Monday, October 25, 2021

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SPARKS AMONG THE STUBBLE”  by John Weir (Cold Hub Press, $NZ28); “SLIPS – Cricket Poems” by Mark Pirie (HeadworX, $NZ30 paperback; $NZ45 hardback); “SHELTER” by Kirsten Le Harivel (Cuba Press, $NZ25)


John Weir, priest and poet, published four collections of poetry between 1963 and 1983, but then his interests turned elsewhere. He has spent the last two decades editing the Complete Prose, Letters and Complete Poetry of James K. Baxter, his friend in earlier years. Sparks Among the Stubble is his first collection of poetry in nearly forty years. Let me say at once that I am very at home with it. Weir is a modernist who writes in a style that is instantly recognisable. His poems sit on the page in neatly-organised stanzas, his concerns are with literature… and eternity, and he is very accessible. No writing-school gimmickry here, thank you. And I settle in and read with both attention and great pleasure.

The title of this collection is found in the dedicatory quotation from the Book of Wisdom which tells us that when the Last Trump sounds, some will “run to and fro like sparks among the stubble”. We are tested and we die, some of us spectacularly, before eternity takes us. These themes hang over much of this collection.

Sparks Among the Stubble is arranged in four sections, which are not arbitrary but which strike four distinct notes

            The first tranche is very much preoccupied with imagery of gardens – where things grow – and simultaneously with images of the weight of age. In both “The Farm” and “Spring Day” there is a vivid but also wistful and slightly bittersweet recall of childhood. In “The Trench”, a wartime memory from schooldays conjures up a trench which grows over – in death we are in life. There are poems about the sea seen at twilight (the long day’s dying); and an earnest sequence called “In the Courtyard” which is not just about the perceived moment but which becomes a detailed reflection on ageing, lost dreams of youth, and (even in advanced age) the uncertainty of what’s to be. “I do not mean fate… that word which never had a meaning, / but the endless refining process / which fashions the true self out of what / we imagine we would rather be.” This sequence also remembers lost paths of youth when “smiling friends… urged us with deadly eloquence / to strive for what we never wanted.” The weight of age bears in on “A Visit to Cousin Jane”, which is almost a period piece about visiting an elderly cousin,  having tea and sandwiches and remembering the dead. It is also felt in “The Rite of Spring”, an ironic survey of the things, accumulated over the years, which come to clutter a house. Poems like these are weighty and detailed. In contrast, there is the ironic vignette “The Patriots”, on American over- enthusiasm, a poem which leads into other reflections on a visit to the USA.

The second tranche gathers together poems with a broader social perspective – they are nearly all written in the first person, “I” or the collective “we” which implicates all of us in history, dreams and personal mythology resonating over the years. Consider the sense of a whole family ageing and dying and the persistence of one odd anecdote (“One of the Family”) or a moment of quiet personal reflection (“The White Yacht”) or what is clearly a nightmare (“The Dream”). Then come the more public ones – the ones about history, like “The Negotiations”, where bureaucrats and statespeople huddle over plans that will probably accomplish no good; or “The Letter”, a vignette of an ancien regime cracking up; or “The Ambassadors”, an account of ambassadors from the colonial era who try to maintain an opulent European way of life in the midst of what they clearly regard as uncouth and barbarous countries. Perhaps the most wrenching poem for a priest to write would be “The Immigrants”, which considers both the way a new country gradually changes them, and the way, for good or ill, they have changed the country where “we taught them about the real God / who was a lot like us / but loved them just the same,” but who later have second thoughts about their missionary endeavour as they themselves are absorbed into the country and its culture.

The third tranche is, dare I say, where I am most at home – a collection of poems making critical or ironic or (less often) celebratory comments on well-known writers. Charlotte Bronte faces death and the loss of her siblings. John Ruskin is a riot of suppressed impulses. Ezra Pound and D.H.Lawrence are each summed up in a dismissive sonnet. Evelyn Waugh is a facetious young man filling his diary with airy gossip. Sinclair Lewis was an embittered literary bully. Edith Sitwell prepared for her death in a seemly and ceremonious way. Ernest Hemingway was a desperate and self-destructive man, playing a charade of manliness. Robert Lowell was an even more self-destructive (and mentally unbalanced) man. Thom Gunn’s (homoerotic) verse about bikies got damped down to sludge when California caught him. (Dear me, John Weir, you’re showing your age. Who nowadays has even heard of Thom Gunn?) No – I’ve been far more glib in this summary than John Weir is, but essentially these are his verdicts. I remember years ago having a bald, whiney-voiced tutor who hated W.H.Auden and made chastising comments about the way that poet filled in the moments when he lacked inspiration by writing sonnets about literary figures – Rimbaud, Edward Lear etc. This, apparently, was a very naughty thing for him to do. But I disagree. Criticism-as-biographic-poetry is a well-established genre. John Weir’s gallery of literati is a stimulating read, a charivari of biographical and literary criticism. I loved it. And I have to admit that in my own poetic practice I’ve written more than a few such literary side-bites.

The fourth and final tranche reverts to the personal. Much about death and memory. The death of an elderly friend (“At the Hospital”); memories that stretch back to childhood (“Grandmother”, “A Place by the Sea”) ; visiting a grave (“Too Late”); the death of an old man who had survived the First World War (“In Memory of Alfred Jenkin”); The death of a woman who collected stuffed toys (“The Toys”)  and a more public poem on the glitterati funeral of Yves Saint Laurent

The whole collection closes with an oddly tender poem dedicated to the inspired and demented Antonin Artaud. It reminds us that “In due time everything will become something else / because things are born not to be but to become.” A fitting envoi. See this as the launch pad to eternity if you wish.

John Weir writes with the authority of experience and the maturity of age. This is a solid and fruitful collection.


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Let me be quite honest about this. Sometimes I read collections of poetry for their sheer eccentricity, and sometimes I read collections of poetry that are aimed at a very specialised audience. Mark Pirie’s Slips – Cricket Poems meets both these criteria. It is aimed at lovers of the game of cricket – and I immediately have to admit that I am not one such. I think I saw part of a cricket match when I was at school. I can’t remember ever seeing the game again, apart from brief, unavoidable clips shown on the evening news. For the last 13 years, Mark Pirie has (as well as being a prolific publisher) contributed poems about cricket to a cricketing magazine, edited an anthology of cricket poems, and followed matches ardently. He is apparently besotted with the game. He would have to be, to produce the 130 pages of cricket that make up Slips.

