Saturday, December 04, 2010


Introducing “Blindness” (1995), the proposer said a Portuguese friend had recommended Saramago to him. He had then picked up a copy of “Blindness” at an airport in Canada, and, finding it gripping, had read the whole book on the return flight.

José Saramago (1922 - 2010) was Portugal’s most famous modern novelist. He had been born into a poor peasant family in the north of Portugal, shortly before his family moved to Lisbon. With his family unable to afford a grammar school, he had gone via technical school into a job as a car mechanic. He then worked as a translator and a journalist. His first novel was published in 1947, but he did not gain widespread recognition as a novelist until he was sixty. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He had been billed to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2010, but unfortunately had died in June.

He was noted for his left-wing politics, being a communist, an anarchist and an atheist. He fell out with the Portuguese Government, who removed a book of his from the 1992 European Literary prize shortlist on the grounds that it was religiously offensive. It might seem rather difficult to reconcile being an anarchist (no state) with a communist (all-powerful state) but Saramago was a "libertarian communist"*. Because of his political engagement with the authorities, he was sometimes compared to George Orwell, with opposition to the role of the British Empire replaced by opposition to globalization.

A feature of Saramago was that he was rather depressive in his outlook. Indeed, that was a feature of the Portuguese as a whole, as was revealed in the Fado, their melancholy music. Portugal was an Atlantic rather than Mediterranean culture, and perhaps the people had more in common in outlook with other melancholics such as the Scots and the Scandinavians than with the Mediterranean peoples.

The proposer felt that what the book was really about was what happened when you stripped away all the structures of society, and took away all the rules. Then you were left with true human nature.

So what did the group make of “Blindness”? Did it open up new vistas, new insights? Did the scales fall from our eyes? …. Or did we see through a glass, darkly?

One reader had started off by assuming the book was intended as an allegory and that the blindness was some sort of metaphor about the state of society, the idea that the human race was blind. The absence of names for characters was perhaps intended to suggest the universality of the story. It was a clever touch to centre the story on the optician’s so as to give the characters sight related names – eg the girl with the black glasses, the boy with the squint etc – and end with the man with the eye-patch blind because of the growth of his cataract.

However, the further he read the less convincing such an interpretation became, and he began to view the book more simply as a sort of science fiction story. While it was quite good as science fiction, the basic plot was hardly original – there were a large number of science fiction stories where a society was struck down by a mystery virus. And while the book started well, it then fell away. There were also a number of implausibilities– why for example did the sighted doctor’s wife not make use of a motor car, or of a torch? What was the explanation of the blindness? Why was there so little reference to the experience of blind people prior to the epidemic, or to the fact that, if blind, other senses developed more?

Perhaps the book should be viewed as partly allegory and partly science fiction. However, reference to the internet suggested Saramago had not started from an allegorical premise – an idea had simply come to him, and he had followed it through.

Another reader was reminded of HG Wells' " The Country of the Blind" where a sighted man stumbles across a remote tribe who are all blind. Far from "In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King", the sighted stranger was considered to be a delusional lunatic who was imagining what he saw. Others were reminded of Orwell’s “1984” dystopia. “The Day of the Triffids” (1951) was a particularly close precedent, a novel in which most of society is struck down by an epidemic of blindness, but the hero is saved by a sighted woman.

One reader found it a very powerful, intense work, which had an upsetting effect – in both senses - partly because of a personal dislike and fear of blindness, which the book fed. Such a fear was not uncommon, however irrational. Other writers had exploited this – such as Stevenson with Blind Pew in Treasure Island. Another who had enjoyed the book felt it flowed well, and perhaps had some poetic intent in the original. It did not read like a translation.

For another the book was laboured, and he got bogged down in it. He found the writer rather arrogant - what was there here that was different from “Lord of the Flies” or “Animal Farm” and all the other similar books? And he particularly disliked the writer’s obsession with excrement. However, he had felt after a period of reflection that it was of value to identify a disaster scenario which completely disarmed the state and for which no provision would be made.

For one reader the book was challenging and tough to read, partly because it was so unhappy. He found the book a trifle verbose, and doubted if it added much to our knowledge of society, but liked the touches of humour. Another found it a pretty damning indictment of human nature, and thus depressing. The ending was disappointing. Sexual issues – including much brutal sex, and some gentle – were a pervasive theme.

Another liked the way Saramago followed through the logic of his thesis, and showed the fragility of human organisation. The book had a sort of attractive grimness, with some vividly imagined scenes such as the rape scenes. There was some good use of irony, and some good word play around the notion of eyes and sight – noting for example how proverbs would have to change as society had lost its sight.

On the other hand, this reader found that there was nothing to lift the book out of the category of a compelling if rather familiar dystopia about the fragility of civilisation. There was no wider allegory or sustained theme of substance, although the author kept introducing little philosophical homilies in an effort to suggest there were. Similarly the stylistic experimentation seemed to be an attempt to lift the book into a higher category, but he felt that the stylistic tricks added nothing to the book, and were somewhat pretentious. It seemed to be a way of trying to signal that the book was “intellectual”, much in the way that some writers took to wearing an “I-am-clever” style of spectacles, an example of which could be found on the dust-jacket of the book…

(At this point your eagle-eyed correspondent polished his spectacles with care and scrutinised them with a fresh eye. Hmmm…maybe of the “I-am-shortsighted” variety...)

The style of the book - it being written without quotation marks or names and with little else in the way of conventional paragraphs and punctuation - attracted much other comment. For some this was a considerable irritant and it made the book more difficult to read. Would the story lose anything if you broke up the prose in a more conventional way? Was it simply a lazy way of writing?

Others found the style did not make the book more difficult to read, and did give it a certain rhythm. Perhaps, speculated one, the style reflected normal Portuguese speech and writing? But, no, suggested another – Portuguese language was very precisely punctuated. Perhaps it reflected the way in which blind people would hear speech? But they would quickly be able to differentiate voices. Or did it help you to feel depressed, given the depressive nature of the book? Wait a minute – I found it optimistic, countered another, as some people behaved well and showed true altruism. Or was the purpose of the style to distance the reader from the action and make it less voyeuristic, more didactic?

Or – suggested one who had been researching on the internet – the book was a “tonal poem”. It was difficult to comment on this without reading the book in the original, as poetry is what gets lost in translation. The consensus was that Saramago was probably following the lead of modernist writers who had experimented with dropping conventional punctuation, an approach which the Group had already encountered in Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Beckett’s “Molloy”.

(A “tonal poem”?! Struth!! Pass me that bottle of red…)

Perhaps, suggested one, the book was not so much an allegory as a parable. Heads nodded sagely at this. But if so what was the moral point of the parable? Well…how about “I don’t think we did go blind, we are blind. Blind but seeing. Blind people who can see, but do not see.” And thus perhaps the passage about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing their soul. So…..the moral was that we should go about our lives looking at things more carefully…...But if so was that not rather trite? Or did we need to read the sequel “Seeing” (2004) to find out what the parable was? Or perhaps the book was simply too vague to leave scope for any interpretation of this kind.

One reader thought the nub was the passage “Before, when we could see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we’re still only at the beginning…”? This led on to the revealing of the feelings between the working girl with dark glasses and the old man with the eye patch, a love not based on looks…..But wasn’t this just a reworking of the tart with a heart, not the most original of story lines?

(Oh dear, not much common ground here, thought yours truly, time for another calming sip of red…)

And what was really the role of the Doctor’s wife? Why was she the only one sighted? Well… isn’t it just for the purposes of the plot and moving things along? Or did Saramago already have in mind the sequel in which she is viewed with great suspicion by the government because she did not lose her sight?

We also debated whether the whole world had been affected or just Portugal, concluding it was just Portugal. The fact that the rest of the world did not enter the story perhaps reflected the sense of a parable or fable.

Well, perhaps this extract from the citation for the Nobel Prize would help to clarify things, then?

“Its omniscient narrator [of Blindness] takes us on a horrific journey through the interface created by individual human perceptions and the spiritual accretions of civilisation. Saramago's exuberant imagination, capriciousness and clear-sightedness find full expression in this irrationally engaging work……For all his independence, Saramago invokes tradition in a way that in the current state of things can be described as radical. His oeuvre resembles a series of projects, with each one more or less disavowing the others but all involving a new attempt to come to grips with an elusory reality.”

Geddit now??

