Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46

Specks of unfallenness

“There was now no place on earth left where there was a memory of a time without evil” (Tolkien).

What if that was not quite true?

What if there’s unfallenness
In little flecks and specks?
Little bits of Eden.
Resonance of bliss.

What if there was space and time,
Where the fall just hadn’t happened?
Where illness needn’t blight our lives,
And all might live like Adam?

So ill was David, he had to be trundled to the aircraft in a wheelchair, and helped from the air bridge to his seat by his wife Ruth, with the assistance of solicitous cabin crew. It was just possible that the wasting disease, the creeping illness that struck him down at random, could be treated with a rare new procedure only available on the other side of the world.  In the times since his illness had struck, Ruth’s world had focussed and shrank down to almost nothing.  There was only caring for her husband, looking after his welfare, keeping him clean in body and mind and spirit – keeping his spirits up.  Neither of them were young anymore; their children had long since departed into the wider world and had themselves become parents.  Ruth was worn down with care, and grey-faced with exhaustion. She did not look forward to the 12 hour flight to London, even in business class. As for David, she was not even clear that he was compos mentis at all; the  drugs he needed to stay the pain had been augmented by additional drugs to allow him to fly.  This was a last ditch attempt to find a cure, to find relief.

She was so constituted as to have no concept of doing anything other than her duty.  She barely even thought about it: in sickness and in health. No resentment at her lot troubled her.  She was unworried by bitterness or any sense of the unfairness of life.  In this she was lucky; her yoke was easy.  All she had to deal with was ever-present tiredness, with which she had to do battle daily, even hourly.  The last few years had been a quick but nonetheless arduous journey, a terrible path from the full health of the late afternoon of life, to the place there were now: a gathering evening storm, from which perhaps, there was no shelter. Thirty-odd short months, and now twelve eternally long hours, and then onwards: to meet with consultants, urbane sun-tanned clinicians half the age of her husband, polite, distant, ever so slightly but unintentionally patronising.

And all after an insect bite. Her David had been bitten by some insect, while they were on holiday in Namibia. He had swatted it away, thought nothing of it. Later, the itchy bite, the scratching, the cream.  Months later, like a betrayal, like a sudden unlooked-for defeat, the intense pain: to hospital, to discover that there was the dread infection of a mysterious wasting disease.

David: I need to hang in there and be good.  This really hurts now and even with these amazing tablets, I’m not really coping. I can’t be showing how weak I am; not because I’m tough – because I’m not.  I want to stay strong for my wife. I don’t want to let her down or discourage her, my dear darling wife of all these thirty-odd years. What a star she is; silver and gold to me, she has been. It’s not just the pain; it’s the dizziness, the nausea.  I hate nausea. To feel sick is to feel like death. I don’t want to wish I was dead: that’s God’s timing, not mine.  But there have been times when it’s been all too easy to wish just that. I wished I was dead. It’s like a panic rising up in me; like bile in my throat. I have to make constant efforts to push down the urge to panic, resist the urge to let my mind get out of control.

He thought again of that damned insect: he remembered it so well, the bite on his neck, the raised hand, the swatting away. Some kind of goddamn horse-fly. He grimaced at the thought. And afterwards, pain and itching.  But it was only an insect bite.  Soon enough forgotten.  Months later, back at home, he’d woken up with a fever one night with terrible sweats. Mopping his brow, drinking plenty of fluids. By morning he’d had a headache like an angle-grinder shrieking and whining away in front of him, the sparks going on his forehead and in his eyes. He’d gone to the doctor; the doctor had just taken a look at him and prescribed more painkillers and rest. He’d gone home again and followed the doctor’s instructions.  Two days later he collapsed.  The next thing he knew, it was a week later in hospital, him coming out of a coma with the worried face of his Ruth looking down at him.

The aircraft taxied out, turned onto the runway, and started it’s lumbering roll toward London. At least the noise and vibration weren’t too bad.  Course set, cruising altitude reached, and the long haul along the length of Africa began.

