Monday, 28 June 2021


Van Morrison concerts are very popular internationally, but nowhere more so than in his home city of Belfast. Streets were closed off and commuter traffic seriously disrupted to facilitate his 70thbirthday concert on Cypress Avenue in 2015. 

The Hastings Hotel Group organised four “dinner and a show” nights in their prestigious city centre hotel in Belfast starting on Thursday 10th June last, with Van Morrison as the star attraction. Tickets for the events in the Europa Hotel sold briskly, despite public concern at the incidence of Covid infections. Given the regulations and restrictions on indoor dining and entertainment, it was highly unlikely the events would go ahead.

Relations between the hospitality sector and the Northern Ireland Executive, which sets the restrictions, have been strained. The Hastings Hotel Group is damaged by the lockdowns caused by Covid. The concerts were the business owners’ attempt to push through a test case and get some people through the doors.

The Legislative Assembly and the Executive were not minded to facilitate the Euopa Hotel concerts. They remain knee-deep in Covid-Related problems, as well as overseeing the worst hospital waiting lists in the UK and a school system that leaves children and families scrambling to transfer from primary to secondary level, often not making it. The Executive has a simmering furnace of divisions regarding languages, band parades and marches. Brexit and the EU/UK Protocol arrangement have set the city sizzling.

The first show in the Europa Hotel was due to start with pre-dinner drinks’ and nibbles. The hotel, a favourite of hacks, British, Irish and international celebrities, tourists and locals, was resplendent in early summer evening sunshine. The rooms were prepared, the food was purchased and cooked. The bars were well-stocked. The staging and sound equipment were rigged and tested.

The attempt to have the events labelled a test event failed. When Van’s celebrity charm didn’t work, the hotel owners blazed ahead. 

A bemused BBC Radio Ulster journalist, reporting from the street outside, said that people seemed to be arriving, at the same time as his colleagues in BBC Broadcasting House, around the corner on Ormeau Avenue, were reporting that the event was off. As a triumphant shambles, it took some beating, in a city where triumph and shambles are often default settings in public life.

There were highlights nonetheless, led off by Van chanting, in his very recognisable mid-Atlantic, growl

Robin Swann is dangerous! Robin Swan is dangerous!”

Robin Swann MLA, the Minister for Health in the Executive, is widely accepted to be doing a decent job in the face of the pandemic. Van and the Minister have history, with Van’s song criticising vaccinations and lockdowns described as “dangerous” by the Minister. 

The star-turn took a farcical political turn when Van called out “Junior! Junior!” and invited Ian Paisley Junior, one of Northern Ireland’s most senior MPs, onto the stage. The MP joined the singer and echoed the chant in full-scale political pantomime. 

Ian Paisley Junior’s North Antrim seat is secure in Westminster. Despite scandals and rebukes, he continues to be re-elected. He is the son of Ian Paisley, the founder and first leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, one half of the Chuckle Brothers, with Martin McGuinness, who kicked off our fledgling Peace Process. 

On stage at the Europa Hotel, Junior played Pantomime Dame to Van the Man-Prince, outperforming his father and warming up the public for the full-scale disaster-romp that has befallen the DUP. 

Edwin Poots MLA took over as party leader, ousting Arlene Foster MLA, in an acrimonious move. Thus began Edwin Poots’ MLA’s short tenure as leader of the DUP. The pantomime moved from the hotel concert, merely a sideshow, onto the main stage of Stormont.

Van’s chant turned on himself and on his karaoke partner. It infected the rest of the party, so that another heave has seen Edwin Poots MLA deposed as DUP party leader. He enjoyed just three “Astral Weeks” as leader. Jeffrey Donaldson is installed as the new leader of the DUP.

Hospital waiting times and lists still need addressed, while Covid cases are on the rise again.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

IT STARTED IN A HOSPITAL: my writing life


I began writing a series of personal essays at the start of the year, under the title 

Journeywork, with underlying conditions: a writing life. 

I have drafts for six of them to hand. They focus on my practice as a writer: how I go about it, how various medical and other conditions affect the work and how my work and my life connect. They include memories, reflections, writing notes, work and life incidents, health and ill-health experiences. 

I will seek to place the essays with periodicals and websites. If they interest people and hang together well, I will consider collecting them for a book.

The first one to be published is with

Wednesday, 24 March 2021


How many of us read the W in the question as the first letter in the word white? 

Could the W stand for women’s, as in Women’s Lives Matter? All Lives Matter (ALM), of course, but in a world where asymmetrical forces set women in the lower of the scales of justice, WLM is a corrective statement, not part of a question. Recent events in South London, where Sarah Everard, walking home from a friend’s house through a park, was abducted and killed, brought the truth of the statement, as experienced in the negative by women across the world, into sharp focus. 

