Book review

The Two Towers, the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring, is in effect two shorter novels – The Treason of Isengard, which follows Aragorn and the remainder of the fellowship in the battle against the forces of Saruman, and The Journey of the Ringbearers/The Ring goes East following Sam and Frodo as they travel further into the badlands beyond Gondor. In the Peter Jackson film these two storylines are intertwined, with regular cutting between the two – Tolkien took the bold choice of keeping the two entirely separate. I doubt if an author writing today would make this choice: it requires patience on the part of the reader who has to wait several hundred pages before finding out what is happening to the Ringbearer.

The Two Towers - Wikipedia

In the past I have been a little confused about which were the two towers in question, but that seemed a bit slow of me. On a re-read it is completely clear: the towers are Orthanc, Saruman’s base, and Barad-dûr, Sauron’s tower in Mordor. Or so I thought. But the internet tells me I am wrong. Apparently Tolkien invented the novel’s title whilst under deadline pressure and wasn’t happy with it, recognising its ambiguity – there are a lot of towers in Middle Earth! Eventually he settled on them being Orthanc (Saruman’s tower) and Minas Morgul (in Mordor, but not Sauron’s principal base). This is genuinely puzzling – there are two main bad guys in LoTR, Saruman and Sauron. They even have contrasting colour emblems – the white hand of Isengard and the black everything of Barad-dur. One is defeated in The Two Towers, the second in The Return of the King. Rather than just being Saruman’s servant, as I had originally supposed, Saruman plans to take the One Ring for himself, and challenge him for control of Middle Earth. So the two towers are the twin centres of evil in Middle Earth, and both have to be defeated. There’s a structural symmetry in having the two towers represented by Saruman and Sauron’s bases which is lost with any other allocation. Of course the defeat of Saruman ends up as a surprisingly straightforward affair, a warm-up act for the much trickier task of bringing down Sauron in The Return of the King. This tower-related ambiguity doesn’t matter a great deal one way or another, but the anomaly is surprising – Tolkien devised his world with such extraordinary detail that for this fairly significant issue to be left unresolved grates a little.

The Treason of Isengard

The first book in The Two Towers follows Merry and Pippin, who you will recall had been captured by orcs and are being taken to Saruman’s fortress in Isengard. Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn are running after them. The orcs’ journey is intercepted by some of the Riders of Rohan, and in the battle that ensues Merry and Pippin escape into nearby Fangorn forest. Here they meet Treebeard, leader of the Ents. Ents are a cross between trees and trolls, and when roused to anger they can be particularly dangerous, as Saruman is about to find out. He has been chopping down lots of trees down to fuel his furnaces, and the Ents, prompted by Merry and Pippin, decide to do something about it.

Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are told by the Riders that the orcs they were following have been wiped out in battle. Unable to quite believe this includes the hobbits, Aragorn tracks them into Fangorn. The stage is set for the big reveal: in the forest they meet a white wizard who they initially believe to be Saruman, but who is in fact (spoiler alert) Gandalf. He tells them of his struggle with the Balrog, which seems to have given him even more magical powers – he is now Gandalf the White (it is suggested that this gives him a position of supremacy over the other wizards in Middle Earth, not least Saruman). Tolkien leaves the resurrection of Gandalf a daringly long time, making the impact of his return all the more powerful.

Leaving the search for the hobbits – they are reassured they are in safe Entish hands – they ride to Edoras, capital of Rohan. Theoden, king of Rohan, has been magically enslaved by Grima Wormtongue, who we later found out has been working undercover for Saruman. Theoden is restored by Gandalf and calls his army to war. Rohan’s armies and people fall back to Helm’s Deep while Gandalf goes to seek reinforcements. (Peter Jackson takes some liberties with this part of the storyline, but retains the essential spirit of the narrative.) The scene is set for a siege of Saruman’s army of orcs; the city nearly falls until Gandalf returns with said reinforcements. The victorious army of Rohan and our surviving Fellowship members now travel to Isengard, where they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Saruman’s fortress has been destroyed by the Ents, but Saruman himself is refusing to leave his Orthanc. Gandalf counsels that he be left to rot there. But the victory is tainted by an unfortunate incident with a palantíri, another Middle Earth maguffin. Palantirs are magical crystal balls that allow people to communicate over long distances (mobile phones in other words). Pippin takes a peep into the palantir and is locked onto by Sauron, who can read his mind. Gandalf takes Pippin urgently to Minas Tirith capital city of Gondor, to prepare for war, leaving the Riders of Rohan to follow on as soon as possible.

The Ring Goes East

Book 4 is the sequence is also subtitled The Ringbearers go East. Note the interesting use of the plural – at this stage only Frodo and Gollum are ringbearers, although in The Return of the King Sam also wears the ring briefly. The narrative picks up immediately from the end of the Fellowship. Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way out of the hills they are stuck in, but are hopelessly and dangerously lost until they discover Gollum has been stalking them. They capture him and persuade him to lead them to Mordor. In Ithilien, the land that borders Mordor to the East of the Great River, they are captured by Faramir, brother of Boromir. Faramir is leading a raiding party trying to find out more about Sauron’s invasion plans. Although Faramir finds out about their quest, he forgoes the temptation to take the ring back to Gondor – he is stronger than his brother in that respect. Gollum leads them safely into the mountains that surround and protect Mordor, but his cunning plan is finally revealed – he has been leading them all this time into the lair of Aragog sorry Shelob, a huge, ancient spider. She stings or bites Frodo apparently killing him. Sam fights her off. Faced with the awful choice of staying with Frodo’s unresponsive body or pushing on with the quest, he decides to take the Ring himself and try to reach Mount Doom. It is not long before he finds out that Frodo was only paralysed by Shelob – she likes her meat kept fresh – and the novel closes with Frodo taken prisoner by the orcs guarding the pass into Mordor, and Sam’s position seemingly hopeless. He does have the ring safe in his possession though.

I know I keep coming back to the Peter Jackson films, but what struck me on this reread was that the moments the films really have an emotional impact is when the language is drawn from Tolkien’s original lines in the novel. For example, Aragorn’s song about the Riders of the Mark:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning

are given to Theoden in the film before the battle at Helms Deep. Or when Sam and Frodo reminisce about the Shire, and wonder if one day their tale will be remembered:

“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course, but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they will say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”
‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”‘
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am
.

Which is played out almost verbatim in the scene early in the film between Sean Astin and Elijah Wood. The touching relationship between Sam and Frodo is at the heart of the second book of The Two Towers (and even more so in The Return of the King). Tolkien handles this comradeship sensitively and honestly, not afraid to show the love and affection between the two hobbits.

