William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.


1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.



Nthposition review of “The Book of Skin”, Steven Connor, 2003

This book is a good example of contemporary (well, 14 year old at this stage) academic writing in the humanities – jargon and theory rich, concerned with unpicking privilege and inequality (and yet its very existence based on the privilege and hierarchy of the academy)

Over time I was less harsh on academic books on “readability” grounds. I never “pursued”  Armando Favazza’s  work on self-laceration, or at least I don’t remember Armando Favazza until just now.



The Book of Skin

[ bookreviews ]

“I want to be able to follow out (and follow others in following out) the intrigues (from that same root, tricoter), the knitting, the sifting, the inriddling of history… I expect to end up materially implicated, perhaps incriminated in the things I am up to here, in the skin… I am to be found writing here, though, not as the skin’s inquisitor but as its amanuensis” Thus, towards the end of his first chapter, does Steven Connor proclaim his intention in writing this book.

Reading The Book of Skin is a formidable undertaking. On the first page Connor refers to Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Baudrillard, and “the abiding presence of skin in the work of Jean-François Lyotard.” The reader no doubt has her own opinion on the work of the Parisian postmodernists, but even their most avid fan can hardly claim their influence on the clarity of prose, certainly in English, has been good. Connor, as befits, one supposes, a Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, is immersed in their tendency to verbiage, and to tendentious (or at least debatable) statements delivered with a confidence that brooks little opposition. I could only bring myself to read a chapter a night, afterwards soothing myself with the most vapid airport novels I could find. The tiny typeface, evocative of particularly daunting textbooks, does nothing to encourage the reader.

It is invidious to quote in isolation fragments which do, in fairness, make more (but not much more) sense in context. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to give the reader a flavour of the verbal environment of the book: “The two kinds of skin markings, letter and picture, discourse and figure, encode absolute and empty time. The law that enacts its everlasting marks is a law of vengeance, measure and ordeal, enacted in linear time. The marks of law mark the entry of law into time.” Another sample: “In fact, for Didier Houzel, the non-orientable manifold is in no sense a desirable or healthy condition. It typifies the experience of the autistic child, whose life is the enactment of an unmasterable internal turbulence.” Everything seems to either “enact” or “encode” something else, and often on the flimsiest of pretexts.

My favourite sentence, and the moment when I almost abandoned the book altogether: “Lyotard’s concern is with the topography and the temporality of this typography.” I’m sure it is.

From the occasional binding of books in human skin (John Horwood’s murder trial and execution were recorded in a volume bound in his own skin) to the differing portrayals of male and female bodybuilders in muscle magazines (the male bodies shinier, harder-looking than the female), the cultural history of the skin is fascinating. Connor displays great erudition – references to Flann O’Brien, to Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers carving “4 REAL” into his arm, to the urban legend of Shirley Eaton’s death during the making of Goldfinger after being painted in gold among many others – which leavens the work somewhat. When not cramming in as many references to French thinkers as he can, he is a witty writer, for instance when writing of now-obsolete terms for colour: “the term ‘isabelle’, to signify a rather soiled-looking calico, in memory of the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who vowed not to change her underwear until her forces had taken the city of Ostend. (The grubbiness of the shade they finally attained may be gauged from the fact the siege lasted from 1601 to 1604)”

The early chapters (which “consider the various forms of the skin’s visibility”) are particularly freighted with theoretical ballast, while later chapters (“discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance”) – where the literary theory is in the background, and a particular aspect of skin is discussed in each – are far more readable. Even here the ghosts of the Left Bank rise to haunt the reader – for example at the end of a lucid chapter on the persistent idea that while pregnant were pregnant, any shocks or cravings they experienced would be transmitted to the foetus as a suitable skin marking (for example, desire for a particular fruit would transmit itself into a birthmark in the shape of that fruit, which would change with the seasons in accordance with the ripening of the fruit) Connor can’t resist a bit more theory: “The law of beings is subject to the accident of adversity, which is its own prior law.”

Nevertheless, the later chapters, put bluntly, “make more sense” – one even sees how the theory has its place. Perhaps Connor would have been better served by reversing the order of the chapters, and discussing “the various forms of the skin’s visibility” after the paradoxically more concrete “discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance.”

