Saturday, December 03, 2011

24/11/11 “THE TIN DRUM” by Gunter Grass.

The Proposer of “The Tin Drum“ introduced the book, which had been recommended to him by a German friend as an example of a rich literary tradition within Germany.

This controversial assertion sparked some debate and momentarily diverted the group from its consideration of “The Tin Drum”.

Getting back on task the proposer found the book challenging, a “difficult read”. Complex and somewhat disjointed. The novel is based on the life of Oscar Matzerath who decided at the age of three to stop growing by throwing himself down stairs. He communicates through his tin drum and by means of other “gifts”. He considers himself as both Jesus and the devil.

The story is narrated by Oscar who is an inmate of a mental institution. It is a complex mélange of fact and fiction, partly autobiographical, dealing with guilt and loss in equal measure.

It was published in 1959 and translated into English by Ralph Manheim a couple of years later to international acclaim. Grass initiated a new translation to mark the 50th anniversary of its first publication and Breon Mitchell undertook this work. The new translation is generally considered to have captured much more of the subtlety of Grass’s use of language.

The group discussed this further with some having read the original translation while others had read the Mitchell version. One member who had read the original felt that he had missed a great deal but thought that any translation from German into English is likely to lose some meaning. Examples of where improvements had been made in the Mitchell version were shared, in particular in sentences where words were used to mimic the sound of the drumbeat.

The Proposer gave a brief overview of the author’s family background, explaining the importance of this to providing an insight into the source of Grass’s story. He was born in Danzig in 1927 of Polish-German parents. They ran a grocery shop through the years of the depression. Gunter’s mother had the greater influence on him encouraging him to pursue his “talents” while his father wanted him to become an engineer.

He left school at 15 and was conscripted into the Waffen SS, wounded at the age of 17 while serving with a Panzer Division and interred as an American Prisoner of War.
It was when in captivity and in the years immediately after the war that he first began to question his support for the German cause and to acquire the feelings of guilt and shame which lie at the heart of much of his early work.

With Danzig mostly destroyed Grass became a refugee following his “talents” via stonemasonry, to Art College where he studied sculpture and graphics and eventually to writing. He was a lifelong Social Democrat though no longer a party member. He opposed the unification of Germany on the basis that there would be a risk that a unified country would revert to the behaviors that brought about the Second World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 and now aged 84 he lives in Berlin.

Returning to the Group discussion it was confirmed that most, if not all, agreed that it had proved to be a difficult read. Some had read the book before and found that a second reading helped them to better appreciate and understand the complexity of the book. Everyone recognized and admired the quality of the writing but there was a unanimous view that the book was too long, that it was episodic with several chapters almost standing alone as if short stories.

The Group endeavored to compare the book with others but concluded that it was a “one off”. No one confessed to reading any of Grass’s subsequent books and given that the “Cat and Mouse” (1961) and the “Dog Years”(1963) were, together with the Tin Drum, known as the Danzig trilogy it was suggested that these would have to be read before a comparison can be made. There was little enthusiasm for this idea!

The group puzzled over how the book had been conceived and whether or not it had been planned. While chronology gave it some structure it was pointed out that there remains a randomness and lack of coherence. One member described the writing as a “creative ferment of ideas and images” but also applauded the imaginative use of wordplay eg “brain explodes on to page”.

Some members appreciated the allegorical approach adopted by Grass while others felt it was overdone. Most were impressed by the imagery, sarcasm, and moral ambiguity that pervades the novel and serves to add layers of complexity to what is a very complicated story.

The purpose behind the use of a three-year-old child (Oscar) to narrate the story was discussed and it was agreed that this enabled Grass to deal with the difficult issue of responsibility. The observational position given to Oscar allowed him to more freely comment on what was happening around him and it was suggested that being a three year old enabled Oscar to remain unnoticed and to avoid being accused by anyone for his actions.

Some members remarked on the book’s pervasive sense of futility and on the use of humour that often had an unpleasant edge. They considered the book to be overrated, better received by people outside Germany than by German people themselves. It was suggested that the reason that the book was so warmly welcomed by the English speaking community was because it acknowledged guilt and expressed shame about Germany’s role through the events of the war and postwar years.

It was mentioned that some critics regarded the book as blasphemous and pornographic when it was first published. This drew much protest from certain members who were particularly incredulous about the suggestion that the book was pornographic. The loudest protest came from those members of the group who have demonstrated in the past a startling liking for what many would describe as racy literature.

A more sympathetic explanation for the strength of feeling was eventually attributed to the differences in the two translations with the later Breon Mitchell translation restoring some overtly sexual references thought to be too shocking for British readers 50 years ago.

In conclusion the book was highly regarded by some but not by all. While everyone considered it to be too long they all admired the quality of the writing and the complex treatment of difficult issues. The majority agreed that while the book had been a challenging read it had been worth persevering with.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

27/10/11 “THE GREAT GATSBY” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The introducer of “The Great Gatsby” (1925) began by asserting that Ernest Hemingway, one of the literary heroes of this book group, had a rather low opinion of Scott Fitzgerald. He exemplified this by reading passages from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Kenneth Lynn’s 1987 biography of Hemingway. Judging from the quotes, Hemingway thought Fitzgerald a bit soft. I have reproduced some of these quotes in a little Appendix below.

The book deals with American society during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, a period when the USA became the richest country in the world. A class of super-rich people emerged, employment was high and ownership of cars and property was booming. But there were gangsters and much illegal activity associated with bootlegging. The Prohibition (1920-1933) failed to prevent people from partying with liquor, and some bootleggers became millionaires.

As for the story: the mysterious Gatsby hails from the west but has moved east; he now owns a mansion on Long Island where he regularly throws lavish parties for all and sundry. His idea is to impress and attract a particular married woman, Daisy Buchanan, who lives across the bay, and with whom he had fallen madly in love years ago. He is still obsessed with the memory, and besotted with her. But when they do finally meet (through an elaborate plan that he has devised) the magic of the past relationship has gone; moreover the story ends tragically with the death of major characters including Gatsby himself, whose wealth is apparently derived from ignoble activities. As we had all guessed, he is not what he appears to be, but a flawed character. Ironically, he is ultimately undone not by his illegal activities but by his romantic aspirations.

‘Yet Gatsby is the central and noble theme, a dramatic and interesting character resonating with the age and country in which he lives’.

So said one of our members. However, for all its praise from the critics, the book was not immediately popular in the USA, perhaps because at one level it is a harsh critique of the American Dream, wherein Gatsby is the metaphor that suggests the Dream to be false, unattainable, a convenient illusion. Or perhaps the book was too vague, as suggested by the publisher after reading the first draft. For whatever reason it was not widely read until the 1960s. But now The Great Gatsby ranks second in the top 100 of the Modern Library (, behind James Joyce’s Ulysses and in front of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Most of us enjoyed the book, especially for its style and fine writing. We would not however place it in our top 100! Some of our members saw the work as almost poetic, or at least ‘within poetic territory’. Comparison was made with Shakespeare. Others were less sanguine and remarked on how American authors are often obsessed with style (Chandler, Hemingway, Capote). One member expressed disappointment:

‘What is all the fuss about, I thought it was rather shallow?’
‘That’s because you read it on a Kindle’.

We all liked the imagery. For example, Gatsby’s mansion with its bright (electric!) lights and colour; the contrast between that and the Valley of Ash (presumed to be an influence of T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land); the huge pair of eyes on the billboard (of God, watching?); the yellow Rolls Royce. And the imagery in the famous aspiration ‘to suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder’. That line might have been written by Shakespeare. In fact, breasts feature quite a lot.

It is Fitzgerald’s representation of the roaring 20’s, with his sharp imagery and real understanding of high society in this most charismatic decade that has led to several successful Great Gatsby movies, notably the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whilst they were together in Paris, is also the inspiration for Woody Allen’s brilliant 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris.

There were disturbing symbolic elements, particularly the deaths of Myrtle (gruesomely killed by the yellow Rolls Royce) and Gatsby’s own death (shot whilst on a mattress floating in the swimming pool). We were intrigued to see a number of comments which would now be judged anti-Semitic, and use of the words swastika and holocaust twenty years before the Holocaust. And why did so many of Gatsby’s house guests have animal or plant surnames (Leech, Civet, Blackbuck, Fishguards, Whitebait, Ferret, Bull, Catlip, Endive, Orchid, Hornbeam and Duckweed). To be sure, the book is rich in symbolism (although our members might not have all interpreted the symbols in the same way!). Isn’t the yellow Rolls really the rich society that destroys people in cold blood, and don’t the families with animal names represent the animal forces of capitalism? But perhaps the author is merely being playful with names: it is unlikely that Fitzgerald had read Das Capital; Orwell had not yet written Animal Farm!

The decadent lifestyles depicted in the book reflect to some extent the way the author himself lived, and there may be some autobiographical elements. But his life was marred by his addiction to alcohol and difficulties with his wife Zelda, who suffered from schizophrenia and spent her last years in mental institutions whilst he formed a relationship with the New York gossip-columnist Sheilah Graham (British, Born in Leeds), who loved him dearly and cared for him until he died of cancer (or alcohol) when he was only 44. Obituaries speak of his fine writing but unfilled promise. He completed only four novels, of which The Great Gatsby is considered to be his masterpiece. The Herald Tribune said

‘Fitzgerald understood this world perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. And as a literary craftsman he described it, accurately and sometimes poignantly, in work that deserves respect’.

Notes on Hemingway’s comments about Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald and Hemingway both travelled to France and were members of the American expatriate community in Paris in the early 1920s, and they had the same publisher (Charles Scribner's Sons). When they met, few had heard of Hemingway while Fitzgerald was already famous, and helped Hemingway directly by suggesting improvements to his writing and indirectly by introducing him to those whose views were important. But over the next 20 years Hemingway eclipsed Fitzgerald. They were friends and helped each other with short stories, but later (1936) in his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway portrays Scott Fitzgerald as rather a weak character who could not spell and had a shaky marriage, as illustrated by these passages.

‘Scott was a man who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the coloring, the very fair hair and the pretty mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.’