As the novel that bridges the opening and closing of the story of the One Ring, The Two Towers inevitably runs the risk of lagging. If as a reader you are engaged in Tolkien’s world-building and mythologising, the novel can’t be long enough. If you are not it will probably drag. Certainly there are new elements – this is not just travelling, being rescued, more travelling – although I can’t deny there’s plenty of both, as you would expect in any quest epic. We know following Boromir’s death at the end of The Fellowship that Tolkien’s character’s plot armour is not impenetrable, so Gandalf’s return will be a genuine surprise for many less cynical readers, and we will fear for Frodo after his encounter with Shelob – perhaps Sam is the hero of the story after all? There is less incessant poetry in this novel than the first (perhaps Tolkien’s editor had a quiet word with him?) which is certainly an improvement. It is important to remember that Lord of the Rings is just one very long novel that for the sake of convenience was originally published in three parts, so judging the Two Towers on its merits alone is pretty unfair. I think Tolkien does a good job of keeping the plot moving even after having torn up the original fellowship goes to Mordor script. This allows him to explore Middle Earth in more depth, and to develop storylines for all the hobbits, Merry and Pippin in particular, rather than just having them for light relief.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by J R R Tolkien, 1955

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Book review

A while back I wrote a blog post about the different ways one can read a book, trying to answer the question – what does it actually mean to say that you have read a novel? I found ten different flavours of reading, but I missed number 11- possibly the best way of reading a novel is to do so collectively. I don’t mean with other people in a book club (I suppose that would be number 12), where you get together at the end, admit you didn’t finish it, and then drink some wine. Nor do I mean a group reading in a big circle, taking turns (13). No, I am thinking of reading a novel at the same time as your friends, meeting them the next day, and comparing notes. That’s the way I first read The Lord of the Rings many years ago and I recall it as a special experience. My friends had spotted things I had missed, they had read chapters I was yet to reach, they interpreted events differently from one another, and of course we all made wild guesses about what was going to happen. We enthused about Tolkien’s world-building, his characterisation, his descriptive powers, moaned about his poetry, and disagree fiercely about things such as how irritating Tom Bombadil was. There was a freshness and authenticity to our reactions that was precious to me (see what I did there?)

Chances are you are more familiar with the Peter Jackson films than the original Tolkien novels. The films are wonderful, respectful of their source material but at the same time making sensible changes so allow the films to run at a reasonable length. Certainly the film of Fellowship of the Ring is largely consistent with the novel, with the one significant change being the omission of any reference to the slightly creepy Tom Bombadil.

Lord of the Rings epic scale and themes ensure that it is often read as an allegory, but in the novel’s prologue Tolkien goes out of his way to dismiss the idea that it is anything other than a story. He specifically scotches the idea that the novel is about the Second World War, not least because it was conceived and largely written long before the war started.

A few things that struck me on this re-reading. First, it is quite striking just how often Gandalf goes missing. He flits in and out of the narrative time after time, usually for very long periods. He does exactly the same thing in The Hobbit of course, walking out on Bilbo and the dwarves just at the moment his presence is most needed, but here he is missing from the Shire while researching the origins of the ring for several years after Bilbo’s parting, missing again while the hobbits travel to Bree and beyond, only meeting up with them at Rivendell, then finally of course after that unfortunate incident with the Balrog in Moria.

The other thing that struck me, and this is probably because I have just finished re-reading the Harry Potter series, is how influential the Lord of the Rings seems to have been on J K Rowling. The Harry Potter novels borrow fairly relentlessly from a wide range of sources, and a series set in a school for wizards at first seems very dissimilar to an epic quest novel, but dig a bit deeper and the parallels begin to pile up. Dumbledore and Gandalf are almost interchangeable, the one ring seems a lot like Sauron’s one and only horcrux, Nazgul and Dementors look a lot alike, as do Dobby and Gollum.

In the unlikely event you are unfamiliar with the novel, Lord of the Rings is a three part quest novel set in a mythical Middle Earth peopled by Elves, dwarves, wizards, and halfling creatures of Tolkien’s own imagining, hobbits. It follows chronologically around sixty years after the events of The Hobbit. Bilbo has been enjoying the benefits of his comfortable wealth. He has never married, but he has adopted his nephew, Frodo, who now lives with him. On his 111th birthday he throws a party for the whole neighbourhood and announces he is leaving the Shire to go wandering. He leaves the invisibility ring to Frodo, completely unaware of the ring’s significance. Tolkien’s master-stroke is to take something that doesn’t play a major part in The Hobbit – it is a McGuffin to help Bilbo escape from Gollum and the goblin caves, but doesn’t play any significant role in the rest of teh story – and turn it into a powerful dark-magic object which can decide the fate of Middle Earth.

Gandalf eventually works out the ring’s significance, and tells Frodo he must take it away from the Shire. Gollum has revealed that the ring is in The Shire, being held by a hobbit named Baggins, and the Dark Lord Voldemort sorry Sauron has sent his Dementors sorry Nazgul to find it. Gandalf goes to consult the leader of his order, Saruman, leaving Frodo to set out in the company of his sidekick, friend and gardener Sam Gamgee, and his cousin Pippin Took. It is not long before they are intercepted by the Black Riders, but some passing Elves scare them off. Their journey is to be blessed with a series of such fortunate encounters. Meeting up with Merry Brandybuck they leave the Shire, taking a shortcut through the Old Forest, where they are again rescued, this time from the clutches of an aggressive Willow, by Tom Bombadil. In the net stage of their journey that get lost in a fog and caught by barrow-wights, but Tom is on hand to rescue them again.

In Bree they meet Strider who rescues them from the BlackRiders and takes them to Weathertop where they are again attacked by the persistent Black Riders. Although Frodo is wounded with a cursed blade, Strider fights off the Nazgûl, and after a series of close shaves which on the page aren’t repetitive but in summary certainly seem as such, they finally reach Rivendell, an elf-sanctuary and home of Elrond. Gandalf, having escaped the clutches of Saruman, is there to greet them. While Frodo recovers a Council is summoned to decide the fate of the Ring. We learn the history of Sauron and the Ring’s importance is confirmed. The Fellowship of the Ring is formed, nine walkers to mirror the nine Black Riders: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Strider, now revealed as Aragorn, heir to the kingdom of Gondor, Gandalf, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor.

This is an unusual quest – to destroy a found object, not to locate a treasure. Their first challenge is to cross the Misty Mountains. When they prove impassable they decide to go under the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. But these proves equally dangerous and orc-infested, with the added complication of a Balrog, a fire demon, which Gandalf tackles single-handedly. When I first read The Fellowship I was far less cynical than I am now – the usual rule of fiction, that unless you see someone die they aren’t dead, was not so well known in those days. Now I suspect few readers will think Gandalf is gone for good.

Next on the quest is a few days of refuge in the Elven forest of Lothlórien, where they meet the Lady Galadriel. Female characters in the trilogy are few and far between, but those who do appear are significant and powerful. Galadriel permits Frodo and Sam to look into her pensieve sorry fountain to see visions of the past, the present, and a possible future. They leave Lothlorien by river to the hills of Amon Hen. Here the Fellowship is sundered, setting in train the parallel storylines that are followed in the sequel, The Two Towers. It was a bold narrative choice Tolkien made here, having invested so much in creating the fellowship to then break it up before the quest is complete.

Tolkien’s absorption in his world is absolute, and this translates into a compellingly realistic fantasy (oxymoronic, I know) novel on the grandest of scales. His world-building is extraordinary. Some readers may not have the patience to invest so much time in the journey and I confess I often skipped the poems and songs that are such a persistent feature of the novel – does anyone enjoy these I wonder? Lord of the Rings came top of the poll conducted by the BBC in 2003 to find the UK’s most popular novel, helped I am sure by the popularity of Jackson’s trilogy of films. It requires a degree of commitment and the ability to suspend disbelief, but if you can get beyond those barriers Lord of the Rings deserves its place in that poll, and will leave you with memories of adventures in which the weak overcome evil, which after all is really all we ever want, isn’t it?

