Tuesday, December 22, 2015

29/10/2015 “ASYLUM” by Patrick McGrath.

The Book Group met in the Morningside home of one of its members.

Apart from being best known as a desirable residential suburb of Edinburgh, Morningside is also home to the original Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum, established in the grounds of the estate known as “Craighouse”. Originally developed as a private clinic it opened its doors to pauper patients in 1842. It was renamed the “Royal Edinburgh Hospital” in 1922.

As treatment for mental illness developed, institutional care became less prevalent. Patients were increasingly accommodated in villas purchased in the Morningside area as annexes by the Health Board for the purpose of integrating these patients back into the community.
In addition more modern facilities were developed at a different location in the heart of Morningside leading, in 1990, to the closure of “Craighouse”. The new hospital is currently being further developed to provide all acute psychiatric and mental health services for the Lothians.

It follows that the Morningside area’s long association with mental health treatment made it a particularly fitting location to consider and discuss McGrath’s “Asylum”. Indeed it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the patient and the resident in the village that is Morningside.

McGrath was brought up on the Broadmoor estate: the location of a high security psychiatric hospital in England, where his father was the medical superintendent. His early experiences of listening to discussions and debates over options for the treatment of inmates left an indelible impression on him and provided him with a rich source of material for future reference.

Born in 1950 he was the oldest of four children, His parents were devout Roman Catholics and he was educated at Jesuit Boarding schools, firstly in Windsor and then Stoneyhurst.
He did not enjoy school life. He considered it repressive and at the age of 16 he ran away to London. He was not scholastic doing “dismally’ at ‘A’ levels. He failed history, and gained an “F” for French and an “A” for English.

Leaving school he attended Birmingham College of Commerce, which he described as “the last hope for dead enders like me”. On graduating his father found him a job as an Orderly at Ontario State Mental Hospital. That was in 1971 and he has lived mainly in the USA since then, only returning to the UK periodically to escape the worst of the New York summer.

He married the actor Maria Aitken in 1991 and he credits her with establishing New York as their home.

McGrath is described as a “gothic novelist”. While he dislikes this label he reluctantly admits to having a “gothic” imagination. It is about the past and focuses on “interiors”-the interior of the soul. He has written eight novels, three of which - “The Grotesque”,“Asylum” and “Spider”- have been made into films.

“Asylum” was first published in 1996 and the film, directed by David Mackenzie, was released in 2005 to very mixed reviews. The story is of a doomed love triangle where Stella, the wife of the Asylum’s Superintendent, falls in love with one of the inmates and runs away with him. It is narrated by a psychiatrist as an example of a catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession.

In the absence of a blogger each of the book group members present agreed to provide a short note of their views on the book and these are faithfully reproduced below.

“One of our number indicated that at one time he had been a Home Office official with close working links with Broadmoor Special Hospital. He had known the author’s father, also Patrick McGrath, the then Superintendent, and recognized the author’s Asylum as an accurate description of Broadmoor. It was not just the topography of Broadmoor that the author had picked up as a boy and young man living there. The novel provided a very good analysis of staff relationships and tensions as well as convincing accounts of certain types of mental disorder. Edgar Stark was a good example of acute personality disorder; his attitude to his lover of the moment was convincing. Similarly his account of Stella’s behaviour and descent into mental illness was equally convincing. Again the author had drawn upon his knowledge; relations between staff and patients are not unknown and the suicide of filicidal women is very common.

“The novel was excellent. It was a page turner that was gripping and shocking.”

“I enjoyed reading the book very much. The setting initially within a psychiatric hospital in the 1960’s was intriguing, having worked for 6 months within such an establishment in the 1970’s.

“Once the scene was set, the plot developed quickly and held my attention, leading me on eagerly to find out the next stage. The style narrated by a psychiatric friend of the main character, Stella, who was also a colleague of her husband, was cleverly written and one wondered how he knew so much. It later became pretty clear.

“The main characters apart from Stella’s son were well developed. I felt that I didn’t know too much about this lad Charlie. I also wondered about Edgar’s friend Nick, who was rather a mysterious character and we never got to know his surname.

“I enjoyed reading about the management of psychopaths, sexual obsession and later Stella’s depression and disassociation disorder. Stella’s sexual infatuation was realistic and quite titillating. The story line towards the end was a little predictable and the narrator gave frequent clues about the outcome.

“It was a good read despite the somewhat morbid content.”

“ Asylum was an interesting insight into a strange world!

“On a first read it was fairly absorbing and seemed to be based on a sound knowledge of the “system” although the characters were rather stereotyped. I found the downward spiral of Stella’s life fairly shocking – her end being all too predictable.”

“The second read was disappointing as the book had lost its drive once you knew the story.”

“There are very few novels dealing with life in a mental institution. The other one we could think of was Ken Kesey’s “One Flew a Cuckoos Nest”, later adapted for the cinema by Milos Forman. Of course there are others: for example “The Bell Jar”, a semi autobiographical account by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath, wife of Ted Hughes.

“Anyone who has visited a mental hospital may understand why these places and the people who live inside them have provided little inspiration for the writer. Psychosis is associated with irrational violence and chaotic behaviour, patterns of communication and human relationships which defy analysis. Uncontrolled and fanciful impulses or numbing depressions are hard to write about; yet most of us, at some time in our lives, will have them and quite a few of us will require treatment. Perhaps we would rather not be reminded of that fact.

“However, mental illness is one of the last taboo subjects, seldom spoken about, best left to the professionals, best kept behind closed doors. The novel opens the doors and forces us to think about two kinds of mental illness, and how they are dealt with (or not). It also demonstrates the fine lines between sanity and madness, between love and hate and between tenderness and violence. We wonder how a mother can let her child drown (The Medea Complex). We are reminded of the limitations of both psychiatry and psychiatrists – much depends on human judgement and the database of evidence, on which judgement is based, is not large.

“Despite the challenging subject matter the author manages to weave humor into his writing and this added to my enjoyment of the book.”

“While I found the book to be an enjoyable read I was rarely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot or, indeed by the actions of the main characters. It all seemed entirely predictable. This may be a product of McGrath’s device of using an “unreliable narrator” to tell the tale or alternatively it may be a consequence of living in Morningside for almost 40 years!

