Book Review – Any Human Heart

‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd is not a book to read in one sitting. It covers the life of the fictional Logan Mountstuart, a marginal author and journalist from a wealthy family, whose life is woven around a tapestry of the culturally rich and famous in the twentieth century. As a piece of literature it is deep and satisfying; as a study of the human heart I found it depressing.

The book is presented in the form of a personal journal, a device that works well given the time span and subject matter to be covered. The strength of the book lies in the authors ability to write believably as a seventeen year old school boy, an aspirational graduate, a middle aged philanderer and an elderly gentleman.

The interactions with the rich and famous are as contemptuous or gauche as the protagonists situation at the time allows. As a writer and minor art expert he is unimpressed with many in these fields who he meets when young, but will invoke their names in later life to impress those around him. He has an awe of royalty which is, perhaps, a sign of the times in which he was raised.

The book succeeds in getting under the skin of many of the varied characters created to allow the story to flow. Those who we get to follow throughout their lives develop as old friends will; some steadfast and likeable despite their flaws, others whose selfishness and egotistical tendencies increase discreditably when they age. As in life, those who appear to succeed are often not those who deserve the accolades.

The book provided much food for thought and was best enjoyed in small chunks to allow for frequent processing of information and development. It was beautifully written, evocative and offered a depth that is rare. So why do I have reservations about it?

Much as I hate to generalise about these things, I suspect it may be a man’s book. The woman were there largely for background and sex; the men seemed obsessed with their virility, their ability to obtain sexual satisfaction driving much of their decision making. For all their many accomplishments and achievements, few seemed to recognise the value of anything other than this physical fulfilment. If that is how men think, then they are considerably more shallow than I give them credit for.

Perhaps it was the fact that the hedonism of youth did not subside until old age that irritated me. Despite a period when he was content to be happily married with an adored young child, subsequent behaviour ensured that this was not a state that he could repeat. If a mistake can only be made once, after which it becomes a choice, then Logan Mountstuart chose to be foolish for much of his life.

The author created a character who was given every opportunity to succeed in life. From his public school eduction, through his time at Oxford, to his early success as a writer; his contacts allowed him to move amongst the best in his field and be regarded as an elite member of the cultural club. His inability to perpetuate these jump starts to his career must be all too common, but it was his inability to be a likeable human being that killed any sympathy I may have felt for the character. Even allowing for the hardships that he endured from time to time, he ended up with more than I felt he deserved.

I found the middle section of the book, his middle age, the hardest to read. I wonder if this is because I am middle aged and wish to think that those around me are better than that which was portrayed in this book. It is to the credit of the author that he has created such a believable set of characters and annoyed me so intensely.

I preferred the penultimate few pages to the final ending, which felt a little weak to me after such a powerful, roller coaster ride through a life lived in numerous countries on four continents amongst a cast of the great, the good and the infamous. Thanks to the recommendations that caused me to add this book to my reading list, I had high hopes for it. I was disappointed not by the quality of the writing, but by my dislike of the human heart portrayed.

The shallowness of the men in this book have left me with an emptiness inside. I hope that real men are not as typical as they have been written to appear.

51hRa4ln4rL

The unacceptable passing remark

The weather forecasters tell me that rain is on the way, bringing to an end the cold but sunny weather of the last week. With this in mind I decided to walk into town yesterday as my new glasses were awaiting collection at the opticians. It seemed a shame to spend a dry, bright day indoors.

I walk into town along a series of quiet lanes, cycle paths and footpaths. It is a picturesque route with only the occasional cyclist or dog walker passing by. I always try to smile and exchange a greeting; I see it as a simple, friendly gesture. I am generally wary of strange dogs but realise that most are harmless, as are their owners.

Today I was approached by a large, black, fluffy creature with a waggy tail, smooth hackles and a hangy out tongue. The owner was close at hand and assured me that the dog was friendly – good as gold – just like him, dammit. I was past before his words registered. Was this man suggesting in his friendly, jokey way that if he had not been so good then he might have behaved differently towards me? At no time did I feel threatened, but I was disturbed that this stranger saw fit to offer me what I think he saw as a complement by suggesting that I was in some way attractive enough to attack.

I have read articles in the media that disturb me in much the same way. They suggest that, if a woman chooses to dress in short skirts and low cut tops, then she cannot blame a man for raping her. If I were a man then I would be deeply insulted by this suggestion. Even if attracted to a woman, men will not generally feel an uncontrollable urge to commit rape.

When I was a teenager I used to like to wear short skirts. I did not favour the barely there, belt style, micro minis but rather a mid thigh length, straight skirt worn with thick tights and flat boots. My dad hated this look and told me that it did not suit me. I am not sure if this was because he did not like the short skirts or if he simply thought that they did not flatter me. As I have always had chunky legs in proportion to the rest of my body this may well have been true but was really beside the point. I wore the skirts because I enjoyed wearing them; end of argument.

I still have this attitude to clothes and I still have chunky legs. When I wear skirts and dresses that end a few inches above the knee I am not trying to look sexy or attractive, I just like these clothes. I dress in outfits that I enjoy wearing and neither want nor expect to attract attention. Given my advancing age I sometimes think that I should conform a little more, but then decide that this is not necessary; it is my body and I will dress as I like. If others think my style unattractive or unflattering then I can live with that. I don’t really expect to be noticed and I am comfortable with the way that I dress.

On my journey into town yesterday I was wearing trackies and a hoody (another look unlikely to flatter but very practical for a walk) so nobody could accuse me of trying to attract attention. I can only think that the man who made the comments noted that I was a woman alone on a deserted stretch of footpath between fields. I wonder if he thought that I was vulnerable. Once again the media promotes caution amongst women, suggesting that they do not go out alone for fear of attack. A lone woman is cast as a potential victim.

I am not going to live my life expecting to be victimised. When we read of a woman being attacked we should remember that large numbers travel freely and safely on a regular basis without coming to any harm. Most men are not assailants. There are some of course; it is possible to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and to be unlucky, but this is rare. I will not live my life behind locked doors nor view every strange man as an assaulter just because the media stirs up fear to gain attention.

Having a teenage daughter I have to be careful of the advice that I give her on this subject. With her tall, willowy figure she looks fabulous in whatever outfit she chooses be it short skirts and strappy tops or jeans and a t shirt. When she goes out with her friends I advise her to travel with the pack and to keep her mobile phone to hand but I do not ban her from going alone to a meet up point. It would be impractical and unfair to stop her from going out or to suggest that I should accompany her every time. I have to allow her to gain her independence even if I do worry about her every step of the way. The simple precautions that can be taken to deal with ‘stranger danger’ are one thing but warning her against all men is too much of a sweeping condemnation of an entire gender. I have sons too.

I would be devastated if my daughter were attacked (and would be none too pleased if it happened to me) but I would also be devastated if she were run over by a car. I will not ban her from crossing roads and I will not ban her from going out to socialise. What I will do is to ensure that she understands the potential dangers and knows how to take steps to avoid them. I will trust the boys that she is friends with to treat her with respect and will not assume that they mean to harm her for their own gratification.

While people accept the premise that a girl who dresses provocatively deserves her fate if she is subsequently assaulted, the myth of a man’s inability to control his actions will be accepted and perpetuated. The sexist jokes will continue and the weaker men will absolve themselves of responsibility. All of us, male and female, need to take responsibility for what we do, but how we choose to dress shouldn’t come into it. Our conversation and actions are the indicators of how we wish to proceed. It is those that should be noted and, with the participants consent, may be acted on.

P1010200