Knowing virtually nothing about the game and its history, I enter this territory cautiously. Will I miss the arcane details of the game known only to cricketers? Will I fail to get the jokes about certain cricketers of whom I have never heard? Yes I will. But I soon find out that I’m not as ignorant as all that. Even I understand the technicalities outlined in the poem  “Eleven Ways of Being Dismissed”. And though I have to take on trust poems about cricketing stars like Ben Hollioake, Michael Clarke, Martin Guptill and others, I do know who Don Bradman, Freddie Trueman and Richard Hadlee were and – ahem – eons ago I did teach the late Martin Crowe at secondary school and occasionally saw what the press had to say about him. These players all feature in Slips – Cricket Poems. Mark Pirie is courteous and precise enough to offer footnotes to some poems, telling us which test-match and which teams he is referring to.

Let’s admit that some things in this collection would have been topical once to followers of cricket, but are now dated. One example – Pirie’s poem that comes nearest to a journalistic report, on how an international team fared, is “To McCullum’s Thirteen” which also (probably intentionally) reads like cheerful doggerel. At his best, though, Pirie can weave cricket into general concerns of human life. Where failure and disappointment are concerned, he brings into the poem “The Pavilion” the memorable lines “even the best of us / spends their time stuck in the pavilion”. Sometimes, too, cricket is simply the background for other reflections. “At Brown’s Bay” is a poem of remembered love, where cricket is mentioned only because the lovers walk past cricket pitches. “A Boy’s Song” uses cricket to echo (or parody) a poem by Ruth Dallas. Then there are wild flights of fantasy, such as “Space Cricket” (literally about extra-terrestrials joining in the game) and “Ice Cricket”, which sounds like a cricketer’s nightmare.

Pirie’s wittiest poem, “Islands of Cricket”, considers how cricket caught on with Indians in India in colonial times, but did not catch on with Maori in New Zealand. He manages to turn this into a cunning comment on colonialism as he does in the poem that immediately follows it, “The Reverse of Imperialism”. The final poem in the collection, “Cricket and Writing”, displays the same sort of wit.

There are a number of poems that have a nostalgic tone, such as the elegiac “Uncle Warwick” about an uncle who encouraged his interest in the game. “The Streaming Room” is  nice mixture of nostalgia and modernity as he considers how scorecards used to be tabulated and how the new world of electronics does it.  One poem now is now unintentionally ironic – indeed horribly ironic. This is “Cricket in Afghanistan”, which celebrates seeing cricket being played by Afghan children now the Taliban have gone.

As you can now see, there are many things in Slips – Cricket Poems that will resonate with non-cricketers such as I. But the core of it is detailed accounts of plays, their scores and the game itself. It is really for the specialist reader.


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From two seasoned campaigners to a newcomer. Shelter is the debut collection of Kirsten Le Harivel, Glaswegian-born and now, says the blurb, living on the Kapiti Coast (Gad! It seems that half our more offbeat poets live on the Kapiti Coast.) The 66 poems that make up this collection come in various forms – prose poems, poems short enough to be aphorisms, poems written in more traditional stanzaic forms. Very few stray beyond the single page. Kirsten Le Harivel likes to make it snappy, likes to stick to the point, likes to deal with the immediate moment, maybe even the epiphany.

Le Harivel has some major preoccupations which are the dominant themes of the collection. One is travel to foreign countries, seen in the poem “Volcanoes have the shortest names” which compares Scottish, Japanese and New Zealand volcanoes; or the anecdote that is “Digha, Bay of Bengal”; and towards the end of the collection a number of prose poems that also recall India.

Another theme is the condition of being a migrant, as in the prose poem “From One Migrant to Another”; or “When we came here”, which speaks of the quietness experienced in a New Zealand domicile in contrast with the constant noise of relatives back in Scotland. “From Loch Fyne with love” turns on a witty conceit of a Scottish fish-monger sending his wares to New Zealand and “Watermarks” is basically about years of adjusting to this country.

As one might expect, there are poems dealing with the perceived lot of women. “Submission” is a prose poem suggesting the inferior role women sometimes have to assume before men, while “Feminista” recalls a forceful woman of many skills who could act as a barista. Of course considering the sexes can also involve the subject of sex. “The bedroom” is written with a modishly assumed world-weariness as a list of bedroom behaviours including the words “fuck” and “fucking” more than any other text I’ve seen. (Sorry, luv, but the shock value of this has long since dissipated and it’s now a little passe ). The nearest Le Harivel comes to love poems are “If I could make a list” and “Pillow talk”, both of which are presented ironically, the standard stratagem of young people who cannot frankly admit their love.

It is understandable that there is at least some youthful angst in this collection, notably in “Butterflies”, a very sad first-person fantasia of self-denigration containing lines such as “I am a cement frog sculpture, /  my legs dangle into this abyss,  / a pond, full of water and plastic fish” and “I am a damaged buoy, floating in a turgid sea”. It is understandable, too, that there are some moments of social activism, as in “Kerikeri waterfall” which chastises locals for not knowing a Maori name.

Le Harivel generally writes with great clarity, whatever her guiding ideas might me. Only one poem is opaque and difficult to decode. This is “National identity project”, wherein, through four stanzas, she brings together various scientific concepts, extended imagery which apparently is designed to classify a certain sort of national chauvinism… or is it? An end-note says it was inspired by looking up the various definitions of “development” in the OED. Such concepts are usually a puzzle for the reader. This one certainly is. As for the totally unpunctuated poems, sans capital letters etc, “It runs through trees” and “You are an elegant thing” I shall pass them over as a current format.

I save the best for last. Le Harival excels in poems of childhood recall. Her most exuberant and relatable poem is “A Weegie lass”, a long-ish discursive account of being a young school-going, street-exploring, chips-eating Glaswegian girl. It is mainly a poem of raw remembrance and some joy, and I hope someday somebody has the wit to include it in an anthology. “After-school mothers” also remembers Glaswegian days. Her prose poem “The houses on our street are stuck together” is a rather more dispiriting account of re-visiting Glasgow as an adult. Many other poems turn on a Scottish childhood – and “Kilchattan Bay” is a more carefree adult return to Scotland.

