Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Where?

where

Where? by Simon Moreton is a moving tribute to the author’s late father who died in 2017. It is a hybrid of: memoir, local history, art – inspired by the question, where are you from? The book is beautifully produced and provides a fascinating insight into the impact surroundings have on shaping what a person becomes. It is a reminder that places are constantly changing, that time moves inexorably on.

“In my unfocused arbitrary melancholy I raged at the loss of that place, of a building, a function. Is that how the horrific pledge to ‘the good old days’ is made? To plant my flag, while ignoring the irony of having grown up five hundred feet away, in a house built upon layers and layers of other people’s memories, angry that someone else was now doing the same to me?”

In 1987, Moreton’s father took a job as an engineer, working at a radar station serving the Civil Aviation Authority. Situated on the embankments of an Iron Age hill fort, on Titterstone Clee in Shropshire, the view from the top in fine weather was ‘so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.’ Weather was, however, unpredictable with squalls and sudden temperature drops providing memorable challenges for staff and tourists.

The family moved from their former home in suburban Surrey to a new-build house on a small estate in Caynham, three miles from the radar station and adjacent to a then derelict stately home. The locale was rural and quiet, steeped in lore and shaped by past lives and industry. The author revisits key locations, taking the reader on a walk through centuries of past residents’ known experiences and legacies – the marks they left on the area. As a child this was his playground, a place for adventures with his older brother and friends.

“Memories of these woods – pond-dipping, mud-running, grave-visiting, absurdly bucolic pictures – form the scaffolding of my childhood identity. We were a family as any other, thoroughly unaware that the place was a human-made landscape, oblivious to the history of wealth, power, privilege and tragedy to which it was witness.”

The stories are wrapped around the bones of Moreton’s father’s illness – diagnosis, progression and then death within a matter of weeks. As the scattered family come together to keep vigil, the author muses on elements of their personal history. They moved frequently, as did he after leaving home for university. He describes certain aspects of the seventeen years that followed this quest for independence with refreshing honesty – a young man unsure and frequently messing up – and a nod to the unreliability of memory.

“I don’t know what I want. Or rather, I do, but I have neither the experiential common sense nor the emotional vocabulary to work out how to articulate it, let alone go about getting it.”

“he speaks to me about making hard decisions, and being happy, and doing what was right for me. I don’t think he even means the school work or my decisions about university; I think he means for me to stop fighting myself, and make the changes I need to make, for myself.”

The family grief at the impending death is tempered for the reader by historic stories shared – tales of others’ lives and tragedies spanning centuries. Readers are immersed in the Shropshire hills as they too keep vigil. The monochrome artwork accompanying the many accounts and recollections is as poignant and expressive as the engaging prose, photographs and clippings.

where pic 1   where pic 2

A fascinating and moving tribute to an ordinary family man whose legacy lives on through his impact on those he predeceased. A comforting reminder that, despite individual transience, the ripples we make can provide comfort in memory – stories to share and pass on, as the author has done here.

“it’s no surprise that during the period of his illness thoughts about growing up, of how our family came to be and where we were from bubbled up as we sought in trauma and in grief to find common narratives to our diverging life-courses, things that would keep us connected with him and each other.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Waterways

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.

In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.

To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.

“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”

“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”

This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.

The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.

The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.

Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.

The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.

Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many of these were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.

Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

I have read several books recently that intertwine the facts, lore and local gossip about a place with an author’s personal interest and experience. The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees explored Hastings; Hollow Shores provided a fictionalised exploration of Kent. All the Devils Are Here is also focused on Kent although the ripples spread further afield – including to London, Europe and the Middle East. The book contains a series of essays that meander around and muse about the licentious and often nefarious escapades of one time residents from such towns as Margate, Rochester, Broadstairs and Deal. The ne’er-do-wells featured are as likely to be from the decadent wealthy classes as from what may be more commonly regarded as the criminal. First published in 2002 the book has recently been rereleased. The essay exploring Fascism seems particularly prescient.

The Prelude sets the scene introducing Kent as the first commercial bathing resort to offer its eighteenth century, genteel visitors from the city clean air and curative sea bathing. By the end of the century the working classes were also descending in large numbers which led William Cowper to remark:

“Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.”

