Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 4: Ernst

In theory, the coming of abstraction opened up a world of infinite possibilities. In practice, I guess inevitably, an awful lot of artists ended up producing a lot of very samey paintings. The zeitgeist traps us all. Max Ernst is one of those who stands out; I can’t imagine any of his contemporaries producing something like this:

That’s Petrified Forest, from 1927, which is in the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (where you can see a slightly larger version). Those textural effects were produced by what he called grattage, which is like taking a rubbing with a crayon, but you do it with paint on a palette brush. It’s one of a whole sequence of forests with suns, which in turn are one of several sets of landscapes he painted, along with the jungle paintings and those like Europe after the Rain produced using another unusual technique, decalcomania.

I love the way that they are recognisably ‘landscapes’ despite the fact that, well, they’re not. And they have a great atmosphere to them. Gloomy and introverted.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 3: Rembrandt

I went to the London Wetland Centre for a spot of birding today, in the hope that the very cold weather might have conjured up something a bit special… which it hadn’t particularly. But some nice things: snipe, chiffchaff, skylark. Lots of ducks: a pintail, which is a bit unusual, but also wigeon, shoveler, teal, pochard and so on. And fuck me, did it look cold, swimming around on the mostly ice-covered lake. You can see why ducks need that thick layer of delicious fat.

Bird of the day, though, was bittern. Not quite as good a view as last time I went there in the snow, in February, when there were six or seven bitterns on site and I had unbelievably good views of them, but pretty pleasing nonetheless.

So here’s the painting, Rembrandt’s Hunter with Dead Bittern.

The ‘hunter’ is of course Rembrandt. The sheer number of self-portraits he painted is extraordinary. Some very straight, others in various moods and poses: as a hunter, as a soldier, in oriental robes.

You might think he was vain except that his self-portraits seem rather less self-aggrandising than those of some other artists. If he just wanted to flatter himself, he could have picked an image — society gentleman, rakish bohemian — and stuck to it. Instead he seems to be doing something more playful and more interesting. Or maybe he just liked working alone.

And while of course I don’t endorse the hunting of bitterns, which have suffered badly because of habitat loss, this picture does have me wondering what they taste like… I guess they might be slightly fishy?

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 2: Hockney

Yesterday, because it was cold and snowy, I posted a snow painting: today, because it’s cold and snowy, I’m posting a sun-drenched one. David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).

The real thing is ten foot wide, and it doesn’t benefit from being reduced to 500 pixels; you don’t get a sense of the big flat areas of pure colour. But the composition survives, at least: the hard-edged geometrical  paving against the wobbly blue of the pool, the red jacket against the dark green hills. The jacket draws your eye to the figure by the poolside, but his eyeline and the angle of the hill lead you down to the more elusive figure of the swimmer. Hockney’s paintings always seem so well balanced, they have a poised, static quality that I love.

I think you can see in his version of California the eye of a Yorkshireman; someone who doesn’t take sunshine for granted. He’s part of that whole tradition of northern Europeans who find their way south and experience all that light as a kind of miracle: Van Gogh and Matisse, heading to the Mediterranean and suddenly producing paintings full of light and colour. D.H. Lawrence, Byron, Laurie Lee.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 1: Vlaminck

I enjoyed doing an advent calendar of birds last year, and I could easily have done the same again: I can talk about birds pretty much endlessly.

But I thought I’d make a change, and after considering animals, plants, buildings, or even recipes (which would be quite a nice idea but would require slightly more forward planning, at least if I was going to post pictures with them) I decided to keep it fairly simple and go for paintings.

So here’s the first one, in honour of the weather here in London: Snow Storm by Maurice de Vlaminck. Which I found simply by searching for ‘snow’ on a museum website. It’s worth viewing slightly larger so you can really see the textures of the paint.

I haven’t planned ahead at all, so I don’t know what else will turn up. I have my fair share of biases: there will almost certainly be some Rembrandt at some point, and there are very unlikely to be any Pre-Raphaelites… but who knows where the fancy will take me.

Gauguin at Tate Modern

So, I went along to the Tate’s big Gauguin show the other day… which to be honest was slightly disappointing. Not least because nothing seemed very surprising; I wouldn’t have said I knew Gauguin’s work very well, and I would have expected to learn more or see something new, but not really.

Obviously I hadn’t seen every piece of work before, although quite a few of them had turned up in previous exhibitions, like ‘From Russia’ or ‘Rebels and Martyrs’, or were from the Tate or the Courtauld anyway. But even those which were new to me generally felt like more of the same. Not just because he developed a fairly distinctive style and stuck to it, but because his hit rate isn’t that great: the best of his paintings are genuinely gorgeous things, but they seem to be heavily outnumbered by ones which are just a bit underwhelming.

And at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine: they are also disappointingly small. I think one reason they are almost work better in reproduction is that you can see a photograph and imagine the original painting as a large, impressive piece, when in reality they are rather small and cramped. I guess I wouldn’t expect him to be painting huge, wall-filling canvases in his hut in Tahiti, but fair or not, that was my reaction.

There is also of course the uneasy politics of the work: Gauguin was a colonial sex tourist who painted the Tahitians in his own version of traditional Polynesian myths, even though they had in fact long since converted to Christianity. One myth is as good as another as far as I’m concerned, but the fact he completely ignored the reality of Tahitian life in favour of preconceived images of the innocent noble savage, even while living with his thirteen-year old ‘wife’ — it’s all a bit icky.

