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Monday, February 20, 2017

Something New



NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“THE ART OF EXILE – A Vagabond Life” by John Freely (Published in 2016 by I.B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York. No New Zealand price known)

I do not know if you have ever had the experience of wanting very much to like a book because you like the revealed personality of the author and most of his attitudes and you know that he has much to say but - alas – you find the style of the book so unsatisfactory that in the end you are disappointed in it.
This has been my experience with the Irish-American author John Freely’s The Art of Exile, which is subtitled “A Vagabond Life”. [To the best of my knowledge, this newly-published book is not available in New Zealand and I have been able to read it only thanks to an American friend who lent me a copy.]
Born in 1926, John Freely wrote The Art of Exile to appear near his ninetieth birthday. It is clearly intended to sum up his life, and that life has been a most interesting one. Freely’s family were very poor people from Kerry in the underdeveloped south-west of Ireland. His parents emigrated to New York when Freely was an infant, but they did not find riches in the New World and they were once or twice so disheartened that they returned to Ireland for brief spells. Nevertheless, New York finally became their permanent home. Even so, life was hardscrabble, especially as Freely’s father was frequently out of work, and even when he was in work he was capable only of unskilled and lowly-paid labouring jobs such as digging ditches or being a gravedigger. Freely’s mother of course produced a very large brood - eleven children.
This scenario could be the set-up for a piece of “misery lit” like John McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But The Art of Exile is no such book as it is clear that despite poverty, despite having to survive the Depression years, and despite the father’s heavy drinking, this was a happy and cohesive family. The boy John Freely did not do well at school. His only love was reading, he flunked most subjects and he dropped out of high school with no qualifications to his name. In the Second World War, and at the age of eighteen, he joined the US Navy and saw service as part of the force that provided some assistance to China as it sought to repel Japanese invaders. When Freely quit the navy at the end of the war, he was twenty, unskilled and not sure what to do with himself.
But then he received some life-changing advice from a priest:
            I asked Father Ryan for advice on what I might read to educate myself after I left the Navy, for there was little chance that I would go back to school. He looked through his desk and handed me the catalogue for the Great Books programme… The curriculum began with Homer’s Odyssey and ended with James Joyce’s Ulysses, and included not only the Great Books but also works about the authors themselves and the times in which they lived.” (pp.38-39)
Before he found real work, the young ex-navy man decided to goof off for a year, living off the modest pension for which former servicemen were eligible. He says:
During the 52 weeks that followed I read through the entire curriculum of the Great Books programme, starting with Homer in Chapman’s translation of 1595, and ending with James Joyce’s Ulysses.” (p.64)
It was only when he was near the end of this programme that he learnt he was eligible for a free college education thanks to the generous G. I. Bill, which was then having the effect of lifting many American working-class former soldiers and sailors into middle-class lives. Not even able to boast of a high-school diploma, and never having shone in mathematics or the sciences, Freely was still able to get into NYU and study what most people would regard as the most daunting pure science – Physics. Amazingly, he shone. He gained a PhD, had articles published in prestigious scientific journals and was offered a research position at Princeton. He was now qualified to teach Physics at university level and, for the rest of his working life, teaching Physics and courses on the history of science became his basic livelihood.
But this was not the focus of his life. His Navy days led him to love travel and his particular interest was the civilisations of the old eastern Mediterranean. He met his wife Dolores – always nicknamed Toots – in the late 1940s, and they made a “pact” (pp.65-66) that they would spend their life travelling together. They were to have three children who were all given distinctively Irish names - Maureen, Eileen and Brendan. (Maureen Freely is now herself a novelist and noted translator of Turkish literature.) But even with children in tow, they now began to live the “vagabond” life of the subtitle.
John Freely took up teaching positions in English-language colleges in Istanbul and this city was to be his base for most of the years that followed, with occasional visiting fellowships at English and American universities. From Istanbul he and Toots – sometimes alone, sometimes with the children – made yearly trips to the Greek isles, to Anatolia, to Romania, to Venice, to Spain and Southern Italy. Thus their life continued from the 1950s to the 1990s, and as it did so, Freely wrote, or collaborated in writing, dozens of travel books, travel guides and historical studies of the places in which he sojourned for long periods. Nearly forty books are credited to him – most published by major firms such as Penguin.
