Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

I had been meaning to check out the work of Robert A. Heinlein for a while, but was a little unsure where to begin. Well, I took the plunge by checking out The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, first published in 1966.

Basically, the novel is set in the latter part of the 21st century.  The Moon has been turned into a penal colony, to where Earth's convicts and "undesirables" are transported. A group of revolutionaries, with the help of a "self-aware" computer, seek to overthrow the authority of "Terra" in the lunar colony.

The story is narrated by one of the main characters, Mannie, and he employs a curious Lunar dialect, which may take the reader a little while to become accustomed to. However, once this minor issue is overcome, the book will absorb and captivate.

Only a short way into The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I found myself rooting for the characters and their aspirations, even if their methods were sometimes questionable. I had emotionally invested in their fate and their destiny.  A diverse bunch, and this engendered some friction, and a strange chemistry.

The scientific and technical aspects of the story were for me secondary in importance, although I am not sure that by 2075 computers will have advanced to the degree envisaged here. To be frank, I'm not sure that I would want them to, either.  In truth, I usually reverted to "auto-pilot" mode when elaborate telephone systems and the vagaries of "Mike" the computer were being discussed.

I was impressed by the way in which justification for the Lunar revolt was presented, not just in "abstract" matters of freedom and self-determination, but by bringing ecological issues, economic liberalization and free trade into the equation. This demonstrated a real confidence on the part of the writer,  and added depth and credibility to the story.

Much of the nitty-gritty of how the revolt was organized is not presented in exhaustive detail, and the reader is invited to use his or her imagination, and to read between the lines. From this perspective, the novel does require concentration and open-mindedness, to grasp the rationale and implications of some of the deceptions which are committed by the "revolutionists", for example. A similar approach may be necessary when comprehending the social structures and customs which are shown to have evolved on Luna.

This book has a reputation as a "libertarian" novel,  although I think that conspicuous "preaching" on ideological matters is kept to a minimum.  Rather than being obtrusive, such things are generally woven quite seamlessly into the text, and at appropriate points.

The climax to the novel I found truly gripping, largely because, as mentioned above, I had been drawn in by the characters and the subject matter, and the outcome mattered to me.  The moral questions posed by the story line are not straightforward;they are awkward but timelessly pertinent. My curiosity and my senses had been animated, a good barometer, I find, for how worthy and substantial a work of fiction is.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is well worth a read, and not just for dedicated science-fiction fans.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Norman Conquest - Marc Morris - book review

It is a curiosity that, in reading about history, I have tended to skip over The Norman Conquest. Perhaps this is because when I was young, 1066 and all that, or at least the "official" version of the story, was constantly rammed down our throats. I recently sought to remedy this anomaly by reading a book by Marc Morris, simply titled The Norman Conquest.

There is some valuable and well-argued material concerning the years preceding the Conquest - the power struggles, the fluctuating fortunes of the various factions, kingdoms and rulers, and the social landscape which existed then.

The account of the "prelude" is highly entertaining, and helps to explain why so many people find this epoch so stimulating. The overlapping and inter-mingling of "Vikings", "Anglo-Saxons", "Normans" and "French" is also part of the draw. The dynastic squabbles and horse-trading, the strategic inter-marriages, the occasional ostracized rebel.

For my own personal tastes, I would have preferred a little more detail about the Viking/Norse origins of the Normans, and how they came to be so powerful and vigorous. In fairness, the author does stress what his remit is, in the introduction to the book.

I liked the writer's fluid and economical style, which is erudite but accessible. A good deal of space is given over to assessing and comparing the reliability and motivations of the available written sources. One of the key skills required by a historian covering the Middle Ages is the ability to see through the propaganda and bias of those sources, and make informed deductions and judgments.

The author's interpretation of events feels very plausible and rational, and it passed a kind of test by refreshing my addled knowledge. The power-politics of medieval "France" are documented in compact fashion, and it is surprising how closely linked the fortunes of Normandy and England really were, even well before the Conquest happened. The 21st century may find many of the values and mentalities baffling or quaint, but it makes for engaging reading.

Whilst reading this work, I was reminded just how superficial and even misleading the "history" served up by the mainstream media (i.e. television) can sometimes be. We are regularly reassured that such depictions serve a purpose, by encouraging people to delve deeper, by reading books and studying. I hope so, but remain unconvinced.

The military elements of the story, such as tactics and weaponry, are not deal with in exhaustive detail, and I found this refreshing. The emphasis is on the politics and the grand strategy. In any event, clear and unambiguous information about the major battles has always been difficult to come by.

As a born and bred Yorkshireman, the suffering of, and defiance by, the North of England in the aftermath of 1066 was of great interest to me. Indeed, the chapters about the numerous rebellions against Norman rule were among the most interesting and absorbing sections of the book.