Since this review has been so negative, I guess I should reiterate: I still think the best of his work is pretty great. I just didn’t enjoy the exhibition as much as I thought I might.

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

This Earth of Mankind is the first novel of the Buru Quartet, so called because it was composed when Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a political prisoner on Buru Island in the 60s. I say ‘composed’ rather than ‘written’ because the first version of it was told orally to his fellow prisoners. He had apparently just about finished the research and planning when he was arrested and all his notes and books were destroyed.

Which is an immediately intriguing back-story, although the relationship between the novel and his imprisonment is not particularly direct, in that Pramoedya was imprisoned by Suharto’s military dictatorship as part of an anti-Communist purge, whereas the novel is set at the very end of the C19th — 1898, in fact — in a Java which is part of the Dutch East Indies.

Still, it is, among other things, a clearly political novel; it deals with the political awakening of a young man growing up in a society structured as a formal racial hierarchy, with ‘Natives’ at the bottom, ‘Pures’ (i.e. Europeans) at the top, and a layer of ‘Indos’ (Indo-European, mixed race) stuck in the middle, operating as a local elite.

The hero of the novel is a Native, but an unusually privileged one; because of the importance of his family, he is the only Native* at an elite high school for Europeans and Indos. So he’s awkwardly positioned in between worlds, brought up to believe that his European education makes him better than other Natives. But of course when he comes into conflict with the establishment, he discovers how fragile his privilege is, and how much he is dependent on the goodwill of the colonial powers.

I enjoyed it; it reminded me rather of one of those European novels from between the world wars, with a whiff of melodrama, and characters having long wordy conversations about ideas. Slightly old-fashioned, but in a good way. I’m certainly tempted to pick up the second in the quartet.

This Earth of Mankind is my book from Indonesia for the Read The World challenge.

* it feels very weird to keep capitalising ‘Native’ like that, but I’m following the practice of the novel, or the translation, which capitalises the racial terms to emphasise their formal legal status.

» The photo, by Isidore van Kinsbergen, is from Wikimedia, and according to Google Translate, it is Raden Mas Kotar of the court of Sultan Hamengkoe Buwono VI of Djogkakarta. it’s from 1870, so it’s about 30 years too early, but hey-ho.

The London Film Festival

I went to the last of three films I had booked at the London Film Festival yesterday (notes on which at the end of the post). The LFF, for those who don’t know, is the antithesis of a festival like Cannes: instead of being a big jamboree for people in the film business and the media, it is aimed squarely at the public. Basically, it’s a lot of films being shown at a selection of London cinemas.

And it is a LOT of films; 197 features and 112 shorts this year, apparently. All kinds of films: new British films, world cinema, restored classics, documentaries, gala screenings of big forthcoming releases to provide a bit of glamour. Which is great, but what usually happens is that I think ooh, the film festival, I should book some tickets and then I forget to do it.

But this year, I remembered. My instinct was to look for the stuff which was unlikely to get a wide release, so I went to some fairly obscure films, and I found it interesting how full the cinemas were. You might think that showing nearly 200 different films in a fortnight would spread the audience a bit thin. After all, there are cinemas in London that show less commercial films all year round, and I reckon that normally on a Friday afternoon, a Kyrgyz movie would play to largely empty seats; but they had sold out a medium-sized cinema. I guess it’s similar to the way that in a big city, you often find a place where a whole load of, say, shoe shops are clustered together; the value of being somewhere where people go for shoes outweighs the disadvantage of the extra competition.

Anyway, the films; the first was The Light Thief. The ‘light thief’ is an electrician in a village in Kyrgyzstan who we start at the start if the film stealing electricity for villagers who can’t afford it. Without wanting to provide too many spoilers — what is the spoiler etiquette for a film I don’t actually think any of my readers are likely to see? — he gets caught up in village politics. And the film strongly implies that it is an allegory for the wider political situation in Kyrgyzstan, although that’s only an informed guess, given how little I know about the country.

The film looks beautiful; the dusty, windblown, mountainous central Asian landscape looks amazing in it. And there are some very nice embroidered felt hats and wall hangings and things. And it is funny and touching. So that’s a thumbs up.

Winter Vacation is a Chinese film about a group of youths killing time while waiting for their winter vacation to end in some battered, grimy, anonymous Chinese city. It’s well shot, and it has some genuinely funny dialogue, but it was a tiny bit soporific because it communicates the characters’ boredom and disaffection via the medium of long pauses:

Cut to shot of three people standing in the snow, looking at each other. Nobody speaks for a couple of seconds. Someone says something. Pause for another couple of seconds. Someone else replies. Pause again.

Which is quite effective, but it carries on like that for every scene in the whole movie, and it does wear a bit thin after a while. Slow is one thing, but actual stasis tests my patience. Still, there was a lot good about it, and it was listed in the ‘experimental/avant garde/artists’ films’ section, so I knew it might be hard work.

And finally I saw Draquila – Italy Trembles, which is a polemical documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009. I would strongly recommend you see this film if it comes to a cinema near you. It is funny and ferocious, and it paints a picture of a completely  acquiescent, neutered Italian media, largely owned by Berlusconi, of an increasingly authoritarian government abusing the law to run roughshod over normal legal processes and rights, and massive, widespread corruption linked to the mafia. It’s not just a damning portrait of Berlusconi and Italy; what I found scary is that it provides a real sense of how a modern democratic country like Italy could slide towards fascism.