It would barbarous to dismiss this book simply because it is difficult, but it would be equally wrong to praise it for that reason. Alberto Manguel’s Reading Pictures combined erudition and learning with a clarity of expression and even, at times, an entertainers touch. There is much in The Book of Skin to provoke thought and discussion, many references to works (for example, Armando Favazza’s on self-laceration) which intrigue (and which I intend to pursue), yet one wishes Connor hadn’t made the book such hard work.


New York songs: Liza Minnelli, Carey Mulligan, Lou Reed, The Clash, Lang Lang

New York has been much celebrated in song. In recent years, these songs have tended towards the unpleasantly grandiose; New York as an arena of near-unlimited personal fulfillment and narcissistic referentiality.

There is a rich seam of song dealing with the seamier, less salubrious side of New York – tapping into a cultural depiction of the city as a circle of hell, part of a wider tradition of depicting urban life as profoundly distressing dating back to Juvenal. In recent years a certain sanitising of New York has taken place, both literally and metaphorically. Having spent the summer of 1999 there it is a city I love, but also find the somewhat fawning tone of much Noo Yawk discourse rather parochial.

The modern template of the New-York-is-amazing-and-so-am-I song is New York New York, or more properly “Theme From ‘New York, New York’. Ironically, the original cinematic deployment of the song, with Liza Minnelli’s vocals, in Martin Scorcese’s movie was as a devastating moment of personal crisis:

In a more recent depiction of New York as a glossy hell, Steve McQueen’s Shame, Carey Mulligan sings the same song to similar effect:

Lou Reed’s album New York is perhaps the ultimate riposte to the grandiose New York song. It is almost parodically intense and focused on New York as a hellhole. The music was straightforward rock – derided by some as “truck driver music”, but the lyrics were tight punches of pure dyspeptic anger:

The Clash’s “The Right Profile” is a tribute to Montgomery Clift, but makes it here for the lyrics evocative of New York sleaze with an appropriately spikey musical counterpoint:

New York, New York, 42nd Street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn

Finally, I am not that averse to the New York is great genre, and Elbow’s “New York Morning” is a more wry and amused take on this genre than most. I particularly love the line “In the Modern Rome/where folks are kind to Yoko”. Lang Lang’s recent album “New York Rhapsody” has a certain amount of Noo Yawk bombast for my taste, but I enjoyed his take on “New York Morning”:

Who does IBM Watson say that I am?

Recently I came across IBM Watson Personality Insights. This purports the following:

Personality Insights extracts personality characteristics based on how a person writes. You can use the service to match individuals to other individuals, opportunities, and products, or tailor their experience with personalized messaging and recommendations. Characteristics include the Big 5 Personality Traits, Values, and Needs. At least 1200 words of input text are recommended when using this service.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to feed IBM Watson various blocks of my texts to see how consistent its findings are, across a range of texts. The demo is available here

First I tried 10706 of fiction. This is from an ongoing work in progress, or rather a piece I have worked on and abandoned and restarted several times. It is not a coherent narrative but lengthy passages of coherent narrative strung together.

Anyhow, here is what Watson said, and given the word count it deemed the analysis “very strong”:


You are inner-directed.

You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are independent: you have a strong desire to have time to yourself.

You are motivated to seek out experiences that provide a strong feeling of belongingness.

You are relatively unconcerned with both achieving success and tradition. You make decisions with little regard for how they show off your talents. And you care more about making your own path than following what others have done.

Sounds plausible, although I am not sure I quite so unconcerned with “both achieving success and tradition.” A few specific likes and dislikes are featured:

You are likely to______
– like country music
-be concerned about the environment
-read often
You are unlikely to______
-like rap music
-like romance movies
-eat out frequently

At various stages of life I have eaten out frequently…. but not anymore, more through the circumstance of having three young children than anything else. Otherwise, fairly plausible. And there are also percentiles on various traits given. I think this post could degenerate even further into navel gazing if I include those, so I will move swiftly on to another specific text, this time my post on Personas for Electronic Health Records on the CCIO website. This is only 807 words, so is counted as “weak”:

You are shrewd.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are assertive: you tend to speak up and take charge of situations, and you are comfortable leading groups. And you are self-assured: you feel you have the ability to succeed in the tasks you set out to do.

Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and achieving success. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you make decisions with little regard for how they show off your talents.

