A few nights ago we watched Julien Temple’s super film, Keith Richards: The Origin of the Species, covering the guitarist’s early years, from birth to 18, following it with Jon Savage’s film, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, based on his expansive book which I’ve just finished reading.
Who would have thought it? The reprobate Keith Richards re-imagined as an avuncular national treasure? Temple’s film was a delight; I don’t think I stopped grinning once. Cleverly weaving Keith reminiscing about his childhood and family connections into an intricate montage of archive newsreel, TV commercials, old public information films and dramatic reconstructions in monochrome, Origin of the Species successfully evoked what it felt like to be part of the generation born in the 40s who grew up in the still grey and hidebound 50s. Continue reading “Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded”→
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a big book: it may be only 400 pages, but it’s scope is breathtaking. Don’t come to this book looking for dates or expositions of key historical events. Harari’s approach to history is to stand back and see what patterns emerge from the big picture. Continue reading “Sapiens: a big history of the species”→
Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”→
Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and a very fine writer. His first bookThe Running Sky was a superb meditation not just on bird-watching, but on life. Last month I read his latest book Four Fields, in which Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. Succinctly summing up the idea that lends unity to his book, Dee writes:
All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts.
– Ivan Chtcheglov
When people of my generation travel to Berlin they arrive with their heads stuffed already with images of the city soaked up from decades of newspaper and newsreel coverage and from books – both non-fiction and a plethora of spy fiction and novels that have created the city that haunts our imagination.
The genesis of Philip Marsden’s latest book, Rising Ground, was his acquisition of an old, decaying and overgrown Cornish farmhouse. It is subtitled ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’, and a few pages in, Marsden explains how, after writing a series of books cataloguing journeys he had made to distant lands he came to write one which follows him as he sets out on foot from his new home. Continue reading “Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place”→
To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
― Elie Wiesel, Night
Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
― Elie Wiesel, Night
Two very different representations of the Holocaust seen in the last 48 hours are the subject of this post. The first is the stage adaptation by Children’s Touring Partnership of Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for younger readers, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, set in Auschwitz; the second a documentary film, Night Will Fall, about the army photographers who filmed the horrific scenes revealed when British forces entered the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Continue reading “Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text”→
I’ve embarked upon the history of my time. David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.
Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period. Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”→
Just as the our century seems likely to be defined by the act of terrorism perpetrated in New York in 2001, so was the twentieth century defined by the shots fired in Sarajevo in 1914. In a brilliant passage in The Radestky March, Joseph Roth describes how the news of that world-changing event slowly seeps into the consciousness of a drunken outdoor celebration on the far eastern margins of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a storm breaks on one sultry night in July 1914.
But that is just one of many such superb passages in The Radestky March. I don’t know how I could have lived so long before reading such a marvellous book. Roth’s elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire and its dominant class might seem unexpected from an author born to Orthodox Jewish parents who named him Moses Joseph Roth, and a man who began his journalistic career in Vienna after the First World War, writing for left-wing newspapers under the pen-name Red Roth.
For that was Roth’s own story – born in 1894 in Brody, a town on the far eastern edge of the Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia, where two-thirds of the population were Jewish. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (then known as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. The circumstances of Roth’s birth begin to explain the vision of the novel he came to write in 1932, amidst the turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.
The title evokes the twin monarchy of Austria and Hungary and the music of Johann Strauss I, who composed the march in honour of a field marshal who won key battles that asserted Austrian domination of northern Italy in the 1840s, and which soon became the theme song of the empire. But, whereas the historical novel usually celebrates the triumph of the nation-state, in The Radestky March Roth reverses the trend, seeing in the nationalist movements that inspired the terrorists in Sarejevo and which contributed to the end of the Hapsburg Empire the force that destroyed his own heimat, his homeland. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ his translator Michael Hofmann wrote, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’
Reviewing Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s Collected Stories for the NYRB in 2002, JM Coetzee added this:
Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria.
In 1914 Roth enrolled at university in Vienna, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 in number. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude‘ (a Jew from the East), remarked Roth, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.’ Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews. Roth was an outstanding student, but his education was terminated by the war. Although he had pacifist leanings, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. In 1917, ethnic tensions in the imperial army led to him being transferred out of a German-speaking unit to a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia.