All this, you have to admit, is pretty good for a high school drop-out who, at the age of twenty, had little idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Freely’s tone throughout this memoir is optimistic and cheerful. He clearly loved what he was able to do for fifty or sixty years, and when he visits some ancient gods-haunted temple or other historical site, he is always ready to quote appropriate verses by Pindar or Alcaeus or Homer or Anacreon. He is very discreet. When mentioning various friends and university colleagues, he speaks no scandal (save when remarking on one administrator who was fired for incompetence). Without elaborating – he can (p.89) tell us of a friend in Istanbul associating with “somewhat scary young men with whom he would then disappear into the night.” (Hmmm). In one sentence only, he notes that his son attempted suicide and he brushes quickly over his daughter’s divorce.
Likewise it is to his credit that he indulges in very little name-dropping. In Chapter 4 he tells us that, when his daughter was a tot, she danced with an unknown Egyptian fighter-pilot called Hosni Murbarak – later president of Egypt. He had an interesting encounter in a restaurant with the famed Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal (author of Memed, My Hawk), where Kemal plucked a red hair out of Freely’s Irish beard to show his friends, and Freely plucked a hair from Kemal’s bared chest to show his friends. There are also a couple brief anecdotes about visits from the American novelist James Baldwin. But that’s it for name-dropping.
If there is a theme to be discerned – apart from Freely’s pride in his achievements – it is to be found in the elegiac note he often strikes. He is fully aware that his best travelling days were before easy air-travel and mass tourism began to crowd hitherto obscure places around the Mediterranean, which he once haunted. Of first visiting the reputed site of the fabled Troy he observes (p.99): “Tourism had not yet begun in Turkey, and so we had the site all to ourselves except for a Turkish gendarme who was guarding the ruins.” Of another site, he remarks:
I still have a photo of the temple that I took that day, and it remains as the enduring image of our early trips through Anatolia…. By the time [one of my books was published] the modern world had discovered this lost arcadia, spoiling it forever, but not in my memory, where it remains the same as it was when I first saw it in what now seems a golden age.” (p.126)
There are many other such statements in The Art of Exile, even some relating to his sense of a “lost world” when he revisited Ireland for the first time in eighty years and discovered people now have televisions and don’t go barefoot; or when he went to the New York neighbourhoods where he grew up. But I find much unintended irony in this sort of talk. He recalls researching and writing a guide book of the island of Naxos and then calls it “an evocation of the place as we first knew it, before it had lost its innocence to the modern commercial world.” (p.175) This shows no awareness that guide books, such as his own, would be one of the reasons that such places are now swarming for tourists. Indeed, the type of books Freely habitually wrote are largely marketed to potential tourists. A grimmer sort of irony is to be found now in his reference to halcyon days (in the early 1960s) in places like Damascus and Aleppo.
I won’t criticise Freely for indulging in one habit that some might find arch. This is his habit of picturing himself frequently as Odysseus the voyager and his wife (who died in 2015 after 64 years of marriage) as the faithful Penelope. But I guess I can indulge an old man on that one.
As you can, I hope, see, I have nothing against John Freely’s worldview, or his attitude to life, and I find his achievements admirable.
Why, then, did I find this book so disappointing and in the end (sorry) so dull?
It is because it reads like a bare chronicle, or perhaps even like diary notes that have been gracelessly worked up into an autobiography. From my summary, you might well assume that The Art of Exile is a book that bustles with events and anecdotes and the liveliness of a traveller’s life. It isn’t. It is a book that trudges year by year through the chronicle of where Freely held academic appointments, where he travelled with members of his family, which books he wrote and who published them and so forth. Repeatedly he seems to be “doing justice” to his life rather than letting us share its sights, sounds, smells and (above all) people. Indeed it is like an “account rendered”. I have the impression that Freely has already said at length what he has to say about the places he has visited in the many travel books he has written. The Art of Exile might be intended to give us the big picture, but it is a picture with all the colour drained out of it.

Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“DON QUIXOTE”S DELUSIONS – Travels in Castilian Spain” by Miranda France (first published in 2001)

Some years ago, our eldest daughter and her husband spent part of their honeymoon in Spain. Before they departed on their journey, our daughter borrowed my battered old paperback copy of Don Quixote (J. M. Cohen’s Penguin translation) so that she could read it in the land where it was written. Later she bought and read Miranda France’s Don Quixote’s Delusions, a travel book about Castile.
On a recent trip to Europe my wife and I spent a mere six nights in Madrid. This was the first, and so far only, time that either of us had set foot on the Iberian Peninsula. I borrowed my daughter’s copy of this travel book to read in the down moments between visiting the Prado, taking a day-trip to the Escorial, spending an evening watching flamenco dancers and so forth. Yes – I knew we were merely tourists on a very short visit, but I thought it would be interesting to get a fellow-foreigner’s view of this country and its people.
An Englishwoman, Miranda France, fluent in Spanish, is the author of two travel books (this one, and one about Buenos Aires) and has more recently turned to writing novels. In Don Quixote’s Delusions she recalls her first, more youthful sojourn in Spain as a student in 1987-88 and sometimes contrasts this with Spain as it was on her second extended visit a year or two before Don Quixote’s Delusions was published. Her visits were largely confined to Madrid and the plains and villages of Castile, the country that Cervantes’ hero roamed.
Unless they are to be mere guide books, which any hack could compile, real travel books are in the nature of extended essays, giving the author’s views on a variety of things and having some sort of thematic focus. Miranda France’s focus is an attempt to interpret the Spanish national character in terms of Spain’s greatest literary masterpiece. Interspersed with autobiographical accounts of her own experiences are chapters on Don Quixote, what it says, how it has been interpreted by various illustrious thinkers, and what Spaniards now make of it.
When Miranda France first comes to Madrid in the late 1980s, a cab driver tells her he knows a nice cheap apartment. She rents it but, as soon as she moves in, she realises it is right next door to a brothel. All night long she hears the squeaking of bed-springs being vigorously punished. Cockroaches infest her room. She thinks of fleeing back to England; but she manages to find another apartment, which he shares with two bohemian types. It is in a louche quarter of Madrid frequented by druggies and transvestites who parade up and down the street outside their window.
The Spain she recalls from the late 1980s is one which had had democracy restored little more than a decade earlier (Franco died in 1975) and was still at the stage in which excess among the young, boozing, partying, taking drugs, promiscuous sex and (from a few) loud, rebellious, and occasionally revolutionary, utterances were common. In other words, it was the headiness of a restored freedom, which had yet to fully settle down to a functioning democracy.
The Spain she describes over a decade later is rather different. In Chapter 10 she visits Burgos (Franco’s headquarters for much of the civil war) and spends a number of pages excoriating Franco’s social views and the repressions of his regime, as well as giving a potted, journalistic history of the civil war. But she ends up admitting that post-Franco Spain is now “consumerist”, materialistic and has virtually nothing to do the revolutionary spirit that once animated people on both sides during the civil war. Perhaps I can substantiate this view. Despite my lack of Spanish, as I lay on my bed for a couple of nights in a hotel room in Madrid, I flicked among the dozens of private Spanish TV stations, and found the same mix of “reality” shows, game shows, soap-operas, sensational Fox-like news channels, dubbed American comedies and crime shows and mini-series as one would find in any other neoliberal Western country. In other words, it was the standard pap to fill the minds of a population that was once more politically militant and more culturally different from the rest of Europe. The fact that Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe (currently estimated to be below replacement level) probably deepens the focus on personal luxuries and trivia.
From the late 1980s, France tells the sad story of a rally by the (newly legalised) Spanish Communist Party spouting the same tired slogans that it used in the 1930s. This was mere months before Gorbachev initiated perestroika and the old Soviet Union fell apart. On her later visit she meets some ancient veterans of the civil war who remark (Chapter 9) “There’s nothing to say…. We were all fighting one another…. We never talk about it now.” One of them goes on to say that he and his brother were literally forced to fight on opposite sides, but that after the war they were great friends (“We were never interested in politics”). Spain now does not match any romantic ideals of strong will and purpose, Left or Right.
And what of the commentaries on Don Quixote?
She tells how Lope de Vega was jealous of Cervantes and sent him a rude letter saying that nobody would remember his silly book. She herself claims that Cervantes himself was a life-long “failure” who was as surprised as anyone to become famous with his great book only in late middle age. She quotes Nabokov as saying that Don Quixote outgrew his creator, who first saw the knight in purely comic terms, but later refashioned him as one who reinterprets the universe fruitfully. When Miranda France visits Salamanca (Chapter 5), she of course gives the views on Don Quixote of Unamuno (who was rector of Salamanca University) and Ortega y Gasset. She contrasts Cervantes (Chapter 6) with another great creative figure of Spain’s Golden Age, Theresa of Avila.
In Chapter 8 she spends much time pondering on whether the practical jokes practised on Don Quixote are now a sort of humour beyond recovery. In this, she instances the way the knight is frequently ridiculed for his love of “Dulcinea”, which allows her to tell the story of a student she knew in Madrid who was tricked into thinking a young woman was in love with him. She discusses (Chapter 9) Cervantes’ relatively benign view of Moors (much of Don Quixote is supposedly narrated by a Moor), which allows her to give a potted history of the expulsion of Moors from Spain; and the different periods of tolerance and intolerance of other religions that Catholic monarchs showed.
In the end, though, she cannot really nail Don Quixote, and all the interpretations of him, as something symbolic of the Spanish temperament. As she remarks (truly, I think):
Borges thought of Don Quixote as an unchanging monument, but a great book is like a house – it has to move, shift in the soil. Don Quixote keeps on meaning something different, depending on whether the reader is Freudian or Jungian, Nationalist or Republican, male or female. As the sorrowful knight has travelled across the centuries, inevitably he has evolved. The twenty-first century Don is no longer the figure of fun of the seventeenth century, nor the Romantic hero of the nineteenth….” (Chapter 11)
I’d be a cad not to admit that Don Quixote’s Delusions is a lively read with many amusing moments. Of course it is amusing when the author (in Chapter 11) chronicles the way small villages in La Mancha, playing to tourists, rival one another with claims to be the “real” setting of Cervantes’ novel, or claim that certain places are the sites of the novel’s fictitious events. (Mind you, this is no sillier than the Shakespeare industry in Stratford on Avon persuading gullible tourists that certain buildings have a connection with Shakespeare.) Some of her accounts of part-time student revolutionaries in the 1980s are also funny.
On the other hand, her quest to locate an elusive Spanish national spirit in Don Quixote does lead her to simplifications and there are moments in her writing where she seemed to be playing to cliché. When she tells us briefly how she was, when younger, in love with a Chilean “revolutionary” whose child she bore, we do wonder how much of the story she has censored out. And I couldn’t help feeling that her view of 1980s Spain might have been radically different had she been lodging with a real working-class or middle-class family rather than the colourful but rather silly bohemians and bums she did lodge with. 

