Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Thought and Exploration through Books

"A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear that it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy". - Edward P Morgan

I have enjoyed reading other Blogs when the contributors mention books that have been of interest to them, or have been influential in their lives. I thought that I would indulge myself by mentioning a number of books that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. They have either been recently read by me, or are currently being read. Be not afraid, my comments will be brief.

The Likes of Us by Michael Collins is a study of the white working class, particularly in and around Southwark, South East London. It was first published in 2004, and though I've had it for a number of years, it was only recently that I decided to read it. I thought that it was going to be one thing, but it turned out to be another.

Collins believes that the white working class have been demonised over the years, and this book seeks to correct what he sees as slurs and caricatures. The book is Collins' journey into his family history in South East London, and he discovers that social researchers and religious missionaries from other classes have always descended to study, influence, patronise and politicise the white working class.

Collins is unsympathetic to those who descended among them and only spent time focusing on squalor, hooliganism and crime. He is supportive of studies such as 'Across the Bridge' by Alexander Paterson in 1911. For Collins, the white working class is about family, work and community, not gang warfare, murder and flute-playing philosophers. He agrees with Paterson that the riches to be found within these districts lie in the natural goodness of most of the inhabitants. It is a controversial book in many ways, but it is quite an original examination of the past, present and future of London's white working class. It is a subject that should not be ignored.

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming is a novel. It takes its starting point the story of the Cambridge Five; Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, who while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930's were all recruited by Moscow Centre as agents of the Soviet NKVD.

To quote from the book's dust jacket, "Hard-up Russia expert Dr Sam Gaddis finally has a lead for a book that could set his career back on track. He has staggering new information about an unknown sixth member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring - a man who has evaded detection for his entire life. But when his source suddenly dies, Gaddis is left with the shreds of his investigation, and no idea that he is already in too deep. He is threatened, betrayed, hunted - and alone. To get his life back, he must scour a continent still laced with lies to find the truth behind the Trinity Six".

Charles Cumming, in 1995 was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and is well placed to be talking about spies and dark secrets. The book is wonderfully enthralling, and had me on the edge of my seat, not wanting to put it down. As someone said, "It is a brilliant re-imagining of events surrounding the notorious Cambridge spy-ring". If you like Le Carre and Deighton, you will love Charles Cumming.

Seamus Heaney selected these poems himself. He was born in 1939 in Bellaghy, Northern Ireland, and has lived in Dublin for many years. The list of awards he has received is truly astounding. To many, he is "the most important Irish poet since Yeats", and that he is "the greatest poet of our age".

The critic W.S. Di Piero said, "Whatever the occasion, childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present, Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom".

Heaney's books make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK. This book of selected poems was first published in 1990, and is a great introduction to the work of Heaney. I love what might be called his raw power, and I'm always impressed by his 'strikes at the taproot of language' as he addresses the issues of Northern Ireland. One of my favourite poems in the book is from his work, "Whatever you say say nothing". (page 78). The final stanza of which reads,

"Is there life before death? That's chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again".

Bedlam by Catharine Arnold, will not be to everyone's taste. It is a history of London's treatment of its insane through the centuries. It is a fascinating book. I am interested in the subject because I spent 25 years working with people with mental ill-health, some very severely so. I have not worked in Institutions, but I have visited patients in many of them. My involvement in mental health was in the community, following the disastrous policy of Care in the Community in the late 1980's, where Mental Health Institutions were closed down, and patients disgorged onto the streets. As Catharine Arnold says,

"The mad have always been with us. Bethlehem Hospital, or 'Bedlam' as it became in cockney slang, is the world's oldest psychiatric hospital. Founded in 1247 it developed from a ramshackle hovel to the magnificent 'Palace Beautiful', where visitors could pay to gawp at the chained inmates, through to the great Victorian hospital in Lambeth, now the Imperial War Museum".

