September 2006

They Used to Play on Grass He watched her slapping sausages and bacon into the pan, cracking a couple of eggs. Her hair was a lot thinner now, a soft white halo above her head… she was a powerful woman then and she needed to be for the farmers paid them two shillings an hour to pick potatoes and she had to push the pram two miles to the fields, the new baby in the pram, the younger ones hanging on to the sides, the two bigger boys kicking a tin can or a shiny black rubber remnant of what had once been a tennis ball. Sometimes it was dark when they set out and dark again when they started off home, the widow and the pram and the dirty-faced rabble of kids and the baby in its warm wrappings and nobody to know that the bottom of the pram, under the baby, was crammed with a stone of stolen potatoes that would give them stew for two days.

This is a novel about football, published in 1971, but set a shortish distance into the future I think maybe late 1970s. It follows a fictional football club in its preparation for the semi-final of the “British Cup”, with the climax of the novel, naturally, being the match itself.

Given the fact that this is a novel about football, and footballer’s lives, and that it’s (half-)written by a footballer, I was not expecting to get much out of this and my expecations were pretty low. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story is readable, and I managed to get quite into it, even getting quite excited and tense during the football match at the end.

On the whole, not too bad, considering – but let’s just say it’s not one I plan to read again…

Here’s an Amazon link.

My local library didn’t have a copy of this, nor did any local bookshops, nor Ebay and the cheapest copy I could find on the Internet was (including P&P, which given that this was a hardback was not cheap either!) £11.00.

Such irony – the book on the list that, so far anyway, I have had the least desire to read and I had to fork out £11 for it. Ha! I’m half-tempted to keep it, as it’s obviously such a treasure, and pass it on as an heirloom. But I figure there is a reason why this book isn’t in print – it’s because nobody wants to read it! (Nobody but me, anyway.) Give me a shout if you can think of a use for it, eh?!


The Old Man and the SeaYou did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

Reading this short novel – in bed, at one sitting – I was completely transported into the world of the old man, a wiry fisherman, ancient, unlucky for 84 days, fighting with all his strength and courage and grit to make the 85th day a lucky one.

For four days he fights to capture, kill and bring home a fish, the biggest fish he has ever seen, monstrous, noble, powerful and seemingly tireless. If he succeeds, it will end a summer-long grinding poverty, and it will feed him all winter. If he throws at it all he has, yet fails, then he will have lost everything for nothing, perhaps even his life will be lost in this epic fight.

It is not a macho-man-against-nature story (although, of course, it is really). It is a compelling battle of one old man’s will to conquer his own pain and weakness and to bring home his unfathomable, magnificent prey. Man and fish seem bound together.

The last page turned, I wondered why the author got a Nobel Prize for this book. It is a gripping story, told with Hemingway’s typical sparse elegance, without a word gone to waste. But it is only a shortish story about one man, and one fish. The deeper significance, if there is one, what was it?

But then, that is as it should be. It will come to me slowly, over time, as things do, and in the meantime I can read the story without tripping over the metaphor. Fantastic.

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy was from the library.

PS Make sure you read an older, illustrated version. Saves having to work the anatomy of a skiff out on your fingers if there is a picture to show you what he means… :-)

The Name of The RoseThey lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.

In this medieval, historical/political detective story, set in 1327, novice monk Adso is chosen to accompany Brother William of Baskerville on a mission to an unknown abbey in the north of Italy. Once there, the abbot asks famously astute William to investigate an unsettling event – the recent death in unexplained circumstances of a young monk of the abbey.

As William and Adso become drawn deeper into the affairs of the abbey, and events which claim the lives of other monks and which seem to be centred on the mysterious, secret, labyrinthine library, they are also bound to attend to a different, political duty relating to a dispute between Emperor Louis and Pope John. One of them seems to be an allegory of the other, although it is up to you which way round it goes.

I found this novel at times absorbing, and certainly interesting, but also at times the heavy-going style just plain wore me down a bit. Frequent passages in untranslated Latin, detailed descriptions of church doors, and lengthy sermons on sin and damnation really aren’t my bag, on the whole. However, on balance I think it was worth ploughing through: it did have some thought-provoking ideas here and there; and is quite a good detective story too, if you like that sort of thing. But this is definitely not a quick, light read!

Here’s an Amazon link.
I borrowed a copy from the library.

Sophie's World And although I have seen nothing but black crows all my life, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a white crow. Both for a philosopher and for a scientist it can be important not to reject the possibility of finding a white crow. You might almost say that hunting for “the white crow” is science’s principal task… One of the main concerns of philosophy is to warn people against jumping to conclusions.”

Sophie Amundsen is a Norwegian girl about to turn 15. Or is she?One day her world – Sophie’s World – is turned upside down, or perhaps created, when she starts to get letters from an unknown philosopher, a short correspondence course in philosophy, from the ancient Greeks on up. As the course progresses, and the thoughts of great thinkers from across the ages are set out before her, other things start to happen too. Unexplained things. And it all has something to do with Berkeley.

(Happy Birthday Hilde!)