II

“Did you hear about that aircraft that nearly crashed, and everyone on board was somehow healed of all kinds of diseases?”

“When was this?”

“Couple of weeks ago. There was a short piece on the news, but it disappeared soon enough. I remember seeing it in the news at the time and it piqued my interest, because the flight was off course and had flying much lower than usual across some desolate stretch of African jungle.  Can’t say I understood or believed all the accounts of what happened in terms of healing.  But I came across it again the other day, and believe me…”

“Oh yes?”

“A patient was referred to me from South Africa. A gentleman had contracted some kind of an infection from an insect bite, and he had developed some very odd, very rare, and very terminal disease or syndrome of diseases arising from that infection.  I have all the notes; dreadful; a most unpleasant and horrible business, believe me.  It made Bilharzia look a cold in the nose, believe me. This guy and his missus were on that flight. I saw them a few days ago, and there can be no doubt in my mind that he was completely clear of any infection. He was going to die hard, and now, it’s like he’s thirty years younger. It’s just completely impossible, if I hadn’t seen the guy, checked him out as a doctor, and done the tests, I wouldn’t believe it.  I still don’t believe it, but the evidence is walking round the streets of this great city of ours.”

A number of factors conspired to a significant change of course for this particular flight. One, was a storm of unprecedented violence and tenacity right in the intended path of the aircraft. This, of itself, was manageable and, whilst unusual, did happen from time to time.  Controllers and crew had a range of alternatives from which to choose – different slight variations in vector, all intended to keep their passengers from getting bumped out of their seats.  The other, was ongoing civil war in a central African country right under some of the proposed new flight paths.  Whilst this did not pose a threat to the aircraft as such, it was company policy not to overfly this country if it could be avoided at all.  The “Swiss Cheese” Model of safety theory tells us that accidents happen when holes (as in slices of a Swiss Cheese) in a number of different layers or slices of prevention, all line up, allowing an accident to slip through.  Normally, the holes in these layers are all in different places, and because they never line up, accidents don’t happen. The barriers are in place.  But if by some malign mischance they do line up, then the defences are down, and accidents can happen.

The huge lumbering liner banked to port and began to lose height, all according to plan.  What was not according to plan was more – and very severe – clear air turbulence which took everyone by surprise. The aircraft dropped like a stone; loose equipment was flung about and people walking around the cabin or who were not strapped in were sent flying into the air. At least one passenger was killed instantly, his neck broken from being slammed into the ceiling of the cabin.  In economy, a trolley was lifted into the air weightless and landed on several passengers, causing some dreadful injuries. There was for some time, rank terror in the cabin, shrieks of panic and dismay, before order, such as it was, could be restored, first aid given, and an attempt at tidying up could be made.  The captain, grim-faced, heard the reports from his cabin crew in silence. Arrangements were made to descend and land, at a coastal city in a country not normally served by this airline. For some time, the captain found his aircraft to be flying through airspace not normally used by civil aircraft, with darkest green jungle and mountain far beneath.

Ruth thought, this turbulence has been going on for too long.  Bouncy bouncy and I could do with another drink. She glanced up at the lit up “seatbelt” sign. As she did so, she sensed and felt the aircraft start to bank deeply to the left.  To do so whilst circling to land in a big city, was usual, but to do so out in the wilds of Africa, was unusual. What was happening?  And her heart and her stomach all of a sudden were in her mouth; the aircraft was falling; she was weightless. She felt herself rise hard against her seatbelt. Her book and reading glasses flew into the air. She automatically looked across at David in the next seat; his eyes came open from a drowse and caught hers. Even in this time, even in this pain, they were unreadable. Or so he thought.  She knew what they were saying. Unreadable meant something: David’s face, his eyes, she’d always been able to read: he was never a poker player or any kind of an actor, at least not until this disease had struck and the shutters had had to come down.  Another jolt: a violent tug upwards and then a jink downwards.  All around, shrieks and moans as the passengers felt the aircraft judder and sway around them.  The sound of small objects: cups and glasses, books, pens, tablets, being thrown around the cabin.  A dust of loose objects rattling around inside a cylindrical steel can, faraway over the jungle.

