Book review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764


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The Castle of Otranto by Horace WalpoleThe Castle of Otranto is widely considered the first English gothic novel. It tells the story of Manfred, lord of Otranto and opens on the day of the wedding of his son Conrad to the princess Isabella. Shortly before the ceremony Conrad is crushed to death by an enormous helmet which falls on him. Yes, it does. This is the first of a series of absurd incidents that punctuate the novel, usually involving over-sized body parts for reasons I have yet to come to terms with.

There is a prophecy (of course there is) “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”.

Just in case you are wondering, no, this doesn’t make any sense, at this point in the story nor subsequently. Lord Manfred decides to marry Isabella himself, which will necessitate divorcing his current wife, Hippolita, who has failed to successfully bear him an heir. Isabella is not keen on this idea, having just seen her fiance crushed by a giant helmet, so she flees to a neighbouring monastery with the aid of Theodore, a mysterious peasant and Jerome, an aged friar. Jerome, it turns out, is Theodore’s long lost father. Again, predictably.

This is just the start of a madcap rush of incidents in which long lost relatives and giant body parts are packed into the novel’s just over one hundred pages. There are ghosts, there are mysterious mute knights, plots and mistaken identity, duels and feasts. It’s all rather exhausting, like reading a plot summary for half a dozen Shakespearean comedies all mashed-up together, and all written in a florid, over-the-top style of which the following is a typical example:

“I come,” replied he, “to thee, Manfred, usurper of the principality of Otranto, from the renowned and invincible Knight, the Knight of the Gigantic Sabre: in the name of his Lord, Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, he demands the Lady Isabella, daughter of that Prince, whom thou hast basely and traitorously got into thy power, by bribing her false guardians during his absence; and he requires thee to resign the principality of Otranto, which thou hast usurped from the said Lord Frederic, the nearest of blood to the last rightful Lord, Alfonso the Good. If thou dost not instantly comply with these just demands, he defies thee to single combat to the last extremity.”

See what I mean? The Knight of the Giant Sabre, who has recently mislaid his Giant Helmet. Is he trying to compensate for something?

It’s really dreadful. One Goodreads reviewer (who actually liked it!) described it memorably as the “kind of story a man hopped up on crack might shout to passersby from beneath a bridge“. It joins Sybil on my list of novels written by MPs, which is mercifully short. Walpole has a lot to answer for, not least a whole genre of similar nonsense. As always I look for redeeming features in particularly bad novels, and I recognise that judging an eighteenth century novel – which I think I can call experimental, in that no-one else had written anything like this before – by twenty-first century standards has its limitations. But I am struggling. The prose is over the top (see above), the characters two dimensional at best, the plot absurd: no, not a single redeeming feature. It was, I suppose, also mercifully short. 


Book review: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, 1959


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“I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”

Published in this edition by Orion books in their Science Fiction masterworks series, Flowers for Algernon is a much loved sci-fi classic. Flowers For Algernon (S.F. Masterworks), Daniel Keyes, Used Excellent Book

Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68. He enjoys working at his menial job at a bakery. In the evenings he attends a college for “Retarded Adults”. Here he meets Professor Nemur who is looking for a a human guinea pig for his new surgical technique to increase intelligence. The surgery has already been performed successfully on a mouse named Algernon, who is now something of a super-mouse, able to solve maze puzzles with ease.

The novel takes the form of Charlie’s own ‘progress reports’ notes (i.e. his diary). Initially the diary entries are illiterate, full of phonetic spellings and without any punctuation. Following the operation they improve dramatically as Charlie begins to expand his understanding and knowledge. It is never really explained why the researchers try this procedure out on someone of below normal intelligence. Is it because if the surgery doesn’t work they won’t be sued? Or is it because the boost to intelligence will be so dramatic that in a normal human the impact would be too unpredictable?

As Charlie’s IQ soars he quickly leaves his old life behind. He struggles to cope with the dramatic changes to his abilities and understanding. This causes emotional turmoil, and is the basis of a lot of commentary about the apparent trade off between the benefits of intelligence and blissful ignorance. I was hoping that Keyes would have something to say about how a super-intelligent human might see the world differently. Sadly Charlie is more like a troubled teenager, trashing his room, refusing to do his homework and having rows with his family.  There is little else to show for his new abilities. He makes no scientific breakthroughs, discovers nothing.

Or not quite nothing. Charlie takes over the research into intelligence and discovers a flaw in the process meaning his boost in IQ is likely to be temporary. He faces this fate with a degree of resignation, even visiting the depressing institution where he is likely to end up. He tries to use the time left to him wisely, but all too quickly the old Charlie is back. Keyes reflects this degeneration poignantly through Charlie’s reversion to the fractured English used in his original notes.

Flowers for Algernon was originally a short story which Keyes later expanded into novel-form. I think the central concept – artificially enhanced intelligence – is a slight idea that probably fits better into the more straightforward format of the short story. Asking it to carry the weight of a full-length novel without any additional support is too much. Keyes doesn’t seem to know what to do with Charlie once he is super-intelligent, apart from showing him as a bit of a brat. As I mentioned in opening, this novel is much loved. People seems to have a nostalgic affection for Charlie and his mouse. So what are people seeing that I have missed? The novel has almost half a million ratings on Goodreads, scoring overall on average more than 4 (out of 5 – for comparison, Brighton Rock scores lower than 4). Reviews consistently talk about the novel being heartwarming and touching. My heart was neither touched nor warmed. I found the story profoundly predictable – there was never a moment’s doubt that Charlie’s boost in intelligence was going to be temporary. Super-intelligent Charlie is pretty unlikeable. He does nothing tangible with his enhanced powers – he learns languages, writes musical compositions, and so on, but there’s no substance to this, and the hoped-for insight into any of his areas of study never arrive. More to the point there’s no attempt to consider what super-intelligence actually means – is it just being cleverer than every one else, or is it a different level of consciousness? It was this kind of insight I was hoping for. Instead we are invited to feel sentimental for a dead mouse.