I should be clear about that: I’m not saying that Berlusconi’s government is fascist, or is likely to become so. But it does provide a sense of the slippage of normality. Already there is the confluence of government with crony capitalism and (I guess I should say: allegedly) organised crime; there is the eroding of civil liberties, the declaration of states of emergency as a way of bypassing the law, the increasing militarisation of the response to normal events. It is scary stuff.

‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

From Tajikistan to the Moon by Robert Frimtzis

From Tajikistan to the Moon is a self-published memoir. Rather glamorously self-published, too, compared to the current trend for self-publishing via print-on-demand, in that it’s a proper hardback with an embossed cover. Frimtzis was born in Beltz (i.e. Bălţi) in what is now Moldova, although when he was born there it was part of Romania and from 1940 onwards it was part of the Soviet Union.

Frimtzis was ten when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Although of course they couldn’t know the full scale of the Holocaust, they knew enough about the anti-semitism of the Nazis that his family took the decision to flee eastwards. After hundreds of miles on foot, keeping ahead of the German army and under aerial attack, they got onto the train network in Ukraine and carried on to Tajikistan, where they had relatives.

After the war they managed to get themselves smuggled out of the USSR through Romania and Austria to Italy, and then after some time in the refugee camps, to immigrate to America. There he studied hard, became an engineer, and eventually contributed to the Apollo programme — hence the moon part of the title.

So he has an interesting story to tell. He’s not the world’s greatest prose stylist, but at least it’s plain, straightforward prose; if it’s occasionally a bit clunky, at least it’s not painful in the way that bad literary prose can be. It kept my attention.

For me, the most interesting part of it is the refugee narrative; his experience as an internal refugee within the Soviet Union, then in an Italian refugee camp, and continuing with his struggles to adapt in the US, where he was self-conscious about his outsider status and his bad English as he worked to carve out a place for himself within American society. Which he eventually did very successfully. The more stable his life becomes in America, the less interesting the book becomes; even though he worked on some truly fascinating projects in his professional life, I don’t think he really brings that to life. He doesn’t manage to explain what was interesting about the work itself.

From Tajikistan to the Moon is my book for Moldova for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is of crew in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator… which I think is actually the wrong bit of equipment. Frimtzis was in charge of the team working on the Apollo Mission Simulator, which I think is the simulator for the command module rather than the lunar lander. But I really like the picture, so  it’s close enough.

‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ at the V&A

I went along to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. He’s kind of an interesting figure to name an exhibition after, since he was an impresario, rather than an artist or designer, or even a composer or choreographer. But under his stewardship, the Ballets Russes really does seem to have been an extraordinary focal point for European culture. I’m a complete philistine about music and ballet, so none of the choreographers meant anything to me, and the only dancer I’d heard of was Nijinsky; but even I’ve heard of composers like Prokofiev, Satie and of course Stravinsky. And even I know that the first performance of The Rite of Spring is one of the significant cultural moments of the twentieth century.

And I’m slightly less of a philistine about art, so I’ve definitely heard of some of the people who designed sets and costumes for him: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova, Coco Chanel. And apparently Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí as well, although neither of them featured in this exhibition. And that’s apart from some, like Léon Bakst, who are specifically known for their design work for the ballet. It is a hell of a list.

And it’s a fun exhibition: lots of cheery colours, and gorgeous costumes that have a battered glamour to them; and costume designs, which are often even more appealing than the costumes themselves. And the single largest item in the V&A collection: the back cloth for one of their ballets.

I also checked out the Raphael tapestries. Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a set of tapestries with scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, to hang in the Sistine Chapel, and one of the treasures of the V&A is the Raphael cartoons: i.e. the full size painted designs which the weavers worked from. To coincide with the current Pope visiting the UK, the Vatican has lent four of the actual tapestries to hang alongside the paintings for a bit.

And they’re quite interesting to see, although they have rather fallen victim to changing tastes. The Raphael cartoons have always been regarded as some of the most important bits of Renaissance art in Britain, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding them a bit unsympathetic. It’s not just the subject matter, although that doesn’t help; there’s something about these monumental groups of posed figures that is just a tiny bit, um, boring. Maybe it’s the self-conscious grandeur of them; these really are the Catholic equivalent of Socialist Realism. Then again, if Stalin had had people like Raphael and Michelangelo available, Socialist Realism might have been pretty fabulous.

» Top: costumes for female dancers in The Rite of Spring. Designed by Nikolai Roerich, 1913. Bottom: costume for a ‘Negro Lackey’ from The Sleeping Princess. Designed by Léon Bakst, 1921.

The First Movie

Just a little plug for The First Movie, which I went to see on Friday. It’s a documentary by Mark Cousins; he visits a Kurdish village which is remote enough that none of the children have ever been to the movies, and puts on a showing of a selection of films in a makeshift outdoor cinema; then he gives the children little digital movie cameras and waits to see what footage they bring back.

It’s a film which looks beautiful and is in turns funny and moving, with a narration provided by Cousins in a very attractive Belfast accent. As I was watching it, I was thinking that, by comparison, nearly everything you see in the cinema has incredibly little faith in the audience’s intelligence or attention. Not that this is some kind of ultra-difficult film, but it’s not afraid to be poetic, to talk about aesthetic issues, to be slow, to hold shots for a long time and let the audience look at them. I really thought it was excellent.

During October it’s on a tour of independent cinemas around the UK. I happened to see the first of these showings because it was at my local cinema. So if you’re in the UK and happen to live near the kind of cinema that might show arty documentaries, check the showing dates and give it a go. And if you’re not in the UK… I don’t know, it might appear at a film festival? Or on Netflix in due course? Well worth a look.