The violence of abduction and murder perpetrated on a woman brought the ubiquitous and ferocious male violence against women and girls (MVAWG) into a glare of public and media attention. Such incidents are occurring all over the world on a daily basis and do not excite the interest of the Western media in the way this horror did, because it happened to a white woman in London.

Such violence is the tip of the iceberg of the indirect violence of contempt and discrimination, which underlays the direct violence in domestic, work and social settings. It is always there, lurking in the shadows of family life and the recesses of working and social spaces. When it emerges out of the gloom, as in the murder of Sarah Everard, anger and disgust are widespread. 

Recently, women protested across Australia against sexual violence and gender inequality, hitting the streets as outrage grew over rape allegations that have convulsed the conservative government. An estimated 10,000 joined the protest in Melbourne, with thousands more in other major cities including Canberra, Sydney and Perth. It was a painful reminder to women that it can happen anywhere, including in Parliament House. They are still fighting the old fight against an evil that thrives in silence and complicity. If behaviour is unnamed and ignored, it is validated. 

The murder of women in public spaces is one strand of male violence against women and girls. Most of the violence happens behind closed doors, perpetrated by men already known to the police. It has been greatly intensified by the COVID crisis.

The World Health Organisation reports that one in four women and girls around the world have been physically or sexually assaulted by their partners. The U.N. has called the rise in domestic violence, in parallel with the drop in rape prosecutions during the coronavirus pandemic, a “shadow pandemic”. 

UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, called men’s violence against women a pandemic, pre-dating the COVID. It needs a global response, with enforceable protocols. It is an educational and cultural challenge for the present and the future. In a patriarchal world, where gender imbalances are systemic, the experience of women and girls, and the evident impunity of male perpetrators of violence and abuse against them, adds weight to the continuing urgency to address the imbalance and correct the scales. 

I have two children, and, with their mother, I did my best to keep them safe, particularly in their late teenage years, when they were out socialising with friends in pubs and clubs. I tried to be consistent and just, offering the same advice and support to both of them about staying with their friends, making clear arrangements for getting home and being wary of the use of alcohol and drugs. I spoke to both of them about safety and respect for others. I spoke to both of them about violence. It was a period in our city when young men were being assaulted outside the after-pub takeaways.

I tried to be even-handed, but when the time came for my daughter to join in the young adult life of pubs, street and house parties, night-clubs and concerts, I felt more anxious than when I did when my son first stepped out. 

Why? Because, as a man, I knew the context in which male violence against women flourishes. I heard the disparaging remarks, demeaning women for their looks, their dress and their abilities. I grew up with films and television programmes where women occupied prescribed, often secondary, roles: the hero’s mother, the hero’s lover, the hero’s servant, the hero’s whore. I breathed the air which normalised this indirect violence and validated the direct violence that went with it. It was simply the way things were.

A recent YouGov poll in the U.K. showed that things are not improving. It found that 97% of women aged between 18 and 24 had been sexually harassed. It is an experience so widespread that simply being a woman makes you vulnerable to sexual violence.

The statistics are harrowing and behind each one is an individual and her family. Statistics alone are not sufficient. It is notable that, statistically, more men than women are abducted and killed violently, but that does not invalidate the fact that male violence, indirect and direct, is at pandemic levels across the world.

What are women to do? In London and in other cities women are advised to: stay on well-lit main roads; make a knuckle-duster froma set of keys and try to mark an attacker’s face, to aid recognition later; let someone know you are coming and are on your way; tell a friend when you have reached home; wear shoes you can run in easily; walk close to a kerb; be alert to any alleyways or hiding places on your route; avoid wearing headphones or looking at mobile phones. Stay alert.

What kind of society is it that advises half the population to take such precautions when moving around? 

What kind of society gives a new arrival at a university a rape alarm?

It is no surprise that women take to the streets to protest, as they did following the murderof Sarah Everard. When the state fails its citizens by not guaranteeing them safety, protest is the last resort. But protest is also the locale at which state violence appears in public. Images from the protests in South London, with women being kettled into small areas by police, then individually pinned down and arrested, revealed this graphically. Many young women will be confirmed in the view that whatever they do, they will not be supported. Confidence in police and criminal justice systems is already at a low ebb across the world. 

Men know how not to murder women. It isn’t that, in the heat of the moment, some of them choose to override this knowledge. It is that they do so in the confidence that the machinery of the state underwrites their violence. Legal systems are designed to legitimise and uphold systems of oppression – including those of gender, race and class – that individuals enact.

We need to change the way that we raise boys and young men. Where are the constructive conversations with boys about respectful relationships with women, combating the toxic stereotypes of masculinity centred around aggression and domination? Where is the Men and Boys’ Strategy to reduce male violence? If we fail boys today, we fail women tomorrow.