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J R R Tolkein, 1954

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Book review

Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, 2020

For Labour Party supporters in the UK, the wounds of the 2019 General Election (and the equally disastrous local and European elections earlier that year) are still pretty raw. 2017 raised hopes that a significant left-ward shift in UK politics was possible. The journey from highs of 40% in the polls and the strains of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury in 2017 to the losses of the Red Wall – possibly for a generation – and brutal defeat in 2019 was a collapse in slow time that looking back on is hard to bear. Revisiting the painful recent history of the end of the Corbyn era might even seem masochistic. But there are some important lessons for the Party which it needs to take on board more than ever as we start to navigate the post-Covid landscape, with a General Election widely forecast to be less than two years away, and with the Party still consistently lagging behind the Tories in the opinion polls.

Left Out was written by Pogrund and Maguire, two political journalists, in the aftermath of the 2019 election, and is based on hundreds of interviews with many of the key participants of the troubled period of the Party’s recent history. It specifically focusses on the 30-month period between the 2017 and 2019 elections. Although initially published in 2020, this edition was updated in summer 2021 with an epilogue covering the months after Jeremy Corbyn’s departure from the leadership of the Labour Party, touching briefly on the start of the pandemic, publication of the EHRC’s report into anti-Semitism within the party and Corbyn’s subsequent suspension and loss of the whip.

With all histories, it’s hard to find a precise starting point. The roots of Labour’s electoral disaster in 2019 go back a very long way. But the decline from 2017 to 2019 was dramatic. Labour performed better at the 2017 general election than just about anyone expected, coming very close to deposing Theresa May and forming a Government, albeit one that would have not had a working majority, even with the support of the smaller parties. It had campaigned on a platform which included acceptance of the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Logic therefore suggests it was the party’s change of policy on Brexit, to support a second referendum, that was responsible for its historic defeat. Furthermore, as Keir Starmer was Shadow Brexit Secretary and therefore responsible for the change of policy, it seems fair to conclude that he was wholly responsible for the party’s losses.

Left Out makes it clear this analysis is overly simplistic. Firstly, most Labour gains in 2017 were in remain-leaning university towns and in London. It made almost no progress in what were to later be called the Red Wall seats. The 2019 local and European elections emphasised that for Labour to embrace Brexit in the way it had in 2017 would be electorally calamitous – polling later in August 2019 showed Labour losing dangerously high levels of votes to the Liberal Democrats due to its apparent equivocation on Brexit/second referendum. (A short personal anecdote might fit here. While canvassing during the European elections I asked a colleague who worked in the Leader of the Opposition’s office what we should say on the doorstep if asked about Brexit, which of course was bound to come up. His reply was “As little as possible”). The pollster’s forecast was that Labour would drop to 138 seats. As it turned out the 200 seats it did win was therefore strangely a relief – it could have been a lot worse. In many cases the intervention of the Brexit Party (mentioned only in passing in this text) served to peel just enough votes away from the Conservatives to allow the Labour candidate to escape with their seat (Ian Lavery’s seat in Wansbeck, Northumberland being a good example of this).

It’s always tempting to try to find a single, simple solution to a losing party’s problems, but I am as sure as I can be that once the UK voted to leave the EU there weren’t any pain-free options for Labour: support Brexit and lose votes to the Greens and Liberal Democrats; oppose Brexit and lose votes to the Brexit Party and the Conservatives; try to sit on the fence (which was Corbyn’s tactic for a long time) and lose votes to both. So re-fighting the 2019 election with different Labour positions on Brexit is always going to be a losing game. That’s not to say defeat of the scale we saw was inevitable – there were clearly many catastrophic mistakes made along the way.

The picture that emerges from the minutiae of the factional and personal battles within LOTO (Leader of the Opposition) and Party HQ in Southside is one of little more than chaos, to which Corbyn struggled to bring some kind of order. He had a number of trusted deputies who kept things afloat for him for as long as possible, but even that couldn’t last. Personal criticisms of Corbyn himself here are fairly muted – this definitely isn’t a hatchet job – but at the same time it is impossible to read this account without getting the impression that he was out of his depth. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s relationship with Corbyn was central to the initial success of ‘The Project’, the euphemistic name given to the ambitions of Corbyn and his core group of supporters. Once that relationship began to fray it was probably the beginning of the end for The Project. McDonnell seems to have been gradually distanced from Corbyn, firstly over the ever-problematic issue of Brexit (McDonnell was an early enthusiast for a second referendum and for Labour supporting Remain, despite the many claims that this policy shift was solely down to Starmer’s influence) and then subsequently over the role of individuals in LOTO’s office.

Left Out’s detailed accounts of the left’s favourite pastime, Judean People’s Front-style factional warfare, introduces us to many characters who now sit on the sidelines of political life, throwing stones via twitter at Starmer’s remodelling of the party. Director of strategy and communications Seumas Milne, Chief of Staff Karie Murphy, and an array of other characters who fought one another as hard as the Tories while the UK imploded crowd the pages. At the centre of it all sits Corbyn himself, worshipped by his followers (some of whom seemed to have joined the Jeremy Corbyn Party rather than the Labour Party), loathed by others who happily took the short walk to political oblivion via Change UK/The Independent Group rather than stay one minute longer in the same party as him. If you are in either camp then this book isn’t going to change your mind. Being pro-or anti-Corbyn seems a redundant exercise given the finality of the outcome of the election.

Inevitably given the context, the history of the Labour party 2017-2019 is one of mis-steps and missed opportunities. Certainly the response to the Shripal poisoning was a horribly mis-handled. When the news of the poisoning broke Corbyn suggested that the toxic substance that the police had gathered from the scene be sent to Moscow for testing. John McDonnell’s response is recorded here as “That’s fucking going to cost us the election! That’s fucking stupid. Who the fuck does stuff like that?” Another even darker theme was the issue of antisemitism. The many allegations against both him personally and against his supporters seems to have caused Corbyn much personal grief, but the presence in the party’s membership of people who were insensitive at best and plainly anti-Semitic at worst, combined with the leadership’s apparent tolerance anti-Semites, was condemned by first Jewish community representatives and subsequently the EHRC investigation. To his most fervent supporters Corbyn’s response to the EHRC, suggesting that the extent of anti-Semitism in the Party had been exaggerated and weaponised by his opponents, was principled and correct; to most others outside this group it looked insensitive and stubborn.

In the unlikely event you are undecided about Corbyn’s fitness for high office then this book, despite the attempts to be even-handed, will not have convinced you that he was the right man for the job, whether it be leadership of the warring factions of the Labour Party, or Prime Minister itself. This is not a book that attempts to understand the phenomenon that was Corbynism but to chart its defeat. Whether you can do one without the other is a fair question. But it is important to acknowledge that the polite revolution Corbynism threatened was not just what happened in Westminster. Corbynism was always more than that. The thousands of people that rushed into the Labour party before and after his election as leader were predominantly driven by a desire to make politics less cynical and unkind than previously. They joined for the best reasons; one of the tragedies of 2019 is how many have now left the party.

Perhaps the authors spoke too soon when they wrote in their epilogue: “Keir Starmer won power [if leadership of the Labour Party can accurately be said to wield any power] by embracing Corbynism rather than repudiating it. The Project’s legacy is a Parliamentary left that can no longer be ignored. “ (360). There are those that interpret Starmer’s every move since taking over as Labour leader as part of a careful plan to move the party away from Corbynism – certainly events at Labour Party conference 2021 and immediately after would suggest that he is now ready to make that break more definitely than previously.

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Book review

Please Mr Postman, by Alan Johnson, 2014

Please, Mister Postman is the sequel to Johnson’s This Boy, the highly praised account of his childhood in the slums of 1950s West London. This Boy (2013) won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2014) and the Orwell Prize. Please Mr Postman was possibly an attempt to cash in on the unexpected success of the first volume of his memoirs – certainly it appeared very quickly thereafter. It covers what he obviously saw as the second phase of his life, from the early start of his first marriage, aged 18, to its end (the marriage that is, not his life) in his mid-30s.