‘I knew him for two years before he could spell my name, but then it was a long name to spell and perhaps it became harder to spell all of the time, and I give him great credit for spelling it correctly finally. He learned to spell more important things and he tried to think straight about many more.’

Scott’s wife Zelda had complained that Scot’s penis was too small to satisfy her. Scott confided in Hemingway on this matter, and Hemingway took Scott to the Louvre to examine the male genitalia of statues. Hemingway assured him ‘It is not basically a question of the size in repose, it is the size it becomes. It is also a question of angle’.

Scott Fitzgerald admired Ernest Hemingway, who was much more famous although three years younger. But the two men were as different as chalk and cheese, as exemplified by this extract from a famous letter from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, recounted by Kenneth Lynn in his 1987 biography of Hemingway.

‘I wonder what your idea of heaven would be – a beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists, all powerful and members of the best families, all drinking themselves to death…To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no-one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 floors.’

Sunday, October 09, 2011

29/9/2011 “THE PRINCE” by Niccolo Machiavelli

The proposer introduced Machiavelli by remarking that he had first read ‘The Prince’ in his early twenties and found it profoundly influential (one assumes in a general way, rather than as a guide to his own conduct).

As a prolific writer and with a range of other activities and achievements, Machiavelli was an archetypical ‘Renaissance Man’. “The Prince” describes in some detail the employment of cunning and duplicity in political affairs, and the proposer considered it to be a book with no moral compass, demonstrating a low opinion of the human race. A moral vocabulary is sometimes employed, but shorn of its moral meaning. The appearance of virtue, for example, is considered as valuable as virtue itself. In some respects the book is a sycophantic job application, but its enduring interest lies more in the proposal of various taxonomies, which can be applied to the behaviour of power-holders and power-seekers in all periods of history. A particularly interesting game to be played, therefore, is applying Machiavelli’s precepts and taxonomies to illuminate the methods of contemporary politicians and rulers.

The proposer identified three relevant omissions in the book’s approach: it assumes the possibility of secrecy, it ignores technology, and it leaves out God.

Discussion opened out with a range of questions and views loosely clustering around the key enquiry: is the book applicable today?

Is it a manual for behaviour? Or was he writing for common people, to explain to them how princes behave? After all, it wasn’t written in Latin. Is it written as a warning to the naïve? Is it satirical?

These questions divided the group, and a number of conflicting views came up.

The proposer – a computer scientist - suggested it could be viewed almost as if it were a guide to writing a computer programme, since it sets rules and parameters for actions: if ‘x’ then ‘y’.

Another reader wondered if it was written with an eye on a wider audience, and said that it would have multiple layers of meaning for different audiences.

Some detected irony and satire. Others suggested that it was neutrally descriptive – blunt, but neither a manual for behaviour nor ironic. However, it was agreed that it was hard not to detect satire in Machiavelli’s advice not to waste time ingratiating oneself with Popes because they only lasted ten years!

Another reader commented that it was an accurate account of political science, spanning all historical periods. In his view it correctly identified the chief aim of all politicians – including those in modern democracies – as being to stay in power. In modern democracies, one reader commented, attention-seeking was also a key motivation. There was some discussion of what motivated those who sought power, or sought to hold onto it once gained. There was general agreement that this was not typical or normal human behaviour. The power game was played best by those who acknowledged no raison d’etre outside its boundaries, whether their original starting point had been idealistic or cynical. In Machiavelli’s book, and in the eyes of contemporary politicians, to be in power is taken as a given good, and objectives beyond that are little considered.

This interpretation and application of the book was not accepted by all. One reader commented that in unstable times – such as when the book was written – strong rule was essential to provide stability. It was remarked by others that war can be taken cynically as a pretext for taking extra powers. Creating an ‘enemy’ is a well-known strategy for leaders in difficulties.

War is certainly a main focus of Machiavelli’s account – business, trade, banking, culture – all key elements of the Renaissance Italy in which he lived – are absent from his discussion. ‘The business of a prince is war’, he says.

Some more discussion of contemporary applications of Machiavelli followed. There are parts of the world that still operate exactly like the warring city states of Machiavelli’s Italy. The situation of General Gaddafi in Libya was brought into the debate. Had his use of mercenaries been rash? How effective had been his manipulation of tribal rivalries? Would Machiavelli have awarded him a gold star, or merely a ‘could do better’?

On the other hand, one reader suggested that modern western democracies practise Machiavellian principles ‘with the gloves on’. Someone remarked on Margaret Thatcher’s political ‘executions’, but it was pointed out that the only heads to roll did so metaphorically. A wag remarked that in our present coalition government, Liberal Democrats had had their spines removed.

One reader pointed out that the modern banking crisis perfectly illustrated Machiavelli’s advice to princes that they should be particularly liberal with money that did not belong to them.

Another reader considered Machiavelli’s ideas so sound that it was in effect impossible to be a successful political leader without employing the methods he describes. This reader, not unconnected with the world of local government, was supported by a chorus of hardened cynics with political experiences of their own. The ghost of Jonathan Swift also drifted through the room. Some voices were raised in defence of a rosier view of human nature, and debate heated up nicely for a while.

Your blogger raised a small side-bar debate on Machiavelli’s proposition that ‘Man’s nature is to feel beholden to those who have done them favours’ (to paraphrase the Italian). Various members of the group identified their experience of strategies to get opponents onside by seeming to seek their advice.

As we moved into summary mode at the end of the evening, one reader said that he thought the book’s main function was to warn the uninitiated about how a lot of people in power act, acting as a guide to how others manipulate. Most agreed that these principles could be observed at work in all organisations, and that, even if we abide by a moral code ourselves, at least we’ve been warned about those who don’t!

Looking at the evening on the whole, the cynical Machiavellians outplayed the gentle moralists, and emerged victorious, as they generally do.

Monday, August 29, 2011

25/8/2011 “NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF” by Julian Barnes

Edinburgh, August, Festival crowds going everywhere, trams going nowhere… but the hottest tickets in town were for the Monthly Book Group’s annual discussion by the seaside. And – yes! - your indefatigable correspondent is back from the dead for a guest re-appearance.

Some things had changed from my last visit 6 months ago. Most members looked rather older, though two were youthfully displaying Kindles.… And some things had not changed, as two compared their fine Pinot Noirs while disdaining a swallae of your correspondent’s cheapissimo red, “Selected by Tesco”….

The youthful proposer had found Barnes’ book in Oxfam (better not tell the author) and bought it as he had good memories of “Arthur and George”. He liked it very much, partly because he found he had so much in common with our Julian. This started with being brought up initially in Leicester, having as parents a dominant mother and quiet father, and going on to study French literature. Like Barnes he was concerned by not having proper knowledge of his parents’ lives, he feared flying, and was troubled by memory becoming more unreliable as time passed. There was even in his family a photo of a female relation with the face scratched out, similar to the mystery Barnes writes about (but in this case the solution was known: the lady disliked the photo and had scratched it out herself, which was unfortunate as no other photo of her survived). A veritable Julian Barnes doppelganger.

Therefore he could relate very easily to the book – but could others? It was difficult to define the genre of the book – it was not a novel, a history or even an essay. It was a rambling on the theme of mortality. Barnes knew it rambled, and admitted it. Barnes’ brother, the philosopher, was the logical thinker; Julian by contrast was not a sequential writer and moved from anecdote to anecdote, pulling in much that seemed irrelevant. There was a sort of sequence – looking at all the things that might prove a consolation to the fact of death. And he failed to find any that helped.

There was a large spread of opinion about the book. One member (who indeed had first introduced the Book Group to Barnes) did not attend, reporting that he found the book both difficult and boring, and had not finished it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was one who very much enjoyed it, and who also found he had a large amount in common with Barnes, especially through having a similar family background. (Another Julian Barnes doppelganger, indeed – a trippelganger, one might say?) He had been sufficiently enthused to start reading the book for a second time, make copious notes, and hunt down on the internet paintings eulogised by Barnes.

But the majority opinion was that of admiration – some grudging, some less so – for the cleverness of the book, mingled with substantial reservations about it. More specifically, there was admiration for the precision and concision of his language, in tandem with a chatty style. We liked the wealth of anecdotes and the breadth of ideas (from the latest scientific thinking about the nature of the brain, to quirky facts such as that your nails do not actually continue to grow after death). We liked the nimbleness of his mind, and the range of literary, artistic, and biographical reference. Some found the book funny (as in the anecdote of the man who hailed a passing hearse asking if it were free), while others found more irony, some of it rather bitter, than laugh-out-loud humour.

One major reservation for many was the length of the book, padded out with irrelevant anecdotes and repetition. “If a student gave me this,” one opined in professorial tones, “I’d tell him to cut the length by at least half ”. Related to this was the chapterless lack of structure and proper conclusion. “If you cut the book up and threw it on the floor, you couldn’t put it back in order. Nor indeed would it matter what order you read it in.” (At this point the speaker fessed up to having not bothered to read forty pages, but doubted if he had missed anything). “Barnes records” observed another, coldly putting the boot in, “that Oxford told him he did not have the right kind of mind to study philosophy. They were right. There’s enough that’s good in this to encourage me to read another Barnes’ novel, but not another rambling quasi-philosophical book like this. ”

“But”, chimed in the doppelgangers, “a sort of structure begins to emerge if you read it for the second time…”.

“And” suggested a doppelganger ally “if Barnes were here” (what did he mean? There were already two of them here) “he would say that one of his central points is that life does not follow the shapely narrative of a novel – it is random and rambling, and that’s why he is writing the book in the same way…” “???!!!” “Well, ok, maybe that is sophistry…

“So another reason is that he felt death is a big subject requiring a big book”… “yes, you often get the feeling he’s sitting at his desk wondering what on earth to write about today”… “but other writers have managed to sum up life and death in a sentence!”

Another reservation was that, in the process of resolutely knocking down every possible means of consoling himself about death, you felt that Barnes did not actually value anything in his godless world. He contrived to sound unenthusiastic about life in general, his interest in football (oh well, Leicester were doing badly then), about novel-writing, about relationships, about beauty, about the natural world, and even about his daily bottle of wine ( “sure you won’t try this cheapissimo red?” I asked a doppelganger. No, oh well…). Not for him the spiritual dimension that many still find in a godless world. It was not that we found the book depressing; it was that Barnes seemed depressed. And his endless, abstract cleverness served finally to muffle the real horror of death.