If it is a Women’s Lives Matter (WLM) moment, then it is a moment for the ambition for change to create the opportunity for change, knowing change will be resisted, and then to deliver the change desired. While gestures are important, they are just one strand of a fabric of change to be woven from these times. Gestures run out of steam, if actions do not follow. The doorstep hand-clapping for health workers, the athletes ‘taking the knee’ and the candlelit vigils are important but do no more than acknowledge the people involved.

My local radio station broadcasts a Thought for the Day each morning. The message usually resolves into an exhortation to embrace a religious message. It is often delivered by a cleric. Cheryl Meban, a Presbyterian minister and a chaplain at the University of Ulster, spoke forcefully and emotionally in the immediate aftermath of the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard. She said she was “sickened by the murder of Sarah Everard and heartbroken for her devastated family and friends.” She felt that the story was currently in the news cycle, but that it would go away and that the world would carry on as before. As I write, reports from Newtownabbey carry accounts of the murder of two women by a man known to them. He later took his own life.

Time for WLM? Would it provide an opportunity for interrupting that carrying-on, to push back against MVAWG and to re-set the balance?

Wednesday, 20 January 2021


Many people reading English and American books while coming of age in the early 1970s, found that Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a classic of travel, philosophy and homage to the motorcycle, influenced them greatly. Even if they didn’t ride or maintain motorcycles. Even if they didn’t travel far or study the philosophies of the Eastern and the Western worlds.

Pirsig described his book as an inquiry into values. He detailed how important ‘care’ was in all aspects of life, including in the maintenance of second-hand motorcycles.

I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care. 

Pirsig focussed on the word ‘quality’ as a key with which to unlock a path to the good life, lived fairly and justly. This focus on words is an example of a poet’s aphorism, as written by Seamus Heaney.

If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.

Now, almost fifty years after Pirsig’s classic was first published, another book picks up the opportunity for change offered by one word: Care. It is not a lyrical book like Pirsig’s, but a direct assertion of political philosophy, forthrightly named The Care Manifesto.

It is written by a group of academics, who came together in 2017 as a reading and discussion group. They are based in England. They work in various universities, in the fields of sociology, consumer studies, media studies and American studies. They decry carelessness, citing the pandemic as an occasion of negligence and waste. 

The first page slams government choices

to waste billions on military hardware against distant or non-existent threats and to funnel money to the already rich.

The writers apply the word ‘care’ to the challenges of politics, kinships, communities, states, economics and climate. They write short, well-structured chapters, only very occasionally slipping into academic jargon. The language is clear and the arguments are cogent. 

Writing in The Guardian, members of the Care Collective made bold assertions about ‘care’:

This very old word is newly fashionable, and with some unexpected twists.

They use it to as the foundation of a politics of interdependence:

We are never outside the social, we are not the autonomous individuals some fantasise themselves to be. There is only interdependence in human existence, as we lean towards and upon each other, as well as on all that sustains the world we inhabit.

In this Age of Pandemics, it is useful to have a manifesto to open our thoughts to possibilities of coping and improvement that might become real in the world, even in the hackneyed sense of creating the ‘new normal’.

Welcome and affirming though this manifesto is, implementing it will require an undoing of current power structures, a re-description of the word ‘power’ itself and a construction of a more just and fair world, with Care at the root of it all.

Not a problem. It’s with us and ahead of us. Seamus Heaney said it:

The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life. 

The Care Manifesto by the Care Collective? Highly recommended.

The Care Manifesto – the politics of interdependence; book; The Care Collective;Verso; London, 2020

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; book; Robert M. Pirsig; Vintage Classics; London, 1991

Seamus Heaney quotes:

Tuesday, 5 January 2021



Re-reading The Great Gatsby felt like revisiting an experience that made a good impression on me first time round, only to find the new experience empty of pleasure, meaning or purpose. There are beautiful sentences, a blizzard of expensive and colourful shirts and a bevy of selfish, wealthy people, none of whom managed to elicit a jot of sympathy from me. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella is considered an American tragedy. Gatsby is considered a tragic figure. It, and he, are not. Gatsby is a conman and a crook. The novella is a romantic melodrama, sensational and sentimental, with an ironically happy ending, shepherding the wealthy home to their mid-western cities, away from the decadence of the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A.. All except Gatsby, who lies murdered in his swimming pool. George Wilson, one of the only truly tragic figures in the story, lies dead nearby. He was previously cuckolded by the boor, Tom Buchanan, and later duped by him into getting rid of Gatsby, who, after all, is nouveau riche at best and, in the eyes of Buchanan and his coterie, no more than ‘white trash’ with bling.