“Like others I found that the novel did not benefit from a second reading. While I appreciate that McGrath is regarded as a “Gothic” novelist I saw very little “Gothic” in Asylum. This categorization owes much to his earlier works, particularly “Grotesque” published in 1989. Since then his writings appear to have an increasingly diluted Gothic content.”

“His fascination with mental illness and adulterous relationships, presumably products of his early family life in Broadmoor and his experiences as a young man dealing with his demons and exploring his options, have combined with a command of English and concise writing to deliver an easy read which is both enjoyable and thought provoking.”

In summary everyone considered the novel to be a good read. More so, those reading it for the first time. Those who had read it before thought it lost the element of surprise on second reading. While everyone considered Stella’s suicide to be entirely predictable, the death of the child was unexpected, and really shocking. McGrath’s descriptive powers of place were greatly appreciated and his character development impressive.

We look forward to reading his next book, which we understand will reflect his Americanization.

Friday, October 02, 2015


We began with the proposer’s revelation that he had first been led to the book by a friend who was a womanizer.  Perhaps the friend had found a kindred spirit in one of the book’s central characters, Tomas.  He revealed that Milan Kundera  has just had another book published (The Festival of Insignificance)– last year- at the age of 85.  This was considered admirable, although the book had not been well-received by critics apparently.

Our first commentator mentioned the disjointed nature of the narrative – for example the early revelation of the ultimate death of Tomas and Tereza in a car crash, which lent a poignancy to their relationship.  We followed up with some debate about the dreams in the book – and in particular whether or not the Petrin Hill incident was a dream, since unlike the other dreams it was not explicitly revealed to be such – only the nature of the events seemed unreal.

A general ignorance of Nietzche’s writings was acknowledged amongst the group, although this did not prevent us discussing the concept of multiple lives.

It was suggested  that the characters in the book were primarily pegs on which to hang philosophical ideas.  Kundera explicity rejects the notion that his characters are anything other than artefacts of his imagination.  The book perhaps falls into a grey area between novel and philosophy – occasionally Kundera takes us off at a tangent (for example his discussion of kitsch).  However, we were nonetheless engaged by the four main characters as believable human beings going through a variety of life events.  It was also pointed out that Tereza’s dog Karenin was dealt with seriously.  Among the more overtly profound exploration of themes such as betrayal and love there was also attention paid to the relationships between people and dogs.

One of our group had just watched the film adaptation of the book, which Kundera had disliked and disowned.  The film had more or less jettisoned the philosophical material, but still, in the viewer’s opinion, created an interesting portrait of the characters and their lives.

Someone described The Unbearable Lightness of Being as curate’s egg of a book (ie. ‘good in parts’)  They had found it quite difficult to read, and had not been as fully engaged by the characters as most of us.  Tereza was widely agreed to be the most appealing character, with her vulnerability and dependency on Tomas’s love.

Returning to the philosophical content of the book, one reader suggested that it was like a firework show, with lots of colourful and interesting ideas thrown up into the air.  Unlike a philosopher, a novelist has no obligation to follow his ideas through to a logical conclusion.  He can simply scintillate.

We turned to the historical context of the book and talked about Eastern Europe in general and the current Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.  After this digression, we wondered if the nature of the book itself encouraged digression (a clever excuse for going off the point).  A member of the group brought us back on track, saying that the section of the book that particularly engaged him was the part dealing with Russian surveillance and their attempts to destroy Czech national feeling.  The operations of the secret police were well described.  It was pointed out that at the time Kundera was writing, there was no certainty that the communist bloc would ever come to an end.  Another reader found some of the most dramatic material in the book in this context – for example the conversations around Tomas’s possible retraction of his Oedipus article.

We were all amused by the remarks on academic dissertations on obscure topics, their pages unvisited “even on All Souls’ Day”.

It was mentioned that feminists had frequently objected to Kundera’s work .  We wondered if Tomas was a kind of male wish-fulfilment figure.  It was pointed out that he seemed easy to please, being contented as a surgeon, a window-cleaner, and latterly a country-dweller.  Window-cleaning, with its frequent opportunities for philandering, seemed to be best of all for him.

From this point, our conversational route became more of a spaghetti junction.  We got onto the nature of happiness, and the influence of climate.  All other things being equal, it was suggested that living within the tropics was conducive to happiness.  We then got onto the early youth of the proposer, and then to his proposal that in his experience Eastern Europeans were more intellectual than the British – ‘more thinkers than doers’.  We had insufficient statistical information to debate this further, but it took us onto the results of a supposed survey (probably mythical) of the IQs of American presidents (high score for Barack Obama here) and then onto the nature of Ghanaian Christian beliefs.  Having visited the west coast of Africa, by way of the Czech Republic and the United States, it was but a small further step into the Edinburgh night, as all the beer bottles were now emptied.


We began with a brief discussion of different productions of Hamlet that we had seen – acknowledging that we were talking about a text designed for performance rather than private reading.  However, it was noted that one literary critic remarked that Shakespeare was for reading, not watching.  Comparisons were drawn between various interpreters of the main role – David Tenant, Derek Jacobi. Lawrence Olivier, and we looked forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch if we could. The proposer said that it was the 1964 Russian film adaptation, directed by Grigori Kozintsev that had first captured his imagination, and that the play became one of his favourite books as an adolescent.  Coming back to the play carrying a few more years, he still finds it powerful and fascinating emotionally, but has some reservations about his earlier enthusiasm.  We speculated on whether the angst-ridden hero was a figure more likely to appeal to more angst-prone younger audiences and readers.

We had read the play in different editions, and moved on to discuss the academic ‘industry’ devoted to producing a ‘definitive’ text.  Quarto 2 is considered by Arden as the nearest to the version Shakespeare would have produced on stage, but it is likely that he kept tinkering with it.  Editors can pick and choose their favourite versions of the lines, or transpose them between Hamlet and Horatio for example.  A fullest version would take up to five hours to stage.  (The 242 minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation was mentioned in this context).  Sometimes we noted that actors had ‘gabbled’ in productions we’d seen in order to get so much of the text in.

We moved on to discuss the central character of the play.  Hamlet has become a complex symbol for all kinds of things over the centuries – for example a byword for dithering and hesitation.