(GOOD LORD!!! Pass me that second bottle!!!!)

and what then about all the excrement, wasn’t it quite excessive reflecting some personal obsession a bit like Beckett, oh no I think it would have been just like that in reality and I really liked this description, The rubbish on the streets, which appears to be twice as much as yesterday, the human excrement, that from before semi-liquefied by the torrential downpour of rain, mushy or runny, the excrement being evacuated at this very minute by these men and women as we pass, fills the air with the most awful stench, like a dense mist through which it is only possible to advance with enormous effort, yes it is so important to be able to describe sh*t accurately for example for nurses and parents trying to diagnose illness through its colour, well I have often described books as containing a load of cr*p but never realised that this was a term of praise, indeed I think you could say the book falls between two stools, ok just having a little fun trying out the Saramago mode of punctuation-light prose on you, was what we were meant to see through our blindness the overwhelming case for anarchist communism, if so the picture of social collapse the fragility of civilization and unbridled selfishness was hardly an advertisement for anarchy but that picture was unrealistic because natural organisers would have emerged more quickly, well some did no they didn’t yes they did no they didn’t yes they did no they didn’t, well they started talking about it and the group of seven worked together well and showed there is some good in human nature, well yes when not indulging in group sex and murder, and his characters were pretty flat with little depth or development, but surely the doctor’s wife develops well yes if you mean it is a development that she is content to look on and do and think and feel nothing while her husband gets in to bed with the girl with dark glasses and isn’t the man with the eye patch a self portrait of the author, probably yes if he ends up with the beauty, perhaps the dog with tears is really the best character, but a weakness was that the novel lacked logic, no the logic was overwhelming, no it wasn’t yes it was no it wasn’t yes it was, yes this punctuation-light prose is a lot easier than doing the structured stuff and don’t you think it makes this blog seem even more irrationally engaging exuberant and capricious than usual as it takes you on a horrific journey through the interface between individual contributors and the spiritual accretions of your truly, well thank you very much so it’s a happy christmas and new year to all our readers and don’t miss the next instalment from your myopic correspondent…

*Learned footnote. “Anarchist communism (also known as anarcho-communism or libertarian communism) is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, private property, and capitalism in favour of common ownership of the means of production, direct democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers' councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". So bear that in mind as a handy short slogan if you’re out trashing stuff on a cuts demo.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The proposer had been drawn to reading “The Mask of Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler through seeing the 1944 film version. The film starred Sydney Greenstreet (perfect as Peters) and, less plausibly, Peter Lorre as the hero Latimer.

Latimer was perhaps intended to be relatively insignificant by Ambler, and other Ambler books similarly had anti-heroes. Ambler disliked the swashbuckling heroes of John Buchan thrillers, and had intended his first novel “The Dark Frontier” to be a satire on this type of thriller. Nobody had noticed, and the book was taken at face value and was successful. He thus joined a number of other novelists – Fielding and Austen being other examples – whose first work was a satire of current fashion.

Eric Ambler (1908-1998) came from a theatrical family. Despite training in engineering, he soon turned to writing. After selling film rights to supplement the proceeds of his novels, he moved to France to continue writing, possessing only a suitcase and a bank account. He married there in 1937. The outbreak of war saw him serve initially in an anti-aircraft battery protecting Churchill, and then in a film unit. After the war he was attracted to writing film scripts in Holywood, and did not resume writing novels until 1951.

In becoming a writer in Hollywood after the war he followed a road also followed by Fitzgerald and Chandler, which may have helped their bank balances but not their output as novelists. We noted that – generally – the artistic plaudits for great films went firstly to the director and secondly to the actors. The writer’s role was supporting, and was often highly frustrating for them as they lost control of their screenplay. Some exceptional film-makers were both scriptwriter and director, but there were examples (such as Dennis Potter) where allowing the scriptwriter to act also as director was notably unsuccessful.

Unfortunately there was nowadays only limited interest in Ambler. Five of his early books were considered to be classic thrillers, and “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1939 - originally named “A Coffin for Dimitrios”) was the best known of these. It was much applauded from the outset, and the film rights had earned Ambler 20,000 dollars. For the proposer it was a fascinating book, and a superb example of thriller writing. Both the dialogues and the descriptions (which could be savoured more on a second reading) were brilliant. Other thrillers he had read by Ambler were constructed in a similar way, but less rich in texture and detail.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. It was well crafted and well researched, and you could pick it up and read it straight through or read it in segments with equal pleasure. Some of the issues – such as his account of drug crime and the effect of different drugs – were surprisingly modern in feel. It provided a fine tour of Europe, despite the remarkable fact that Ambler had not visited the Balkans at the time of writing. He picked up his information through a Turkish expatriate group he met in the South of France, and through reading.

The quality of Ambler’s prose came in for particular praise. It was taut and sparse, but capable of poetic rhythm and of evoking a scene, a character or a situation through a few telling details. Again such prose had a modern feel to it.

The book was essentially a thriller. We were not persuaded by the view in Mazower’s introduction to the Penguin Classic edition that the book was a manifesto for a new kind of crime novel, intended to blow up the vicarage whodunit. That was more the objective of Hammett and Chandler.

Some found the structure, with a series of interviews about the past of Dimitrios, lacked real tension and “page-turner” quality” until it emerged that Dimitrios was not in fact dead. Even if that had been predictable, Ambler generated great fear and tension in the last section of the book.

Others did find it a page-turner from the beginning, and were reminded of the structure of Citizen Kane with a picture of the central character emerging slowly through a series of people commenting on him. This was not the only time Orson Welles was to feature in our discussion, as the atmosphere of the book reminded some of “The Third Man”, and Welles did indeed direct the film version of another of Ambler’s books. Both Greene and Le Carré, noted one, had acknowledged Ambler’s influence, although he felt Ambler was perhaps not in their class.

Another note of reservation concerned the “hero” Latimer, writer of conventional detective stories and wanting, like Ambler himself, to do his writing abroad. The plot device of having him decide to explore the past of a real criminal, and criss-crossing Europe to do so, was implausible. Ambler, in the opening passage of the book, was careful to distance himself from his antihero “The choice of Latimer [as an instrument of Providence] could only have been made by an idiot” and he was probably satirising himself to some extent.

Latimer is priggishly old-fashioned. He is not interested in money or women, with his only vice being an interest in drink – provided it is French and expensive. An amusing example of his priggishness was his judgement on La Prevenza:

“Her figure was full but good and she held herself well; her dress was probably expensive….Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern.”

Mr Peters comments: “I have read one of your books. It terrified me. There was about it an atmosphere of intolerance, of prejudice, of ferocious moral rectitude that I found quite unnerving…”

However, suggested one, was not Latimer’s “ferocious moral rectitude” in deliberate counterpoint to the moral chaos that Ambler is depicting on the European continent? Ambler shows Europe lurching from the First World War (and its chaotic aftermath – such as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922) into the next European War. The Balkans teem with all sorts of peoples. For this reader, that sense of Europe in turmoil and the sense of impending war was the most intriguing aspect of the book.

“Nonsense” returned another “it’s simply a thriller written in the thirties!”

But didn’t the writer try to identify Dimitrios specifically with the collapse of the moral order in Europe, with ruthless greed and increasing aggression? Dimitrios’ criminal career as exposed in the book runs from 1922 to 1939, embracing theft, murder, spying, drugs, white slavery, financial chicanery, political assassination and possibly military provocation. He is thus the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong in Europe in the inter-war period.

Latimer reflects towards the end of the book:

“But it was useless trying to explain [Dimitrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf…”

And the book ends on a similar note with Marukakis reflecting from Bulgaria on recent border incidents created by agents provocateurs:

“Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that [Dimitrios] typified…all I know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will prevail……My latest information is that war will not break out until the spring, so there will be time for some skiing…”

And wasn’t it the case that genre novels of this kind tend to be at their best, and of most literary value, when struggling to escape the bounds of their genre?

“Hmmm…..well, we can at least agree that the Second World War was essentially a continuation of the First World War, which never really finished…”

The proposer, who had had the advantage of reading Ambler’s autobiography, shed some further light. Ambler had taken unusual care in writing this novel, and other novels of his revealed a particular concern about Germany’s aggression. His brother had married a German, and had had to prove his Aryan purity before being allowed into Germany. Ambler was also a “Communist Fellow Traveller” at this stage, and particularly critical of the role of international finance, where he thought Germany played a dangerous role.

And what of Mr Peters? For some he was the best character in the book. He was richly amusing with his endless self-justification, for example claiming the Great One had seen it fit to make him a criminal. However, one reader was certain that Mr Peters would turn out to be Dimitrios. There were clues that suggested he was Dimitrios, and indeed he would surely have made a better Dimitrios!

(Your correspondent was thoroughly confused. Firstly, it was suggested this straightforward thriller was some sort of morality tract, and now that Mr Peters was Dimitrios).

“Err…” … “So who killed Mr Peters???” (I essayed to clarify matters. But on they sailed, ignoring this razor-sharp intervention …)

“No”, asserted another, “I quickly rejected the hint that Mr Peters might be Dimitrios, because he obviously didn’t have the seductive brown eyes attributed to Dimitrios…” (still confused, because weren’t the eyes of Dimitrios meant to look like those of a doctor about to do something unpleasant to you? I looked cautiously at our medical representative) …But the author was unfairly misleading at the outset in implying that the first dead body was Dimitrios, as opposed to the second dead body ….

These notes are getting too difficult to make much sense out of. Reader, you perhaps think that these discussions follow a neat logical order and that your correspondent merely has to act as amanuensis. To disabuse you of this misunderstanding, and demonstrate the Herculean task your intrepid reporter fearlessly tackles each month, here is an accurate fragment from my verbatim notes prior to processing, a little piece of literary archaeology:

“Ambler’s description of the little-known Greco-Turkish war was gripping ……My uncle was on a boat at the time of the Greco-Turkish war, and tried to separate an Egyptian from his harem……the German definition of nationality by blood not residence is the source of problems…..EU resolves? …..So did Communism - no, not voluntary……any need for aircraft carriers or tanks?.....what about the Russian solution of inflatable tanks?.….off to Argentina, staying in the Belgrano hotel..…a friend’s son picked up all his girlfriends bar one from tango clubs…..all about agreeing to dance by sign language from the back…...not unlike Edinburgh Union dances…..what does “Belgrano” mean?.....beautiful grain….. or beautiful pimple…..did I tell you the one about my water treatment at the hands of two square-headed women in Bulgaria?… Aberdonian headmaster said you should select a woman based on the price of the drink she is holding (go for the cheapest!)… should have heard what my mother got up to in Warrender baths……young Scots are all sounding their “S”s as “Sh”s, it’s the Sean Connery factor..…yes, some of the novel did remind me of a James Bond novel…..”


