Category Archives: Memoir

A World Gone Mad

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A World Gone Mad –
The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939/45
Pushkin Press – £18.99

     God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness.

Amid so many of my reviews, I’ve so often felt both the need and the inclination to write that history continues to unfortunately repeat itself. The above opening quote, along with the title of this book, do absolutely nothing whatsoever to make me feel anything otherwise.

With a madman in the White House, France deliberating whether or not to vote for the out-and-out, Nazi-Crazed-Nationalist this coming Sunday, and an overtly spineless, dithering Theresa May in Downing Street, we do indeed live in a world gone mad.

Yes: God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness.

To add further fuel to a fire already out of political control, two of the above are women; which, when placed alongside the authoress of this fine book, Astrid Lindgren, does make one either quake with frustration or wonder what society has come to. There again, so far as Britain is concerned, there really is no such thing as society – an ideology set in inexorable place by another (altogether wretched) woman, Margaret Thatcher. And boy, has her vision come true.

As Britain is falling apart at the seams.

All the more reason that May’s cabinet should readily take heed of A World Gone Mad – The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 most readable, vivid and intensely personal chronicle of a Europe on the precipice of self-annihilation: ”What a world, what an existence! Reading the papers is a depressing pastime. Bombs and machine guns hounding women and children in Finland, the oceans full of mines and submarines, neutral sailors dying, or at best being rescued in the nick of time after days and nights of privation on some wretched raft, the behind-the-scenes tragedy of the Polish population (nobody’s supposed to know what’s happening, but some things get into the papers anyway), special sections on the trams for ‘the German master race,’ the Poles not allowed out after 8 in the evening and so on […]. What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it will choke us.”

Sound familiar?

What with Isis, terrorists and the deplorable Nigel Farage spouting forth with more nationalistic bile than ought to be allowed, the world is already on the verge of choking. Choking on it’s nigh unquenchable embrace of ignorance, greed and cowardice. Three areas this brave, and according to Die Welt, ”breathtaking read,” touches on throughout its yearly titled chapters (1939 to 1945).

Implausibly regal and refreshing to read, these 220 pages (excluding Glossary of Names) are a Swedish civilian and mother’s account of a dark and incendiary world – which more than anything else, ought to act as some kind of literary warning.

David Marx

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Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years

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Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years
By Torrens (Arthur Bourne)
Matador – £24.99

Back in the 1920s, there were more motor cyclists than car drivers, records were being broken every month at the Brooklands race track in Surrey, roads were empty and motorbikes constantly broke down.

Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years is a unique and rather fascinating record of an unrepeatable era in British motorcycling and engineering history. To be sure, it’s a decidedly friendly and inviting book, that’ll admittedly, primarily appeal to a certain elite: that of a most pronounced and similar persuasion to that of Torrens himself.

Its eighteen chapters traverse the history of what it was like to ride hundreds of miles round Britain on reliability trials, and how Arthur Bourne provided weekly guidance for thousands of youngsters on two wheels – young engineers such as Edward Turner and Phil Vincent.

He furthermore writes of Brooklands and TT races on the Isle of Man, along with his experience(s) of the Second World War, where he enabled the airborne forces at Arnhem to be equipped with ‘lightweight’ motorcycles that could be dropped by parachute or flown in by glider! So in all, this is something of a rather rambunctious story that needs to be told really; which, along with assorted black and white newspaper clippings and photographs, provides for an altogether delightful, although at times, enlightening read.

For instance, in the fifteenth chapter (‘Motor Cycles In War’), Bourne writes: ”But for the Nazis telling the Dutch distributors of D.K.W.s that either they got rid of their Jewish directors or they would have no more D.K.W.s., there would not have been one of the 12,000 and more British wartime ‘Flying Fleas.’ I would not have the letter from 3 Div, one of the two assault divisions on the Normandy Beaches, saying ”They (600 of them) are just the thing for the job,” there would have been no Fleas for controlling the landing of supplies on the Beaches. B.S.A.s would not have had their highly successful post-War B.S.A Bantan and there would not have been the gifts from Royal Enfield and James of reconditioned Fleas that enabled the RAC/ACU ‘Training Scheme for Learner Motor Cyclists to get going.”