The critic Terry Eagleton said jokingly that Shakespeare would appear to be familiar with the works of Freud and Marx.  (In, presumably, an even lighter vein, it was proposed that Hibs footballers were all Hamlets, unable to put the finishing touch to their manoeuvres.)

Hamlet, like life itself, is full of ambiguities, and we wondered about what Shakespeare might have suggested to his main player, Burbage, to either clarify or leave more open what some lines might be taken to mean.  One of our group mentioned Peter Hall’s 2009 book ‘Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players’ as being very illuminating about how Shakespeare might have wanted his work performed.  Another book was also praised as giving insight into the historical context of Shakespeare’s work and life: ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro.  (A year that included the writing of Hamlet).

We discussed the language of the characters  – for example the language used by Claudius seemed very forced and artificial.  It was suggested that this was because he was consciously ‘playing the role’ of king.  We noted that Hamlet has more words to speak than any other Shakespearian character.  In spite of this plethora of “Words, words, words” (as Hamlet himself says), it was remarked by one reader that frequently the characters fail to understand each other.  One of us indeed saw some of the characters as being on the autistic spectrum, especially Ophelia.  The critic L.C. Knights argued that Shakespeare’s plays are about themes, not real people – although he himself also falls into the approach of earlier critics like Bradley of analysing the characters.   We also felt that the plot seemed of much less interest to Shakespeare than the philosophical content, and the musings on life and death of Hamlet in particular.  Indeed, the plot’s culmination in the fight between Hamlet and Laertes showed a cavalier disregard for plausibility.  There were also some discrepancies in the treatment of the ghost – he is presented as ‘real’, but then why can Hamlet hear him and Gertrude cannot?  One could only assume that these were unimportant issues for Shakespeare.

Horatio and the Gravedigger were seen by some as the only likeable characters in the play.  Hamlet himself was defended as ‘likeable’ by one of our group, but dismissed as essentially ‘frustrating’ by another.  Another among us found him an unpleasant individual, a ditherer, and considered his treatment of Ophelia appalling.  He said he met people like Hamlet all the time.  We wondered uncomfortably who he had in mind.

One of our readers brought up the debt Shakespeare owed to his sources – an earlier version of the story was popular in the 1580s and 1590s, perhaps written by Thomas Kyd, although no printed version survives.  This itself derived from earlier Scandinavian sources.  Shakespeare’s version, however brilliant and original in many ways, does arrive circuitously at the conventional endpoint of the revenge tragedy genre, which it shares with the tragedies of ancient Greece – i.e. pretty much everyone has to end up dead.

We discussed how a key theme of the play is the conflict between a pagan concept of revenge and the Christian concept of forgiveness.  Hamlet wants his revenge on Claudius to go beyond the grave – he won’t kill him while he’s praying, because he wants to send him to Hell.

A question was raised as to whether or not Elizabethans would understand Shakespeare relatively easily, as we might understand, say, The Archers.  Groundlings would have enjoyed knockabout humour and sword fights more than the subtleties of the language presumably.  Many references that are now obscure however would have been much more accessible to contemporary audiences. On the other hand, it was suggested, much of the difficulty of Elizabethan language falls away when delivered by a skillful actor.  One reader commented on how Shakespeare’s language is so concise that any attempt at explication always entails the use of far more words than he used himself.  There is a beautiful precision about his use of words, and this is evidenced by the extent to which his phrases have passed into common use – or gone ‘viral’ in contemporary parlance!

We moved on to discuss how Hamlet, in common with Shakespeare’s other plays, is reinterpreted in different places at different times.  For example there was an Eastern European view of the play as highly political, all about the difficulty of acting effectively against a repressive regime.  The proposer drew attention to historicist approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, with Elizabeth being near end of her life, and the possibility of James coming to the throne – a ruler from another country.  Also mentioned were more recent feminist approaches to Shakespeare, in their turn influenced by Freudianism. 

Finally, one of our group mentioned a visit to Girvan Library, where he failed to find any work by Shakespeare.  We wondered if knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was in danger of fading away, and if schools were moving more and more towards the study of exclusively modern literature.  The proposer was congratulated for his ‘bravery’ in bringing Hamlet into our midst.  We had enjoyed re-reading it and discussing it, although we felt that perhaps after four hundred and odd years most things that could be said about it had already been said!

30/7/2015 "REGENERATION" by Pat Barker

Oh we do like to be the seaside, at least a select few of us gathered by the beach at Portobello as perhaps “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” had led to the absence of many of our number. (Maybe they were just on holiday? Ed.) An absent member had sent his comments, and regretted having not read it sooner on the grounds that it might be too sentimental. His opinion was very positive. Meanwhile, the survivors prepared to go ‘over the top’ as WW1 beckoned, again.

The proposer introduced ‘Regeneration’ (1991) with a short biography of Pat Barker, significantly mentioning her Yorkshire, working class upbringing by her grandparents, how she used to stick her fingers in her grandfathers bayonet wound, and of her later liaison and marriage to David Barker, a zoologist and neurologist. From such experience was the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy formed. Some of us had read all three novels, some only the first book. Rather than introduce spoilers we concentrated on the first book, although it was suggested that the subsequent novels would re-order emphasis on the major and minor themes in the first book. (Indeed, this proved to be the case as your humble scribe subsequently read parts 2 and 3 which clarified many of the themes in part 1. However, this is not recorded.)

Rivers, Yealland, Sassoon, Owen and Graves are real – the patients are fictitious but based on real cases from a book written subsequently by Rivers. (One of us had circulated an interesting article about Rivers work in the period.) It appears that the novelist has made exemplary use of this and several other historical sources, e.g. in that Sassoon really did amend ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. However, she has invented the persona of Rivers, through his reactions to events, his coming round in part to Sassoon’s ideas and possible repressed homosexuality. He does say at some point “the war must be fought to a finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations”. Indeed the book is quite subtle in that there is no overt pro- or anti-war case.

In the context of the book, Rivers is quite at odds in his theories of breakdown and conflict of shell-shock arising from combat and prolonged exposure.  Some of the arguments that pass through his head sound convincing, while others seem suspect. Believing that “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” were more likely to cause men to break down than “the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors” that his patients themselves used to explain their condition, he muses that this must also explain the prevalence of “hysterical disorders” in women in peacetime. 