The oddest thing about the book, the most energetic, and the one that had attracted most public attention, was the autobiographical material included about his family. It had an emotional charge which suggested unresolved conflicts. You could admire the novelist’s skill he brought to the descriptions of his family, and to imagining what might be the story of his grandfather’s war. You could also admire his honesty in examining and recording his own feelings. But – really – did he have to write so bitterly about his mother? Did he need to unburden himself in this way? What was the relevance to a book about death? And why so much jocularly jealous material about his brother? It was surely significant that those of the Group most attracted to the book were those who could relate most easily to the autobiographical material.

And where was the novelist’s capacity for empathy when he thought about his family? He seemed to lack empathy at other points too – for example in the sneering account of the approach to death of the “A-type” American businessman…. Even the doppelgangers found him arrogant in referring to famous French writers as his “non-blood relations”. He excoriated his mother for a solipsistic view of the world, and then devoted reams to his own solipsistic worries about when readers would finally stop reading his books.

The discussion then moved from the book to the issues raised by it, though without provoking self-revelation on the Barnesian scale. All maintained they had no fear of death but perhaps did have of dying (but were they being honest?). First intimations of mortality (the “reveil mortel” of the book) were recorded. We noted the difference that having children made (Barnes did not have them) as fear of your death was replaced by fear that your children would pre-decease you. And perhaps the way in which people slowly lost their faculties and interests in their medically-supported old age, until their identity was the last thing they could let go of, offered a sort of consolation, a way of coming to terms with death.

So who had suffered from what Barnes records as the Stendhal Syndrome (breathlessness, overwhelmed by the power of art)? Several: overwhelmed by Verdi’s Requiem, by Michelangelo’s David, by the Iguazo Falls, ………and indeed, your indefatigable correspondent ventured, by Rooney’s overhead kick to defeat City …

(Why were they all glaring? Had the philosopher Shankly not observed that football was not a matter of life and death, but more important than that?)

The ever more youthful proposer (had he been reading Dorian Gray again?) had shifted from Oxfam to Kindle to source Barnes’ new novel “The Sense of an Ending”. He reported that, contrary to some reports, it was only loosely related to the current work – through exploring the theme that memory was identity. This was a strand of thought we had liked in the current book.

So now we had three Kindlers in the room. One had deployed the Kindle to particularly good effect in producing telling quotations at the key moment while others were struggling with folded-down corners of pages. “Ah, yes” said the Kindler “this is the ‘my clippings' feature.”

“So do they continue to grow after your death?”

Finally, the young proposer, in a first for this or surely any other Book Group, asked that his last words should be recorded now for posterity. This was just in case they were somehow missed on his deathbed. (Apparently the words are based on something a young lady had once said to him).

Reader, they are:


Monday, August 22, 2011

28/7/11 “THE GINGER TREE” by Oswald Wynd

Ginger Tree Oswald Wynd
B.U.S 16, off Dalhousie
July 28th, 2011, 8pm

Having travelled from town, we made landfall at Dalhousie at 8pm with a full complement of passengers, untroubled by storms or traffic diversions. A number of natives of strange demeanour were assembled to greet us, and so the discussion began.

This month's novel told the story of Mary MacKenzie, taken from her genteel and strict upbringing in Edinburgh to no less strict societies in Japan and China, and how the life changing event of an extra-marital liaison led to her eventual, partial integration and development in her chosen land. We learnt about Eastern attitudes, ambitions and the foretold expansionism of Japan through her personal and diplomatic relationships with a number of strong and diverse characters in the diplomatic and social sphere. Written in 1977, it was possible that some of the early 20th century foresight of Mary about Eastern progress may have been coloured by the hindsight of the author!

The host introduced the author, a fascinating character, and drew comparisons between Wynd’s life and the subject of the book. He wrote this book on the basis of his understanding of Japanese language and culture, his experiences as a child of missionary parents, and his subsequent experience as a prisoner of war. After the war, he vowed never to return, and it is interesting that his apparent antipathy to the Japanese people is not obvious in the book. Indeed, one big attraction of the book for the host was the contrast drawn between the two rigid cultural attitudes in Japan and Scotland. Given that the author was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and he vowed never to go back to Japan, why was the book so sympathetic to Japanese culture? Possibly, the passage of time had mellowed his opinion, and he recalled his happy childhood rather than his war experience.

The host suggested that, technically, the use of letters and diaries to draw out the plot was very effective. In the journals and letters, Mary was able to introduce the characters quite naturally, and develop them through the story. The author was able to get inside the female character very effectively, writing consistently and honestly. Was the style too consistent? Do we tend to alter our writing style to suit the recipient? Probably we do not. The interest was maintained by the use of these letters and journals, sometimes with significant gaps.

The character of Mary herself was very well realised: as her experience grew so her character developed maturity and confidence, from a naive young girl abroad to a confident young businesswoman. Some commented on her Scottish attitude to developing a business through solid foundations, her hard-nosed dealing with Bob in connection with the initial funding and the maintenance of her own control. Before it became fashionable, she developed a business plan. She invested in property, and she did not take the easy path. She also resisted the attempt of Peter to buy her house, recognising the value of bricks and mortar.

The group all thought the author wrote very convincingly as a woman, both in her comments on her own life, and in her observations on those around her, e.g. in describing the clothes of those she met, (Is this sexist? ed.) and of how this developed into a successful business. For example, the author described the consul's wife on page 19, and how her clothes did not bring out her best features.

The book was praised for its portrayal of Japanese society. For example, the description of Aiko emphasised the societal rigidity through the contrast of her revolt, possibly arising from long periods of isolation. Again, portraying the society in which she finds herself, she described how the housing was built to suit the conditions. She described the social strata well, and interacted successfully with the servant class. One of us maintained that although she made reference to people living in poor conditions, she did not really develop this as well. There was a section, 7.4.1910, in which she gives a vivid description of the sanctity of poverty: 'how a frugal diet be recorded in your favour in a big ledger.' However, these were philosophical and political arguments rather than a true emotional description of the impoverished state, as for example in a previous club book 'Hunger'.

There was discussion about the relationship of Mary to her two children, each separated early from their mother. In particular, it was suggested that the description of Mary's feelings at the loss of Jane was weak; should she have stronger expression of loss? Perhaps the author had not really understood the female psyche in this instance? On the other hand was this a manifestation of the practical and pragmatic Scottish heritage of Mary? Likewise, the speaker thought the affair was under-explained. Mary did not discuss the birth either. Was this due to the lack of mother-daughter relationship? Was it due to the shame of the act? Were the similarities between the two societies stronger than the differences?

Returning to the societal portrayal, the Japanese were presented as ruthless and expansionist in their dealings with both China and Russia. One suggested that the Japanese expansionism came from the divinity of the emperor, or earlier from the all powerful Shoguns. Alternatively, the expansionism was driven primarily by the need for natural resources. When talking of the Japanese and their discipline of the Chinese, Mary suggested that the Japanese were not the correct people to administer this, being too hard-hearted. It was clever how Tomo was portrayed as an airman, and we wondered what fate befell him, attacking Pearl Harbour, becoming a Kamikaze pilot? However, it was pertinent to note how, in the reunion, Kentaro's attitude changes, in asking Mary, rather than commanding Mary, if he can come to Yokohama.

The descriptions of the earthquakes, tsunamis and fire were very relevant to 2011. The frequency of natural disaster led to the stoicism of the population. Mary also anticipated the growth of the Japanese economy through imitation. One of our number had direct and possibly painful experience of this as he talked of the rise of the Japanese electronics industry on borrowed expertise. The author had hit a nerve!

The discussion turned to the plausibility of the plot. Generally we were comfortable with the idea of Mary developing from her arranged marriage, through her affair and banishment, to become a successful exile and businesswoman. Was the plot plausible? Yes! So, although, to a large extent, it was a portrayal of Japanese society through the eyes of an outsider, it was also a tale of one woman's emancipation. Japan was also portrayed as a land of opportunity. One drew parallels between Mary's establishment of a business and the career of Thomas Glover who helped found the Mitsubishi empire.

Thus far, our discussion had been more than usually focussed but we now started to digress. There was a passage of the book, p31, in which Mary transports her thoughts back to Morningside, and recalls a Sunday when all the church bells were heralding morning service. The scepticism of our camponologist was raised. Surely most churches didn't have bells then? Oh, yes they did! Oh, no they didn't! Oh yes they did! On balance we were happy to confirm the accuracy of the description.

We had concentrated on the source text, but a mini series was filmed in 1989. Not many remembered it, but those who did believed it to be rather poor. For some reason, the initial ‘contact' between Mary and her diplomat husband stuck in the mind. "Richard crept in, it was all over in 5 seconds, and he rolled over", said one. On the other hand, Kentaro was 'there for ever', according to our resident Barry Norman. Actually, your scribe thought the descriptions in the book of the first sexual contacts between Mary and Kentaro in the Western Hills were very effective. The sudden terse nature of her journal statements, "God forgive me. I went to him", "I stayed too long today", "I think Armand knows", showed vividly the conflict between her upbringing, the societal conventions and her sexual desire. This was a defining moment in the book, as it led inevitably to her final emancipation. The contrast in style between these and the other journal entries was very telling.

What about the title? What was the symbolism of the Ginger Tree? We talked of survival and an attempt to take root in a harsh, initially alien environment. Taking off her stays symbolised what: the coming liberation, her future fallen state, the 'fur coat and nae knickers' policy of the Morningside lady?

One hour and fifteen minutes in, there is a digression towards Ian McEwan's book, “Solar”; not sure why. Apparently McEwan writes slowly, satisfied with 500 words a day. An unkind critic suggested you could see the joins. I don't think this relates to The Ginger Tree; can we get back on message, as our former leader, Tony B., might have said?

There were some slightly less believable sections on prediction, e.g. on the stock exchange, the future of automobiles and flying machines. Two Americans were rumoured to have flown 20 miles. Gosh! This is post rationalising, after the event, said one. In a true diary there would be much more discussion of now unknown events. Others argued that she was entirely consistent in her knowledge of important contemporary advances.

