Priestley's English Journey

J.B. Priestley may have escaped your notice, since many of us were not around and attending plays or reading novels in the post-WW1 era. There was a fabulous series broadcast on ABC TV about 25 years ago called "Lost Empires" based on Priestley's novel of that name. By the 1930s he was well known and continued to write and produce until after WW2.

My recent bedtime book has been his 1930s one called "An English Journey". It's quite literally a tour around England, taking in various major towns and their inhabitants and industries. It is both informative and a real hoot to read; his observations are classic. His courage and determination to go out to various night spots or factories in each area (it's nearly always raining) yields material for his astute commentary, which often has a humorous side, and quite often at his own expense!

The period in which he travelled was one of somewhat depressed circumstances, particularly in the shipbuilding areas. He also goes to the pottery district and even has a go at turning some clay into a pot or vase at the famous Wedgewood pottery.

I've seldom read a book where I'm so tempted to read many bits out to my dear wife! She doesn't mind, fortunately. That's why I can so firmly recommend this book to anyone of my era - basically post ww2 generation plus or minus whatever. If you appreciate good writing, like a book that's a time capsule, and enjoy a well-turned anecdote with a dash of humour, this will delight you.

The secrets of Bletchley Park were kept for many years after WW2, but are now the stuff of legend. Central to the story, which involved the cryptographers working around the clock to break the German, Italian and Japanese codes, is the Enigma machine used widely by the various arms of the German forces. The most popular part for many is that of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who, among a number of others, used a combination of human ingenuity and mechanical/electrical devices to make that job possible.

What emerges from the book "Station X" by Michael Smith is the number of people involved, which grew from a small select group up to several thousand by the war's end. Turing was not alone in being recruited from the ranks of smart and often quite eccentric academics. You'll have to read the book to get the full picture, but one quote from Winston Churchill bears repeating.

After a tour of the establishment and noting the weirdness of many of the people there, he commented to Menzies, one of the head chaps "I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I didn't expect you to take me so literally."

There are lots of first-hand stories from those who worked there, giving it a great deal of authenticity. It covers the social scene as well as the work scene, with many hilarious moments.

In a similar vein, Hugh Cleland Hoy's book "40, O.B." relates the activities of the predecessor to Bletchley from the time of WW1. "In a quiet wing of the Old Building of the Admiralty a home was found for this most secret of all war work, and there in Room 40, or 40 O.B. (Old Building) as it came to be known, Sir Alfred Ewing and his staff installed themselves." Once again, authenticity is conferred upon this narrative by the fact that Hoy himself worked there, firstly as the principal secretary to the boss.

About Led Zeppelin

Back in the 1960s as a schoolie I was a Yardbirds fan - in fact their album with Jeff Beck was the first pop LP I owned. By the time I got my first separate component stereo in 1972, I had the first Led Zeppelin album. There is, of course, a connection between these things. Jimmy Page replaced Jeff Beck as the Yardbirds lead guitarist - Beck had replaced Clapton - and when the Yardbirds decided they'd had enough and disbanded, Page asked for and got the rights to the Yardbirds name. Robert Plant was originally recruited to be the singer for the New Yardbirds, and when the group did their first concert trip to Scandinavia it was as the New Yardbirds, not as Led Zeppelin. That name change came soon after.

We might ask whether Led Zeppelin were a Heavy Metal group, a Rock Group, or what? There's ample evidence that they were that and more. The big and loud numbers that in the early days made them famous and sold out numerous concerts - to start with mainly in the USA - were certainly full on, full volume tracks. But it's a mistake to pigeon hole them in any one category. A range of styles emerged over time.

I'm reading Richard Cole's book "Stairway to Heaven" at the moment, and it has a lot of background to the group's formation, makeup, development, and career highs and lows. It covers the way each album was conceived and made. He was the manager immediately under the main manager Peter Grant, and accompanied them on tour, organised all manner of things and socialised with them.

Certainly the sound that made them famous to begin with was nothing if not huge and driving. The remarkable combination of Jimmy Page on lead guitar backed by drumming tornado John "Bonzo" Bonham, over a foundation by accomplished session bassist John Paul Jones (the other calm and reliable member of the group!) and fronted by the amazing vocal discovery Robert Plant, was like a force of nature. It made life hard for any group that had to appear on the same ticket, not matter how good they were.

Plant's fondness for folk came out in the progression of songs he and page wrote, and his selection of Sandy Denny to accompany him on "The Battle of Evermore" from the IV album. This was later more evident in his associations post-Led Zepp when he worked with others, notably Alison Krauss.

Clue: before joining Led Zeppelin he was the singer for a group called ObsTweedle! In another connection with my youthful enthusiasm for pop music - I was very keen on Jefferson Airplane, who apart from their psychedelic reputation were very much a folk-rock group - there's this little vignette. To audition for Jimmy Page, Robert Plant sang Jefferson Airplane's hit song Somebody To Love! That did it, he was in.

When discussing Cole's book with a friend (who will remain nameless) he said that Richard Cole was "evil". So far from what I've read he was as out there as John Bonham, who was a bit of a terror, but not necessarily more so! There are lots of anecdotes about the group's behaviour, scrapes they got into and out of, times when they had to pull the plugs of another band to get them off the stage on time, and eventually the success that allowed them to charter a luxury airliner to take them to concerts across America.

I still have a bit of the book left to read, so will add an update when I've finished it. But suffice to say that they stayed together for longer than most, and made a huge impression on concert-going crowds, record buyers, and created songs which are uniquely theirs, not just Stairway To Heaven. I'd also ask if perhaps they laid down the pattern that saw another high-energy group, AC-DC, go the distance as well, particularly in the USA. Interesting to note that Bon Scott, their first and very famous lead singer, started out in a much softer, folksy mode, but became like Plant a force of nature until he died - prematurely - as have others in that line of business.

But before I finish this first section, back to the top for a moment. The name Led Zeppelin got them into a bit of a fight when in Copenhagen for a concert. Eva Von Zeppelin, a descendant of the Graf, objected to them using her family name. They almost had her on side when she saw the cover of "that album", with the Hindenburg going down in flames. The upshot was that they appeared in Copenhagen briefly as The Nobs!

(to be concluded later)

A Tale of Success and Excess - Richard Gill's Autobiography

If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.* Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

Lots of music lovers would have met Richard Gill via the Oz Operatunity TV show a few years back. He was the head judge in that process of assessing newbies to the world of opera, all of them hoping to get a chance to appear in a production at the Opera House in Sydney. In the end, two were chosen, one soprano and one bass, and both appeared in Rigoletto for at least one act.

Gill's own story is just as compelling. He takes us back to Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, when attending a Catholic school meant run-ins with stern disciplinarians, particularly for a boy who pushed the envelope a bit! Some of those teachers crossed the line into harsh, perhaps even sadistic territory, and some of them met the protective fury of Richard's strong, even daunting mother.

His entry into the world of music was via choral singing, then piano lessons, and onward to a music-oriented teaching course at the Sydney Conservatorium. While teaching was not his first choice, he threw himself into it with such determination that he succeeded in making a big impression wherever he went.

A career in music is never going to be a cakewalk, but Richard's path has been of such peripatetic variety, not just across Australia but around the world, that his family must have been very resilient to stay on an even keel. He pays tribute in his summary "Heaven is your family, Hell is within you, and Purgatory is writing your memoirs". There is indeed a lot of honesty in this book, and while he has a lot of good things to reflect on, he doesn't shy away from about telling of failures as well.

Carl Orff is most famous for his rather dramatic work "Carmina Burana" for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. My first experience of this was a production for television made in Germany in the 1970s. It is still a marvellous piece of production, and was intended as a tribute to Orff by being done exactly as he would have wanted it. There have been numerous live productions around the world and around Australia, often harnessing local talents both professional and amateur, but this one for TV must be the benchmark. It is very special indeed.You might care to watch it on You Tube here.