The narrator, Nick Carraway, is an entry-level bond dealer in New York’s financial services sector. He is learning to become a hifalutin usurer, making loans to corporations and governments, usually on fixed terms advantageous to the issuer of the bond. Very large sums of money are involved. Great debts ensue on default. Cue the financial crash in 1929, which follows after the action of the novella.

In a sense, Carraway is a white-collar conman, Ivy League college-educated, thus immune from the whiff of criminality with which F. Scott Fitzgerald infuses Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures more than a whiff of criminality, spiced with anti-semitism, in his presentation of Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business associate. Carraway says that Wolfsheim’s assistant, a ‘lovely Jewess’, scrutinised him with ‘black, hostile eyes’.

Nick Carraway tells the story in an ‘I’ voice for the most part, shifting to a journalistic 3rd person voice in reporting the final crimes (hit and run, with the driver not stopping; a murder-suicide), until the narration returns to the 1st person voice for the lyrically-described train journeys westward. They cross a snow-covered landscape, somehow more real than that of eastern regions of the U.S.A..The snow-filled journey feels like a lift from the ending of James Joyce’s story The Dead, in particular the resonant lines about another journey westwards.

snow was general over Ireland … faintly falling … upon all the living and the dead’.

This is not the only allusion to major texts of English literature’s modernist period. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is often cited as a touchstone for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella. Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness, is cited as a source for narrative structure and form. Is Carraway modelled on Marlow, the rudderless young man with a well-connected aunt (replaced by Yale University, in Carraway’s case), through whom Conrad presents a tale with no heart and only dim light?

Carraway is a not an unreliable narrator. He is naive and unbelievable. I found his easy acceptance of Gatsby’s backstory hard to credit. What did his years at Yale prepare him for if he readily swallows the guff Gatsby offers him? Gatsby muddies his story at each turn to get Carraway to do his bidding. Gatsby pimps Carraway, who readily falls in love with him.

It is clear that Carraway has a commanding grip on poetic English. Did he get that at Yale, a very expensive university, noted for its academic work in science and economics? Perhaps he majored in Classics. His story-telling is littered with telling passages, such as:

I sat on the front steps while they waited for their car. It was dark here; only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft, black morning. Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, that rouged and powdered in an invisible glass.

Volleyed’ is quite the literary rally for a trainee bond-dealer, Yale-educated or not. 

The Yale education and the ostentatious wealth of the main characters validate the disdain with which working people – drivers, butlers, caterers, mechanics, police officers and others – are treated. Carraway refers to them as ‘ordinary people’, elevating his own milieu onto the extraordinary plain inhabited by the wealthy and the celebrated. This elevation of celebrity continues into cultural work today. Gatsby lives in New York’s version of Downton Abbeyon a bay on Long Island. He appeals to a craving for an old-world aristocracy.

Critics, notably Lionel Trilling, suggest that the novella highlights the social fissures of 1920s America, illustrated by Carraway’s waspish observations. Carraway describes George Wilson, the mechanic, as ‘spiritless’ and ‘anaemic’. Myrtle Wilson, the victim of the hit-and-run, is introduced as a ‘thickish figure of a woman’, in sharp contrast with Daisy Buchanan who, in Carraway’s accounts, is a breathy waif. Most of the ‘ordinary people’ are not given names. 

I wondered if I might have found Michaelis, the immigrant owner of the café next door to Wilson’s garage, a more interesting narrator of this thin tale. Or perhaps a telling by the ‘pale well-dressed negro’, who witnessed the incident, might present a more enlightening account of the fissures in American society in the 1920s. And today. But that wouldn’t do. They are merely ‘ordinary people’.

Critic Lionel Trilling suggests that a ‘modern reader’ knows that ‘in literature the interest in social position must never be taken seriously’. I found that strange, as it immediately set me as an un-modern reader. I am not ‘wholly immune from all ignoble social considerations’.

Trilling acknowledges that ‘Gatsby is said by some to be not quite credible’. He says he is divided between power and dream and thus comes to stand for America itself. Trilling then trumpets a well-worn tune of American exceptionalism.

Ours is the only nation that prides itself upon a dream and gives its name to one, ‘the American Dream’”. 

This is an attempt to aggrandise Gatsby, by affording him noble and Platonic virtues. He can, nonetheless, be read as a duplicitous chancer, who never really grew up. 

I hesitate to wonder if this may be a description of Donald Trump. Events in his presidency have shown that there are more than one ‘American Dream’. Dreams, American and otherwise, are multiple rather than singular, coming as nightmares for many, many people. The social schisms deepened by Trump’s presidency clarify that a singular dream will not suffice, certainly not one which sees a small cadre of wealthy and powerful people, mainly white men, stir a fever of discontent and neglect among the bulk of a population sold short by Gatsby’s version of the ‘Dream’. 