As you might infer from the above, I am of two minds about this collection. While some poems work excellently, others seem more pedestrian or driven by current fashions in style. Even so, this is a very impressive debut and is, I hope, the beginning of a formidable career in poetry.

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 book published four or more years ago.  

“CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG MAN” by George Moore (written 1886; first published in 1888; revised version first published in 1926)

I’m in the mood for cannibalising something I wrote on this blog nine years ago (in 2012). I was introducing George Moore’s novel The Lake and I wrote this about the man and his work:

He was a very contradictory and annoying person, was George Moore (1852-1933). Of Irish Catholic background and education, he nevertheless had the attitudes, instincts and habits of thought of the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry. He certainly wrote some novels and stories about Ireland (A Drama in Muslin, The Untilled Field). In some ways his most accessible production is his gossipy, and often very bitchy, three-volume memoir of Irish and Dublin literary life Hail and Farewell, the separate volumes being entitled Ave!, Salve! and Vale!  But George Moore was really more at home in Paris, where he’d trained as a painter and absorbed the influence of Zola; and in London, where he lived for the last twenty or so years of his life. One of his first major novels A Mummer’s Wife, was a Zolaesque account of alcoholism among a travelling acting company. It has an English setting. The novel that is often considered his best, Esther Waters, is set among raffish bookies and touts at English race-tracks. Anyone reading these two would assume the author was an Englishman, not an Irishman. To compound the confusion, when Moore’s memoirs of his Paris days, Confessions of a Young Man, were translated into French, their title became Confessions d’un jeune Anglais.”

Since I wrote that, I have written on this blog about Esther Waters, Hail and Farewell, A Mummer’s Wife and A Drama in Muslin. Now, at last, I get around to Confessions of a Young Man, Moore’s autobiography of his early years as writer and artist in Paris and London in the 1870s and early 1880s, by which time he had discarded his family’s Catholicism and was assuming that he would never have to visit Ireland again. As it turned out, he did return to Ireland for quite a long stretch, whence comes his Hail and Farewell trilogy; but the youngish Moore didn’t yet know that.

Two warnings before I plunge my surgeon’s knife into his work. First, like the majority of autobiographies written by authors, there is a great deal of self-praise and some encomia of his own work. For comparison, you can look up on this blog comments about other authors’ autobiographies, such as Wyndham Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ; parts of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography ofAlice B. Toklas; and if you are so inclined C.K.Stead’s You Have a Lot to Lose and What You Made of It, or David Lodge's laborious autobiographies Quite a Good Time to be Born and its sequel, not to mention George Moore’s own Hail and Farewell. You will certainly find much self-praise in Confessions of a Young Man, though one sometimes suspects that Moore is deliberately provoking readers to give an outraged response. Second, like Henry James, George Moore had the dreadful habit of revising his fiction and non-fiction years after it was first published. I have read Confessions of a Young Man only in the revised 1926 version, but I surmise that some of the more critical things he says about his literary contemporaries would have been less frank in the earlier 1888 version when his targets were all still alive. (Mind you, in Chapter 12 he makes very rude comments about the still-living Thomas Hardy: “Mr Hardy was but one of George Eliot’s miscarriages.”) More annoying, Moore had already annotated and revised this book in 1904 and 1916.

So much for my introduction to Confessions of a Young Man. Let me now impose upon you a brief synopsis.

At about the time of his father’s death, young George Moore leaves his Irish home, and seeks to study and learn as a painter in Paris. He renounces home, religion and all they stand for. As he says in Chapter 8: “The two dominant notes in my character – an original hatred of my native country, and a brutal loathing of the religion I was brought up in. All aspects of my native country are violently disagreeable to me and I cannot think of the place I was born in without a sensation akin to nausea.” In Chapter 9 he rails against “pity, the most vile of all vile virtues” which he says is corrupting the world because of “the pale socialist of Galilee; and this is why I hate Him, and deny His divinity…” (Methinks the young man had been reading Nietszche.)

In Paris, he throws himself into painting, but he does not proceed as well as he had hoped and is soon outshone by his companion and fellow-painter Henry Marshall. So he turns his attention to reading, and attempting to imitate precious, “decadent” French verse. Without giving any explicit details, he hints at sensuous attachments and visits to Parisian brothels. There is talk of an unspecified duchess. He claims to be the bohemian who could mingle equally with low criminals and with the highest of society. (At which point I question how much of this is the young man’s self-dramatization as mimicked from Parisian novels of the Romantic era. It sounds awfully like the posing and posturing of Alfred de Musset or the young Alexandre Dumas fils.)

He discovers the novels of Emile Zola and switches his allegiance from the Decadents, now declaring that the greatest of all writers to be Honore de Balzac. He will be a realist dealing with the material facts of life. Nevertheless, he does not drop all his own dandyish ways, suggesting a desire to epater la bourgeoisie. Thus from Chapter 5: “I bought a Persian cat and a python that made a monthly meal of guinea pigs”; and in his apartment he had “an altar, a Buddhist temple, a statue of Apollo and a bust of Shelley” – all the accoutrements of a neo-pagan of his era. As the piece de resistance of his dandy decadence, he speaketh thus in Chapter 7: “A Japanese dressing gown, the ideality of whose tissue delights me, some fresh honey and milk set by this couch hung with royal fringes; and having partaken of this odorous refreshment, I call to Jack, my great Python crawling about after a two months’ fast. I tie up a guinea pig to the tabouret, pure Louis XV. The little beast struggles and squeaks, the snake, his black, bead-like eyes are fixed, how superb are the oscillations… and now he strikes: and with what exquisite gourmandise he lubricates and swallows.” Does one’s flesh creep at this? No, one’s flesh does not, so clearly is young George Moore straining to equal Joris-Karl Huysmans (or Oscar Wilde), but not quite making the cut.

Anyway, his time in Paris is curtailed when remittances from his estate in Ireland dry up and he is no longer able to sustain his life as boulevardier, bon viveur, poseur and aesthetic provocateur. And here we are reminded that George Moore was, after all, an Irish landlord with the attitudes thereof – for he rails at his tenants, the wretched Irish peasant farmers and the miners who are now refusing to (read: unable to) pay their rents and keep him him in comfort in Paris. See what I mean about living the role of an Anglo-Irish landowner, even if that wasn’t his roots?