This may seem like an odd sort of a review. It’s probably romantic irony turning my own thoughts upside down. However, the one clear gem of a thought at the bottom of this is that if you are an intelligent, reading teenager you will assuredly love this book. Even a dull old grown-up like me can get a good deal from it, as long as I remember to keep a wry smile in the middle of my head that reminds me it isn’t a proper philosophy course, because it’s really rather silly.

It does, at times, feel like an extended lecture instead of a story – but it’ll be OK, just keep your brain switched on, and pretend you are in the sixth form again. (Forget Terry Pratchett, this is the good stuff.)

Here is an Amazon link.
I got a copy for 50p at a book fair – and I’m glad I did because I think I will read it again. So will Baby M, I hope, when she is about fourteen or fifteen herself…

Birth Without ViolenceWe were wondering about how best to prepare the child…
Now we can see it’s not the child who needs to be prepared.
It is ourselves.
It is our eyes that need to open,
our blindness that has to stop.
If we used just a little intelligence,
how simple things could be.

If I told you that this book is widely considered a seminal work that revolutionised the process of birth, what would you expect? Some learned tome, very worthy but rather dull?

Think again. This is a work of art, of poetry, of truth and beauty. Calm, persuasive truths are told elegantly, illustrated by telling black and white photographs. At times poetical, at times discursive, always engaging, Leboyer’s book is truly beautiful, and utterly moving.

Originally published in 1975, the book describes then current (and still prevalent) attitudes towards birthing and newborn babies, as we induct babies into the abrupt, cold, hard world outside the womb with bright lights, loud noises and a slap on the backside – not thinking or caring about why they cry, but only glad that they can cry and concerned if they do not.

Leboyer then leads the reader towards a suggested new (old!) approach, a way that respects the new child as a person, a frightened little person going on a great journey and needing welcome, love, reassurance and, above all, patient gentleness. The book describes that babies born in such a way do not cry, except maybe a little, when first they try the shock of breathing. Leboyer shows you that a newborn baby can smile.

I’m not sure that I would follow every step, or even agree with every step, suggested by Leboyer. I’m not even sure that this gentle practice really has all the benefits claimed for it, of creating a new breed of child who is strong, free and unafraid. But I do know that the book has much in it that is true, and moving, and uplifting. I even shed a little tear.

Had I read this before giving birth, no doubt I would have dismissed it as a load of sentimental nonsense. Now I know different, and reading these words instead intensifies my hope that one day again I might get the chance to help a baby be born, so that I can do it better next time. Maybe it will even, one day, be my baby.

I leave you with an extract:

Learn to respect this sacred moment of birth,
as fragile, as fleeting, as elusive as dawn.
The child is there, hesitant, tentative,
unsure which way he’s about to go.
He stands between two worlds.

For heaven’s sake, don’t touch him,
don’t push him,
unless you want him to fall.
Let him wait until he feels
the time is right.

Have you ever watched a bird take flight?
As he’s still walking, he’s heavy, awkward,
his wings drag, and then suddenly
he’s flying,
graceful, elegant and free.
He was the son of earth,
now he’s the child of the skies.

Can you say when he left one kingdom for the other?
It is so subtle, the eye can hardly catch it.
As subtle as stepping in,
or out, of time,
to be born,
or to die.

What of the tide,
which imperceptibly,
irresistibly rises,
only to fall.
At what moment did it turn?
Is your ear sharp enough to hear the ocean breathe?

Yes, this birth,
this wave parted from wave,
born from the sea
without ever leaving her.
Don’t ever touch it with your rough hands.
You understand nothing of its mysteries.
But the child,
the drop from this ocean,

A wave pushes him towards the shore,
another pulls him back,
only to push him higher still.
One more,
and he’s out of the flood.
He’s parted from the water,
and come to the land.
He’s frightened, terrified.
Let him be.
Just wait.
This child is awakening
for the very first time.

This is his first dawn.
Allow him its grandeur, its majesty.
Don’t even stir until he leaves behind
the night and its kingdom of dreams.

I’d never heard of this book before, or even this author, and for whatever reason I was expecting some sort of manly thriller / epic type novel – Nevil Shute, Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer – you know the sort of thing I mean. Despite having no basis whatsoever for this expectation, it turned out that I was not far wrong – this is pretty much exactly that kind of book. And it’s long, too.

(What was completely wrong about this book was the plot summary on the blurb. The blurb led me to believe that this would be the story of some guy who becomes a tribal leader, leading men into a deadly battle for freedom and justice. It isn’t. Not even remotely.)

The book is about the life of a white, English-descended South African between the ages of about five and eighteen. For various reasons the only name we know him by is “Peekay”, which he takes for himself as an abbreviation (PK) of a cruel nickname given him during his first, tortured year away at boarding school. The effects of that year on his psyche reverberate throughout the remainder of the book.

He takes his grand ambition (to be the welterweight boxing champion of the world) from the friendly encouragement of the first person to be memorably kind to him after that year, the boxing-mad train guard who looks after him on his way to rejoin his family in his new home town of Barberton.