Trilling notes a much-reported spat between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, two writers who enjoyed significant financial success and celebrity in their time. One version of it has Fitzgerald remarking that ‘The rich are different from us’ and Hemingway replying ‘Yes, they have more money.’ A society that divides power from dreams and affords the former only to a wealthy elite destroys the dreams of everyone else.

Other versions of the ‘Dream’ were available in Fitzgerald’s time. The work of Theodore Dreiser, notably Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) and novels like Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1925) presented different dreams and tragedies. They were well-regarded and prize-winning. They do not have the same hold on ‘modern readers’. Too many ‘ignoble social considerations’ perhaps? 

Fitzgerald’s novella is famed as a grand romance between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby is obsessed with re-igniting it, going to extreme lengths to get closer to Daisy, yet always too timid to make a direct assertion of his love. I found it hard to believe that, in a social scene where bacchanalian carry-on was in full swing at the parties in his house, Gatsby was intimidated by the prospect of breaking up a marriage or of Daisy having an extramarital affair. Perhaps, like much about his life and behaviour, his passion was a chimera. Gatsby’s ardour is thwarted by his immaturity and, latterly, by Daisy’s venality and materialism. She follows the money in the end. Their mutual dismissal of ‘ordinary people’ enables them to dismiss each other, with the aid of Tom Buchanan’s self-serving chicanery. 

I sensed, on this reading, that the core romance is between Carraway and Gatsby. It is a chillingly modern bromance. The beloved, Gatsby, is not aware of the ardent affection coming his way, as he is too possessed by his selfish need to make Carraway do his bidding. 

I almost stopped (re-)reading about a third of the way into the book. I grew fed up of the vain hero, the incredible narrator and all the dreadful people. I ploughed on, through the snobbery and the sometimes glorious sentences, aware that literary style is rarely assigned to books featuring the poor or powerless, regardless of the wonders of Margaret Atwood and Charles Dickens. Writing possessed of style is sometimes no more than a cover for books about rich people. 

I enjoyed the ending, when it seemed the narrative voice grew more resonant and mature, as if Carraway, now thirty years old, had finally grown up. At the cost of three lives.

I didn’t go as far as to take up a suggestion by a friend of Fitzgerald’s, essayist, short-story and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, Dorothy Parker. I don’t know if she was referring to The Great Gatsby, when she said

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Would I recommend you read/re-read The Great Gatsby? A muted ‘yes’, if only for its fame and brevity.

The Great Gatsby; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Wordsworth Editions; Hertfordshire, 1993

The Liberal Imagination-essays on literature and society; Lionel Trilling; Viking Press; New York, 1950

The Heart of Darkness; from Youth: A Narrative; Joseph Conrad; William Blackwood and Sons: London, 1902

The Dead; from Dubliners; James Joyce; Grant Richards; London, 1914

The Wasteland; T.S. Eliot; Hogarth Press; London, 1923

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Reading The Voice is a Leaky Vessel

A friend sent me a Jan Carson essay; The Voice is a Leaky Vessel. She focusses the essay on ‘the first person’. At the end of the essay, she says she’s never going to master that voice, because she herself is a leaky writer. The metaphor gets strained to within an inch of its life.

I enjoyed Jan Carson’s essay. It got me thinking. And what could be better than that?

I was about three pages in when it struck me that Jan Carson and I have different understandings of what fiction is. I rest on the definition in my Chambers dictionary: fiction is an invented or false story; to form or fashion; with origins in the word Italian fingere (to feign); it is a novel or storytelling as a branch of literature.” 

I make the work up, as per the Chambers’ definition. I use the formula


Selecting the voice to write in is part of the feint. 

The opening line of the novel Tristam Shandy introduces, in the “I” voice, a character who is not the writer, Laurence Sterne, though Sterne’s own reading, life and times inform the character and the novel, which are imagined grandly. And that was in 1759.

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.”

The choice of voice, I suggest, is one of the many choices a writer makes when setting out. I’ve just finished Sue Divin’s new book, Guard Your Heart. It is written in two “I” voices. There’s nothing leaky about Sue!

I was three or four pages into Jan Carson’s essay, when the sense grew that she and I have different understandings of the word empathy. I went back to my Chambers: empathy is the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively expressing his or her experiences. 

The key words there, for me, are ‘personality’, which does not mean ‘person’, and ‘imaginatively’. The word ‘solidarity’ kept coming to mind and I was delighted to find it bolstering Jan Carson’s arguments as the essay drew to a close. Though she’s hesitant about it, I was pleased to read that

In short, I can practice solidarity without trying to make another’s personal experience all about me.”

And there’s the rub. I found the essay all about "me” rather than all about “Empathy and the first-person narrative in the era of Covid-19”. I sense this is one of the challenges of writing a personal essay, where the writer’s practice, their person and their world, notably how they manage to survive in the world, are the material of the essay.