Gill's encounter with Orff was in the master's somewhat less famous but very worthy project known as Orff-Schulwerk, a system of early music education for children. The Australian product, all arranged by Richard Gill, is called Have You Any Wool? Three Bags Full. It's a collection of nursery rhymes and traditional songs, many of which you'd be familiar with, but re-arranged to give a series of tempi, percussive and other instrumental textures, melodies and harmonies. My copy has some sixty tracks, originally issued on LPs, and it arrived in the house way too late to be used on our children, so the grandson was the first guinea pig. He loved it. We started out by making it the soundtrack to his meal times when he was about one year old, and he showed such obvious enjoyment that this continued until he became, eventually, more into Thomas The Tank Engine and Fireman Sam. But the groundwork has been laid by Schulwerk. He has been indoctrinated, and there can be no escape from those silken, sonorous chords.

Opera is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the musical arts, combining orchestra, voices and dramatic content. This is where Gill is most at home, as a vocal coach, conductor, producer and whatever else he chooses to do. Opera is not the easiest part of the classical spectrum for beginners. It's very difficult for singers, and can be quite challenging for newcomers in the audience, live or on record. I've been trying to broaden a friend's horizons musically for a couple of years now, suggesting a mixture of works that he should get to know. I count it as a huge compliment that he says I have rekindled his deep love of music, and he is most grateful for that. But I have not been able to get him over the line to loving or even tolerating opera. Perhaps we'll get there yet, but it has been the most definitely rejected form to date. Not even Carmen could get him to listen and enjoy.

So, like Richard Gill, I have to be thankful for the good, and leave the bad behind. I can thoroughly recommend his book. There's a wealth of humour there to leaven the mix. It's easy reading, episodic and something you can dip into repeatedly, a bit at a time over time, without losing the plot.

*I have endeavoured all my adult life to have an excess of music, but as yet the "surfeit" has done little to reduce the appetite.

Chesapeake - by James A. Michener

The last in my series of Michener works, and in many ways the most satisfying. Perhaps I find the area more interesting than Alaska or Texas. Michener's approach remains similar in that he starts early, before the Europeans arrive, and stays with the individual families through generations. The timeline is from the 17th Century all the way to the Nixon era. I thought he went a bit too far back in Alaska, to pre-historic times, but with this one he was almost restrained. I say almost, because he doesn't quite know when to stop. It's a bit like some composers having an over-long coda.

There's some resonance of Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy) in the finale. Instead of Hardy's "… the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess", we have the suicide of a man, a Quaker, who had fallen short of his own ideals when involved in politics. It's a downbeat ending to an epic tale, part farming, part seafaring, part American Revolution and the eventual conflicts around slavery that led to the Civil War.

But back to the locale. Chesapeake Bay is a vast inland body of water, with many inlets, many rivers flowing into it, some islands, and originally teaming with wildlife. People settled at various points in the early days, claiming land before there was anyone except the Indian tribes to contend with. Some of these were passive, others aggressive. As has been repeated all over the world, the Europeans become dominant while the native population shrinks and eventually is eclipsed by the new culture.

Agriculture had its phases. Initially food crops, then cotton became king, with slave-labour allowing large production with a view to supplying England. Later it was back to food. Fishing was a central occupation, with fish, lobsters, crabs and oysters all plentiful. If you have watched "Carousel" and remember the boating scenes, it's pretty much the flavour I imagine existing on Chesapeake Bay, with the locally developed skipjack boats - see below. In the early days, and really until a modern road system happened in the 20th Century, everyone went around in boats of some sort. A trip to Baltimore was a boat trip, not road or rail.

Ship-building has an important place in the narrative, as it did in the time of sail. The evolution of better, faster cargo-carrying ships, warships and fishing boats all feature here, but could have done with some illustrations. The comparatively cumbersome sailing ships of the 17th and 18th Centuries were made obsolete by the sleeker lines (and more sails) of the 19th Century clippers, which cut down trans-Atlantic times and aided the trade in both directions.

Slavery vies with the Chesapeake Bay itself for top billing. Michener's social justice conscience is always present, as are the Quakers with their determination to do the right thing. Helping slaves to escape to the north was risky, but these people were at the centre of the "underground railway" as it was called. At times you might feel that it's less a story about the locality, and more about the human interest, but that's Michener's way.

As with the other books by Michener, this one is easy to dip into as a bedtime read, being episodic in structure. You can interrupt this process as often as you like and not really lose the plot. Again, he has a Dickensian touch in his characterisations and the pursuit of family histories through good times and bad. We get to know the Steeds, the Paxmores and the Turlocks, and many others. They are a varied bunch, from gentlemen farmers to backwoodsmen, fishermen, and in some cases pirates and slave ship owners.

A recommended "good read", as are his other works.

With that, I, the president of this website, have "finished my sport with Michener". (hat tip to Thomas Hardy, last page of Tess of the D'Urbervilles)


17/11/2015 - Every Spy A Prince

Much has been written about the Israeli secret services for many years. Their achievements have at times been epic victories, and at others epic fails. This book has an incredible amount of inside info, and starts in the beginning, in the days following the declaration of the state, with "the old man", David Ben Gurion fully in charge.

What you'll read about is firstly the procession of heads of the various branches. Most served their time with distinction and dedication, many went on to higher office. Everyone knows the name Mossad, but there are other entities like Shin Bet, Lakam and Aran, each with their own baileywick, and each with tales to tell. In this volume you'll get a lot of extra detail about some events, but it is chiefly about the organisations and their personnel rather than a case-by-case examination of operations. We do, however, get enough case studies, and a lot about one famous spy, an American (Jonathan Pollard - see update below*) who offered his services to Israel. The acceptance of that offer was unwise, probably counterproductive, and is a central plank in the authors' thesis on Israel/USA relations since that time.

A lot of Israeli leaders over the decades have come to power with a background in the security or espionage network. It may be a good thing for leaders of such an often threatened state to be well aware of the constant machinations against them, and the various means of countering them. It also gives them a more realistic feel for the value of the advice coming to them as members of the executive, or even Prime Minister. It's a lot harder to do a snow job on a former head of Mossad - or the CIA for that matter - re the practicality and value of a planned operation which seeks his or her approval.

There's an Australian connection too, for it was here in Sydney that Mordecai Vanunu came to live, converted to Christianity and might have faded from view. But someone convinced him to go to London to get his story published in a high-profile UK paper. Bad move: they found and (to cut a long story short) abducted this guy - who had spilled the beans about Israel's nuclear facilitya at Dimona. After reading this section you might wonder why he was hired to work there in the first place, being the wrong sort of character. That's part of the charm of this book - it doesn't gloss over the failures. It isn't just about the successful ops, but genuinely tries to be a comprehensive history - up until 1989 at least.

There are quite a few positive reviews at Amazon, and the book can be obtained fairly cheaply from there or from ebay - UK sources are best, their postage is much better.

*UPDATE - 21/11/2015: Jonathan Pollard, a US Navy intelligence officer who fed secret material to the Israelis, has just been released from prison after 30 years.

7/8/2015 Texas - by James A. Michener

James A. Michener has an enviable record of achievement as a writer, and as a purveyor of popular tales that succeeded in other media. His tales of the South Pacific became the Rogers and Hart musical "South Pacific". An offshoot in the 1960s was the TV series "Adventures In Paradise", which strictly speaking owed little to Michener's book (it was under embargo due to rights sold for South Pacific anyway) but benefited from having his name under the title.

I've previously reviewed his book about Alaska, and next up is Texas. Michener blends well-researched historical facts with carefully woven strands of fictional characters. He makes history come alive, and the subjects he chooses are worthy of that detailed attention. I'd call him the American Dickens for his many characterisations of persons large and small, and his ability to keep you interested in the evolving story lines. Michener carefully links his books to real places, to real history, and then fleshes out the story with his adroitly chosen fictional characters.

Dickens, whose evocation of a period and its inhabitants is quite marvellous (he was admired even by Tolstoy) creates his own world, often dreary, but always fascinating in its starkly drawn pictures. Dickens mixed comedy and tragedy with hardly a hair's breadth between them - foreshadowing the films of Chaplin in a way. Michener is not often comedic, but mixes the good times and the bad with sometimes alarming proximity and transitions.

His array of characters in Texas covers a wide canvas. There are the Spanish, always endeavouring the keep their society "of a type", with daughters preferably married off to those with solid Spanish forebears rather than those with mixed blood. The Mexicans become the major antagonists as the story progresses to the fighting at The Alamo and subsequent battles. But in the early stages there are also the frightening Indians of the Apache and Commanche tribes. They were vicious, ranged widely on horseback and killed many settlers, often brutally.