Certain English, it seems, have long wished to isolate themselves from those they regard as different from them in any way. And worrisome company can exist in the most unassuming of settings – today’s blue plaques will sometimes celebrate this.

Many names feature: T.S Eliot; Charles Dickens; John Buchan; Richard Dadd (an insane but acclaimed artist who murdered his father); Lord Curzon (last Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria, who approved his daughter’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley); Arthur Tester (a stage Nazi and father of Audrey Hepburn). There are more – drunks, cranks, chancers and the egoistic – many remembered fondly for the creative work they left. When the artist behaves badly can this discredit the art is, perhaps, a pertinent question.

Within the essays attempts to monetise the famous at the expense of modern tourists are mocked, these sanitised versions compared to the facts gleaned from the author’s research. Each subject has a questionable side which often inspired a following. Many characters are interlinked, and not just by place.

There is domestic discord, grisly murder, sexual abuse of children, decadent lifestyles, and attempts at obfuscation. The final essay explores the world of homosexual pickups, rent boys and the murder of prostitutes. There is little edifying in these expositions but they provide insight into the blinkered thinking of those who believe they can have whatever they wish for, at whatever cost to their victims – and they often get away with it. Families may have tried to sweep such histories under the carpet but our intrepid author hunts his quarry through a detailed bibliography, personal interviews and visits to locations. He brings the reader back to the time and place where the deeds occurred shining his light into dark corners tourist boards may prefer were left hidden.

Any Cop?: The essays wander in directions that can appear random at times, exploring a wide variety of anecdotes and rumours, unpicking speculations. This is an intriguing collection of essays that offers much to mull as they uncover the lesser known activities of many recognisable names. It is sobering to reflect that, when it comes to human activity, little seems to have changed.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Lansdowne

Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig, by Simon Kerry, is a meticulously researched biography of Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne. Born into a life of wealth and privilege in 1845, Lansdowne would witness immense social and political change at home and abroad. He was amongst the last hereditary aristocrats to wield power by birth. Over a fifty year career he served as Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Lords.

The book is more of a political than a social history and offers an insight into the work required of gentlemen diplomats and politicians in Victorian times and beyond. By the time Lansdowne’s influence waned, towards the end of the First World War, the rarefied world he had tried so hard to preserve faced extinction. He resisted many changes that most would now regard as progress, advocating caution and protecting the rights of landowners by attempting to maintain the status quo.

The author first knew Lansdowne as his great-great-grandfather. Kerry was brought up at Bowood, the family’s country estate in Wiltshire. He holidayed at Meiklour, one of their Scottish properties. He did his PhD in History on Lansdowne’s period in the War Office. His background and connections undoubtedly helped in granting him access to many of the documents from which his research for this book is drawn.

Although Kerry states his wish to be objective in presenting the facts of Lansdowne’s life he admits to feeling quite possessive and ready to defend. This comes across in the narrative which can appear partisan in places. Nevertheless, what emerges is a fascinating account of a life and time. Kerry’s own privileged upbringing will have coloured his views, just as my working class, Irish background will affect how I review the presented facts.

Lansdowne’s paternal forebears settled in Ireland during the twelfth century where they married into native families. In 1658 Thomas, the 21st Lord of Kerry, was paid:

“to produce the Down Survey, the basis of land title for over half of Ireland. As one of the committee allocating land, he bought claims at a quarter of their true value and amassed 270,000 acres in south Kerry alone. He was accused in Parliament of dishonesty, but no vote was taken and charges were never pressed.”

Thomas’s younger son, John, inherited these estates, moved to England and purchased Bowood. He was made Earl of Shelburne in 1753. John’s eldest son, William, became Prime Minister, negotiating peace with the United States after American Independence. He was created the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784.

Lansdowne’s maternal forebears were of Scottish and French origin. The family owned large estates in Scotland. How they were acquired is not disclosed.