Reading Please, Mr Postman (the title is obviously a reference to Johnson’s occupation, but also a clever nod to the music of the time, which provides a backdrop to all his work and leisure) you get very few hints that Johnson was going to go on and become a Labour MP and eventually Home Secretary. His involvement with the local Labour Party is limited – his focus is more on a slow but steadily increasing commitment to the Postman’s Union, which was to become the UCW (Union of Communication Workers). This was good old-fashioned 1970’s closed shop trade unionism, where if someone broke a strike they were ostracised by their workmates indefinitely. I now know far more about the detail of postal work and the agreements of the time between management and unions governing all aspects of working life than I ever thought I would need. Johnson is rightly proud of his working class roots, but there is little to suggest that he has the political appetite or ability for Westminster. The political events of the day are mentioned, but mainly in passing as a backdrop to the more pressing detail of the latest change to postal delivery processes or the management of his sorting office.

While he devotes many pages to the detail of these issues and to anecdotes about his family, neighbours, friends and colleagues, all the time I got the impression that the real Alan Johnson was hiding in plain sight. We really get to know little about Johnson the man. At the end of the book he describes a distressing conversation with his wife when they agree to separate and divorce. This comes out of the blue – prior tot his there is no suggestion their marriage was in trouble, or the large amounts of time he was spending away on union business was causing them problems. The incident is used to close the book and bring down the curtain on this phase of his life, but is dealt with hurriedly in a few paragraphs – his discomfort at even sharing this level of detail is obvious.

For a brief period Johnson was a significant figure in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband appointed him as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post he stood down from when his unsuitability and lack of appetite for the role became unavoidable. He came within a whisker of being elected Deputy Leader of the party, and was spoken of more than once as a candidate for the top job itself, although he quickly graduated to the role of senior statesman . All this is almost possible to imagine when reading about his inability at DIY, local elections in the postal workers union, or his nervousness when speaking at CWU conference. As with most memoirs he paints himself as usually being on the right side of most moments of history but at the same time is very understated and self-deprecatory.

Johnson’s authenticity, his working class roots and trade union activism were always his defining qualities. He makes the most of them here, although this is not a miserabilist memoir. Warned on arriving in Slough that the Britwell estate he was moving into was dangerous, Johnson and family instead experienced it as a welcoming community. His family grows as the seventies progress, and while they are never prosperous things slowly get a little easier, and one or two upgrades occur along the way – he moves from a borrowed bike, to a moped, a Post Office van, and finally a family car. His gratitude for the experience of social housing was obviously formative but it doesn’t prevent him from supporting the Thatcherite policy of selling council houses. Nevertheless his background is a world away from the affluent middle-class life of many New Labour MPs, and it gave him an authenticity when talking about welfare or housing that for others was purely theoretical. Little wonder he stood out – in 2010 a parliamentary report found that the number of former manual workers serving as MPs had fallen from 16% in 1979 to just 4% in 2010. Half of Labour’s candidates in marginal seats in the 2015 election were political insiders such as former special advisers or thinktank workers. The Conservatives had only two former manual workers as MPs post-2010; the Liberal Democrats had one. Johnson’s years as a postie were to prove invaluable in defining him as a Labour politician with first-hand experience of the issues he campaigned on.

Johnson is largely out of politics now, and seems happier for it. He stood down from Parliament in 2017, apparently disenchanted with the direction the Labour Party was taking under Jeremy Corbyn. His most recent career move saw him appear on The Masked Singer – I’d guess it will be Strictly next!

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Book review

The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman, 2021

Turn off Antiques Roadshow, put the kettle on and open a pack of hobnobs; the Thursday Murder Club is back!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Richard Osman’s cosy mystery novel is currently smashing book sales records across the country. He seems to have found a winning formula and can’t be blamed for milking it for all it is worth. The question is: has he sustained the quality and originality of the first novel, or is this sequel already showing signs of repetition?

Not much time has passed since the events of first novel in the series. The four core members of the club – you will remember Elizabeth, the former spy, Joyce, a retired nurse, Ron, trade union leader and West Ham fan, and Ibrahim, a psychiatrist – are keen to get started on their next mystery to while away the hours that drag in their retirement community. The ‘not dead yet’ trope familiar from movies such as RED (retired and extremely dangerous) where elderly people draw on their years of experience to prove more than a match for their much younger enemies is quite well-worn by now, but Osman brings it to life by creating some very likeable and believable characters. Joyce in particular stands out – she is quite oblivious to some things going on around her (there is a long running joke about the personal messages she receives to her ambiguously named Instagram account) but her emotional intelligence gives her insights the others miss. It helps of course that she is one of the novel’s principal narrators. She enjoys the adventures even when at personal risk, managing a quick snooze in the back of a car while being held at gunpoint. For some reason I can’t shake the thought that Joyce is based upon Betty White’s character in – well, pretty much everything she is in.

There’s a comforting lack of peril in The Man Who Died Twice, despite the occurrence of several murders and appearances by gangland bosses and the Mafia. I thought it unlikely that Osman would allow plot armour – the phenomenon where the reader/viewer knows a character isn’t going to die however extreme the risk, because of their importance to the novel/film/franchise – to protect all of his characters, particularly given their advanced age, but they all make it through largely unscathed.

Because the novel is set close in time to the events of the first, there has been little progression in the lives of the foursome or their extended crime-fighting team. PC Donna is still feeling homesick for London and looking for love; her boss, Chris, is in the early days of a relationship with her mother, Patrice. Osman mines the agonies Chris goes through to wean himself off takeaways and onto carrot sticks for all the humour it is worth. Polish handyman Bogdan becomes a get out of jail free card for the team, always on hand to get them out of trouble. Women go weak at the knees around Bogdan which becomes very helpful when dealing with Connie Johnson, the local drug dealer. There’s a well-written and particularly comic scene when Bogdan calls on Connie to buy some drugs. The conversation is brief and perfunctory from Bogdan’s point of view, but when the narration switches to Connie’s perspective it is full of meaningful silences and erotic suspense.

Strangely for a murder-mystery, even a light-hearted one such as this, the plot is really not that important. An underworld boss has had some diamonds stolen by a Douglas Middlemiss, Elizabeth’s ex-husband. Douglas works for MI6, but is close to retirement. In one of an increasing series of improbabilities MI6 agree to hide Douglas and his guard Poppy, an inexperienced agent on her first field assignment, in Cooper’s Chase, the old people’s community where the Club members live. As I am sure is common spycraft practice. When this location is compromised they are moved to another ‘safe’ house which proves equally easy to discover. Instead of just giving the diamonds back or running off with them, Douglas leaves an elaborate trail of clues for Elizabeth to track them down and find the probable killer. In the process she also draws together the novel’s other threads, although the denouement requires everyone to behave incredibly improbably – going to a meeting without bodyguards for instance, or arriving in the country with a handgun without the need for any passport or customs checks – and the willing suspension of disbelief can be quite hard to maintain at times.