The "Texicans" are the new arrivals from the north, often via Louisiana, who can hail from just about anywhere. There are Americans, Irish, Germans, and whoever heard that land was fairly freely available in this new frontier area. To begin with, it was a province of Mexico. After the battles which were fought against Santa Anna, Texas became a rough sort of Republic before being eventually absorbed into the USA. You mightn't have heard of President Polk, but he was a dab hand at adding territory to the USA.

In this book, as with Alaska, Michener establishes a connection between past and present. In Alaska it was more linear, but in Texas he jumps backwards and forwards using a present day panel of academics and prominent people to discuss what went before and how to interpret it. They have been taskeded with re-telling Texan history, and Michener uses them as a linking device.

This is a fascinating book which covers a lot of ground, all the way from the Spanish explorers to the oil millionaires. I've been reading it in short bursts, and it lends itself to that approach, being rather episodic in nature.

Next it will be Michener's Chesapeake, about another area rich in history.

14/6/2015 - Decoding Alice in Wonderland

Most of us are familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland, and we may even know a bit about Lewis Carroll (more correctly, Charles Dodson). But the full story of how his mind worked, the society he came from, and who all those strange characters represented has become a book in itself, and a very interesting one, by David Day.

Dodson was an Oxford scholar who may have been set on becoming a priest, but didn't follow that course beyond passing his deacon's exams. He did succeed in becoming a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, having no doubt inherited a talent from his father, who had two first class degrees in Maths. He was also a keen photographer, and photographed many of the people who later have been identified as characters in the fantastic story of Alice.

Rather than tell you the details here, I recommend that you listen to the podcast of the interview Rachel Kohn did with David Day, as part of her radio series The Spirit of Things, ABC Radio National. It covers a lot of ground apart from the characterisations, drawing into the narrative the philosophical outlooks of Theosophy, Rosicrusianism, and Victorian morals. The connection made between Dodson's risqué photography of young girls and the segment of the Alice story about the Knave of Hearts stealing the tarts is really something!

Given the dual nature of this posting, I'll have to put it on both the Book and Radio pages.

Alaska by James A. Michener

I'm old enough to have seen many of the TV episodes of Adventures in Paradise, set in the South Pacific, and bearing James A. Michener's name prominently. You can find some examples on You Tube if you're interested. The back story is that he sold the rights to his first book, Tales of the South Pacific (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1948) to Rodgers & Hammerstein, who turned it into the hit musical South Pacific. It couldn't be used for Adventures in Paradise. It's unlikely that he wrote any of the TV episodes, which were fairly vacuous, but having made his name as a novelist based on events in that part of the world - he'd been a Navy Historian there during WW2 - his name on the TV screen was worth something to the producers. I believe a lot of it was shot around Fiji, and I once met briefly the family who owned the lovely sailing vessel used in it.

He set a lot of his major books in locations around the US, such as Texas, Hawaii, and Chesapeake. Alaska sets out to tell the entire story of this frozen frontier territory, and I mean entire. It commences in pre-historical, pre human habitation times. This is a bit tedious at first, but lesson number one is to take this book in smaller doses, as it is both episodic in structure and densely packed with information. How much is fact and how much is fiction? You'd have to have a lot of background knowledge to be authoritative on this, but I'll take a stab at it and say many of the characters are inventions to suit the narrative, but scattered through the long story are actual events, some of which are legislative matters pertaining to the territory's eventual statehood.

The early habitation of native tribes who migrated there from Asia gives way to Tsarist Russian colonisation, and that in turn becomes half-hearted American administration when the territory is sold to America. A large segment of the story concerns the gold rush days along the Yukon, its tributaries, and even a surprise find at Nome, where gold was literally there to be scooped up from the beach sand. Those were frontier days as wild as any in the Wild West.

The beginnings of the Alaskan Salmon industry is also covered in detail, with a lot of feeling for the environment and the impact on the tribes that remained in the pristine wilderness. It coninues on through WW2 and comes up to the modern era.

At every turn there is a human interest aspect, triumphs and failures, love won and lost, wars fought on various fronts. This is a book that HBO or Netflix (or anyone with the resources) could turn into a series and find a ready market. It is made for serialisation, with the proviso that the early pre-history needs to be edited severely for that medium. Lavish production, intrigue, sex and violence, all the ingredients of successful series such as Game of Thrones or Marco Polo, are there to be utilised.

I read Hawaii many years ago. But next, having quite enjoyed this one, I think I'll go on to Texas next, then perhaps Chesapeake, which is an interesting maritime location with an equally interesting long history.

Michener decided in 1997 that at age 90 he'd achieved everything he wanted to, and switched off his dialysis machine. He'd become wealthy and in the American tradition also became a philanthropist, endowing universities and special book prizes for new authors.

I've started Texas - another long story!

The Life of Tolstoy

This will have to be a two or three part review, as the book is 900+ pages of densely packed info.

As soon as I mentioned to my wife that I was reading a book on the life of Tolstoy, she asked how authentic it was. Good question. He lived from 1828-1910, and there are obvious obstacles to anyone trying now to do such a book. Access to documents is one, and the Russian language is another.

Aylmer Maude is probably not a name you'll know, but he and his wife lived in Russia for many years, were fluent in Russian, and had superb access to personal papers. Aylmer Maude stayed with, interviewed and corresponded with Tolstoy himself, translated a number of his works into English, and later had co-operation from family members in providing not just documents but personal recollections, such as from Tolstoy's daughters and friends. The amount of personal correspondence in this biography is staggering. There are many from Tolstoy to all and sundry, but also responses from the others, and commentary from third parties. It is an absolute goldmine of information.

But what sort of picture does it paint? This man is revered as one of the greatest novelists in any language, the creator of War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. So far I have only read about his life as a child, then adolescent, and onwards to young adulthood, with transitions to writer - firstly about himself - then novelist and landholder - in fact farmer.

It's probably not appreciated by anyone familiar only with those great novels that he was in the military for some years, including the famous Crimea campaign. He commanded an artillery battery in the southern areas in and around what we now refer to as Chechnya, and was in a frontline position during the siege of Sevastapol. He saw from a distance the French attack (it was the Russians against a coalition which included Britain and France) which breach the Russian lines, and led to the crumbling of Russian resistance there.

His soldiering days were littered with misbehaviours. He was addicted to gambling, drinking, and womanising. He rebuked himself often, and promised to reform, but it was a long and mostly unsuccessful battle against these habitual failings.

He was very opinionated, and got into arguments with anybody at all, over anything at all. He thought himself right and therefore spoke his mind as he saw fit, which was most of the time. His antagonism towards Turgenev, ten years his senior and Russia's foremost writer of the day, was at time so intense that they nearly came to the point of duelling.

At other times he could be charming and the life of the party. He was interested in the education of children, and spent time abroad studying the education systems in France, Germany and England.

He wanted to free the serfs, but when he became the overlord on the family estate was still capable of meting out punishments to them! Getting married became an objective, as he started to mature, but he was not sufficiently in love with any woman for a long time. This will (I hope) happen in our next episode!

Part Two

Tolstoy did mature and marry, to a lady some sixteen years his junior. By the time he was sixty and she forty-four, she had given birth to 13 children. Some died in infancy and there were also some miscarriages. The countess became for many years indispensible to him in eveyr way, not just as wife and mother but also as assistant in his literary pursuits and business management.

The extended middle period of his life was productive in many ways. He accumulated estates and set up schools for the children of his peasants. He wrote a great deal and started to philosophise more on the subject of social inequity - so much so that I consider him to be a forerunner of the Russian revolutionaries, and perhaps of Ghandi too. He was often censored for writing things against the prevailing conditions and the government. His despair at the problems of the world was deep and abiding, and depression set in until he went back to religion. Russia had (and has rediscovered post-communism) a strong Orthodox Christian tradition. But that wasn't enough for Tolstoy. He had to rewrite everything.

He studied Greek and Hebrew in order to read and retranslate the gospels to his own satisfaction. Such was the power of his image as a saint, a man who despite his wealth and wanted everyone to live with the peasants and forego the modern world's fripperies, there arose a series of "Tolstoyan" communes. Aylmer Maude is at times quite direct in criticising Tolstoy (deservedly so!), and he notes that all of the communes failed, and that city people who went to them and lived the rough life often suffered badly. But such is the power of ideology.

