Sunday, February 18, 2018



HEADLINE: A great entertainment and page-turner……but not to be taken seriously.


Reader beware! If you read further, key elements of the plot will be revealed.

Someone rash enough to be walking the chilly streets of Edinburgh late on a dark January evening might have been surprised to see white smoke suddenly emerging from a chimney. What could it be? Surely not some sort of imitation papal conclave?

Perhaps venturing nearer, the sounds of uproarious conversation and laughter would make this seem less likely, and peering through a chink of the curtains at the huddle of decidedly un-Cardinal-like figures and the litter of bottles the walker would turn and go on his or her way, with the mystery unsolved.

But they would have been closer to the truth than they realised. For it was the Monthly Book Group in full swing, and they had just reached a consensus, recorded above, on “Conclave”, the 2016 novel by Robert Harris. This takes as its apparently unpromising theme of the election of a new Pope.

Coming from a modest background, Harris read English at Cambridge, and rose to become President of the Union and editor of “Varsity”. He then joined the BBC to work on current affairs, moving at 30 to become political editor of the Observer. This background in English, current affairs and journalism may help to explain his development into a very gifted writer, particularly of historical novels. He has an outstanding ability for gripping story-telling combined with an ability to absorb research and produce books at great speed.

Everyone enjoyed the book and found it a real page-turner. But everyone had reservations of various kinds, and was disappointed when they compared the book with “An Officer and a Spy” (discussed October 2014).

One reader suggested that Harris was less good when freewheeling in pure fiction, and much better when constrained to follow historical fact as in his novels about Cicero or Dreyfus. As is common in the creative process, constraint can paradoxically liberate the imagination.

We were impressed by the volume of research into the arcane Conclave processes that Harris had carried out, and the access he had gained in the Vatican and elsewhere to help him do this. However, many – though not all - felt that the book was slowed down by the need he seemed to feel to incorporate so much research. We also wondered if C.P. Snow’s “The Masters”, about the election of a new master at a Cambridge College, had been an influence on Harris.

All the action happened within a Conclave shut off from the world, creating a similar enclosed feel to an Agatha Christie detective novel, so often set in a remote country house, or to a play with only one set. Indeed, rather like a detective novel, it had a formulaic feel, as the reader was sucked into the plot by wondering which candidate would win the Papacy as each vote unfolded, and as there was a succession of twists as front-runner after front-runner was unseated by an unsavoury revelation.

Many of the main characters, essentially the papal candidates coming from different continents, were pretty one-dimensional, and not far from burlesque or caricature. They were portrayed with fairly gentle satire.

Part of the fun is that many of the candidates are absolutely desperate to become Pope. They pursue that objective by using the dark arts of politicians, and, in one case, the type of bribery more commonly associated with FIFA. Our discussion coincided with the newspaper report of a psychological study that showed that those rising to the top of large organisations tended to have psychopathic (distinctly unchristian!) character traits.

But at the same time we are allowed inside the mind of Cardinal Lomeli, the Pope’s Dean and chief administrator who is running the Conclave. We observe much of the action through Lomeli’s stream of consciousness.

Lomeli is a well-drawn character, suffering from a crisis of faith yet still religious, determined to do the right thing, without personal ambition, and believing that God may want him to play a role in finding the right Pope. There is a fine passage in which Lomeli goes past the painting of the Last Judgement feeling like one of the damned himself – this is the sort of thing that lifts Harris above run of the mill thriller writers. And Lomeli is also allowed a line in ironic wit:

Once God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age...”

who had the advantage of seeming to be American without the disadvantage of actually being one...

In the United Kingdom – that godless isle of apostasy, where the whole affair was being treated as a horse race – the Ladbrokes betting agency made Cardinal Adeyemi the new favourite...

an excess of simplicity, after all, was just another form of ostentation, and pride in one’s humility a sin...”

The Book Group comprises a wide range of attitudes to religion – from practising Christians to those who view religion as a system of control that delivers riches and power for those at the top.

The practising Christians noted that there little of substance about the role of prayer in such a Conclave. Admittedly Lomeli had the religious consciousness and often resorted to prayer, but the content of his prayers was not shown. They were fairly confident Harris was an atheist, despite the subtle portrait of Lomeli.

A Catholic made the telling point that most recent Popes had been reluctant to take up the office, a world away from the author’s assumption that Cardinals behaved like Westminster politicians. Despite these disappointments they, like the rest, found the book a great page-turner of a political thriller. However, the book was really about politics, not religion.

On the other side,  The Vatican Map Room” thundered one of our atheists, “is more like a War Room than a Map Room”.

There followed an interesting, if un-illuminating, debate about the religious beliefs of Harris. Most but not all thought him an atheist, who went to considerable efforts to disguise this through creating the internal life of Lomeli, and was anxious not to offend the Church too much.

In the end, we resorted to the sacrilegious device of Google to scrutinise his beliefs, and found this comment he made in an interview with the Catholic Herald “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist”. So…not an atheist……..or rather not a complete atheist……or…… good at political replies?

The Catholic Herald gives Harris a good review: “More than an intelligent thriller: it reveals the dilemmas we all face…. Its author clearly has engaged with the Church.” By contrast the Irish Times finds “only black smoke blowing through the literary chimney.

The final “twist” of the book – a word usually used for detective stories – comes when the well-deserved winner of the contest is suggested to be genetically female, but inter-sexual.  This was too much for us. This was not so much gentle satire as farce. Harris had already gently chided the church for its sexism by his portrayal of the undervalued Nuns, but here was a crashing of the gears and a full frontal attack.

Our experts were soon on the case, however, with our medical adviser judging that it was indeed possible that the true gender of the new Pope had been missed in [her] upbringing in the Philippines.

And our historical adviser pointed out that this plot element was not as strange as it seemed, given that, at least according to protestant mythology, Pope Ioannes Anglicus (855-857) was a woman disguised as a man (“Pope Joan”). For many centuries thereafter a pierced chair (“sedia stercoraria”) was used to check that a newly elected Pope was indeed male prior to confirming his appointment.

Suitably aghast we wandered around some of the details of the book – such as being pleasantly surprised about the lack of smart phones being brought into the Conclave (although later research shows that the Pope does have a Facebook page!) - before returning to agree a conclusion.

The white smoke was made ready as we agreed that this was a great entertainment and page-turner, but not a great book. On closer examination not so much an inter-sexual Pope as an inter-genre novel emerged, with elements of political thriller, serious stream of consciousness character portrayal, caricature, detective story and high farce welded, somewhat uneasily, together.

It did not do to look too closely. As one member observed: “I thoroughly enjoyed it as a page-turner. But I was left with the feeling of having eaten a fast-food takeaway, not a substantial meal!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


The proposer of this book likes military history, but has only recently been reading about the war in the air. A friend had recommended this book as being the very best account of aerial combat during World War I. It is based on real diary extracts and letters of the 22-year old pilot (now the author), written to his young wife in the periods between skirmishes over the trenches in search of the Hun.

We noted that many years elapsed between the events described and the publication of the book in 1968, and we guess there has been much editing and lapses of memory, with perhaps a stiffening of the author’s opinion. Perhaps even some exaggeration? On the other hand a letter to a loved one at home might accentuate the positive and gloss over some of the horrors (which would likely be removed by the censors). But horrors are there aplenty, and excitement too: at times the book resembles tales of that Boys Own favourite, Biggles but the action in No Parachute is real not imagined, and relates to action in the skies over the famous arenas of war: the Ypres Front, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, the Arras Front and the very important Battle of Cambrai.