Billy Prior, on the other hand, is thought to be socially and sexually ambiguous, an officer yet an outsider because of his background.  We discussed whether his perception of the officer class was viable. He assumed a certain snobbery and smugness in their attitude. However, he still made firm relationships, with Rivers and with Owen for example.

The proposer then noted that Barker had said “there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas”.  Although it has been said that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW1, the implication was that this was about universal rather than WW1-specific truths. Could we avoid a discussion of Serbian politics from 1900? (See ‘The Sleepwalkers’). Time would tell, but it is accurate to record that conversations would often diverge from the text, especially when branching outwards from Sassoon’s declaration that opens the book, “not protesting against the conduct of the war but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men at being sacrificed”. The majority of our group made the point that Sassoon was young and naive, and such a declaration was foolish and would have no effect on such ‘conduct’. A minority view suggested that perhaps naivety brings clarity – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings etc. Does age bring wisdom or atrophy? Is there degeneration rather than ‘regeneration of the grey cells’? Well, if Wiki is to be believed the average age of commanding officers fell from 50 to 28 as the war progressed, and men of over 35 were barred from commanding battalions. However, this blog is getting off the point, echoing the discussion! Pass the port, Nigel.

So this novel is not just about WW1, but also about the need and justification for war, the effects on the combatants, consideration of societal change, of the emancipation of women, the breaking down of class barriers, of changing attitudes to heterosexuality and homosexuality, and of the attitude of the state. The title emanates from the experiment done on River’s friend Head in earlier times, when he deliberately severed a nerve in Head’s hand with the purpose of charting its gradual regeneration. From this we can compare and contrast the treatments to the mental trauma given by Rivers and Yealland, and how Rivers has to even question his own humane approach. He is torn between guilt in treatment and the stated aim to rehabilitate and send the men back to the front, and possible beneficial results (extreme in Yealland’s case).

In the wider context we discussed the possible effect of WW1, of war in general, as a necessary regenerating force on society. Within the book, the changing role and attitudes of the girls working in the munitions factories presage the huge changes that come after the war. There were changes too in sexual behaviour; heterosexual behaviour became more liberal, some crude forms of abortion were attempted, as in the description of the use of the coat hanger, and homosexuality was further repressed because of the concern about its effects on troop comradely spirit and morale with so many men in close proximity. Sassoon talks of how his friend was treated for soliciting, and how he subsequently had to modify his own behaviour to appear to be more normal or ‘cured’.

Barker mixes blunt and gritty working class language with poetic idioms. Perhaps the War Poets too – or at least the anti-war poets whom schools have adopted as the canon, managed something similar in combining the imagery of horror with the language of poetry. Your scribe’s favourite WC quote? – “eeh, hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue. Be cruelty to moths”

We were all rather underwhelmed by the description of River’s childhood, and especially the introduction of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Given the traumatic effect of the war on the soldiers’ speech, including mutism and stammering, and indeed Rivers own propensity to stammer it was assumed that this was making the link between his early childhood, the experience, and the subsequent sympathetic approach to such speech problems, in marked contrast to the electrodes of Yealland. There are also issues of parenthood, in particular the way that Sassoon looks on Rivers as a father figure who is much missed when he leaves Craiglockhart, as well as the role of Dodgson as a possible surrogate father.  However, one suggested this was possibly a case of research uncovering a celebrity that had got in the way. We also discussed the changing attitude to psychiatric treatment, of how a cure could better be affected by admitting and talking through a problem, rather than never talking about it, forgetting it.

What of the other central device, of bringing out the horrors of war not by direct descriptions, as was so effective in Birdsong (Faulks) that we had read earlier in the year, but by indirect description through the subsequent trauma. Most, but not all, found the book equally harrowing. On the other hand, the description of Yealland’s electroshock provided quite a lot of harrow for at least one reader, who recalled Laurence Olivier’s treatment of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Marathon Man’. (Eh? What’s the connection? Ed.)

So why does Sassoon return to fight?  Why does Prior talk of the shame of not going back? There are selfless reasons, notably the need to be loyal to your friends and comrades and for an officer at least, to be able to use experience gained to look after his men. These were motivating factors for Sassoon, which were nevertheless consistent with his declaration, or so he felt. The nature of masculinity, to be a man my son, is a recurring theme in the book and not just in the attitude to homosexuality. This certainly has changed, but not entirely, in the succeeding century.

So is war a regenerating force on a damaged or somehow deficient society? What are the beneficial effects of WW1? Even with a quorum having 40% historians, this was a tricky one to answer. Did the decision to support Belgium and France justify the killing of so many soldiers and civilians? Would Europe be a very different place in 2015 if no action had been taken, at least in this form? Was the sacrifice of allied troops necessary or in vain? If necessary and not in vain for the UK combatants, what of the sacrifice of German troops? 

Other than military and political changes, WW1 certainly accelerated societal change, especially with respect to class, women’s rights and education, as well as modifying sexual mores, but was it necessary? Sassoon’s point was that the war was being prolonged beyond its original purpose. To what extent would the common man be aware of the greater political picture? Others suggested that the war changed psychiatry, art and literature. Of course, one should not forget the extraordinary meeting and interplay between Sassoon, Graves and Owen, exemplified by the existence of the manuscript for ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ which has Sassoon’s annotations and suggestions. Did the war, or art as expressed by the war poets, change political thinking? What did Dylan have to say on the subject[i]? One of us noted that the French insisted afterwards that at least one ministerial appointment should be a soldier or ex-soldier. 

On these and other questions, the author leaves you to make up your own mind. However, it was proposed that both politicians and the media can still influence and exploit human base instincts, particularly tribal instincts, even in these days of mass communication and the internet. Other groups can also do this, of course, and there are many contemporary examples.

On one thing we all agreed; this was an excellent book. We all enjoyed it immensely and for those who had not done so, the next two books were on the ‘to do’ list.

And so to bed … suffering from WW1 literary trauma and with a need to be regenerated. Dr. Who has regenerated 12 times without addressing such deep concerns. Exterminate, exterminate….. where have I heard that before?

[i] The First World War, boys,
It came and it went

The reason for fighting

I never did get

But I learned to accept it

Accept it with pride

For you don’t count the dead

When God’s on your side.