Arthur Bourne, who used the pseudonym ‘Torrens’ for readers of the best-selling weekly The Motor Cycle, was most definitely in the thick of a garrulous game – of which these 308 pages are a mere glimpse.

David Marx

Jack London On Adventure

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Jack London On Adventure –
Words Of Wisdom From An Expert Adventurer
Skyhorse Publishing – $12.99

The thought of work was repulsive. I didn’t care if I never settled down. Learning a trade could go hang. It was a whole let better to royster and frolic over the world in the way I had previously done. So I headed out on the adventure path again.

                                                                        ‘The Artist As Adventurer’

Obviously written during an era when adventure was a complete and all circumnavigating way of life, one which was undeniably, deeply instilled within the fibre of ones’ being – rather than subscribed to by those who merely dabble in misadventure over the weekend – the writer Jack London certainly lived the life.

A life of his own design that is; which, regardless of how you care to look at it, was in and of itself, commendable.

Indeed, throughout his unfortunately brief life, he remained a free spirit of which Jack London On Adventure – Words Of Wisdom From An Expert Adventurer is something of a literary window, as the above opening segment wonderfully illustrates.

As opposed to being a mere linear overview of London’s entire works, this handsome little book is devised in such a way that it more dabbles and regales upon certain eras of London’s literary prowess: ”This gave them the seeming of ghostly masques, undertakers in a spectral world at the funeral of some ghost. But under it all they were men, penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, puny adventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against the might of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses of space.”

I have recently been asked to write the Foreword for a terrific new book on London entitled The Iron-Heeled Century: Rereading Jack London by the author, Anthony James; and amid my investigation(s), this is a fine and altogether brazen read – rather like the subject himself.

One which sheds oodles of light on an oft misunderstood, underrated writer (of whom George Orwell, among others, was a renowned fan).

David Marx

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,

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The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,
Volume I: 1898 – 1922 (Revised Edition)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
Faber and Faber – £35.00

As the English language becomes ever increasingly ingrained within the rancid fibre of acute simplistic-speak; signed, sealed, delivered and ultimately designed for a dumbed-down society of nothing other than moronic moguls – should it be at all surprising that the art of letter writing, essentially died decades ago?

Just so long as (hordes of) white males continue to replicate the switch-blade nuance of many a Camberwell gangsta, and their female equivalents, the saccharine, cloying annoyance of those (s)advertising carpets and/or motor-car-insurance as if on a penultimate edition of Strictly, then we may as well kiss the English language goodbye.

Indeed, the rich and varied language of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Richard Burton et al, is moving ever further aside to make way for The Eastenders- Sun-Speak of folly induced, cretinous, turgid, wank, innit?

All the more reason to remind ourselves of how very potent and powerful, inspiring and influential (not to mention wondrous and majestic), language actually can be. And this revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Home in on almost any of these 817 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Preface to the Revised Edition, Biographical Commentary, 1888-1922, Abbreviations & Sources, Editorial Notes, Glossary of Names, Index of Correspondents & Recipients along with a General Index), and one will be immediately reminded of what I write.

I would hasten to add that it might help if one is actually interested in the subject matter and the rather magnificent work(s) of T. S. Eliot; but to all intents and linguistic purposes, much of the language herein is of a f-a-r higher standard than that which would nowadays, be hurriedly dashed off by text.

Furthermore, it is surely an indicative sign of the times, that there are so many letters. There again, we are talking of someone who made (some of) their living by way of being an outstanding writer. There again, Valerie Eliot, has since 1988, continued to gather material from libraries and private sources in Britain and America for use in subsequent volumes. Of the correspondence that has come to light, a good many letters date from before 1923, so a revised edition of Volume One has been prepared to take account of approximately two hundred new items.