So he has to lower his sights and (about halfway through this autobiography) moves to London, books into a modest boarding house, and tries to learn how to write in English without French locutions and overtones. (In Chapter 10 he gives us a brief anthology of the – dismally mediocre – poems he has written in both language). He begins to observe, as interesting case-studies, humbler portions of humanity, such as the ignorant serving girl Emma at the boarding house. Such English wretched-of-the-Earth will make their appearance in his later realist novels. He takes the time to launch diatribes against stuffy Victorian theatre, the deadening effect of education, and the silly censorship of Mudie’s powerful circulating library (especially when, at the same time, the newspapers are so salacious). In contrast, he praises the frank and open vulgarity of the music-hall.

And at this point in his autobiography, having become a regular book-reviewer, he takes the time to give his views on eminent writers in England. Thomas Hardy he dismisses. George Meredith gets his qualified approval. But having been given a copy of The Portrait of a Lady to review, he deals with Henry James (in Chapter 12) thus: “I will admit that an artist may be great and limited; by one word he may light up an abyss of soul; but there must be this one magical and unique word. Balzac, sometimes, after pages of vain striving, gives us the word. Tourgeneff [Turgenev] gives it always; but Henry James only flutters about it, his whole book is one long flutter near to the one magical and unique word, but the word is not spoken; and for want of the word his characters are never resolved out of the haze of nebulae.” As always in this autobiography, this is dandy talk, though I think Moore is diagnosing accurately the obfuscation, evasion and long-windedness there are in so many of James’ novels – though if he thought The Portrait of a Lady was heavy going, then he would have been totally stumped by the impenetrably ponderous novels of James’ late period. Indeed, I wonder if this comment was bulked up by Moore in the 1926 edition of Confessions of a Young Man, given that Henry James had died in 1916. Back in the 1880s, Moore holds particular scorn for that he calls “villa” novels of adventure (meaning more-or-less what we would now call thrillers) and (Chapter 12 again) he gives this back-handed comment on Robert Louis Stevenson: “I aver that Mr. R. L. Stevenson never wrote a line that failed to delight me; but he never wrote a book.” But then he discovers Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and has a literary orgasm. It is “the book to which I owe the last temple of my soul… I too love the great pagan world, its bloodshed, its slaves, its injustice, its loathing of all that is feeble.”

Can you now, dear reader, perceive the complete aesthetic and ethical muddle that is the mind of young George Moore? On this side the admiration of Balzac and Zola and hard social realism; on that side the would-be dandy and aesthete wanting to be Huysmans and Mallarme and Pater with a touch of superman Nietzsche thrown in. Put more simply, here is a desultor leaping from fashion to fashion like the impressionable young man that he is.

In one extended passage, he gives us a peroration on the young man (i.e. himself) as the key to nineteenth century culture. But he also includes a dialogue between himself and his conscience, berating himself for wasting so much time now that he is in this thirties. He engages in journalism. There is an amusing account of how he tried (but failed) to become involved in a duel, simply to garner some notoriety. The last words of the book are “The cold air of morning blew in my face, forcing me to close the window; and sitting at the table, overworn and not a little haggard, I continued my novel.” Implication: a great writer is now beginning his literary career.

Here are some interesting side issues to round off this review.

When he speaks of Henry James in Chapter 12, he includes this snarky comment: “The interviewer in us would like to ask Henry James why he never married; but it would be vain to ask, so much does he write like a man to whom all action is repugnant.” Even in George Moore’s day, the tag “he never married” always implied “he was homosexual”, as it did until quite recently in obituaries in the London Times. But in Chapter 13, Moore is rejoicing in being a bachelor and condemning people who dare to bring children into the world. The hearty heterosexual front he always wanted to display now seems very defensive indeed, increasing my suspicion that his tales of libertinism in Paris are probably built on fiction.

Then there is the very telling reaction he got from writers he admired.

In his preface, Moore tells how he sent a copy of this book to Walter Pater, and he quotes in full the congratulatory note that Pater sent in reply. But among other things, Pater remarked perceptively: “I wonder how much you may be losing, both for yourself and for your writings, by what, in spite of its gaiety and good nature and genuine sense of the beauty of many things, I must call a cynical, and therefore exclusive, way of looking at the world. You call it only ‘realistic’. Still!...”

Much sharper is the outcome of George Moore’s interaction with Emile Zola. To fill out the volume of the (final) 1926 edition of Confessions of a Young Man, Moore includes some essays. One, called “A Visit to Medan” tells of his two visits to Zola, who had agreed to write a preface for Moore’s Zolaesque novel A Mummer’s Wife. But then Zola read frivolous comments Moore had made about him in the French translation of Confessions of a Young Man, and he promptly cancelled his agreement to write the preface. Moral? If you want to make nasty comments about people from whom you expect a favour, make them in gossip behind their backs. Don’t commit them to print.


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.


                                     THE CONTINUING ALLURE OF GRAVEYARDS


On this blog, way back in 2014, I remember writing a posting called Let’sTalk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs. In it I explained my ongoing interest – not to say fascination – in cemeteries, especially old ones. I see them not only as peaceful places where one can ruminate, but also as repositories of history and reminders of past tastes. But when I wrote that posting, and having been to Paris for the first time since I was a child, I dwelt only on the Montmartre cemetery. Since then, and obviously before the pandemic changed the world, I have visited Paris three more times. I wrote the following item to celebrate visiting other Parisian graveyards, and submitted it to the travel section of a magazine. But alas, the magazine went out of business during the first round of the pandemic and the article was never published. So here I am presenting it to you as it was writ.


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            On our first trip to Paris, we spent some hours in the Montmartre cemetery way up on its hill. We dutifully saluted the graves of Hector Berlioz, Francois Truffaut, Heinrich Heine and other worthies. We weren’t sure we were impressed by the ostentatious red-stone grave of Emile Zola. For sentimental reasons, I kissed the monument to Marie Du Plessis  - the courtesan (i.e. high-class call girl) upon whom Dumas fils based his “lady of the camellias” in the play we now call Camille.

