Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

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Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

Cuddly Uncle Ken…

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Ken Clarke has been a fixture in the UK Parliament since 1970, so the entire period in which I’ve been politically aware. He has stood down at this election, having been thrown out of the Conservative Party of which he has been a member all these years over his support for remaining in the EU. Not that he will care, I imagine – the personality I’ve spent so long with in this 24 hour audiobook is one who will always believe he is right and everyone else is wrong, and will happily sail off into the sunset with his sense of his innate superiority undented.

Long familiarity with a politician can breed a kind of affection, especially when he remains in parliament long after his ministerial days are over. There is a tradition in the UK, not so much of elder statesmen, but of cuddly uncles – men who pepper their speeches with rambling accounts of how things used to be back in the days of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher, like the old relative in the corner at family gatherings who will insist on talking about the war. (I’m not being unconsciously sexist here – it really is a male thing since we haven’t had enough long-serving women MPs for there to be many female octogenarians shuffling around the corridors of power yet… give it another couple of decades.) For older people, like me, who remember Wilson and Thatcher, this gives a curious sense of stability and continuity. Younger people, I imagine, simply roll their eyes and switch off. Over the last couple of decades, Clarke has become one of those cuddly uncles, known for his love of jazz, his cigar-smoking bon viveur personality, his jovial demeanour, and his endearingly crumpled appearance…

…which explains why I’d managed to sort of forget that he was responsible for overseeing some of the most Thatcherite policies of the Thatcher era! As a cabinet minister in those days he served as Health Secretary as the first tentative steps were taken to make the NHS more “efficient” (i.e., cheaper) by introducing the ‘internal market’ – a way of making hospitals compete against each other for patients; for ‘contracting out’ ancillary services – a way of making cleaners, canteen staff and so on work longer for less money and fewer employment rights; and for making GPs ‘fundholders’, taking decisions on where patients should be treated on the basis of budgets rather than quality of care. Then, having destroyed standards and morale in the NHS, he spent a couple of years trying to wreck – I mean, improve – education, in much the same way.

Trigger warning: Thatcher and her merry men. Ken is the one in the middle at the back. The other three are Ken Baker, Malcolm Rifkind and, at the front, Nigel Lawson.

So “successful” was he in these roles that Thatcher’s successor, John Major, promoted him to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. How you rate him in this role really depends on your political leanings. The economy improved under his oversight, but the disparity between rich and poor grew. Unemployment went down, but it could be argued that it was Thatcher’s policies that had made it rise to such alarming rates in the first place. Interest rates, driven through the roof by the government’s mishandling of the whole question of the ERM and the single European currency, came back down to bearable levels. All of this gave him a reputation for competence and I won’t argue with that except to say that every chancellor’s reputation rests to some degree on the competence or otherwise of his predecessor and successor. Clarke succeeded to a shambles – it would have been hard for him to make things worse.

The book is well written, full of anecdotes and personality sketches that stop it from being a dry read about policies. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Clarke himself and he has an attractive speaking voice, making it a pleasant listening experience. But although I listened very hard, I can’t remember him once in the whole 24 hours ever expressing any concern for the weaker or more vulnerable members of our society. I got the distinct impression that to Clarke politics is an intellectual game, with victory being judged by statistics and honours rather than by outcomes for actual people. Even his much vaunted support for the EU, which in recent years has made many Remainers feel that he’s much cuddlier than most Conservatives, really seems to be about the free flow of workers providing a limitless pool of cheap labour from the poorer countries in Europe with which to boost profits for the rich while depressing the pay and conditions of those Brits already at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As is often the case with political memoirs, Clarke only really talks about the events in which he was directly involved, which is understandable but often gives a rather patchy view of a period. For instance, there’s barely a mention of the Falklands War, which played a huge role in why the Thatcher government was re-elected. He does talk about the miners’ strike, but again on a purely political level. There is no doubt that the rights and wrongs of the strike are debatable, but most people, I think, have some sympathy for the suffering that the mining communities went through during and after the strike. I didn’t catch a whiff of that from Clarke – to him, it was solely a question of economics and political power.

Image: BBC

I often find my view of a politician changes when I read their memoirs, which is why I do it. Usually I come out feeling that I may disagree with them politically but that I’ve gained an appreciation of their good intentions. In this case the reverse happened. I rather liked Cuddly Uncle Ken before I listened to this, but now I see him as smug and self-satisfied, a man who throughout his life has been far more interested in his own comfort and reputation than in trying to improve the lives of the people he serves. I was sorry to see him thrown out of his party after a lifetime in it, but now… well, somehow I don’t much care. He says himself frequently that he’s not the type of person who lets anything bother him. I would have liked him to be bothered by inequality, child poverty, the marginalised and the forgotten. Is that too much to ask of a politician? As a book, though, I do recommend it as a well written memoir that casts light on the politics of the last fifty years.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Timor mortis conturbat me, part 2…

🙂 🙂 🙂

At his last meeting with renowned Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, MacCaig laid a charge on Andrew Greig to make a journey after MacCaig’s death to his beloved Assynt in the north west of Scotland, and there to fish in the Loch of the Green Corrie. This is the story of that trip, mixed with Greig’s memories of and musings on MacCaig and his own life.

I’ve said this before, but my rating system is not an indicator of quality but simply of my enjoyment or otherwise of a particular book. In terms of quality, this book deserves more and plenty of people have loved or will love it. So I’ve gone with 3 stars even though I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I often recycle the titles I use for reviews, and I knew what the title for this one would be before I was more than a few chapters in: Timor mortis conturbat me – the fear of death confounds me. I also knew I had used the title before, so checked to see when. Turns out it was when I reviewed the only other book of Greig’s that I have read, In Another Light.