I am usually rubbish at solving the clues in mystery novels, but even I found the puzzles here very easy. Osman flags the clues without a lot of subtlety. A last message from Middlemiss to Elizabeth is left in a dead letter drop which he had earlier remarked on as an ideal place for a dead letter drop, and contains a simple acrostic puzzle using the first letters of each sentence. This wouldn’t have been that hard to solve anyway (and it is a red herring) but earlier in the paragraph Elizabeth explains how acrostics work and how she and Douglas used to use them to share jokey messages between themselves. The rest of the letter is phrased strangely with unusual repetition, and I am sure I can’t have been the only reader to scan it for clues – but it turns out the one simple clue it does contain is so obscure that only Elizabeth could ‘solve’ it using her shared past with Douglas. It’s all over-elaborate, improbable, and unconvincing, but I don’t think it matters a great deal – we know this isn’t John le Carre after all, more akin to one of the Famous Five or Secret Seven novels sixty years on.

Osman has put lockdown to good purpose, crafting a mystery novel that keeps the reader guessing to the last page, not least as to the identity of the man who died twice as described in the novel’s title. The jokes work well and are probably the best part of the novel. Checking back on the predictions I made for Thursday Murder Club 2 I probably got more wrong than right, and those that I did get right were fairly obvious – the format would remain unchanged for example – so credit to the author for avoiding some of the other more obvious choices. My mistake lay I think in my estimation of the length of the series – Osman is clearly here for the long haul, and we are going to be enjoying Thursday Murder Club novels for much longer than I imagined, if the progression here is anything to go by. And no complaints from me about that.

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Book review

The Horse and His Boy, by C S Lewis, 1954

In my reviews of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series I wrote at length about her decision to ‘age’ the novels with each instalment. As her readership passed through their teenage years the novels grew darker and featured more adult themes. In the seven-book Narnia series (which Rowling acknowledges was a significant influence on her work) CS Lewis adopted a different approach. Each novel in the series features teenage/pre-teen children of roughly the same age, and broadly have the same target audience. The element of peril remains comfortably and consistently low throughout. Although the children fight in battles there is never any possibility they will be harmed. None of the ‘good’ characters die in Narnia (okay, admittedly, I am ignoring The Last Battle here) and all the conflicts are relatively bloodless affairs. Finally, Aslan is always on hand to fix any problems with any witches, Telmarines or Calormen if required.

Which meant Lewis had to find a way to avoid the later books in the series becoming repetitive. The standard Narnia template – children find a magical way into Narnia, go on a quest, Aslan arrives to sort everything out – was getting a bit tired by The Silver Chair. The names of the children may change – the original characters, the Pevensie children, grow up, and are unable to return to Narnia too many times (to me this always felt like Lewis acknowledging that his readership may also grow up and feel reluctant to return to the Narnia stories – he is giving them permission to move on) but the essential components of the novels remained the same.

Or they did until The Horse and his Boy. Here Lewis changes structure and gives us a story set in Narnia (or more correctly in Calormen, a country to the south of Narnia) during the reign of the Pevensie children, shortly after the events described in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Horse and His Boy opens with Shasta, a teenage boy living an impoverished, unhappy life with a Calormene fisherman, Arsheesh, who he believes to be his father. Shasta is effectively Arsheesh’s slave, although he only finds this out when he overhears himself being sold to a Calormene nobleman. He had been found as a baby washed up on the seashore in a boat, Moses-like. As readers we know that all babies found in this manner are likely to have interesting origins. Although we are not told this immediately, there is another important fact about Shasta we find out later on – he is very light-skinned, unlike the dark Calormenes. That fact, his foundling status, and his vague longing for the unknown north, are pretty heavy hints about his origins.

Shasta decides to run away, taking with him the nobleman’s horse, Bree. He discovers that Bree is a Narnian talking horse, captured as a foal and compelled to act as a normal horse to survive. In other words he is a slave, just like Shasta. They head north towards Narnia, travelling by night. On the way they meet another pair of runaways, Aravis, a young Calormene aristocrat, and Hwin, another talking horse. Aravis is running away to avoid another type of slavery, an arranged marriage with a much older, very ugly Vizier.

Runaway slaves, travelling north by night, to reach a country where slavery is banned and where they will be free, helped along the way by secret allies risking their own lives. Is it just me, or is this a parable about the Underground Railroad? It is also possible that Lewis’s inversion of the title – normally the horse would be seen as belonging to the boy, not vice-versa – is a comment on the slavery theme of the novel, or perhaps just a simple way of signalling to the reader that this is not a conventional novel about children and horses.

The runaways travel to Tashbaan, the capital city of Calormen. There, they meet some familiar characters – King Edmund and Queens Lucy and Susan. (High King Peter is off fighting giants, as always). The Narnian’s mistake Shasta for Corin, the boisterous prince of Archenland who is part of their ambassadorial party, and who went missing earlier that day. Yes, this is a story of mistaken identity and separated at birth twins. Shasta overhears the plan to escape from Calormen – their visit has become extremely uncomfortable and they fear that they might be prevented from leaving. Queen Susan has been considering marriage to the Tisroc (King or Emperor)’s son, and while she has decided against the idea, he is still keen, and they are worried they might not be allowed to leave without the marriage taking place. Another forced marriage in other words.

Aravis has her own adventure. She bumps into a friend Lasaraleen, and asks for help. Lasaraleen is empty-headed and think the whole thing is some kind of school-girl prank. She helps Aravis escape, but before they get away they overhear (why do all key plot points involve someone overhearing someone else? Lewis uses this trope twice in the same novel, and Rowling seems to use it every other chapter!) the Calormenes plotting to invade Narnia. The runaways race across the desert to take news of the planned invasion to Archenland (Narnia’s neighbour and ally). Spoiler alert – they make it, with some help from you know who, and the safety of Narnia is preserved. Rabadash, the Tisroc’s son and the novel’s antagonist, is transformed into a donkey by Aslan as punishment, and while he eventually retains his human form he goes down in history as Rabadash the Ridiculous. Shasta is reunited with his long lost father and twin, and all live happily ever after.

The religious component of The Horse and His Boy is lightly done, thankfully. Aslan intervenes strategically to help the runaways, but he is not needed at the battle between the Narnians and the Calormenes, returning at the end simply to humiliate Rabadash (although that punishment has the effect of bringing peace between the countries throughout his reign.) The story has some darker elements that are missing from the earlier novels – the prospect of Aravis’s arranged marriage with a much older man is quite disturbing, as is the possibility that Susan will be kidnapped and forced into marriage herself. Aravis’s slave is brutally punished for ‘allowing’ her to escape, a punishment cruelly Aslan inflicts on Aravis to help her understand her escape was not free from consequences.

I am reluctant to return to the discussion about the reading order of the books because I have a sneaking suspicion my passionate preference for the publication order as opposed to the chronological order derives from the fact that I first read/was read them in publication order. But The Horse and His Boy provides strong evidence for my preference nonetheless. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Mr Tumnus, who makes a brief return appearance in The Horse and His Boy, is astonished to meet Lucy, a daughter of Eve. The suggestion is that humans have not been seen by Narnians for so long they have passed into legend or myth. This is what makes Lucy’s appearance so dramatic and significant. She is as much a source of wonder to the Narnians as they are to us, the reader. But in The Horse and His Boy we find out that Archenland, which borders on Narnia, has been ruled by humans for some considerable time. As it is possible to walk from Archenland to Narnia in an evening, it is pretty obvious that Lewis initially conceived of Narnia as a complete, self-contained world in the early novels, and only added further countries and races as his universe expanded. There’s nothing wrong with that process and if read in publication order it is not noticeable to readers, but it strikes one as glaringly odd if the stories are read in chronological order.