Footnote: Just for the record, you may find elsewhere on this blog my own views on Don Quixote, on Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in which Don Quixote is discussed, and on Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, concerning the Spanish Civil War.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  

REFUGEES WELCOME

When I was on a recent brief trip to Madrid (six nights only), I saw a sign on a major public building (the town hall) that disturbed me in a number of ways.

It said – in English – “Refugees Welcome”.

Part of my disquiet was that it was written in English. Why wasn’t it written in Spanish if it expressed the sentiments of the people of Madrid? The only answer I can think of is that it was intended for the mass viewing of the international television (or on-line) audience. And clearly, it was there because of the “Refugees Welcome” demonstrations that were coordinated across Europe some months back, in response to news of the drowning of refugees from Syria. The same sign appeared in many other European cities.

The fact that it was saying refugees were welcome did not disturb me in the least. Who does not sympathise with refugees? And in the light of President Trump’s inept executive order banning from the USA people from seven Muslim countries, are we not even more sympathetic to the refugees’ plight? It is quite clear that New Zealand has only a token regard for refugees and, while we pride ourselves on being a humanitarian country, we could quite easily accommodate two, or even three, times the number of refugees that we currently admit each year.

But there was something else that troubled me about this sign in Madrid.

Spain is a member of the EU, and it is possible that Spain will be accepting refugees from the Middle East when and if the EU works out some protocol to allocate certain numbers of refugees to each EU member state. But up to this point, Spain is not, and has not yet been, a destination for refugees, or even a country of transit for refugees. Tens of thousands of North Africans are passing through – or staying in – Italy each year. Tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East are passing through – or staying in – Greece, the Balkans, Austria and Germany, with a very high proportion hoping for permanent settlement in Germany, Sweden, France or Britain.

But Spain is so far hardly touched by this human tide.

In late 2015, Spain agreed to accept 15,000 refugees, but so far only a small handful have reached the country. Among other things, it is not where refugees want to settle. And here is my disquiet. Is it not too easy for a country, which is out of the way of the crisis, to loudly proclaim its humanitarian principles? The sign in Madrid might say “Refugees Welcome”, but the reality is that the refugee trail is far from Spain.

One evening, we were having dinner at a restaurant on the Plaza Mayor. There were hardly any tourists around (we were happily there in the off-season) and the waiter who served us had nobody else to attend to. So he lingered near our table and chatted quite a bit. He was Rumanian. He did not express any illiberal ideas. He did not say anything negative about Muslims or people from the Middle East.  But he did say that Spain was far from where the stream of refugees was flowing, and he made some rather choice comments on the humanitarian posturing of Spaniards who basically knew they would be highly unlikely even to see a refugee.

For myself, I thought of the line from Macaulay’s poem on Horatius at the Bridge: Those behind cried ‘Forward!’ and those before cried ‘Back!’