Things posted to Tumblr: Gandhara bodhisattvas

I’ve been enjoying posting stuff to A London Salmagundi, and I find the convention of posting pictures without commentary rather liberating, because I am a relentless tweaker of my own prose and constitutionally incapable of being brief. But sometimes I find myself wanting to explain why I think a particular image is so interesting or beautiful. So this is the first of what may be a series: ‘things I posted to Tumblr’.

These bodhisattvas are from the part of the world that US foreign policy types refer to as ‘AfPak’; the top one, the older of the two, is from Hadda, now on the Afghan side of the border; the other is from Peshawar in Pakistan. But when these were made, and for over a millennium, it was the location of the Gandhara kingdom.

I only know that because I just looked it up on Wikipedia. But what I did already know was that these are in a tradition called ‘Greco-Buddhist’. This is art from a place where two worlds meet. Alexander the Great conquered the area from the Persians in the 4th century BC; hundreds of years later, the Hellenistic influence was still powerful enough to result in works like these.

That top one, from 1st-3rd century AD, is particularly extraordinary and particularly beautiful, I think. The style is recognisably Greek; the hair, the sculpting of the features. But the face looks Indian, and he has the long ears of the bodhisattva.

The other, slighter later (3rd-5th century) is less remarkable, less strikingly classical; more what one expects a bodhisattva to look like. But it’s still a lovely thing.

Just the existence of Greco-Buddhist art was amazing to me, because Alexander the Great and Buddhism lived in completely different parts of my brain. It’s like reading one of those counter-factual novels — what would modern Britain have been like if the Nazis had won the war? —  except, you know, it’s actually real. There really was somewhere where Buddhist monasteries were decorated in the style of ancient Greek temples.

The fact that the resulting art is beautiful just makes it even better.

» The Hadda bodhisattva at the Musée Guimet; the Peshawar bodhisattva at the V&A.

Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Full title: Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. Somé was kidnapped at the age of four and taken first to a Jesuit-run boarding school and then a seminary, where he was a victim of physical and sexual abuse. At the age of 20 he fled the seminary and walked back to his home village. When he saw his family for the first time in 16 years, he could no longer speak his native Dagara and had lost touch with his native culture; so he underwent the long, harrowing ritual initiation that boys normally go through at 13.

He then realised that his calling was to go out and teach the western world about traditional wisdom; the book ends with him leaving the village again. He went to university and earned a few degrees, and he now seems to work on the New Age lecture circuit and in the men’s movement.

I have to say, as I read the introduction which explains this stuff, my heart sank. The cocktail of academic jargon, self-help, the supernatural and purple prose could have been specifically designed to annoy me. But, to be fair, once he gets going, it is pretty interesting. He never completely shakes off the tendency to flowery prose…

The sun had already risen. A few scattered clouds were speeding across the empty zenith as if running away from the threat of the burning disc.

… but the academic and self-help stuff is much less intrusive. And the supernatural is after all the main subject of the book. As I was reading his descriptions of magical experiences he had before his abduction, all of which happened before he was four, I wondered whether all the impossible things he was witnessing were explicable by his extreme youth, and the embellishing powers of memory. But his experiences during the initiation as an adult are every bit as remarkable.

Assuming that he’s not just a professional bullshitter who made all this stuff up because he knows it is marketable — and I’m not really suggesting that’s the case, although it did occur to me as a possibility — his visions/experiences were extraordinarily complex, specific and precise. Since I’m not a believer in the supernatural, I couldn’t help speculating about what kinds of psychological and physiological effects might have created these experiences — quite fruitless, of course, since we only have one very specific perspective on what happened and I don’t have that kind of expertise anyway.

Really, that’s not the point, anyway; I’m not reading with the book to argue with it. What I would hope to get out of this kind of book is some kind of insight into the traditional culture of the Dagara. And there certainly is some interesting material about the rituals, about the use of divination, the decision making of the elders and so on. But the magical experiences themselves weirdly didn’t ring true to me.

I know I’m the worst person in the world to judge the authenticity of shamanic experience, but when I’ve read stories from oral cultures before I’ve always been struck by the genuine weirdness of them, a lack of the kind of narrative logic I expect. I don’t get that from this book; for all the impossible things happening, they sort of read like a version of shamanic experience as imagined by a westerner. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the relatively small proportion of his life Somé actually spent in his home village compared to the time spent elsewhere. He is inevitably as much a product of French colonial education and western universities as he is of Dagara culture. Or perhaps he is consciously targeting it at a western readership. Or, very likely, my idea of what a shamanic experience ought to be like is completely wrong.

One way or another, it’s certainly interesting. Of Water and the Spirit is my book from Burkina Faso for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘decorated potteries for sale at the market along the Niger riverbanks near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’ is from the Smithsonian. There’s not much connection to the book, but I liked the picture.

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Physical tumbling

I went along to the V&A today to check out the second phase of their new ceramics display. The first phase was arranged by technique and theme; the new bit is by place and date. Some of the displays have helpful information, but much of it is effectively the collection being stored in plain view: all-glass cabinets with shelf after shelf of ceramics packed five or six objects deep.