Once he arrives there, he strikes up a number of remarkable and educational friendships including: Doc, an aging, but still very active, German professor; Mrs Boxall the forceful librarian; various prison officers (Doc is interned for the duration of the Second World War, and Peekay spends a lot of time at the prison visiting his friend and training with the prison boxing team); Geel Piet, a mixed-race prisoner who becomes Peekay’s unlikely boxing coach; and Miss Bornstein, a bright and lively schoolteacher who is determined that Peekay will win a scholarship to a good school and thereafter to Oxford University.

Peekay’s ambition, his clear determination, courage and intelligence, and his remarkable friends are to set him on a brilliant course – he wins success as a boxer, as a student and as a natural leader among his peers. His partnership wth astute fellow-student Hymie brings him money, too, something he has never had before. And the black people come almost to worship him as Onoshobishobi Ingelesi (which translates as “Tadpole Angel” but which we are given to understand is far more reverent in the original Zulu).

Until, one day, something changes. Peekay determines that he must strike out for his own independence. His detemination to win at all costs, even the goals he sets himself, he sees (apart from being welterweight champion of the world, of course) as stemming from a sort of camouflage that he uses to survive the system, to beat the system. Something that grew out of the extreme, violent bullying and abuse he received during that first, terrible year away from home, at the hands primarily of an older pupil who we know only as the Judge.

The book ends rather abruptly. Peekay does appear to conquer his demons. But does he truly “find himself”? Does he ever make it to be welterweight champion of the world? What, actually, does he do with his life? We are not told. Maybe the author got up to 600 pages and decided enough was enough.

It worked for him – so I’ll try it too. This review is over.

Here’s an Amazon link
I got mine from the library.

The name Pankhurst is, of course, indelibly associated with the Suffragettes and the fight to win votes for women in Britain in the early twentieth century. (Less than a century ago!)

More famous than Slyvia in this regard are her mother Emmeline and her older sister Christabel. However, it is not clear whether those two were more effective or whether they were simply better at self-publicity.

Certainly, Sylvia’s contribution should not be underestimated. It was Sylvia who insisted on democracy within the movement, unlike the autocratic Christabel and Emmeline who expelled both Sylvia and her younger, even more neglected sister Adela (and anyone else who differed from them in any degree) from the WSPU. She went to prison, and was force-fed on hunger strike, many times – while her sister Christabel fled to Paris to avoid prison and issued her orders from there, for the women in the WSPU to become increasingly disorderly and violent. Sylvia mobilised the women of the East End, women who her mother and sister looked on with contempt but who were a key part of the movement. She it was who persuaded Prime Minister Asquith in 1914 to receive a delegation of six East End women to put their case for suffrage, to tell him their story and show their need to be given a voice in government. She wrote copiously and effectively in support of female suffrage and, indeed, in support of universal suffrage, and won many women and men over to the cause.

But, unlike the single-minded Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia had other interests. In many respects Sylvia was way ahead of her time. (What a blogger she would have been!) She wanted to alleviate all human suffering and injustice, and winning the vote was a means – but not the only means – to that end. She was a socialist and, for a while, a Communist although she lost faith in that movement when she saw the oppression of the Communist regimes in Russia. She travelled alone and bravely in the most extraordinary ways and had adventures that would make even a modern backpacker’s hair stand on end. At all times she worked hard on behalf of the poor, setting up collective enterprises such as cost-price restaurants, a nursery and Montessori school, and a toy factory. She was an anti-racist in a place and time where racism was unquestioned, and employed black people in her various enterprises. She was a pacifist, but abandoned this to some degree during the Second World War (but not the First) because she recognised the massive threat posed by fascism. She struggled and campaigned vigourously against the British attitude of indifference when Italy invaded Ethiopia, and made a lifelong friend of exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie – she was to end her days in Ethiopia, living in a house he provided for her, and working as always for the poor people around her.

She had two passionate relationships with men. The first was with Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party and a married man. He lived mainly apart from his Scottish wife but was certainly puritanical so it is not clear how far their passion and affection really went – although it was certainly more than platonic. The second was a long relationship with Italian Silvio Corio. She never married him because, so she said, she would have lost her British nationality (as was the law at the time) and been deported to Italy where they woudl both have been locked up as anti-fascist agitators. However, she did (at the age of 45!) have a child by him, her beloved Richard.

Given Sylvia’s passion for work, and her own experience of a rather distant mother more interested in her causes than her children, it is remarkable how she mothered Richard, and loved him so intimately. Her letters about him are deeply touching, to me at least. For example: “I am in despair about my writing. Richard wakes early and keeps me on the go till eleven or so. If I can get him to sleep from then till 1pm it is the best I can hope for frequently – today he woke whenever I put him down and unless put him to sleep in my arms he won’t sleep at all…”

Among other things, Sylvia left behind some notes on How I would like to be remembered –

Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who owns no barriers of race or nation, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.”

I was deeply impressed by the story of Sylvia’s long and eventful life, her causes and her passions, her phenomonal capacity for work and for compassion and for enthusiasm, her unconventionality, her dogged determination to do what is right and to achieve justice for the underprivileged. There is only one word to describe her – an inspiration. Truly.