Writing in 1981, Philip K. Dick. 1981 defined sci-fi as:

“our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society—or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one—this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind.”

This of course is one of many definitions of the genre, but it is one that commanded my attention as being a serious attempt to engage with the problem of genre rather than simply provide a template for is it/isn’t it decisions. Flowers for Algernon satisfies the criteria for science fiction in many of the more narrow definitions of the genre, but fails to make the cut here if Dick’s more comprehensive and compelling definition is used. Super-intelligence doesn’t ever once hint at generating a new type of society. The surgery which improves Charlie’s intelligence is given some credibility – there is talk of enzymes and amino acids – but the researchers could just as easily have given him a “make-you-clever” pill. Nothing else changes in the world – the changes are all within Charlie and his perceptions and abilities. Every other aspect of the society is recognisable, and we are not even given a hint of the way the world might change if the surgery had been successful. In other words, I am not convinced that Flowers is even science fiction, let alone a masterwork.



Supplemental: Brighton Rock – Is Pinkie Gay?


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Pinkie, the gang leader in Graham Greene’s outstanding Brighton Rock, is a complex and sometimes puzzling character. One question often raised in consideration of his psychology is whether he is gay.

The question is of course largely moot – as a fictional character the only sexual orientation Pinkie has is that attributed to him by the reader. He’s fictional – he doesn’t have any intrinsic sexuality. There is sufficient ambiguity within the text for virtually any reading to be legitimate. You could also argue that his sexuality is irrelevant, except for Greene’s constant references to it. What is clear is that he is a damaged individual whose thoughts and ideas about sex have been strongly influenced by his working class Catholic upbringing. He finds it difficult to separate his feelings about sex from his anger at his childhood experiences.

Crime and Punishment: Close-Up on "Brighton Rock" on Notebook | MUBI

Some critics have assumed that his diminutive nickname and his sense of disgust at the idea of sex with Rose mean that the reader should infer that Pinkie is gay. The term ‘pinkie’ is usually used to described one’s little finger, and might be a mocking reference to his stature or youth. His recollection of his first encounter with Kite, the former gang leader and his mentor, suggests there is more to the meeting than chance.

“This was the place he had come to after Kite had picked him up – he had been coughing on the Palace Pier in the bitter cold, listening to the violin wailing behind the glass. Kite had given him a cup of hot coffee and brought him here – God knows why – perhaps because he was out and wasn’t down, perhaps because a man like Kite needed a little sentiment like a tart who keeps a Pekinese. Kite had opened the door of No. 63 and the first thing he’d seen was Dallow embracing Judy on the stairs and the first thing he had smelt was Frank’s iron in the basement.”

Obviously in 1938 homosexuality was illegal and was to remain so for several decades, so Kite’s “picking up” (a phrase with a very specific sexual meaning, used elsewhere in the novel to explicitly refer to a sexual encounter) of Pinkie is again sufficiently ambiguous to allow for a non-sexual reading. The phrase in parentheses – God knows why – suggests Pinkie is naively unaware of any attraction Kite may have for him. A more literal reading of this paragraph would suggest that Kite is looking for new gang members, and any homo-erotic feelings between the older man and his new recruit are unconscious. On the other hand, Brighton is often seen as the gay capital of the UK, and Wikipedia tells me that the gay community of the town is not a recent invention:

“By the 1930’s Brighton started to flourish as a gay destination and many gay and lesbian pubs started to establish themselves.”

Greene insists throughout the novel that sex is a fundamental part of all motives for human behaviour and a core component of human identity. So it is worth looking more closely at Pinkie’s reaction each time sex or sexuality confronts him. His character is introduced in the novel’s first chapter when he confronts Hale in a public bar. Incidentally, Ida is also in the same pub. When Pinkie catches sight of her across the bar he notices “the big breasts and the bland charm” and responds with “an expression of furious distaste”. Her confident sexuality distresses and disgusts him.

Later, on a date with Rose, he exposes a new element to his sexuality. He is not just a misogynist, casually dismissive of women as “polonies” or “buers”, but finds sexual violence exciting. He attempts to intimidate her by “pinching the skin of her wrist until his nails nearly met”. He sadistically takes pleasure from causing her pain. But her response is not what expects :

Tears of pride and pain pricked behind her lids. ‘If you like doing that, she said, go on'”.

This dumbfounds him – “What would be the fun if people didn’t squeal?” Violence isn’t sexy to him if it is consensual. The bottle of acid he carries gives him a thrill from its ability to disfigure and kill:

“…a faint secret sensual pleasure he felt, touching the bottle of vitriol with his fingers… was his nearest approach to passion.”

On their date in Peacehaven his relationship with Rose develops further, and for the first time the virginal Pinkie…

“put out his hand with repulsion…He saw the skin of her thigh for a moment above the artificial silk, and a prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness…was there no escape – anywhere – for anyone? It was worth murdering a world”.

Sexual thoughts immediately make him feel uncontrollably, murderously violent. After Spicer’s murder Pinkie attempts to have sex (in a car park) with Sylvie, Spicer’s “girl”, but cannot go through with it:

With fear and horror he thought: next move, what is it?”

and says in a “painful and bitter rage”,

“Wait there. I’ll get Cubitt for you”.