It seems that Britain started making fighter aircraft too late. At the start of the war, aircraft were designed for reconnaissance, and especially for artillery observation.  Later, came the first real ‘fighters’: faster and more manoeuvrable, still doing reconnaissance work but also targeting enemy aircraft, strafing ground positions and going after tanks. This was the first time in history where aircraft fought each other, and so commanders and crew had scant idea of how to go about their task. Most pilots learned their skills ‘on the job’, with only basic prior training with no notion of the horrors of combat. British pilots received only 15-20 hours of flying experience before being posted to a squadron and being thrown into battle.

The diary begins on 18th May 1917 following a period when British planes were distinctly inferior to those being made in Germany and France. Casualties in the preceding April, known as ‘Bloody April’ had been especially high, and morale in the squadrons was low. The best British fighter plane at the start of the diary was the Sopworth Pup, which came into service in Autumn 1916 but had been outclassed by the latest German aircraft. The Pup was no match for the Fokker Triplane in the skilled hands of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and his ‘circus’ of highly experienced pilots. For example, the Fokker’s guns could fire rapidly through the arc of the propeller, but the Pup’s could not. 

Our pilots were aware that they were vulnerable, and wondered how long it would be before a better aircraft with decent weaponry would emerge, whilst young pilots with their all-too-brief training were being killed every day (at least, when weather permitted flying; often it didn’t). Overall, casualties on the British side were four times more than on the German side. The psychological challenge for pilots was immense: they were pitted against a superior force and they often questioned the ‘why?’ of war, having little notion of the strategic aspect of the ground fighting going on in the trenches below. But, by November squadron 46 (Lee’s squadron) received the first of the Pup’s successor, the Sopwith Camel. In good hands this was a much better fighting aircraft, being fast, manoeverable and with synchronised guns. It wasn’t perfect: the mass of the rotary engine was large in relation to the aircraft’s body, and so there was a tendency of the aircraft to twist and crash on take-off. Thus many novice pilots died before even becoming airborne.  One source claims that 413 pilots died in combat and a further 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes.

Pilots were hit and frequently crashed, sometimes scrambling out of the broken plane to the safety of allied forces and sometimes being taken as a prisoner of war. On other occasions they became ‘flamers’, and died in scorching agony or jumped from the plane to certain death. There was ‘no parachute’ and the author frequently asks ‘why?’. One belief was that the authorities in London thought pilots might bale out unnecessarily, thus wasting an aircraft.

Our author-pilot seems to have been a miraculous survivor, a statistical outlier. He has many near scrapes, his uniform is frequently holed (once the fuel tank is ruptured), his aircraft is often holed too, his joystick is hit, he survives many mechanical failures of the aircraft, and his gun frequently seizes up. He attributes his skill as a pilot to a longer training period than most – injury having delayed his transfer from training ground to active service. However, he takes rather a long time to claim his first kill, and altogether his tally is rather modest, only seven. Nevertheless he received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Captain. After the War he served in the newly formed Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an Air Vice Marshall.

The pilots – the ‘chaps’ or ‘fellows’ as they are generally called – have spare time when the weather is bad. They gather in the Mess, they sing bawdy songs – probably more bawdy than the ones published in the book – they binge-drink heavily and have headaches in the morning. They are mournful when their comrades are killed (the average survival of these pilots was only three weeks). Flying low, they see the wretched state of soldiers in the trenches and they feel thankful not to be one of them.

Indeed, flying these single-seater ‘kites’ could be fun, and the pilots experienced the great thrills of looping, the elation of fine-weather flying with blue sky above and ‘white lambswool clouds’ below, and the satisfaction of a perfect landing. It was cold up there, the cockpit was open to the weather, limbs and hands became numb. However, the Officers’ Mess was warm and cosy, a place of comradeship where friendships were formed, stories traded and backs slapped after a successful sortie.

We found the adventures riveting. We became engrossed and wondered how we ourselves would have fared in the cockpit of a Pup or Camel. One member had brought with him one of his own Biggles books, circa 1956, and we reflected on the differences between the Biggles author WE Johns and our No Parachute author AG Lee. It’s all there in Wikipedia. We learn that Johns, in contrast to Lee, was a very unlucky pilot, breaking several aircraft, and subsequently (or perhaps consequently) becoming an instructor. After brief active service he was shot down and became a prisoner of war. After the war he was a recruiting officer, but he famously rejected an application from TE Lawrence (of Arabia). All that’s a digression, but we in the book group are used to digressions.

Another member came to the meeting with a plastic model of the Sopwith Camel, a surprisingly neat little biplane. It is easy to see how it gave the Fokkers a hard time. Over 5000 real Camels were made at the Sopwith Aviation factory in the war.  Powered by a French 130 horsepower engine (about the same power as a family car today) they could reach 117 mph, more than the Pup’s 111 mph, whereas the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane could do only a paltry 103 mph. Except for some alloy skim near the engine, Camels were made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, hence the nickname of all such aircraft: ‘kite’.

We reflected on the difficulties of communication. Fighter aircraft were not fitted with radio and so communication was achieved by hand signals, streamers and wing-wobbling. Ground radio did exist, and when a pilot crashed in allied territory a rescue party with technicians would arrive surprising quickly as messages could be sent. Feedback from the squadrons to the command in London may have been poor. One member pointed out that the Red Baron was better looked after, being brought home to a hero’s welcome of girls and bubbly, and encouraged to give feedback to aircraft manufacturers.

The language of the diary was ‘as expected’, but rather short of the pilots’ slang that has by now enriched the English vocabulary, sometimes to the dismay of foreigners who can’t understand what we are talking about. I tried to compose a sentence of slang to illustrate this (a good way to overcome my insomnia). What about ‘They tore a strip off him after he ditched his kite; he had caught a packet after a cock-up in a dog-fight that ended tits up’. Not poetic I admit, and I can’t find this particular sentence in the book. Probably most slang came later, from the RAF in WW2. Overall, the language sounds predominantly upper-middle class, and probably the pilots were recruited from the English public schools. I can’t verify this. Lloyd George seemed to imply they were. He said of the pilots ‘They are the knighthood of this war…they recall the legendary days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’. To this eloquence, Arthur Lee replies with a Churchillian turn of phrase ‘only occasionally were these …(pilots)… scions of the knightly families of Europe. They came from every social level, from the cities and countryside, from the streets and farms and forests of lands all over the world’.

By December the tone of the writing changes. Lee was by now tired, ill, to some extent disillusioned, and perhaps shell-shocked. He’s done 118 patrols with 56 combats. The Medical Officer said Lee needs a good spell of leave, and he is relieved of duties and sent home.

In an Appendix written years later he pours scorn on the decisions made by government authorities at the War Office in London, who had no experience of fighting aircraft, and were slow to pick up technical innovations. He identifies multiple failures of high command and rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the materials, engines and labour to supply the two separate air forces, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

We enjoyed the book immensely: the thrilling encounters, the insights, and the comment on why so many pilots were killed unnecessarily.

"Sapiens: a Brief History of Mankind" by Yuval Noah Harari

Give us some Air!

Give us some Water!

Give us some Food!

Gimme Shelter!

Thanks, now I can check my Facebook account……

OK, this might be a slight over-simplification of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, or indeed a wildly inaccurate summary of Harari’s bestselling book, “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind”, but here we were, the book group assembled on a Thursday evening to try and satisfy their need for love and belonging. Not of Generation, X, Y or Z, nor even Millennials, we were old enough to remember the ‘60s and hence we presumably weren’t there.