Galicia, the most distant and northernmost province of the Hapsburg Empire, is the setting for the scene referred to earlier in which a celebration, organised by the local army unit, is taking place outdoors. As a summer heatwave breaks, thunder draws closer and sheet lightning illuminates the night sky:
No one heard the rapid gallop of the orderly who raced across the forecourt, came to a sudden stop, and in full regulation kit, with glittering helmet, rifle across his shoulders and cartridge pouch on his belt, white lightning flashing around him and purple clouds darkening him, looked not unlike a herald of war in a play. The dragoon dismounted and asked for Colonel Festetics. He was told the Colonel was already inside. A moment later, the Colonel came out, was handed a letter by the orderly, and went back inside. He stopped in the circular hall, which had no ceiling lighting. A footman came up behind him, with a branched candlestick in his hand. The Colonel tore open the envelope. The footman, though trained from earliest youth in the great arts of serving, was nevertheless unable to keep his hand from shaking. The candles he was holding started flickering violently. He made not the slightest effort to peer over the Colonel’s shoulder, but the text of the message came within view of his well-trained eyes, a single outsize sentence written very clearly in blue copying pen. As incapable as he would have been of ignoring through closed eyelids one of the flashes of lightning that now were quivering in ever faster succession in every quarter of the sky, so he was averting his eyes from the terrible, large, blue letters that spelled out: ‘There are unconfirmed reports that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo.’
The words struck home, like a single, unbroken word, into the consciousness of the Colonel and the eyes of the footman standing immediately behind him. The envelope slipped from the Colonel’s hands. The footman, holding the candlestick in his left hand, stooped down to pick it up with his right. When he stood up straight again, he found himself staring at Colonel Festetics, who had turned round to face him. The footman took a step back. He held the candlestick in one hand, the envelope in the other, and now both were trembling. The flickering candlelight played over the Colonel’s face, alternately lighting it and darkening it. The coarse, flushed face of the Colonel, graced with a grey-blond moustache, was now purple, now chalk-pale. The lips trembled slightly, and the moustache quivered. No one else was in the hall, only the Colonel and the footman. From the interior of the house came the sounds of the first muffled waltzes from the two bands, the jingling of glasses, and the murmurs of conversation. Through the door that led out to the forecourt they could see the reflections of distant lightnings, and hear the feeble echo of distant thunder. The Colonel looked at the footman. ‘Did you read that?’ ‘Yes, Colonel!’ ‘Not a word to a soul!’ said Festetics, applying his finger to his lips. He walked off, tottering slightly. Perhaps it was the uncertain illumination that made his walk seem unsteady.
Joseph Roth in Berlin
The Radetzky March brims with such brilliant passages. The novel follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, loyal servants of the crown. The first Trotta is a simple soldier who is elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 (the last major battle at which all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs). This man of lowly rank dares to push the Emperor Franz Joseph to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet which would have struck the Emperor. But Roth instantly (in only the fourth sentence of the novel) gives us a foretaste of the grandiosity and ridiculousness of an empire that will decay:
Fate had elected him for a special deed. But then he made sure that later times lost all memory of him.
The Hero of Solferino is celebrated in a textbook for the schoolchildren of the Empire. But the account is exaggerated, and Trotta seeks an audience with the Emperor to ask for things to be put right:
“Listen, my dear Trotta!” said the Kaiser. “The whole business is rather awkward. But neither of us comes off all that badly. Let it be!”
“Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “it’s a lie!”
“People tell a lot of lies,” the Kaiser confirmed.
“I can’t, your Majesty,” the captain choked forth.
Trotta requests his discharge from the army, though Imperial favour does not abandon him. He is made a Baron, 5,000 guldens are allocated for his son’s education, and – thanks to the Emperor’s casually expressed wish – the offending textbook disappears from the monarchy’s schools.
Trotta’s son – partly because of his father’s legendary status – obtains a secure post in the Civil Service, eventually becoming a prominent District Commissioner, conscientious, totally dedicated to routine and order, but lacking all imagination His son, Carl Joseph, is an army officer who begins to feel a growing sense that his life is dissolving into futility as the Habsburg mystique he is reminded of each Sunday when a military band plays the Radetzky March, loses its hold on him. Finally, he perishes without issue in the Great War. The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the decline of the empire.
Ikea’s new advertising campaign is a hoot, mocking Apple and our obsession with the latest gadget and all its conveniences. The Ikea bookbook has no cables, its battery life is eternal, an expandable interface, and a navigation based on ‘tactile touch technology’. Content is pre-installed! To start browsing, ‘simply touch and go – right to left to move forwards, left to right to move back’. And no lag! Each ‘crystal -clear page’ loads instantaneously! Continue reading “When you need bookbook support”→
There was still a fortnight to go when the postman handed me an early Christmas present. Out of the blue, and unprecedented, I was the lucky winner of a competition. The prize was a copy of Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers, a massive, magnificent and beautifully-illustrated book published by Thames and Hudson (who awarded me the prize) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the coolest and best-known label in the history of jazz. With the book came a poster and a 5-CD box set of 75 singles released by Blue Note in the past 75 years. Continue reading “From Berlin to New York: the origins of Blue Note”→