            On our next trip to Paris, I just had to see the Montparnasse cemetery, not too far west of the Seine, so that I could honour the grave of France’s greatest 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire. Funny grave it is, too. Most of the inscription features Baudelaire’s unimportant stepfather General Aupick, with the great poet as an afterthought. At Montparnasse we could also visit the cynical genius Guy de Maupassant, the imposing crypt of Camille Saint-Saens and the more modest graves of Cesar Franck and Samuel Beckett. I had fun making a rude gesture at the double grave of those two charlatans and collaborators Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

A passing Frenchwoman said reprovingly “You’ll be remembered for that.”

I certainly hope so,” I said.


But it wasn’t until our third trip that, after a long trudge up the Rue Henri IV, we at last got around to visiting Paris’s greatest necropolis, the Pere Lachaise, a huge 110 acres, east of Menilmontant and filled with more illustrious corpses than you could rattle a skeleton at.

What is this strange attraction of cemeteries? One thing I can tell you is that it is not morbid. It does not play to some sort of death wish or cult of the dead. Of course when you’re in Paris you spend hours in the famous art galleries and museums. You idle along the banks of the Seine looking at the bookseller’s wares in their lock-up boxes. You go to the opera. You visit crowded jazz clubs in the Marais (right bank) and even sweatier and shabbier jazz clubs west of the Sorbonne (left bank). You over-indulge in restaurants and wonder what’s left on your credit card. And you visit historic churches and discover that not all eminent people are buried in graveyards. Rene Descartes is interred in the church of Saint Germain des Pres.

All these things we have done in Paris.

But what if you want a quiet and big open space, with not too many visitors? Where can you enjoy the fun of the chase, as you look for the names of people celebrated or notorious? Go to an ancient graveyard, of course. For historical or cultural reflection, they are ideal. Plonk me down in London’s Highgate cemetery (home to the remains of everybody from Christina Rossetti to Karl Marx) or in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery (John Keats) or in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery (nearly every major Irish political figure – and it plays a big part in James Joyce’s Ulysses). For harmless hours, I’m in pig’s heaven.

So we walked through the gates of the Pere Lachaise on an overcast, but not rainy, winter’s day. The trees were bare. Crows cawed in them. As we wandered around the cemetery’s alleyways, paved with large, rough cobblestones, we thought it looked the way graveyards look in melodramatic movies with Victorian settings. But here it was in objective reality. Nature imitating art.

Almost at once we were accosted by a shabby-looking, middle-aged Frenchman who offered to take us on a quick tour of some of the more famous graves. Aware that he was a beggar, we took up his offer anyway and he rushed us to the tombs of Chopin, Balzac, Rossini and the painters Delacroix and Gericault (whose mausoleum is covered with a large bronze reproduction of his one famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa”). But he wanted to rush while we wanted to amble, so we paid him off and proceeded on our more leisurely way.

We found ourselves rating tombs. Most modest tomb? That of the novelist Colette. Starkest and most memorable tomb? The rough-hewn, jagged monolith over the remains of the poet Apollinaire. Most seemly and orderly tombs? Those of Moliere and La Fontaine, in a section of the cemetery that existed before the Romantic era and the mania for self-aggrandisement in funerary design. Most hard-to-find tomb? We helped an Italian couple to search for the double grave of the artist Mogdiliani and his pregnant girlfriend, with whom he committed suicide. It turns out to be three rows in from the main path.

And most godawful ugly tomb? Regrettably, it’s the hideous square thing Jacob Epstein designed for Oscar Wilde’s grave, rendered even more hideous by the Perspex barrier that has been put around it to ward off graffiti-artists. I’m grateful that there is at least a decent monument to Oscar in Merrion Square in Dublin.

The part of the cemetery that sobers you is its south-eastern corner, where there are monuments to resisters who were executed in the Second World War (many of them communists). The graves that might make you tender-hearted belong to three women. Gertrude Stein’s modest tomb, with pebbles piled on it, Jewish fashion. Poor Sarah Bernhardt’s grave – once the idol of France and the most famous actress in the world. Now her neglected tomb overgrown with moss. Sic transit gloria mundi etc. And then the most loved grave of all. Edith Piaf’s, obviously, smothered in fresh floral tributes. Unlike Bernhardt, she lived in an age when her performances could be recorded and are still enjoyed by millions.

After hours of epitaph-hunting, there’s no moral to draw from our visit to the Pere Lachaise. Only that touring a graveyard in winter light is a restful thing to do. And you meet the ghosts of very interesting people.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SHE’S A KILLER”  by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ55); “THE PINK JUMPSUIT” by Emma Neale (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ35)


Kirsten McDougall has written a novel which kept me reading into the small hours, so eager was I to find out how it would end. The mere size of the thing surprised me. Her first two novels were both taut and relatively short. [See reviews on this blog of The Invisible Rider from 2012 and Tess from 2017] But She’s a Killer is epic in comparison, all 400 pages of it - a detailed and exuberant story, filled with dark humour and comic invention but also suggesting personal tragedy and sounding out an only-slightly-exaggerated version of major problems that are already worrying New Zealanders. As I have often asserted, the best comedy is always serious at heart.

She’s a Killer is set in the dystopian New Zealand of just a few years away. Waterways are befouled, so clean water is both rare and rationed. Climate change is taking its toll. Yet compared with other recent full-on dystopian climate-change-nightmare New Zealand novels (see James McNaughton’s rambling Star Sailors  and Lawrence Patchett’s more focused The Burning River ), She’s a Killer’s references to ecological disaster are discreet – mainly a few “noises off” with one-line references to riots in Auckland or a shooting in Palmerston North. The real social issue is the overwhelming and largely malign presence of “wealthugees” – incredibly wealthy climate “refugees” who have bought their way into New Zealand as a convenient bolt-hole. They are able to buy up prime land and in the process push up prices of everything from real estate to everyday food-stuffs. From Kiwis both Maori and Pakeha, a rising chorus of dissent is turning into rebelliousness. And of course there are demagogues to stir people up such as “Norman Brailey, an anti-immigration politician who had been in and out of government for aeons.” (p.55) ( I can’t for the life of me think who he could possibly be based upon…)

While this may be the novel’s context, and a necessary motive for the plot, it isn’t really the focus. Its focus is the psyche of the first-person narrator who is not just an unreliable narrator but a pathologically unreliable narrator.