The Count (for a Count he was) became so negative about wealth and property that he tried to give it all away to his family. They were reluctant to take on the burdens he had accumulated. He had not only inherited property and a title but of course also earned income from his writing. He was dismayed when at least two of his sons rejected his world view, which apart from disdain for property, wealth and luxury, also embraced non-violence. They went and joined the army! He expressed some gratitude that his daughters, again at least two of them, supported his views and were a great help to him.

The Countess was concerned that her children needed a base in Moscow so they could be properly schooled, go to university, and generally participate in society. A house was bought there, and she spent more time in it while Tolstoy himself grew tired of the city and retreated as quickly as possible to the main family estate of Yasnaya Polyana. Here he would live simply, take long walks or ride, wash in a nearby river, wear peasant clothing and eat simple foods. One visitor related how he arrived to find Tolstoy making a pair of boots for himself. He was proud of his efforts, but they were not such good boots! From time to time he would go to the distant estates in the provinces like Kazahkstan and take a health cure based on yoghurt drinks called kumis.

At ploughing or harvest times He would join in and rope in anyone else around the place, be they artists or city folk, and get them out in the fields too. He said a hard day's work made him sleep better, another indicator that his active mind needed to be quietened by a heavy hammer, lest he again wander into anxiety and depression.

As mentioned above, there is so much in this book that I have not been able to rush through it. I'll leave the last stages until next time - I still have some more reading ahead of me, some of which will cover the territory shown in that movie "The Last Station" - see the Movies page. It is a story of decline in many ways.

Part Three

As he aged, Tolstoy became more adamant about his basic principles of "passive resistance" and the evils of property ownership. This caused his wife a lot of concern. She had done a lot of work on his manuscripts and saw to their publication. He looked like writing the family out of any ongoing benefit by a series of revised wills, some drafted by the head Tolstoyan, one Chertkov. The later section of this book has a lot to say about the various wills and the machinations as to how Tolstoy's literary legacy was to be handled. It was a very twisted plot, and was always subject to change. He may, some surmise, have been intending to change his will again when struck down by bad health after leaving home precipitously. Tolstoy wanted to be free of all the management of everyday things, leaving him able to think and to write. He cared little for comfort or luxury, but a great deal for principles and his fellow man, particularly the peasants. Even so, it's fair to say he lived in something of a self-made bubble.

If we take Aylmer Maude's sober assessment of each of the main characters into account, there appeared symptoms of poor mental health in all of them over time. He had run-ins with Chertkov over publication of his (Maude's) translations of works into English, and found the man to be unreliable, arrogant and deceptive. Those who could be suspected of having mental issues included the Countess, Chertkov and even Tolstoy himself, whose final chapter is akin to King Lear's leaving home with no clear destination and succumbing to his basic ill-health made worse by exposure.

It was a quite bizarre finale. This man, who was regarded as a saint by many, but who was excommunicated by the church, a man who didn't want any fuss made over him, ended up seriously ill and bedridden in the station-master's home at Astapovo. Even the government, always sensitive to his revolutionary writings, and often banning them, sent representatives. The nature of it requires a quote from the book.

During the week of his illness at Astapovo that country station had been thronged by representatives of the government, including the governor of the province, a special official sent by the Prime Minister, gendarme officers, important railway officials, swarms of pressmen, photographers, cinematographers, and many others.

Having left the dearly loved place of his birth, a tragic fate decreed that Tolstoy, instead of leading the quiet life of poverty and tranquillity he had often longed for, was to give more trouble and be the occasion of more labour to his fellow men than at any previous moment of his life. Besides his family and friends no less than five doctors were in attendance; the station-master had been turned out of his house, many people were living in railway carriages side-tracked at Astapovo for their accommodation; the local telegraphic arrangements almost broke down under the pressure of work upon them, while the telegraph wires and cables of the world were kept busy with messages concerning the great man who lay dying amid such unusual circumstances, and thousands of columns of printed matter about him were written, set up in type, printed and circulated. Never before had the deathbed of a recluse received such publicity.

This book is a lengthy saga, replete with detail and redolent of the authority that Maude has by virtue of his close relationship with Tolstoy and his family as well as his intimate knowledge of the written works, a number of which Maude translated into what I'm sure would be definitive English versions. It's not an easy book to knock over quickly, but is a fascinating and necessarily long one, covering Tolstoy's life entirely, as well as having many glimpses into the lives of others in that time, both well-to-do and peasant people. It would be difficult, probably impossible for anyone else to improve on it.


Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose (1997)

The author is known for his Band of Brothers series, one of the best ever TV programs about WW2. In it, we follow one company of the 101st Airborne from training to D-Day, and onwards via Bastogne all the way to Germany and Hitler's alpine retreat at Berchtesgarten.

At 528 pages including index, Citizen Soldiers is a hefty paperback. The brief here is much wider than what we saw in Band of Brothers. He ranges across all the armies and their commanders, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery and Eisenhower, and goes right down to frontline infantry level with hundreds of firsthand anecdotes and records of engagement. Some of the narrative is drawn from official unit records, otherwise much is told to him personally or taken from other similarly realistic books.

What emerges is for the most part pretty grim. German defence was in-depth all the way from the hedgerows of Normandy to the borders of the fatherland. Some myths are busted along the way. How often have we heard that the Siegfried Line and the Maginot Line were useless relics of WW1 thinking? The allies got to the Siegfried Line and were stopped by it long enough for Hitler to launch his Bulge offensive. It took months of hard winter slog to rebuff that offensive, and then get back to the Siegfried line again! These fortifications and pillboxes on both sides were so strongly built that they could take a direct hit from large field artillery and not crack. The men inside suffered, though. Similarly, the Germans found the Maginot Line to be a tough ask. Both were ultimately breached, but not without great effort and loss of life.

Natural barriers were also devastating, and the Hurtgen Forest became infamous for inflicting losses on both sides. Ambrose is very critical of the lack of good training given to replacements, who often died before they got wise to the ways of the front, within days of getting there. If you survived a month you were a veteran already. There are, however, some notable accounts of actions like one where US soldiers of no great experience but good basic training set up a lethal reception for a column of unsuspecting Germans marching along the road towards a village.

The Bulge was lost despite Hitler diverting plenty of new equipment and men to it. They were supposed to advance and take the copious fuel supplies dumped by the roadside by US supply battalions, and this did work from time to time. But they still ran short of fuel and ammunition, and the resistance of the (to them) inexperienced GIs was much greater than anticipated.

Air power was such that the Germans dreaded moving around in daylight. P-47s did daily ground attacks (weather allowing) on anything they came across, tanks, trucks, trains, artillery installations. US Artillery support could be called in very quickly too, with communication the key to that, as well as accurate co-ordinates, of course. In the end it was a numbers game, and the allies had the numbers of everything. The new German weapons V-1 and V-2 were deployed, as were some superior jet fighters. But too few, too late.

There are statistics galore, and photos from the front. Germans were surrendering in large numbers towards the end, after fighting strongly for way too long. They themselves often questioned the wisdom of diverting forces away from the Russian front to fight the US and Brits, who they'd prefer advanced faster and took over Germany rather than let the Russians have so much of it. Surrendering to the US or British became the most desirable outcome for many.

This is a book which pulls no punches when being critical. It exposes some commanders as being too careful and cautious, others as wasting men unnecessarily. It doesn't glorify war, but reports the successes and the failures. It is highly recommended, a very good survey of the European Theatre of Operations, and the stories straight from the men and women themselves are fascinating.

Chaplin's Girl

The title might be a little misleading, or at least ambiguous, since Chaplin's liking for young women got him into a spot of bother here and there. Virginia was not one of those conquests.

Chaplin's Girl by Miranda Seymour is based on recordings made by a friend of Virginia Cherrill when that lady was quite old, and recounting her many lovers - who were in some cases her husbands! The title alludes to her start in films, which was notably as the blind flower girl in Chaplin's "City Lights". The two were not friendly. Chaplin was a hard taskmaster and required so many takes it must have driven both cast and crew to distraction.