Given the disagreement about the prescience of the significance of external events, the discussion turned to who had editorial control of the final content of the book. Was this the original text of the author, or could it have benefited from further revision? The question was not resolved.

To conclude the book was very readable. Everyone enjoyed it. One of the key properties was the writing style, in particular the very direct and factual structure and the relatively short sentences. It was not indulgent, with no flowery phrases and page- long sentences, and where descriptions were made these were short and to the point. We thanked the host for his choice.

Monday, July 11, 2011

30/6/11 “AFRICAN DIARY” by Bill Bryson.

Bill Bryson’s “African Diary” was published by in 2002.

It really is, just a diary. Bill describes what happened to him over an eight-day visit to Kenya, sponsored by the charity CARE international. It isn’t an analysis, it isn’t especially thoughtful, it’s merely a diary written up with entertaining and generally cheerful comments. It’s only about 11 thousand words on 56 pages. Please don’t think we are shirkers this month; the proposer of the book has added this book to the month’s reading because he thought the main book was a bit short. It was light relief after Loung Ung’s First They Killed my Father.

Despite being short, it provoked much discussion about the nature of Africa and Africans, and the nature of Aid.

Why do African cities have so much abject poverty, and why does Africa not develop economically like India and many of the SE Asian countries, especially when they are so blessed with natural resources? Bryson describes the slum of Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi. The rural poor come to the city to earn small money, but perhaps enough to afford education for their children. He tells of their poverty in a way that makes us smile rather than cry; for example the ‘flying toilet’. One shits in a plastic bag, and then hurls the bag as far away as possible. The stock answer to the question, of course, is that ‘greed and corruption’ takes the money away from where the need is greatest. We are told of a dirt road that is marked on the map as a highway to disguise the fact that the money that was suppose to pay for a proper road was siphoned off into someone’s pocket.

All of us that have been to Africa can tell tales of corruption, but our own society has corruption too (the example given was ‘cash for Honours’ but there are many others such as MPs expenses). Our corruption might not be on the same scale, or perhaps we are better at hiding it.

We reflected on what we think may have happened, or ‘gone wrong’, in the colonial era to make Africa what it is today. The imposition of European statehood on a tribal system was heavy-handed by today’s standards. To some extent the behaviour of today’s Africans must have been influenced by the way the colonial masters were perceived. In Britain the colonial era was the era of ‘fair play’, where British behaved decently towards each other, wasn’t it? Well no, not entirely. We had our own brand of abject poverty, we had child labour, sexual exploitation of women and so forth and so on. Well, let’s not go there. Keep Pandora’s box closed tonight.

Bryson tells stories of incidents and accidents with trains and planes, all of which serve to re-inforce our general view that the place is, above all, disorganised. I’ve been to several West African countries and that, for sure, is my abiding impression. Disorganised and sweaty. Yet, like me, he sees the positive side of things. One of these was his meeting with William Gumbo, a man who was shown how to be a small-scale market gardener, and he’s taken to it in spades.

What about Aid? CARE’s philosophy, we are told, is to make a little go a long way, and to help people to help themselves. For example, make a bore hole and install a pump. It means people can grow crops in the dry season which transforms their lives. No-one would disagree, so why do the government of these resource-rich countries (in some cases oil rich) not take similar actions? Like most people, I find this question especially hard to answer; as one who has talked to academics and a few government people from Africa I can say that I find them erudite, thoughtful, and compassionate. Perhaps they are on average more excitable than most of us are, and certainly they are more inclined to laughter, and more inclined to believe in God.

India is a bit different. Ghandi’s influence perhaps. Who knows?

As with all of Bryson’s books, it’s well-written, engaging, and hard to put down. There are good photos of life in the slums and in a refugee camp, taken by Jenny Matthews. The revenue goes to CARE international, so we didn’t begrudge our £9.99 for this little book.

This was Bryson’s first visit to Africa. I wonder if he will return.
30/6/11 “FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER” by Loung Ung.

“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung (published 2000) is a personal narrative of a female survivor of the genocide that took place in Cambodia in the 1970s. Loung Ung was only five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh (April, 1975). She was one of seven children in a middle-class family who were forced to flee their homes. They became fugitives, denying their true identity and seeking refuge in the countryside. Her story is heart-wrenching, describing the horrendous scenes of starvation, rape, forced labour and family separation that characterised Pol Pot’s brand of revolution in the name of agrarian communism.

The proposer of the book had visited Cambodia in 2006 during a visit to SE Asia. Even then, some 30 years after the events described in the book, he thought the Cambodians were less happy than others in the region. It isn’t surprising, as 1.5 to 2.5 million people were killed, approaching a quarter of the population. We noted in passing that the book is timely: whilst we were reading the book the opening of the UN-backed genocide tribunal was announced, with the trial of senior members of the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot himself died in 1998, and was never brought to trial. Also, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's National League for Democracy, was delivering the BBC’s Reith Lectures on the subject of securing freedom. Next week, the TV channel More4 is showing True Stories: Voices from the Killing Fields. It is an opportunity to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man.

We all found the writing style to be simple and beguiling. There seems to have been a strong editorial hand; indeed, Loung acknowledges help from her teachers and publisher. Certainly, the book is highly readable. The photographs are poignant and an important part of the book. They show family members in better times, before or after the period 1975-1980. The cover photograph shows Loung on arrival at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, holding an identification board with her name and number. Although this marks the end of the ordeal, she has still to adjust to her new freedom, and to come to terms with the guilty feelings of being one of the survivors. That part of the story is resumed in another book After They Killed our Father which some members of our Club have already procured.

We questioned whether Loung could have remembered accurately the details she so eloquently describes. The book was written about 20 years after the events, when she had settled into a relatively normal life in the USA. Perhaps she didn’t recall all the distressing details, and perhaps some of the most harrowing personal events have been suppressed or redefined. She describes very well her deep hatred of her assailants, and especially of Pol Pot himself. Perhaps writing the book was a therapy, or perhaps she was motivated by a strong desire to tell the world what happened, in fact what it feels like. We see so many media images of starving children that we are no longer shocked, but we can never know the feelings of the victims until someone has the courage to write about it from personal experience, as Loung has now done so well.

We reflected on the cause of genocide and the motivation of its perpetrators. Was Pol Pot following the example of Mao Tse-tung? Presumably, yes; and there was an influence from the French Communist Party as well as the writings of Marx and Lenin. Pol Pot was trying to create a more equal society based on agrarian socialism. Ghandi himself had been an advocate of agrarian socialism but he would never have forced it upon his people. To some extent Pol Pot’s failed revolution was motivated by Cambodian nationalism: the Kymer Rouge leadership wanted to restore the Khmer Empire (the Empire flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries) and hated the pale skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though they used Chinese weapons in exchange for rice.

Genocide is properly defined as the systematic extermination of an ethnic group. Here, those who were rounded up or abducted were both the pale-skinned Vietnamese and the educated classes including government employees. Loung’s family smeared their skin with soil to appear darker, as the mother was of Chinese origin.

The Book Group has tackled several horrendous stories in the five years of its existence. José Saramago’s Blindness springs to mind. They were novels, and Loung’s book is the real thing. In some respects, the real world is capable of greater horror than the novelist’s world. It has a stronger random element. Most of all, real lives are lost. And as one of our members pointed out, two souls are lost when a child soldier is ordered to execute someone by a blow to the head with a hammer.

What about the scale of the genocide? Hitler is believed to have killed 6.5 million, and Stalin may have killed more. The Turkish killed many Armenians, and who knows how many lives were lost in Rwanda. Facts and figures are frequently denied and the truth is unclear. Sheer numbers hide the human dimension; Loung’s story has to be repeated millions of times to represent the staggering enormity of the suffering.

On the last pages of the book, Ung describes how she settled into the USA, becoming ‘a normal American girl’ and then obtained a degree in political science before becoming a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. On the last page of the book, she travels to Cambodia for an awkward re-union with what is left of her family (she lost both parents, two sisters and many relatives). She realises that she now lives in a world apart.

It is a sad and distressing story, very well told, and an important testament to the individual suffering brought about by genocide. This story, though, has a more or less positive ending, in stark contrast to the tale of the many who died.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

28/4/11 “LUCKY JIM” by Kingsley Amis.

“Lucky Jim” was Kingsley Amis’s first published novel. It came out in 1954, when he was in his early thirties. Most of the group had read it before, and retained fond memories of various humorous incidents in the book – such as Jim’s accidental burning of sheets when a house-guest, the ghastly musical evening, the drunken lecture, and the bus ride from hell. There was unanimity between both first-time readers and re-readers that it was a damned fine book.

The introducer said that he had found it a very carefully written novel, and also more serious than he had remembered from previous reading. He pointed out that it had achieved an iconic status as progenitor of a series of comic and satirical novels about British academia by such subsequent writers as David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Tom Sharpe.

Although the book’s style and humour had not dated, there was comment nevertheless by the group on a number of historical specifics. An example was the omnipresence of cigarettes, but perhaps less obvious was the use of military metaphors and the underlying fact that in the post-war decade, adequately qualified and competent academics were hard to come by, and universities were perhaps more eccentric and quirky places than they are today. Certainly more than one member of the book group was reminded of the inadequacies of their own university lecturers (although admittedly speaking of the 1960s and 1970s, not the 1940s and 1950s). Another identified with Jim’s feeling of being out of place as a recently appointed academic, when he recounted how a group of his colleagues got to discussing their different nannies when they had been children. As someone, like Jim, from a less privileged background, he felt himself like a fish out of water.

There was some discussion of Amis’s later work, although most of the group had not read widely amongst his books. It was pointed out that themes that were important in “Lucky Jim” went on to be recurring preoccupations, such as booze and adultery. It was also commented upon by the proposer that a streak of nastiness emerged in some of the later fiction – perhaps the early signs are there in some of Jim’s funny but callous practical jokes.