The proposer told us of how he had come across this book at a science exhibition, at a stall womanned by Delta-T Devices, who “aim to manufacture and sell instruments for use in work beneficial to the environment and directly related to human and animal welfare.” A further description of their moral stance can be found at   Such a policy was dear to the author’s heart, although perhaps less important to the hunter-gatherers of the first few chapters.
Now an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a PhD in Oxford in 2002, this book was published in Hebrew in 2011 and in English 2014 and has become an international success. The proposer described it as a “macro-history” painted with a very broad brush. We were grateful; at 498 pages for a macroscopic view, we suspect that the “micro-history” would have filled the Book Group’s schedule well beyond the period on Earth of the current membership. He praised its creativity and originality which had been recognised by a number of major and minor literary awards. He noted that the author had certain axes to grind, notably on animal rights (see above) and industrial farming, coloured perhaps by his vegan practice and living in a cooperative agricultural community. He was also openly gay and practised meditation. Ah yes, “I was a young man back in the 1960s”. As a rebuff to Generation I, he had also disposed of his smart phone!

Discussion opened out. Painted with a broad brush, I suppose it was inevitable that our members would pick holes. First to dive in was a member with knowledge of Australian history who pointed out inaccuracies on a number of key points on Aboriginal development. For example, on page 50 Harari talks of 200-600 tribes each with their own language, religion, norms and customs in the period between the cognitive and agricultural revolutions. Our member also disputed the suggestion that Australia was particularly white supremacist (p260). Another suggested that the extrapolation from bio-mimetic genetic algorithms (for optimisation in complex multimodal spaces) and genetic programming (p457) to machines taking over the world was rather fanciful, at least in the short term. The unfortunately quoted ‘human brain project’ had in fact been ‘rebooted’ due to the over-hyped claims. Another suggested that the opening line in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”,  referred to France in the mid to late 18th century, before not during the French Revolution. Several other examples were quoted. An absent member commented by email, that his  links, e.g. from Peugot to Shamens, are dubious or worse. He wondered too why… but we moved on.

However, right or wrong, can any single author, however advised by colleagues and his own research, hope to be wholly accurate on such a wide range of topics and academic disciplines? Can we? We recalled our August book by John Higgs; we thought that was sweeping and often contentious, and he only covered a single century! Do the alleged inaccuracies or dubious opinions invalidate the main thrust? 

The next speaker praised the book as an excellent synthesis of others’ research with a particular skill in simplifying complex topics for the general reader. As a good example of this, we referred to his discussions of economic theory in chapter 16, “The Capitalist Creed”. His breadth of coverage was “spellbinding” according to our speaker. He challenged current perspective without taking sides. Some questioned this, especially in view of the animal welfare polemic.

Our critic praised the idea of agriculture enslaving the population after a relatively Utopian hunter-gatherer existence. Again, this was questioned by another, suggesting that happiness and well-being as states of mind were relatively untouched, at least until page 421. “Are we happier?” Some were outraged by his discourse on chemical happiness in this chapter, and were rather dismayed that their imitative (Maslow) activities, whether Munro-bagging, global travel, or trying to get round a golf course in less than 100 shots were less than life-fulfilling. Unfortunately, Archaeology has not yet found a way to carbon date happiness and well-being from 70,000 years in the past so we can only speculate. (Afterthought: AI attempts to equip agents with imitative capabilities in order to build cooperative societies.)

Another compared Harari to a “spin doctor”, spinning his own perspective on historical fact or speculation according to his own rather than from an un-biased perspective. In the majority view, there was a shift from archaeological fact in the early chapters to a more opinionated spin in the later chapters. Another deficiency was the lack of acknowledgment of the role of the arts in enriching the human experience; when we do not spend our days wholly in hunting and gathering we have more time to appreciate the finer, esoteric outputs of the human mind and dexterity, in music, in painting and sculpture and so on. Is “Britain’s Got Talent” on tonight?

Turning to the later chapters, one of us was struck by the underlying pessimism about the future disappearance of our species, the cynicism and pessimism of reliance on chemical happiness and on “humans being turned into cyborgs” (p454). So the “curtain is about to drop on Sapiens history”. Certainly, humans do now have a probable capability for destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or social, unsurpassed due to the frantic rush to global communication and uniformity.  We pondered this pessimism and took it as a warning to cooperate at a global level rather than concentrate on local politics.  On the topics of individual survival and purpose, our email member suggested that the phrase “what do we want to want” was rather trite, referring to our stated, probably overstated aim to create amortal life by genetic engineering.

We turned again to Harari’s ideas on social bonding from an early stage of development, as for example in the ability to form large groups on the basis of shared values, to plan and carry out complex actions since the cognitive revolution, even when was no previous contact A parallel was drawn with recent work by Robin Dunbar at the Social and Evolutionary Research Science Group, also at Oxford.  In particular Dunbar mentioned that “the key function of music during its development and spread amongst human populations was its capacity to create and strengthen social bonds amongst interacting group members.” Our member talked of some of the key chemical differences between human and other brains, notably in fatty acid and iodine concentration. Apparently, there is an active debate as to whether aquatically sourced foods were key to human evolution, so that in general coastal species evolved preferentially. It is probably fair to say that none of those present had sufficient knowledge to decide, but that didn’t stop the discussion! However, one referred us to “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, arguing that apparent differences in societies in different societies today were a product of environment and opportunity, or luck if you like, rather than inherent genetic differences.

To stylistic matters; why did Harari always say “she” rather than “he”, or indeed an impersonal noun such as person, or even hunter/gatherer? Ah! That was virtue signalling said another. “Fair comment”, said one, in these politically correct times one must not only be virtuous but let everyone know to enhance your social standing. Your scribe hadn’t heard of virtue signalling, perhaps because he hadn’t the signal opportunity. Perhaps the author is taking his own social analysis just too seriously?

There is so much in this book, and indeed that is its strength, that our own discussion cannot help but be superficial and misinterpret and omit key themes. Perhaps his treatment of religion is controversial, by for example equating communism and nationalism with Christianity and Buddhism . His comments about the contradictions of humanism (e.g.  p257) are provoking; how many humanists today align themselves today with the Nazi view on evolution?

So in conclusion, the general verdict of the group was that this was a book well worth reading, progressing from fact to opinion as evolutionary time developed perhaps, but always stimulating and creating difference of opinion. Indeed, one had to agree with Barack Obama’s book cover comment that this was “interesting and provocative”.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The book’s proposer introduced it as a refreshing contrast to conventional histories of the 20th C with their emphasis on wars and political events.

He gave us a little background about the writer – he was not an academic, but had a varied career including working for GEC Marconi, directing children’s TV programmes, and producing video games.  Higgs claimed the idea for his book came from Salvador Dalí’s melting clock image, which made him think about connections between art and science (although Dalí himself claimed that his own inspiration came from seeing a melting Camembert cheese, not from ideas of relativity!)

Opening the discussion, one reader commented that the book reminded him of eclectic conversations in the pub, which tend to range far and wide.  He found the links rather tenuous, and so, although very enjoyable to read, the book lacked overall coherence.  One critic had apparently referred to Higgs as a plate-spinner – keeping many ideas up in the air at the same time.  Another reader characterised him as a storyteller, not a scholar.

There was some debate about Higgs’ characterisation of the 19th C as a time of relative stability.  Although it was admitted that the pace of change in the 20th C was more rapid, the view was expressed that other hundred year periods of history contained similar upheavals of ideas – for example brought about by artists, scientists and thinkers such as Galileo, da Vinci or Darwin.

Along with this dubious characterisation of the 19th C, others in the group took issue with some scientific or historical statements made by Higgs – for example his remarks on the lack of preparation of British troops for World War One.  It was felt that this slightly undermined trust in his conclusions about areas we didn’t know so much about.