It means that they’re not always as easy to see properly, and there’s no accompanying information, but it’s a way of making as much of the collection visible as possible: over 26,500 pieces in the new section, apparently.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time recently browsing the V&A’s collection online find things to post to A London Salmagundi. It was a healthy reminder that, although it’s marvellous that they are making such an effort to digitise their collections, and no matter how endlessly fascinating it is searching through museum collections online, there’s nothing quite like being close enough to appreciate the actual physicality of an object: the textures, the way it catches the light.

Or even more basic, the size. I posted this picture of a porcelain goat made by Meissen in 1732, and it’s a striking image; but nothing about that picture prepares you for the fact that it is over two foot long. Nearly life size — for rather a small goat, at least. Apparently it weighs 25kg.

Unfortunately the technology is not yet there for me to have a physical tumblelog. Although having an image blog is a kind of curation, I can’t, sadly, actually choose real objects and put them in front of my readers.

I suppose the closest I could come would be if the V&A gave me a long display case and the licence to roam the museum, picking out objects. Then I could put each new choice at one end of the case and shift all the rest a few inches further along; and as each one reached the other end, I would take it out and put it back where it belonged.

In fact, if anyone from the V&A is reading this: have your people call my people. Let’s see if we can work something out.

Born in Tibet by Chögyam Trungpa

Born in Tibet is the story of Chögyam Trungpa’s early life in Tibet, as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts. He was a year old when some monks turned up and announced he was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku and hence the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet; at twenty he managed to escape the Chinese occupation and make his way to India.

So the book really has three main subjects: his traditional religious education, the increasing impact of the Chinese on Tibetan life, and the adventure/survival story of escaping cross-country into India. The escape is remarkable, since it involves dozens of people trying to secretly cross some of the most difficult terrain in the world; but the portrayal of traditional life in a Tibetan monastery is what interested me most.

It is slightly ironic that many westerners treat Buddhism as a kind of antidote to organised religion, because this was organised, institutional religion on the grand scale: an elaborate formal hierarchy, large, expensively appointed buildings with hundreds of people, elaborate rituals, explicitly supernatural practices like divination, all supported by large scale land ownership and tributes offered by the local population. It’s rather how I imagine the middle ages in Europe must have been: a basically peasant population loomed over both by the houses of feudal aristocrats and by the abbeys and monasteries of the great religious orders.

The fact that comparison sounds like a criticism says something about the glowing image of Tibetan buddhism — mainly I guess down to the personal qualities of the current Dalai Lama — and the bad image of medieval Catholicism. The reasons for which are more tangled, although the largely Protestant history of the English speaking world is clearly relevant. Personally I have a soft spot for medieval monasticism; and my scepticism about human nature means I bet there were a few Tibetan monks over the centuries who were, let’s say, more worldly than they should have been.

Though it has to be said that Chögyam Trungpa was not living the life of a Medici pope. His life in Tibet seems to have been austerely lived and completely devoted to spiritual practice. The childhood in particular sounds tough; being taken away to a monastery at three and spending pretty much all his time from then on in study and devotion.

Anyway, it is fascinating stuff.

Our travelling party was organized with a good deal of pomp. There were thirty monks on horseback and eighty mules to carry the baggage. I was still only twelve and, being so young, I was not expected to preach long sermons; mostly I had to perform rites, read the scriptures aloud, and impart blessings. We started from the highlands and traveled down to the cultivated land; I was able to see how all these different people lived as we passed through many changes of scenery. Of course I did not see the villagers quite as they were in their everyday lives, for wherever we went all was in festival, everyone was excited and looking forward to the special religious services, so that we had little time for rest. I missed the routine of my early life, but found it all very exciting.

When we visited Lhathog, the king had to follow the established tradition by asking us to perform the religious rites according to ancient custom. We were lodged in one of the palaces, from where we could look down on a school that the Chinese had recently established. A Communist flag hung at the gate, and when it was lowered in the evenings the children had to sing the Communist national anthem. Lessons were given in both Chinese and Tibetan, including much indoctrination about the benefits China was bringing to Tibet. Singing and dancing were encouraged and I felt that it was a sign of the times that the monastery drum was used to teach the children to march. Being young myself I was keenly interested, though this distortion worried me; a religious instrument should not have been used for a secular purpose, nor for mere amusement. A detachment of Chinese officials sent from their main headquarters at Chamdo lived in the king’s palace together with a Tibetan interpreter, while various teachers had been brought to Lhathog to organize the school, which was one of many that the Chinese were setting up in all the chief places in Tibet. The local people’s reactions were very unfavourable. In the town the Communists had stuck posters or painted slogans everywhere, even on the walls of the monastery; they consisted of phrases like ‘We come to help you’ and ‘The liberation army is always at the people’s service.’

Born in Tibet is my book from Tibet for the Read The World challenge. Chögyam Trungpa wasn’t actually born in what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region; when the Chinese took over Tibet, large chunks which were culturally Tibetan were assigned to different provinces.

We ourselves always considered that the people who speak Tibetan and ate roasted barley (tsampa) as their staple food are Tibetans.

Which is good enough for me.

» The top thing is a ration ticket for 500 g of cereals, issued by the People’s Liberation Army – Tibet Military Region. It’s from 1996, so not even remotely contemporary with this book, but sort of an interesting object, I think. From the British Museum. The C18th Tibetan scroll painting is from the V&A.

‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-1962)’ at the Gagosian Gallery

Or ‘Picasso: The Cheerful Years’. I have no idea how cheerful or otherwise Picasso really was during the late 40s and 50s, but that’s the impression given by this exhibition.