Richard Rorty, an American philosopher, uses the notion of re-description as a way for writers to make solidarity manifest in the world.

Her description of what she is doing when she looks for a better final vocabulary than the one she is currently using is dominated by metaphors of making rather than finding, of diversity and novelty rather than convergence to the antecedent present. She thinks of final vocabularies as poetic achievements rather than as the fruits of diligent inquiry according to antecedently formulated criteria.”

Might such thoughts assist writers such as myself and Jan Carson as we gather voices, ideas, structures, language, characters and more, to caulk our works, our vessels of solidarity, and keep them from leaking and sinking?

The Voice is a Leaky Vessel; Jan Carson; Little Atom, 27.12.2020

Contingency, Irony and Solidarity; Richard Rorty; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1989

Guard Your Heart; Sue Divin; Macmillan Children’s Books; London, 2020

Wednesday, 30 September 2020


Arguably the perfect read for a period of self-isolation, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a lengthy and, at times, absorbing book, for which the reader needs to have a sound stomach in order to digest the shenanigans of aristocrats domestically, in political and civil society and in war. It’s like Downtown Abbey crossed with Apocalypse Now, on speed. 

Tentative comparisons may be made between the early 19th century, when imperial armies wreaked havoc across Europe, going west to east, then east to west, and early 21st century, when today’s imperial armies ravage eastern and southern regions of the planet. However, War and Peace is an historical novel, while offering insights into social and political processes today. Readers may consider it offers insights into human relationships and behaviour, but this reader is not convinced.

The best bits, in this reader’s opinion, are Books Ten and Eleven, including the run-up to the grotesque Battle of Borodino, as well as the aftermath. The section on the departure of the French forces from Moscow is striking, in particular the treatment of prisoners of war and the role of guerrilla parties of Cossack horsemen, also presented in Books Fourteen and Fifteen. 

The First and Second Epilogues are very interesting. They contain the kernel of Tolstoy’s thinking on history and power, as well as some neat narrative tidying up, mainly by getting aristocrats married off in readiness for the new-normal of the post-war period.

The worst bits, in this readers’ opinion, are in Books One and Two, where a slew of aristocratic characters is presented, in a flurry of soiréesballs and happy jaunts to country estates. This reader struggled at that point, finding the ‘bold boy’ antics and jolly japes of young men increasingly tiresome, in particular around a duel and a gambling loss of 43, 000 rubles in Book Four.

If it was a war film, a viewer might ask ‘why are we watching all this?’, while accepting that some set-up is necessary before getting the core story underway, with the invasion from the west in 1812. The French and Russian emperors, Napoleon and Alexander, preside over the story, with aristocrats and commoners all across Europe in their thrall. Tolstoy, as a questioning Russian patriot, treats the Russian Emperor better than he treats the French, though he comes down hard, at various points, on the view of history as the works of ‘great men’.

There are a number of terrific images and scenes involving bees, inserted as parables. In Book Eleven Chapter Eleven, Moscow is described as a hive without a queen, with no life in it. Writing about historical processes in the First Epilogue, Tolstoy describes the proliferation of causes and effects in the actions of a bee to illustrate his theory of history as a multiplicity of interconnections and events beyond human comprehension. 

A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilises the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee's existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension. All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life. And so it is with the purpose of historic characters and nations. 

Rising above Napoleon and Alexander is God, ever present, which is where Tolstoy locates the ultimate purpose that is beyond our comprehension. At a number of points Tolstoy asks why the immolations of war exist and why ordinary men leave their homes, farms, cities and towns to murder one another? He doesn’t supply answers. And his question remains before us today. 

The strange thought that of the thousands of men, young and old, who had stared with merry surprise at his hat (perhaps the very men he had noticed), twenty thousand were inevitably doomed to wounds and death amazed Pierre. 

"They may die tomorrow; why are they thinking of anything but death?" And by some latent sequence of thought the descent of the Mozhaysk hill, the carts with the wounded, the ringing bells, the slanting rays of the sun, and the songs of the cavalrymen vividly recurred to his mind. 

This Pierre, the central character of the novel, is the illegitimate son of Count Bezúkhov. He inherits great wealthy in one of a number of twists Fate plays on the central characters, enabling them to move through and often prosper in the novel. Inheriting wealth and securing a fortune by marriage frequently appear as methods of personal advancement. 

Pierre Bezúkhov seems to amble through the novel, trying out his new wealth, then ignoring it, while spending time as a voyeur at the Battle of Borodino, then enduring deprivations as a prisoner of war. He finally marries Natasha Rostóva, thereby creating an amiable family life on his estates. If the novel has a through line, it is strung along by Pierre, who embraces Freemasonry, portrayed as a stage in his moral and spiritual development, civic politics, public service, and the pleasures of being a notable land and serf-owner. He feels destined to assassinate Napoleon, whom he earlier admired, but doesn’t go about it with any degree of commitment. It would be reasonable to label him a wealthy dilettante.