Monday, August 24, 2015

28/5/15 "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Robert Dodds

We were fortunate to have Robert Dodds, the author of this book, in our midst. He described how he first wrote the story as a radio play and then as a stage play. In 2011 he began working on the novel.  The fifth draft got as far as an editorial meeting at the publisher Polygon, but was narrowly turned down.  It took a further year and a sixth draft before the author arrived at the version that was finally self-published in 2014. We pondered long and deeply on the issue of how an author gets his/her work on the bookshelves in the High Street or into the online marketplace of Amazon.
What did we think of this self-published work?

The first few pages reminded some of us of Hilary Mantel’s work. The use of the historic present tense certainly engages the reader, but above all the images, stenches, and the stark emotions are writ large on every page.  This powerful portrayal of medieval life stays with the reader throughout the book: the squalor, the plague, the evil, the superstition and the all-pervading and bitterly cruel injustice. We are plunged into the year 1490, and we are in the town of Den Bosch, famously the home of Hieronymus Bosch (here he becomes ‘Jerome’). The Roman Church is the main power in the land (and elsewhere), and this power is enforced though agents, the Inquisitors, who go looking for sin.  They punish it ruthlessly with vile tortures and hideous machines.

Jerome, the hard-working artist, is married to Aleyt, and at first they seem like a nice couple albeit surrounded by a chaotic and thoroughly nasty world. But all is not what it seems. She loves Hameel, another local artist and lifelong friend of Jerome. Also living in the house is the stupid servant girl Mary, who is far from discreet about what she has seen and heard. It’s an explosive situation. Now enter the Inquisitor Jacomo, whose commission from Rome is to establish the town as a regional centre for inquisitorial work, and especially to make an up-to-date Inquisitorial Dungeon with the aid of the skills of the local bell-maker. Now add to this the Abbess Dominica, who maintains a public face of piety and as a wise governor of her convent whilst secretly being gluttonous, avaricious and manipulative.  She hates Jerome, who makes no secret of his insight into her true character.

It is a gripping tale that cannot be told in the few paragraphs of this page. The book itself is hard to put down. There are many twists and turns in the storyline. We all enjoyed it. The plot is carefully-woven and logical; there are no loose ends. As I read it a second time, it seemed almost mathematical.  Parts of it are charged with cruelty and gore, and some people might put the book aside for that reason. But not we of the Monthly Book Group: we are inured, habituated, seasoned readers of the shocking.

The most obvious theme is betrayal: lovers betray each other, the Abbess betrays the Church and God, and Hameel betrays Jerome in the manner of Judas Iscariot. But there is also forgiveness: Jerome forgives Hameel in the end, in the manner of Christ himself.  Ironically, the Inquisitor Jacomo shows himself to be a man of integrity: he is incorruptible and capable of admitting that he made a mistake. Jerome is preoccupied with his work and his weird dreams; his sexual energy and hatred of the hypocrisy of the church seem to be given full expression in his paintings. The rest the characters are all, in one way or another, dodgy.

The author’s recreation of the medieval world reminded some of Chaucer. Whilst we have yet no means of time travelling, serious academic scholars of the medieval world present a view which is not very different from that portrayed in this book (e.g. Daron Burrows’ The Life of St Clement).
We discussed the title. Would readers browsing the bookshop ‘get it’? Is Bosch’s work well enough known? Probably ‘yes’, and the design on the cover would lure them to it anyway, if they had an interest in historical novels at all.

Rather little is known of the real history of the time, and the author has exercised his creative talents to a full extent. There is much evidence of underlying research. A historical novel generally attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past era.  This book seems to do that very well.

Apart from Hilary Mantel, comparisons of this work were made with The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the novels of Haruki Murakami, and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999).

As it stands, it would translate easily into a film or play, and perhaps a graphic novel. It is rich in imagery, and the dialogue is well-crafted.