Turning to the status of the book as a first novel, written by a young writer, one reader pointed out a few unsatisfactory plot elements. Catchpole rather lets Jim off the hook in relation to Margaret, by revealing to him her manipulative nature. In this respect Catchpole is something of a deus ex machina. The failure to develop the promising comic potential of the ripped trousers, and the extremely late introduction of the character of Michel were further minor flaws, and Sir Julius was also identified as a second deus ex machina, rather conveniently enabling Jim’s escape from academia in the same way as Catchpole enables his escape from an unsatisfactory relationship.

In the context of the writer’s relative youth, one reader confessed to more sympathy with the blundering and exasperating Welch than either Jim or the authorial voice exhibited. He wondered if this was to some extent the impatience of the young with the aged. However, others objected that a real Welch would be infuriating to young and old alike.

There was a little debate about the novel’s vocabulary. One reader found the use of some obscure words rather off-putting. The meaning of “pabulum” was debated. No one knew what it was. (For the record, the meaning is ‘food’ or ‘food for thought, especially when bland or dull’, from the Latin ‘pascere’ to feed)

Another reader however had enjoyed the breadth of vocabulary, and quoted admiringly Welch’s ‘preludial blaring sound’ with which he calls for silence at the start of a lecture. All agreed that the extensive vocabulary was an aspect of Amis’s intention to impress with the novel – which he eminently succeeded in doing.

Why was “Lucky Jim” such a funny book, in spite of some serious themes? One reader suggested that it was because we could all identify with Jim’s sense of being out of step with the world around him, and enjoy his sometimes infantile responses to that feeling, such as pulling bizarre faces in secret, and playing practical jokes such as anonymous letters, faked phone calls, and stealing taxis. The proposer demonstrated a memorable face of his own which he was wont to pull when exiting unsatisfactory meetings at work.

A different angle on Jim’s ‘out of step-ness’ was proposed by another reader: that Jim’s sense of difference derives from his own normality relative to the peculiar academic bubble in which he finds himself.

There was some discussion of Amis in relation to last month’s writer, Evelyn Waugh. It was felt that Waugh had produced a more impressive and substantial body of work over his career. However, this was perhaps not to compare like with like. Amis was considered less satirical. Comedy such as Waugh’s, it was suggested, derived from observing with detached amusement, whereas Amis shares the pain of his central character. The view was expressed by one reader that “Lucky Jim” was in fact more of a coming-of-age novel than pure satire or comedy.

Before conversation drifted off onto other topics, a final query was raised as to whether the humour of “Lucky Jim” was very British (or perhaps English) and therefore not likely to be successful in translation. Since we had no data concerning overseas editions or translations, and since a cursory Google search has just failed to elucidate, this must for now remain one of the great unanswered questions of our time, or at least of our book group.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966) was an English writer of novels, travel books and biographies. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer. His best-known works include his early satires Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his trilogy of Second World War novels collectively known as Sword of Honour (1952–61). Waugh, a conservative Roman Catholic whose views were often trenchantly expressed, is widely recognised as one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century.


The son of a publisher, Waugh born in 1903 was educated at Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford. Waugh arrived in Oxford in January 1922. The arrival in Oxford in October 1922 of the sophisticated Etonians Harold Acton and Brian Howard changed Waugh's Oxford life. Acton and Howard rapidly became the centre of an avant-garde circle known as the Hypocrites, whose artistic, social and homosexual values Waugh adopted enthusiastically; he later wrote: "It was the stamping ground of half my Oxford life". He began drinking heavily, and embarked on the first of several homosexual relationships. He continued to write reviews and short stories for the university journals, and developed a reputation as a talented graphic artist, but formal study largely ceased. He did just enough work to pass his final examinations in the summer of 1924 with a third class degree.


As a young man he acquired many fashionable and aristocratic friends, and developed a taste for country house society that never left him. After leaving Oxford Waugh spent weeks partying in London and Oxford before the overriding need for money led him to apply through an agency for a teaching job.

He also began working on a comic novel; after several temporary working titles this became Decline and Fall. Having given up teaching, he had no regular employment except for a short, unsuccessful stint as a reporter on the Daily Express in April–May 1927.Waugh was at this time dependent on a £4-a-week allowance from his father, and the small sums he could earn from book reviewing and journalism.

In September 1928 Decline and Fall was published to almost unanimous praise. By December the book was into its third printing, and the American publishing rights had been sold for $500.

Vile Bodies, a satire on the Bright Young People of the 1920s, was published on 19 January 1930 and was Waugh's first major commercial success. Despite its quasi-biblical title, the book is dark, bitter, "a manifesto of disillusionment". As a best-selling author Waugh could now command larger fees for his journalism.

On 29 September 1930 Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This shocked his family and surprised some of his friends, but the step had been contemplated for some time.

In 10 October 1930 Waugh, representing several newspapers, departed for Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. He reported the event as "an elaborate propaganda effort" to convince the world that Abyssinia was a civilised nation, concealing the truth that the emperor had achieved power through barbarous means. A subsequent journey through the British East Africa colonies and the Belgian Congo formed the basis of two books; the travelogue Remote People (1931) and the comic novel Black Mischief (1932). His various adventures and encounters found their way into two further books: his travel account Ninety-two days, and the novel A Handful of Dust, both published in 1934.

He returned to Abyssinia in August 1935, to report the opening stages of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War for the Daily Mail. Waugh, on the basis of his earlier visit, considered Abyssinia "a savage place which Mussolini was doing well to tame", according to his fellow-reporter William Deedes. Waugh saw little action, and was not wholly serious in his role as a war correspondent. Deedes remarks on the older writer's snobbery: "None of us quite measured up to the company he liked to keep back at home". However, in the face of imminent Italian air attacks, Deedes found Waugh's courage "deeply reassuring". Waugh wrote up his Abyssinian experiences in a book, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). A better-known account is his novel Scoop (1938).


At the outbreak of the war in September 1939 sought military employment. In December Waugh was commissioned into the Royal Marines and began training at Chatham naval base. In April he was promoted temporarily to captain and given command of a company. Waugh's inability to adapt to regimental life meant that he soon lost his command and became the battalion's Intelligence Officer. In this role he finally saw action, as part of the force sent in August 1940 to Dakar in Western Africa to support an attempt by Free French troops to install General de Gaulle as leader there. Hampered by fog, and misinformed about the extent of the town's defences, the mission was a failure, and on 26 September the British forces withdrew. Waugh commented that "Bloodshed has been avoided at the cost of honour."

In November 1940 Waugh was posted to a commando unit and after further training became a member of "Layforce" under Brigadier Robert Laycock. In February 1941 the unit sailed to the Mediterranean, where it participated in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Bardia, on the Libyan coast. In May the force was required to assist in the evacuation of Crete; Waugh was shocked by the disorder, loss of discipline and, as he saw it, cowardice of the departing troops. On the roundabout journey home in July by troopship he wrote Put Out More Flags, a novel of the early months of the war written in Waugh's familiar 1930s style. Back in England, more training and waiting followed, until in May 1942 Waugh was transferred, on Laycock's recommendation, to the Royal Horse Guards.

Waugh's elation at his transfer soon descended into disillusion as he failed to find opportunities for active service. Despite his undoubted courage, his unmilitary and insubordinate character was making him effectively unemployable. After spells of idleness at the regimental depot in Windsor, Waugh began parachute training at Tatton Park, landed awkwardly and fractured a fibula. Recovering at Windsor, he applied for three months' unpaid leave to write the novel that was forming in his mind. His request was granted. The result of his labours was Brideshead Revisited, the first of Waugh's explicitly "Catholic" novels and, biographer Douglas Lane Patey observes, "the book that seemed to confirm his new sense of his writerly vocation".

Brideshead Revisited was published in London in May 1945. Waugh had been convinced of the book's qualities, "my first novel rather than my last". It was a tremendous success, bringing its author fame, fortune and literary status. In February 1947 he made the first of several trips to the United States, in the first instance to discuss filming of Brideshead. This project collapsed, but Waugh used his time in Hollywood to visit the Forest Lawn cemetery, which provided the basis for his satire on American perspectives on death, The Loved One. Waugh also worked intermittently on Helena, a long-planned novel about the discoverer of the True Cross, "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write". Its success with the public was limited. In 1952 Waugh published Men at Arms, the first of his semi-autobiographical war trilogy, in which he depicted many of his personal experiences and encounters from the early stages of the war. At 50, Waugh was old for his years, "selectively deaf, rheumatic, irascible", increasingly dependent on alcohol and on drugs to relieve his insomnia and depression.

By 1953 Waugh's popularity as a writer was declining. As he approached his sixties, Waugh was in poor health, prematurely aged, "fat, deaf, short of breath, "an exhausted rogue jollied up by drink". He described himself as "toothless, deaf, melancholic, shaky on my pins, unable to eat, full of dope, quite idle" and expressed the belief that "all fates were worse than death". In 1965 the three war novels edited into a single volume were published as Sword of Honour.

On Easter Day, 10 April 1966, after attending a Latin Mass in a neighbouring village with members of his family, Waugh died suddenly of heart failure at his Combe Florey home.


In the course of his lifetime Waugh made enemies, and offended many people; writer James Lees-Milne asserted that he was "the nastiest-tempered man in England". He had been a bully at school, and retained an intimidating presence throughout his life; his son Auberon remarked that the force of his father's personality was such that, despite his lack of height, "generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail[ed] in front of him."
However, the common view of Waugh as a "snobbish misanthrope" is a caricature. How would a man who was so unpleasant be so beloved by such a wide circle of friends? He was generous to individuals and causes, particularly Catholic causes. His belligerence to strangers was not entirely serious but, rather, an attempt at "finding a sparring partner worthy of his own wit and ingenuity". He mocked himself as well as others. The elderly buffer, "crusty colonel" image he presented in his later life was a comic impersonation, rather than his real self.

Waugh's Catholicism was fundamental: "The Church ... is the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves." Strictly observant, he admitted to Diana Cooper that his most difficult task was how to square the obligations of his faith with his indifference to his fellow men. When asked by Nancy Mitford how he reconciled his often objectionable conduct with being a Christian, he replied that "were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible".



