MApril  & May 2014
28 May 2014 ~  A Summer of Drowning

The heading isn't a reference to the number of rainy days of late. It is the title of a novel by John Burnside that includes three drownings.

This ambitious book is for the most part successful. For a  start, John is from Scotland and the story unfolds in the far north of Norway, apart from a brief trip to England. And the narrator and most other characters are Norwegian. Without knowing the name of the author, I might have assumed it was written by someone who had grown up on one the islands near Tromso because of the powerful sense of place conjured up.

John is also a noted poet and subtle use of language helps both with evoking the location and the impact on the psyche of the all day light during high summer and the isolation imposed by deep snow. He is also good with complex characters; no one is without credible eccentricities if not human frailties. Those who crave simple heroics will be disappointed.

The least successful part for me was the approach to narration. Liv is writing about events that took place ten years earlier when she was a somewhat lost late adolescent marking time between the end of secondary school and deciding what to do at the end of summer. She gives us both what she thought at the time and her take on behaviour - hers and others - a decade later. So a great deal of the book is coming from her head and at times the volume of her ideas is too great for this reader. However, I would say that Burnside pulls of this type of reflection as well as any other author I can think of.

You will find the novel received mostly four star reviews at Omnivore and was shortlisted for the Booker in 2011.

17 May 2014 ~ RSC's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

We saw the RSC's productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies this week Both were excellent in terms of script, acting and direction.


Special praise for Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. He was on stage for most of the two productions and consistently complex and convincing.


I didn't much care for the jungle gym suspended high about the stage. It seemed to spoil the otherwise simple yet effective design. Apart from adding some interesting shadows, the metal frame was mostly a distraction. I'm sure the shadows could have been created in other ways.


The plays had the intensity of one of Shakespeare's better dramas, but more immediate because the language is modern and, for me at least, the two novels provided useful background.


I had a writing tutor who was sniffy about Hilary Mantel. Search me why anyone would think she was not a first class writer and across a range of genres. Books such as Fludd and Beyond Black are very different from each other and her historical novels.


9 May 2014 ~ Kenwood & Craig Brown

Sue had booked for the Vikings Exhibition at the British Museum. The tickets were for 10am last Tuesday. She waited until Monday morning before cancelling due to the scheduled strike on London Underground. About an hour after re-booking for June the strike was called off.


Kenwood House was the substitute; our first visit there since it re-opened last November after refurbishment. For example, the library ceiling has been re-painted in splendid colours arrived at after research into what they probably were at the time the house was first occupied.


As well done as the refurbishment is, it seems to this occasional visitor like gilding the lily as the house has so many wonderful works of art. The rooms are also better lit that some other stately homes - see below. Items on display include a self-portrait by Rembrandt and garden-sited sculptures by Moore and Hepworth set off, this week at least, by the colours of azaleas and rhododendrons.


And this evening we had tickets for Craig Brown and Friends at the National Theatre. The production celebrates Craig's 25 years as a writer for, among other publications, Private Eye. Given he has written so many parodies of diaries it was hard not to expect much humour from the show. And that was the case. Modest man that he is, he shared the stage with five others who helped him bring the diary entries to life. The finale was a satire on dumbed-down BBC productions using the imagined coverage of Prince Philip's funeral.


The programme handed out to the audience is also written by Craig Brown and it so funny I would have reproduced it here were it not copyrighted.


May 2014 ~ Stately Homes of Buckinghamshire

We visited two National Trust Properties in Bucks last Thursday. Hughenden Manor is best known because Disraeli lived there.

The current dwelling is Victorian with traces of Tudor building in its basement. Although the house is large enough to be called stately, it is more the position, grounds and size of the estate, especially one so close to London, that make it grand. In particular, the south-facing windows have a view of a simple but elegant long garden and hills.


We drove on, passing through some wonderful rural lanes and masses of bluebells, to Waddeson Manor. The scale of the house is inhuman. Distant ceiling might be advantage in high summer, but make rooms near impossible to heat. And then there would have been the great distances which servants would have walked, often carrying heavy loads, to service the house.

In a gin palace of such proportions, it would be amazing not to find many interesting and beautiful pieces. However, taken as a whole, Waddeson is a monument to poor taste.


Thank goodness we went at a quiet time. The Waddeson car park is vast.


The day was overcast. While we were lucky to avoid heavy rain, both houses have many rooms that might appear more attractive and easier to view on a bright day. It seems that many of the blinds and curtain are permanently down and artificial lighting is often minimal.  Can one take a torch into a room kept dim to preserve its contents?


25 April 2014 ~ A Very British Killing by A.T. Williams

A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa  won the 2013 Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Andrew Williams, a professor of law who also has an interest in literature, has described his book as a “forensic detective novel”.


My interest in the death of Baha Mousa in 2003 is long standing. I was working with survivors of torture as news of atrocities committed by coalition forces in Iraq began to surface. All my clients were from other countries and their abusers had been fellow citizens. It was shocking to learn that my taxes were contributing to paying servicemen who indulged in gratuitous violence and that the Ministry of Defence and many tiers of officers had allowed this to happen if not encouraged it through nods and winks in support of intelligence gathering.