It might thus be said, that the new letters fill important gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and eventual publication of The Waste Land. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and least documented part of Eliot’s life, additional correspondence with family members in America along with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

Assimilated together, they undoubtedly give a far more detailed picture of not only the poet’s engagements, friendships and daily movements in London during and after the First World War, but they also shed much light on that of his reading materials: ”I received last night by the post a package bearing a label which indicted that it came from the offices of The Dial. When opened, it was found to contain The House of Dust by Conrad Aiken, and nothing else. There was no enclosure or inscription to indicate why the volume was sent to me. It occurred to me that it might be intended for review; and if so, I fear it was a piece of naughtiness on your part at Conrad’s expense.”

Naturally, it might be said that it is with reference to quite possibly his greatest work, The Waste Land, that will invariably invoke and trigger the most enthusiasm among readers.

This, alongside his wanton debt to the equally brilliant poet, Ezra Pound, are mentioned throughout a number of letters in the final quarter of the book, with, as the letters flood by, ever increasingly clarity: ”My only regret (which may seem in the circumstances either ungracious or hypocritical) is that this award should come to me before it has been given to Pound. I feel that he deserves the recognition much more than I do, certainly ‘for his services to Letters’ and I feel that I ought to have been made to wait until after he had received this public testimony. In the manuscript of The Waste Land which I am sending you, you will see the evidence of his work, and I think that this manuscript is worth preserving in its present form solely for the reason that it is the only evidence of the difference which his criticism has made to this poem” (to John Quinn, September 21st 1922).

With exquisite letters written entirely in French by his friend, Jean Verdenal, there are also a number of doodlings and drawings by Eliot himself, that, along with two wonderful sections of black and white photographs; all in all account for The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, being the masterful tomb of regal recollection that it is.

David Marx

The Unravelling

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The Unravelling –
High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq
By Emma Sky
Atlantic Books – £9.99

The fourteenth chapter of this overtly credible book opens with a line from Thucidides: ”The strong do as they can – and the weak suffer as they must” (‘Melian Dialogue’). A frank and somewhat discerning line, which, if you really think about it, depicts the whole valiant Iraqi debacle rather well.

But what instinctively separates The Unravelling – High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq from a plethora of its contenders, is how intuitively insightful its 363 pages have been put together by its author.

Emma Sky was working for the British Council during the invasion of Iraq, when the ad went around calling for volunteers. Appalled at what she saw as a wrongful war, she signed up, expecting to be gone for a month. Instead, her time in Iraq spanned a decade, and evolved into a personal odyssey so unlikely that it could be a work of fiction. The literary result of which are these twenty-eight chapters (excluding a List of Abbreviations, Preface, Maps, Prologue: The Iraqi Enquiry, a Glossary: Political Parties and Militias, Acknowledgements and Index), many of which radiate with a propensity that suggests: having been there, I’d really like to share my experience with the rest of the world.

Or at least, those who may actually care.

It’s a war-torn memoir of sorts, that has been concisely conveyed and written with a certain panache, not often found amid publications of this persuasion.

As The Guardian has since pointed out: ”The Unravelling reads almost like a novel: a detailed and darkly humorous account that tries to understand everyone involved, Iraqis and Americans, on their own terms… Sky’s argumentative, chirpy and intelligent personality is thoroughly engaging.”

Indeed it is, which accounts for just one of the many reasons why this book – which was nominated for The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2015 – is so very readable.

David Marx

Sudan Days

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Sudan Days
By Richard Owen
Matador – £15.00

This ceremony has to be gone through, involving an inaugural speech, and the cutting of the tape, the symbolism of which is by now well enough understood, with the usual accompaniment of a large crowd, beef, beer, drums and dancing. The chosen head of the local government and some of his most honourable aldermen tuck up their gowns and join gravely and without self-consciousness in the terpsichorean exercise. Somehow it all seems perfectly appropriate, natural and dignified, where the Lord Mayor of London, dancing to a barrel-organ at his own show, with this robes tucked up, would not.
                                                                                            (‘The Nilotic South’).

