Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

All the landscape was the mill

A crowd of ladies from a faraway land, each dressed in brightly coloured fabrics, would come chattering past the house each day. They would sweep along every morning and evening, their conversations bright, adult, and quite incomprehensible in some unknown language. The little boy asks, who are those ladies? His mother tells him that they all work in the mill at the bottom of the street.

The boy learned a lesson young: who you are and what you are can be seen from where you’re going – and when. The direction you’re walking, and the time of day, tells us something about who you are.

At the bottom of the street, a crossroads. Go left into a quiet lane past the allotments to the edge of town. Go right past a bowling green smooth like a billiard table, to a sweet shop. Straight on, to the park, to school, to Cubs. The crossroads of our lives – turn each way for different lives, different paths. People will know where you are going, when you walk through these streets. Here, brick and tarmac, there, woods and quiet shrubs and grasses. Straight on – for play, and for learning.

The sepia stains of history lie on these streets, or at least it seems so, to the boy and to the man he became. Here, a grandfather swam in an outdoor pool. There, a street where an unsmiling lady stood in a crowd of joy and cheers, struggling to see the good in VE Day. Over there, the flats, and the outlines of vanished streets. The streets are gone, but the memories remain, thick like dust, easy to discern if you’re the right sort. Listen carefully, even today, and you can hear the treble drone of bombers, or the wretched tears of poverty, the grinding life of the urban poor.

He came back to those streets in a kind of pilgrimage, thinking somehow to reconnect with the past, with the feeling of those early days. If he could represent his childhood. all the carefree years of boyhood, as an icon, that icon would be a little image of the mill at the bottom of the street. He walked past that mill every day for years uncounted, it seemed to him when he was young. Endless weeks, he went past that mill, morning, afternoon, evening. And he never went inside it, in all his life.

As a young man, he’d sat with this father watching old Laurel and Hardy movies. They were amusing; there were wry smiles. But even as he watched them, he found that they were just not as funny as they had been when he was a small boy. He’d mentioned this to his father, who’d shook his head with the greybeard wisdom of ages. “The boy who rolled around laughing on the floor at these movies, no longer exists”, he said. The boy became the man, the young man became the older man.

Could these streets ignite a kind of holy nostalgia? Could they form a harbour into which a pilgrim might sail, to sojourn briefly in the past – a visit only. Not to remain. The mill was still there; the streets were still there. The crossroads by the bowling green was unchanged. The municipal lines of alternating plane trees and lime trees in the park – still there, save for a few gaps caused by storms of old.

Walking in past the park, he’d noticed that no single youngster was out playing. It was 4.30pm on a spring weekday afternoon. The roundabouts were siezed and rusted, the swings abandoned, it seemed. Where was everybody? Where were they all? He knew, really. No Marie Celeste mystery here. Just the modern world, risk averse, focussed on itself, with smartphones, tablets and unwillingness to be out of doors.

The mill was the fixed point – all the landscape was the mill. But there was no river of bodies pouring down the street to find work there. That river had dried up long ago. Here had been a future for hands of skill. No longer. That much had changed even in his own youth. What remained now, was clearly foreseeable even back then – if you could read the writing on the wall. What had been a mill making clothes, was now a university department. It was a department covering such matters as textiles and art, so there remained a tenuous connection with what had been. On the river of time, you cannot paddle upstream. That river flows only in one direction.

He walked up the street, remembering the red and blue bricks in the pavement. He recalled cycling down the street on a baking hot day, trying to keep in the shade. The baleful sunlight of reality was upon him now, beating mercilessly on his head. No golden light of evening, nor delicate pink at dawn, but scorching tropical sunshine at noon. A sunshine, as Kipling wrote, that sometimes strikes men dead.

Yet, though saddened, he knew things had to change. There is no going back. There’s no returning to those places of golden childhood. Nostalgia is a hip-flask from which we can allow ourselves no more than a discreet sip, every now and then. If we look back, we must look in thankfulness, not in nostalgia.

Treading his way up what he thought was a dried up riverbed, he noticed that there was a new river of bodies making their way to the mill, young people, people learning. people looking to the future. And reassured somewhat, he left that harbour and sailed away back home.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

I got this book on the basis that it was about Central Asia. A legitimate assumption, perhaps, given it’s title. But no, it is not about “the Silk Roads” as such.