Friday, May 15, 2015


As a rule we read the Introduction after completing the book. Of course this means the scene is not set, but we avoid the assessment of the book until we have formed out own opinions. Also the casual give-aways do not detract from the impact of the scenes as we read them. While the murder of the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna is not a surprise for an educated reader, there is much, even on the second reading, that should be left to the author not a literary critic. After finishing the book, of course there are insights in the Introduction that can illuminate the book.
So Rodion Romanovich, known as Raskolnikov, is a poor, hungry, student drop-out. His father had died and he was the centre of attention for his mother Pulkheria Raskolnikova and his sister Dunya. To them and many others, he was good-looking, very intelligent and with a great future. This had influenced Raskolnikov’s high perception of his own worth: “why do they love me so much, if I don’t deserve it?” He preserves this certainty throughout the book (though possibly doubts are shown to emerge in the Epilogue). As a superior being he decides to take the life of the pawnbroker both to show that he is able to murder lesser beings and also because her wealth may be used better by him as a great soul.
The murder (and the unplanned killing of the pawnbroker’s sister) prompted the obvious debate as to why? The reasons given above are amended and refined in direct conversations with characters in the book and in Raskolnikov’s subsequent thoughts and agonies. This is the heart of the book. However, the literal translation of the title is “Stepping Across”, which suggests the long journey he has before in the end he has crossed and achieved peace. This matter of translation is always difficult unless one knows the language of the author. There have been eleven known translations into English of the book, published in Russia in 1866, starting with Whitshaw in 1885, then Garnett in 1914 and so far finishing with Ready in 2014. The first two may well have recognised this as a mid 19th century book. This would have been helpful as the reader expects the flavour of other authors of the same period. The more recent translations have sought to give the flavour of Russia. As a detail “I do not give a spit” is clearly a Russian idiom and works. To refer to “pubs”sounds 20th century British and is, we thought, a mistake.
Some clues are lost to the English speaker. Thus the characters’ names have in some cases other meanings in Russian. And also colours are clues: yellow denotes suffering. Blue eyes suggest genuineness. So Raskolnikov’s inspiration and spiritual rescuer Sonya has blue eyes and dresses in yellow. However, one of the most interesting figures, Svidrigailov also has blue eyes. We debated what this was about. Mostly the group thought he was a murderer and a sexual predator. A few simply concluded that he was a great literary creation who had generous impulses suggesting compassion and who killed himself out of guilt. There is a fascinating comparison between him and Raskolnikov. A notebook entry by Dostoevsky is that: “Svidrigailov is despair, the most cynical. Sonia is hope, the most unrealizable…. He [Raskolnikov] became passionately attached to both”. But there can be a big gap between the simplicity of the original idea and the subtleties of the finished work. To an extent artists create characters and then struggle with them to bring the book to the intended conclusion!
The novel may be seen as a group of incidents developing from minute detail through a very gradual build up of tension into dramatic conclusions. This is obvious with the central murders, but may also be seen in the funeral banquet leading to the death of Katerina Ivanovna, and also seen in the interrogations of Raskolnikov by the detective Porfiry Petrovich. The same applies to the meeting between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov leading to the latter’s encounter with Dunya, Sonya, and his bride-to-be, and culminating in his suicide. This is how the novel moves, from a slow pace until one is totally immersed and then on to a quite different mood. We discussed how this happened, and noted that “Crime and Punishment” may have started as a novella. Then Dostoyevsky incorporated much of an earlier book “The Drunkards”, and parts of a Pushkin story, and finally adapted it for serialisation. The end product is a complex but brilliant work of art.
We pondered the impact of Religion. Here Sonia, despite having her “yellow ticket” as a prostitute, is the committed Christian. Others adopt only the form. The priests seem to be functionaries. Raskolnikov is asked to read the Biblical passage about the resurrection of Lazarus in a moving scene with Sonya. In prison he has the Bible unread under his pillow. But this surely reflects Russian society at that time. It is claimed that Sonya is the vehicle of divine intervention and that God guides him through self-discovery, confession, punishment and finally peace. Evidently Dostoyevsky claimed this was his intention, and also had very much in his sights the fashionable English utilitarian philosophies which he saw as inimical to the truths of the Russian Orthodox Church. But was that what actually inspired his imagination when he was writing it? If it were a work of art we would say that it is not what the artist intended with his conscious mind, but how we see the work of art, shaped by the artist’s imagination, feelings and unconscious, that matters. And the same applies to literature  (a simple idea enshrined in the grand-sounding critical concept of “The Intentional Fallacy”).
There can be no disputing that the opposition of utilitarian and Christian thinking informed some of the plotting and the characters (the ruthlessly mocked Luzhin, for example, is a fan of utilitarian thinking, and Raskolnikov’s ghastly and arrogant belief about his superiority and right to murder is at some points attributed to utilitarian thinking). But we do not read this novel for an exposition of nineteenth century philosophy. We read it for its unremitting tension, for its brilliant cast of characters, for its insights into human psychology, morals and foibles, for its evocation of immense poverty and what it drives people to: in a nutshell, for its insight into the human condition.
We also noted the shaping and balance of the book, which shows, in addition to all his other talents, a superb craftsman at work. Parts I-III present the rational, proud Raskolnikov, and parts IV-VI the emerging irrational, humble Raskolnikov. The first half shows the progressive death of the first ruling principle, and the second the progressive birth of the new ruling principle. The change happens half way through giving a mirror like image. Parts I, III and V deal with his family life, and II, IV and VI with his dealings with the authorities and his father figures.
What then of psychology? Here Raskolnikov is a victim both in his own thoughts and in his debates with Porfiry. However, while he changed his account of his motives, was this a progress towards self-awareness?  It seems more an attempt to fob off others, in particular Sonya. However, few novels are so rooted in the soul of the main character. It may have influenced Camus in his book “L’Etranger”.
And politics? Dostoyevsky was sentenced to face the firing squad as a result of political associations (although the sentence was commuted at the last minute by the Tsar). He was not writing as a casual observer. The great changes that affected Russia at the time figure in a number of conversations. Off stage there is a commune linked to Lebezyatnikov. This adds spice, but is only illuminating in a historical context. St Petersburg was busy to the point of turmoil and the main characters were also in turmoil. Did one reflect the other? The point was made that the poor were mostly good and the rich were a bit naughty.
However, the conclusion of the book is strictly moral. If critics at the time did not think so they have not given proper attention to it. Had the ending been with Raskolnikov simply giving himself up, we would possibly conclude that he thought he was right to murder, but had been too weak in living through the consequences. In the Epilogue Dostoyevsky makes quite clear that a good woman saves him. The style here is different. Some thought a modern novel would have been better without it. The message is delivered in a perfunctory manner. So far as we know nobody has suggested that his publisher or a friend told him to make sure the message was a wholesome one. He was possibly in the process of moving to the political right at the time he wrote it. Possibly he was simply convincing himself that Sonya was the saint, and Raskolnikov had come to heel.


Postscript: after the meeting I reflected further on the relationship between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov. In the last meeting between them Raskolnikov felt Svidrigailov had "some hidden power that held sway over him". Fairly obviously he could go to the police but possibly Raskolnikov saw more than that. As it happened Svidrigailov offered a plan to get him off to America. Svidrigailov used the meeting to explain his actions.
Why? The retrospective view is that possibly he really still hoped to form a friendship with Raskolnikov. Had he succeeded Raskolnikov might have heard a fuller confession and acted as some kind of Sonja. This may seem far fetched but what happens is that because of Sonja Raskolnikov does not commit suicide while Svidrigailov does. There is a rather tiresome piece by Svidrigailov about lechery [part VI chapter 3]. Svidrigailov thinks it is acceptable in moderation but to fail to control the desire might lead to suicide. Everything has to be in moderation. So Raskolnikov, revealing his state of mind, asks if Svidrigailov would be able to kill himself. "That's enough! Svidrigailov countered in revulsion."
Svidrigailov was interested in Raskolnikov and those associated with him. In the case of his sister the interest was wider, but he took particular care to help Sonya. Was dealing with her siblings and paying her 3000 roubles to help Sonya or to help Raskolnikov? It is possible that he genuinely loved Dunya and saw something of her in Raskolnikov. Many times the two are compared and were both of course good looking.
So he found that he could get nowhere with Raskolnikov. He had his planned meeting with Dunya, but possibly he would have expressed himself differently had he found some bond with her brother. He lost his nerve in dealing with her, but without Raskolnikov's support he had no chance with her other than by force.
Another strange element in his last day on earth was his 16 year old bride. He said this attachment was because he had (early in the novel) given up on Dunya. 15,000 roubles is a large gift, and on top of other earlier purchases. Did he feel enormous guilt that he was not going to marry her? His actions are confused throughout. Most prospective suicides do not have such a varied and constructive last day on earth!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


The programme of events commemorating the centenary of World War 1 has triggered interest and heightened awareness of what is often referred to as “the forgotten war”, and we all wish to extend our appreciation of such momentous events. “Birdsong” (1993) is, of course, a work of fiction, but it is the product of extensive, detailed and original research. Faulks immersed himself in the time and the events that characterise it. In so doing he has been able to bring insights that seem authentic to a story line that compares and contrasts the vagaries of human nature when confronted with horror. Above all it gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to fight in the trenches.