Greig writes of MacCaig’s declining years, of the loss of his mountaineering friend Malcolm Duff, of his own near miss when he suffered from a cyst in his brain, of his father’s death. He tells us of his breakdown following a failed relationship, when he ended up in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. I found the whole thing deeply depressing.

Andrew Greig

Most people of my age have lost people we loved and recognise that we’re closer to death than birth, and we all deal with it differently. Greig writes it out of his system and does so very well. Many people read about it and find comfort and strength from the recognition of common experience. I know already how grief feels and that it passes or lessens in time, and find no benefit or comfort in reflecting endlessly on my own past losses or anyone else’s. Timor mortis has never confounded me particularly – I’m more of an eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die type. So Greig and I are simply not a good match. And that’s not a criticism of either of us.

I abandoned this one at 30%, and won’t be attempting to read any more of his books. But I’m still happy to recommend them to the many people who find some kind of comfort or insight in having the experience of mortality and loss reflected back to them.

Amazon UK Link
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(P.S. TBR Thursday has moved to Friday this week so it can include the result of The Classics Club Spin #17!)

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

Six weeks as a military nurse…

😀 😀 🙂

hospital sketchesThis is a short account of Louisa May Alcott’s brief career as a nurse during the American Civil War. She only spent six weeks in the military hospital before falling ill with typhus and being persuaded by her father to come home, but during that time she saw first-hand some of the horrific injuries inflicted on the soldiers and the pretty basic and sub-standard care they got afterwards – in her hospital, at least, though she makes it clear there were other much more highly regarded hospitals at the time, too.

The first quarter of the book is taken up with her journey to the hospital in Washington. While mildly interesting in showing the difficulties of getting around during war-time, it does become somewhat tedious, mainly because of the tone she employs. Quite clearly, at that stage in her writing development Alcott had been reading a lot of Dickens, because not only does she refer to him on several occasions, but she adopts that kind of arch humour and tone of social superiority he employs from time to time, especially in his own factual writing. So, not content with giving herself the annoyingly twee pseudonym of Tribulation Periwinkle, she caricatures the people she meets and finds ways to mock them – their looks, their manners, the way they speak. I don’t like it much when Dickens does it, and I wasn’t any more keen on Alcott’s version, especially since sometimes she doesn’t quite manage to get the affectionate warmth into it that Dickens usually does.

Once she gets to the hospital, her tone changes for the most part, though she still tries to inject a little too much humour into it, I feel. But her observations on the way the hospital operated are quite insightful, and when she speaks of the suffering of the men, one feels her own voice comes through more clearly – that she becomes less conscious of herself as a writer and therefore more likeable as a human being. She doesn’t dwell on scenes of gore, but rather on the emotional impact of their injuries on the men and, indeed, on herself. Occasionally she drifts into that peculiarly Victorian style of religious mawkishness (Dickens’ influence again, I fear), and at one point regrets that she didn’t give the men little sermons on a Sunday to set their minds on a higher path – an omission for which I expect the poor souls would have been profoundly grateful had they known. (It reminded me of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”)

louisa may alcott
Louisa May Alcott

A second generation Abolitionist, Alcott really shows, quite inadvertently, how ingrained the belief in racial superiority was at the time. Despite the fact that she was making a real sacrifice to support the cause of emancipation, when she speaks of the “colored people” her language and tone had me positively cringing. It’s quite clear she sees them as inferior, almost sub-human, in every way, intellectually, culturally and even in physical appearance, and is rather nauseatingly self-congratulatory about her own condescension towards them. I did my very best to make allowances for the time and circumstances, but I found it hard going, and had the book not been so short, I doubt I’d have made it through.

The last section of the book tells of her own illness and how she went from nurse to being nursed. All in all, this is a very slight book, no more than novella length, and I would only recommend it as an interesting insight into Alcott herself, rather than as a particularly enjoyable or informative read in its own right.

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Book 5
Book 5

One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

Gentle, amusing and well-written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

one pair of handsThis is an interesting and entertaining memoir of the period when Monica Dickens (great-granddaughter of Charles of that ilk) decided to work for a time as a cook-housekeeper.

As a daughter of a well-off family in the ‘30s, she had no need to work for money but, bored with a life revolving around social events and parties, Monica had taken some cookery courses and then discovered that her family’s own cook did not take kindly to her interfering in the kitchen. So she signed up with an employment agency and found herself, despite her inexperience and self-confessed inefficiency, in a series of jobs ranging from cooking and cleaning in the flat of a bachelor to being the cook in a large country house.

Monica Dickens
Monica Dickens

The book provides a below-stairs look at the life of the servant at that time. Working sometimes from 7 a.m. till 11 at night, with employers ranging from the kind and helpful to the downright rude and obnoxious, it certainly wasn’t a life of ease. However, Monica found compensations in the joy of having her own kitchen and in the fun of getting to know the other servants as well as the constant stream of tradesmen who in those days delivered supplies on an almost daily basis to the houses of the wealthy. Having a healthy curiosity, she also took interest in the on-goings of the ‘above-stairs’ families and provides us with humorous and, in the main, affectionate portraits of all these varied characters.

I first read this gentle, amusing and well-written book many years ago and am glad to see it re-published. Although it was written over 70 years ago, it’s still an enjoyable read – Miss Dickens’ wickedly observant eye and lack of deference has allowed it to age gracefully. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link
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