Praise was bestowed on the final chapter ‘Networks’, and it was noted that in spite of gloomy predictions, the author ended on an optimistic note about humanity being ingenious enough to find a way through the global problems we are presently busily engaged in creating.  There was some agreement that he perhaps underplayed the population explosion and environmental degradation as key changes of the 20th century, even though he suggests that the 21st C may be the penultimate century for the human species.

Our conversation stayed on the topic of networks.  One member of the group, recently returned from China, reported that he was told that two million people are employed in monitoring the internet and working out what should be blocked from the rest of the population.  Apparently our own book group blog is blocked, as he tried to access it there!

We discussed the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, wondering if they were – as our generation tends to assume – manifestations of egocentrism and individualism, or, as Higgs suggests, evidence of the connectedness and community spirit of a younger generation.

We talked about the influence of online social networks, and the backlog of hidden information about such things as political corruption and child abuse in the Catholic Church that was consequently now coming to light.

We were interested in his analysis of economic ‘growth’, the mantra of politicians and economists the world over.  The narrowing down of ownership of the world’s wealth into fewer hands could in some respects be considered a retreat to the days of the all-powerful emperors that he talks about.  The new ‘emperors’ are global corporations, some of them richer than many countries.

On the topic of where power lay in the modern world, we wondered if western style democracies were adequate to the tasks ahead – referencing the recent votes to remove the UK from the EU, and to promote a dangerous demagogue to the presidency of the USA.  Our China expert compared how a high-speed rail link between Qinghai and Tibet had been completed rapidly, whereas the UK was still struggling with its HS2 rail link project over a comparatively tiny distance, because in a democracy we allow for objections to what government proposes.  We did not, however, go so far as to propose a new dictatorial system of government led by book groups.

We noted that Higgs digs up a number of interesting individuals, some of them quite obscure, who are either emblematic of some shift in thinking or deeply influential.  An example was the scientist brought back from the Gulag to lead the Russian space programme.  It was pointed out that the West was similarly secretive over some politically sensitive individuals – for example Alan Turing, now considered a seminal figure in the development of computing.

Referring to the book’s comments on the Rolling Stones and individualism, compared with the hippy togetherness represented by the later phase of the Beatles, it was pointed out that the Beatles broke up nearly fifty years ago whereas the Rolling Stones are still together!

In conclusion, we certainly agreed that the book kept us engaged, although not always convinced.  ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ was felt to be interesting primarily because of the connections it made, rather than for its acuity in analysing any particular theme.  It had proved an excellent catalyst for conversation – perhaps even more so than the beers in the pub referenced at the beginning of our discussion.

27/7/17 "ODESSA STORIES" by ISAAC BABEL (trans. Dralyuk)

So were gathered together our group, perhaps with “spectacles on their nose, and autumn in their hearts, as Jewish intellectuals were characterized by Isaac Babel in his book of short stories. These were written mostly in the 1920s and the edition we had in front of us was translated by Boris Dralyuk, known professionally by the proposer. His translation was generally considered superior to previous attempts. Indeed, the proposer substantiated this view by reading comparative packages from the earlier translation by Macduff. The earlier version seemed too literal, missing the feel of the original Russian in the proposer’s opinion. In particular, the audience noticed the superior dialogue which gave a much better rendering of the Jewish vernacular.  

We had a sustained discussion of the validity of the American colloquialisms to reinforce the texture and nuances of the plot. “All right. You got words. Spill” (Benja Krik in the King). “The chief, he got all the cops together …” and so on. On balance, the jury was split, with the majority perhaps favouring the transposition to low-life American. (See comments on Runyon below.)

Having visited the city as a tourist fairly recently, the proposer also wondered that the author and translator had been very successful in capturing the ‘tone’ of early 20th century life in Odessa. Arguably, port cities have a particular culture, maybe due to a strong itinerant population. Sometimes, there is a sense of lawlessness as in these stories. Think of Marseille as depicted in “The French Connection”. This book is centred on the Jews and their ability to rule the city through a gangster culture, portrayed in Odessa with a distinct mentality. Before WW2 it was permissible to depict the Jews as violent gangsters capable of random violence.

Babel was regarded as one of the most important authors in post-revolution Russian literature. He was brought up in Jewish community, and was interested in the art of the short story. Particular cited influences included Kipling, and Maupassant, as serenaded in the sketch of Odessa near the end of the book. He is the intellectual perhaps personified in the schoolboy. Although written in the first person, they are only semi-autobiographical and he has moved the elements about to make it work.

With a background in journalism, these could perhaps be considered as sketches rather than stories, and the parallel with Dickens’ observations of London life were noted. Babel fought in the Red Cavalry, and had an ambition to be a Soviet writer, but it is clear that his subject matter, sometimes satirical, did not endear him to the authorities.

The book was open to general discussion. All concurred with the quality of the dialogue, and loved some of the descriptive text, for example the descriptions of the sky, of the sun (“!a piece of jam”, “a decapitated head”). In Odessa he talks of the need for the sun, and of Gorky’s love of the sun, whereas people in Nizhny Novgorod etc. are flabby, heavy … incomprehensible, touching and immensely, stupefyingly annoying.

The characters were well drawn, with a real feeling of underclass. The similarities with Damon Runyon were noted by several readers, but I fear the MBG were not the first to observe this! However, Runyon could be considered a comic writer, Babel less so, although “The End of the Almshouse” in particular is darkly comic. At least one of us dug out his copy of ‘Runyon on Broadway’ and tried to make a direct comparison. In general, he felt that the stories were also less well plotted than Runyon, and is some cases the motives and outcomes were not clear, for example in the killing of Froim the Rook after conflict with the Cheka or secret police.  On the contrary some said, this encapsulated the random nature of the Odessan violence. Another point of difference from Runyan was the greater emphasis on casual, random violence, as in the instance above when Froim is killed for no strong, apparent motive.

Strong socio-economic clashes were brought out so well in Babel’s text, again notably in the story of the Almshouse. “We’ve crushed the Tsars.. no more Tsars, no-one gets a coffin”. Alas, someone does get the coffin. And so the Department of Communal Economy reorganizes the cemetery and organizes their attack against the Burial Brotherhood who made a few coins by use of their coffin for hire. 

A comment was made on ethnic characteristics, always a bit risky these days. He drew the co-occurrence between the many red-headed characters that were Jews and Scots. For example, Babel refers memorably to the “bosun, a pillar of red meat, overgrown with red hair”.

We further complimented the descriptive prose; the book’s strengths lay not only in the dialogue. For example, “their journey took them down a joyless, scorched, rocky road, past mud-brick shanties, past fields smothered by stones past houses gutted by shells, and past the plague mound” or “the whistle of asthma, the wheeze of submission escaped from the chests of retired cantors, wedding jesters, circumcision cooks and spent sales clerks”. This is powerful stuff!

Oh well. Having concentrated to a greater degree than is perhaps usual on the book in hand, without too much digression on historical inaccuracies or perverse analogies, it was left to X to introduce a note of trivia. Did we know that Efrem Zimbalist Senior, the Russian violinist mentioned in “The Awakening”, was the proud father of Efrem Zimbalist Junior who appeared in 77 Sunset Strip. No we did not! Subsequent browsing suggested that Junior was even held up as a role model for real FBI employees. Hmm, and you’ll be telling me next the actor who almost got the part of  Rick in Casablanca (played by Bogart) became President of the United States. Then you’ll be telling me that a reality TV …. (Leave it there! Ed.)

Finally, there was a discussion on women’s’ versus men’s’ versus mixed book groups. I don’t recall all the main issues but I do know we did a straw poll on how many male and female authors we have read. If you want to know the answer, it is easy. Just look at our index of authors.

We had now left the text completely. We realized it was time to home.


