Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I’ve just read two books for the Read The World challenge; one of them, Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, represents the downside of the challenge. It was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, reading it felt like doing homework. And there have been quite a few books which were either boring or just embarrassingly bad. Overall, though, those have been balanced out by all the engaging, interesting books which I never would have read without the challenge.

And, just often enough to keep me going, there are books which are genuinely brilliant; The Ice Palace is one of those. It’s a novel about an eleven-year old girl, Siss, and those weirdly intense childhood friendships, and suspense, and uncertainty, and loss. And it unfolds over the period of one Norwegian winter, so it all takes place in a setting of ice and snow, of darkness and silence.

The most important thing to say about it is that it is a beautiful piece of writing; hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, for making the English beautiful. The most obvious thing to pick out is the physical descriptions, of landscape and weather, but I also think the portrayal of Siss’s interactions with the world, and her tightly wound inner life, is nuanced and convincing.

I was saying the other day, in the context of Fernando Pessoa, that there is something of a divide among readers between those who care about prose and those who care about narrative. It’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one. I am generally reading for the prose, not the plot; but The Ice Palace strikes me as a wonderful example of the narrative working to enhance the pleasure I get from the prose.

Normally when we praise something as having a good plot, I think it suggests ingenuity and intricacy. But this has a very simple plot; by thriller-writer standards, it barely has a plot at all. But what it does have is a very effective narrative structure. The book revolves around one key event, fairly early in the story, which we know more about than the characters, and which creates a situation which needs to be resolved somehow. And that creates enough tension and uncertainty to drive the rest of the book, and means that the eventual resolution, when it comes, feels like an end-point, a closure.

» The photo, On a windy day 1, is © Randi Hausken and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, ed. Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands is my book from the Marshall Islands for the Read The World challenge. It’s a compilation of short pieces published for the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Islands constitution. It includes a variety of subjects, including personal memoirs, accounts of traditional crafts, and more political pieces.

The two chapters I found most interesting were both political: one was an account of the way that, thanks to lax adoption laws in the Marshall Islands and an immigration compact with the US, the islands became a popular target for Americans looking for babies to adopt.

The other was survivor accounts of radioactive fallout from American nuclear testing. The Americans seem to have treated the survivors badly, but they also failed to warn or evacuate the islanders on some of the atolls which they must have known were at risk of exposure. Usually I believe that cock-up is a better explanation than conspiracy, but given the darker corners of Pentagon’s history, you have to wonder whether they knowingly allowed people to be exposed so that they could serve as test subjects.

I found other chapters rather less interesting — there was a description of the techniques for building outrigger canoes, for example, which was just too technical for me — but to be fair I really wasn’t the intended audience for the book.

» The image is, obviously I guess, a screengrab of Google Earth centred on the Marshall Islands. Blue, innit.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.

I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.

It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.

The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end.

» The two photographs are by Eli Lotar from the series ‘Lisbon from 1930-1934’. I found them on the website of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux [1, 2].

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