It follows that this was an ideal choice for our book group.

The proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, outlining the author’s background. Born in Berkshire on 20th April 1953, Faulks has said that he had a very happy childhood. His mother introduced him and his elder brother to books, theatre and music at an early age. He was educated at Elstree School near Reading; Wellington College, Berkshire; and Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read English. He graduated in 1974, and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 2007.

He decided that he wanted to be a writer while still at school, and after graduating he eked out a living by teaching at a private school. Then he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph, firstly as a junior reporter and later as a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote books in his spare time and later reviewed books for the Sunday Times and The Spectator. In 1984 his first book titled “A Trick of Light” was published. In 1986 he joined the Independent as Literary Editor and he stayed with the Independent, becoming deputy editor of the Sunday paper. He left in 1991 and subsequently wrote columns for the Guardian and Evening Standard, before the success of “Birdsong” enabled him to focus his skills on writing books.

He has published 15 novels. The best known is the trilogy set in France: “The Girl at the Lion D’Or”, “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”. “Engelby” was published in 2007 to mixed reviews. It represented a departure for Faulks in terms of the near-contemporary setting and in the decision to use a first person narrator. In 2008 he was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel by Ian Fleming’s estate to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s death. “Devil May Care” became an immediate best seller.

He has been the recipient of many literary awards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a CBE for services to literature in 2002. He married in 1989 and has three children.

The proposer explained that, as part of the WW1 commemorations, he had been involved in research into members of his golf club who had died in the conflict, and that this had provoked his interest in the book. He had previously read Engleby and had listened to Faulks talking about Engleby at the Edinburgh Book Festival. However, he preferred Birdsong.

Some of our group had read Birdsong some time ago and had re-read the book in order to refresh their memory. They all found added benefit in the second reading, uncovering depth in the characters and their contemplations, and wider themes in the book.

There were differing views of the “time shifts” otherwise described as “jump cuts”. Some thought it worked brilliantly, drawing out the contrast between untroubled pre-war life, the wretchedness of war itself and the transition to post war reality, and embodying his wider themes about time and the generations.  Others thought the time shifts “a bit clunky” and “irritating”, particularly the shift to the 1970’s.

There was a general view that the first part of the book that deals with Stephen’s life in Amiens, staying with the Azaire family and having a passionate affair with his host's wife Isabelle, was a bit too long. One person was tempted to stop reading at this stage; however, all were sufficiently encouraged by the description of the steamy sex to carry on reading.

The jump from peacetime Amiens to the Western Front in 1916 was a surprise and a shock to all, with the stark contrast between the love affair in the peaceful countryside of northern France and the horrors of the Somme. This narrative technique worked well throughout the book, and was greatly appreciated by all.

It was mentioned that Faulks deliberately imitated cinematic narrative devices, “moving from unbearable close ups to a view on a long lens and a very wide shot”. This thread permeates all parts of the novel, and was particularly effective when deployed in linking time, building characters and in dealing with themes such as life and death.

Death is an ever-present theme. The scale and arbitrariness of death, and the impact on individuals and their families and comrades are topics that are especially well portrayed. The impression is given of fleeting contact with individuals, insights into their lives followed by descriptions of their deaths, sometimes casual and sometimes in graphic detail. It was suggested that the death of comrades in some way helped to secure a closer bond between those remaining and to unite them in a common cause.

The death of Michael Weir narrates the existence of chance, bad luck and timing as factors leading to death and to the resultant feelings of guilt felt by those that failed to intervene sooner. Weir is portrayed as a good man and the manner of his death was clearly intended to anger and horrify. This was cited by one of our group as a good example of the arbitrariness of death.

The group also liked the way that the vivid description of the death of Jack Firebrace was linked to the death of his eight year old son, whose passing some two years earlier had stripped Jack of his feeling of invincibility and his reason for living. We felt that deep emotional feelings, and their influence on the struggle for survival, were especially well explored.

The group admired Faulks’ descriptive powers in relation to the scale and nature of death.
bodies were starting to pile and clog the progress”; “explosives can reduce men to particles so small that only the wind carried them - men simply go missing”.

Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, on visiting a cemetery near Bapaume in the Somme, felt that “on every surface of every column as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone”.

One of our company particularly liked Stephen speaking to Gray regarding the attack on Beaumont Hammel  I looked in your eyes and there was perfect blankness”, and following the attack as darkness fell the movement of the wounded was described as “It was like a resurrection in a cemetery 12 miles long”.

The group discussed the death rates of officers and men in both WW1 and WW2 and considered the reasons for the differences. While this conversation was interesting, the complexity of the topic threatened to divert us from considering the novel and it was parked for the time being.

It was suggested that at the time of writing “Birdsong” there was relatively little interest in WW1 and perhaps this silence related to the shock or trauma suffered by those who fought and survived. The reluctance on the part of veterans to share their experiences could be attributed to an overwhelming desire to forget or to conceal the trauma for reasons of self-preservation. Those at home might also not have wanted to hear about these experiences. We were reminded of Weir’s efforts to tell his father the truth about the front which were met with complete, almost hostile indifference.

Most of the group agreed that the strongest and most memorable sections in the book for them were those concerning the 1st day of the Somme offensive and those describing the underground warfare. The seduction of Isabelle in Amiens was also admired, but the reasons for the end of the affair remained a bit of a mystery.

There were mixed views on the sections dealing with the 1970’s. Some considered them a bit contrived, particularly the coded diaries, while others thought them well structured and entirely appropriate given their purpose to suggest that time heals, that hope arises out of despair and that life goes on.