Religion is the root of all evil”. A view proffered by one member of the monthly book group as it met to discuss Shusaku Endo’s book, “Silence.”

This controversial statement dominated the evening’s discussion and the group’s attempts to understand and appreciate the complicated themes tackled in Endo’s novel.

The host and proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, making the connections between Endo’s upbringing, his personal experiences and the novel.

Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo’s mother converted to Catholicism and had him baptized. He found himself in a tiny minority of Catholics in Japan. His commitment was not strong but his interest in 20th Century Catholic fiction led him to study French Catholic novelists at Keio University in the late 1940’s and to enroll in the University of Lyon to continue his studies. On returning to Japan his writings addressed the difficulty of reconciling the contradictions within Japanese culture with Christian ideology.

He contracted tuberculosis while abroad and had a lung removed. Endo described faith as being as awkward as a forced marriage and as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes.

“Silence” is considered by many to be Endo’s masterpiece. It deals directly with the religious concerns, which plagued his entire life. He died, aged 73, in 1996.

It has been described as “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels” and received the “Tanizaki Prize in 1966. A film based on the book, directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in 2016.

Endo’s novel is set in 17th century Japan, a country that had initially embraced Christianity through the efforts of Saint Francis Xavier and had now outlawed it. The plot is based on the attempt by two young Portuguese Jesuits to encourage and support those remaining believers in the brutally hostile environment generated by the politics of the time.

Father Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garppe travel to Japan where they find the local Christian population driven underground. Suspected Christians were forced to renounce their faith by trampling on an image of Christ (a fumie ) or be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The two priests are forced to look on as other Christians are tortured and are told that all they need do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.

Rodrigues struggles to come to terms with the suffering of his fellow Christians. Suffering which he can bring to an end by apostatizing. He is also tormented by Christ’s silence. Despite his pleadings and prayers and the torture and persecution he witnessed, God remains silent.

The group discussed the historical context. The Shimabara rebellion signaled a tightening of Japan’s national seclusion policy and the officially endorsed persecution of Christianity.

It was suggested that the Japanese chose to end relations with the Portuguese and Spanish because the evangelizing of Catholicism undermined the authority of the then government and threatened its wider trading ambitions. This was debated and led to the suggestion that deeper cultural factors were involved in the eventual expulsion of the Europeans.

The discussion focused on the groups understanding of Japanese culture, its apparent contradictions and how these manifested themselves in the novel. The traditions of honour and politeness contrasted with a reputation for brutality, cruelty and aggression. The use of torture as a means of both physical and mental torment juxtaposed with the caring and sharing attitude of many of the books characters.

The group returned to the topic of religion, exploring its impact on society over the ages for both good and bad. Providing a moral framework for people, bringing them together on the one hand and inspiring conflict on the other. It was pointed out that throughout the centuries people of various religions persecuted and killed people of other religions. Typically unproven belief is stated as factual by many religions and taken to extremes by some followers motivated by their belief that their religion is the “true” religion.

It was suggested that faith is not a way of understanding the world but stands in opposition to science and scientific method and as a result is divisive and dangerous.

Comparison was made with secular ideologies. While it was asserted that religion or religious disagreements were directly and indirectly the cause of conflict and were responsible for the deaths of countless millions, it was also pointed out that Marxism as practiced in many dictatorships, and to a lesser extent Fascism and Nazism, were also responsible for the death and suffering of many millions of people.

This debate about the worth of religion over the ages was temporarily postponed while further consideration was given to the novel.

Endo’s narrative technique of presenting the first half of the novel as if it were written by Rodrigues in letter form and then switching by adopting a third person perspective was considered to be a clever device. It was thought to help to build the reader’s interest, their care for the well-being of the central character and to intensify the sense of loneliness and isolation in a foreign land. It was also thought that it added suspense and uncertainty to the fate of Rodrigues’s who struggles to hold on to his faith and is driven to question the very existence of god.

He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives for him.”

It was thought that while this narrative device strengthened the novel, it resulted in a lack of dialogue and consequently no alternative points of view were forthcoming. It was thought that this was both limiting and challenging for the reader.

The vivid descriptions of the environment - at certain times peaceful and serene and at other times threatening and foreboding; alternatively representing the presence and absence of God - were much admired.

Endo’s many references to Judas throughout the text interested the group. Rodrigues missionary to Japan was motivated by the news that his mentor, Father Ferriera, had denounced his faith and apostatized, as a result, he was considered to have betrayed his faith. The character of Kitchijiro is also presented as a betrayer and carries a strong Judas likeness, but as the plot unfolds it is Rodrigues himself who, by committing apostasy and being complicit in the persecution of the faithful, takes on the mantle of Judas. Just before he tramples the fumie God’s voice tells Rodrigues:
For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”

Endo’s clever use of these characters to explore whether betrayal is ever justified or can be justified within Christianity was one of the many greatly admired features of the novel.

Rodrigues had doubts about his faith almost immediately after he arrived in Japan, and Endo skillfully built on these doubts using the silence of God to further undermine his beliefs.

The realization that Christ had never been silent but that the internally conflicted Rodrigues had had “no ears to hear or eyes to see” brought focus to the novel's central exploration of who God is.
Silence enables the freedom of choice and it is this that Endo tries to reconcile.

The debate about religion continued. Members of the book group have diverse religious beliefs. Christian, Roman Catholic, Humanist, Agnostic, and Atheist. Some appeared apathetic. A significant number are scientists by profession whose training and experience are based on analytic thinking. The synergy, or lack of synergy, between Science and Religious belief has been much discussed. Some suggested that  intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious but that getting them to think analytically can weaken their belief.

It follows that they brought a sceptical view to the conversation on religion. The need to find evidence to prove or disprove ideas about religion, or the existence of a god or gods, was considered essential by some. However, it was one of those scientists who suggested that it was important to retain an open mind. He reminded us that not too long ago people believed that the world was flat. Scientific evidence proved otherwise, demonstrating that what might be considered unlikely or inconceivable today might be evidenced in the future. The fact that there is little evidence presently available to support the existence of God does not mean that God does not exist.

The group concluded that, while “Silence" was not a comfortable read, it was intensely moral, challenging and thought provoking. It proved to be a catalyst for sharing diverse views on religion. It raised profound questions about faith and culture. About the differences between East and West and the never-ending debate about who or what God is. Perhaps the application of science will confirm the existence of a “divine creator”, but not in my time.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

25/5/2017 "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a British physician, academic and writer.  From 2003 to 2011 he wrote a science column, ‘Bad Science’ in The Guardian.  The book was published in 2008.
The proposer had the book lying unread on his shelves for some years and in response to the repeated urgings of his daughter, a research scientist in the fields of immunology and cancer, had finally got around to reading it.  Himself a scientist, he found that it brought to light some issues – about medical research in particular – of which he had been previously unaware.

The group’s responses to the book were predominantly positive, but one member of the group (another scientist) had once shared a stage with the author and found him somewhat overly confident and assertive about his opinions – perhaps even untrustworthy.

However, there was little disagreement with the fundamental argument of the book, which identified problems in the ways that the media presented science to a lay audience, and attacked various branches of pseudo-science such as homeopathy, the cosmetics industry and nutritionists.

Our conversation about the book tended to the diffuse and anecdotal rather than the taking of positions and counter-positions.  This blog can only take the form of a rather undifferentiated list of some of the things that cropped up.

The BBC Radio Four programme ‘More or Less’ was praised for its critiques of data used by politicians and others to justify their views.  Like Goldacre, the programme’s approach is to question the exact methodology lying behind tendentious statistics and factoids.