The surreal quality of the discussion was further emphasised on the way home when the taxi driver claimed just to have been made an Emeritus Professor. Shurely shome mistake?

Winter had arrived early on the highest slopes of Edinburgh as the host introduced “No Way Down” (2010). He had bought the book because attracted by the tag “An ‘Into Thin Air’ for the new century”, and felt it would to provide a change for the Group by offering a new book on a new subject.

The author Graham Bowley was – as noted on the dust jacket – a journalist for the New York Times. More surprising was that he was a financial journalist. He continued to write financial/economic articles, together with a smattering of mountaineering pieces. As Bowley acknowledged in his preface, he had no prior interest in mountaineering before being drawn into writing first an article and then a book about K2. His subject was the 1 August 2008 tragedy where eleven of the world’s top climbers had died.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. Bowley told a gripping and dramatic story. The drama was enhanced by the use of dialogue and of a time sequence for the successive “scenes”. The reader was drawn on by wondering which of the climbers would live and which would die. The sense of impending tragedy was heightened by the symbolism of the yak’s throat being slit and his head stuck outside the tent, plus the superstitions of the porters, eager to propitiate the gods of the mountain and avoid bad luck.

Because Bowley did not have a mountaineering background, and had not been present at the events, the book did not reach the literary heights of some mountaineering classics. The group particularly favoured Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (about the 1996 Everest disaster), Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void” (cutting the rope in the Andes) and Heinreich Harrer’s “The White Spider” (about the north face of Eiger).

However, simply because Bowley did not have such a background, he was able to give a dispassionate account of the human failings of organisation and personality which had contributed to the tragedy, in a way that a passionate mountaineer could not. That made the book both unusual and valuable.

Bowley, however – unlike Krakauer - was not able to give great insight into what motivated people to climb. He makes some attempt at the end of his “Epilogue”:

“K2 was terrifically beautiful…yet…why had they come? Why had I come? For me their story possessed an archetypal force…basic and timeless…They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years attracted like flies to the light to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement…Some had emerged from the ordeal; others had perished. All had burned brightly in their lives…”

This passage tries hard but is conventional, vague and unconvincing. We suspected that Bowley’s real views were better recorded in his earlier statement:

“The truth was that climbing attracted strong characters, egos, oddballs, and they rubbed up against one another”

and in his summation “K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors”.

So what did we think motivated such climbers? Some suggested that risk-taking was a normal aspect of human life - even in crossing the road. High-risk mountaineering was simply at the far end of this scale, exciting and fuelled by testosterone. Males were normally the risk-takers, but that monopoly was going in today’s society.

Others felt that K2 mountaineering was in a category all by itself. The pleasures of normal hill-walking were obvious enough, at least to people living in Scotland. The adrenalin rush of extreme rock-climbing could also be comprehended, even if few of us were attracted to it. However, tackling K2 – an activity with a one in four mortality rate – was something quite different, more akin to Russian roulette.

Was it fuelled by a compulsion to find value in one’s life by being part of a tiny group of high achieving heroes? Only 277 people had successfully climbed K2 so far. So was it a craving for status, even if only in the climbing community? If so, it must have been quite a blow to arrive on K2 in 2008 and find over twenty other climbers trying to reach the top on the same day (or trying to “summit”, in the ugly neologism picked up by Bowley).

One of the attractions of the book was that Bowley rightly resisted the temptation to be judgemental in his writing, given the scope for adding to the grief of the bereaved. He was convincing in arguing that a kind of “groupthink” had taken over and allowed them collectively to make the error of pressing on to the summit too late in the day. Similarly he was not dogmatic in trying to resolve some of the riddles of exactly who had done what in the descent, noting that he had expected to establish a clear narrative but instead found himself “in some post-modern fractured tale”.

Occasionally, however, Bowley’s cloven hoof of judgement peeped out from under his toga of objectivity. The South Koreans did not get a very good press, suggested one reader, who suspected Bowley bought into the view that their large-scale nationalistic expedition was one of the root causes of the tragedy. Comparatively little effort had gone into recording the Koreans’ perspective or differentiating them as individuals, although that might reflect cost constraints. That Bowley did not think too much of the Dutchman Van Rooijen was also not very hard to work out, felt another. He thought it confirmed by the superbly deadpan comment that – Bowley having crossed the Atlantic to record the Dutchman’s viewpoint – Van Rooijen then sold rather than gave him a copy of his book.

By contrast, one member felt that Gerard McDonnell was eulogised to an extent that seemed implausible, which perhaps reflected American sentimentality about the Irish. And, felt another, it was perhaps surprising that Cecilie Skog attracted praise for being pretty but no comment for pressing single-mindedly on to the summit despite having been instrumental in precipitating the first death.

There were clearly difficult moral judgements that the climbers had to make about the extent to which they were willing to compromise their own safety – and their own chance of “summiting” - by trying to help others. It was perhaps unsurprising that some, having got this far, were very ruthless, and remarkable that others were altruistic to the point of losing their own life. However, the fact that we felt equipped to venture judgments that the author did not was a tribute to the extent his story had brought the individuals alive (and to our presumption).

The mistakes made by some of the climbers in terms of not taking basic survival kit such as a GPS or sufficient oxygen bottles to accommodate a delay (there were porters to carry them) struck us as extraordinary. Given the odds of dying on K2, you would need to be a reckless risk-taker to undertake the climb, and perhaps that trait - that conviction of your own immortality - would inevitably be associated with a degree of carelessness and lack of realism about safety requirements.

It was a savage irony, noted one member, that effective co-operation between individuals and groups was at a premium in the situation they faced. Yet the type of ego-driven personality attracted to such a climb was liable to be the least adept at such co-operative activity. It was perhaps surprising that the groups had achieved even their initial degree of agreement.

In the book we discussed in May (Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis) the author observed that obtaining a long sought goal does not give more than temporary happiness. Soon it is on to the next goal, and making the journey gives more happiness than reaching the destination.

The truth of this was demonstrated in the compulsion that the K2 climbers felt to set out to risk their lives again, despite the horrors they had encountered on 1 August 2008. Thus Cecilie Skog was ice-climbing in the Rockies sixteen weeks after the death of her husband on K2. And Go Mi-sun, the star-climber in the South Korean team (and also female), died a year later on another mountain in northern Pakistan.

Sobering stuff, noted your correspondent. Meanwhile he observed a bottle of Ledaig malt from Tobermory being steadily drained by a fellow member, who claimed to be using it as a cold remedy.

Hmmm….he must have been born on the same day as me…..

It was the annual outing to Portie again. Your assiduous correspondent arrived to find the early arrivers in full flow on the topic of why there might be astragals on one side of the house and not the other (answers on a postcard) and sampling a fine Bourgeuil - Les Cent Boisselées 2003 (just send us a crate if you feel so inclined. Or two…).

Moving on to introducing “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the proposer said that he had been encouraged to read it by his wife and daughters, and had bought the 50th anniversary edition. However, he had subsequently found a copy given to him for his 21st birthday, and thought, but could not be certain, that he had read it in the past! The book linked with last month’s “The Color of Water” in its examination of race relations, and had received a fair degree of recent attention because of the 50th anniversary and because of Rich Hall’s programme “The Dirty South”.

Harper Lee (1926- ) was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the daughter of a civil lawyer, who had on one occasion defended two negros in a murder trial and lost. Her sister Alice was a lawyer. Harper herself had studied some law at university, but did not like it. She found little in common with her fellow female students. She spent a summer at Oxford, but dropped out of her law studies on return, feeling that she wanted to be a writer. She struggled in New York for some years, working as a reservations clerk.

However, she had made friends with the composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, and they made her the remarkable Xmas present in 1956 of a year’s wages to allow her to concentrate on writing, and also helped to find her an agent. This allowed her to finish the manuscript by 1959, and the book was published in July 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Lee described the film as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made”. Peck’s grandson was named after her, and she remains close to Peck’s family.

When a child her next door neighbours were the aunt and uncle of Truman Capote, and he spent a lot of time there. Capote became her best friend, and the character of Dill in her book was modelled on him. One of them was gifted a Remington typewriter, and they wrote stories together. There were not many other examples in literary history of two such major writers being childhood friends.

She renewed her friendship with Capote when she went to work in New York. In Capote’s first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948) there is a tomboy girl character, based on Harper Lee. Capote also said that in the first draft of his novel he had a character who, like Boo Radley, was a neighbour who left things in trees. This character, according to Capote, was based on a real life figure from their childhood.

After completing her novel, Lee helped Capote with writing “In Cold Blood”. She was one of two people that the book was dedicated to, but she was hurt that no recognition was given to the part she had played in contributing to the book. Despite that, their friendship continued to the end of Capote’s life. But while he revelled in the limelight, she shunned it.

Despite carrying out some work on a second novel and on a non-fiction book, Lee had not published another book, and continued to live a quiet private life in New York and Monroeville.

The group were unanimous in their praise of their book. One survey had judged this was the best novel of the last century. While not perhaps going that far, we agreed this was a true classic - beautifully written, and also enjoyable despite its disconcerting subject matter. Her wry humour and good use of dialect also illuminated the novel with a warm tone. And what a brilliant title she had chosen.