She hailed from Illinois, and some of her antecedents may have had a role in the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, but it was a matter of chance that she ended up in Hollywood and made it (to some degree) in the movies. She was never that keen on the profession, but was certainly keen on the social life. Cary Grant was obsessed by her and wouldn't rest until he'd pursued her to England and achieved a registry office marriage. She was close to Marion Davies (William Randolph Hearst's well-kept mistress) and to Edwina Mountbatten. Her lovers ranged from the unlovely but very witty Oskar Levant to the dashing, polo playing Maharaja of Jaipur. This affair continued before and after her next marriage, to the Earl of Jersey, and wasn't disapproved of by either the Earl or the Maharaja's wife.

Kiss and tell biographies don't come a lot more colourful than this one, and I've recommended it to my wife as a good follow-on from her recent reading of Aunts Up The Cross (see review down the page). It's lightweight entertainment, but offers insights into those times and moves between Hollywood, England and India. In passing, amongst much background info, it deals with some of the rumours of gayness in leading men rather well. More than one woman was able to report that she didn't notice if X was gay, because they were too busy screwing. Read it to find out who.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge Virginia before the book ends. Throughout the narrative she is shown to be a great friend, brilliant company, and still retained the simple down-to-earth character of a country girl. Her work in the UK during WW2 showed strength as well. Many would have stayed in the USA for the duration, particularly if they were American born and raised. Her husband at that time, Grandy Jersey, didn't want her risking the passage across the Atlantic to return. But return she did, via Lisbon, on a strange sort of ship.

Her story is one which has much to recommend it, and it can be enjoyed by just about anybody.

Booktopia have it here, and there are various copies (some in hardback) on ebay at wildly varying prices!

Christopher's Ghosts - by Charles McCarry

I first encountered McCarry via his novel The Tears of Autumn (1974), which examined the assassination of JFK from a totally different viewpoint to those which are once again being hawked around. It was written before Mr. Zapruder's home movie became common knowledge, and may not be as believable now, but should still be well worth getting for its many interesting "insider" bits. I won't give away the plot of that one, which is a good read even if you don't agree with his hypothesis.

His credentials as a writer of espionage novels are impeccable. After military service and a stint as a speech writer for the Eisenhower administration, he was in the CIA from 1957 to1968. He's sometimes referred to as the American Le Carre (even the names are similar!), since his narratives rely more on the psychological aspects and the everyday minutiae of his subjects than on spectacular action.

But make no mistake, he can create plenty of tension while he does that. I haven't read all of his novels, but after revisiting him in this 2007 effort, I think I'll have to backtrack and find some of the others. His main character, Paul Christopher, is featured in most of them, just as Le Carre uses George Smiley throughout his series - although Smiley starts out as a relatively minor character in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Christopher's Ghosts takes us back to Paul's childhood, when he lived with his parents (she from a noble German family, the dad an American writer) under the shadow of the nascent terror of the Nazis. An early dust up with the Hitler Youth establishes Paul's courage, while the young and lovely Jewish girl Rima provides the mainspring for the romance and the drama to follow.

The portrayal of Lori, the well-to-do horse-riding mother who is lusted after by none other than Reinhard Heydrich, is intriguing, making you, the reader, try to visualise which actress might play her in a movie. This is a very visual book, and would make a fine movie. But it would have to be made the old way, with a proper perspective on who are the good guys and the bad. Today, I can imagine that our sympathy with the Jews and with the shadowy Mossad operatives, who come into the story much later, might be twisted out of recognition by a Hollywood where political correctness plays awful tricks with story lines.

There's a central villain, and it's not Heydrich. Herr Stutzer is a middle-ranking interrogator and torturer. Paul as a grown man is still after him many years later, and I won't give away any of the later plot. It kept me glued to the pages until the sudden end.

More about McCarry at wikipedia.

American Sniper, by Chris Kyle

Kyle was the most successful US Forces sniper ever, which means more confirmed kills than any other. 160 confirmed out of 255 claimed. He was a SEAL, which are the Navy's Special Forces guys, expected to operate in all areas, Sea, Air, Land, hence the acronym.

His book is not what you'd call well written, and the philosophical content is not deep, but it is a singular narrative which gains credibility by being from the man himself. To be more precise, it's really a dual view, as he has included segments written by his lovely wife Taya, giving her side of the story. That's a nice touch, even though their relationship is shown to have some problems. The stresses on a marriage of this sort are understandable, and Kyle was nothing if not single-minded in his chosen career. It was more of a way of life for him, even with the constant threat of death.

Snipers don't just sit at a safe distance and fire away without risk to themselves. Kyle operated as an advance guard while other troops moved into an area. He was in the battle for Fallujah, and then Ramadi, which he says was worse! He'd set up a spot where he had a good view of the area the house-to-house teams were going to clear, and then pick off any enemy coming into view with bad intent. He was also at times in the clearing team as well. Such are the PC rules of engagement these days that the enemy had to be observably gunning for the US troops, not just out for an unarmed reconnaissance, for him to take a shot - each kill had to be documented and verified as kosher from an ROE perspective. Many shots weren't taken if these rules couldn't be shown to be complied with - and he had to have a witness.

Some of Kyle's shots were also the longest on record, although he admits that luck plays a large part in these ones. He used a variety of weapons in different circumstances, and gives a good run down on their relative merits.

The training that any special forces personnel go through is punishing, and the SEALs were no exception. You have to be able to take the physical demands of the training and then the violent hazing that they put each other through. At the end of this process, and after actual battle experience, you have highly trained, highly effective men who dispose of large numbers of the enemy in an efficient manner. He became known to them as el shaitan, the devil.

Having nothing to do was his worst fear. He met an untimely end at the hands of another ex soldier back home on the local rifle range.

On Saturday, February 2, 2013, Kyle and a companion, Chad Littlefield, were shot and killed at the Rough Creek Ranch-Lodge-Resort shooting range in Erath County, Texas by 25-year-old fellow veteran Marine Eddie Ray Routh, whom Kyle and Littlefield had purportedly taken to the gun range in an effort to help him with what they were told by his mother was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Local police captured Routh after a short freeway chase, which ended when Routh, who had left the scene of the shootings in Kyle's Ford F-350 truck, crashed into a police cruiser. Routh was arrested just before 9 p.m. the same day in Lancaster, Texas.[25] Erath County sheriffs said the motive for the killing was unclear. Routh, from Lancaster, was arraigned February 2, 2013, on two counts of capital murder, according to Sgt. Lonny Haschel of the Texas Department of Public Safety. He was taken to the Erath County Jail for holding under a $3 million bond.

A memorial service was held for Kyle at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on February 11, 2013. Kyle was buried on February 12, 2013, in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas, after a funeral procession from Midlothian, Texas, to Austin, stretching over 200 miles. Hundreds of local and out of state residents lined Interstate 35 to view the procession and pay their final respects to Kyle.

The book is available from Booktopia and many other stores.

Despite the manner in which Kyle was killed, his widow Taya still supports 2nd Amendment rights to have firearms.

Aunts Up the Cross, by Robin Dalton

This book has been around for quite a while, first published in 1965, and is recognised as a classic short memoir of a family with many idiosyncracies, and many comedic episodes. I picked it up by chance (intrigued by the cover and title, and the many photos) when visiting my mother-in-law, and borrowed it to read. What a cast of characters! There's the father, a straight-talking medical doctor who worked around Kings Cross, having all sorts of people in his wide-ranging care. There were prostitutes, sailors, local shopkeepers, and people called upon him at any hour of the day or night.

The mother, whose hobbies ranged from betting on the horses to cooking for a dozen at lunch and twenty at dinner, and playing bridge with several lady friends. Young Robin once asked one of the ladies if she could watch her drink her cup of tea, "because Daddy said you drink like a fish."

There odd aunts, kindly grandfathers, and a grandmother (Grannie Richardson) who Robin describes as very beautiful, then supports that statement tacitly with photographic evidence, particularly the one at sweet sixteen. The book is liberally supplemented by old photographs of family members and boarders, one who came to dinner and ended up staying for seventeen years. Another, a Mr. Heinz, got way to close to the mother, to the extent that the father nearly left the marriage. He subsequently described Mr. Heinz as "your mother's 57th variety", which is a joke based on old advertising slogans (Aeroplane Jelly gets a mention too) and demonstrates how humour was so important to the family and helped keep them together.