The style which is most famously used in his earlier work, in paintings like Guernica and the Weeping Woman, to express something about the darker sides of the human experience, is here used in cheery, brightly coloured pictures of children playing.

A painting certainly doesn’t need gloomy subject matter to have artistic merit, but even so, this felt like Picasso-Lite; enjoyable enough, but more decorative, less intense. And why not, after all. He didn’t have anything to prove by that point.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt is a novel about an unnamed Middle-Eastern country where desert tribesmen have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the oil industry. Think Saudi Arabia.

It’s 600 pages long and it’s only the first book in a quintet, so this is storytelling on a grand scale; I have to say I’m seriously impressed by it, and considering buying the next one.

There are two things which I think are particularly clever about the way it’s written. The first is that it has a large cast of characters while still feeling like a cohesive narrative. So you get a chapter or two about one person, and then the focus moves to someone else and the first character fades into the background, then after another couple of chapters you move onto a third person; and over the course of the book the cast of characters changes completely. in that way it’s very much the story of a place rather than a person. But it manages to do it in a way which feels very organic; it doesn’t read like a collection of separate stories.

The other thing I like is that even though the story is about the arrival of the (American) oil industry, it is told completely from the perspective of the Arab characters. So even though it is the Americans who are driving events much of the time, by digging wells and building roads and employing the locals, they are peripheral figures in the narrative. They just happen in the background, like the weather, and we only see them in glimpses. They are always behind the fence.

I guess that’s not unusual in post-colonial fiction, but it’s particularly effective here. Not that Saudi Arabia is actually a former colony, but it is similarly a country transformed by the arrival of outsiders. The initial encounter is on a small scale in a wadi in the desert, and the reaction is total bafflement; as the novel moves on, the scope opens out and the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex and messier.

As soon as the camp was erected, the men paced off the area, put up wire fencing and short white pickets, scattered some strange substance around the tents and sprayed the earth with water that had a penetrating smell. Then they opened up their crates and unloaded large pieces of black iron, and before long a sound like rolling thunder surged out of this machine, frightening men, animals and birds. After several minutes of the rumbling, one of the Americans raised his hand and signalled to another, who extinguished the sound, but it was a long time before it stopped ringing in the ears.

When that was over, as fast as a magic trick, the people still watched everything that went on in silence and fear. When the sun began to sink in the west, it seemed that Wadi al-Uyoun was about to experience a night such as it had never known before. As soon as the animals began to bark and bray at sunset, the machine began to roar again, frightening everyone, only this time the sound was accompanied by a blinding light. Within moments scores of small but brilliant suns began to blaze, filling the whole area with a light that no one could believe or stand. The men and boys retreated and looked at the lights again to make sure they still saw them, and they looked at each other in terror. The animals who drew near retreated in fright; the camels fled, and the sheep stirred uneasily. Miteb stood not far from the place and spoke loudly enough to command attention over the fear and the machine’s noise. “Go back, people of Wadi al-Uyoun! If you don’t go back you’ll get burned and there’ll be nothing left of you.”

This marvellous incident, so crystal clear and yet impossible to believe at first, became with time a routine affair, for the men who for a certain period kept silent and watched everything in fear mixed with anticipation were soon used to it. Ibn Rashed went forward and asked Ghorab to explain how the lights and sound were produced, but in spite of a long and detailed explanation no one understood anything.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif*, translated by Peter Theroux, is my book from Jordan for the Read The World challenge.

* or, according to Wikipedia, Abdul Rahman Munif; or using the Library of Congress system, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. And just for the sake of completeness: عبد الرحمن منيف‎.

Apparently ‘Abdul’ is not actually a stand-alone name at allʻAbd al– means ‘servant of the’ and is part of a longer name: so Abdul Rahman means ‘Servant of the Benevolent’, Abdul Aziz is ‘Servant of the Almighty’,  and so on. Given how many names for God there are in Islam, there are loads of possible variants. So that’s something I’ve learnt today.

» At the camel market in Riyadh is © Charles Roffey and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes by Jack Mapanje

I was searching around for a book from Malawi for the Read The World challenge, and found very cheap second-hand copies for sale of these two books of poetry by Jack Mapanje. And since poetry books are generally very short by nature, I thought I might as well buy both. Since I’ve read some fairly dreadful poetry as part of this challenge, it was especially encouraging that Skipping Without Ropes was published by a major poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books. And I was drawn to The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison because it had birds in the title. Yes, I really am that predictable. Also, if you want me to buy your wine, put a picture of a bird on the label.

And on the subject of birds, the ones in question were almost certainly the species pictured above, African Pied Wagtail. Attractive little beastie, isn’t it. Apparently, they form large communal roosts, one of which was on the wire mesh over the courtyard of Mikuyu prison when Mapanje was locked up there for three years, without charge, for writing poetry which annoyed the regime. Quite a lot of his time in prison was apparently spent mopping up wagtail shit. He was released in 1991 after pressure from writers and human rights activists and moved to the UK; he currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University.

And he writes well. His poetry is dense, allusive, with telling details and attention to the sounds and rhythms of the language. I wouldn’t say he was suddenly my new favourite writer but he is, as I hoped, a proper poet; in a completely different class to some of the writers I’ve read for the Read The World challenge. You can read, and hear him read, some of his poetry at the Poetry Archive; ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu’ seems like an obvious place to start.