It was pointed out by a doctor among our number that in spite of the comprehensive refutation of the science behind doubts of the MMR vaccine’s safety, the issue has refused to die away.  Non-scientists continue to stir up trouble (vide Donald Trump tweet from March 2014:  “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”) (Goldacre quoted another writer’s definitions of lying, truth-telling, and bullshitting, and we agreed that Trump was the perfect incarnation of the bullshitter).

The recent furore over the Volkswagen emission trials was discussed.  The trials results were reported as ‘cheating’ in the media.  It was suggested that if real drivers could drive in the efficient manner of the software running the engines during the trials, then the same results could be obtained.  Were the low emissions reported actually ‘cheating’?

The conventional media are the chief target of Goldacre’s criticisms.  One of our group had discovered the practice of paying for articles in colour supplements and advised against considering any information from such sources as reliable.  Personal experience with The Times on an issue had convinced him that the broadsheets were as culpable as the tabloids in conveying misinformation. 

 However, he admitted that The Guardian had so far not disappointed him, in that although guilty of occasional factual errors, it did not seem to have descended to outright mendaciousness on any issue of which he had knowledge.

We agreed that contemporary social media also offered infinite examples of the abuse and distortion of information. 

Richard Dawkins and George Monbiot were quoted as good writers who, like Goldacre, set out to upset and confound their opponents.  It made for engaging writing when someone had an axe to grind and wrote with a kind of controlled fury.  However, it was pointed out that such writers, including Goldacre, were not above using the wiles of rhetoric in making themselves persuasive.  On the other hand, one of our group defended his capacity for making decisions on the basis of facts and statistics, unswayed by rhetoric.

Our doctor mentioned the medical writings of Richard Asher (1912-1969) as being superior to those of Goldacre.

We discussed various science and history pundits on television.  The importance of public understanding of science was agreed upon, but nevertheless some of these popularising figures were rather irritating.

It was mentioned that the website ‘Bad Science’ was still active and one of Goldacre’s current concerns was the use of statins.

In relation to Goldacre’s examples of challenging the proponents of bad science, the danger was that it could bring those very people into prominence, and thus legitimise their views.  It was felt that this was a particular difficulty for the BBC, with its obligation to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of issues.  The misinformation propagated by the ‘leave’ campaign during the run up to the Brexit referendum might have been a beneficiary of such ‘balance’.

One reader questioned whether there really was a ‘golden age’ of medical discoveries which is now over, as described by Goldacre.  Our scientists and our doctor concurred, but it was suggested that maybe we were now on the verge of a new period of medical advancement with gene therapy. Goldacre, writing in 2008, could not have been expected to go into this subject.

We liked Goldacre’s analysis of the positive effects – sometimes underestimated – of the placebo effect in making people feel better.  One of our scientists recounted his recent period of time in China.  Having a heavy cold, he was taken to a pharmacy in China where people lay on beds with drips attached.  Having talked his way out of this particular treatment, he was later persuaded by a well-meaning colleague to wear a microwave heated jacket for a morning… and subsequently felt much better!

It was pointed out that people often like to see a particular doctor – the placebo effect in operation.  Medicine is an art as well as a science.

Another member of the group suggested that universities seemed to be too keen to release information to the press.  This was in the context of hope-inspiring cancer treatments that later proved disappointing.  Those with experience of such matters identified a common process by which an academic publishes a peer reviewed paper, the public relations department at the university latches onto it and promotes it, and then the press exaggerates its significance.  Where precisely does the fault lie, we wondered, when the public is mislead on the significance of some scientific discovery?  The writing of the peer-reviewed paper was in itself an organisation and ordering of what one of our scientists described as ‘fumbling about in the lab’.  Our human cognitive proclivity for identifying patterns where none may exist could result in misleading conclusions.  Another reader raised the issue of the book’s title in this respect – ‘bad’ science could be inept or misleading (as in the research paper) or morally ‘bad’ (as in the distortions of the press).

The arguments of the book were felt to be applicable to many fields of human activity beyond medicine and science.  For example, people tend to become paternalistic and defensive about ideas that they have originated or to which they have tethered their reputation.

Discussion moved onto the general gullibility of people – for example the readiness of people in the mid twentieth century to have all their teeth removed because of the ‘superiority’ of dentures.
We wondered if the data that would emerge in due course would support the recent introduction of the 20mph speed limit in many parts of Edinburgh on safety grounds.

We were interested in how different health scares took hold in different countries.

We agreed that – in principle – we should trace back the information given in media sources to its origins.  Of course we don’t always have the time and motivation to do this, so we sometimes have to take the pronouncements of trusted sources at face value.

Discussion moved onto the current political campaign for the upcoming general election, and the statements made in the media.  For example, a nurse had been featured on television who used a food bank – presented as a disgraceful situation – but we wondered how food banks monitored the degree of need of their clients.  There was also a difference between the ‘average salary’ of a nurse, and the ‘average earnings’ of a nurse (taking into account overtime payments).

We then got onto the subject of the alleged decline of the Labour Party.

And then onto Economics.

And then onto Education.

And then onto Deep Learning (your correspondent had never heard of this).

By this time the room was in pitch darkness.  Our host groped his way to the light switch and we could all see who we had been talking to.  For this reason, or perhaps because we had now put the world completely to rights, we soon disbanded and made our way out into the gloaming.

20/4/2017 "His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet

There’s been a murder!

There’s been another murder!

There’s been a triple murder!

No, we hadn’t gathered together on an unseasonal April evening to discuss Taggart, the longest running crime drama on UK television, but the Scottish literary sensation shortlisted for the Booker prize of 2016. However, this was not so much a ‘whodunnit’ but rather a ‘whydunnit’ as the perpetrator was known from page one. Was Roddy Macrae guilty as charged or were his actions guided either by mental instability or somehow justified by the social conditions of his time? Told as a collection of unreliable accounts; from Roddy himself, his legal team, expert (or not so expert) medical witnesses, his neighbours in the village, and even the popular press, we were asked to assemble these disparate accounts to form an understanding of the mind of a murderer, of contemporary society, of the role of the media, of mid-19th century thinking on psychology and the vagaries of the Scottish legal system. Phew! Fortunately, your scribe had two bottles of Scottish ale with him to stimulate the ‘grey matter’.

Intent on preparing for the cut and thrust of literary discussion, and distracted in opening an ale, your scribe regained attention to find an animated discussion of hats. He recorded mention of stetsons, deerstalkers, panamas, fedoras, bowlers, a fez, top hats, berets, bobbles, flat caps and so it went on. Apparently hats “maketh the man”. (Shouldn’t that be manners? Ed.) One of our number was once known as ‘Digger’ because he had once worn an Australian hat (with corks?). I opened my copy of the book but couldn’t find the significance of hats in the plot or character development, so I wondered what prompted this debate. We moved ahead.

The proposer explained his book choice. Brought up in Dingwall and a frequent visitor to Applecross, he felt an affinity of place. His great grandfather worked as a ground officer on a large estate in Sutherland, a little bit like the constable. On a positive note he liked the layout of the book as found documents and the clever writing which made the events seem real. The characters came across strongly although some were possibly rather stereotyped. The description of the hard life of the crofters contrasted strongly with the privileged on the estate. With medical background, he enjoyed the seemingly accurate details of the post mortem and the discussion of criminal anthropology, a “science” which has since been discredited. In today’s milieu, he suggested that Roddy’s behaviour could have been seen as autistic. On the negative side, he thought some of the description of the murders overly detailed and macabre, the sexual mutilation sketched over. The beauty of the area wasn’t remarked – of course, we can enjoy the scenery on a fine day but it is a different proposition if one has to scrape a living from the poor land.