The stories about how mother killed the plumber, and the day the father shot himself, are just two of a multitude of things which had me laughing out loud. This is a thin volume which is chock-full of goodness, to paraphrase another slogan. Robin herself features in events ranging from early childhood through to getting engaged a couple of times to visiting military men during WW2. Her extended family tree shows a lot of Jewish names (Solomon, Levy, Cohen and Goldberg) and she tells of visiting some relatives where the Jewish special days were observed. I had imagined that the majority of Jewish people might have come here after WW2, as many did, but a check reveals that the Great Synagogue was built and opened way back in 1878, so my knowledge of local history was lacking. Her immediate family showed no inclination towards church going of any sort, and were more bohemian in flavour.

To say that Clive James loves this book is an understatement. His foreword reads in part:

To say that Aunts Up the Cross is beautifully written risks making the book sound like a filigree. It is anything but. Social information, moral judgement, comic action and tragic accident are all packed into sentences which have the density of uranium and would also have its weight, if they were not so proportionately constructed that they take off from the page like gliders … soon you, the lucky first time reader of this marvellous little creation, will be in the light yet firm grip of its opening paragraph.

There's a hint at the end of Clive's forword that his own Unreliable Memoirs may have been inspired, at least in part, by Robin's concise (about 180 pages with preface) but gem of a book.

Viking Press, this edition published 1998 by Penguin Books Australia, ISBN 0-670-88305-0

The Books of Tudoronomy - Part One - Wolf Hall

There would be no period of British history that has had more attention paid to it than the rule of Henry VIII. It may have something to do with the six wives. But then there was the overturning of the Catholic church's hold on both material wealth and power, and the start of Anglicanism. There was the regular burning of heretics, beheadings of all sorts, up to and including royal wives.

But whose picture do we have in our heads? Is it the one portrayed by the famous BBC series The Six Wives Of Henry VIII starring Keith Michell (a daunting task - he had to play Henry at every age from youthful and vigorous to old, overweight and failing), or the one in A Man For All Seasons (based on the play by Robert Bolt) which gave a glowing view of Sir Thomas More, superbly acted by Paul Schofield, while making Thomas Cromwell seem the bad guy.

In her prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel zooms in on the period leading up to the annulment of Henry's first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and his ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn. The central character is Thomas Cromwell, whose history as a successful adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry himself is astonishing to read, even in the Wikipedia summary.

Mantel needs no endorsement from me, as both Wolf Hall and the subsequent volume Bring Up The Bodies have carried off the Man Booker Prize, quite an achievement. The intriguing thing about these books is how she gets inside the daily happenings in such intimate detail, and recreates each scene as if she had indeed been there. I've never read so detailed and convincing a recreation. And I'm luxuriating in having hardcover versions of both volumes, a birthday present!

But what's also remarkable is how the characters of all these famous people are painted. Our preconceptions based on more lightweight representations, such as those mentioned above, are shattered. While these are works of fiction, and Mantel is free to invent whatever she likes, there is a feeling of authenticity which must be based on quite a bit of research. There's no doubt it leaves you wanting more.

Part Two - Bring Up The Bodies

By the end of Wolf Hall, Henry's marriage to Anne is already showing signs of stress. Jane Seymour is an unlikely next candidate, but we know from history that this is how it would play out. Throughout Bring Up The Bodies we hear Henry pining for the sweet, innocent Jane. This is because the number of Anne's betrayals with other men continues to grow.

The amount of licentious behaviour woven into the narrative, although hardly ever in great detail, rivals a modern TV series like Underbelly. But it is not this aspect, or the raft of executions, that give Mantel's stories their addictive quality. It is her rich, imaginative conjuring up of the minutiae of everyday dealings, conversations, and scheming. She takes you there, and gets inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell.

When I observed to my wife at the end of this second volume that there were a number of wives to go, she reminded me that Mantel isn't really writing about the wives, although they're central to the plot. She's writing about Cromwell - so there's one more novel in it. But as time goes on, who knows what Mantel might do?

In this book Cromwell is at the peak of his power, supervising investigations of the courtiers and nobles who may have "had to do" with Anne. Henry is shown to be simultaneously powerful but capricious, at times juvenile in his temperament. He pursues hunting and jousting - we hear little of more serious administrative or policy matters.

Everything that is given - estates, income streams, titles - is given by the King, and can be withdrawn in a moment. A fall from grace can be sudden, and the trip to the Tower of London is abrupt. Once there, some time may pass before sentences are carried out, and the living quarters can be good or not so good. The tower was not just a prison, but an armoury and a storehouse. Not on the scale of the Venice Arsenal, but an important institution. The Warden was an important man, and had to be able to deal with all matters, at times diplomatically, and at others with speed and certainty.

Anne's death is dealt with in detail. She hoped for a reprieve right up until the final day, but it didn't come. Her ladies were left to pick up the slight, crumpled figure after the killing - by one decapitating blow of the sword - by an imported French executioner.

A group of nobles were similarly despatched, and decapitation was considered merciful - the alternative was burning at the stake, or being hung, drawn and quartered.

The next book in this series, which hopefully is on the way, will have to encompass Cromwell's own end. For nobody, from More to Cranmer to Cromwell, was spared. The precariousness of existence in those times of plague, pestilence and persecution, can be followed further in the way the next generation - Mary and Elizabeth, the former the daughter of Katharine, the latter of Anne (we tend to forget that) - vie for the throne.


Malevil by Robert Merle

I've been re-reading a great book that I haven't read for about 30 years: Malevil by Robert Merle, who also wrote The Day of The Dolphin. The latter was used as the basis for a movie, but the former remains all but unknown to most people. You have to be careful when ordering it from secondhand sellers, for the majority of editions are in the original French. I was interested to test my impressions and memories, and found that my memories were pretty sketchy. The overall plot trajectory was right, but the detail had all gone!

Post-apocalypse stories are plentiful and were particularly popular back when this one was written. The mutually assured destruction policies of the USSR and the USA made it so, and Europe was garrisoned by US Forces against the threat of a land invasion.

What Merle did, was to take one small group, and first explain how it was that they survived the initial air-burst of a nuke over France. They were the owner of a wine-making chateau and horse rearing property, and his friends. They were in a cave-like wine cellar, sheltered from the blast, heat and radiation that killed so many people and animals for many miles around.

What follows is a rebuilding story, rebuilding production, laws, and preparing to enlarge the "tribe". They have been thrust back into a medieval situation, with virtually no modern technology remaining, and they have to rediscover the lost arts of survival, but more importantly, the art of war. For they are not the only survivors, and some of the others have bad intent.

So, it's not just about vegetable gardens and animal husbandry. Merle introduces proto-politics in the form of a neighbouring village, which has been taken over by a charismatic preacher-tyrant. The narrative builds to a suspenseful thriller style as the battles between the various groups become more deadly. It's winner take all, in a world where the assets are hard to come by, and trust is thin on the ground. You might now conjecture that the apocalypse, if it comes, may turn out to be financial collapse rather than nuclear war. Production of food will always be vital.

The first thing that has struck me on delving into this classic again is the amazing amount of detail that I've completely forgotten. It's as if my memory is of just the movie version (apparently there was one made, but it didn't get good reviews - the story should make a great movie), or a Readers Digest Abridged Novel, and that now I'm reading the full thing. The narrator's early life in the district is told with great feeling, and a bit of gothic atmosphere.

There's something ageless about the French countryside and farming, but I pick up on the fact that some of the attitudes of the author re women predate the feminist recasting of what used to be fairly normal into the male chauvinist basket. Life at first revolves around the breeding of horses, the growing of wine, some local politics, and some mild sexual references. These grow as you progress, and it's fair to say that the book has a liberal dash of both sex and violence, although tastefully done. After the bomb, they become of central importance!

This is certainly a very recommendable book if you can get hold of an English version, or perhaps you read French anyway. Merle was a professor of English, and loved history. According to Wikipedia "He has also written a 13 book series of historical novels, Fortune de France. Recreating 16th and 17th century France through the eyes of a fictitious Protestant doctor turned spy, he went so far as to write it in the period's French making it virtually untranslatable." He should have been able to translate it himself, being so able in languages.

Another book called The Island has a theme of mutineers or castaways rebuilding their society in a manner reminiscent of the Bounty mutineers story, who were formerly on Pitcairn Island but were eventually moved to Norfolk Island. The British sailors intermarried with native women, and families on Norfolk Island still carry those famous names like Christian, the descendents of Fletcher Christian himself. Being a WW2 survivor himself, after capture by the Germans at Dunquerque, the rebuilding theme was no doubt heartfelt.

