and for many readers with an interest in popular culture, will appear theoretically outmoded. Still, it is books like this that provide the underpinnings of cultural studies in Britain, and so has historical interest.

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Review — “The Green Roads of England” — R Hippisley Cox

The Green Roads of EnglandThe Green Roads of England

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable little book, made more interesting by describing  areas local to me. Because I am local, I think I enjoyed the book a little more than a reader with no local knowledge might. I note this as the last couple of chapters — where the roads discussed were in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and east, and in Gloucester and north — weren’t quite as interesting to me as the early chapters, which centered around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset — the Wessex Ridgeway is closer to my interests than the roads to the east. If you don’t know any of the areas discussed in the book, you might find it all a bit overwhelming, as names of towns and villages and roads and hill forts tumble in succession — especially as there are few detailed maps within the text to act as a guide.

I feel maps are what the book sorely lacked. Yes, there are a few summary maps at the end of the book, but these aren’t large enough in scale to highlight details discussed in the book. The text is illustrated with pencil sketches of local countryside and plans of hill forts, but these felt superfluous. Yes, the hill forts might be important in helping assess the route of the old roads, but in a book that was short of maps, the sketches and plans seemed an unnecessary frivolity that diverted from useful cartography, no matter how basic.

I haven’t been able to find much about Hippisley Cox on the Web, so I don’t know his standing as an expert on roads, trackways or archeology; and a comment in the last chapter leads me to think he was an enthusiastic amateur. The interesting hypothetical tidbits he tosses into early chapters might, therefore, be entirely unfounded — however, they are, nonetheless, intriguing, and accord with some recent thoughts of my own.

If you are intrigued by roads, byways, and tracks, there’s much of interest in this book, particularly if you’re a native of, or a regular visitor, to the areas which Hippisley Cox describes. Was Avebury the hub of the southern, prehistoric road network? I’m still unsure, but it was fun to retrace some old routes.

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Review – “Total Man” – Stan Gooch

Total ManTotal Man by Stan Gooch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is the one 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. This was so long I started it last year and only finished this year!]

When I first read this back in 1977, I remember finding it interesting – but this time it has been most dull. And long! At nearly 600 pages, it could easily have been much (much) shorter. Back then, this would have been one of my first introductions to psychology, and  popular science, and it was also full of notions that seemed novel and interesting: essentially explaining “The Divided Self” as instantiated in brain structures and through them in culture, left hand and right hand, female and male, psychotic and neurotic, conscious and subconcious; a lot of polarities compared and contrasted (but with many fuzzy bits pruned).

Reading it this time, however, in a less innocent and more critical mode, I couldn’t help noticing quite how ridiculously speculative it all is, with lots of “if this is the case”, “if we were to suppose”, “if we can conclude”. If you ignore the hypothetical nature of the claims and just focus on the claims generated by the hypotheticals, it can all seem quite plausible, but the long chains of inferences seems a little weak to carry the bridge across the Gulf of Possible Nonsense.

As to the hypothetical nature of the arguments, you will find (opening the book at random) chains of sentences like this: “This is probably a serious misconception”… “was probably after all first on the scene”…. “Is it not far more likely“… “This is perhaps yet one of the further meanings”… “To generalise at this point”… “This claim is somewhat borne out”… “the difference may be perceived” “For reasons …by no means entirely clear“… “the possible exceptions to this statement”… “one has suggested…” (My italics) Webs of speculation feed into mazes of conjecture that terminate in knots of problematic conclusions. Because the conclusions rest upon so many interlinked hypotheticals, I began to find myself asking, “but what if it isn’t likely, or probable, or not borne out at all”, and so on.

The book is also structured in a way that hinders reading. Footnotes abound, but these are often additional speculations or clarifications associated with points just made. Many, many of these could have been added within the flow of the text, and in some cases might have helped the argument. As it was, I found myself breaking the flow of reading to jump to another point, and then having to regain my rhythm. Additionally, almost out of the blue, towards the end of the books and after spending 500 pages  describing Systems A and B — their polarity, their links, their conflicts, their associations with psychology — System C pops up. That a System C should exist after the previous speculations kind of makes sense — a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of A and B. But there has been little to prepare the reader for this kind of synthesis, although, of course, it explains the Total Man of the title. Yet, one also feels that this is also a way to marry Gooch’s theories with other world views involving trinities, which couldn’t be ignored if as he used culture, religion and literature as evidence.

The book also became a vehicle for other pet theories of Gooch’s that appeared in later books. One is tempted to think that he wanted to get these ideas out in some form in case he never got another book deal. For example, there is a very (very) long section on the differences and conflicts between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that takes up nearly eighty pages — and yet by the end of it I had lost the thread of Gooch’s argument. This conflict was to become the subject of his “The Neanderthal Question” (and other later books). Similarly, there’s a short (and, again, confusing) section on probability and chance (when discussing the I Ching) that he expanded in his “The Paranormal” to even more confusing effect.

The book isn’t entirely without merit, and introduced me, 40 years ago, when I was young and not so widely-read, to a lot topics and notions. But it is a slog, and it is not well-structured, so come prepared for the long knitting session involved in handling the skein of suppositions.

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 the now in which he was writing. The conditions for the his “private future” already existed – the future of his title would bring more privatisation and a further withering of community. This is not a vision of how the world would be for us, in our 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 of the 1970s in which he Pawley was writing.

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 articles from which I have quoted were written after after Pawley’s death in 2008. Who could have foreseen then the power of social networks now? In 2008 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 his 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 based 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 in private 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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