He also sketched a few details of GMBs life. Born in 1969 in Kilmarnock, he pursued a conventional middle class development to read English at Glasgow University In 1999 he took a degree in International Security Studies at St Andrews, but the seeds of creative writing had been sown.  Yet, when he won 2013 Scottish Book Trust New Writers award, he did not to take up their offer of mentoring, feeling he should develop his own ideas through His Bloody Project, his second novel. In interviews (e.g. Glasgow Herald) he has cited a debt to Simenon and acknowledges the influence of Kafka, (“There are no regulations. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe… The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist.”). He talks too of the similarities with Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) and of the influence of an 1835 French Murder (a Frenchman called Pierre Riviere, who brutally murdered his mother, his sister and brother with a pruning hook.

The floor was open to general discussion.

First, we echoed the proposer in praising the depiction of the hard existence in highland crofting communities, at the mercy of the weather, the poor soil, the laird, the church, permanently in rent arrears, the difficulty of creating, let alone profiting from selling excess produce. The local people of Culduie are ridiculed by the landed gentry at the local market and unfairly depicted as a sub-species by both the press and the medical profession. It is amusing, if not atypical, that the villagers of Culduie themselves find someone to look down on in the slovenly, wanton inhabitants of the shoreline village of Aird Dubh. We enjoyed the sparse, simple prose and felt the book gave psychological; and social insight into the mid-19th century highland land and living.

Criticisms started to emerge. First, one member talked of a recent Restoration murder mystery he had read in which a woman was accused of being both a murderer and a witch, “An Instance of the Fingerpost” set in Oxford in the 1660s by Iain Pears and published in 1988. Dealing with a similar theme, the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of an event through contradictory accounts and evidence,  he felt that HBP paled by comparison. He talked of the rather unappealing character of the father. He was disappointed that there was no twist in the tail, that there was no real development of plot ( … unlike Taggart which developed the same plot more than 100 times! Ed.). He found the prose dull and unremarkable. He quoted a review of the book he had found that complained of a miserable book describing miserable people in a miserable setting, leading cribbed and confined lives. While not going that far, he could see the reviewer’s point.  Finally he said he had trouble believing the crofter’s boy could write; this did not ring true. That Roddy can produce such a well written if unreliable document is surprising to many, and this view was reinforced by another member.

A rebuttal was attempted. Far from being a criticism, the success of the author in depicting such ‘miserable’ lives should be viewed as a success not a failure. Indeed, to the external observer the existence is miserable and certainly stripped to the bare bones when compared to a cosmopolitan existence in Edinburgh or even Inverness. Of course, our own perception of what is important in life may be viewed as arrogant in comparison with a more basic set of values. As regards the authenticity of the accounts, the device of unreliable narrator may be clichéd, but is Roddy capable of the narrative? This is an interesting point, despite the influence of the schoolmaster. However, the preface considers the point while maintaining the ‘faction’ that these are found documents – acknowledging that no-one actually saw Roddy write anything, and the possibility that Andrew Sinclair wrote or assisted in large part could not be dismissed. It is not just Roddy that displays unexpected talent. Indeed James Bruce Thomson is also rather taken with the charms of Carmina Murchison, “clearly a woman of some education”, perhaps acquired in Kyle of Lochalsh.

What of plot development and twists? Is the book dull? This raises interesting questions as to what extent an author should embellish the truth to improve such development; indeed, “embellishment” is a common complaint in recent UK TV dramas that relate to recent real events (e.g. ‘The Moorside’, shown in February 2017 to similar critical acclaim) but in these cases the living can contest it. Who complains of embellishment in “Wolf Hall”? Of course in this case, there is no real problem of altering facts as there are no facts. Hence, some of our number felt that the plot should have been strengthened while others felt that the illusion of fact was well maintained by the well written prose. The jury in Inverness may have decided Roddy’s fate, but the book club jury is still split.

Although our medical advisor was well content with the relevant research, our legal consultant was less pleased, citing major flaws in the handling of the defence and trial in particular. First, the exact designation of Andrew Sinclair was called into question. Referred to primarily as an advocate, e.g. in the opening line “I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair”, and hence able to represent his client in a high court in 1869, the letter of appeal for clemency is signed “Mr Andrew Sinclair esq., Solicitor to the Prisoner”. Is this a basic error by the author? There was some discussion of the use of the words advocate and solicitor in the more general sense, but this issue was not satisfactorily explained.

Further, he felt that the lack of preparedness of Andrew Sinclair with regard to his only witness’s testament fell somewhat short of professional standards. In mitigation, it was pointed out that this witness had a somewhat arrogant and opinionated view of lower classes, manifest in his visit to “the well” at Culduie, and might have been difficult to work with. Further, Mr Sinclair was hardly well practiced in cases of this magnitude. Certainly, the lawyer was not prepared, but is this not believable? Talking of alternative strategies, in addition to the issue of insanity, could he have better selected the jury and mounted a defence of mitigation based on social injustice? Whether such social injustice justifies violent action all too pertinent. Alas, the letter of clemency was too little, too late. There was also some discussion of the general preparedness of lawyers in general but to avoid litigation, we won’t record it!

We returned to the allegedly weak ending. Certainly, it lacked the aforementioned twist that is so often present in current crime writing, where obvious suspects are introduced then discarded until some previously unforeseen motive is suddenly introduced to explain the crime. Could there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? Should there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? The ‘contemporary’ witness statements, the prisoner’s account, the press cuttings, the medical evidence, all combine to paint an ambiguous picture of the accused. At the end, the verdict seems justified on the basis of the evidence, but the group remained split on whether the author had been too devoted to the “factual” narrative at the expense of suspense and surprise.

Our earliest critic added to his theme. There is no-one to care about in the book. He suggested that we can only empathise with characters that have some aspiration or goal. In real life, people do not always have aspirations. Roddy was seemingly content to live out his life tending to the croft, and had no apparent interest in pursuing a more enticing challenge through education, and had no real interest in going to Glasgow. None of the other characters seemed to seize the opportunity presented. Could this have been the start of a glittering change of career for Andrew Sinclair? This discussion seems to echo the ‘twist’ in that some thought the author was skillfully maintaining the illusion of a factual and accurate account and others thought he had a responsibility to add the extraordinary to the ordinary life to create outstanding literature.

Finally we turned to humour. Again some found it lacking, but others enjoyed the satirical portrayal of the various professions, e.g. the contrasting evidence of Munro and Thomson, and of the several journalists who seemed to like a drink, surely a savage libel on an honourable profession as anyone in Jinglin’ Geordie’s (an Edinburgh hostelry) will assure you on a Friday evening. The exchanges between Sinclair and the various witnesses in particular seemed often amusing. No? Not everyone was convinced. Roddy’s new companion, Archibald Ross is described as one whose appearance “caused a great deal of mirth” but on this at least we all agreed. We felt Ross was rather out of place in the general cast, although he would no doubt enliven the film version with his visual japes.

And so we concluded. A straw poll suggested two members very much in favour, three lukewarm (“I gave it three stars on GoodReads”) and one definitely against. Oh well, first there is a failure to win the Booker prize, then failure to achieve unanimous approbation from the Monthly Book Group. We look forward to the next novel.

Friday, April 21, 2017


My Brilliant Friend” was published in Italy in 2011 as  La amica geniale” and published in English translation in 2012. It is the first of an enormously successful four part series known as the “Neapolitan Novels”, which followed a number of shorter novels in which Ferrante had honed her skills.
Flanked by an intimidating pile of Ferrante books, the proposer fessed up to having borrowed the first two novels from his wife when he ran out of reading material in Australia. Such was the grip of the Neapolitan novels that they bought the last two volumes when they reached Wellington.
He noted that, usually, when introducing books we say something about the author’s background. But ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym. Ferrante holds that "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors." She argues that anonymity is a precondition for her work and that keeping her true name out of the spotlight is key to her writing process. “Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”
Last year an Italian journalist claimed to have identified Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome, as Ferrante, based mainly on her recent high earnings and acquisition of real estate. This identification caused a storm of controversy, with many enthusiastic fans taking the view, shared by the proposer, that Ferrante was entitled to her anonymity.