If you watch the Tour de France on TV as we usually do, it shouldn't be too hard to visualise the situation of Malevil and the surrounding countryside, which can be so charming. But in the book, there are dangers lurking, and the primitive defences of the old castle become essential to survival. Make no mistake, this is a highly evolved form of thriller!

Horse Soldiers

By Doug Stanton

From time to time I get a batch of books from Booktopia, a great company to deal with, located in Lane Cove. I have a stack left to read, but the most recent one is Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. This follows a group of US Special Services soldiers who are helicoptered into Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attack. They meet up with Northern Alliance generals Dostum and Noor (each quite different in character) and lend assistance to their attacks on the Taliban.

There is a wealth of detail about the day-to-day hardships of living and moving around on horseback, as well as the actual battles. The mountainous terrain where they begin is not accessible by motor vehicle, and the paths are so narrow, the drops to the valley below so precipitous, that a slip can be the end of man and beast. There are some amusing anecdotes about the yanks learning to ride, as well as touching moments where the Afghans go without blankets (brought in by the US forces as requested, along with vodka for Dostum!) in order to give them to their horses in the bitter cold nights.

The climax of the book comes after the taking of Mazar-i-Sharif and the stockading of some 600 Taliban "POWs" in the old fortress Qala-i-Janghi. The prisoners rebelled and killed one of the Americans, launching a brutal fight which went on for days, with very high casualties. This event made it onto our news, and at the end featured John Walker Lindh, an American man who had joined the Taliban. The use of precision guided bombs is effective, but can be lethal against your own side if the co-ordinates are wrong, or you're just so close to the target that you cop a blast anyway. Amazingly, even against the enemy these bombs often left somewhat dazed and shaky survivors after what you'd think were totally devastating hits. The toughness of the combatants, on all sides, as revealed in this book, is something to wonder at.

The story of that fight, the close-quarters nature of it, is reminiscent of David Bellavia's book about the battles in Falluja - House To House. That's also highly recommended.

Doug Stanton also wrote In Harm's Way, which tells of the last ship to be sunk in WW2, the USS Indianapolis. It had just completed a mission to take the parts of the atomic bomb "Baby Boy" to where they were assembled prior to the Hiroshima mission. A Japanese sub torpedoed the ship with large loss of life.

Military histories are important books in many ways. Apart from (hopefully) setting down the true record of events, they also serve as examples of heroism, idealism, and sheer determination in the face of awful events and daily hardships. There is a lot of angst these days about post-traumatic stress, and the damage that war does. If only it was not necessary. But as long as there are those who would like to reshape the world to their particular ideal, be it dictatorial or theocratic, there'll be a need for such action. We should remain thankful that there are men willing to do what has to be done so that we may sleep soundly and enjoy the freedoms and riches of our society. They should be celebrated, and thanked repeatedly. And given robust rules of engagement.

A Train Of Thought

People who know me will be aware of my liking for old steam trains, but, come to think of it, also diesel and electric, provided they have some class! I have a collection of model trains but still have to work out a plan for a layout to run them on.

However, this piece is really about books. Paul Theroux is a famous author, and has written numerous novels, plus at least three fascinating travel books which all have trains as their central theme, them being his principal means of conveyance through the many countries. He's perhaps your more literary version of a Michael Palin, having traveled all the way from the USA down through South America to the tip of Argentina (see The Old Patagonian Express), and across Europe all the way into Asia - see The Great Railway Bazaar.

In each of his books he meets and talks to all sorts of people either on the trains or at each town or city he stops in, and his personality combined with his skill in writing - he was a university lecturer in literature prior to becoming an author - makes these books very enjoyable reading, in fact quite compelling. The only reason he will be less well known to the general public than Michael Palin is simply that Michael is a TV personality, and reaches a wider audience that way.

I'm currently reading his book about revisiting the places he went through in The Great Railway Bazaar. It's a book called Ghost Train To The Eastern Star, and in it he passes through Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, but skipping Afghanistan and Pakistan due to recent warlike conditions (this was published in 2008). India, Burma and other Asian countries follow, and he finds special scenes and people in every one. I haven't finished it yet, but can already recommend it wholeheartedly. In fact all of them!

As the reviewer at Lotus Reads blogspot said, "If you pick up this book expecting it to detail tourist attractions, museums, cultural to-do's, things to eat, places to see etc. you'll be disappointed. To travel with Theroux means to be treated to a cornucopia of thoughts, impressions, observations, judgments, conversations, opinions,reminisces, etc., many of which may not even be connected to the place in question. As jumbled as this may sound, Theroux is in fact a very entertaining and informed writer and you will welcome his observations, even if he is given to making sweeping generalizations..."

Other books by Theroux which are well worth reading are The Mosquito Coast (much better than the movie) and Picture Palace - which has a photographer as its central character. Some weirdness, but a really interesting novel.

E-books Cause Sales Slump

Sales of printed books in the UK slumped in 2012, with a reduction of some $100m attributed at least in part to the popularity of e-books, which have taken 13% of the market.

Oscar Peterson & The Will To Swing

This one has to go in under both Books and Music. The Will To Swing by Gene Lees is a pretty authentic biography of the incredible Oscar Peterson, jazz pianist extraordinaire, born in 1925, died in 2007. I got to know his work principally via the MPS-Conifer recordings, having bought my first LP from that series down at Ashwoods in Pitt Street, Sydney, probably in the mid-seventies.

Peterson was classically taught in his early youth and onwards into young adulthood, but showed a fondness for and amazing talent for boogie-woogie piano playing before he became a fully fledged jazz pianist. Nobody ever denied his proficiency at the keyboard, and he was flat out with engagements all through the 1950s and 60s, to the detriment of his first marriage, possibly also the second. Apart from busy, his trio was also the highest paid in the world at the time. Something of a gadget freak also, he loved photography (as I do), and a friend said he never bought just a camera, but a whole system!

Long associated with producer/entrepreneur Norman Granz, Oscar was dogged by certain critics who seemed to want to write him down as technically great but musically falling short. Lees addresses this in the book, and has cleared up a number of things. Although Oscar made many, many great recordings, it may be fair to say that a fair few were not showing him in full. It was not until those MPS-Conifer recordings, made in particular circumstances in Germany at the home studio of Hans Brunner-Shwer of the Saba company that he had everything down on record exactly the way he wanted it.

Having listened to those recordings so often, and found then to be pretty much unparalleled in the recorded repertoire, I was puzzled by those recurring references to bad reviews. He did about fifteen LP albums in Germany under those ideal conditions where he was under no pressure and could choose the repertoire he wanted, do exactly what he wanted, and was assured also of state-of-the-art recording quality for the period. I can't recommend any jazz recordings more highly than the "Exclusively for my friends …" box set, available now via Polygram. One of them was titled "The Way I Really Play."

There will still be those who say Art Tatum was the greatest, and that Oscar was not as original. Perhaps I haven't heard everything Tatum did either, but to me there's no way Peterson was inferior when at his best. In fact I can find Tatum at times a bit mannered and prone to fairly straight decorative arpeggios, so there!

Lees also addresses the critics' obsession with "improvisation", in a general observation about how musicians actually operate. Dave Brubeck was criticized as not being a great improviser, being more comfortable in a set piece. But Lees points out that a lot of famous musicians, including even Tatum, had "arrangements" that they'd trot out repeatedly, sounding as if they were made up on the spot. In the end it's how well you execute it on the night. Peterson and Brubeck were quite different, but both were immensely popular with the public.

You'll find this book at Amazon or on ebay in new or good used condition for a very reasonable price. It's packed with anecdotes about lots of characters, including the practical jokes they used to play on one another, like de-tuning the bassist's instrument just before the show or at interval. There's also a priceless story about the large frame of Peterson being squeezed into a sidecar to get a lift to a gig one freezing night when the road was rather icy and slippery. The engine was gunned but the sidecar stayed still, causing the motorcycle to do a half circle around it into the kerb! The trip was eventually completed with the driver having to keep the handlebar steered well away to one side to maintain a forward direction.

Lees establishes his credentials quickly on page one, in the opening quote from Ray Brown, probably the greatest bass player of the 20th Century, when asked for another interview to check facts: "Why do you have to research this book?" Ray Brown said. "You were there for most of it."