This humiliation – having to delegate even casual sexual encounters to his gang members – drives Pinkie’s anger. The point of view on all these occasions is solely Pinkie’s – we can infer what his companions are thinking from their dialogue and his descriptions, but the inner monologue is always his.

On the day of his wedding Pinkie attempts desperately to defer the moment he knows is coming, the consummation. With Rose in tow he records the fateful message on a souvenir recording, buys some rock, and goes to the pictures, wandering aimlessly around Brighton until eventually ending up back at Frank’s boarding house. Here their preparations for bed are interrupted by Cubitt asking for money. When Pinkie finally gets him to leave he returns to find Rose sitting on the bed “with dangling feet like a child in a classroom waiting for the teacher in order to say her lesson” – a disturbing image if there ever was one. He is finally able to consummate the marriage once Rose confesses she knows he is a murderer, agreeing that there is “not a pin” to choose between them. His desire for her is still mixed with fear and nausea, but at the point of consummation the point of view briefly flits away from Pinkie, first to Cubitt, outside the bedroom door, and then to Rose:

“She made her vow again, holding him in her arms in the attitude of mortal sin”.

Pinkie’s feelings about sex are confused by more than his Catholicism and belief that he is damned. Greene offers the reader a much simpler explanation for Pinkie’s sense of disgust at the thought of sex. As a child he shared a bedroom with his parents, who once a week had sex in the same bedroom as him, careless of whether he was awake or not:

“His father panted like a man at the end of a race, and his mother made a horrifying sound of pleasurable pain. He was filled with hatred, disgust, loneliness…for the space of a few minutes he was dead, he was like a soul in purgatory.

That alliterative oxymoron – pleasurable pain – leading to purgatory, is dangled by the narrator as an interpretive key. Is this how to understand Pinkie, as a damaged Catholic soul fucked up by his parents a la Larkin? I am always instinctively suspicious when explanations of this kind are offered by the narrator – it’s just too easy. This is Pinkie’s own perhaps subconscious explanation of his fear of and disgust with sex. If anyone were ever able to get close enough to get him to articulate his feelings this is most likely what he would offer by way of explanation: “I am frightened by sex because of what I saw my parents doing each week”. But is it an explanation the reader should accept at face value? Does Pinkie have the ability to analyse his own sexuality reliably, or is there another reason for his reaction? Perhaps he is disgusted by the idea of sex with a woman because he is gay? He is quick to blame his impoverished upbringing for his other feelings and to use it as an excuse for his criminality, so there is good reason to distrust this explanation for his responses.

Ultimately of course this is a question without an answer. Readers will all have their own understanding of Pinkie’s pathology. But it demonstrates the complexity of Greene’s wonderful novel that it rewards a close reading of this question.



Book Review: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene, 1938


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“People change,’ she said
‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”

Greene’s 1938 novel of gang warfare in Brighton pulls off a rare achievement – it is atBrighton Rock By Graham Greene once both an adventure story and a serious mediation on good and evil. I was blown away by it; not necessarily by the plot (the ending is largely predictable) but by the quality of the prose. Greene’s control of language is masterful throughout, and virtually every sentence is a gem.

Charles Hale comes to Brighton to distribute cards for a newspaper competition. Hale has somehow underestimated the antipathy felt for him by a local gang, a mistake he quickly comes to regret. The novel tells the reader as much with the ominous opening line:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

To avoid being isolated by the gang who begin tracking him through the crowds of day-trippers, Fred picks up Ida Arnold, visiting Brighton for the races. This helps keep the gang at arms length, but he is then briefly separated from her, long enough for them lead him away to his fate.

Pinkie Brown, (also known as The Boy), is the leader of the gang that murders Hale. Pinkie struggles through the remainder of the novel to avoid the consequences of this killing. Although he has carefully planned the timing of his alibi, things quickly unravel. One gang member, Spicer, is tasked with distributing Hale’s leftover cards around Brighton in order to confuse any investigation into the timing of his death. But a witness, Rose, the waitress at a café, sees him leaving one of Hale’s cards, and is able to identify him. Pinkie knows that the waitress’s evidence could reveal his complicity in Hale’s murder. Rose is an innocent and vulnerable 16 year old, a fellow Roman Catholic, and she falls into a destructive and abusive relationship with Pinkie.

Pinkie is the novel’s central character, and much of the story is told from his perspective. He is a highly damaged individual – only 17 years old and already a killer. We are told repeatedly that he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and is a virgin. He inherited control of the gang following the death of the original leader Kite in a fight on St Pancras station, and rules the gang through fear of his instability and propensity for sudden violence. As well as his weapon of choice, a razor blade, he carries around a bottle of acid (“vitriol”) with which he threatens Rose. He aims to silence her with fear, before later deciding to marry her, as wives were unable to testify against their husbands law at the time.

The police are peripheral figures in Brighton Rock – a gang fight at the races doesn’t merit an investigation; neither does Spicer’s obviously suspicious death. Pinkie is floundering with the challenges of his new role – his immaturity is emphasised by his diminutive nickname. The local police persuade a witness to an attack by the gang to withdraw his evidence, make a mess of the investigation into Hale’s death, if any, and encourage Pinkie to join forces with the mobster planning to take over his territory.