We can all support great and brave causes when somebody else is bearing the brunt of them.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Something New


NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“THE SEVERED LAND” by Maurice Gee (Penguin / Random House, $19:99); “HOW TO HAVE A BEER” by Alice Galletly (Awa Press, “Ginger Series”, $26)



            I must admit that I have not kept track of all the YA fantasy and adventure books that Maurice Gee has written. I’ve certainly done my best over the years to keep up with his adult novels, but I am so far behind on his YA works (never my preferred genre for reading) that, when I looked at the back pages of The Severed Land, I was surprised to see how many there are. Way back I remember reading Gee’s Under the Mountain (1979) and The Fire-Raiser (1986) to my older children when they were kids, and I remember once reviewing Orchard Street (1998). The publicity pages at the end of The Severed Land show me that Gee has written at least thirteen previous books for teens. So he is obviously highly experienced at the genre and (given the number of reprints) very popular.

The Severed Land is, says publicity, his first YA novel in seven years.

A land is divided in two by an invisible wall. The wall is maintained by the psychic power of the strange, benign, original inhabitants of the land, called simply The People. But only one of The People survives. Known as the Old One, this survivor keeps the land divided by his thought-waves. Alas, the Old One is enfeebled and may soon die. This would be a catastrophe, as north of the wall are the peaceable, dark- or black-skinned people who live in small villages and in harmony with nature. Some of them were originally runaway slaves from the south, and The People first erected the wall to protect them. South of the wall there are rapacious, largely white-skinned, colonisers, led by warring rival aristocratic clans known as The Families, who enslave the populace, pollute the land with their factories and towns, and promote war. Repeatedly, the southern tyrants attempt to blast their way through the invisible, psychic wall, but their cannon balls merely bounce off it. Shoo, a maternal figure for the leading character Fliss, remarks at one stage: “There’s no over or under the wall. Guns won’t work either, no matter how big.” (p.20)

One day young Fliss is sitting up a tree, watching a southern Family’s army trying futilely to bash its way through the wall, when she sees a young drummer-boy being mistreated, beaten and almost killed by a southern officer. Somehow, because she has a psychic affinity with the wall, Fliss is able to pull the mistreated boy through the invisible barrier.

In a way, she is sorry that she did.

The boy, Kirt Despiner, turns out to be a member of a different aristocratic clan from the one that was persecuting him, but he has all the habits and ways of thought of a haughty, pampered noble. He loves nothing more than fighting. He seethes with thoughts of revenge. He despises slaves and talks down to people. He is a selfish pest.

This is the set-up of The Severed Land and of course it heads, as many YA fantasies do, towards the initiation of a quest. It turns out that the Old One has psychic contact with a blind woman in the south, Lorna, the only other person who would be able to maintain the invisible wall when the Old One is gone. More surprisingly Lorna happens to be the sister of obnoxious Kirt. Lorna is imprisoned by an enemy Family. So Fliss and Kirt are sent into the dangerous south, on a quest to free blind Lorna and bring her back to the north.

This is a good and straightforward quest story. The contrast between perceptive Fliss and self-centred Kirt makes for clear characterisation for young readers. Kirt learns much from the hardships of the journey and is often on the verge of becoming more human and understanding. But Maurice Gee doesn’t make his transformation an easy thing. There are perils and escapes in the hostile southern country. Fliss and Kirt make contact with a sympathetic old warrior called Mutch, who seems to be leading some sort of resistance movement against the enslaving Families. (Later, Mutch’s words seem to open the way to a possible sequel to this novel.)

Some incidental elements of the story are far more frank than they would have been in a YA book half a century ago. As Fliss and Kirt pass through a land of starving people, there are hints (pp.71-73) that the inhabitants have turned cannibal and waylay people to eat. Some “mummers” approach Kirt, who poses as Fliss’s slave-owner, and ask if they can buy Fliss for the night for their pleasure (pp.84-85). In one low dive where they have to rest, the questing travellers are “kept awake by the sounds of rutting.” (p.94) A woman tries to entice Fliss into prostitution. (pp. 96-97). One also notices a number of vicious knife fights, including one bloody affray around a gallows. Fliss herself is very handy with her knife.

Reading a YA book by an author who writes as often for adults, you almost feel that you should decode what the author is really up to in terms of ideas. Of course it is now almost de rigueur to have an assertive and confident young woman as hero – perhaps an acknowledgement that girls are, after all, at least half the YA readership. The evils of slavery are obviously displayed (free north and enslaved south – is this some distant echo of the American Civil War?). So are the evils of colonialism, as Mutch’s movement seems to be a national liberation movement. Most of all, though, Gee shows the inequities of a society rigidly divided by class distinctions.