Waugh's novels reprise and fictionalise the main events of his life, although in an early essay Waugh declares that "Nothing is more insulting to a novelist than to assume that he is incapable of anything but the mere transcription of what he observes". Nor, Waugh emphasises, should it be taken that the author agreed with the opinions expressed by his characters.

Waugh is widely regarded as a master of style. In the view of critic Clive James, "Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English ... its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him". As his talent developed and matured he maintained "an exquisite sense of the ludicrous, and a fine aptitude for exposing false attitudes". In the first stages of his 40-year writing career, before his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, Waugh was the novelist of the Bright Young People generation. His first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, comically reflect a society of utter futility, peopled by two-dimensional, basically unbelievable characters in circumstances too fantastic to evoke the reader's emotions. Much use is made of what Slater describes as a typical Waugh trademark: rapid, unattributed dialogue in which the participants can still be easily identified. Alongside these works Waugh mixed into his journalism a few serious essays, such as "The War and the Younger Generation", in which he castigates his own "crazy and sterile" generation.
Waugh's conversion did not significantly change the nature of his next two novels, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust although, in the latter at least, the farcical elements are muted. From the mid 1930s his journalism and non-fiction writings were increasingly concerned with Catholicism and conservative politics, before he reverted to his former manner with Scoop, published in 1939.

Brideshead, which questions the meaning of human existence without God, is the first of Waugh's novels in which his political and religious views come clearly into view. His next novel was Helena, the most uncompromisingly Christian of his books.
In Brideshead, through the person of the proletarian junior officer Hooper, Waugh introduces a further theme that persists in his post-war fiction: the rise of mediocrity in the Age of the Common Man. In the Sword of Honour trilogy this process is depicted through the semi-comical figure of Trimmer, a sloven and fraud who through contrivance emerges triumphant.


Of Waugh's early books, Decline and Fall was hailed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard as "an uncompromising and brilliantly malicious satire". The critical reception of Vile Bodies two years later was even more enthusiastic, with Rebecca West predicting that Waugh was "destined to be the dazzling figure of his age". However, A Handful of Dust, later widely regarded as Waugh's masterpiece, received a more muted welcome from critics, despite Waugh's own high estimation of the work.

In the latter 1930s Waugh's inclination to Catholic and conservative polemics affected his standing with the general reading public. The pro-fascist tone in parts of Waugh in Abyssinia offended readers and critics, and prevented its publication in America. There was general relief among critics when Scoop, in 1939, indicated a return to Waugh's earlier comic style; critics had begun to think that his wit had been displaced by partisanship and propaganda.

Waugh maintained his reputation in 1942 with Put Out More Flags, which sold well, despite wartime restrictions on paper and printing. Its public reception, however, did not compare with that accorded to Brideshead Revisited three years later, on both sides of the Atlantic. Brideshead's selection as the American Book of the Month swelled its US sales to an extent that dwarfed those in Britain, which was affected by paper shortages. Despite the public's enthusiasm, critical opinion was split. Brideshead's Catholic standpoint offended some critics who had greeted Waugh’s earlier novels with warm praise Its perceived snobbery and its deference to the aristocracy were attacked by, among others, Conor Cruise O'Brien who, in the Irish literary magazine The Bell, wrote of Waugh's "almost mystical veneration" for the upper classes. Fellow-writer Rose Macaulay believed that Waugh's genius had been adversely affected by the intrusion of his right-wing partisan alter ego, and that he had lost his detachment. Conversely, the book was praised by Graham Greene, and in glowing terms by Harold Acton, who was particularly impressed by its evocation of 1920s Oxford. In 1959, at the request of publishers Chapman and Hall and in some deference to his critics, Waugh revised the book and wrote in a preface: "I have modified the grosser passages but not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book".

In "Fan Fare", Waugh forecasts that his future books will be unpopular because of their religious theme. On publication in 1950, Helena was received indifferently by the public and by critics, who disparaged the awkward mixing of 20th-century schoolgirl slang with otherwise reverential prose. Otherwise, Waugh's prediction proved unfounded; all the fiction remained in print and sales stayed healthy. Men at Arms, the first volume of his war trilogy, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1953; initial critical comment was lukewarm, with Connolly likening Men at Arms to beer rather than champagne. Connolly changed his view later, calling the completed trilogy "the finest novel to come out of the war".


In 1973 Waugh's diaries were serialised in The Observer, prior to publication in book form in 1976. The revelations on his private life, thoughts and attitudes created controversy. Although Waugh had removed embarrassing entries relating to his Oxford years and his first marriage, there was sufficient left on the record to enable enemies to project a negative image of the writer as intolerant, snobbish and sadistic, with pronounced fascist leanings. Some of this picture, it was maintained by Waugh's supporters, arose from poor editing of the diaries, and a desire to transform Waugh from a writer to a "character". Nevertheless, a popular conception developed of Waugh as a monster When, in 1980, a selection of his letters was published, his reputation became the subject of further discussion.

The publication of the diaries and letters promoted increased interest in Waugh and his works, and the publication of much new material. Christopher Sykes's biography had appeared in 1975; between 1980 and 1998 three more full biographies were issued, and other biographical and critical studies have continued to be produced. A collection of Waugh's journalism and reviews was published in 1983, revealing a fuller range of his ideas and beliefs. This new material provided further grounds for debate between Waugh's supporters and detractors. The 1982 Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited introduced a new generation to Waugh's works, in Britain and in America. There had been earlier television treatment of Waugh's fiction—Sword of Honour had been serialised by the BBC in 1967—but the impact of Granada's Brideshead was much wider. Its nostalgic depiction of a vanished form of Englishness appealed to the American mass market; Time magazine's TV critic described the series as "a novel ... made into a poem", and listed it among the "100 Best TV Shows of All Time". There have been further cinematic Waugh adaptations: A Handful of Dust in 1988, Vile Bodies (filmed as Bright Young Things) in 2003 and Brideshead again in 2008. These popular treatments have maintained the public's appetite for Waugh's novels, all of which remain in print and continue to sell. Several have been listed among various compiled lists of the world's greatest novels.

Beneath his public mask, Stannard concludes, Waugh was "a dedicated artist and a man of earnest faith, struggling against the dryness of his soul." Graham Greene, in a letter to The Times shortly after Waugh's death, acknowledged him as "the greatest novelist of my generation" while Time magazine's obituarist called him "the grand old mandarin of modern British prose", and asserted that his novels "will continue to survive as long as there are readers who can savor what critic V. S. Pritchett calls 'the beauty of his malice' ". Nancy Mitford said of him in a television interview; "What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything. That's what none of the people who wrote about him seem to have taken into account at all."


The novel is partly based on Waugh's own experience working for the Daily Mail, when he was sent to cover Benito Mussolini's expected invasion of Abyssinia - what was later known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. When he got his own scoop on the invasion he telegraphed the story back in Latin for secrecy, but they discarded it. Waugh wrote up his travels more factually in Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), which complements Scoop.

Lord Copper, the newspaper magnate, has been said to be based on an amalgam of Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook: a character so fearsome that his obsequious foreign editor, Mr Salter, can never openly disagree with any statement he makes, answering "Definitely, Lord Copper" and 'Up to a point, Lord Copper" in place of "yes" or "no". Lord Copper's idea of the lowliest of his employees is a book reviewer. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, however, writes: "I have Evelyn Waugh's authority for stating that Lord Beaverbrook was not the original of Lord Copper." Bill Deedes thought the portrait of Copper exhibited the folie de grandeur of both Rothermere and Beaverbrook and included " the ghost of Rothermere's elder brother, Lord Northcliffe. Before he died tragically, mentally deranged and attended by nurses, Northcliffe was already exhibiting some of Copper's eccentricities - his megalomania, his habit of giving ridiculous orders to underlings."

It is widely believed that Waugh based his hapless protagonist, William Boot, on Bill Deedes, a junior reporter who arrived in Addis Ababa aged 22 with "quarter of a ton of baggage". In his memoir At War with Waugh, Deedes wrote that; "Waugh like most good novelists drew on more than one person for each of his characters. He drew on me for my excessive baggage - and perhaps for my naivety.." He further observed that Waugh was reluctant to acknowledge real life models , so that with Black Mischiefs portrait of a young ruler, "Waugh insisted, as he usually did, that his portrait of Seth, Emperor of Azania, was not drawn from any real person such as Haile Selassie." According to Peter Stothard, a more direct model for Boot may have been William Beach Thomas , "a quietly successful countryside columnist and literary gent who became a calamitous Daily Mail war correspondent".

The novel is full of all but identical opposites: Lord Copper of the Daily Beast, Lord Zinc of the Daily Brute (the Daily Mail and Daily Express); the CumReds and the White Shirts, parodies of Communists (comrades) and Black Shirts (fascists) etc.
Other real life models for characters (again, according to Deedes): "Jakes is drawn from John Gunther of the Chicago Daily News - In [one] excerpt, Jakes is found writing, 'The Archbishop of Canterbury who, it is well known, is behind Imperial Chemicals..' Authentic Gunther." The most recognizable figure from Fleet Street is Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, Waugh's portrait of Sir Percival Phillips, working then for the Daily Telegraph.

"Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole", a line from one of Boot's countryside columns, has become a famous comic example of overblown prose style. It inspired the name of the environmentalist magazine Vole, which was originally titled The Questing Vole.

One of the points of the novel is that even if there is little news happening, the world's media descending upon a place requires that something happen to please their editors and owners back home, and so they will create news.


Christopher Hitchens, introducing the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of Scoop, said "In the pages of Scoop we encounter Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather", and noted: "The manners and mores of the press, are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic...this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism...Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page."

Scoop was included in The Observer's list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Scoop #75 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


The reaction to the book was most positive. It was acclaimed as very funny and well constructed with some most amusing characters. One participant described Scoop as the funniest novel he had read. Waugh’s mastery of language was praised though some argued that the language might appear dated particularly to the younger generation.

Waugh’s use of satire, farce, irony and caricature were widely praised. He was clearly writing in the tradition of the great English comic novel- from Fielding and Smollet through Dickens. His satire seemed to have little overt political purpose, unlike Dickens. Newspapers were seen as beyond reform, as did the characters. They were simply absurd or ridiculous but treated affectionately and uncritically. This perhaps reflected Waugh’s pessimistic conservatism about the improvement of human nature. There was no sense of impending World War for a novel written in 1939, unlike say The Mask of Dimitrios.