Again, plausible enough, although I am beginning to find this uncannily like cold reading. The likes and dislikes;

You are likely to______

be concerned about the environment
read often
be sensitive to ownership cost when buying automobiles

You are unlikely to______

like country music
like romance movies
eat out frequently

Hmmm – I do like country music. In moderation. The “likely to”s seem OK, the “unlikely to”s less so.

Anyhow, time I suppose to feed another long-ish piece to Watson. So here is my post on The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. from the SAU Blog Sept 2005. At 2452 words, this is a “decent analysis”:

You are shrewd and skeptical.

You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. And you are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much.

Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

The “likely to” is much less plausible this time:like musical movies (yes), have experience playing music (tragically not), read autobiographical books (sometimes, but not that habitually) The “unlikely to” is a mixed bag:  like country music (see above)
be influenced by social media during product purchases (I would like to think so)
be influenced by brand name when making product purchases (I would like to think so… but that may be wishful thinking)

This could go on all night… but I will wrap up by looking at a post from A Medical Education, the parallel blog to this which features more (somewhat) medically related writing. I have often reflected on whether these two blogs reflect a wider duality or tension within me. I am sure they do. Anyhow, this piece on a particular project I was involved in met the wordcount (although quite a bit of the post is quotation)

At 2622 words, another “Decent Analysis” And what do you know, it is pretty much identical to the prior example based on the Lonely Planet book :

You are shrewd and skeptical.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are energetic: you enjoy a fast-paced, busy schedule with many activities.

Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

The only difference is “energetic” replaces “solemn”, and the order of the some of the points. And the likelys and unlikelys are identical to the prior piece.

I haven’t got into the various percentiles for the sake of space, but this is where the surprises have really been. I am coming up in the highest percentiles for “Openness” consistenly, and much lower ones for “Agreeableness.” I also think I value tradition much more than what this would indicate…. but perhaps tradition is not what it used to be, and the traditions I am interested in conserving are no longer continuous traditions in any case.

 Is the whole thing accurate? IBM are at pains to point users to the “science behind the service” 

A well-accepted theory of psychology, marketing, and other fields is that human language reflects personality, thinking style, social connections, and emotional states. The frequency with which we use certain categories of words can provide clues to these characteristics. Several researchers found that variations in word usage in writings such as blogs, essays, and tweets can predict aspects of personality (Fast & Funder, 2008; Gill et al., 2009; Golbeck et al., 2011; Hirsh & Peterson, 2009; and Yarkoni, 2010).

IBM conducted a set of studies to understand whether personality characteristics inferred from social media data can predict people’s behavior and preferences. IBM found that people with specific personality characteristics responded and re-tweeted in higher numbers in information-collection and -spreading tasks. For example, people who score high on excitement-seeking are more likely to respond, while those who score high on cautiousness are less likely to do so (Mahmud et al., 2013). Similarly, people who score high on modesty, openness, and friendliness are more likely to spread information (Lee et al., 2014).

 Amongst other things:

To compute the percentile scores, IBM collected a very large data set of Twitter users (one million users for English, 100,000 users for each of Arabic and Japanese, and 80,000 users for Spanish) and computed their personality portraits. IBM then compared the raw scores of each computed profile to the distribution of profiles from those data sets to determine the percentiles.

Of course, this is using a selected group  – i.e. Twitter users – whose personality portraits may not be representative. There is also a marketing bias to some of the language used which I can understand from a commercial point of view. I would be curious to submit different texts from different times in my life.

Speaking personally, there is a consistency to the verbal reports, but also differences. One does have to wonder how much depends on the type of prose being submitted, and there does seem to be a fiction/non-fiction difference. I don’t seem to be that big on personal enjoyment… and as mentioned before, the lower percentiles for things like tradition, personal enjoyment and other factors are surprising to me. There is a rather unpleasant fixed-in-a-formulated-phrase quality to the whole experience.

Finally (I promise) one can analyse one’s Twitter personality.  This time IBM  had 14394 words to analyse – “very strong analysis” And here is the result:

You are inner-directed and tranquil.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are independent: you have a strong desire to have time to yourself. And you are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them.

Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.

You are relatively unconcerned with both taking pleasure in life and tradition. You prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment. And you care more about making your own path than following what others have done.


“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.

“the primacy of the material world over the digital”

From Janan Ganesh’s “Notebook” column in the FT, 29/10/16 (firewalled):

As the internet stirred at the turn of the 1990s, its distance-closing properties were talked up. Speculative accounts of the near-future involved little things like the abolition of geography, with executives plugged into each other via remote interfaces regardless of where their offices were or whether they had any.