Through the ages the Lansdownes have benefited from attendance at top public schools and universities, many then embarking on successful political careers. The subject of this book became Marquess in his early twenties, inheriting debts that he spent his life struggling to repay. Despite this he lived in a manner he felt was required for a man in his position, throwing open the doors of Bowood and his grand London property in Berkeley Square for magnificent dinners. His extensive staff were kitted out in a wide variety of uniforms to suit each occasion. Lansdowne and his family travelled regularly to their homes in Ireland and Scotland. Their lives were not stymied by frugality.

Early in the book, after a run of

“bad seasons, poor harvests, foreign competition and ‘unjust and foolish legislation’ irrevocably damaged farming. Lansdowne had disagreeable interviews with ‘despairing farmers’ and his agents were gloomy.”

Lansdowne managed his estates to pass them on, not for the benefit of those who kept them running. Later in the book he states his resistance to higher wages for workers as he believed this removed the incentive to work harder, and thereby reduced efficiency. The landed classes were paternalistic, providing schools and other community assets, but protected their right to charge rents they set and to evict as they saw fit. They complained of debts while owning vast assets. They appeared unperturbed by the poverty, hunger and inadequate housing suffered by many who lived on their lands.

The book is divided into four main sections covering the key roles Lansdowne played in his political career.

Section one, Home and Abroad, covers his early life and then his government postings to Canada and India. Lansdowne appears to have been well regarded by his peers in these roles. Railways were being built enabling British settlers to spread themselves throughout the foreign lands of empire. Appeasing indigenous populations was part of Lansdowne’s job – the arrogance of the British mind blowing to modern sensibilities. At a dinner in Victoria he stated

“When once it becomes known that an emigrant can arrive here in less than three weeks from the date of his departure from Liverpool, and find on his arrival such a climate as yours, you will I think have plenty of occupants for your vacant lands.”

This was after he had met some of the occupants of these ‘vacant lands’, Blackfoot Indians, of whose spokesman he noted

“behaved very well & I think my visit may have done good & helped to keep him straight.”

On moving to India

“Lansdowne missed the sweet simplicity of Ottawa and Quebec.”

‘Sweet simplicity’ is not how most would describe the manner in which Lansdowne lived anywhere. In each role he would host functions for visiting foreign dignitaries which strained his finances but he regarded as necessary. Even his day to day living required a staff of helpers. It is noted that one year he took no holiday and became quite weary. I pondered if he ever considered those to whom a holiday of any kind was an unimaginable luxury.

The second section, In Office, covers the period leading up to the First World War. Lansdowne’s roles in the War Office, Foreign Office and as leader of the Lords provoked more criticism from his peers than his foreign posts had garnered, although his detractors appeared similar in their approach to governance. The Boer War brought to light how ill prepared the country was for modern conflict. There appeared to be more concern about the monetary cost of rectifying this than loss of life.

With a growing thirst for improvement in the rights of workers throughout the world there followed attempts to reform the House of Lords which Lansdowne opposed. He was described as

“a man who may be efficient in his way and a good diplomatist, but he runs between blinkers, has no broad views.”

The author states that

“Such a view quite overlooked Lansdowne’s ability to see ahead.”

I didn’t recognise such an ability in anything presented. At a time of worldwide social and political change, he appeared intent on protecting his privilege and retaining the status quo. While the country suffered strikes and the threat of war

“The King’s anxiety was so great that he decided not to attend Goodwood Races.”

They truly appeared to live in a rarefied cocoon.

The third section, War and Peace, leads to Lansdowne’s downfall when he writes what became known as his Peace Letter. He was known to be against socialism, woman’s suffrage, and Irish Home Rule. That he advocated peace was at least a progressive move, a recognition of the appalling human cost of war, but not one that the country supported in this form at the time. When the armistice came the author voices regret that Lansdowne was not invited to the peace talks. He was by now politically obsolete.

The final section, Legacy, covers Lansdowne’s final years and summarises his achievements. He is described at this time as miserable and struggling to economise that he may preserve his estates for his successors. He could no longer afford to maintain his opulent London home. Woman had achieved the vote. Ireland had become a Free State. Derreen, his beloved home in Ireland was looted and set alight by insurgents.

“The war altered Lansdowne’s world. He lost a son and his political reputation. His perception of the world and its hierarchy was undone.”