Consider what sort of person Alice is (and by the way, I had to look up the blurb to remind myself what her name is, so rarely does it appear in the text).

Alice - presumably in a mental wonderland of her own – is in her late thirties, single, without any “significant other” despite having bonked various men, and a self-proclaimed genius. At least she repeatedly tells us that she once had an IQ test which placed her just one point below genius level. Her mother thinks she has never become the person she ought to have become, and has never fulfilled her genius potential. Alice herself is always allowing people to assume that she is one day going to use her genius to become a psychologist.

As she relates in a number of flashback memories, she had a turbulent and unruly childhood. Part of it involved apparently befriending a vulnerable little girl called Amy, who had no friends at school, but then abusing Amy in a very callous way. More extreme, she managed to burn down her parents’ house when she was a kid. Her elderly mother, in whose house she still lives, has never ceased to make excuses for her. Also as a kid, Alice had an imaginary friend called Simp who used to take over her brain and talk to her. Simp disappeared from her mind for years, but has recently returned now she’s in early middle age. Often when she speaks to others, Simp butts in to make clever comments, which occasionally reflect more common sense than the things Alice says out loud.

Amy is still Alice’s only real “friend”.

In a rare moment of self-criticism, Alice says : “I wasn’t into talking, especially not about myself. What was there to say? I lived in a dingy flat beneath my mother’s house. I’d been in the same job for nearly fifteen years. My childhood imaginary friend had just come back.” (p.75)

Like many people who border on the psychotic, Alice is extremely manipulative. She used to manipulate colleagues at an advertising agency. Now she tries to manipulate colleagues in a university’s clerical staff. She’s also absolutely cocksure about her own judgements. Without considering the consequences, she self-righteously walks out of one job when a colleague gets fired. Worse, she intervenes in, and effectively tries to break up, the marriage of her “friend” Amy. Of Amy’s husband Peter she declares: “Neither of us approved of the other. I thought it an enormous mistake for Amy to have children with him and I’d tried to stop it.” (p.49)

Now all this is told to us by Alice herself, which brings us to the dominant paradox of this novel.

Mentally unbalanced, perhaps delusional, self-centred, manipulative – Alice is somebody you’d never want to cross paths with in real life. And yet her narrative is intoxicating in its forthrightness, no matter how off-centre she may be. She has the energy of one who lives infallibly in her own head. This is Kirsten McDougall’s greatest skill. We begin to identify with Alice because she’s often funny, because her reading of other people can be acute and because her sidelight satire is often spot on.

She is wrong to intervene in Amy’s and Peter’s marriage, and yet her description of the couple convinces us that he is a materialistic jerk and she has become a craven house-slave. Of universities she declares “We were in the bowels of the university corporation, modern shovellers of figurative shit.” (p.27) A crude and rude statement, but then elsewhere there is reference to a university’s Russian department being closed down (pointing to the utilitarian minimisation of the humanities in so many universities) and she comments accurately on kids doing pointless courses and building up nothing but debt for themselves. She takes an equally crude – but funny – kick at drama schools, saying of one: “Many of New Zealand’s acting and dancing greats, famous people the rest of the world had never heard of, had trained here.” (p.224) Sadly, one has to admit that actors egos often outrun both their talents and their fame.

Perhaps (like Jonathan Swift, like William Blake) real satirists can be at their most incisive when they are troubled in the head and very ready to call out the faults of others.

There is another reason for us to sympathise with Alice. Well into the novel, she meets Pablo, a smoothie who seems to be wooing her but who conveniently finds an excuse to buzz off and leave her looking after his 15-year-old daughter Erika. Not only is Erika more manipulative than Alice, but she is far, far cleverer; perhaps a real genius as opposed to a self-proclaimed one. This spells real trouble for Alice.

At which point I hit the wall that all honest book-reviewers hit. Where newly-published novels are concerned, it is not my role to introduce “spoilers” and sabotage those twists of plot (and characterisation) that the author has devised to surprise us. Suffice it to say that the trouble Erika leads Alice into has to do with hitting back at “wealthugees” and some eco-terrorism. The last quarter of the novel has the tension of a good thriller and a sort of metamorphosis - or at least some self-realisation – in the mind of Alice.

In Alice, Kirsten McDougall has created a great tragi-comic character. This is a very accomplished novel, giving a unique viewpoint and polishing it in a strong narrative. Readers looking just for a good story will find it here, but readers interested in the complexities of the mind with also find that here. I recently had the pleasure of dubbing another author’s work as “compulsive reading”. I do the same for She’s a Killer. 

  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Emma Neale is best known as poet, novelist and erstwhile editor of Landfall. She has never before published a collection of her shorter prose fiction. Comprising twenty-eight tales and reflections, The Pink Jumpsuit is her first collection of short stories.

Reviewing collections of short stories presents the same problem as reviewing collections of poetry. Each story (or poem) is a separate and unique text and deserves analysis of itself. But the reviewer is compelled to discuss, more generally, the flavour of the whole collection. So here I go once again name-checking and making generalisations.

None of Emma Neale’s stories is very long. But many of them are very short, being a paragraph or a couple of pages. These offerings are very much in the mode of “flash fiction” and are epiphanies, reflections or moments of inspiration, each making one dominant point. Thus “Mothian” and “Courtship” which are almost prose poems; or the anecdote “Obitchuary” about journalistic revenge; or the vignettes, “Cabaret”, “The Apocalypse Shelves” and  “Faery lights”, the last of which becomes a sort of miniscule horror story.

            In both the “flash fiction” and the longer stories, there are some dominant concerns. When Neale deals with families, there is a strong sense of stress or crisis, especially in married or sexual situations. In “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue” three different sorts of relationship are presented, one of them gay, and two of them suggest a relationship coming unstuck. “The Leopard Skin print handbag” suggests the subtle codes that can show a marriage disintegrating. Without being preached to, we are often shown that men exploit women as in “Off-casts”, “Ditched” and “Deep Liking” which are all about men’s fickleness in either dumping, cheating on or abusing women.

There is concern with pregnancy and birth, with a weird take on childbirth in the semi-surreal story “The fylgja” and a more troubling one in the reflection called “Braced”.