Scoop was a good example of a plot that changed direction shortly after a good opening - as with Psycho. The structure looked odd at first but worked well when completed. The only criticism was that the English sections were better than the African.
The proposer of Scoop had chosen it as a good representative of Waugh’s ouvre but also because it was highly topical particularly in the context of Libya and the Arab spring. There was wide agreement to this proposition. How little had changed re the media with over mighty newspaper proprietors such as Murdoch and the BBC sending too many journalists to natural and war disaster zones using up scarce food and travel resources. And how little had changed with western countries wading in and stirring up problems in African and Muslim countries. The clash between such different cultures added to the humour in Scoop.

With so much agreement about the merits of the book discussion ranged more widely. One of our number told an amusing anecdote about a stay at Waugh’s house in Combe Florey which included a walk along a plank across the stairwell to ascertain if one was sober enough for another drink.

There was also a discussion about the role of humour in British (or should that be English) life and literature. People racked their brains for great Scottish as opposed to English humorous writers. Irvine Welsh was not remembered until afterwards. There was some self satisfaction that our book group had chosen a series of humorous books unlike, we thought, most book groups.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Alas the regular scribe was in Australia, and the poor apprentice arrived late, having gone to the ‘Avenue’ instead of the ‘Gardens’. He caught his breath, poured and took a sip of Black Sheep Ale (wot, no claret?), recovered his poise and tried to catch the ongoing discussion. Fortunately, this had focused on the venue and menu for the upcoming fifth anniversary dinner in March. What was most important, the location, the food or the wine? Should the menu have literary associations? Suggestions of the popular previous reads, ‘Hunger’ and last month’s austerity cooking of ‘Nella Last's War’ did not find favour among the gourmet subset. The decision was made, and we proceeded to Chesil beach.

The proposer introduced Ian Russell McEwan, born in 1948 and a contemporary of some of the group. Much of his childhood was spent abroad, before studying at Sussex under Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, among others. Married twice, he had received many literary fellowships, was awarded the CBE in 2000. The proposer recounted many family anecdotes, including a reunion with an unknown (till 2002) elder brother, a bricklayer, who was handed over for adoption in 1942 in a ‘brief encounter’ with another adopting family.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim, since his first book of short stories, ‘First Love, Last Rites’ (1975). Many short stories and novels have followed with recurring themes dealing with family life, childhood, deviant sexuality, disjointed family life, and the consequences of seemingly insignificant actions.

The proposer considered McEwan to be among the first rank of contemporary British authors of literary fiction. His favourite was ‘Saturday’, but as there were several medical allusions including the name of the neurosurgeon which made reference to a bent penis, he decided that the medically challenged audience might not appreciate the subtleties entailed. Turning specifically to Chesil Beach, a book that concentrates two lifetimes into a single night of sexual dysfunction, the proposer recalled how he had first listened to the book on an audio tape while driving through Spain and France with his wife. He found the book amusing and captivating. Then, a first for the book group! He played the first few sentences of the audio recording; the phrasing was impressive, and one commented how well it sounded, a book that was meant to be read aloud.

To open the discussion of the read text, one said that the book was painfully reminiscent of his own first sexual experience. The others examined their shoes, tried to recall their own first experience, ‘old age doesn't come on its own’. Continuing the travel theme, of young courtship and thwarted love, another described a trip to Switzerland, arrival at the hotel at 3am, and the discovery that the anticipated room was occupied. The less than happy couple had to drink coffee in the lounge till breakfast the next morning. Did this save them from similar embarrassment to Edward and Florence? We daren’t ask.

Gradually turning from personal experiences another speaker discussed the charming way the meeting and courtship of the couple were described, leading to the problems of the virginal wedding night. The structure of the book was universally admired, describing the pivotal anti-climax, or climax, in the context of all that come before, and the subsequent development of the couple’s lives following the debacle. Was it a missed opportunity for a less conventional marriage?

How relevant was the book, written in 2007, but describing events in 1962, to today? One of the group doubted that many married as virgins, even in 1962. In one sense the year may have been pivotal as the pill became available in 1963. Was a reluctance to engage in premarital sex a matter of religion, a matter of shyness, or a matter of practicality? Philip Larkin was quoted.

'Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP’

As Florence never said in the book,

‘Please please me, whoa yeah,
Like I please you’

Again, the company reminisced.

Perhaps uncomfortable with such thoughts, a member suggested a historical inaccuracy. The idea that an Englsh hotel would have a good selection of malts in 1962 was preposterous. There was brief discussion of the relative merits of ‘Laphroaig’ and ‘Springbank’. Your scribe is not sure of the majority verdict. He was too young in 1962 to sample malts, and inhabited B&Bs rather than hotels, so the matter is unresolved. The group turned away from the discussion of malts to the sexual themes of the book.

Florence's relationship with her father was considered a key factor in her sexual frigidity. Quoting from the text:'Perhaps what I really need to do is kill my mother and marry my father'. Someone who is sexually abused often has a fear of intimate sex. At one stage, during the initial stages of the virginal fumbling, she seemed to experience sexual arousal, but the moment was lost. What further evidence exists of sexual abuse? The father poured lots of favours on her daughter, and took her on business trips, which was considered rather odd. Again quoting from the text:

'father and daughter rarely spoke, except in company, and then inconsequentially, he thought they were intensely aware of each other though, and had the impression they exchanged glances when other people were talking , although sharing a secure criticism'.

There are several oblique references to probable father-daughter sexual experience on pages 49 and 50 in the paperback edition.

As the inevitable moment approaches, the author builds the scene:

'The two waiters disappear, they were on their own. Difficulties are anticipated'.

These are two children, of middle class families, intelligent, apparently well matched, though with different incomes and mores. At last Edward thinks that maybe he never had anyone whom he loved as much, with so much seriousness. There is also the sense of a Hardy-like coincidence; if only he had called her back on the eponymous beach it may well have been different. They had such wonderful shared experiences. Alas, these platonic moments were destroyed by the basic desire.

There was some disagreement on how well-matched the couple was. One referred to the hints of danger throughout the story. Edward had a previous history of fights and brawls, and he may not yet have fully put this behind him in spite of the previous loss of friendship when defending a friend. Latterly:

‘He walked up and down on the exhausting shingle, hurling stones at the sea and shouting obscenities’.

He still retained the violent streak. Yet, all had felt sympathy for the two characters.

We concluded that the book was well crafted. There was discussion of the beauty of the prose. We wondered whether this was effortless, or the result of considerable re-writing. Was it pornographic? No, but painfully true. One attendee had to admit a sense of wishing the couple would 'just get on with it', and another confessed to experiencing certain longeurs in the mid section. The tone was lowered; reference was made to knickers and gravitational force. Ooh! Aah! Missus!

One key aspect of the book was the history-induced attitude of Florence to sexual words which were considered by the group to be male-dominated, e.g. ‘penetration’. The significance of the music was discussed. Was it an escape from love, from sex, and a protective mechanism? On page 80, Florence uses the music as a distraction to take her mind off the sex to come. On page 162, there is an almost sexual intensity in the criticism of the quartet's playing. However, as another stated, it was not really fear on Flo's part - rather disgust and shame of the animal instinct. The contractual issues were discussed, 'in deciding to be married she had agreed to exactly this.' Reference was made to the ‘droit de seigneur' implied in the marriage contract, and of course this marriage was never consummated.

Considering the author is male, a member thought that he had a very good grasp of the female psyche, credible to a male-dominated book group at least. The characterisations of both Edward and Florence were equally convincing. Many books deal with the coming of age and have descriptions of a first sexual encounter. To the audience, this treatment was original in focusing so exclusively on the sexual act, working backward and forward to explain the reasons and consequences of the act. Their whole lives were encompassed in that moment. That is the strength of the book's structure.

The group thought about love, communication between the couple, and the act of sex. Did they communicate, or not? Did they understand the other's point of view? She acknowledges her failures, she agrees she is frigid, she suggests the compromise that Edward could go with other women. Edward is appalled; he suggests it is contrary to the wedding vows. He loses it, he calls her a bitch. A man is scorned.

At last one of the company read or recalled his own instruction manual. Take it gently, don't jump in, he had been advised. Maybe Edward should not have stopped masturbating for a week with the inevitable result, however well meant. Another talked of a book picked up (I think) from a dodgy bookshop in Nairn, or maybe just published in Nairn in the 1900's. Then at least, masturbation made you blind. Yet another quoted from his Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge, hidden in the linen cupboard in his youth, where presumably it came in handy for Nairn activities. Yet another talked of the Kama Sutra and his father in the Indian army. Apparently it was not to be read by Indians, according to army instructions. Your scribe wondered why he read Ian Fleming as a teenager.

So far all had been very complimentary. What was the weakest thing about the book? There is a lot of loss of face, the premature ejaculation, the frigid reaction, but surely the public admission of failure is actually more serious. All the wedding presents were returned. Is this plausible? How do they bear the humiliation? Edward does not explain himself and his family quietly dissolves the marriage. The scribe thought Florence wholly unconventional, not at all concerned about what others think - her disgust should not be interpreted as worry about 'what people think'.

The conversation turned back to the thoughts of Florence as the moment approached. She thinks of her shoes, her dress as Edward struggles to remove it. The discussion went off at a tangent, from women's shoes to handbags, to sexual objects, to Margaret Thatcher. Was she sexually attractive? Alan Clark, whom dedicated readers will recall was the author of a previous selection, 'Barbarossa', thought so. Florence's concentration on shoes and dresses displaced the thoughts of the sexual act. Extrapolating further from shoes and handbags, the description of the food on pages 119 and 120 suggests a wealth of new experiences including not just the food but the subsequent musical ecstasy - 'they came to a ragged halt and let the music swirl around them as they embraced'.

Suddenly the conversation changed to cappuccino makers, tampers, thermometers, the need to make a perfect cup of coffee. Oh how sexual encounters are replaced by prosaic activities. At this point there was another tangential foray into cappuccino makers and coffee plungers. Do keep up!