As Fliss and Kirt hide in a southern city, they observe this:

They sat on a bench in a dusty square and ate what was left of their food. Although enclosed by buildings, each was aware of Galp [the name of the city] stretching away – the river and wharves, the port with the workers’ houses and dormitories behind, the slums and stews running inland to the factory belt. And south on the coast Fountain, a town within a city – wider streets, green parks, business houses, town houses where merchants, lawyers, agents, administrators lived, keeping their servants and carriages and their respectability. Beyond and above on the promontory called Steeps officially, but Up There in the popular tongue, the Families had built their mansions….” (p.95)

It would be too easy to read “values” or social commentary into the tale, however. Gee is too experienced at the game to let a YA novel bog down in preachiness. The Severed Land is an efficient and engaging quest story with enough of characterisation and action to engage a young readership. Enough said.



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For a few years now, Awa Press has been producing its “Ginger Series” of long essays (each about a hundred pages), in which various New Zealand worthies set out to enlighten us on accessible aspects of life. Kevin Ireland on “How to Catch a Fish”, Richard Hall on “How to Gaze at the Southern Stars”, Steve Braunias on “How to Watch a Bird”, and so on.

Fourteenth and latest contribution to the series is journalist Alice Galletly’s How to Have a Beer.

Let me admit, before I say anything else, that I am not a great beer-drinker. I’m not opposed to the brew; but my experience of beer is that, especially if I drink it in the afternoon, and even in small quantities, it tends to send me to sleep or make me perfectly useless for any activity whatsoever. So – except if I’m a tourist in a brewery (as I once was in Kilkenny in Ireland) – I tend to avoid beer. In order of preference, my favourite tipples are (a.) black coffee (mornings only); (b.) wine (anytime, so long as don’t I have to drive); and (c.) black tea (putting milk in tea is an abomination).

I have of course met many wine snobs, all of whom I regard with polite amusement. According to my well-educated palate, there are only three types of wine (a.) very good and having a distinctive flavour; (b.) acceptable, especially after a few glasses; and (c.) swill to be avoided. There are no other categories, and outside professional wine-tasters, I think there is not one person in a million who would really be able to discern more categories of wine than these.

As for BEER (which is supposed to be the subject of this notice), I have so far in my life met only one beer snob – a chap who discourses on the demotic horrors of lager and proclaims the superiority of craft ales made in obscure English villages. I’m sure he knows what he is talking about, but a more experienced beer-drinker than I would probably be able to challenge him. I recently drank a beer with great delight – the mass-produced Belgian La Chouffe – but one of my sons advised me that I was really reacting to the alcohol content. For strange historical reasons, Belgian beers have a much higher alcohol content than German or English beers. La Chouffe is 7%.

Alice Galletly is a self-proclaimed “beer geek”. The origins of How to Have a Beer were a blog she produced when she decided to drink one new craft beer every day of the year – that it, she sampled 365 craft beers. The inspiration to do this sprang from her sudden realisation that in some New Zealand supermarkets, there are now as many varieties of craft beer on offer as there are varieties of wine.

Galletly is serious about her subject, and tells us about the agreed protocols of being a beer geek. For example, she recounts with shame how she once got drunk at a meeting of beer enthusiasts, and threw up a very expensive and much-esteemed craft beer:

There is an unspoken notion among craft beer enthusiasts that we should never get drunk. Drinking beer to the point of intoxication (let alone regurgitation) is a sport reserved for the unsophisticated masses, the consumers of cheap pale lager who wouldn’t know a Belgian lambic if it hit them on the head. Never mind that craft beer sometimes has double, even triple, the alcohol content of those lagers, we are supposed to share our craft beer with friends, sip it slowly, and drink it with food. In short, we are supposed to know better.” (p.13)

If she’s serious about the subject, however, her tone is most often light-hearted, flippant and filled with zingers and punch lines. It’s amiable but not exactly fine prose.

As a beer ignoramus, I was interested to discover quite a few things from her essay. First, her revelation (to me) that hops are a relatively recent addition to beer. The beverage has been brewed for about seven thousand years, but hops became part of the ingredients only about 500 years ago in Germany.  Water, malt (malted barley); yeast; and hops are the basic ingredients of the stuff as it now exists. Second, Galletly schooled me in the fact that the famous German “Reinbeitsgebot” (“Purity Pledge”), which you will find printed on the labels of many a pilsener, is not a guarantee of quality and never was. It is simply an assurance (dating from a couple of hundred years ago) that the contents of German beers have not been adulterated.