After this in-flight catastrophe, the aircraft made it’s way down to an airfield serving a city in a country that was wild and undeveloped even by the standards of west Africa.  Yet, land they must, and address the casualties amongst the passengers, attend to first aid and check that nothing was damaged on the aircraft. There was one rather odd experience common to all the passengers, as the aircraft descended.  It was as after the aircraft had come down through the clouds. Deep in the clouds, all of a sudden, there was a few brief seconds when it seemed as if the aircraft was lit up by golden sunshine. Perhaps, some of the more practical passengers reported, long afterwards, there had been some form of voltage surge to cause all the cabin lights to briefly brighten up.  Problem was, the records and the evidence in the computer systems of the aircraft, found no evidence of any such surge. But every passenger reported that they had felt suddenly as if the cabin had been lit up by sunshine. There was no report of lightning or of any explosion or anything of that sort.

David: The Bounce woke me up from a light slumber. I was reasonably tightly strapped in, so I didn’t move very far.  Books and various other things went lying into the air, including my all wife’s things.  After the Bounce I was no longer asleep or even drowsy; I was wide awake. After the chaos and panic was addressed, the aircraft began to descend; the Captain had announced what had happened and what was going to happen, how we were going to make an unscheduled landing at the city of Noula.  Even though I was already awake at the time of the sudden flash of sunshine, it felt as if I was woken up by it.  I suddenly came awake or was somehow revived.  I never saw it as such even though I was awake.

Ruth: My life is divided into before that flash of light, and after.  I’ll never see things the same way again. I was so tired.  Came that flash, that sudden burst of light, and it was as if someone had mopped my brow with Ambrosia. I can’t put it any other way. I felt renewed and refreshed; it felt like I’d been asleep for a hundred years, and awoke on a late summer’s morn. All my weariness was gone: my mind was cast back over thirty years to my youth, to those golden moments, those shining hours of youth.

Much delayed, after a certain amount of trouble in Noula, the airliner took off again and made its way to London, whence it arrived nearly eight hours late. 

Woodsmoke

He remembered autumn in the garden.
Autumn’s smell of woodsmoke.
The small boy feels valued,
of worth, in helping his father:
A much flawed man, but his father nonetheless.
His father did much in those brief days,
Showed the boy how to be.
And now whenever he smells woodsmoke
Or thinks of brown-leaved autumn
He remembers those times,
And sometimes cries in secret.

For I also am flawed.
And each time, my Father above,
Who is not flawed but perfect, without fault,
Pours pure gold into my own flaws
And polishes me up.

The heart of the fire

What is it in the heart of the fire
That calls us to stand and watch?
Why do the flames draw us nigh
To stare in the dark at the flickering light?
In the red of the glowing embers,
Something inside us is moved
Fire! From primeval past, some remembrance
Of flame and warmth, life and truth.
What truth is there, in the heart of the fire?

At lands end, the booming sea and strand
The cliff edge and the crumbled coast.
What yearning draws us there?
Why do we listen as we stand
Gazing out at ocean’s edge?
Why does the sea-sound sooth
The troubled heart?
What beauty is there, in the sound of the sea?

At the start of time we came
Out of the forest into the light,
Onto the sun-baked plain.
Out from the safety and the gloom
To where we could be seen
Where one mistake was doom.
And today the woodland scene
Remains a place of shelter.
What shelter is there, in the shade of the trees?

Who should not be charmed
By the face of the smallest child?
A baby grins in innocence, free
of art or guile, and the world smiles.
When babies laugh, the angels dance.
No-one looks askance
When a little baby gurgles.
Who would ever tire of such?
What joy is there, in the face of a baby?

The deepest peace is found
In silence. Order is rounded
And rightness renewed, in quiet.
As dreams order our troubled thoughts
So silence prepares us for the onslaught,
For the next task, for the din of daily life.
At the centre, at the hub, nothing moves,
and all is still and quiet.
What voice will we hear, in the time of quiet?