The main theme was of course race, but it was by no means the only theme. Another was that of a child coming to terms with the realities of the adult world. Also explored was the issue of how Atticus brought up his children as a single parent. And more broadly Lee was portraying the breadth of society in a small rural town in the South.

The device of telling the story through the eyes of a six year old (even if one who seems knowing beyond her years) was brilliantly successful. It allowed a portrait to emerge of Atticus as a hero - a man of great integrity - with little sentimentality, as it also depicted his foibles from a child’s perspective. An interesting comment on Atticus from Rich Hall was that in reality he probably would have been lynched in the South of the fifties.

The device of using the child narrator also effectively conveyed the view that racism was learnt from culture and not innate, and that children start with a sense of fair play. One of us remembered being brought up in a village where half the children were gypsies, and thinking nothing of playing with them all the time.

Another attractive feature of the novel was that Lee showed a capacity to understand why people in her small town behaved as they did. She was unreserved in condemning racism, but she showed the capacity for empathy of the great novelist in appreciating how it evolved.

However, there was no ambiguity about her moral judgements:

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it – whenever a white man does that to a Blackman, no matter who he is, or how a fine family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Part of the force of that statement by Atticus comes from taking the phrase “white trash” and turning it from its normal derogatory connotations of poverty and class into a term of moral judgement.

(Well indeed, I ventured, didn’t the Country and Western song also play on the meaning of “trash” in the line “I like my women just a little on the trashy side”? Alas this scintillating piece of linguistic criticism was left withering on the vine…).

Although, continued another, there was a degree of inconsistency in Atticus insisting that Jem should have to face a trial but not Boo Radley.

What about the structure of the novel? The line of plot certainly misled some, as they had feared a rather sentimental court victory for Atticus in defence of his black client, Tom Robinson, and that realism of the court outcome was appropriate. An early comment from a publisher had been that the draft book was more a collection of short stories than a novel, and one member felt that there was still an element of truth in this, in particular in not integrating the Boo Radley sub-plot with the themes of the rest of the novel. On the other hand, suggested one, the Boo Radley story also showed how it is possible to make quite unrealistic assumptions about other people.

We were greatly intrigued by the fact that Harper Lee had only published one book, and had dropped unpublished her subsequent efforts. Why should that be? Was she one of those writers who only really had one book in her, such as Margaret Mitchell? Or did she recognise that she was one of those writers whose first book was always going to be the best (in which class we identified various writers ranging from Salinger to Colin Currie)?

Or was she simply too much of a perfectionist? After all in 1958 she had thrown five years of work on “To Kill a Mockingbird” into the snow until a call from her editor persuaded her to rescue the manuscript. And perhaps if she had published other less good novels set in New York she would have lost the identification with the South that was central to her persona as a writer. Indeed, speculated one (who claimed to have been a model for a character in a play), once someone was identified as a writer they might find people were unwilling to open up in front of them, which would limit their raw material.

In any event, we hoped that she had not destroyed all her other manuscripts or left instructions for them to be destroyed on her death. But we feared she would have.

Lee had wanted to be the “Jane Austen of the South”, and she had succeeded very well in this ambition. There were also strong echoes of Mark Twain in the novel. But despite these nineteenth century echoes, the approach to racial issues was surprisingly modern for a book published in 1960. It had to be remembered that the book was written before JFK had come to power, and before Martin Luther King had made his “I have a dream” speech. The book’s depiction of racism and of sex could when necessary be brutally realistic in its language.

The book was also prescient. Thus Atticus said:

“There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up, and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.”

Was this, I ventured, a simple black and white tale?

When those who had fallen off their chairs recovered from this minor faux pas, the view was that, at its heart, the book was indeed a kind of fable, which might help to account for its appeal to younger readers. However, there were elements of complexity too, such as in the character of Miss Maudie.

Would the book have had any success in changing attitudes to racism? Probably not, we feared, with adult readers whose attitudes had already been formed, but it must be a powerful force for good with young readers, and was therefore a popular pedagogic tool.

And were we being complacent in assuming we were all non-racists now? Some claimed everybody had a degree of racism within them. Or was that simply the thought police, and there was no satisfying them?

Well at least, we congratulated ourselves, we weren’t in the racist category of the Airdrie fan who turned up at matches in Nazi uniform, thereby attracting the first ASBO issued to a football fan in the UK.

But steady on, riposted one, whose sympathies perhaps lay with the Diamonds, it’s not as if the whole club is like that! It’s not as if Airdrie United F.C. are putting pictures of the Wehrmacht on the front of their Matchday Programme!

Oh, indeed not…

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Your correspondent had arrived post-haste from another function (though only slightly the worse for wear, in his opinion) and had been rewarded for being last to arrive with the least comfortable chair. It backed on to an aspidistra, which did at least serve to keep him awake for some of the time. It was quickly apparent that another member had been sampling a bottle or two of Kiwi Pinot Noir, lending a remarkable vigour to his contributions…

Introducing the “The Color of Water” (1996) the proposer said he had been reorganising the books in his house when he had come across this one, which he had much enjoyed at the time of its publication. Re-reading it he had remained impressed, but new issues emerged. It was remarkable how different your perspective could be on re-reading a book.

The book was written in a simple, easy style. It dealt with interesting aspects of US life, and in particular of US minorities – such as life in the Jewish community and the difficulties and dangers that Ruth faced in having relationships with a black man. It described very well how the family worked with its amazing twelve children and the poverty they had to overcome.

The device of interweaving the author’s own story with that of his mother was very effective. But, on re-reading, he was struck by the fact that the mother that was portrayed was fairly cold – there was little warmth or love – although it was an impressive account of an impressive woman. And he was also now struck by the fact that the book told us little about the dynamics of the relationships between the twelve children. It was a factual, clinical account of how life moved on, with only a limited sense of love or protection. He had still enjoyed it on a second reading, but felt a degree of disappointment that the book was perhaps overly analytical.

Much of the discussion that followed was of the characters, the problems they faced, and their possible motivations, and relatively little was about the book per se, suggesting that McBride had done a good job of making his characters come alive.

One reader had found the interweaving of the two stories clumsy, and had subsequently re-read the mother’s story by itself, which he found much more satisfactory. Others, however, felt that the structure was well-crafted, and admired how McBride sometimes brought the stories together in time, then let them drift apart and come together again. One found that the style of modern American prose-writing tended to grate. Thus McBride telling his own story grated on him, but it did not grate when he was reading the story of his mother.

Some felt the characters were not very sympathetic, and it was difficult to empathise with them. Others, however, felt they could empathise with the mother in her battle to keep her vast family together with little support after her two husbands had died, and empathise with the author as he struggled with being a black man with a white Jewish mother. Both the story of McBride and the story of his mother had elements of the “misery memoir” formula, which had proved so popular in recent years.

One reader had not realised for a while that the story was autobiographical, but on doing so found the book – and the jaw-dropping problems the characters faced – much more compelling. Some were pleased to find humour in the book, such as Ruth avoiding traffic lights in Harlem after being told to avoid red light areas.

For some the fact that the author was a journalist had helped him deal with the very difficult subject of writing about his own mother and childhood. The book did teeter at times on the verge of sentimentality, and also on the verge of the Bible Belt confessional, but generally managed to avoid the traps. The device of putting the mother’s story in her own words helped to distance the author from it. McBride’s journalistic skills made the book readable and kept sentimentality under check. However, his journalistic approach equally limited the book in terms of its depth and ability to create empathy.

The character of Ruth the mother provoked much debate. Was she really a loving mother? When you had twelve children there would be little time for demonstrations of affection given the over-riding priority of keeping the family fed, clothed and going to school. For some her drive to get her children to go to university was the way in which she expressed her love. Others felt Ruth drove her children to university without consideration of what might suit them as individuals.

Where did the drive for education come from? Was it simply cultural, reflecting her Jewish and/or immigrant belief in the power of education? Or was it also a feeling that she needed to prove that – having married a black man – her children were in no sense inferior or disadvantaged? President Obama’s white mother – who had also married a black man – had similarly driven him very hard to succeed at university. And was another motivator for Ruth the feeling that her own mother, disabled and abused by her husband, had failed? The proud way in which McBride sets out a table detailing the qualifications gained by each of the siblings suggests that, for him too, university qualifications were a key measure of success.

His mother had been lucky in the quality of the two husbands she had found, but unlucky in the ruthless way she had been cast aside by her original family. They, by saying the prayer of Kaddish, had indicated she was dead to them. Some of us were shocked by this ruthlessness. Others pointed out that casting out those who strayed from the norms was how a group – in this case the Jewish people – could retain a coherent identity. And his mother could show ruthlessness too – in not returning to see her dying mother, and in failing to keep her promise to her sister to stay. Perhaps Ruth had inherited more of her personality from her father than she would have liked to acknowledge.

Ruth had only died in January 2010. It was intriguing, and pleasing, that the sales of the book must have meant her latter years had been spent in much greater material comfort than in any other part of her life, and allowed her to travel widely.

Ruth was characterised as an extremely private person. We were told it had been very difficult to get her to open up, but were given no other information on the writing process. The reader did not know the extent to which her story reflected what she had actually said – presumably in taped interviews – or to what extent it reflected her son’s imaginings of how she would have felt. Had she actually read the draft book and exercised a right of veto? One of us, at any rate, thought he could detect the rhythms of a black person’s speech in her story, which might imply that the speech of her husbands had influenced her and that much of the wording was verbatim.