Hale’s death does not go completely uninvestigated however. Ida Arnold, who was with him moments before his murder, doesn’t believe the inquest verdict, and decides to try to discover how he came to die. The novel’s narrative voice consistently if gently mocks Ida, but she sets about the investigation in a very systematic manner, following up leads and persuading the local police to let her see the report into Hale’s death. She takes all the steps that one would expect a traditional investigator to follow, including starting at the scene of the crime and attempting to trace Hale’s contacts on the day. But we are encouraged throughout despite all the evidence to the contrary to see Ida as a clumsy, rather foolhardy figure.

Ida is a fascinating character. The narrator tells the reader that

“You thought of sucking babies when you looked at her”

says she has

“A touch of nursery and the mother”

and describes

“Her Guinness kindness”.

In other words she is the last person one would expect to bravely confront murderous gangsters and bring them to justice. But she does just that. I can’t think of any other character in fiction to can compare to Ida. Women in detective and thriller stories usually are given a subordinate role, and those that do feature are usually young and sexually attractive. The exceptions – Miss Marple for example – are usually shown as eccentric and devoid of sexuality. Ida’s actions  consistently undercuts the narrator’s depiction of her as an ineffective slightly comic figure.

The novel also contains a serious discussion on the Christian concepts of good and evil, damnation and salvation, without being in any way didactic. Rose is terrified that she might be damned, but is prepared to lose her mortal soul for the sake of Pinkie; Pinkie is certain about the existence of hell, but less convinced about its counterpart:

“But you do believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments.”
“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, “maybe.”

Pinkie is a Roman Catholic and knows that his crimes are sins for which a price will be paid at some point. Ida is the counterpoint to Pinkie in the novel. Her ideas about sin are in stark contrast to Pinkie’s – she says:

“It doesn’t do anyone any harm that I know of. It’s human nature…It’s only fun after all…fun to be human.

Reflecting on an afternoon of sex with her gentleman friend Corkery:

“She knew what was right and what was wrong. God didn’t mind a bit of human nature – what he minded – and her brain switched away from Phil in pants to her mission, to doing good, to seeing that evil suffered”.

All these elements come together in the climax of the novel with extraordinary pace and flair. The thriller element of the story is highly effective, and perfectly balanced with the ideas about morality – the two elements complement one another rather than providing a distraction. Without the discussion of good versus evil this would just be a quite limited detective story, albeit one that introduces a new kind of amateur detective to fiction. Without the detective element this would be a tedious debate about what makes people commit crimes. Together they form a compelling story.

There’s much else of interest in this novel. The prose is luxurious and complex without being in any way obscure. For his gangster characters Greene adopts a limited version of Polari – a slang dialect initially derived from travellers which in the 1950’s became popular within the gay community to allow ideas to be openly discussed without being overheard or understood by others.

The novel is crowded with vividly realised portraits of characters, especially Pinkie’s gang and their base at Frank’s. For example, Pinkie’s rival, Colleoni, is an aging Italian mobster

“in glace shoes, with a white slip to his waistcoat and a jewelled pin”

who stays at the Cosmopolitan, a world away from Frank’s, the seedy boarding house which acts as the base for Pinkie’s gang. Frank’s telephone number is 666, either Greene’s or Pinkie’s joking reference to Revelations and the number of the beast. There is also a strong sense of place about the novel – the streets of Brighton and the local landmarks are vividly captured. 

At the close, Greene provides us with an understanding of the cruel events of the novel, in a line quoted in Jed Bartlett’s extraordinary Two Cathedrals speech from the West Wing:

“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.”

But there is still time for one last shock, as Greene allows Rose to discover Pinkie’s true feelings toward her, described as “the worst horror of all”.

Brighton Rock is a magnificent, rewarding, complex book that demands to be read and reread for a long time. It has its flaws, but in my view is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.


Book review: Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, 1877


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It is often an instructive experience to revisit “children’s” stories occasionally. Rereading them as an adult can reveal layers of meaning not obvious to a younger reader. As a child I wasn’t initially aware of the Christian allegory in the Narnia stories, for example (until being beaten round the head with the idea in The Last Battle). Similarly, books like Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels both work successfully as adventure stories for children and as more complex novels for adults.Black Beauty by Anna Sewell - First Edition - c. 1950s - from ...

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is another case in point. Written as a first person narrative by the title character, it was originally conceived as a plea for compassion in the treatment of working horses (in much the same way as The Water Babies was a campaigning tract about the treatment of child chimney sweeps). Sewell wanted to bring the plight of working horses to public awareness and in particular to end the practice of unnaturally raising carriage horses’ heads with the “bearing rein”. Stripped of its social and historical context it is now a straightforward story about the life of a horse.

But I was struck on reading the novel how clearly it also reads as an anti-slavery tract. Forget for a minute that this is a book about horses, and read these lines from early in chapter one:

Our master was a good, kind man. He gave us good food, good lodging, and kind words; he spoke as kindly to us as he did to his little children. We were all fond of him, and my mother loved him very much….I was a dull black, so he called me Darkie.”

As long as Black Beauty is well cared for he accepts his enslavement with resignation. He describes how he is broken into wearing reins and a bridle:

I had of course long been used to a halter and a headstall, and to be led about in the fields and lanes quietly, but now I was to have a bit and bridle; my master gave me some oats as usual, and after a good deal of coaxing he got the bit into my mouth, and the bridle fixed, but it was a nasty thing! Those who have never had a bit in their mouths cannot think how bad it feels; a great piece of cold hard steel as thick as a man’s finger to be pushed into one’s mouth, between one’s teeth, and over one’s tongue, with the ends coming out at the corner of your mouth, and held fast there by straps over your head, under your throat, round your nose, and under your chin; so that no way in the world can you get rid of the nasty hard thing; it is very bad! yes, very bad!