Then there was a lot of miscellaneous information that amused without really enlightening me on what is or is not a good beer. Ah yes, but then Galletly has a reason for not offering us a list of recommendations. As she winds us saying in the last chapter, the basic joy of drinking beer is the joy of associating with other people – and if your preferred type is something despised by beer-experts, ignore them and drink up anyway.

Most enjoyable section of the essay? The section where Galletly gives a glossary of terms which beer geeks will know, including the irresistible “brandwank” (it means those meaningless words with which certain niche brands attempt to market themselves – “premium”, “hand-crafted” etc.)

Something Old


 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“SKELLIG” (first published 1998); “THE FIRE EATERS” (first published 2005); “CLAY” (first published 2011). All by David Almond

            Some years ago on this blog, I wrote a general comment on what are now called YA (Young Adult) books – in other words books for older children and younger teenagers, between the ages of about 8 and 15. My contention was that even the most highly-praised of such books, regardless of their quality, never really match the subtlety and worth of truly adult literature. I made this argument after having read much-lauded examples of the genre and finding them simplistic, often sentimental, and certainly preachy, with their “messages” sticking out a mile. My conclusion was that YA books are absolutely fine for their intended audience, but that the only adults who read them regularly should be their authors and publishers, and teachers (or parents) trying to find something suitable for the kids. Any adult who told me that he or she had been genuinely inspired or enlightened by a YA book would always, to me, be somebody who had a very limited knowledge of grown-up literature.
As you can see, this was robust and provocative stuff, and it triggered a number of lengthy and angry responses. I was accused of profound ignorance of the best examples of YA, and many titles were suggested to me for my reading list. I followed some of them up and – sorry – they did not change my perspective.
If I meet a very good YA book I say “Yes, that’s a very good book… for kids.”
Where is all this going?” you now ask with mounting impatience.
Recently I was in the North of England for a bit over a week. I did not want to buy any more books, as my bags were already full (I’m ever mindful of airport weigh-ins). So I asked my good host if he had on his shelves something that I could read easily and give back to him before I left. He produced a copy of David Almond’s Clay, with a strong recommendation, he having shared it with his children. It was a YA book. I read it with pleasure, and before I left, I read two others by David Almond, which were also on my host’s shelves.
David Almond (born 1951) hails from Newcastle on Tyne in England’s north.
He began as a writer of novels and short stories for adults, and has written five plays, but he turned to YA fiction with Skellig, in 1998. It won many prestigious awards and was a great hit. Since then, Almond has produced a further sixteen YA books. Many of them have won literary prizes, he is highly-regarded by critics of children’s fiction and (oh dear!) quite a number of his books apparently appear on junior-school reading lists in England. At the very least, I hope you can see that Almond is considered to be in the top rank of YA writers. So judging the best YA work by his books is a fair test. I am not dealing with a bumbler in the game.
            I’ll deal with the books in the order in which Almond wrote them, rather than the order in which I read them.
Skellig (1998) is a fantasy with a very realistic setting. It is narrated by an almost-pubescent boy called Michael. Michael and his Mum and Dad have moved into a new neighbourhood. Their home is semi-derelict, and Dad is trying to renovate it. Michael has a baby sister and Michael is very worried because the baby sister is seriously ill. One day, while he is poking about in the rickety, cobweb-filled, junk-filled, smelly garage, Michael discovers an odd and sick little creature called Skellig – a diminutive manikin who is crippled and racked with arthritis. With his embryonic wings, could Skellig be some sort of angel? Could he help cure the baby sister? That is Michael’s guess. But Michael has made friends with a girl called Mina, who is clearly more middle-class and posh than Michael’s family. Mina is home-schooled, likes spouting William Blake, and has a thing about science. Her guess is that Skellig is some sort of freak of evolution.
To adult readers, Skellig serves as some sort of personification of the boy’s becoming used to the strangeness and complexity of the world that is not within his parents’ control – that strange and wilful world in which the life of a baby girl can be threatened with sickness.
In its plot, this plays out like a dialogue between faith and science, with the author not fully committing to either side. Michael gets to learn about evolution at school and Mina’s view seems to hold sway. But then there is something ambiguous about Mina. Though she is a source of knowledge to Michael, her middle-class manners make her rather patronising towards the working-class lads with whom Michael also likes mucking around. She is a pal, but she is not entirely a source of light.
There are no indications that Skellig is set in any times other than the decade in which it was written (the 1990s). The other two David Almond books I read very clearly indicate their setting as being the early 1960s – that is, when David Almond himself would have been on the verge of adolescence.