It is quite apparent therefore that Calormen is part of the extended world Lewis builds as the series progresses (much in the same way that Rowling introduces other wizarding schools and countries in Goblet of Fire and thereafter). Calormen had been briefly mentioned in earlier novels in the series, specifically in Dawn Treader, where Calormenes are described as having “dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people”. They are also slave traders, as Caspian and crew discover early on in the Dawn Treader’s voyage. They are an amalgam of Arabic and generic middle-Eastern characteristics. Lewis’s portrait of the Calormenes is not openly racist but it is problematic. In Lewis’s world all foreigners are funny and untrustworthy, and boys and girls have neatly defined boxes to occupy, even if sometimes they step out of them. How easy it is to see beyond that, as to read this novel as a passionate anti-slavery tract, is another matter.

Abandoning the quest format of the novels and removing the English schoolchildren from the plot was a bold move for Lewis, and he seems to have a change of heart half-way through, giving the race across the desert to warn the Narnia’s about the planned attack greater purpose than if it were just an escape from slavery. The novel gives us a brief glimpse of Narnia under the reign of the adult Pevensie children, although we learn little more than the descriptions given in a few paragraphs at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A Narnian story set largely outside Narnia, with few of the magical creatures we have become used to, was equally a brave choice, and it’s hardly surprising that A Horse and His Boy is often perceived as out of place in the Narnian canon. Taken on its own terms its a fun, slight story but I can never quite escape the suspicion that it was a short story expanded to novel length to keep the annual publication sequence running.

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Book review

Anti-semitism in Britain, by George Orwell, 1945

George Orwell was a boyhood hero of mine. Here was someone prepared to say unpopular things, to go against the flow of public opinion and to speak truth to power. The major novels, 1984 and Animal Farm led me to his earlier work including Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air, and then on to his journalism and essays, all written in that distinctive, clear, very personal voice that seemed to know the answers to all of the important questions. If Orwell thought something was wrong, it probably was, and adopting his position on an issue was a useful guide to being on the right side of the argument. So his thoughts on anti-Semitism in this article, written early in 1945, must surely be worth reading?

It’s not clear what research, if any, Orwell did before writing this essay, nor indeed what specifically prompted him to write it in the first place. He starts his article by reporting a series of anti-Semitic comments overheard on the tube and in shops. Perhaps one of these comments was the trigger? The issue of anti-Semitism itself was unavoidable given the ongoing Holocaust in Europe. The essay was written in February and published in April 1945, just as the war in Europe was ending. It conceivable that this was before the full horror of the Holocaust was widely understood, although Hitler’s determination to exterminate the Jewish people from Europe was hardly a secret (see here for example  https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/allied-declaration-on-persecution-of-the-jews.)

The overall tone of the essay is almost conversational, along the lines of Orwell saying ‘here are a few interesting thoughts I would like to share about a topic that has caught my attention’. Rather than simply condemning anti-Semitism, Orwell claims to attempt to understand it, and even goes so far as to acknowledge some anti-Semitic ideas and beliefs within himself. He tentatively identifies the origins of the prejudice in nationalism:

It seems to me a safe assumption that the disease loosely called nationalism is now almost universal. Antisemitism is only one manifestation of nationalism, and not everyone will have the disease in that particular form.

And concludes that to defeat anti-Semitism we will have to defeat nationalism. For an author famed for the clarity of his expression, the point where Orwell concludes his article on the issue is convoluted to say the least:

“…antisemitism will be definitively cured, without curing the larger disease of nationalism, I do not believe.”

What he doesn’t do is identify any specific features of anti-Jewish prejudice that makes it so insidious and harmful. Equally there is little research in the article, and personal anecdotes only go so far to explore the topic. Much as it pains me to accept it, throughout his previous writings Orwell occasionally expressed anti-Semitic ideas and used anti-Semitic tropes. I am not going to repeat them here – the internet will help you find them easily enough if you are interested. They make painful reading, much like his homophobic comments – casually dismissive and hurtful towards people who are different from him. But while many people go through their lives holding on to their prejudices, Orwell at least had the willingness to confront his own. He recognises his anti-Semitism, and tries to understand its origins and place it in context:

Thirty years ago it was accepted more or less as a law of nature that a Jew was a figure of fun and – though superior in intelligence – slightly deficient in ‘character’. In theory a Jew suffered from no legal disabilities, but in effect he was debarred from certain professions. He would probably not have been accepted as an officer in the navy, for instance, nor in what is called a ‘smart’ regiment in the army. A Jewish boy at a public school almost invariably had a bad time. He could, of course, live down his Jewishness if he was exceptionally charming or athletic, but it was an initial disability comparable to a stammer or a birthmark. Wealthy Jews tended to disguise themselves under aristocratic English or Scottish names, and to the average person it seemed quite natural that they should do this, just as it seems natural for a criminal to change his identity if possible. About twenty years ago, in Rangoon, I was getting into a taxi with a friend when a small ragged boy of fair complexion rushed up to us and began a complicated story about having arrived from Colombo on a ship and wanting money to get back. His manner and appearance were difficult to ‘place’, and I said to him:

‘You speak very good English. What nationality are you?’

He answered eagerly in his chi-chi accent: ‘I am a Joo, sir!’

And I remember turning to my companion and saying, only partly in joke, ‘He admits it openly.’

Later he poses the question this way:

(We should not ask) Why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ but ‘Why does antisemitism appeal to me? What is there about it that I feel to be true?’ If one asks this question one at least discovers one’s own rationalizations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath them. 

It’s an interesting starting point – asking people with anti-Semitic ideas and values to help with understanding the origins of those ideas and values. I’m not convinced Orwell was able to complete the exploration he proposes here – while he retained many Jewish friends for the remainder of his short life, he never acknowledged the pain and harm his thoughtless comments caused, and allowed his diaries to survive for publication with the comments intact (I recognise that may not have been a deliberate plan of course). I accept that he was hardly unique among British writers and intellectuals of the period in having these views, but that is only very partial mitigation. It’s hard to imagine someone writing this piece today when I think we have a better understanding of the causes of racial prejudice in all its forms. Orwell was a product of his time and class as we all are, and passing historical judgment on his views really only takes us so far. It’s also ridiculous to consider his views as monolithic and unchanging over time, when he went to such extraordinary lengths to challenge the ideas and prejudices that he was brought up with. Christopher Hitchens’ fantastic and highly readable essay on Orwell’s progression from bigoted public schoolboy to class-ally is in this context a must-read.

It is sad and hard to process each time one of our childhood heroes is shown to be less than heroic, but there’s no point in trying to ignore their failings either. That doesn’t make Orwell a bad writer, or his ideas less interesting, but the process of seeing him and others as flawed, fallible human beings can be painful.

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Book review

Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett, 1902

Time has not been particularly kind to Arnold Bennett. Once a pre-eminent Edwardian novelist, he is now little read. If pressed I might have been able to come up with the names of one or two of his many other novels, and to be fair they mostly remain in print, but if the Goodreads or Amazon reviews are anything to go by they are dropping rapidly into obscurity.

Bennett is arguably best known today for the occasion when he crossed swords with Virginia Woolf – she took issue with his review of Jacob’s Room – and came off by far the worst. In doing so the dividing line between traditional story-telling novelists in the Victorian tradition and the modernist novelist of the early decades of the twentieth century was drawn, with Bennett widely considered emblematic of the former. He tells stories about realistically drawn people in recognisable settings, that have a beginning, middle and end. Which is fine, but the twentieth-century was ready for so much more.