What then of the twelve siblings, and the lack of information about how they interacted? The probable explanation was that McBride still had to live with his siblings, and relationships might have been badly damaged by too candid an exposition. Would there be a pecking order between the siblings based on degrees of darkness of skin, wondered one? Not with the mother’s system of the oldest child being her deputy as “king” or “queen”, so that age, not colour, would determine the pecking order.

What of McBride himself? He sketched out an intriguing account of his rebellion against authority – perhaps exacerbated by the difficult family background – and subsequent recovery. He was clearly very able in both the writing and musical worlds, but found it difficult to sustain any job for long. As with his mother the Christian religion had become a big part of his life. And it was very impressive that his father had set up a church that started simply as a table in his house. It was of interest that that the Church had played the major role if providing leaders for the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., reflecting the Church’s importance for the black community.

The success of the book must have been of life-changing importance to McBride, as it was to his mother. He had said of his book: "I thought it would be received well in the black community but it's sold much better in the white Jewish community," he said. "Most of my readers are middle-age, white, Jewish women....". The memoir spent over two years on The New York Times bestseller list, and is said now to appear on high school and university course lists across America. In 2003, he published a novel, “Miracle at St. Anna”, drawing on the history of the overwhelmingly African American 92nd Infantry Division in the Italian campaign from mid-1944 to April 1945. The book was adapted into the movie “Miracle at St. Anna”, directed by Spike Lee, in 2008…

At this point your amanuensis must have dozed off despite the attentions of the aspidistra, because I have no idea what was said until I woke to a Pinot Noir infused cry aimed at me:

“Like a hippo and a giraffe, and DON’T put that in the blog!”

Don’t ask me what that was about, but the temperature had become distinctly hot. Political Correctness had retired for the night, and the conversational ball was whizzing back and forwards as if in a tennis match…

“ Such waste in the NHS! All the hip replacement aids never need be returned…” …“The private sector controls costs much better – why they even halve – or quarter – the incontinence pads!”

“And homeopathy deserves no public support!”… “But it cured both my daughter and a cat!!”

“It’s not surprising that all twelve children did so well, because they were the product of mixed race marriages, who are likely to be better looking, stronger and more clever through the mixing of the genes….”

“Ah yes, that’s well known in science – ‘hybrid vigour’ – look at Obama. And Tiger Woods ”….. “Oh nonsense… there are lots of great golfers who are not hybrids like….err…err… Phil Mickelson….”…

“But maybe too much hybrid vigour in Tiger?”

“East Africans produce great distance athletes, while West Africans are the sprinters and footballers”… “Is that why Hibs have just signed an East African?”

“Immigrants are always among the most enterprising and able members of their population , which is one of the reasons they attach such importance to education on arrival”…. “Nonsense, it’s having to struggle hard that makes them successful, not being immigrants…”

“If Scotland has lost its most enterprising for generations, are we now a dysgenic society?”

“Fruitcakes, I tell you! Fruitcakes!” (the Pinot Noir was talking again…)


1. One of our number was, coincidentally, involved in sending a Home Secretary to visit the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, which feature in the book. His interest was in their community justice system, and the visit was instrumental in leading to a community court experiment in the North West of England.

2. HYBRID VIGOUR. Wikipedia: “Heterosis is a term used in genetics and selective breeding. Heterosis, or hybrid vigour or outbreeding enhancement, is the increased function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring. It is the occurrence of a genetically superior offspring from mixing the genes of its parents. Heterosis is the opposite of inbreeding depression, which occurs with increasing homozygosity. The term often causes controversy, particularly in terms of the selective breeding of domestic animals, because it is sometimes believed that all crossbred plants or animals are genetically superior to their parents; this is true only in certain circumstances: when a hybrid is seen to be superior to its parents, this is known as hybrid vigour. When the opposite happens, and a hybrid inherits traits from its parents that makes it unfit for survival, the result is referred to as outbreeding depression. Typical examples of this are crosses between wild and hatchery fish that have incompatible adaptations…. (not to be confused with Heterotic string theory)”.

All quite clear, then?

3. DYSGENICS. Wikipedia: “Dysgenics (also known as cacogenics) is the study of factors producing the accumulation and perpetuation of defective or disadvantageous genes and traits in offspring of a particular population or species. The term dysgenics was first used as an antonym of eugenics — the social philosophy of improving human hereditary qualities by social programs and government intervention. The word "dysgenic" was first used, as an adjective, about 1915, by David Starr Jordan, describing the "dysgenic effect" of World War I. Jordan believed that healthy men were as likely to die in modern warfare as anyone else, and that war killed only the physically healthy men of the populace whilst preserving the disabled at home. Dysgenic mutations have been studied in animals such as the mouse and the fruit fly”.

But not the giraffe or the hippo?

Friday, July 16, 2010


On a hot summer’s night in southern Edinburgh (so hot that one member arrived with white wine in a cooler) the proposer introduced “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. He said that, given the current debate about Britain’s involvement in the Afghan War, it seemed appropriate to revisit a book about “the war to end all wars” which had made a great impact on him. On his second reading of the book he still found it engaging and moving.

Remarque was conscripted in late 1916 at the age of 18. After training he was posted to the Arras front on 12 June 1917. On 31 July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele he was wounded by shrapnel in the leg, arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany. He had only returned to training when the war ended. This – probably the most famous of all World War One novels - was therefore based on only just over seven weeks of experience in the front line.

The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in a German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in January 1929. He wrote a sequel, “The Road Back” (1931), which one of our number reported was also good but not quite as powerful. Both were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.

“All Quiet On The Western Front” sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print. Indeed one of our number was sporting an American First Edition complete with cuttings of contemporary reviews, which, surprisingly, referred to unnecessary censorship in the American edition on “moral” grounds. In 1930, the book was adapted as an Oscar-winning film of the same name.

Surprisingly, although one or two members of the group had an interest in military matters, no-one in the group other than the proposer had read the book before. Without exception, they were extremely positive about the book. “Absolutely marvellous”. “Great pace – I couldn’t put it down”. “Have read nothing approaching this, other than possibly Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ ”. “Beautifully constructed, so that his anti-war messages are put over without interrupting the narrative flow and without preaching”. “Engaging variety of humour”. “Totally compelling”.

Looking at in more detail, one reader was struck by the way Remarque could venture into quite poetic uses of language – for example on the subject of earth - without any sense of inappropriateness, despite the generally grim subject matter.

Another was struck by the ability of his characters to joke in the direst of situations, such as the description of roasting pork in a ruined house despite the fact that the smoke from the fire was attracting increasingly heavy artillery fire. The very first episode – about double rations for the troops – was laced with irony as the cause was that half the company had been killed.

His writing was particularly powerful - short and too the point. He could bring a scene to life or create a character with just a couple of brush-strokes, just a telling detail or two. Remarque’s descriptive ability could be measured by seeing how much more gripping his work was than the now widely-published recollections of former World War One soldiers describing similar events. Two particularly powerful scenes were that of the hero’s isolation on returning home on leave and that of his surreal experiences trapped in a shell crater.

The scenes set in hospital – with the ghastly range of injuries, the frequency of death, and the sense of the hospital’s limited resources being overwhelmed by demand – were perhaps the most potent of the many anti-war elements of the book.

The novel, which exposed us to the elemental in the trenches, made one reflect that our generation had been a very sheltered one. It was terrible that a teacher – presumably with no experience of war – could persuade a class of schoolchildren to volunteer.

It was intriguing that 1929 saw the publication of this classic in Germany and in the same year two other World War One classics: “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. This coincidence might reflect a desire by publishers to publish anti-war books. However, the great majority of German war literature in the twenties and thirties was nationalistic and pro-war, and some of it glorified death for one’s country in almost mystical terms. The Hemingway book included a lot of material other than the War, but Hemingway’s ability to conjure up moving descriptions with simple short sentences and a few lucid details was similar to that of Remarque’s.

One notable difference was that Graves and Hemingway were writing from an individual perspective, whereas Remarque’s hero characteristically wrote about “we” rather than “I”. The “we” often refers primarily to his group of school friends, but more widely it can be taken to echo the idea of a lost generation set out in his preface:

“This book is intended to neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.”

This striking theme was developed as he observes that older soldiers had jobs and families to return to, while the next generation had escaped military service. It was his generation that was left in limbo. The theme was deepened further in the painful scenes where he returns home and is unable to connect properly with his family and neighbours.

(Perhaps, ventured your scribe, Remarque’s emphasis on “we” also reflected the remarkable German capacity for organisation, which would shortly be demonstrated against England in the next round of the World Cup? This was swiftly silenced by a few anti-racist glares from those unaware that your correspondent could rival an octopus for powers of prediction).

One note of reservation was about the very brief ending, in which we discover from a new narrator that the original narrator Paul Bäumer was killed right at the end of the War. For some this was rather perfunctory and had little dramatic impact. Perhaps the real function of the ending was to underscore that Remarque was writing a novel and reserved the right to produce further novels about other World War One characters. The ending was, however, tied in to the title - in German “Im Westen nichts Neues”, with the English paraphrase “All Quiet on the Western Front” introduced by the first translator A.W. Wheen and entering the language. The title also reflected the gulf between the experience of the participants at the front and the understanding of civilians at home.