The Fire Eaters (2003) is set in Almond’s hometown of Newcastle in 1962. Again, it has a boy as first-person narrator, Robert (Bobby) Burns. Bobby and his best mate Joe Connor mooch about having rough fun. They live their lives in the shadow of The Bomb, as 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and World War III seems a possibility. A crazy contortionist, fakir and fire-eater called McNulty comes to town. He does public shows in which he performs such stunts as pushing skewers through his cheeks. To Bobby Burns, McNulty is a fascinating but also a rather scary figure. But Bobby’s father tells him that he knew McNulty when they were both serving soldiers in Burma during the war; and McNulty was one of those soldiers who was driven crazy by war. The central symbols of the story, then, are The Bomb and a war-crazed ex-soldier – the scary things from the adult world that can hang over a growing boy.
There are a couple of interesting things about this YA novel.
First, Bobby’s family is clearly Catholic (as was David Almond’s) and the Catholic references are quite overt, although Bobby has a Protestant “girlfriend”, Ailsa, who believes in miracles. Bobby has passed his eleven-plus exam (the old system England used to have, to sort out those children who went to grammar schools and those who went to secondary moderns). But going to a Catholic grammar school is likely to separate him from his less academic mate Joe Connor.
There is the strong sense that the old Northern proletarian ship-building culture is just beginning to pass away. This is especially true when Bobby makes friends with a clearly middle-class classmate, a Southerner, Daniel, whose Dad lectures at a university and is in the throes of producing a photographic book chronicling the lives of primitive working-class Northerners, as if they are an alien species. Bobby gets some pointers about life from an art teacher at school and Bobby and Daniel join forces in opposing corporal punishment.
However, The Fire-Eaters does become very preachy in its later stages, with reflections on how the common and humble folk will endure and war is bad and one day horrible things like corporal punishment will be banned.
Which brings me to the most recent of these three YA book, Clay (2005). Once again a first-person narration by a boy on the verge of adolescence, and once again the working class setting in the North of England in the 1960s. Given that the young narrator has the same name as the author – Davie – it’s hard not to think that the non-fantastic parts are partly autobiographical.
Davie and Geordie are Catholic altar boys, but slightly naughty. They drink altar wine and smoke Capstans stolen from Dad. Being Catholic, they sometimes fight with gangs of Proddies, but this is purely territorial. The Proddies have on their side a ferocious giant “Mouldy” (Martin Mould) of whom Davie and Geordie are scared.
Enter Stephen Rose, who was in the junior seminary but who was expelled for some unspecified reason. Stephen lives with Crazy Mary, a harmless religious nutter, because his mother is dying. Stephen has extraordinary artistic powers, and moulds figures of saints and angels from the clay the boys bring him. But he is a malign and sinister character, apparently bent on controlling others, apparently wanting to accomplish some ill-defined revenge, apparently having hypnotic powers. At least he is able to make Davie see what he wants him to see. The priest whom the altar boys serve, Father O’Mahoney, is a genial fellow who comes across as a voice of reason and moderation. But sinister Stephen Rose is a demonic figure, like all that is alien and fearsome in religion as seen by adolescents.
There is some obvious symbolism in Clay, just as there is in The Fire-Eaters. Classroom scenes have an art teacher talking about the body and the soul; common clay and the immortal spirit, linking with Stephen Rose’s activities and Davie’s fearful puzzlement.
I will not destroy the plot of this YA novel by pursuing it to its conclusion. Let’s just say that a literal monster is made (“Clay”) and there are dire consequences.
The novel works because it taps into a moment in early adolescence where parents’ values and accepted values (whatever they may be) are being questioned; yet the adolescent has nothing but scepticism to put in their place. For Davie, confronting Stephen Rose’s palpable evil, the choice is between God or “nowt”. It’s a great merit that David Almond can convey this dilemma in a credibly young adolescent voice and mainly in short declarative sentences.
And yet, after reading these three YA novels one after the other, I saw a formula emerging. In each there is a male adolescent narrator. In each there is a family crisis going on in the background to the narrator’s adventures. In each the narrator has a sensible “girlfriend” in tension with the narrator’s continuing desire to muck around with his coarser mates. In each there is some class feeling as the narrator’s basically working-class background comes up against bearers of middle-lass refinement. In each there are scenes in the schoolroom where lessons can point neatly to some of the themes of the book (art, evolution etc.). And – most obviously – in each the central action is triggered by the intrusion into a closed community of an extraordinary outsider, fantastic (Skellig), scary (McNulty) or demonically malign (Stephen Rose).
I enjoyed all these books and certainly think they are just right for young adolescents – particularly young adolescent males. But they are the YA world where all things are signalled and conclusions are clear, reassuring and final.