There’s no attempt to disguise the distress Beauty experiences during his “breaking in” (a phrase also I believe used to describe the brutal treatment of slaves until they came to accept their captivity). But however accepting of his condition, Beauty is aware that he is still a possession, vulnerable to being sold to a new, less kind master at any time:

I was quite happy in my new place, and if there was one thing that I missed it must not be thought I was discontented; all who had to do with me were good and I had a light airy stable and the best of food. What more could I want? Why, liberty! …Straps here and straps there, a bit in my mouth, and blinkers over my eyes. Now, I am not complaining, for I know it must be so. I only mean to say that for a young horse full of strength and spirits, who has been used to some large field or plain where he can fling up his head and toss up his tail and gallop away at full speed, then round and back again with a snort to his companions—I say it is hard never to have a bit more liberty to do as you like.

He also knows that if he breaks down physically and becomes no longer useful or wanted he is likely to be disposed of, either sold on to ever more difficult work, or sent to “the dogs” – that is to say slaughtered and sold as dog food. When his friend Merrylegs the pony is sold to a neighbour it is seen as a kindness that

“it was on the condition that he should never be sold, and that when he was past work he should be shot and buried. “

(This line of argument, that Black Beauty is a form of slave narrative, is developed by the wonderfully named Bonnie Blossom in this article.)

I am not arguing that Black Beauty is an anti-slavery tract, not least because slavery had been abolished in the USA a decade before it was published, and much earlier in the UK – the moral argument had been won. But awareness of the brutality of slavery was still very much in the public imagination, and viewing our treatment of domestic animals as being analogous to the way slaves were once treated, adopting some of the traditional narratives and characteristics of slave stories, gives a powerful emphasis to Sewell’s argument for kinder treatment of horses. Putting it simply, we feel for the mistreated horses in the novel because they are treated like slaves.

This is a progressive novel in other ways. Sewell argues forcefully for the retention of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Beauty’s driver, Jerry, is tempted to work on Sunday’s for a reliable customer, but turns down the work as he wants to preserve his time with his family:

“If working  men don’t stick to their Sunday … they’ll soon have none left; it is every man’s right and every beast’s right. By God’s law we have a day of rest, and by the law of England we have a day of rest; and I say we ought to hold to the rights these laws give us and keep them for our children.”

This initial position of not working on the Sabbath for religious considerations is then generalised into a wider argument for the protection of working men’s conditions of employment, and their collective power through industrial action, specifically withholding their labour (a later chapter is called “A Strike for Liberty”):

“That may sound well enough, but it won’t do; every man must look after his own soul; you can’t lay it down at another man’s door like a foundling  and expect him to take care of it; and don’t you see, if you are always sitting on your box waiting for a fare, they will say, ‘If we don’t take him some one else will, and he does not look for any Sunday.’ Of course, they don’t go to the bottom of it, or they would see if they never came for a cab it would be no use your standing there; but people don’t always like to go to the bottom of things; it may not be convenient to do it; but if you Sunday drivers would all strike for a day of rest the thing would be done.”

Elsewhere Sewell argues from a moral standpoint that:

“With cruelty and oppression it is everybody’s  business to interfere when they see it”

This is typical of the muscular Christianity that informs much of the reforming literature of the Victorian era.

The novel also contains a striking portrait of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, told from the perspective of Captain, “An Old War Horse”. We are not told directly that his reminiscences are of this battle, but the descriptions are unmistakeable:

“I cannot tell all that happened on that day, but I will tell of the last charge that we made together; it was across a valley right in front of the enemy’s cannon. By this time we were well used to the roar of heavy guns, the rattle of musket fire, and the flying of shot near us; but never had I been under such a fire as we rode through on that day. From the right, from the left, and from the front, shot and shell poured in upon us. Many a brave man went down, many a horse fell, flinging his rider to the earth; many a horse without a rider ran wildly out of the ranks; then terrified at being alone, with no hand to guide him, came pressing in among his old companions, to gallop with them to the charge.

“Fearful as it was, no one stopped, no one turned back. Every moment the ranks were thinned, but as our comrades fell, we closed in to keep them together; and instead of being shaken or staggered in our pace our gallop became faster and faster as we neared the cannon…..

our gallant company was cruelly overpowered, and those who remained alive after the fierce fight for the guns came galloping back over the same ground. Some of the horses had been so badly wounded that they could scarcely move from the loss of blood; other noble creatures were trying on three legs to drag themselves along, and others were struggling to rise on their fore feet, when their hind legs had been shattered by shot. After the battle the wounded men were brought in and the dead were buried.”

I said, “I have heard people talk about war as if it was a very fine thing.”

“Ah!” said he, “I should think they never saw it. No doubt it is very fine when there is no enemy, when it is just exercise and parade and sham  fight. Yes, it is very fine then; but when thousands of good brave men and horses are killed or crippled for life, it has a very different look.”

The enemy must have been awfully wicked people, if it was right to go all that way over the sea on purpose to kill them.”

This vivid description of the battle makes an interesting contrast to the jingoism of Tennyson’s better known account. Sewell uses the apparent naivety of the horses to point out the simplicity of seeing war as ourselves against “awfully wicked people”.

There is also a fascinating description of Beauty’s reaction to his first encounter with a steam train, which captures much of the Victorian shock at the force of this new technology.