Oscar had checked the first twenty chapters in the manuscript before his death, and the last three were added to the current editions in 2008, after he died. It's a book packed with information, lovely to dip into each day for a chapter or two. Highly recommended.

By coincidence I'm in the middle of reading "Six Armies In Normandy" by John Keegan, only to find that he passed away on the second day of this month, August, 2012. It's a book I want to recommend if you haven't heard of it already - but it is famous.

There are so many books about D-Day that at first glance you might think "what's special about this one"? As it turns out, many things. Firstly, the author was a child during WW2 and his whole family was evacuated to the rich farming lands, out of harm's way, in the West Country. The opening pages of the Prologue paint a gorgeous picture of rural calm and delightful childish escapades in a landscape which seemed as untouched as it would have been prior to the advent of rail, and just happened to be at the tail end of a thousand years of heavy-horse farming. It is a glimpse of Thomas Hardy country just before it disappeared, of Wessex fading from view as surely as the mythical land of Brigadoon.

Even though Bristol copped the bombing, no planes came their way. After such enchantment, even here, the buildup of forces begins, with equipment and men from the USA filling fields awaiting the big push into France.

Keegan doesn't cover everything about the D-Day invasion (and onwards to Paris), but what he chooses to cover on that day and subsequent ones, he does in such fine detail that you are there. He doesn't gloss over the many mistakes and mishaps, and there were plenty, often with high casualties. I'll have to go back to this account several times to absorb it all. There's a lot that hasn't been included in other books and popular documentaries - and there have been so many. He takes a particular interest in the character of the commanders, so we get more insight into those personalities than is usual. This is an insider's account, and while not comprehensive in scope, it is marvelously incisive in every aspect it tackles.

His command of language is exceptional, so his choice of vocabulary is impressive along with his sentence structures and the way he shapes the narrative. So who is this John Keegan? Here's a brief bit from Wikipedia:

"In 1960 he was appointed to a lectureship in Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the training establishment for officers of the British Army. Holding the post for 26 years, he became senior lecturer in military history during his tenure. During this period he also held a visiting professorship at Princeton University and was Delmas Distinguished Professor of History at Vassar College.

Leaving the academy in 1986, Keegan joined the Daily Telegraph as a Defence Correspondent and remained with the publication as Defence Editor until his death, also writing for the American conservative website, National Review Online. In 1998 he wrote and presented the BBC's Reith Lectures, entitled War in our World."

I've not finished it yet, but already it's a classic. One for students of military history, but also beautifully written, a pleasure to read.

Three Great Novels

You might not have heard of novelist J.G. Farrell, but his books are amazing. My wife used to be a Library Officer, and many years ago Farrell's "The Siege Of Krishnapur" was among the books she recommended to me. It describes a group of British who are under siege during the bloody sepoy uprising of 1857 in India. Based on true events, it is a tale of ordinary people pushed to heroic lengths, told with much dry wit and his usual minutely observed detail.

As a cataloguer she got first look at all the incoming books, and this one opened up a rich vein of reading enjoyment which I am only now completing, being in the middle of "The Singapore Grip", which is set in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion.

These two, plus "Troubles" the one set in Ireland during the era of the Black & Tans around 1919, constitute what some call the Empire Trilogy. This would have become a quartet if he had completed "The Hill Station", also set in India under the Raj, and comparisons to Paul Scott become inevitable. Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, beginning with "The Jewel In The Crown", is another series which is recommended to all who enjoy good writing and the flavours of India at that time.

Farrell finds much more to laugh about, or at least things worthy of a wry smile, than Scott does. I can recommend him wholeheartedly to anyone who's not afraid of very detailed observations of scenes and people, long sentences, and expansive vocabulary. He's simply one of the very best writers you'll ever come across. Sadly he perished by drowning while fishing from rocks at Bantry Bay, Ireland, to where he had moved only shortly before his death in 1979 at 44 years of age. I read somewhere that he had also met an Irish lady, but this new stage of his life was tragically cut short.

"Had he not sadly died, so young." remarked Salman Rushdie in 2008, "there is no question that he would today be one of the major novelists of the English language." Perhaps he is anyway. It is often said of the composer Borodin that his fame rests on a fairly small output. He was a chemist first and a composer second, but his music stands the test of time, with the second string quartet (a quartet of another kind) being one of the loveliest in that form.

Farrell's major works are as exquisitely crafted as Borodin's String Quartet no.2. The books mentioned above are available in very reasonably priced paperback editions via ebay.

Tobruk Remembered In Detail

I'm reading slowly through Peter Fitzsimons' blow-by-blow account of the North African campaign leading up to and including Tobruk. His approach to history in "Tobruk" (published in 2006) is that of the casual storyteller, but the amount of detail accumulates while the scene keeps changing to avoid becoming bogged down in those dry desert sands.

Australians have been in danger of forgetting their heroes of the 20th Century, and Peter has done a fine job of giving them new life in his very readable books. As the Olympics loom again, we are reminded that as a country we do punch above our weight in sport, but there are plenty of other areas where we have a proud record of achievement. Military matters are one, and it is good to see that the attitudes of anti-militarism fostered in some circles has given way to an increase in Anzac Day crowds, and an ability to recognize what has gone before as solid evidence that national character is to be celebrated and not denigrated.

Our military men should not become mere place-name footnotes. Monash, Blamey, Morshead and Lavarack were all notable military men, Generals, but unless their stories are retold in an exciting fashion, the men themselves and their records will be lost. As a Hurlstone old-boy I recall that Jack Edmondson V.C. was also an alumnus of that school, but I confess his actual exploits were not known to me until now.

From time to time you hear it asked about Australia: "what culture?" It's all there, and not all in the military field either. Fitzsimons has also written about aviator Kingsford-Smith, and explorer Douglas Mawson. The man who led the team which made penicillin practical was Howard Florey. Australia still gets a lot of things right in medical research.

For a lot of people these days, history has to be presented on the screen. Without a film or documentary, or at least a web page, the average person will not learn. And they say that unless you take note of the mistakes of history, you are fated to repeat them. So thanks to Fitz, and may I recommend a daily reading session to one and all - it is, after all, a form of home entertainment. But more than that, also self-improvement.

A Time Machine Worthy of H.G. Wells.

Imagine that you could travel back to the time of ships in full sail, and observe the crew as they work the ship and navigate through all sorts of situations, from becalmed in the tropical latitudes to the mountainous waves and howling winds rounding Cape Horn.

Then you jump forward to the age of steam, and ply the trade around the Mediterranean on tramp steamers before joining the cross-Atlantic luxury passenger ships. You are there on the spot as the Titanic goes down, and your ship Carpathia picks up survivors and hears first-hand accounts of the disaster. She sails back to New York with the rescued.

Soon after the Titanic sinking comes the WW1 episodes which include the sinking of the Lusitania off Ireland and the sailing of Mauretania to Gallipoli with troops. Another leap takes you to World War 2, when you are at the side of the captain of the great Queen Mary, which became a massive troop ship. You are looking over the shoulder of the Commodore of the Cunard Line. All this can be done.

The amazing thing is that it was all experienced by one man, James Bisset. He started young in sail, went on to a career in steam, and eventually became the Commodore of the famous Cunard company. His meticulous observations - he must have kept log books or diaries all through his career - are set down with the help of writer P. R. Stephensen, in three volumes: Sail Ho!, Tramps & Ladies, and Commodore, War, Peace and Big Ships.

Everything is told in a matter-of-fact way, with no over-embellishment for dramatic purposes. Some of the things he experienced were quite dramatic enough without that. It is perfect fare to dip into on a daily basis, and what makes it fascinating to me is the authenticity of the whole panorama. I confess to being a bit of a sea-story junkie, having enjoyed all sorts of stories from Hornblower to Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around The World. There are still many I have not read, but this trilogy was discovered by accident when I picked up Sail Ho! At a holiday house on the North Coast of NSW. I have pursued the other volumes through secondhand booksellers here and overseas, and it has been well worth the time and money. They are all good for several re-readings, such is the wealth of detail of those bygone times.

Footnote: Sir James Bisset actually retired to Sydney, Australia after the war. He worked for Ampol in a publicity capacity and travelled extensively around the country doing presentations.