Why are Ian McEwan's books generally short? One who had heard him interviewed pondered that he likes to make the point with brevity. He considers many other books padded with too much waffle, concentrating on quantity rather than quality. He made reference to the fact that the author liked books to be read as a whole in one sitting, the length of time of a film of a play or a film for example. One member thought that £7.99 was a bit steep for such a short book. War and Peace, anyone?

It was getting late, and your scribe had to be awake at 5.45am the next day. We concluded. Unusually, there was unanimous agreement on the excellence of the book, which had generated excellent discussion. Often diverging opinions create the most interesting discussions, but not this time. The book was superbly structured, painfully accurate, and the writing of such a high standard. McEwan is popular; he deals with subjects that everyone can identify with.

We thanked the host and walked into the night, reflecting.

Introducing “Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’”, the proposer said that “Mass-Observation” was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Their work ended in the mid 1960s, but was revived in 1981. The Archive was now housed at the University of Sussex.

Mass-Observation began after King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers about the public mood, the founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the people. In August 1939 Mass-Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. They gave no special instructions to these diarists, so the diaries vary greatly in their style, content and length. 480 people responded to this invitation, one of whom was Nella Last (1889 –1968).

Nella Last was a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness. An edited version of the two million words or so she wrote during World War II was originally published in 1981 as "Nella Last's War: A Mother's Diary, 1939-45" and republished as "Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife 49'" in 2006. A second volume of her diaries, "Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49", was published in October 2008 and a third volume "Nella Last in the 1950s" appeared in October 2010. Some critics see in her diaries a proto-feminism that anticipates the post-war women's movement in her account of her own marriage and her liberation from housewifery through her war work.

The daughter of local railway clerk John Lord, Nella was married, on 17 May 1911, to William Last, a shopfitter, and had two sons, Arthur and Cliff. During the war she worked for the Women's Voluntary Service (W.V.S) and the Red Cross. The wartime diaries were dramatised by Victoria Wood for ITV in 2006 as Housewife, 49, which is how she headed her first entry at the age of 49. Her son Clifford Last (1918–1991) emigrated to Australia following the war and went on to become a noted sculptor, with works displayed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

So how did the Group feel about Nella Last’s diaries? Most – though not all – had very much enjoyed the book. There were many dimensions to it, and different dimensions appealed particularly to different people.

One was that of her relationship with her husband. It was a remarkable record of a woman living in close proximity with a husband for whom she felt, if you believed her, nothing other than resentment. The ebb and flow of their daily exchanges was carefully charted, and her relief at being able to sleep in a separate room. It was funny, sad and very honest. According to her internal narrative of her life, his lack of support - plus the disapproval of his family - had caused her to have a breakdown. She even drew a comparison between her “subjection” and political subjection. He had been an aggressor, perhaps not unlike Hitler, and she had colluded in her subjection. Her extensive voluntary work during the War, plus perhaps the process of reflection encouraged by the diary writing, had allowed her to break away from her “slavery”, and this had led to her being held up as an example of a proto-feminist.

“But why this ‘Lords of Creation’ attitude on men’s part?....A growing contempt for men in general creeps over me….I’m beginning to see I’m a really clever woman in my own line…”

Similarly there was the close-up view of her relationship with her two sons. Particularly early on in the book, it was clear that the relationship with her sons was providing her with the affection denied in her marriage. That with Cliff, the son who went to war, was particularly intense (“Cliff’s signet ring was pushed on to my third finger”), and it soon becomes apparent to the modern reader that Cliff must be homosexual. Although the family is introduced to his “very close friend”, who is later killed in the war, Cliff is unable to come out. Nor do his parents suspect. This appears to be a considerable tragedy of misunderstanding, one that must have been repeated many times in the era. Cliff goes off abroad at the end of the War to become a sculptor in Australia, and only returns for a period when his parents are near death.

Cliff’s “Afterword” - written in 1989, eight years after the publication of “Nella Last’s War” and two years before his death - is fairly wry and detached. It must have been particularly difficult for him to read the diaries (his brother had predeceased his mother and was dead before the diaries were published). For example, there are passages such as this from 10 May 1945:

“I’ve begun to take a ‘so far and no further’ attitude with that crab of a Cliff. He must not let illness be an excuse to be rude, discourteous and downright disagreeable. I’ve told him so very plainly – and a few other things. I had one of my ‘soap-box’ fits on V.E. Day. Perhaps I was a little bit unstrung, but I could see little reason for Cliff’s attitude. I tore the rosy rags he had draped around a few of his illusions…..He was not at all pleased, but the little storm passed in laughter. He said I was a ‘queer little bugger’, and I said, ‘I resent that. A childish vision of a bugger was of a thing with one leg that went bump in the night…”

We were struck and surprised by the fact that Nella did not “self-censor” her diaries in the way that most people of her generation would have done. Perhaps she was unaware that they would ever be published? Or did it fit with her personality not to care what people would think if she by that time would be dead?

The War itself, as experienced on the Home Front, intrigued most of us. True, there was little new in the way of factual information about what happened, but for most of us it was new to get a sense of how it felt to live through that period. One surprise was how little celebration and what a sense of anti-climax there was on VE and VJ Days (“I opened a tin of pears”).

It was also striking how often Nella referred back to her experience of the First World War:

“How swiftly time has flown since the first Armistice. I stood talking to my next-door neighbour, in a garden in the Hampshire cottage where I lived for two years during the last war. I felt so dreadfully weary and ill, for it was only a month before Cliff was born. I admired a lovely bush of yellow roses, which my old neighbour covered each night with an old lace curtain, to try and keep them nice so that I could have them when I was ill. Suddenly, across Southampton water, every ship's siren hooted and bells sounded, and we knew the rumours that had been going round were true - the war was over. I stood before that lovely bush of yellow roses, and a feeling of dread I could not explain shook me. I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, no wild joy, little thankfulness...”

This was a salutary reminder that someone of her generation – aged 49 going into the Second World War – had already had to live through another World War. She would have been 24 at the beginning of the First War.

The sheer normality of much of the life that was going on – the strikes and the unemployment – was surprising. Once the Blitz with its bombing of Barrow had stopped, and the threat of an invasion had thus faded, there did not seem to be much fear amongst people that the Allies would lose the War.

However, the sense of scrimping, saving and making do to continue to eat and to live was forcibly depicted throughout the book. Nella’s pride in putting together dishes from very limited ingredients was also of interest to those of us who cooked (but less so to those who retained slaves to perform this function).

We were struck by Nella’s efforts to empathise with those afflicted by bombing and starvation in other countries, and she showed remarkable imagination in doing so. Even her applauding early on of Hitler’s gassing of lunatics – which shocks a modern reader who has the benefit of hindsight, and which would have been edited out of any other diary – seems to be little more than support for euthanasia.

It was intriguing to watch how easily she could move from the mundane to the philosophical and back again. Her thoughts on the discovery of Belsen show both her capacity for empathy and for a sophistication of thought surprising in a largely self-taught woman from Barrow:

“Did their minds go first, I wonder, their reasoning, leaving nothing but the shell to perish slowly, like a house untenanted? Did their pitiful cries and prayers rise into the night to a God who seemed as deaf and pitiless as their cruel jailers? I’ve a deep aversion to interference, having suffered from it all my life till recent years. I’ve always said, ‘Let every country govern itself, according to its own ways of thought and living. Let them develop their own way and not have standards forced upon them’…Now I see it would not do. This horror is not just one of war. No power can be left so alone that, behind, a veil of secrecy, anything can happen.”

There was unanimity in applauding Nella’s prose style, for example:

“The garden is wakening rapidly, and I can see signs of blossom buds on my three little apple-trees… A blackbird seems to be building nearby – she has been busy with straw all day today – and now the old tree at the bottom of the next-door garden shows buds against the blue sky. My husband had a night off work and said he really must get another row of peas and potatoes in…The moon swam slim serene among the one-way pointing, silvered barrage balloons – I thought it dreadful when I once saw a Zeppelin against the moon. As I stood gazing up at the sky, I wondered if she had ever looked on so strange a sky occupant before…I do so dread these next few nights till the full moon. Tonight, with a slim crescent, it was clear and bright. Some poor city will suffer.”

She could pen surprisingly fine lyrical passages of natural description, particularly when visiting the Lake District, which is her escape from urban Barrow and the War. It was difficult to imagine she had any time to polish any such prose, but that left it with a fresh, natural quality. She also had a fine ear for speech, and peppered the diaries with lively phrases that she had heard that day.

Another dimension of interest in the book Nella’s development: how Nella grows in self-confidence and initiative as the War proceeds and she throws herself into supporting the war effort. She starts with the WVS Centre, takes on more with the canteen, and finally sets up a shop to help the Prisoners of War Fund. She clearly had entrepreneurial skills, which in different circumstances might have been very important to the shape of her life.

The book was also not without humour – for example in her account of the baby that arrived in a brown paper bag, or in her response to the request to write about the sexual mores of the time (“do you want me before I get dressed?”)

So…Nella Last, creative, witty, altruistic,energetic, beautiful writer, enchained by a man…a downtrodden Saint?

Well, not for all. A minority voice did not entirely take to Nella as a person (while still very keen on the book). Always a victim, always right. Insecurely recording every compliment. A rather spiky person, disparaging her colleagues – and look at the Ena Sharples body language in some of the photos. No wonder her husband kept taking her off to the Lake District to calm her down.

Well, steady on, she does show some self–awareness – e.g. “I had one of my soap-box fits” and her imaginative empathy of the plight of other people in the War is quite exceptional….

Good at empathising with people in other countries, indeed, but no empathy whatsoever with her husband, and no understanding of her favourite son when he comes back shot in the groin…

And would a man’s diary ever be published if he were so consistently dismissive of his wife? Or if he accused her of not understanding the offside rule....?

(Well, I never! So unreconstructed some people are! Let’s leave them debating, crack open the St Emilion, and continue reading some more Nella... She’s my favourite)….

“This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang - like the feeling on a hillside of gorse in the hot bright sun, or seeing suddenly, as you walked through a park, a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and who had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old...”