Amid all this, the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactile basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-patrolled shopping lines. People and things still need to move around in real space and time.

When Robert Solow, the American economist, said the computer age is “everywhere but the productivity statistics” it was still 1987. His attempt to curb our credulity about what machines can do reads even better after three decades of Palo Alto hype.

Another economist, Robert Gordon, has charted the meagre returns achieved by the internet compared with innovations such as electricity in The Rise and Fall of American Growth – some people’s idea of the best work of nonfiction of 2016. For a sense of the primacy of the material world over the digital, you can pore over his 780 pages of you can reflect on the concrete strip that is roiling British politics.


Grumpy thoughts on Book Clubs from 2006 in the SAU Blog

Well, perhaps not that grumpy. The link to the “long list” of One Book books is now broken, I’m afraid. I think I am more benign about this idea now – after all, they weren’t exactly forcing everyone to read the same book, were they? Though the bit quoted about the Bristol One Book project strikes me even more forcefully as the height of parochialism

One Nation unified under a Book Club – Seamus Sweeney considers the “One Book” project in the United States and what it says about American literary tastes

“Print is dead”, pronounced no less an authority than Dr Egon Spengler of the Ghostbusters in 1984, and every so often some futurologist or other pops up to tells us with either enthusiasm or dolefulness that the book will be extinct in a few years. I remember as a child encountering one of my mother’s copies of Readers Digestwhich carried an article on the trends of the eighties, among which was the extinction of the book by 1983. The book has lived on twenty-three years, despite the prognostic authority of Readers Digest, somewhat in the manner of the ordinary citizenry of Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, who delighted in the game Keep To-Morrow Dark:

which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet”.

Defying the punditocracy that was as much a feature of the scene one hundred years ago as it is today.

For something supposedly on its last legs, the book is awfully popular. From Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code, the stories with the greatest impact, that for better or for worse tell us most about our preoccupations and fears, are still written. It may have moved well beyond its original scope as an online bookseller, but it is surely significant that Amazon, the most successful New Economy retailer, is still known primarily for books. And consider the book club. Let a thousand book clubs bloom – they are all, further evidence of the rude health of the book.

There is something very admirable about the self-organising book club, where a group of friends or workmates get together every month of so to discuss a book all have read, at its best serious minded about literature while sociable and light-hearted. Book clubs are sociable, encourage a certain amount of critical thinking, require little by way of budget except access to books, and are a happy example of small scale cultural activity. They do not need arts administrators and have blossomed without much by way of central planning.

Or do they? There are book clubs, and there are Book Clubs. There are those that bear the imprimaturs of the deities of daytime TV – Richard & Judy, Oprah – and which have become possibly the greatest single factor in determining best seller status. Book clubs on a mass scale – as part of arts festivals, or as part of “reading promotion” initiatives – are increasingly being promoted by arts administrators and such.

Although the celebrity book clubs no doubt encourage reading, I can’t help preferring the modesty of the small group of friends. LikeTrinny and Susannah or Supernanny, the celebrity book club seems to make another step in the regulation by the televisual oracles of ordinary, everyday activities that people formerly did for themselves in their own way. Another Chesterton thought – that those who no longer believe in God do not believe in nothing, but believe in everything – springs to mind when one looks at the seeming arbitrariness of those chosen to be oracles. Why should Oprah or Richard’s literary taste be an exemplar?

Even less attractive, at least to temperaments such as mine, is the book club organised on the scale of a town, city, state or some other defined “community”. (Am I the only one who finds it somewhat bullying the way we are all being trammelled into various “communities”? A word supposed to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings of togetherness seems instead to simply reinforce contemporary anomie.) The entire population of Bristol, for instance, have, it seems, been forced to read Around the World in Eighty Days over the last few months as part of something called The Great Reading Adventure:

Between January and March each year, everyone in Bristol is encouraged to read the same book. The book chosen is one that is either set in Bristol, is by a Bristol author, or is about issues that are of interest to people in Bristol. Books so far that have been chosen are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (partially set in Bristol), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which allowed debate about environmental issues and GM technology) and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, which promoted learning and debate about the Second World War.