Inevitably, this is linked to motherhood and children. “Party Games” is almost a frustrated and angry woman’s wish-fulfilment fantasy as she attempts to control an increasingly unruly children’s birthday party. “Rack” displays a mother’s deep concern for her sick child, but (like other Neale stories such as “My Salamander”) it moves into surrealism.

It interesting to note how frequently fathers who are scientists appear in many of Neale’s stories, as in “The Spirit Child”, “The Pink Jumpsuit” “My Salamander” and “In Confidence”. Often the scientist father is related to childhood memories of living in California. There are also childhood memories of swimming in “The local  pool”, “Freestyle” and elsewhere. I am not so literal minded as to confuse first-person narrators with the author, but I do find it hard not to read some stories as autobiographical or at least partially-autobiographical, such as the meditation “Braced” or the story of uncertain identity “In Confidence” where the protagonist is called Emma.

There are some stories in this collection which really intrigued me and showed Neale’s mastery of the genre.

“Stray” is a pungent mood piece. It conveys perfectly the subtle changes in a young woman’s perspective and feelings when she attends a party in a student flat. She is at first alienated, then intrigued, then anxious. This is a tale that is also perfectly completed.

“Spirit Child” dares to have a male as first-person narrator and attempts to nail down the origin of men’s competitiveness, sheeting it home to the example of fathers and strongly implying that “man hands on misery to man.” (Another story, “Apples and Oranges”, also has a male narrator and encodes a whole family background in 12 pages – including trauma and heartache.)

Neale’s strongest suit, however, is the moral ambiguity in her best stories, where we are left to work out degrees of rightness and wrongness for ourselves.

Only a superficial reading would see “Trypanophobia” as the straightforward story of a racist getting her comeuppance. We are left wondering if the apparently sympathetic, but also somewhat self-righteous, character has behaved ethically. Similarly one of Neale’s more anarchic stories, “Worn Once”, seems at first glance to be a street-wise satire on marriage. It involves a young woman making an anti-marriage art project after she’s been jilted at the altar. But its outcome is pensive, ambiguous, not at all clearly satire only.

Like the stories of Elizabeth Smither, Neale’s stories must be read carefully and closely, though the preoccupations of the two authors are quite different. A very strong collection.

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 book published four or more years ago.  

“THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR” by Hugh Thomas (first published in 1962; revised 1965; revised again 1977 and later)

Very occasionally, a non-fiction book acquires almost legendary status as the definitive work on a particular subject. Such a book may be criticised, have its views modified or denied by later writers on the same subject, and even be regarded as superseded. And yet it will still endure as the book that people have to read if they claim to be informed on the subject it deals with. Such a book is The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas (1931-2017). It was originally published in 1962, when Thomas was only in his early 30s, a remarkable feat given its wealth of detail and depth of research. The first edition ran to over 700 pages. Thomas revised and slightly expanded it in the second edition in 1965, and revised it yet again in 1977, responding to minor criticisms of the first edition and incorporating new evidence. By this time The Spanish Civil War was over 800 pages of text.

Why did this book acquire its canonical status? Literally hundreds of books, in many different languages, had already dealt with the Spanish Civil War before Thomas’s first edition appeared. But almost without exception they were partisan, propagandistic about one side or the other, or romanticised.  Two myths prevailed. Myth One: That a military coup, supported by landowners and the church, fought to overthrow a democratically-elected government which most Spaniards supported. Therefore it was a war of Fascism against liberal democracy and “the people”. Myth Two: That a left-wing revolution was already destroying the Spanish Republic, and therefore the coup was necessary to restore order and bring stability to Spain. Civilisation was pitted against chaos. These simplistic myths dominated the field for the 22 years between the end of the civil war and the publication of The Spanish Civil War. Thomas’s book was the first scholarly and documented attempt to write dispassionately about the war even if, inevitably, his own views and sympathies sometimes intrude.

There is another reason for the enduring importance of Hugh Thomas’s book. Until 1975, Francisco Franco was still dictator of Spain and the only histories of the civil war available in Spain itself were those approved by his regime. Thomas’s book was translated into Spanish by a publishing house in Paris, and sometimes smuggled into Spain. After Franco’s death and a return to parliamentary democracy, the translation became a bestseller in Spain and for many Spanish readers it was the first time they had encountered a detailed, non-partisan history of the war. (There is one small glitch here, however. As has subsequently been pointed out, the translation slightly doctored Thomas’s text to downplay atrocities carried out by the Left.)

I read the 1977 Penguin edition of The Spanish Civil War, and page numbers are cited from that edition. I will not synopsise such a complex work, but will make just a few general points.

Thomas’s sympathies are clearly on the side of the republic, but he does point out its many flaws. He argues that in 1931, when the king abdicated and a republic was declared, it had a very defective constitution, and he notes (pp.74-76) that its framers “blundered” by including strictly anti-clerical clauses which, in effect, meant “Spanish Catholics were forced into having to oppose the constitution of the republic if they wished to criticise its educational policy.” As written, the constitution was bound to antagonise a large part of the population. Further, before the military uprising, in the six months between January and July 1936, there was already a breakdown into violence which the central government did little to curtail. The centre-left government had won power by a slim margin (it was no landslide) and “the Popular Front… seemed both in Madrid and in the provincial capitals, more and more the instrument of the revolutionary socialist Left.” (p.168) By the time the military revolt began, there were already many Spaniards willing to welcome it. This is an obvious fact often ignored in popular histories of the war. It was genuinely a civil war. If millions of Spaniards fervently supported the Republic in 1936, then there were also millions of Spaniards who fervently opposed it. It was not a war of “the people” against a small clique.

Once the war was in progress, the Republicans received almost as much foreign aid and equipment as the Nationalists did. (These terms “Republican” and “Nationalist” are still controversial. Opponents of Franco prefer to call his followers “rebels” or “Fascists”. Supporters of Franco called their enemies “Reds”. I’ll stick with the more neutral terms Republican and Nationalist.) But the Republic was uncoordinated and constantly rent by factional divisions – Luis Companys and the Generalidad of Catalonia really regarded themselves as a separate government from Madrid; and the Basques were aligned with the Republic only because they were fighting for national independence. Basque forces were mainly conservative and Catholic. Meanwhile the Anarchists, Communists and P.O.U.M. (an independent Marxist party) loathed one another; and the Centre-Left Socialists really didn’t know which way to jump. The Socialist premier Prieto tried to be the moderate socialist, but Largo Caballero took over as the radical socialist leader of the masses until the Communists manoeuvred him out of power and replaced him as premier with Juan Negrin, who was more compliant to their wishes. The Communists then flexed their muscles and went to war with both the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M., whose leaders they purged and eliminated in 1937. This was what has accurately been called “the civil war within the civil war”. Throughout all this, the figurehead president of the republic Azana could merely look on wringing his hands at what was happening.