I shall never forget the first train that ran by. I was feeding quietly near the pales which separated the meadow from the railway, when I heard a  strange sound at a distance, and before I knew whence it came—with a rush and a clatter, and a puffing out of smoke—a long black train of something flew by, and was gone almost before I could draw my breath. I turned and galloped to the further side of the meadow as fast as I could go, and there I stood snorting with astonishment and fear. In the course of the day many other trains went by, some more slowly; these drew up at the station close by, and sometimes made an awful shriek and groan before they stopped. I thought it very dreadful, but the cows went on eating very quietly, and hardly raised their heads as the black frightful thing came puffing and grinding past.

Reading the novel as a form of slave narrative, chapters on the Crimean War and the coming of the steam train – these are all points of interest. But the novel as a whole is repetitive. Beauty is sold to a new owner, he gets to know him and his new role, there is an encounter with another horse, and then an incident that leads to the next owner. Repeats over forty or more chapters. Events are described through the child-like innocent eyes of Beauty or his friends, with sufficient context for the reader to identify the wider commentary implicit and explicit in the narrative. All washed down with a gentle Christian sensibility (at one point a human watches a character leave and says to himself “Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these”, which as I am sure you know is from Matthew in the King James text of the Bible). There’s a banality to the repetition of the story arc over time which leaves the reader restless for the inevitable happy ever after. 


A while back I wrote about the use of the word “gammon” as a term of disrespect. There is another instance here where it is used as a euphemism for “hypocrite”. Beauty’s driver takes a fare for an urgent job having previously refused one. Asked how much he earned he replies:

A good deal more than I generally get…..what he gave me will keep me in little comforts for several days.”

“Gammon!” said one.

“He’s a humbug,” said another; “preaching to us and then doing the same himself.”

Book review: Harold Wilson, by Ben Pimlott, 1992


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Harold Wilson was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 until his retirement in 1976. In that time he won four general elections, making him the most successful ever leader of the Labour Party. His Governments were characterised by a series of progressive social reforms set against a background of Image result for harold wilson ben pimlottchallenging economic circumstances. Wilson was a pragmatic politician usually seen as coming from the left of the party when he first emerged from the diverse group of new MPs elected in 1945, although over time, as the political centre shifted, he became more associated with the traditional centre of Labour politics. He is now looked back on as a relatively slight figure, buffeted by external forces which he was never really able to control, rather than the dominant force in British politics that he was for so many decades.

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Book Review: Life & Times of Michael K, by J M Coetzee, 1983


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I am having a really poor run at the moment – this was the latest of a series of disappointing novels, in many ways the worst of the lot! It was Coetzee’s first Booker Prize winner, the other being Disgrace in 1999.

Life & Times of Michael K is set in a dystopian South Africa in which a civil war is being fought. The protagonist Michael K is born with a hare lip. He is also what was once thought of as “simple” and although not an orphan was effectively abandoned as a child and sent to live in an institution. A doctor who later treats him explains:

He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpThe Life and Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee, Good Bookless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have been shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds

In many ways this is a simple journey story. Michael works as a gardener and his mother is an ailing domestic servant. Law and order is breaking down in the coastal city where they live. Michael’s mother persuades him to help her escape the conflict and privations of the city and take her on a biblical exodus to her home town near the mountains. She dies during the journey, but Michael continues his pilgrimage alone, carrying her ashes with him. He settles in an abandoned farmstead, living off the land and making rudimentary attempts to grow food.

Michael’s time in the wilderness also has biblical overtones – his attempts to scratch a living from the surface of the earth is a hard, unremitting grind for the reader. The allegorical nature of Michael’s suffering is subtle but nevertheless unavoidable – this must be an allegory because otherwise it would be utterly meaningless.

Eventually he is captured as an undocumented citizen, suspected of working for the resistance, and sent to a prison camp. By now his fragile health has deteriorated further, and he appears to be starving. I haven’t been able to locate the original source of this claim, but I have read that Coetzee has said in interviews that the inspiration for this novel was a newspaper article about a captured panda that refused to eat the food it was fed in captivity. Once captured Michael K adopts the same approach, although there is no suggestion that this is a hunger strike or anything other than an illness. It is more an inability to eat than a refusal. He continues to lose weight, and the doctor who narrates the novel’s second section struggles unsuccessfully to understand his motivation for refusing food. I wasn’t comfortable with the portrayal of an illness as a philosophical protest or existential statement.

Michael eventually escapes from the camp, and in the last section returns to the city. He meets some vagrants who appear more attuned to life outside civilisation, and who effectively adopt him. At this point, with no suggestion that Michael has come to any resolution of his situation, the novel ends abruptly and inconclusively.

It is hard to care for Michael K. He is passive and has nothing of interested to say about his experiences. It is possible we are intended to see him as a Forrest Gump-like figure, with his simple lifestyle and even simpler thought processes giving us insights into the human condition. If that was the intention then I can’t say it worked. Towards the end of the novel Michael acquires a more analytical monologue which for some reviewers sits unconvincingly with his former passivity and incomprehension. His thoughts become positively philosophical:

How fortunate that I have no children, he thought: how fortunate that I have no desire to father. I would not know what to do with a child out here in the heart of the country, who would need milk and clothes and friends and schooling. I would fail in my duties, I would be the worst of fathers. Whereas it is not hard to live a life that consists merely of passing time. I am one of the fortunate ones who escape being called.

Michael is an innocent adrift in a world of sin and corruption, but my appetite for parables is a bit jaded at the moment – perhaps I need some escapism and an interesting story instead? The New York Times said in a review that Coetzee’s theme in this novel is “the wild and merciless power of inanity.” If you are looking for a novel about the inane then look no more, this is the one.