We dwelt briefly on this aspect. We had no reason to question the motives that she (or, less plausibly, he) put forward for anonymity, but anonymity had some obvious other advantages. First, it meant that friends and neighbours were unlikely to take offence if they suspected they were the basis for an unsympathetic character. Secondly, it meant critics would not the classic mistake of trying to interpret the books by reference to her biography. And, thirdly, the mystery could only help to enhance the aura around the books.

Ferrante has said she considers the four books to all be part of a single novel. We examined the close-together dates of publication and concluded that she must have done all, or almost all, of the writing of the four books before the first one was published.

For the proposer this was a fantastic novel, with some major themes, such as the difficulties of bright working class children getting a good education, particularly girls in traditional societies. It was important to remember that the novel was set in the 1940s and 1950s. The theme of one bright girl getting a good formal education and the other not is worked out in the later books. The book was not just set in a temporal, but in a geographic and cultural context. Naples was the important geography, but the cultural was southern Italy, where routine violence, including within marriage, was endemic, and where private rules enforced by the Camorra were more powerful than public justice.

The difficult politics of Italy were brought out well, with the Fascists defeated but still influential and the Communists important. Changes in society were well illustrated as the books move through time to the present.

We then turned to some comments sent in from our correspondent in China. “A story about growing up, beautifully told. Many intertwined themes about the human condition. Tensions of the schooldays (I’d almost forgotten them, how a clever kid survives school). The distinctions between affection, infatuation, lust, love, friendship. Ambition that’s confused by immaturity. Contrast between the academic/spiritual and the materialistic mind-set.  Gender issues: boyishness and girlishness contrasted; how women are shaped by men and by the social structures around them; how women find it hard to be assertive. Why do boys have to fight. The social tensions between families – how people can’t cope with a simple wedding ceremony.

The book made me recall my own adolescence – a dreadful time. But I think the adolescent passions of we Brits may not match those of Italians. 

Some reviews say it’s a story of Italy itself growing up (a young country) and I'm sure there's something in that…..”.

Another enjoyed it, liking the growing up theme and the relationships in the village, but feeling the book was overlong. The book above all was about insights into the female psyche, and this was reflected in the on-line comments. Not having realised until the end that there was an index of characters, the broad cast of characters with similar names was confusing. (This latter comment was echoed by a Kindle reader, who strongly recommended not reading it on a Kindle, so that it was easier to flick back to the character index!).

We debated whether this was a “feminist” novel, with the conclusion that it was not, at least in the sense that there was no feeling of a feminist agenda. The focus might be the female narrator and her female friend, but the weaknesses and failings of both females and males, and the realities of the social structure, were recorded dispassionately.

One example was the scene in which a friend’s father tries to seduce the young Elena. The writer conveys with considerable insight the confusion, and ambivalent mixture of repulsion and pleasure, experienced by Elena, and does so without, at least overtly, being judgemental.

Another reader found the very vivid and powerful detail had sucked him into the book. “I enjoyed it so much I rationed how much I read at a time so as to prolong the pleasure”. It was beautifully written, and for whatever reason he simply found it compelling.

He had visited Naples a year ago – “a spectacular place” - and had enjoyed the vivid recreation of it in the book. Of particular interest was the ghetto, or “barrio” in which they lived (the next book, which he had moved on to with alacrity, extended to other northern cities). Did the behaviour of the families in the barrio reflect just Neapolitan or wider Italian behaviour? For example, women getting beaten by their husbands was widespread in the fifties, probably throughout Europe.

But wasn’t the private justice of the Camorra a more unique feature? Well, plenty of people still came into Accident and Emergency in Glasgow with serious assault wounds and refused to tell the police who had done it. Revenge might be taken privately, often through a gang. And, the more we discussed it, the more we felt that many of the intriguing things in the book could have been found in other poor European cities in the fifties, rather than confined to Naples.

Another reader had also found the book most enjoyable, and in several ways impressive. The book might be mistaken for a very commercial historical saga, but several things lifted it. There were flashes of psychological and sociological insight, and of philosophical reflection, clearly and pithily expressed. There was a compelling exploration of friendship, and how it can change over time and be destructive as well as supportive. And there was the paralleling of the development of the characters against the post-war changes in the city and country.

The two female friends were sharply delineated, as to a lesser degree were their lovers, while the wider cast of characters – at least in this first book - were fuzzier.

The shape of the book was that of a “bildungsroman” or coming of age novel. However, it differed from the classic bildungsroman structure in two ways. First, it is about the coming of age (if reaching sixteen can be accepted as coming of age in a Neapolitan barrio) of two people, not one.

And secondly, it is normal in a Bildungsroman for the protagonist to become gradually reconciled to the values of the society that they have questioned. But this novel ends on a very different note as, in the climactic wedding scene, Elena comes to see the barrio culture as a trap from which neither she, nor her brilliant friend Lila, can ever escape. It is almost a Marxist perception in a novel that has occasionally mentioned Communists, and dislike of them, but not in any way explored their philosophy.

At that moment, I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she [my teacher] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts…

In broader discussion we noted that the translation – which read very well – used American idiom, and the proposer explained that the days of having one translation in British and one in American idiom had now gone because of the economics of the industry. We wondered, but were unable to resolve, how the original had handled the question of Neapolitan dialect, as the text frequently referred to whether or not the character was choosing to speak in dialect or in Italian. We did note though that the author used little by way of dialogue, which perhaps helped the novel to flow quickly.

We wondered about Romeo and Juliet as an influence with its story of young love in Verona across a boundary of family feud. We were also amused – or perhaps, remembering our teens, not amused at all - by the discussion of the best way to jilt someone as seen by a teenager (p. 251).

We were intrigued by the girls’ intention to write a modern version of ‘Little Women’, itself a coming of age story about three girls. And we were also intrigued by the opening of the novel showing Elena, who has shown writing ambition but not been published, choosing as a much older woman to write the book which we were now reading in published form.

One thought that evolved in discussion – and one of the things about a Book Group discussion is that it should be a dynamic process – was how similar the names were of Elena (known as “Lenu”) and Rafaella (known as “Lila” or “Lina”). And – in another echo within an echo, or reflection in a reflection – Elena is of course also the nom-de-plume of the novelist.

The book was so convincing it would be easy to think that it was autobiographical, but the similarity of the names “Lenu” and “Lina” had us reflecting that it was common for writers to take two sides of their personalities, or of human nature, and create them as different characters (the extreme example being Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’). To say the friends here represent, say, reason versus instinct, might be to oversimplify, for while the rational Lenu is better educated, the intuitive Lina is cleverer than Lenu.

However, something of this kind may be going on. There is certainly a basic opposition in their natures – Lenu being dutiful, educated, and through education capable of analysing situations and manipulating people, whereas Lina is brilliant, spontaneous, and capable of cruelty and violence. Lina has blossomed from ugly to beautiful, whereas Linu’s emerging beauty has been ruined by adolescent acne. And one of the intriguing features of the book is how the two friends interact, and how when one is in the ascendant the other is in the descendant…….

………and so we went on………and on…….. 

As R.L.S. himself wrote in ‘Talk and Talkers’:

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk.…..There are always two to a talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress’, while written words remain fixed…….