Pierre is the character who mostly clearly resembles Tolstoy himself, in attitudes and behaviour. He presents an earnest benevolence in his treatment of his serfs, which foreshadows the release of serfs from servitude in Russia in the 1860s, at about the same time as slavery was abolished in the U.S.A.. This relationship is most clearly seen in scenes with Karatáev, a peasant-soldier who endured imprisonment after the overthrow of Moscow by French forces. Pierre admires him in a patronising and paternalistic manner, typical of the benign feudal lord Tolstoy aspired to be. 

Every word and action of his (Karatáev)was the manifestation of an activity unknown to him, which was his life. But his life, as he regarded it, had no meaning as a separate thing. It had meaning only as part of a whole of which he was always conscious. His words and actions flowed from him as evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower. He could not understand the value or significance of any word or deed taken separately.

To his credit, Tolstoy despises the elevation of the ‘great’, whether it is a man or a nation, throughout the novel. Though he disdains the ‘great man’ view of history, he places Kutúzov, the leader of the Russian forces at Borodino and during and after the invasion of Moscow, as the key figure, the one person who soared above the intrigues of the military staff to persist with his own purpose, which was to drive the French forces from Russian soil. The widely-held view that the Russian winter destroyed the French forces is expanded to include the destruction of Russian forces, with thousands of men from a number of European countries, dying in the east to west surge. Tolstoy supports Kutúzov’s decision to cease the harrying of French troops at Vilna (modern day Vilnius, in Lithuania), though many military leaders and the Russian emperor wished to carry on to Paris. But Kutúzov decided against it, citing the burden of prisoners of war held by both armies and the decimation of both forces as reasons not to push further west.

Tolstoy hails Kutúzov as the military hero of the novel because of the common touch of his patriotism.

The source of that extraordinary power of penetrating the meaning of the events then occurring lay in the national feeling which he possessed in full purity and strength. 

Kutúzov’s speech to assembled Russian forces in Book Fifteen Chapter Three at the beginning of the battle of Krasnoé, as the horrific military engagements were drawing to close, is dramatic and chilling. He points to the French prisoners and seems to offer compassion.

Worse off than our poorest beggars. While they were strong we didn't spare ourselves, but now we may even pity them. They are human beings too. Isn't it so, lads? 

He ends the speech by dispatching the prisoners to oblivion

But after all who asked them here? Serves them right, the bloody bastards!" he cried, suddenly lifting his head. 

Thus he draws war and peace together into the bitterest of human experiences. The summary treatment of prisoners by both armies is a telling theme in the book.

From the talk of the Germans Pierre learned that a larger guard had been allotted to that baggage train than to the prisoners, and that one of their comrades, a German soldier, had been shot by the marshal's own order because a silver spoon belonging to the marshal had been found in his possession. The group of prisoners had melted away most of all. Of the three hundred and thirty men who had set out from Moscow fewer than a hundred now remained. The prisoners were more burdensome to the escort than even the cavalry saddles or Junot's baggage. They understood that the saddles and Junot's spoon might be of some use, but that cold and hungry soldiers should have to stand and guard equally cold and hungry Russians who froze and lagged behind on the road (in which case the order was to shoot them) was not merely incomprehensible but revolting.

The novel graphically illustrates the ability of imperial force to galvanise and transform men (and, in modern times, more and more women. China has recently announced the ‘passing out’ of its first batch of female fighter pilots.) into beasts of burden, submissive robots under the power of officers, often aristocratic or upper class, to commit horrors of violence and killing that fly in the face of the religious injunctions that underpin their societies. It makes depressing reading.

On reflection, what Tolstoy says in his mini-essays and in the two epilogues is more interesting than the narrative in the novel. Certainly it more clearly states and illustrates his themes, whereas the narrative sections and the ‘journeys’ of the principle characters are no more than ‘going along’ with events, private and public, as if matters were happening to them, rather than being determined by them. Though Pierre Bezúkhov has some qualms, he supports the war effort from the Russian side, even if his own efforts, which some readers may consider to be heroic, could also be considered as self-indulgent and feeble. Towards the end, he skirts the edges of liberalising impulses emerging in St. Petersburg, which later contribute to the Decembrist Revolt by army officers appalled by the brutal experiences of peasant soldiers in the wars against the French. 

No character dissents from the thrust of events, though perhaps that is the truth of a society only slowly emerging from the grip of imperialism and feudalism, an awakening which erupted in the violent revolutionary years of the early 20th century. 