In brief, Anna of the Five Towns is D.H. Lawrence without the sex. Set in the Staffordshire potteries, the five towns of the title, in which a fortnight on the Isle of Man is considered an exotic adventure of a lifetime, the vice-like grip of Wesleyan morality enslaves lonely Anna to a life of subjugation to her bullying father. Marriage is offered as a way out of this servitude, but while the novel ends with Anna marrying her fiancé, this is hardly the happy-ever-after romantic finale of earlier Victorian novels.

Anna lives with her younger sister and her widowed father, Ephraim Tellwright, in Bursley in the industrial heart of the Staffordshire potteries. Mr Tellwright is a misanthrope and a miser. Despite being wealthy by any objective standard, he begrudges spending on any comforts – life is unnecessarily hard. Anna’s social life centres on the local Methodist church. On her 21st birthday she finds out that she is rich through a family inheritance. But there is a catch – her father controls all access to her account, and in practice she has no more money than before. Now people expect her to be well-dressed and able to afford things, but she has to continue to scrape by with the pennies that form her house-keeping ‘allowance’.

As part of her inheritance she acquires ownership of a rundown pottery operated by father and son Titus and Willie Price. The Prices’ business is approaching bankruptcy, unable to compete with the larger potteries in the area. They owe Anna arrears of rent. She would happily waive this debt, but her father insists she collects it in full (despite that it was under his stewardship the arrears built up in the first place). While they come up with some of the arrears, it is not enough, and we find out later that they have only been able to find this through desperate measures. By contrast the up-to-date and prosperous works of Henry Mynors, Anna’s suitor, is presented as an investment opportunity. While Anna respects Mynors, her affections are drawn towards Willie Price. She knows he is an unsuitable match, all the more so now his father is nearly bankrupt, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

On a short holiday in the Isle of Man with her friend Beatrice Sutton and her family, Anna becomes engaged to Mynors. She is not really in love with him but sees him as a route out of the servitude imposed by her father. On her return to Bursley, Anna arranges for Mynors to visit her father and ask for her hand in marriage. When he doesn’t come at the arranged time, she begins to worry, but soon finds out that he has been caught up in dealing with the suicide of Titus Price. Faced by financial ruin and possible imprisonment, he hangs himself. Anna can’t avoid the self-recrimination, the thought that her compliance in her father’s pursuit of the Prices debt will have been a cause of his death.

Social commentary in the novel is done with a light touch. This is not a state of England novel with an analysis of its ills. Industrialisation is neither good nor evil – it is the backdrop against which people live their lives.

“The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.”

The gigantic nocturnal creatures are not malevolent but neither are the benevolent. In Mynor’s well-run pottery employment is provided for both men and women and good craftsmen are well rewarded and have opportunities to express their creativity. It’s a far cry from the dark satanic mills of many Victorian novels.

Similarly Bennett has little to say on the emancipation of women. Tellwright is a bully and treats his daughters as domestic servants, and marriage as a route to freedom is a mixed blessing for Anna. But she has the prospect of economic independence (indeed, wealth), is eventually able to stand up to her father, and even goes on holiday against his wishes. She is also partially unshackled from the ever-present constraints of Wesleyanism, although finally unable to follow her heart in terms of her engagement to Mynors, which she feels compelled to accept.

There is no happy ever after ending on the cards for Anna. Willie declares himself bankrupt and is allowed just enough money to emigrate to Australia. Anna gives him a parting gift of £100, but will not go with him, and commits herself to Mynors. The final, impactful lines of the novel reveal Willie’s despairing response. Anna of the Five Towns may not be a tragedy on the scale of, say, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but for Willie it is.

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Book review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling, 2007

(Last post on Harry Potter for a while – promise!)

And so it all came down to this, the final novel in the series, in which J K Rowling was faced with the monumental task of drawing together the threads of the previous six novels, resolving all the puzzles and storylines and giving everyone an ending, of sorts.

The earlier novels adhered to a format structured around the school year – they start during the summer holidays, Harry has an adventure of some sort before returning to Hogwarts, and then his life is dominated by the demands of lessons, homework, sports and meals in the Great Hall. This is the backdrop against which all his adventures have been set, and it became familiar and comforting – no matter what happened, you knew in a few months/chapters Hagrid would be decorating the school with trees from the forest, Christmas jumpers from Mrs Weasley would arrive, and the clock continue to tick down to the denouement with whichever iteration of Voldemort was in play that year.

So it was quite a shock that Rowling abandoned this structure in Deathly Hallows. I didn’t expect it at all, although in hindsight how Harry could have returned to Hogwarts after the end of Half Blood Prince I am not sure. The opening is one of those rare (and therefore all the more striking) non-Harry scenes I mentioned in my review of Half Blood Prince. Set at Malfoy Manor it sees Voldemort revelling in his return to power, surrounded by sycophantic Death Eaters, killing the Hogwarts Muggle Studies Professor, Charity Burbage and feeding her body to Nagini. If Hogwarts professors are unsafe this is obviously a dangerous world – this is reinforced quickly by the deaths of Hedwig and Mad-Eye Moody. A taste of things to come obviously, but I wonder how younger children would have reacted to the unmitigated bleakness of these chapters? There’s no ambiguity about the choices Rowling made here. She could have written seven children’s stories using the template of Philosopher’s Stone, but instead decided to age the novels with her readers. This was a really innovative approach and had the effect of ensuring that her core readership didn’t grow away from the series, even if it did mean a possible loss of readers at the younger end of the scale.

After a brief moment of relaxation at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, the trio are off hunting the four remaining horcruces (or is it horcruxes?) (two, the diary and the ring, already having been destroyed) with only the barest amount of information to go on. As well as the memories and training provided by Dumbledore, they also have three gifts from their headmaster’s will – his deluminator, the first snitch Harry ever caught, and a copy of the Tales of Beadle the Bard. I am sure Rowling will have explained why Dumbledore didn’t give them as much help as possible, but the reader shares the trios frustration at how difficult he made this task. Remus Lupin offers to help, but Harry sends him back to his new family – for Harry, who never really had one, family is everything. With so little to go on the trio spend a long time aimlessly travelling around the country, and it is in these scenes where the novel lags, although all is forgiven and forgotten when the action accelerates at the end of the novel.

Speculation prior to the novel’s publication focussed on discussing the many clues – and of course red herrings – that were scattered through the previous six novels. I can remember being convinced that one of the horcruxes would be found in Borgin and Burkes, where Voldemort worked after leaving Hogwarts. Wrong, of course. The central mystery of the series, the relationship between Voldemort, Harry, and his scar, was workoutable, but everything else including the location of the remaining horcruxes and the identity of the Deathly Hallows was virtually impossible to guess, which was typical of the way Rowling had structured her puzzles throughout the series.

There is an element of ‘greatest hits’ about some of the scenes in Deathly Hallows – a return to several of the key locations (eg the Shrieking Shack, the Chamber of Secrets, Gringotts) and characters (eg Ollivander, Dobby, Griphook) encountered in previous novels. But there are also new locations, notably Godric’s Hollow, new characters (Aberforth finally emerges from the shadows) and Dumbledore’s extensive back story is explored. The novel’s climax, the long-awaited Battle of Hogwarts, is epic and memorable. Rowling is ruthless in despatching much-loved characters from the series, her justification being ‘this is war, people die’. The political themes of the novels finally emerge unambiguously – Voldemort and the Death Eaters are racists, blood-purists, and have to be beaten no matter the cost.