His obituary was typically complementary and he was then largely forgotten, something that the author now wishes to rectify.

The criticisms I make of Lansdowne’s views and actions are because I look at them through a modern lens. He was a product of his time and I am aware that this portrayal should be interpreted in that light.

“With the rise of the British middle class, nationalism and competitive global economies, Lansdowne found his own way of life and class under attack.”

Over a long career he was at the forefront of governance, a statesman widely respected by his peers. He was also a family man although there are only brief mentions of this aspect of his life within these pages. He was moderate, loyal and quietly determined to fight for what he believed was best for his country.

The book includes a detailed bibliography, notes and credits, and an extensive index. There are also two collections of photographs that I found particularly fascinating, offering a flavour of the times in which Lansdowne lived. One omission that I would have welcomed is the inclusion of a family tree. The Lansdownes had links through marriage to many of the major aristocratic families of the day.

The detail provided of the various legislative changes Lansdowne worked on will be of interest to political historians. This is a factual biography more than a personal story. Putting these details in the context of the changing world in which he lived assists in understanding how influential these gentlemen politicians were. Lansdowne believed that the landed classes were best placed to make the British Empire’s big decisions, and that their position and assets should be protected. He failed to grasp that the wider population no longer revered those who wished to keep them in their place, and that they would demand to have a say themselves, perhaps sooner than he was ready for.

I found this a very interesting book to read offering as it did a window into the world of government, much of which I suspect may not be so very different today. The aristocrats may have been replaced by businessmen (many of whom still bear inherited titles and wealth, which they too complain is being eroded) but the factional in-fighting and self-interest remains.

A well researched and presented slice of history. Lansdowne was of his time and did not wish those times to change. He believed power should remain with the asset owning white men who he felt were best able to make decisions for the good of the country, by which he meant to sustain people like him. I suspect there are too many in our current government who would be of the same opinion.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unicorn.

 

Simon Kerry will be talking about Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig at an author lunch in the Shelburne Restaurant, Bowood Hotel, which is situated on the western edge of Lord Lansdowne’s country estate, on 19th February 2018. Tickets may be booked here.

The 2018 season at Bowood House opens on 28th March and will include an exhibition within the Orangery – A Patriotic Peace: The 5th Marquis and WWI

For full disclosure, my interest in this book was piqued by the fact that the village I have lived in for the past twenty-five years is adjacent to the Bowood estate.

Book Review: The Stone Tide

“I’d come to realise that none of this was ours. Not really. A house is an accumulation of lives. It permits you to dwell among its walls for as long as those walls stand. But you will never own it. Instead the house owns you. It takes your money and makes you work hard to protect it until you either leave or die. Then it waits for the next soul to come along.”

The Stone Tide, by Gareth E. Rees, explores how moments in a person’s life affect self and those who come after, the unconsidered consequences of both action and inaction. It tells of grief and loss, searches for meaning in memory, how the stories we tell ourselves at any given time, that we consider fact, shape what comes next.

Gareth moves with his wife, Emily, and their two young daughters from Hackney in London to a dilapidated Victorian house in Hastings. When he walks his dog down to the seashore Gareth is assailed by memories of his best friend from school, Mike, who died falling from the castle walls in St Andrews twenty years ago. While Emily is devoting her time and talents to renovating their home, Gareth researches the history of their new environment, intending to write a book on the people and place.

Hastings has a rich history, and not just of an eleventh century battle. In 1923 John Logie Baird, who moved to the town for the good of his health, built a prototype of a machine that would transform the way people viewed the world. Television wasn’t a new idea, and Baird’s work was superseded by the Marconi Corporation, but the restorative walks he took around Hastings inspired him. Or so says the author. In each of the people he studies he writes elements of their story as he imagines it to have been.

He includes Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and fossil hunter who wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man that was subsequently banned by the Catholic Church. The tome predicted the World Wide Web. Charles Dawson was another local fossil hunter. He desired fame and was not averse to manufacturing archaeological finds to achieve it. His most famous creation, Piltdown Man, was inspired by a conversation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who also, for a time, resided in Hastings.