I actually read the books in reverse order, because his later book, Skipping Without Ropes, arrived first. His later poems seemed to me to be more relaxed, both emotionally and stylistically. I think on the whole I preferred the earlier stuff: angrier, more tightly wound and densely written. The later poems are probably smoother and more polished, but sometimes wander a bit too close to prose for my tastes. But there’s plenty of good stuff in both.

» The photo, African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), is © Arno Meintjes and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo

Does very much what it says on the tin; a section of ‘legends’ (origin myths, broadly speaking) then ‘traditions’ (clothes, tools, fishing techniques and so on), and then 17 other folk tales. To quote the blurb:

In 1938, Head Chief Timothy Detudamo had the foresight to transcribe and then translate a series of lectures relating to the legends, customs and tales of Nauru, delivered by what he termed ‘native teachers’.

The book packs quite a lot of stuff into its 98 pages. And it’s all quite interesting. There is something fascinating about these Pacific island cultures where people were so isolated, and Nauru is isolated even by Pacific standards: one island two or three miles across which is hundreds of miles from anywhere.

I find the stories from oral cultures intriguing and slightly baffling: I just don’t understand the narrative logic of them; often they just seem to develop by a process of free-association. There probably is a narrative logic there, but it’s not what I’m used to.

The book also has a glossary which is so wilfully unhelpful that it’s actually rather brilliant; here’s a sample of it:

Demauduru: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Deneno: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denodoro: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Denuwanini: A plant – a type of creeper
Derugu: A type of fighting weapon
Doboj: A type of food seen only at feasts and special occasions
Dobwidu: A type of fighting weapon
Dogoro: A type of fighting weapon

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru is my book from Nauru for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of the frigatebirds on perches is from the British Museum website; apparently in Nauru they use trained frigatebirds for fishing, a fact I somehow didn’t manage to learn from a book about the traditions of Nauru but found in Wikipedia.

Read The World challenge: status report

I noticed that I am approaching two years of the Read The World challenge. So it seems worth pausing to take stock.

So, how’s it going?

Alright, I think. Having started with 36 countries already ticked off, I’m now on 89. So that’s 53 books in two years, at a rate of about one a fortnight… which is respectable enough. At this rate it’ll take me another four years to finish, which is slightly intimidating, but there’s no particular hurry.

I started pretty much on a whim, so it’s a success of a sort that I’m still going after two years without having got bored or sidetracked enough to quietly let the project die. There have been some occasions when it got close — I was going pretty slowly at the start of this year — but I think the trick is to always have several new books lined up at any time, so I have some choice.

What’s the point?

Since, as I said, I really got into this without any planning or forethought — Julie posted a link to it and I thought, oh, that sounds kind of fun — it’s worth asking why I’m still doing it, what I think the point is.

The main value, for me, is simply that it has made me read a lot of books I wouldn’t otherwise have found. Some of them I might have read — mainstream successes like The Kite Runner or established classics like The Maias. Others I would never have read without the challenge, like an anthology of Eritrean poetry, or a book about the architecture of the St Vincent and the Grenadines. Most fall somewhere in between; fairly conventional literary works in translation from specialist publishers: university presses, small presses, publishers aiming at the academic or educational market.

One positive effect is that I’ve been reading a lot more fiction: I was in a bit of a non-fiction rut. And I’ve been enjoying it, although I find I’m increasingly impatient with mediocre fiction. I can usually cope with non-fiction, even if it’s a bit dry; I take a pseudo-scholarly attitude and just plough through it, finding interest where I can. But badly written literary prose annoys the hell out of me.

So, am I learning all about the WORLD?

Well, yes, the books touch on lots of topics and places and cultures I don’t know much about, and hopefully some of that interesting new information stays with me.

And clearly that’s part of the point, that this is an exercise in literary tourism. But I don’t want to burden these books with the responsibility of single-handedly representing a whole country, and I don’t want to pigeonhole the authors too much.

It’s a bit like real tourism: you don’t want to be the guy who goes on a one week safari and comes back thinking he has a new and profound understanding of Africa.

One virtue of using ‘author born in the country’ as my main criterion is that it’s quite strict but it’s also essentially arbitrary. It doesn’t necessarily imply typical or representative. All else being equal, I tend to go for books which have a clear connection to the country; but enjoyable and interesting are much more important qualities than typical.

So my book from Croatia is by a woman who actively rejects the Croat identity; the one from Kyrgyzstan is set in Kazakhstan; the one from Togo is mainly about Greenland; the one from Azerbaijan is about chess. It doesn’t matter.

If anything, because this exercise involves reading a lot of post-colonial literature, I’ve read a few too many politically-driven novels which attempt to tell the story of a whole country; usually in microcosm via the life of one representative village. Sometimes that can be brilliantly successful, but often it’s the narrower, quirkier books that are more engaging.

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli

The Country Under My Skin is a memoir of the Nicaraguan revolution. Belli grew up in a wealthy family but joined the Sandinistas, working secretly for the resistance until she had to flee the country and live in exile until the Sandinistas took power and she could return to Nicaragua. It’s not just a political memoir, though; it is also the story of her marriages and love affairs.

She is clearly a remarkable woman — an award-winning poet, incidentally, as well as everything else — and it is fascinating to read an insiders view of a revolution. She became a prominent figure for the Sandinistas in a PR role, and so she met with people like Fidel Castro, and her portrayals of these powerful men are interesting as well. And it is well-written, which makes all the difference.

I think it’s particularly good when it’s actually in Nicaragua: her life as a disaffected young woman who got married too young to the wrong person, the story of her political awakening, the process by which you join a clandestine organisation, and all the secret meetings and codewords and being followed by the police. Then the period is exile is rather less interesting, before it picks up again with the actual revolution and the immediate aftermath.