Book review: How Late it Was, How Late, by James Kelman, 1994


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Notorious for being described by one of the 1994 panel of Booker judges* as “crap”, How Late is Was, How Late is a stream of consciousness novel written in ‘Glaswegian demotic’. It spans a week in the life of Sammy, a shoplifter and ex-convict, who gets drunk, fights with the police, and is beaten by them so badly that he is blinded. The assault happens in the opening weekend leaving the bulk of the novel to relate his clumsy and sometimes tragi-comic attempts to come to terms with his condition, to navigate the streets of Glasgow, and make a half-hearted claim for disability benefit. He refuses almost all help despite desperately needing it, and slowly reveals a small amount about his past, including two long spells in prison.

The language of the novel will be a challenge for many readers. Here’s a short extract by way of illustration:

Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can’t ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man. Edging back into awareness, of where ye are: here, slumped in this corner, with these thoughts filling ye. And oh christ his back was sore; stiff, and the head pounding. He shivered and hunched up his shoulders, shut his eyes, rubbed into the corners with his fingertips; seeing all kinds of spots and lights. Where in the name of fuck…”

You will note how the narrative point of view and tense wanders. Initially the narrative is in the first person, but then the text starts referring to Sammy as “he” – illustrating, I suppose, his sense of alienation – he sees himself as a secondary character. If you read that and thought it was relatively easy to follow, just think of the cumulative impact of nearly 400 pages of its unrelenting incoherence. The 4000 “fucks” weren’t really a problem for me – people do speak that way – but the question was do I want to listen to them? Did Sammy have anything interesting to say, or is he just a confused incompetent?

How Late sat on my bookshelves unread for what was probably decades. I was put off by the extraordinarily dull cover (see above) and more seriously by the ferocious dialect. In truth it really only takes a few pages to understand the conventions Kelman uses, such as “the gether” for “together”, “sodjers” for police, and so on, and to get into the rhythm of the Glaswegian voice.

I was hoping some coherence would be brought to the narrative – that we would find out more about why his girlfriend has disappeared for example. But we never do, and puzzlingly Sammy never makes any attempt to find out. He is anxious to ensure that family and friends don’t find out about his blindness, and even when he eventually consults a doctor there is no serious discussion on whether the condition is temporary or permanent, possible referral to a specialist, or any treatment. Earlier the police arrest Sammy for reasons that are never explained but may be something to do with an associate who has a more substantial criminal record. Any hope that these threads will combine or end up making any sense are left unfulfilled. 

I kept waiting for the book I hoped Kelman was writing to emerge from the shadows, but to my huge disappointment it never did. There is clearly a lot Sammy decides not to tell us – although why he would conceal it from himself is not obvious – and while we do find more out about him over the course of the novel, much is left unsaid. What I expected to happen is that the slow reveal would finally piece together, and that pieces would fall into place, revealing the explanation for the randomness of Sammy’s life, why he refuses to seek help for his blindness, where his girlfriend has gone and why he doesn’t seem that interested in finding out. Late in the novel his teenage son Peter is introduced. He obviously cares for his father and is anxious to help him, but Sammy rejects his offers of help (apart from his money) and lies comprehensively to him, swearing him to secrecy about his sight loss for reasons which seem more to do with pride than anything else. Perhaps it is just middle-class of me to expect Sammy’s like to have some structure or reason, rather than just being the one big mess it is.

Overall this was hard work. Sammy is profoundly unlikeable, showing occasional glimpses of intelligence which are misleading – he quickly reverts to a bovine refusal to accept any assistance or attempt to improve his desperate situation. I appreciate that in creating Sammy Kelman wanted to give a voice to the oppressed working class, and Sammy’s independent streak and refusal to accept assistance is in some ways admirable, but in fact the novel does the working class a disservice. Most working people simply would not behave in the irrational way Sammy does throughout the novel. They accept help when needed, and their relationships are important enough for them to ask after their partner when they disappear. Their lives may be chaotic and disorderly, but they are not without reason.


*Julia Neuberger. In a later, generally positive review, the Guardian called the novel “a miserable slog” and in a masterly understatement “unlikely to improve anyone’s beach holiday”!

Book review: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, 1948


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This was an umpteenth re-read – I revisit The Loved One (subtitled An Anglo-American Tragedy) for a chuckle every now and again. It’s not a novel (Waugh called it a novelette) that takes itself very seriously, but it is all the better for that. It also has a lot of fun at the expense of both Americans and English ex-pats in America, so what’s not to like?Image result for loved ones waugh

Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, august representative of the British community of ex-pats in Los Angeles, descends upon Dennis Barlow, a minor poet brought to Hollywood to write the script for a film biography of Shelley, to express his concern about Barlow’s new job and how it reflects on the British community in Hollywood. Barlow has abandoned his script writing for something much more valuable to society – he works at the Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery.

Barlow, tasked with the funeral arrangements of his ‘housemate’ who has killed himself having been dismissed from his job in one of the studios, “developing scripts”, (there are a lot of euphemisms and avoidances such as this in this novel) visits Hollywood’s famous funeral grounds, Whispering Glades. There he quickly falls for cosmetician (she puts make-up on corpses) Aimée Thanatogenos. He woos her with quotations from the British classics, passing them off as his own. But he has a rival, the senior mortician Mr Joyboy. Aimee is torn between her feelings for Barlow and Joyboy, but despite the helpful advice columnist of local agony aunt “Guru Brahmin” she gets engaged to Barlow. Subsequently, when she finds out his poems are plagiarised, she dumps him (in fact, she ghosts him!) and returns to Joyboy. The coffin is nailed firmly shut when she attends the funeral of Mr Joyboy’s mother’s parrot at the Happier Hunting Ground, where Barlow is in attendance. The scene is set for a macabre, blackly comic finale.