The expression “Silk Road” comes not from antiquity but from a 19th century German historian. Just thought I’d throw that into the pot, so to speak.

Peter Frankopan’s book is a new history of the world, starting in deep classical antiquity, and ending right now in the second decade of the 21st century.

Persia and other middle eastern “silk road” countries are mentioned early on. The importance of the nations and states through which what we now call the “Silk Road” becomes apparent, though Persia -Iran- seems to be considered paramount.

The book makes a detour, in order to gain a wider perspective, into a history of Western Europe and the adventures of Europeans in the New World.

In my view, the latter part of the book is tilted subtly against the west and against America. This is never shrill, but it is there nonetheless. In this, it only really reflects the zeitgeist. Me, I like the West, I like America, and I like what they stand for.

Overall, an excellent piece of work, in the “grand sweep of history” style which does appeal to me.

2017 in reading

It has been a challenging year in a number of different respects. Difficulties at work, family bereavement, complexities in my volunteer role as a senior Scouter.

I’ve read nearly fifty books in 2017, though some of this reading will have been comfort re-reading – a bit like comfort eating or comfort shopping, but healthier. We’ll look at some of the more edifying reading, as well as some of the comfort food, here.

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

I started off the year reading this excellent overview of world history from the standpoint of trade.  Trade goes along roads.  This was a history of the world in roads, and had little enough to do, however excellent and readable, with the Silk Road or with Central Asia.

Stephen King On Writing

Perhaps the best and most inspiring read of the year, recommended to me by fellow members of the Woldingham Writers Group.  This was an encouraging and stimulating autiobiography, telling the story of how King wrote his first novel – “Carrie” – in his lunch breaks whilst working at a laundry. 

Stephen King – The Stand

Thought I’d re-read quality fiction after my interest in Stephen King was re-ignited by his autobiography on writing. The opening paragraph is unforgettable, classic Stephen King – “Arnette, a pissant four street burg in East Texas”.  Yet, he is never disrespectful of such a humble place or of the humble folk who hail from ordinary places.  King’s heroes in The Stand are not the Walkin’ Dude or the old lady Abigail, but common folk like Stu Redman, hailing from “pissant four street burgs”. 

Nicholas Monsarrat – The Master Mariner

Read masterly fiction – it should sharpen your eye and make keen your appetite for good writing. This is classic tale weaving.  Our hero Matthew, guilty of cowardice at a battle in the 15th century, is cursed by a witch to live on and on until he learns courage.  Clearly he had not managed it by the time of Trafalgar, centuries later.

David Eugene Smith and Louis Charles Karpinski – The Hindu-Arabic numerals

This is a nineteeth century work on the history of numbers, and is, for something hailing from that era, surprisingly accessible and informative.

Len Deighton – Declarations of War

Another fine writer whose work we would do well to emulate.  Deighton here brings us a series of short stories about war, some with amusing twists in the tail. We read one about the rise of right-wing politics amongst honourable and upright men – ostensibly in the UK – and only in the last lines  do we see the name of Herr Goebbels mentioned.  In another, men battle in the home counties against the German invasion, as the front rolls inexorably toward London.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan’s characters are bitter and twisted.  You don’t need to read more than a few dozen pages of his fiction to feel anger and frustration boiling off the page.  Here we have a dark detective story set in the San Francisco of 500 years hence.  An immortal man has killed himself – and it is important to find out why.

Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club

Why did I read this? It was on my daughter’s shelf.  It was certainly compelling, but ultimately a futile read about a futile subject.  And in any case, the first rule of Fight Club is, don’t write about Fight Club.  I should point out that I never watched the film, nor ever will I watch it.

W.H Murray – The evidence of things not seen

For me, the long-awaited autobiography of celebrated Scottish climber and environmentalist Bill Murray.  His work “Mountaineering in Scotland” is one of the best pieces of mountain literature available.  In this longer work we see the whole of Murray’s life laid out before us, from childhood, through his war service as a tank commander in the Western Desert, imprisonment in Germany, and onto his work in Everest reconnaissance in the Himalayas after the war.

Bruce Sterling – Holy Fire

I like Bruce Sterling; this earliest of the “cyberpunk” authors here tells a rather odd story of an old woman who through late twenty-first medical technology, is restored to full health and youth.  The holy fire, I think, is that of youth.