Remarque was very observant about the detail of warfare, such as how soldiers could spot the different types of artillery shell from the sound of its flight (artillery being the major cause of death in the First World War, as in most wars). He noted how the Germans had started to use entrenching tools as weapons in preference to bayonets, and how fragments of frozen ground thrown up by shells could cause as many injuries as shrapnel.

Remarque’s lack of nationalism was one of the most attractive features of the book, and must have contributed to its international success. He for one did not subscribe to the “myth of total evil” (see our discussion of Jonathan Haidt last month). Perhaps that was why he had dropped the “Remark” spelling of his name and reverted to that of his French ancestors. However, he did reproduce the widely held German view that they had not really been defeated on the Western Front in 1918. He argued that they were the better soldiers and had lost only because they lacked food and replacement artillery, and had been overwhelmed by greater numbers.

Every war sowed the seeds of the next war, and the view that the Germans had not in reality been defeated, combined with the severity of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, had combined to provide fertile ground for the development of the Second World War.

Finally we briefly considered two World War One poems. One was Owen’s iconic “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The proposer noted that it followed on from the description of a gas attack in the Remarque book. He found Owen’s work very powerful. It built up a vivid picture in your head with its simple but imaginative language and compelling rhythms.

It was remarkable that such a hideous war should have produced so much memorable poetry, and we could not think of a war before or since that had seen such a flowering of poetry. (It was pointed out, however, that revisionist historians felt that the poignancy of the poetry had contributed to misconceptions about the competence and integrity of the British military effort).

In this poem Owen set out to shock, and he succeeded:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…”

Shock also came from the incongruously erotic undertones of :

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling…”

Some of the power came from onomatopoeia, as in the hard work getting through the consonantal mud of

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge..”

but with alliteration pulling the reader on. The language’s energy also came from the use of a high proportion of nouns and verbs rather than adjectives, as in the use of gerunds in:

“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams…”.

It was pointed out that there is a permanent exhibition to the War Poets at Craiglockhart that anyone can visit, and before long we were off on to a debate about shell-shock.

A brave soldier set off over the top armed only with the argument that we all suffered from a degree of shell-shock, simply from living long enough to be disillusioned by our inability to change things. He was mercilessly gunned down by a machine-gun nest spitting out bullets such as “unable to cope with everyday life!”, “post-traumatic stress!”, and “nonsense!” and left bleeding in no-man’s land.

Harold Begbie’s “Fall-In” (1914) was very different to Owen’s poem: aimed, like a white feather, at shaming young men into volunteering.

"What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack,
When the girls line up the street
Shouting their love to the lads to come back
From the foe they rushed to beat?...

But what will you lack when your mate goes by
With a girl who cuts you dead?”

Remarque would have hated this manipulative piece as much as his hero hates the schoolmaster who had persuaded his class to volunteer.

In printing this poem from the internet one member had inadvertently also printed a series of posts from schoolchildren who had been given the poem as a set text, along the lines of:

“I'm doing this poem for my interim assesment and I really like it but I don't get some of the meaning behind the words. Can anyone help”

“I'm doing the yr 10 coursework, we're doing this poem as one of our pro-war choices i like it, altho i hate the idea of war i really like this jingoistic poem”; and

“I have to do this poem for coursework for english , and i need to give a summary about what it is about , would anyone like to help”

All of which suggested that exposing the young to war literature might not have quite the impact we fondly hope for.

Inculcating post-war generations of British schoolchildren with First World War poetry did not stop a British Prime Minster from that generation leading Britain into five wars.

And Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” – which we were unanimous in hailing as a brilliantly powerful anti-war novel, probably the best of all - had not been enough to stem the pressures building up in Germany that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War ten years later.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Introducing the book, the proposer – who had been looking particularly chipper in recent months – said that he had resolved to read more non-fiction and science books this year. “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt (2006) had been recommended by an eighty year old friend, who was still very much interested in questions such as the meaning of life.

The proposer had found the book to be stimulating and thought-provoking. It was a cross-disciplinary amalgam of fable, literature, psychology, philosophy, literature, and genetics and own-life experience. Haidt’s approach was based on evidence rather than assertion. The style was very accessible and readable, and revealed enough personal information about the writer to humanise the book without making it irritating.

A film of Haidt speaking could be found on the internet at, a site he recommended. It showed him to be also an extremely cogent speaker. The proposer had been sufficiently impressed to read the book twice, and skim it for a third time. He had recommended it to both his daughters, who were in turn enthusing about it to their friends. It was thus a book that was creating interest across the generations.

The majority of the group shared his enthusiasm. This was so much more than the standard American self-help manual that some had feared. Haidt had a remarkable ability to make complex ideas and research accessible, and to encompass a vast range of learning in concise and elegantly written prose. The range and density of the subjects covered was such that many would want to read the book for a second time to get the full benefit from it. It was an understated book which – unlike, for example, “The Black Swan” - did not trumpet its own virtues.

While much of the book did indeed focus on issues of what made people happy and the possible meaning of life, the book was much broader than that. It provided a wide survey of much modern psychological research, and of many systems of philosophy. To pick up one of Haidt’s own themes, the journey through the book was more rewarding than the destination it reached. Thus the title of the book – no doubt proposed by the publisher - was rather misleading. The yellow Mr Happy smile cover had proved something of an embarrassment to those reading the book in a public place, but at least it reflected the appealing fact that the book did not take itself too seriously.

Much of our discussion therefore did not focus on the happiness issue as such, but on some of the intriguing gems unearthed in the book. Thus we liked the metaphor of the elephant and the rider as a more apt image for the human mind than that of horse and charioteer or id/ego/superego. The elephant’s ability to respond quicker than the conscious mind was echoed in day-to-day experience. We also recognised only too well Haidt’s description of the rider rationalising the prejudices of the elephant. We were also sympathetic to his arguments against the ‘blank slate’ view of the human mind at birth.

We were struck by Haidt’s ability to empathise with people who took a different world view to his own, based partly on fieldwork. Thus most of us (but it should be said not all) found his analysis of the Eastern mind-set and philosophies compelling. His fair-minded analysis of the role of religion was impressive, particularly when he was not religious himself. He made an interesting point that transcendence was a central concept in religion, but that bureaucrats who had never had a transcendental experience then ran religions. His analysis of the concept of disgust, and how that helped create a whole religious and ethical system that would find Western practice abhorrent, was compelling.

Similarly his scrupulously even-handed attempt to define the psychological reasons for the difference between Republican and Democrat values in the US, despite being himself a liberal, was most illuminating, and had much wider applicability. It was a refreshing change to the judgemental tone of most political analysis. To understand all is to forgive all, and we were particularly swayed by Haidt’s analysis that the “myth of absolute evil” was a conceptual trap to be avoided.

(One of our members at this point risked the comment that the newly formed Liberal/Conservative coalition had found that their differences were in reality much less than their tribal rivalries had suggested. Various elephants in the room lumbered to their feet sensing scope for a re-match of last month’s political dust-up over Chris Mullin’s diaries. Mercifully the riders got a grip on their beasts just before they tumbled into that fatal elephant trap...)

There was general sympathy with the case Haidt made for the positive and active teaching of virtues rather than teaching children to act by reasoning out each individual case. We were intrigued by his discussion of the shift from talking of “character” to talking of “personality”. How often these days did you hear it said that someone was of “good character”? Today’s children could make little sense of Victorian novelists talking about “reputation” and the importance of avoiding pre-marital sex.

We also recognised the picture of journalism as a profession in which there was a disjunction between the ideals that had led people to join the profession and the reality of the way they were forced to operate, and a consequent impact on the happiness of journalists.

We liked his analysis of the psychology and ethics of groups, agreeing that in the case of soldiers they were essentially fighting for their mates rather than any wider cause (and noting his ironical observation that cowards were more likely to add to the gene pool).

So was everyone happy with the book? Well, no – there were some who had plenty of reservations to express (no doubt coincidentally, the group with particularly vocal reservations was the same group which had been spotted hitting the search for happiness in Mathers Bar before the meeting…).

Wasn’t everything Haidt recommended predictable? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and everything pretty conventional and rather boring? And wasn’t there a bit of a vogue just now for this type of popular science book?

And why did Haidt not explore the opposite viewpoint more? Did we really want happiness? What about the viewpoint of the schizophrenic? How would the Chain Saw Massacre murderer feel? (Hmm…difficult one). And what about double-glazing salesmen then?

Was Haidt right to say that the brain could never be matched by a computer? Evidence from injuries to the brain and progress in artificial intelligence suggested to one reader that he might be wrong.

The sections of the book dealing with younger people, where he could draw on his own experience (he was in his mid-forties) seemed considerably more convincing than those dealing with older people, where he could only draw on research, as was perhaps inevitable.

However, most were very positive about the book. But was there anything in it that would change their lives? Well, someone now understood a new way of persuasion, which illuminated a youthful adventure and might now be put to productive uses. Hmmm… Another, far from accepting Haidt’s advice to volunteer because volunteering made the volunteer happy, found it reinforced his suspicion that volunteering was more about the needs of the volunteer than the recipient. But most of us found a lot to ponder on in the book rather than a lot immediately to act on, found that in many cases the book had confirmed things we suspected, and wanted to reflect further through another reading.

And what about Haidt’s opening section on whether incest between brother and sister, in which there was no chance of children, was in fact immoral? “Ah well”, noted our medical adviser “experts nowadays consider that horizontal incest is less troubling than vertical incest.”

?? Run that by me again?