It was pointed out that ironically the book’s title “Birdsong” is meant to represent the indifference of the natural world to the behaviour of humans. One felt that, Faulks, as an English graduate, was sometimes too self-conscious and contrived in his use of imagery to reinforce his themes, an example being his overly repetitive use of the imagery of birds from the title onwards. On the other hand, this might be Faulks' way of re-enforcing the idea that life goes on in some shape or form despite the horrors of human actions.

Everyone admired Faulks' skilful characterisation throughout the novel. Particular mention was made of the complex character of Stephen Wraysford, and the portraits of Azaire, Gray and Jack Firebrace. There was a view that the male characters were stronger than the female. Some found the character of Isabelle unconvincing. It was suggested that this might relate to the mystery associated with her behaviour. Various theories were put forward for the ending of her affair with Stephen, including one suggestion that she had decided that Stephen was not good father material, but none of these gained the confidence of the group and we were left to speculate. It was also suggested that the subject of the novel naturally places greater emphasis on the male characters, and that this was likely to result in these characters being more fully developed.

The group was surprised to learn that Faulks had written the book in only 6 months. It was his fourth novel and by far the most successful. He described the book’s success as the “locomotion” of his career. The book has sold more than 2 million copies in the UK and 3 million worldwide. Initially Faulks had difficulty finding a publisher in the USA, but it was eventually published by Random House and has done well. Perhaps surprisingly sales in Germany have been good, while sales in France have been poor. Faulks has commented that the French were surprised to hear that any other nationalities were involved in WW1!

It was the unanimous view of the group that “Birdsong” is a great modern novel, and we look forward to reading more of Sebastian Faulks’ work.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

26/2/2015 "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction" by Sue Townsend.

But the truth was, dear diary, I remembered Animal Farm as being a book simply about animals on a farm
No, the Monthly Book Group had not met to give their informed criticism of George Orwell’s classic; rather the book was “Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction” (2004) and the quote in question came from Adrian himself attending the Leicester and Rutland Creative Writing Group (aka Readers’ Club) in the bookshop run by Mr Calton-Hayes. Although arguably missing the metaphor in Animal Farm, the LRCWG did spot the resemblance between Tony Blair and Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte to be well ahead of her time.

The proposer gave a short summary of Sue Townsend’s eventful life from 1946 to 2014, a bestselling novelist since 1982 when she commenced her Adrian Mole series. She had left school at 15 years of age, married at 18, a single parent at 23 with three children. Previous to her writing career, she had experienced several low-paid jobs in her native Leicester and this experience shone through in her writing. She was also an award-winning playwright and had amassed several other honorary degrees and prizes.

Discussing the book, the attendees had all enjoyed it, most reading it for the first time. It was ‘laugh out loud’ funny with a cast of British eccentrics, a number of running plots and gags, most notably the deployment of Adrian’s son Glenn and mate Robbie to Iraq to deal with the WMD, and Adrian’s (Kipling’s) amorous adventures with Pandora (continued), Marigold and Daisy (French Fancy) Flowers. (Yes, really, the other sister is Poppy.) One of us commented on feeling pathos; at how poor AM couldn’t get on whereas Pandora sailed through all her exams. Another seemed to identify with Adrian’s experience of credit cards, as he opened one after another to pay for the one before, commenting on the early 2000s financial irresponsibility and willingness of banks to back a bad risk. Of course this book was written in 2004, but we suspect Sue T. had a good idea of what was coming later in the decade. 

Another running gag deals with Adrian’s letters to Latesun Ltd., asking Mr. Blair to confirm the existence of WMD so AM could recover his £57.10 Cyprus holiday deposit. As the book progresses Adrian mirrors the British public in questioning the validity of the Iragi invasion. Alas, Mr. Blair never writes to confirm that the WMD are targeted at Cyprus. The group wondered at Adrian’s naivety (playing the ‘daft laddie’) in writing to Blair, Beckham, Jordan, Arsene Wenger, Tim Henman et al. to offer advice. Well, Tim, you never did win Wimbledon. You should have listened.  Some celebrities seemed to be less than keen to contribute to AMs forthcoming book on ‘Celebrity and Madness’.

What is enduring in life? Taking the series as a whole, one reader was unhappy that Adrian’s character doesn’t develop, and he is still naive at 35. This isn’t plausible. Overall, the group felt that ST had captured the early 2000s mood in Adrian’s aspirations to better himself, notably in renting the less than exclusive property in Rat Wharf. (The clue is in the name.) Equally, he bought all sorts of unnecessary and overpriced accoutrements to improve the decor. One unwelcome neighbour at Rat Wharf was the aggressive Gielgud the Swan; this led to some classic comedy of misunderstanding with the Council’s Neighbourhood Conflict Unit as a series of letters were exchanged about AMs troublesome neighbour, Mr. Swan.

Fairly early in the evening, however, the conversation veered from the book itself towards the elephant in the room that was the existence or not of the weapons of mass destruction. Some asserted that it was obvious at the time that such didn’t exist. Was the Iraq invasion a cynical attempt to protect oil reserves, a reaction to the Twin Towers attacks, or an example of US cowboy culture? To what extent were the public wise after the event?  There was much discussion about the merits of the democratic process and the truism that it cannot be imposed but has to evolve from within. There was ensuing debate about the role of women in UK and world politics and society, science and religions, and to what extent aggression is a male trait. Where is Charlotte Bronte when you need a Middle East Envoy? Somehow we revisited Dresden in the Second World War; was this truly a war crime? We diverted and digressed and talked of the parliamentary and committee systems. Do MPs work hard? Are they paid enough? (Historical note: this preceded the revelations about Rifkind and Straw in February 2015.). These notes are not coherent; neither was the discussion!

At the end, we returned to the book. We loved some of Sue’s turns of phrase; we laughed, we cried. She captured the gradual realisation that the pretext for invasion was wrong. Who was the targeted audience? We felt that it appeals to any age and demographic. We talked of the advantages of the diary format that allows inconsistency, showing how public opinion is influenced by the popular press and politicians. Nevertheless, after the humour and pathos, the book ends on a serious note.

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
(Siegfried Sassoon, Survivors)

 Finally, Adrian thinks to write an autobiography. Happy people don’t keep a diary.