Aleister Crowley was another infamous resident. His belief in the occult and his own powers are demonstrated during a meeting with Baird on the seafront. All of these people worked in and around places that Gareth visits, examining what remains of their history and legends. He explores the lives and the deaths, reflecting on: memorials in churchyards; blue plaques on buildings; names or initials carved in teenage hangouts; a proliferation of memorial benches.

Emily is deep in her own research, seeking out the best materials and tradespeople as she organises the tearing up of the house and assists in its rebuild. Gareth admits he is of little help, escaping whenever he feels overwhelmed by the state of their home. As well as the challenges of progressing his writing he is plagued by health issues. In a pub he empathises with a collection of stuffed cats who died of suspected smoke inhalation.

“Life was hard. The best you could hope for was a little warmth now and then, even if the attempt killed you.”

Time passes and Gareth is possessed by the landscape and its development as he catches glimpses of other’s lives in shifting time and space. He contemplates the barrier between perceived reality and fantasy. He ponders if such a thing exists, if life is the stories we create for ourselves.

Gareth’s story is shadowed by memories of his friend, Mike, and his lack of progress with his book. He compiles a wealth of research but it lacks the coherent structure he initially envisaged. Meanwhile progress on the renovation has stalled due to lack of funds. Emily’s frustrations finally pierce Gareth’s self-absorption. Just as Mike’s actions affected Gareth, and forever changed his parents – a reality that Gareth could not see at the time – so Gareth’s actions have affected Emily.

The writing is a fascinating smorgasbord of interlinked history and memory. There are many references to factual accounts but I preferred not to dig further into the references provided at the end. The truth or fiction of what is being explored is both irrelevant and a key point in the narrative. It is a story, as is everything anyone learns or experiences. We are shaped by the time and place in which we live, just as we are a factor in shaping it. Each individual’s accepted truth is unique.

An unusual, deeply personal account that offers up many wider issues to consider alongside a psychogeography of Hastings. Beguiling yet brutal in its honesty, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, by Hope Nicholson, is a fun and informative history of nine decades of North American comic books, concentrating on the female characters portrayed therein and their evolution. As I have come to expect from Quirk Books this is a well presented publication. It is laced with humour and appreciation for the form, written by an author who knows her subject and engenders enthusism in her readers – even one like myself who started knowing little more about comic books than can be gleaned from the films and TV shows they have inspired over many years.

Divided into nine chapters, one for each of the decades covered, these start with a summary of key developments in comic book creation and dissemination over the time period. There follows an introduction to a number of individual female characters who first appeared in the decade, whose stories highlight the trends of their times. Illustrations are included of the subjects in action. This is not intended to be a definitive list but rather a representation of changes in the industry.

Comic books were first created for titillation and in many ways this has not changed. Apart from in the 1940s, when there was a shortage of men due to war, female writers and artists have been in the minority although they have always contributed.

The 1950s brought a new puritanism and a Comics Code of Authority was introduced. This clampdown on permissiveness led many to believe comics were only for kids. Storylines could still be suspect with romances between teachers and pupils, children and adults, going unquestioned. It was accepted that clothes would be torn off in combat and sexual attentions forced when not freely given.

Comic book stories are often improbable and somewhat silly but this need not detract from the readers enjoyment. The artwork is generally excellent even if impractical costumes and curvaceous figures feed the white, male, hetero illusion of desired femininity.

The 1970s saw a return of sexually explicit publications as an underground movement was created. By the 1980s comic books had moved off the news stands and into Comic Book Stores leading to a dwindling female readership. This situation was turned around with the growth in conventions which enabled women to connect with fellow fans away from the boys club atmosphere of the store. As webcomics have been developed female readership has once again markedly increased.

Although these changes have enabled more diversity, which doesn’t go down well in certain quarters, there is still oversexualisation of characters, gratuitous violence and comic books being created as porn. However, there have always been a wide array of genres – romance, fantasy and snarky teens as well as superheroes. I learned that Margaret Atwood has made some fairly silly comics too.

This book was an education on a type of publication I have had little exposure to, a celebration that accepts the criticisms of many of the common forms and depictions. I now have an increased affinity with certain types of comic book afficionados. Most of all though, it was an interesting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.