Thomas examines in some detail why the Communists became so influential. Just as Hitler and Mussolini were sending men and materiel to help Franco, so was Stalin ostensibly provisioning the Republic. In fact, apart from promoting the overwhelmingly Communist “International Brigades”, and therefore posing as the defenders of democracy, the Stalinists were very niggardly in what they gave without strings attached. As Thomas says, Stalin “would not permit the republic to lose, even if he would not necessarily help it to win.” (p.339) As Thomas reports, Communists had been insignificant in Spain before 1936. Revolutionary groups in Spain tended to be Anarchist or Syndicalist (Syndicalists basically being insurrectionary anarchists in industrial settings). But once violence broke out, Communists seemed to the middle-classes to be more disciplined and acceptable that the wilder Anarchists. So opportunist middle-class supporters of the Republic swelled the Communist ranks. Perhaps this made for greater military efficiency – those Anarchist communes that prioritised land reform over military defence were the first to be overrun by Franco – but it also meant a freeze on radical revolutionary action and the imposition of Communist discipline.

So much did this alienate Anarchists and independent socialists, that by 1939, Anarchists were willing to join the Republican Colonel Casado when he raised his coup against the Negrin government, in the hope of making terms with Franco. This led to the tragic situation, in Madrid and the little that then remained of the Republic, of Casado’s supporters shooting it out with the Communists, while Nationalist forces waited outside the city for the dust to settle. Then Franco’s forces marched in and proceeded to ruthlessly kill survivors of both factions.

All this highlights one major theme of Hugh Thomas’s narrative – that the various groups of the Left were not unified and this lack of unity was one of the many reasons that the Left lost the war.

In extreme contrast, the forces of the Right were rigidly unified and essentially had a common purpose. In Franco’s camp there were almost as many diverse factions and political groups as there were on the Left. Most of the army, conservative monarchists, most of the Catholic hierarchy, centre-Right parliamentarians, Carlists (a monarchist group promoting an alternative monarch to the dynasty that had ruled Spain), and the one real Fascist group, the Falange. It is sheer laziness that leads pop historians to call all these groups Fascist. Franco’s priority was winning the war and he simply suppressed the different factions. Much to their disgust, the Carlists and the Falange were forced to combine and wear the same uniform, which mixed the Falange’s blue overalls with the Carlists’ distinctive red beret. Franco even imprisoned the Falange leader (Hedilla) when he objected. In effect, Franco, a traditionalist authoritarian, destroyed the Falange in all but its name (see p.461).

Military discipline was severe. Despite his clear and expressed sympathies for the Republic, Thomas cannot help noting that the Nationalist forces were more unified in command, more daring in manoeuvre, in a word, more professional as soldiers than the forces of the Republic were. (Though, be it noted, most of the commanders on the Republican side were also professional soldiers, even if the Republican troops weren’t.) Thomas also notes that the Republic threw away some of the military advantages it had at the beginning of the war. Most of Spain’s navy was in the hands of the Republic, but the government of the Republic failed to use this to block some of the Nationalist supply lines. Thomas calls the navy the Republic’s “white elephant”.

Given that the Communists (and their allies) “froze” the social revolution on one side; and Franco “froze” Carlism and the Falange on the other, Thomas calls the last section of his book “The War of the Counter-Revolutions”. He makes it very clear that the social objectives both sides had sought were submerged as the war continued. Through the blazing-hot Brunete, freezing-cold Teruel, Republican offensives on the Ebro and Nationalist counter-offensives, it became in part a war of attrition. It is evident that as early as late 1937, many Spaniards were sick of the whole thing, and covert, but unsuccessful, peace-feelers were put out by both sides.

And what of the carnage? Despite both sides claiming that the Spanish civil war killed a neat one million people, the total number of deaths seems to have been about half that, somewhere between 500,000 and 550,000, but still a huge toll for a country of about 30 million people. There were heroic stories on both sides (the defence of Madrid on this side; the siege of the Alcazar on that). And quite distinct from the battlefield, there were much-publicised atrocities on both sides (the bombing of Guernica on this side; the massacre of over 2,000 Nationalist prisoners in Madrid on that side). Thomas makes it clear that in the frantic first three months of the war (see pp.264-270), there was nothing to choose between the two sides in terms of the massacres of civilians and non-combatants. His final tally for the whole war suggests that the Nationalists eventually committed about twice as many murders of prisoners and non-combtants as the Republicans did. Later estimates have suggested that the Nationalist toll was even higher than that – about three times as much wanton murder as the Republicans committed. At the same time, Thomas does not hesitate to scrutinise closely some atrocity stories which have proven to be fictitious.

Part of the esteem given to Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War derives from the fact that it was the first scholarly book to attempt to cover the whole war, and not merely some aspect of it. Since then, other general histories of the civil war have been written, such as Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain (2006) and the many books of Paul Preston, including his accounting of atrocities The Spanish Holocaust (reviewed on this blog). (Perhaps it would also be pertinent to look up on this blog the review of the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life. The review  gives an account of his death in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.)

I’ll close with a few comments on Hugh Thomas himself. Cambridge-educated, and a prolific historian especially on all periods of Spanish history (he wrote a 1,000-plus page history of the Spanish Empire), he began as a man of the  Centre-Left and a member of the Labour party. But over the years his politics moved more to the right. For a short while he sided with the Conservative Party, but in his last years was a Liberal Democrat. He was eventually granted a peerage. He received many medals and awards, including some from the (post-Franco) Spanish government, in honour of his work in history. I came across one “review” (one of those brief, semi-literate statements by readers that appear on Amazon book sites) which claimed that Thomas was given a medal by the Francoist regime. This is patently untrue. Thomas’s work was banned in Franco’s Spain and, when it came to the topic of the Spanish Civil War, Thomas’s sympathies remained on the Centre-Left.