I know some readers were disappointed with the epilogue set nineteen years after the battle, in which Harry and friends are shown seeing their children off on the Hogwarts Express to continue the story. However this scene matters because it gives the author the chance to quell any doubts about the outcome: “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”

The Harry Potter series was a phenomenon, and I suspect we have yet to see the end of it – the Fantastic Beasts films, the stage play The Cursed Child, (which must be turned into a film soon, surely?) and numerous other commercial ventures have all contributed to keeping the revenues rolling in and the franchise alive.

For years now I have been trying to work out why a series that is in many ways so wholly unoriginal had such an impact. It could be that the magic of Harry Potter is actually derived from that lack of originality. I wouldn’t go so far as to say even non-magical Harry is an everyman character, but he is in many ways unexceptional – a point he constantly makes in fact. When he enters the magical world we Muggles go with him, and see the magic with the same renewed sense of wonder, even if we have seen wizards waving wands so many times before. This world is at the same time both extraordinary and everyday, rooted in the things we all have to deal with, combining the fantastical with the ordinary and created something unique. Her decision to make the novels darker and more mature as Harry passes through the school years was also unquestionably a master-stroke. Seven different versions of The Philosopher’s Stone would have been fun eventually quite boring.

Just one last thought – is there a best way to read the Harry Potter novels? As a teenager? As they were published? In audio-book form? Unusually I think there is a right answer to this one, which is: out loud, to a child or children of the right ages. If you are privileged enough to be able to do this you will experience the wonder Rowling weaves through their eyes, as well as being able to appreciate the novels in your own terms.

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Book review

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is free to read online at http://www.hpmor.com/

J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series generated a huge amount of fan-fiction – literally hundreds of thousands of stories were written by fans of the series, set in the wizarding world and featuring the characters Rowling created. Many of these stories were inspired by the phenomenon of ‘shipping’ – imagined relationships between different characters.  Of all the attempts to explore the Potterverse that I have come across Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is by far and away the most innovative and thoughtful.

The Harry Potter novels can be looked upon as an extended thought experiment – ‘what if magic was real?’ Rowling creates a world that is largely separate from the non-magical world – to avoid persecution wizards have gone underground, and avoid interaction with ‘muggles’ wherever possible. Everyday objects – radios, cars and telephones – are treated as bewilderingly complex and amusing. So the two worlds occupy the same space, but are very distinct. But within a version of our world that is very recognisable, down to using quite routine settings such as Kings Cross station, the magical world has a complex set of rules that govern how magic works. We aren’t encouraged to consider the underlying principles of magic in any detail – how does non-verbal or wandless magic work for example? – but within limits it kind of makes sense. Some magic is used for fairly ordinary purposes, for many of which there are straightforward non-magical alternatives.  A post-it note would usually be more effective than a Remembrall, and how many times would characters in the novels have benefitted from a decent mobile phone! Even some advanced dark magic is no more effective than real-world equivalents, such as a handgun instead of Avada Kedavra. But generally the magical world is one of vast possibilities, which the Hogwarts students really only begin to explore before the series ends.

Methods of Rationality takes this one step further and asks – if magic does exist, how would a rational person, steeped in scientific method and knowledge, explore and interact with that world? How would they come to terms with the fact that everything they thought they knew about the laws of time, space and matter was wrong, that matter can be created from nothing, and that eternal life and time travel are possible? And what would they do with magic given its almost limitless potential?

Yudkowsky imagines that instead of being brought up in the abusive Dursley household, Harry is adopted by his aunt Petunia and her scientist husband Michael Verres-Evans and raised in a loving and positive household where independent thought and learning are encouraged. This version of Harry is a precocious genius. Once faced with the undeniable facts of the wizarding world, Harry reacts in the only way he knows how – he tries to apply the scientific method to magic. Where does it come from? Is it formed by the words of the spell, the gesture of the wand, the wizard’s mental energy or some combination of all three? Is magic in the world really fading as pure-blood fanatics claim? And perhaps most importantly of all how can magic be used to benefit the non-magical world?

In other words, what would have happened in Harry Potter’s first year in Hogwarts, had he (and almost everyone around him) not been so unquestioning? Rowling’s Harry takes everything he is told on trust (recall the scene in his first potions lesson where he simply writes down what Snape tells him) and the reader follows suit – suspension of disbelief means we are not encouraged to ask the difficult questions that Yudkowsky investigates. It is only in later books that we consider issues such as the wizarding government and whether there are magical folk in other countries. Rowling’s Harry is obviously a lot more believable and likeable than this version– most 11 year-olds if told they were wizards would react with a mixture of excitement and disbelief, rather than attempting to pick apart the structures of magical theory. MoR’s Harry is far more adult that Rowling’s, and it is fair to say far less appealing. But his uncompromising personality acts as an explanation for his determination to interrogate the world of magic, asking the difficult questions that may have occurred to older readers of the original series but would not be a problem for the original target audience. If time-travel is possible, why is it only used to help with schoolwork rather than defeating Voldemort? If the Philosopher’s Stone really does granted eternal life, why doesn’t everyone work towards having one, (or at the very least why doesn’t Flamel make more than one?). And what on earth is going on with the rules of Quidditch?!

Not all of the changes in this version of the wizarding world are not purely driven by the ‘methods of rationality’. Professor Quirrell is a dramatic improvement on his original. His Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons are exciting role-playing adventures, in which teams of students battle against one another in the Castle, grounds and forest. Other characters are given additional depth – Draco Malfoy isn’t just the stereotypical bully of the early novels, but more the Draco of Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, trapped by the expectations of his family upbringing, trained to be a death-eater from an early age but capable of change despite the pressures of his caste.

MoR Harry is not always as smart as he thinks he is. At one point he is manipulated into helping break Bellatrix L’Estrange out of Azkaban. There’s no question that having Dementors, dark, irrational monsters that they are, running a prison that leaves most of its prisoners mad “within weeks” and many others dead before the end of their sentence, was an appalling scar on the face of the wizarding world, made even worse by the casual way in which wizards and witches are despatched there without trial or for trivial offences. So attempting to break someone out of it is more than just an intellectual challenge, it is a moral obligation. But choosing Bellatrix as the sole target for escape is hard to justify, particularly as once she is released she is quietly dropped from the story-line.

MoR can’t avoid pointing out some of the more extreme absurdities of the original series – for example the decision to turn the Tri-Wizard tournament trophy into a portkey, meaning that Moody/Crouch has to try to manipulate the outcome of the tournament over the course of a school year, when the alternative, to turn a random object into a portkey and just pass it to Potter, would have achieved the same end far more easily. But this critique is done with a light touch rather than as part of a full-scale demolition of the original series – which would have been pretty impolite in the circumstances.

Yodkowsky makes some interesting choices in developing their version of the wizarding world. Harry and Hermione are sorted into Ravenclaw, where intellect is prized over courage. Harry is entirely uninterested in Quidditch which he dismisses as a waste of time. Ron is portrayed as an unintelligent oaf (canon-Ron may not be as sharp as Harry and Hermione, but he is far from stupid – look at his chess playing abilities for example) and largely disappears from the narrative. Draco Malfoy on the other hand is someone Harry spends a lot of time trying to get to know, even though he is clearly very dangerous . Is Slytherin’s support for the imminent wizarding war really that important?

At time MoR felt a little like a psychology lecture, in which another yet another research paper or experiment in human behaviour or game theory is explained by Harry and applied to the problem in hand. But when these got wearing I felt comfortable with skipping to the next chapter. Overall this was a refreshing version of the wizarding world, a lively consideration of the internal logic of magic which addresses many of the questions older readers of the original series would have considered. It avoids many of the pitfalls fan-fic often falls into and remains largely true to the spirit of the original series. And it’s free to read online!

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