The hospital was featured in a 1940's horror movie called 'Bedlam', starring Boris Karloff. The book is really well written and documents treatments, horrors and the reforming zeal of many. As Catharine Arnold says to close her introduction, "Mental illness is no respecter of persons; we are all vulnerable, ourselves and those close to us. This is why this book is for all whose lives are touched by madness".

On a much lighter note, Thanks for Nothing by Jack Dee is the story of part of his life. If you don't know, or like Jack Dee, then this book is probably not for you. If like me, you adore his style of comedy, it is an absolute delight.

You get a feel for what's coming by reading the Acknowledgments. For Instance: "No thanks to the following, My editor Susanna Wadeson - God, what a pain she was. The photographer - forgotten his name already. Anyway, he was rubbish. Made me look like I'd put on weight. Pete Sinclair - worse than useless. Next time don't bother. But most of all, I must fail to thank my wife and children for their total lack of patience and understanding while I was writing this. Without them I would have got it done miles quicker".

In the book, Jack answers the question, "So how did you get started in comedy then?" He reveals the highs and lows of his early life and disastrous day jobs.

As the cover to the book says, "You don't just wake up jaundiced and bitter; it's taken years of dedication and commitment to brew his unique cocktail of disillusionment and bile". This is a book that gave me many laughs.

The Man Who Invented The Third Reich by Stan Lauryssens tells a story from a perspective that was new to me. When we think of the Third Reich, we think of Hitler, but we are not always aware of the events that led up to Hitler's rise to infamy.

The man who invented the Third Reich was in fact one Arthur Moeller van den Bruck.  He was a prolific writer, historian, art critic, translator and publisher. In the turbulent years that followed the end of the First World War, he became politically active as the leader of the young conservative revolutionaries in Weimar Germany. He expressed his ideas for a German authoritarian state in his major work Das Dritte Reich (The Third Reich), which was first published in 1923.

Adolf Hitler was profoundly influenced by the ideas in the book, and regarded himself as the activist who would implement them. As Moeller van den Bruck watched Hitler become the personification of the violent dynamism he had recommended in his book, he anticipated the horrors to come and saw no way out but to commit suicide.

This is a remarkable biography that gives compelling insight into the tragic life of Moeller van den Bruck, and uses personal testimonies from contemporaries such as Kafka, Edvard Munch, Marlene Dietrich, Nietzsche and Hitler himself to explore the political and artistic whirlpools of Weimar Germany in which they lived.

Beauty & Atrocity by Joshua Levine. I have read many books over the years about the troubles in Northern Ireland, and I can say without hesitation that this is the most interesting, and satisfying of them all.

Joshua Levine had never been to Northern Ireland before he flew into Belfast in the autumn of 2008 to begin a journey. To quote from the first page, "I was in Belfast to try to discover what the Troubles had been about. I wanted to find out the history behind them, and in order to do that I wanted to meet the people who had lived through them, those who had suffered, and those who had caused the suffering.

I wanted to know why people had behaved as they did, how representative they had been, and whether they now try to justify their actions. And I wanted a sense of the future, of whether Northern Ireland is moving beyond the Troubles".

In the following 354 pages we are taken on a journey across both sides of the divide, listening to the stories of many people. It is their stories that make this book so special. There really is Beauty & Atrocity in the story of people, politics and Ireland's fight for peace. There is still a minority who cling to the view that they have to bomb the British out of Ireland and bring in a united Ireland, and the sobering truth is that it only takes one to plant a bomb.

However, what comes over very clearly in the book, is that the vast majority of people, whatever their political aspirations, are determined to make the peace process work, and that there should be no return to the days of violence. This is a gripping and moving book; one which I heartily recommend.

"If you resist reading what you disagree with, how will you ever acquire deeper insights into what you believe? The things most worth reading are precisely those that challenge our convictions".

That's enough about books for now. I must get to bed and start reading a biography of Chopin by Adam Zamoyski.

1 comment:

  1. Dad great choice of books - I must check the Charles Cummings one out c