One response to abuses by the USA and UK in Iraq was my chapter, Justice, Torture & Restoration in Justice as a Basic Human Need,  edited by my former professor of Clinical Psychology. Another was my novel, Mr Vitriol, which deals with bullying within a military camp and was dedicated to the memory of Baha Mousa.


Baha died while detained at a British base in Iraq after suffering extensive injuries over three days from many British privates and NCOs. A post-mortem photo of the face can be seen. For those who would prefer not to see the injuries, here is a brief summary of them. “A face distorted, almost unrecognisable, bloodied and swollen. A torso livid with huge swathes of bruising. Wrists with rings of cut flesh.”     


Despite the obvious level of injuries and junior army medical staff noticing other signs of trauma, the army doctor who attempted to resuscitate Baha Mousa insisted that he saw no more than a little blood around the nose. As Dr/Captain Derek Keilloh was struck off for failing to the record injuries and not checking on other detainees after seeing Baha, he is the only officer at the base to have had an incontrovertible finding recorded against him. Supporters of Keilloh feel aggrieved by this. I share their sense of outrage, but it doesn’t lead me to conclude that the doctor should be allowed to continue to practice.


A Very British Killing is rigorous in making clear what is established and what is conjecture. The writing not only raises serious questions about the English judicial system as revealed in the military court that followed Mousa’s death, but also reinforces an issue already raised, for example in rape cases; the role of aggressive defence barristers with witnesses who have survived traumatic violence.  And especially when there are multiple defendants represented by different counsel.


Williams shed lights on the way the Army in Iraq either deliberately or through collusion watered down the requirements to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention and other legal requirements. He also asks how long before the requirements are yet again misunderstood by our soldiers.


The book is, of necessity, a harrowing read. Even though I had followed the story in the press and am familiar with parts of the 2011 Gage Report (into the death of Baha Mousa), I was still staggered and shocked by much of William's content. It is disturbing to read of many young squaddies taking part in beatings and kickings of hooded and handcuffed Iraqi detainees, the direction given to this violence by NCOs as well their own assaults, and the indifference of officers who either knew or should have known that systematic beatings were taking place.


The building in which the abuse happened was not in some remote corner of a large base. Indeed, much could be heard outside as doors were so open that privates visiting the base for other duties were able to watch from outside and even wander through and discuss what was happening. One person even videoed part of the mistreatment, though not the worst of it.  


20 April 2014 ~ Report on Experience by John Mulgan

Good Friday traffic crawling on the M40 led us to abandon a trip to Disraeli's stately home and stop in Uxbridge for lunch. The local Oxfam shop was open and I found there a copy of Report on Experience, a book I had meant to read years ago after  seeing a review of Long Journey to the Border, the biography of John Mulgan by Vincent O'Sullivan. This biography will be available as an e-book in May, which is especially welcome as printed copies are hard to find.

For those who don't about Mulgan, he was a second-generation New Zealander who went to Oxford in the 1930s, rose to become a British Army  lieutenant-colonel, saw action in North Africa and was awarded a Military Cross for work as a special agent in occupied Greece.

In 1945 and at the age of 33, he took an overdose of morphine in Cairo shortly after having returned from liberated Athens. He was not an addict. There are reasons to think that the civil war in Greece, its atrocities and Churchill's policies for that country contributed to Mulgan's suicide.

He wrote not long before he died: 'It took me to the age of thirty to stop being frightened, not just of physical things, but fears of what people thought of me and other fairly useless considerations."

Mulgan was also a published poet, novelist, journalist, broadcaster and had worked as a literary editor. Report on Experience, which he sent to his wife as a draft six weeks before dying, shows writing talent. What a shame we do not have the finished work.

Nevertheless, I wonder, had he survived, if Mulgan would have attained a reputation like Orwell's. They shared disenchantment with left-wing authoritarianism while supporting a much fairer society. And Report shows a wide range of interests that Mulgan commented on with insights and without pomposity.

He describes New Zealand and its European settlers and their culture, comments on class and other aspects of UK life, reflects on what makes for good military morale, the qualities of a good battalion commander and the nature of war in general as well as the partisan experience he witnessed and contributed to in Greece after being parachuted in.

Mulgan's one novel, Man Alone, published in 1939 is credited as the first work of fiction to tackle what it means to be a New Zealander.

A short biography of Mulgan

4 April 2014 ~ Alice Munro & Jonathan Franzen

I have just finished reading Runaway, one of Alice Munro's more recent (2004) collections of short stories. Her first collection came out in 1968 and her fourteenth in 2012. I have never been to Canada yet feel I know well that country over the span of the twentieth century from her tales.

The introduction to Runaway is by Jonathan Franzen. I almost skipped this because I did not much care for his two very successful novels, The Corrections and Freedom. I am glad that I did read his introduction as he had a lot to say about the short story in general as well as Munro's talent for writing them.

Franzen wrote before Munro received her Nobel prize last year and part of his introduction tried  to account for Alice not having been honoured in Stockholm and the fact that she was little known and valued outside of Canada. I hope the award has increased her readership across the world as no one living in my opinion turns out so many good stories. It is not unusual for me to give up on a short story after two pages. This has never happened with the works of Alice Munro.