Peter Fleming  – Bayonets to Lhasa

Peter Fleming was the older (and today, less well-known) brother of Ian Fleming. Both brothers were capable and gifted writers. Here, Peter Fleming writes an account of William Younghusband’s assault on Lhasa in 1904.  It is an essential piece of reading for anyone like me interested in Central Asia or in “The Great Game”.

A. N Wilson – Our times

Another sweeping historical perspective work, covering the new Elizabethan era – our times – from the mid 1950’s until the early noughties.  Much changed in the first four decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  But, it might be said that more has changed in the UK since A. N Wilson finished this book, than in all the forty years before.

Geoffrey Wellum – First Light

A delightful boys-to-men account of a youth who longs to fly, joins the RAF, and becomes a great pilot, taking part in the Battle of Britain.  Even as I write this, I am reminded of Robert Mason’s classic “Chickenhawk” which tells a very similar story about a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  But Wellum’s account is stiff upper lip throughout.  Mustn’t grumble, old boy….

J D Vance – Hillbilly Elegy

J D Vance has been condemned as a “poster boy of the right” for his Republican views, but what he surely is, is an example of conquering adversity and winning through against the odds.  It is the story of how a boy from the backwoods of Kentucky,  a hill-billy – made good.  Three things contribute to his success: the faith, love and support of his grandmother; serving in the Marine Corps, and a certain amount of luck.  Other reasons are available: ability, charm etc.  A very inspiring read.

Isaac Asimov – It’s been a good life

I set out deliberately this year, to read autobiographies of great writers.  Find me someone who thinks Asimov was not a great writer, and I’ll find you a fool.  Isaac was blessed with a mind far sharper than most of us, and as a writer was energetic, prolific, and wide-ranging in interest.  John Campbell said of him, I think, “Isaac Asimov once had writer’s block….it was the worst ten minutes of his life”.

Rick Broadbent –  Endurance – life of Emil Zatopek

This was encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner.  I first heard of Zatopek when I was just a boy.  I recall reading about his amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon.  I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete.  The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.

 

R.A Heinlein – The unpleasant professional of Jonathan Hoag

Representing the many sci-fi books I read this year, this is Heinlein’s only real horror story.  It would make an excellent movie if only someone would write the screenplay.  The story opens with a man trying to find out from a doctor what the substance is that is stuck in his nails. He goes on to hire a private detective – to find out what he does for a living. After that, things get macabre.

Hampton Sides – Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

This was spot on: whilst at one level, a biography of Kit Carson, at another level, it is a biography or history of the American nation in the late nineteenth century, as the imperial expansion out to the Pacific was made reality by the grit, determination and plain nastiness of men like Carson and his mentor Fremont.  A very worthwhile read.

Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

A first rate canter through some interesting technical and cultural developments that shaped the modern world.  The book is basically an extended version of some chats given on the BBC World Service.  I wasn’t sure which one of the fifty I would have chosen, if any, as the most important, but if I had to pick any one, it would be the JOint Stock company or the concept the Limited Liability Company or LLC.

Len Deighton – SS-GB

I remember when this came out; I tried to read it then as a youth and could not make headway against it, however well-written it is.  Len Deighton is a master of the written word and you’ll learn a lot by him: read him, emulate him.  Unsurprisingly much-copied, this is the grand-dad of all alternative history spy thrillers.  I was particularly gratified to find in his story that the side-streets around the back of Victoria Station, on Vauxhall Bridge Road, were considered one of the roughest inner city areas in Europe.  Go there now!

Tim Marshall – Prisoners of geography

I go this in a charity shop in St Ives. A most excellent account of history as seen through maps, cartography and the importance of where you live, where your country lies.  Straits, river mouths and estuaries, mountain ranges,  cliffs and forests – these are the difference between life and death, wealth and penury.  Even in the days of cruise missiles and cybersecurity, your location still matters.

The tools

From underneath the coffee table, he drew a heavy wooden box, opened it, and showed me some of the tools inside.

“These chisels belonged to my grandfather”, he said.  “I cleaned them up, put these new handles on, and then I sharpened them”.

The thickness of history was upon the box.  He showed me the contents with the reverence of a man who had a deep love for things.

“This belonged to my dad”, he said, showing me one tool. I could not guess what it might be used for.