The novel comes to an end in Book Fifteen, with only narrative tidying up amidst mini-essays on the history and practice of war. The Second Epilogue presents Tolstoy’s thinking on ‘power’ and ‘force’ which he sees as underpinning historical views of the events in the novel. He is cynical towards leaders, because he believes that history is not produced by ‘great men’. He sees history as the outcome of millions of individual chains of cause and effect, often too small to be analysed fully. He considers that people, including emperors, are caught in chains of circumstance, incomprehensible to them. He removes agency from people and rests it with ineffable entities such as ‘love’, a very powerful human emotion and ‘God’, a very powerful human spiritual urge. This absence of agency in the sweep of history limits the capacity for dissent in the characters.

As you might expect in a novel published in 1869 and set largely among military aristocrats, roles for women are meagre. Princess Hélene Kurágina causes a stir by her philandering and comes to a sorry end, in a sort of unrighteous reflection of the moral strivings of Pierre Bezúkhov, with whom she shared a loveless marriage of convenience. Countess Natasha Rostóva first appears as enchanting and talented, but by the end she is matronly and plain. No woman is presented as having an inner life beyond meditations on survival, love, marriage and child-care. Their choices appear to be hard-labour and servitude or idleness.

A striking feature of the novel is the degree of intimate social and cultural relations existing between aristocratic Russians and aristocratic French people. Many wealthy Russian households speak French on a daily basis and only speak Russian to domestic and land-working serfs. There are a number of French tutors, companions, musicians and aristocrats scattered through the novel. This adds to the reader’s sense that the early 19th century wars in Europe, and the devastation wrought in human life and economic well-being, were in part instigated by the outworking of power struggles and personal antipathies between French and Russian aristocrats. Ironically similar spats between aristocratic cousins contributed to the immolations visited on Europe in the early 20th century. 

There are hunt scenes in Book Seven which pointedly set the scene for the violence of battles to come. They also show the relationships between the social classes. When we meet Daniel and Uvarka, huntsman and serf, ready to take Count Nicholas Rostóv wolf and fox hunting on his estate, the men are presented as simple beasts, out of sorts in the grand house of their master, better suited to the yard, the fields and the forests.

Five minutes later Daniel and Uvarka were standing in Nicholas' big study. Though Daniel was not a big man, to see him in a room was like seeing a horse or a bear on the floor among the furniture and surroundings of human life. Daniel himself felt this, and as usual stood just inside the door, trying to speak softly and not move, for fear of breaking something in the master's apartment, and he hastened to say all that was necessary so as to get from under that ceiling, out into the open under the sky once more. 

During the drive from east to west, the French forces were harassed in guerrilla actions by Russian forces, most notably by Cossacks, from independent, self-governing groups on the banks of the Don and Dnieper rivers. They appear as expert horsemen in support roles to officers and are shown in a poor light for their acts of plundering, which were no doubt widespread among all elements of both armies. 

Some Cossacks on the prowl for booty fell in with the Emperor and very nearly captured him. If the Cossacks did not capture Napoleon then, what saved him was the very thing that was destroying the French army, the booty on which the Cossacks fell. Here as at Tarutino they went after plunder, leaving the men. Disregarding Napoleon they rushed after the plunder and Napoleon managed to escape.

Does the book make good ‘lockdown reading’? This reader thinks it does, not simply because it is a classic in the canon of world literature; Virginia Woolf is quoted as saying that ‘There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace’. It is long enough to sustain the reader through a lengthy and tiresome period of self-isolation. The reader may find the early sections difficult to unravel, with the slew of characters brought on stage and the fascinating variety of Russian names in their three part form: first name, patronymic and surname. Bear with it, because by Book Three the domestic and social whirl gain pace and lead to the Battle of Austerlitz, in 1805, where 17, 000 people were killed and over 20, 000 taken prisoner and marked the lift-off of early 19th century imperial wars in Europe and across the globe.

By way of recommendations for further big-book Lockdown Reading, readers could try Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans aka George Eliot, which is more about ‘peace’ than ‘war’ and is terrific – the last paragraph is worth a read at any time. 

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is also terrific. It is more about war than peace, this time the war against nature by a rapacious whale-oil business. It would make good lockdown reading. And for not-so-big war books, there’s none better than The Sorrow Of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh and All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller stands high and alone among war satires. 

Which leads to a controversial note upon which to end: is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy a humourless paean to a lost imperial age, where devastation, death and destruction were simply part of an incomprehensible given order? 

War and Peace, novel, Leo Tolstoy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1942

War and Peace, film, King Vidor, Ponti-De Laurentiis Cinematografica, Rome,1956

Catch 22, tv miniseries, George Clooney et al., Hulu, Santa Monica, 2019