As we left someone suggested returning to Mathers for a libation. The elephant quickly said yes before the rider could formulate the arguments for temperance.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Topical or what? The Group was discussing the diaries of a participant in the New Labour project a week before the Election, and Gordon Brown had just called Gillian Duffy a bigot.

Introducing “A View from the Foothills – the diaries of Chris Mullin” (2009), the proposer said that he had chosen it as it was a book he had been unable to put down. He was aware this might be because he had a particular interest in politics, but he hoped that the book might have proved to be of wider interest.

He felt the book worked at several different levels:

- there was the story of Mullin as an individual, his hopes and fears, from the beginning to the end of his Ministerial career. He had an attractive personality – honest, modest, self-deprecating, sharp but also naïve – not like a politician at all;

- it was an unvarnished account of New Labour in power;

- there was a record of the tedium and futility (as perceived by Mullin) of life as a junior Minister, although he seemed to fare much better once he moved to the Foreign Office.

Mullin wrote particularly well, being – like Alan Clark – a writer who became a politician rather than vice versa.

The best political diaries (such as those of Chips Channon and Alan Clark) were those – like Mullin’s – written by a minor participant, who was not distorting events to justify themselves to posterity. Mullin was like Rosencrantz or Guilderstern, helplessly playing a bit part while Blair’s Hamlet took the big decisions.

The diary format gave a contemporary record of the Blair years, with all its foibles, which could be quite different from views formed in hindsight, for example in relation to the Iraq War, where Mullin gave a fascinating account of the build-up to the vote in Parliament and the pressures put on him to vote with the Government. However, it had to be borne in mind that editing had taken place – both the self-editing that took place when writing down the diaries initially, and then the extensive editing down that took place before publication. This as a minimum was likely to leave in those references that were judged particularly topical or prescient for the concerns of 2009.

Mullin was born in December 1947, and studied law at Hull. He started life as a journalist, working for ITV’s “World in Action”, and played the key role in securing the release of the Birmingham Six, victims of a shocking miscarriage of justice. His work led to the setting up of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He was associated with the Bennite wing of the Labour Party, and edited Tribune from 1982 to 1984. An interesting facet of the book was how Mullin had moved from this hard-left position to come under the spell of Blair’s charisma, although his loyalty had been sorely tested in the period of the diaries. His books included the prescient novel “A Very British Coup”, and “Error of Judgement” about the Birmingham Six. He had been MP for Sunderland since 1987, and was standing down at this Election. Bizarrely his application to become a member of the Criminal Cases Review Commission had been rejected on the grounds that they were looking for someone who could take the body forward in a new direction!

So did the book prove of wider interest? There was no consensus whatsoever within the group. There were three distinct strands of opinion:

- those who like the proposer had a government or political background and were fascinated by the book. One, indeed, had enjoyably crossed swords with Mullin as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee – and had a high opinion of Mullin – but was relieved not to be featuring in the diaries. They felt the book was always engaging, perceptive, and written with none of the ego one expects from politicians. It was full of fresh insights, and written by a man – like Pepys – who was determined to be completely honest about what he saw and what he felt. He was also a model of conscientiousness in his constituency work;

- secondly, those with no particular interest in politics who found the book mildly, but not very, interesting. “Easy to pick up, and easy to put down”. It could have usefully have been edited down more rigorously. For them the diaries of a major participant might have been more interesting;

- third, those with no particular background in politics but who were shocked to the core by the revelations of ambition, deceit and inefficiency at the heart of New Labour and our system of government. Nor did they thank Mullin for revealing this – they felt he too revealed far too much ego and ambition. And they felt his diaries were always written with an eye on posterity and publication - for example any criticism of anyone was always offset by a compliment shortly afterwards (although Gordon Brown did come out particularly badly).

So a stalemate? Yes, completely, but it did not stop the Group setting a record for the length of a meeting. Most of the discussion – perhaps inevitably – was of the political issues raised by the book rather than the book itself. Members shamelessly usurped your correspondent’s catch phrase of “Getting back to the book” as they heatedly thumped the table to make another point.

You do not have time, Reader, for the unexpurgated Hansard version, so here are a few extracts from the condensed version.

“Ego and ambition?” Well, it all depended on your standard of comparison. For those used to working with politicians Mullin seemed positively self-effacing, and always ambivalent about whether he wanted a Ministerial career.

“What’s the point of all these junior Ministers doing nothing? And how can it take ten years to do something about Leylandii?”

“Well, many junior Minters are in posts that are really training posts, or posts invented to keep MPs happy. The problem with Leylandii was not that the system is necessarily slow but that that the P.M. did not want to do anything.”

“Where did it all go wrong?” The focus on media image rather than the substance of policy began to emerge in the Thatcher era but became a major corruption of the process of government with the arrival of Messrs Campbell and Mandelson in power.

“It’s just outrageous! Go for the French Revolution solution! And why not just hand the government over to Murdoch!”

“What about checks and balances on the government?” Almost gone in the UK system, with the House of Lords lacking authority, and MPs cowed into not rebelling. The decision to invade Iraq was taken under Crown prerogative, and indeed civil servants were still servants of the Crown, but these days the role of the sovereign in Government was almost entirely honorific.

One of the few points of consensus was to applaud Mullin’s analysis of managerialism as a central tenet of New Labour, and the associated growth of targets, new bureaucracy and despondency throughout the public sector.

“Are there any politicians of principle left?” Yes indeed, (and for some of us Mullin was clearly one) but they become less numerous the longer a party has been in power, as the principled resign or become corrupted by power, and as the careerists bludgeon their way to the top. And politicians lacking principle is not a new phenomenon.

At this point I noticed one of our participants had a large wound on his forehead. “From the hustings?” “No …..unfamiliar hotel room.” “Drink involved?” “Errr...yes”.

Another rare point of agreement was that Mullin could be very funny and indiscreet, for example in his descriptions of John Prescott (“He did most of the talking, much of it in stream of consciousness mode, but there were occasional moments of lucidity”) and reports of a colleague on Gordon Brown (“Mad, quite mad, obsessive, paranoid, secretive and lacking in personal skills…”). And he had a fund of good anecdotes, such as the Queen Mother advising Neil Kinnock not to trust the Germans, and the one-star American General – told by a Brit not to end his sentence with a preposition – repeating his sentence with “asshole” added at the end.

“So are political diaries better than political biographies?” Maybe better for giving the feel of the times, and better written by a minor figure, while the analytical biography would be better for the major figures, was the consensus.

Then we had a brief skirmish over the subject of war, with the anti-Iraq War forces threatening to overwhelm the Blair defenders, until taken in enfilade on one wing by the Falklands-was-all-Thatcher’s-fault machine-gunners, with the no-it-certainly-wasn’t artillery lobbing howitzers into the warring armies. But there was a fair degree of consensus that it was very worrying that Britain could be taken into a major war essentially because of the views of one man only, a Presidential Prime Minister.

“Mullin didn’t think much of the Civil Service, did he?” Well, no, but they in turn criticized him for never mastering a brief. He didn’t have a policy mind, as he admits in the diaries – he was really a crusader… “Or worse…. A JOURNALIST!”

“Go for the French Revolution solution! And just hand the government over to Murdoch! And PUT THAT IN THE BLOG!”

“Got the message!” said yours truly, who by 10. 50 had perhaps been detected showing more attention to the grape than the group.

Hmmm, maybe politics is a bit dangerous for a Book Group I reflected as we broke up - that’s enough of politics!

And went to turn on the recording of the three would-be Prime Ministers peddling their snake-oil.

The books for discussion were “John Macnab” by John Buchan (1925) and “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig (1996).

Introducing “John Macnab” the proposer said that Buchan (1875-1940) had a long, varied and distinguished career. He would pick out some salient points, in particular to challenge the popular view that Buchan was:
- a traditional Tory Imperialist;
- casually racist as was typical of his times;
- and the author most notably to be remembered for “The Thirty-Nine Steps”.

Buchan was born in Perth and raised in Kirkcaldy, but his heart lay in the Scottish Borders where he spent his summer holidays in Broughton with his grandparents. An uncle and aunt lived in Peebles. His title, Tweedsmuir, came from that part of the Borders, as well as the names of two protagonists in this book: Leithen and Lamancha.

He studied classics at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and had no less than six of his works published while still at University. After graduating he became a diplomat acting as PS to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa (which country was to feature in a number of his novels). On return to the UK he became a partner in Thomas Nelson, living in Salisbury Green, and editor of the Spectator.

On the outbreak of the Great War he worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau; became an officer in the Intelligence Corps where he wrote speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig; and ended up as Director of Information under the future Lord Beaverbrook.

After the War he devoted most of his time to writing, but was elected in 1927 as the Unionist Party member for the Combined Scottish Universities seat. As early as 1910 he had stood as a Unionist candidate in the Borders. However, he was quite a liberal unionist as he supported women’s suffrage, national insurance, and the reform of the House of Lords. He also strongly admired Gladstone. Archie Roylance’s speech probably reflected much of Buchan’s liberal unionist political views.

In 1935 Buchan was appointed Lord Tweedsmuir before he was sent to Canada as Governor General, in which post he died in 1940. Buchan was still held in very high regard in Canada. He argued that a Canadian’s first loyalty was to Canada not to the British Empire. He was a champion of multiculturalism - a word he invented. He argued that ethnic groups in Canada should retain their individuality and make their contribution to the nation, and that the strongest nations were those made up of different elements. He also argued successfully that his successors as Governor General should be Canadians.