Waugh was at his comic best when he gave his satirical targets both barrels, holding nothing back. Here his contempt for Hollywood, Americans, ex-pats, you name it, is out in the open and given full rein. This is more a sketch than a fully developed novel, lacking the depth of Waugh’s other work, but it is fun despite the darkness.


Book review: Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner, 1984


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I am sure there are exceptions, but most great novels have great opening lines. “It was the best of times”, “All happy families”, “It was a bright cold morning” and so on. Anita Brookner by contrast chose to open Hotel du Lac with the following:

“From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey.”

Which won’t be going into any collections of great opening lines any time soon. This self-consciously down-beat opening sets the tone of the novel – this is going to be a mono-chromatic sketch where the reader is going to have to do a lot of the work.Image result for Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner, 198

Edith Hope, author of romantic novels such as Beneath the Visiting Moon and The Stone and the Star, has fled from London to the Hotel du Lac in disgrace. Initially we are not told the reasons for this flight – some sort of scandal is hinted at. It emerges she has been having an affair with a married man, to whom she pens forlorn love-letters. We are initially led to believe that this is the cause of her exile, although it later emerges that it is her decision to leave her groom (another man entirely, naturally) at the altar that has outraged her friends and led to her banishment. Why deciding not to go through with an ill-advised wedding is considered such a cause of outrage is never made clear.

The hotel is a suitable location for Edith’s contemplation of her future:

“The Hotel du Lac was a dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era.”

“As far as guests were concerned, it (the hotel) took a perverse pride in its very absence of attractions, so that any visitor mildly looking for a room would be puzzled and deflected by the sparseness of the terrace, the muted hush of the lobby … There was no sauna, no hairdresser and certainly no glass cases displaying items of jewellery; the bar was small and dark and its austerity did not encourage people to linger.”

The portraits of the other guests at the hotel provide Edith with illustrations of the choices before her (and, we might reasonably extrapolate, many women in her position) as she considers her next steps. They are all lonely in their different ways. There is the overbearing widow Mrs Pusey, who has made a vocation out of shopping, so empty is her life; her devoted daughter Jennifer, secretly far less docile than her mother believes her to be (the novel hints at sexual liaisons between Jennifer and Alain, the hotel’s waiter, and later Mr Neville); Mme de Bonneuil, who lives in isolation at the hotel, expelled from her chateau, now inhabited by her son and his wife, and Monica, living alone the hotel on the instructions of her husband to fix her “eating disorder” and become fertile enough to bear him an heir.

“She (Monica) hates and fears her husband, but only because he has not protected her, and she sees herself condemned to loneliness and exile. In this she is prescient. I see her, some years hence, a remittance woman, paid to live abroad, in such an hotel, in various Hotels du Lac, her beautiful face grown gaunt and scornful, her dog permanently under her arm. ”

Edith also has a friend back in London, Penelope – “a handsome woman of forty-five and would remain so for many years” (one of the novel’s better lines).

To Penelope, men were conquests, attributes, but they were also enemies; they belonged to the species that must never be granted more than the amount of time and attention she considered they deserved.”

The boorish Mr Neville presents Edith with a final choice: a marriage without love or respect, No matter that he has only known her for a matter of days. Neville is looking for a “safe” wife who will maintain his home and offers to turn a blind eye to any lovers she might take. Possibly the absurdity of this proposal is intentional, although Edith seems close to accepting despite her disastrous engagement itself only weeks earlier.

There is something quite circular about romantic novels about romantic novelists. At several points it is not clear whether Brookner is writing about her character, or about the novel itself. When Mr Neville, in an extraordinarily clumsy attempt at seduction, insults her, Edith

“to contain her anger…tried various distancing procedures..the most productive of which was to convert the incident into a scene from one of her novels”.

In her sad letters to her silent lover Edith adopts the role of narrator of the novel, recounting various scenes of minimal activity by the other guests (indeed this is a novel where so very little happens other than walks being taken and coffee drunk that we might almost be in a Virginia Woolf novel, whom we are constantly told Edith looks like). Later Edith consoles herself with the thought that

“Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid.”

Is this what we are reading – simply an act of consolation, a distraction for the ill-at-ease? Intended or not I can’t think of a way in which Brookner could have more clearly reminded the reader that this is just a novel, her characters are not real, and all this never really happened, something that other novelists are at pains to conceal. This is not some Brechtian ultra-realistic narrative however, but a story about a woman thinking about her life.

The tone and pace of the novel are consistently grey and slow, but there was one scene towards the end of the novel which jarred acutely. Mr Neville is proposing marriage to Edith. He is essentially a well-groomed thug, and manages to insult her throughout the proposal. (If this is intended to remind readers of the clumsy first proposal in Pride and Prejudice, it doesn’t). Upset, Edith starts to weep, and his response is startling:

“Edith, said Mr Neville. Please don’t cry. I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her. “

If that wasn’t bad enough, and it is, a few moments later, while she sobs on his shoulder, he muses:

“You are very thin…I am afraid that I might break you in half”.

It is possible Brookner did not intend the threat of sexual violence explicit in this line, but it is hard to imagine otherwise. Most women would I suspect want to get as far away as possible from this man, but Edith meekly accepts his proposal.

Brookner is not a bad novelist. Her use of language is controlled and precise. The Penguin edition of the novel mentions that Brookner “is the author of 24 novels, many of which are available in Penguin” – that “many” is quite poignant. It is however a puzzle why this novel was considered the best written or published in 1984. It’s not the first unusual decision by the Booker panel, but it is one of the strangest.