I do have some slight reservations, though. These are mainly about her particular perspective. When I got to the end of the book, I realised that it was a book about a revolution and a war which didn’t actually feature any fighting: she was in exile during the revolution itself and she was a bureaucrat in the capital during the war against the Contras. Obviously an autobiography can only tell one person’s story, and this is hers; but it does create the image of a revolution which was all discussing ideas, giving press conferences, writing pamphlets, and delegations to foreign conferences. There is plenty of death in the book, as one after another of her friends, colleagues and lovers get killed, but it all happens offstage.

Similarly, she may be passionately committed to relieving poverty in Nicaragua, but she is never poor herself and she doesn’t spend much time in contact with the poor. I don’t blame her for being from a privileged background, but it is a rather atypical perspective. At one stage when she is working with the resistance, the police clearly suspect or know that she is working for the Sandinistas, but they don’t arrest her and take her away to be tortured as they do so many other people, because, she thinks, of her wealthy family and her society connections.

That’s the nature of books, though: they tend to be written by the kind of people who write books. It’s certainly worth reading, though.

The Country Under My Skin is my book from Nicaragua for the Read The World challenge.

» Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido! is © Burkhard Schröder and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II

Or, in Solomons Pijin, Bikfala Faet : olketa Solomon Aelanda rimembarem Wol Wo Tu. The first interesting thing about this book is the language. The entire text — i.e. the introduction and so on, not just the narratives themselves — is in Solomons Pijin first and then English translation. Which gives you a chance to compare the two languages. Pijin is of course a language derived from the use of English as a lingua franca in the region, so it is almost entirely based on English in vocabulary; but the grammar is quite different.

Here’s a bit of the Pijin; at first glance it looks completely impenetrable, but if you sound it out, you start to get a sense of how the pronunciation relates to English. It’s interesting to try to make sense of it, but I’ll put the translation in a footnote* so you can compare it.

Long 1939 wo hemi kam. Japan hemi bomem Pearl Harbour. Ating hemi 1941. An long time ia evri waetman stat fo toktok abaot wo. Toktok hemi stat fo go raon nao. So mi lusim Makira long taem ia an mi go long SDA mison long Bituna. Mi go primari skul tisa moa ia. Dea nao mi stap gogo wo hemi kam long Solomon Islands. Hemi kam long Rabaul an New Britain. So evriwan stat fo ranawe nao. Mi go baek long Munda an joenem Donald Kennedy, wea hemi Distrik Ofisa. Mi save long hem taem mi stap long Tulagi.

My knowledge of the Pacific theatre during WWII is very limited — the British tend to have a Europe-centred view of the war — so I didn’t actually realise when I ordered this book that the Solomon Islands were the site of some very serious fighting. In fact, although I didn’t know any details, even I had heard of Guadalcanal.

It’s really an extraordinary coming-together of cultures; the Solomon Islands was a genuine global backwater — they had apparently still been using stone tools when the British arrived at the end of the C19th, and some of their wartime heroics recounted in this book involve dug-out canoes — and then the full weight of the industrialised military power of Japan and America come and fight their way across the islands in a campaign involving tens of thousands of deaths, dozens of ships sunk and hundreds of aircraft destroyed.

Inevitably we tend to learn about these battles from the perspective of the major powers — and especially our own side. So it’s interesting to read accounts from people who just happened to be living in the path of the war. The people whose stories are in this book took a variety of roles: coastwatching; scouting with a slice of guerilla combat; fighting with the regular army; working in the Labour Corps. It’s interesting stuff with some real hairy action to it: paddling for miles around the islands under cover of darkness to return wounded US pilots to their base, going behind Japanese lines to mine a radar station. And the last story talks about the influence of the war on the political history of the Solomon Islands, and particularly the dissatisfaction created by the contrast between how well they were treated by the Americans and how badly they had been treated by the British under colonial rule.

Sigh. Not that I feel much personal responsibility for the way that my compatriots behaved in the Solomon Islands decades before I was born, but it is a bit shameful. They took their land, paid them a pathetically small amount of money for their labour, and beat them. Then during the war the Islanders were very impressed to see that the black American soldiers wore the same uniforms and the ate the same food as white soldiers, and that the Americans soldiers would share food with the natives, and invite them into their tents and let them sit on the bed and talk to them in a friendly way; pathetically small things, really, but it goes to show what they had been led to expect by the British. And then when the Americans gave them various supplies, the British confiscated them, piled them up and burnt them, because… well, because they were dicks, seems to be the main reason.

Still, if you’re from a former colonial power and you read post-colonial literature, you have to expect to be the bad guys most of the time.

The Big Death is my book from the Solomon Islands for the Read The World challenge.

* In 1939 the war came. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. I think it was in 1941. At that time all the whitemen started to talk about war. Rumours started to go around. So I left Makira at that time and went to the SDA Mission at Batuna. I went and became a primary school teacher there. It was there that I stayed until the war came to the Solomon Islands by way of Rabaul and New Britain. So everyone started to flee. I went back to Munda and joined Donald Kennedy, a District Officer I had known in Tulagi.

» The photograph of a Solomon Islander from the British Museum was taken by John Watt Beattie in 1906.  Munda Deep Corsair – Solomon Islands is © whl.travel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Seabees, 1945, was posted to Flickr by and is © TPB, Esq.