He was best known for his thrillers, in particular “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (1915), which along with “The Riddle of the Sands” was the first modern thriller novel. However, arguably his best novels, as Buchan himself thought, were his historical ones. The proposer particularly recommended “A Lost Lady of Old Years”; “Midwinter” and “Witch Wood”. His lives of Montrose and Scott were also superb. Buchan indeed wrote over 100 works including poetry, essays, journalism, histories, biographies and some 30 novels. The influence of Stevenson and Conan Doyle on Buchan’s narrative skill was palpable.

The proposer had chosen “John Macnab” for this discussion, partly because it was an amusing, difficult to classify, novel, and partly because it provided an opportunity to compare and contrast it with Andrew Greig’s updated version. There was a good review in Scots of the two books on Wikipedia.

So how did the Group react? Everyone had enjoyed the Buchan – “beautifully written, fluent, and very amusing – and a brilliant idea”, “easy, humorous, rollicking read”, “a well-crafted page-turner”. But two reservations were expressed.

One was discomfort with the cast of upper class grandees and the class-conscious, snobbish society they inhabited (and which the author seemed to endorse).

The other was that the book was a lightweight jeu d’esprit (although Buchan, who worked hardest at his historical fiction, might have agreed). The characters who collectively comprised John Macnab were hardly differentiated and it was difficult to remember who was who. If you compared this book with the “most popular” books published in 1925 (most popular as assessed by contributors to the “goodreads” website) it was competing with “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and “In Our Time” by Hemingway, works of much greater substance.

But was it really true that Buchan fully bought into the gilded life of the upper classes he was describing? Some detected a note of reservation, a distancing of the author from some of his characters. There was the ironic reference to Lamancha – son of a Marquis – having every disadvantage of birth. It was surely tongue-in-cheek for Janet Raden to spot John Macnab was really a gentleman because he was wearing an Eton prize badge. Admittedly there was some snobbery in the portrayal of the nouveau riche Claybodies (although by the end they became more sympathetic). But the women in the novel came through strongly, and the characters with most energy were a woman, Janet, and Fish Benjie, the artful dodger. Arguably Buchan was foretelling a different type of society in which women and the working classes were to play a bigger role.

Hold on, were we not over-intellectualising something that was written with the intention of being an entertainment? Well, not necessarily: even if we knew what Buchan’s intentions were (and he had a very active and wide-ranging intellect), the meaning of a work of literature is often very different from what the author intends to put into it.

One of the clearest signs of a more serious meaning was at the end where Claybody explains to them that they were never at real risk of any public embarrassment. This point was given surprising weight, and highlighted the author’s awareness of their privileged position. It would be going too far to suggest that there was an element of satire in the book, but the author was certainly “knowing” about the social background of his characters.

A shadow cast over the jolly jape was that of the First World War. The three heroes of John Macnab plus Archie had all fought in it. The imagery – particularly in the poaching scenes - was full of allusion to the War, right down to the Flanders mud. The characters’ attitude to ordinary soldiers who had fought in it was central to the moral distinctions drawn between the John Macnab heroes and the non-combatant Claybodies. (Denis Healey has remarked on the difference in real understanding of working people between those who had fought in war and those who had not).

Another point given considerable prominence by the author was the political philosophy expounded by Janet and taken up by Roylance, although it was wrapped up in a comic scene worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. They argued that the landowners had to take up the challenges of the new post-War era if they were not to disappear. The ennui suffered by the three heroes of the collective John Macnab was not just a plot device but a common condition in the twenties in the wake of the War (as evidenced, for example, in Huxley’s novels).

While it was true that it was difficult to separate out many of the central characters, it was normally the case that a novel with a complex plot had little character development, and vice versa (this point is elaborated in our discussion of P. G. Wodehouse in November 2008). And in this case, although the characters might have little depth, the plot kept you avidly turning pages to see how the tale would finish.

(Phew, just time for a quick refreshment before they were off again on to another book…. whatever next, three books?)

Introducing the second book, “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig, the proposer said that Greig had started as a poet before turning to fiction. His other most well known novels included “Electric Brae”, “That Summer”, and “Romanno Bridge”. He had also written books on climbing, which gave him good background for writing the Return, which the proposer felt was a good update.

So what did we make of Greig’s Return? On the positive side, it was a bright idea to update the novel, and he had cleverly brought it into a modern setting. It had more of a political edge, but remained a page-turner. He had a real feel for the modern Scottish Highlands, and a deep knowledge of mountains and mountain sports.

Some of the descriptive writing was good, reflecting his background as a poet. His philosophical reflection on metaphors for life – not like the sand disappearing through an hour-glass, but like a tree putting on rings of experience, and at its broadest before dying – was engaging.

Kirsty - taking on and developing the journalist role played in the original by Crossby - was an excellent and very intriguing character. Her relationship with Neil, and Neil’s struggle to move on from the death of his wife, had the stamp of authenticity.

The author created a fine climax, with a real sense of drama and danger of death (although the gravity of the danger jarred with the jesting tenor of the rest). And the cameo appearance of Prince Charles was amusing.

Alas, we also had plenty to say on the negative side. The relentlessly jaunty, would-be-youthful, tone grated. Some of the dialogue hit false notes. The coherence of the tale was lost as he endlessly explored the relationship problems of the protagonists. He even indulged in some passages of Housemanesque self-pity on behalf of a narrator who, confusingly and unnecessarily, did not identify himself until the end. And it grated to have the novel end with a plug for the follow-up.

Kirsty and Neil did seem real characters with an interesting hinterland (perhaps based on people known to the author or his own experience). However, most of the other characters were either stereotypes (Murray), implausible (Alasdair and Jane and their unconvincing reunion on the moors), or politically correct (the lesbian Shonagh and the Arab Aziz). And did he need to harp on so obsessively about Buchan’s praise of boys and small-breasted women?

One of our members gave up on the book by page 100. He had been put off by sentences such as:

“The air smelled like white wine ought to taste but doesn't unless you've a lot of money to burn, and he felt fifteen years younger.” (Chapter 5); and

“The light didn't do anything so dramatic as break that morning. It was more as if somewhere up in the gantry of the hills, a giant hand slowly pushed a lighting rheostat from closed to open.”

The latter seemed particularly bad, as he says the light wasn't doing anything dramatic, and then evokes a theatrical metaphor (lights coming up on a lighting gantry) to describe it. (Chapter 7) What was he thinking? Did his editor read this and say nothing?

Or was our largely negative reaction because you got bored of the plot of the poaching games by the time you were on the sixth one? …Oh really, would you feel that way if it were a sixth bottle of wine?

There was a feeling that Greig – who started off writing poetry and climbing literature, and had written a good book on golf courses - was not too comfortable writing fiction. Perhaps that was why he had hit on the idea of doing a “remake” of the plot of someone else’s book? Certainly those who had read “Romanno Bridge”, which followed on from this book but with an original plot, found it pretty disappointing both as a follow-up and as a self-standing work. Like “The Return of John Macnab” it had flashes of quality – in the idea for the plot, and in some of the poetic and philosophical asides – but it did not function well as a work of fiction.

So, your correspondent ventured, some good tasty bits but rather lost overall in a soggy mass, a bit like a Gregg’s prawn sandwich? Oops - instant silence and intense glares for interrupting the literati….

who moved on to compare the two books.

Greig’s version revealed a rather different structure of ownership of Highland land in 1996, with foreign owners - Arab and Dutch – outnumbering the one British (and royal) owner. This compared with a couple of Scottish aristocrats owning land in the Buchan version; one self-made English businessman; and just one foreigner, an American. Greig was writing in 1996 before the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the right to roam legislation, and his concerns about the new offence of aggravated trespass, although accurate for the time of writing, already had a dated feel.

(At this moment I idly examined my empty glass and bottle, but to no effect as the debate was in full spate….)

John Macnab has similarly moved from an upper class group of jolly good chaps, with subordinate support from a woman and a tinker, to a group of equals that is more broadly based in class terms, and in which women have a major role to play.

One interesting difference is that John Macnab is in no danger in Buchan’s version, as Claybody is at pains to stress, whereas he is in mortal danger in the Greig version with the “Shoot to Kill” policy of the Security Services.

However, the biggest difference is that Buchan is a major writer at the height of his powers, writing with assured poise in a genre in which he is very comfortable. Andrew Greig by contrast seems somewhat uncomfortable and gauche as a novelist, and obscures his updating of the novel – intrinsically a very interesting idea – with some unproductive diversions. However, the comparison of the two versions had proved an intriguing exercise, and it had been a particular pleasure to revisit Buchan, whom many of us had not read for many years.

(I put my glasses on, lifted the bottle, and scrutinised it against the light….)

What were other examples of updating famous works of literature? And were any very successful? We had recently discussed Posy Simmonds’ version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” (May 2009), which was very successful in its own terms. New versions of Shakespeare plots were ten-a-penny in Hollywood and of varying success. And it was widely believed that Shakespeare himself updated an earlier version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, which would make it the most successful updating of all.

So on they went, wondering if a yet newer John Macnab had been responsible for the theft of a watercolour from the Signet Library after a New year function, returning it unharmed after a couple of weeks…….discussing a John Macnab jape for the MBG to carry out (watch the press for news of this)… and then segued to the causes of the First World War and the impact of Prince Bertie on the alliance with the French….

I tried turning my glass upside down and shaking it. “I say, fancy a drop of Talisker?” said the host….Result! Capital fellow!