“What’s it do?” I asked.

“It’s for creating straight edges and angles”, he said, holding the tool in his scarred craftsman’s hands with a satisfaction that was almost palpable. Here, I was in the presence of greatness.  It was for him to speak, and for me, to listen.

“These here”, he continued, unrolling an old leather bundle of a dozen or more wooden-handled metal tools, “are wood-carving tools.  It was a set like this I gave to Andy.  These are much nicer, though.”

“What would they cost today?” I prompted, knowing that he would have something  to say about it.  He thought for a moment.

“Sixty, eighty quid each? But you can’t get tools like this any more.  These are real quality.  They are from before the first world war.”

Thoughts on the conquest of the American West

Long have I held a deep interest in the history and development of the American nation state – and most particularly, perhaps, the westward expansion to the Pacific during the nineteenth century.  For a number of interesting reasons, the conquest of the American West holds a peculiar and romantic place in our historical lexicon.

I’m just now reading Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder“, a wide-ranging history of the American south-west based loosely around a biography of Kit Carson.  Apart from some florid descriptive language in places, it is most excellent and readable.  Reading it has begged some questions about the American West, perhaps most particularly about native Americans and their relationship with “European” America both then and now.

Mr Sides reports that Colonel John Washington, leading a US Army expedition into Navajo country in 1847, said this of the Navajo: “they must learn to cultivate the earth for an honest livelihood, or be destroyed”.  This was and is a general principle, rightly or wrongly, true of all hunter-gatherer cultures faced with exposure to technically advanced agricultural societies. The subsequent forcing of those hunter-gatherer nomads into a sedentary and agricultural lifestyle would – and did – destroy much of their culture.

It begs deeper questions about hunter-gatherer nomads in general, and about native American cultures as they were in the nineteenth century.  We in “the west” valued and still value the right to own property – yet we questioned the right of entire peoples to hold land undeveloped and wild, as property through which to roam as nomads.  There are those who would argue that inherited wealth and private property are of themselves bad things: I am not among them. Lennon’s “Imagine” I consider to be a childish dirge, not trenchant social comment.

But those same people who argue against inherited wealth would find no problem in arguing that native Americans (and indeed aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the world) should be able to collectively inherit and hold vast tracts of land in order to facilitate nomadic or hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

In the face of the relentless and inexorable westward expansion of the United States, the native Americans could never have held onto their land by any kind of “right”, only by main force – an area in which they could never have hoped to prevail against the Americans for long.

The Navajo, Sides’ writes, had “no concept of individual land ownership or constitutions or the rule of law or the delegation of political authority”. Their traditions were radically different. They had no point of meeting with the American invaders at all.

Who was right? The concepts of private ownership of property, constitution, the rule of law and political authority are what has enabled “the west” (in the  21st century sense meaning a culture that is broadly Anglo-Saxon yet open to others, Judaeo-Christian yet secular, capitalist yet not against other ideas, and fundamentally based in the rule of law) to prosper and grow so far and so fast.

Was the culture of 19th century America “better” culture than the native American cultures that were so casually and brutally destroyed? Are we better men and women than nomadic hunter-gatherers? Are we better than those who eschew the rule of law, private property and constitutional politics? Are we in “the west” culturally superior to they?

As individuals, almost certainly not – as John Steinbeck says – “I think we’re just as bright as the cave-men, and that’s pretty bright in the long run”. But collectively, culturally, in the mass, I do think that “the west” – hypocritical, violent, immoral and amoral, wasteful and destructive, IS morally superior to hunter-gatherer societies. The minute we question that inherent superiority, we have already lost.  Too many of us do question it – it is the “lack of civilisational self-confidence” spoken of by right-wing Canadian journalist Mark Steyn.

Why do I think this? Look at how in the last 150-200 years, the lot of the common person has improved. Look at the lives of those Navajo in the 1840’s, and then at the lives of the common folk in America and Europe in the 1840’s.  Then look again at 1910, and 1960, and today, and marvel at how much better off we are.  Lower infant mortality, fewer deaths in childbirth, more disposble income, more leisure. More hygiene, more health, better diet, better living conditions. All of those improvements come through technological innovation, and that technological innovation is allowed and encouraged because we live in a culture that respects private ownership of property, respect for the rule of law, and constitutional political arrangements.