Sudan Days transports one back unto another era; anther time, where the entire fanfare of the British Empire glistened to the tune of God and country and a whole lot more besides. For such was the resolute belief that South Sudan’s cantankerous, impending ”mealstrom of revolution and war” could be thwarted from Downing Street – in one mere swoop of the mighty pen.

Naturally it wasn’t, and it goes without saying that those involved, such as the author of this book, Richard Owen, found themselves shunted to the varying sideline(s )of miscalculated, political calculation: ”Over simplification is dangerous in historical affairs; but it is fairly accurate to separate the first and second quarters of the century, and to say that the main objective of the first was the establishment of order, sound administration and economic stability, whereas that of the second was political advance leading up to self-government.”

Herein lies the essential trajectory of these eighteen chapters as a whole (not including the Author’s Introduction and Preface), which, as already mentioned, visits another time and another place.

Written in such a way that is both compelling and oddly captivating, Sudan Days is as equally considered as it is colourful in both imagery and tonality: ”I know that my colleagues were not all paragons, that the Government we served made errors, that I personally made some gross ones; and that among the Sudanese themselves, from the highly-civilised urban intellectual to the bush-living primitive, there were thugs and scoundrels, as there are from Chicago to Vladivostock. Yet in nearly all that kaleidoscopic mass of humanity there were contrasting virtues.”

Just as there still are (I guess).

David Marx

A Heaven of Words

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A Heaven of Words – Last Journals, 1956-1984
By Glenway Wescott
Edited by Jerry Rosco
University of Wisconsin Press – $24.95

I sing wine and I drink water.

As the author of Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After, Kevin Bentley states, this (at times) overtly colourful and enlightening book is ”a frank and insightful collection of later journals from a brilliant gay writer and Lost Generation survivor.”

That it is ”full of literary and sexual anecdotes, wise ruminations […] and poignant reflections on growing older as a writer and lover of men,” does much to recapture not only a lost generation, but a lost time. An era, that when things happened, they were truly special amid the people to whom they were actually happening, rather than beamed across the planet – for all and sundry to see and share and comment upon – a mere few seconds after they’ve taken place.

The more than aptly titled A Heaven of Words (Last Journals, 1956-1984) is an inadvertent reflection, as well as confirmation of such; whereby the acutely observational Glenway Wescott (clearly never one lost for meditative thoughts nor words), mirrored all that he saw through his own, honest and highly intellectual prism of nuanced portrayal.

”Observation of pleasure” was after all, his ”religion.”

As mentioned in the title, these 279 pages (excluding Index and a section called ‘A Glossary of Glenway Wescott’s Contemporaries’), begin in 1956 and conclude in 1984. Along the way, there’s a menagerie of simply terrific one-liners, the altogether witty and esoteric likes of which, one doesn’t stumble across everyday: ”He introduced me to Jesus Christ, and also to the Queen of Romania,” ”[…] partings have to be a rehearsal for the great aloneness,” ”The verb ”belittle” was an invention of Thomas Jefferson’s,” ”What pain is to the body, shame is to the mind,” ”There is nothing stranger than life, unless it is literature.”

As with all great writing, the reader is transported unto another place, wherein the translucence of one’s own imagination is extraordinarily viable to be both educated and enhanced simultaneously. Take the following passage for instance, where, on May 13th 1957, Wescott wrote: ”I am an aging genius, with an insufficient talent; now pregnant with certain books that I have been gradually labouring at for years; in extremely unhappy circumstances in some ways; extraordinarily independent but with very little liberty; kept in extraordinary luxury here at home but penniless otherwise; perhaps due to be famous before long, perhaps more apt to fail, to sicken, to disappear from the picture. Yet there are a few things I know more about than anyone else alive.”

It is just such idiosyncratic insinuation that enabled Wescott – who began his writing career as a poet but is best known for his short stories and novels – to live the charmed life he did. Whether as part of the American literary expatriate community in Paris during the 1920s or revelling amid the company of such celebrated writers as Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maugham, Christopher Isherwood and (one of my all-time favourite poets) W. H. Auden – much of which is captured throughout this wonderful recollection in earnest.

David Marx