There’s something about the parochialism and presumption that literature is only of interest when dealing with various “issues” that would turn one off the idea of the book club, let alone the kind of city-wide book club exemplified by the Great Reading Adventure. One wonders who decides on the “issues that are of interest to people in Bristol,” One is rather chilled by the worthiness that sees works of literature as primarily about “allowing debate” (one would imagine debate on GM technology was firmly prohibited until Bristolians were allowed to read Wyndham’s sci-fi opus) and “promoting learning and debate”. Perhaps Bristolian readers can inform us if the experience was more pleasurable than it sounds.

Book promotions of this kind have been going on for some time in the United States. Perusing the enormous list of “One Book” books, one is struck by the literacy of the supposedly philistine United States. Of course, one wonders what percentage of the population actually participate in the promotion, but that could be said of every country. Commentators have often noted the American engagement with the word, unsurprising in the “shining city on a hill”, haunted equally by the Bible and the words of the Framers of the Constitution.

In his Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compiled examples of the devotion to the word of “Typographic America”. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America:

The invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the place.

Dickens, on his 1842 visit to America, wrote to a friend that:

I can give you no conception of my welcome. There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited on by public bodies of all kinds. If I go in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theatre, the whole house rises as one man and the timbers ring out.

Postman’s contention was, of course, that the Age of Typography had been followed by the Age of the Image, less conducive to rational thought and more conducive to emotive manipulation. For all the truth of this proposition, America is still a nation in thrall to the word. While it would be a stretch to claim them as great literary genres, it is instructive that the fundamentally old-fashioned and literary email and the blog are the internet media that have been adopted most enthusiastically. Would-be Presidential candidates, even now, write books outlining their vision for America as part of the attempt to generate buzz.

One presumes that local librarians were the major arbiters of literary judgement. After all, the perennial librarians’ favourite Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for no less than twenty six towns. Over the course of my schooling, English teachers showed Dead Poet’s Society at least thrice, presumably partly because of the noble, heroic and indeed tragic vision of the teaching of English portrayed therein.Fahrenheit 451 is the librarians’ Dead Poet’s Society. The popularity of a certain political persuasion – witness the many towns who read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – is also evident.

It is not hard to see the appeal of Rosalynn Carter’s First Lady from Plains to the citizens of Colombus, Georgia. Bangor, Maine, also seems keen to read about Maine, with Thoreau’s The Maine Woodsand local boy Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. The list is far from parochial, indeed memoirs from around the world feature. America’s engagement in the Middle East is very evident, with Khaled Hosseini’s Kabul set The Kite Runner second only to To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of the numbers of communities which chose it, and titles like Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent featuring heavily throughout.

The work of Mitch Alborn – whose Tuesdays With Morrie was chosen by nineteen communities from Long Beach to Duluth – exemplifies a certain worthiness about many of the books, a sense that books are primarily about learning Important Life Lessons. One begins to admire those communities that chose the works of David Baldacci and other thriller writers – though the absence of Dan Brown is perhaps something to be celebrated.

There’s a lack of American classics from before the nineteen-sixties, Twain, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald featuring (there’s something very apt about those places which read The Great Gatsby – St Paul, Minnesota, Long Island and Scranton, Pennsylvania) but no Hemingway or Henry James, or Poe, or Education of Henry Adams, orWalden. In terms of the Classics classics there is Sophocles. Unsurprisingly enough, the play is Antigone – almost too obvious as kindling for discussions on the state versus the individual andcomparisons between Creon and President Bush. There’s no Proust, Joyce or Mann. And no Roth (Joseph, Philip or Henry). An engagement with contemporary literature is admirable, but there’s a deracinated feel to the list, a sense that those choosing the books were above all anxious to be “relevant” and up-to-date.

There is an absence of works of outright humour. No Waugh or Wodehouse. No A Confederacy of Dunces. Not much that could be called subversive, from either the left or right, of the overall earnestness – no Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis, for instance. There are few works which could be called books to be read for pure pleasure. Treasure Island, read in Pikes Peak, Colorado, Enfield, Connecticut, and Peabody, Minnesota and the works of Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe’s excellent detective agency has inspired the citizens of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Mobile, Alabama) are the ones which spring to mind most.

The America that emerges from the One Book list is serious-minded, worthy, somewhat earnest, but interested in the world around it, concerned about the military engagement that has made Iraqi place names all too familiar to American families. The list is testimony to the sprawling diversity of the vast country that, for all the vigorous vulgarity of its pop culture, still retains a vigorous literacy.