Naturally, the Domesday undertaking comes under scrutiny, particularly its true purposes. The author also employs the areas of architecture (churches, abbeys, castles etc) as a measure and symbol of the changes which were seen. The focus on the allocation and redistribution of land ownership struck a chord with me, as this is an area which has seized my attention with regard to modern times. In the end, a lot of life boils down to land and rents....

Morris undertakes an honest and nuanced appraisal of the merits and debit-sides of the Norman takeover, pointing out areas where the invaders were comparatively "enlightened", and where their impact and methods were less appetizing. It is rather facile to adjudicate on whether things were "better" or "worse", and the author wisely does not try.  How does one quantify such a thing, anyway?  Drawing up a simplistic balance sheet?

There is a lean, urgent and energetic spirit to the writing here. I found it enjoyable and illuminating, and was left feeling a strengthened appreciation of the age and the subject, and how it relates to what came before it, and what came afterwards.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Strawbs - From The Witchwood - album review

Of the many sub-genres which featured on the British rock scene in the period beginning in the late 1960s, those of progressive folk, or progressive folk-rock, spawned some interesting, inventive and highly listenable music. Prominent among the acts which fell into these categories were Strawbs.

To many more casual observers, Strawbs are best-known for having Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman in their line-up at different times, and for their rather quirky hit single "Part Of The Union". However, closer evaluation of their 1970s work reveals a highly talented group.

One record which stands out for me is their 1971 album From The Witchwood, which showcases strong songwriting and musicianship, and acutely tuneful, compact sensibility.  The production capabilities of Tony Visconti also help to ensure that a cohesive and lively ambience prevails throughout.

Tracks such as the opener, "A Glimpse Of Heaven", mix authentically folk-inflected sections with more exotic instrumental flourishes. Rick Wakeman's keyboards add some texture and occasional dynamism to the arrangements.

Some of the lyrics tackle "traditional" folk topics, centering on rural life and pastoral imagery, but they very rarely descend to the "maypoles and apple scrumpy" territory which characterizes some British folk and folk-rock of the period. Crucially, most of the compositions fall short of being over-earnest.

The captivating, and slightly eerie, title track is one of the highlights of the record. "Thirty Days" carries distinct echoes of the Beatles' work circa 1964/65, by dint of its melody and its vocal harmonies. "Flight" is another number whose vocal sound is rather Beatlesque in flavour.

The contribution of Rick Wakeman is perhaps most keenly felt on "Sheep", and on "The Hangman and The Papist", with their prominent organ components.  In addition to its dramatic words, the latter is another song with a strong melody. And the consistently strong running order is sustained by "Cannondale" and the beautiful and striking "The Shepherd's Song", with its eclectic and surprisingly effective mixture of influences.

From The Witchwood closes with two intriguing and affecting songs.  "In Amongst The Roses" typifies the contemplative and enigmatic leanings of the album's subject matter. "I'll Carry On Beside You" is more upbeat and strident, and features an intricate piano "engine" courtesy of Wakeman. Like many of the pieces on the LP, it is performed with conviction and vigour, and this is important.

Overall, this record is a strong and purposeful collection of songs, well-crafted, controlled and appealingly organic in their execution, the relatively sparing use of electric guitars strengthening this impression. Combining the lyrical and poetical hallmarks of folk music with the odd infusion of rock energy, and the occasional "experimental" passage, it is a most satisfying listen, which still sounds fresh and credible today.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie

I must confess that detective fiction, or crime novels, have not featured that highly on my list of literary priorities over the years. However, the lure of Agatha Christie's work proved too strong, and I therefore recently sought out The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926, and often cited as one of the most important detective novels of all time.

Almost as soon as I commenced reading the book, the thought struck me that its impact had been dulled by the fact that I had seen the British television adaption, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, even if that adaptation differed from the novel in several respects. On the other hand, the small-screen version did assist me in my "visualizations".

The employment of a central character as "narrator" helps to give this story its distinctive feel. Again, the effect might be different, more pronounced, to those who are unfamiliar with the story in any format.

For me, the character of Hercule Poirot both irritates less and charms less when his idiosyncrasies emanate from the printed page. Even so, one can readily appreciate how Agatha Christie supposedly came to dislike the character, her own creation. I guess that modest, anodyne characters do not inspire strong emotions, or persuade people to read books. Perhaps the reader should develop a method of "tuning out" Poirot's less agreeable traits?

I should stress that my evaluation of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd may have been coloured by the slant of my fiction-reading in recent times, which has tended to focus on meatier, "philosophical" fare, such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. So, when a sense of time and place, and historical perspective, seems largely absent, as with this novel, the natural reaction may be "what is all the fuss about?".  An adjustment has to be made, to accept things on their own terms, and to concentrate on the detective elements and the "human nature" angles.

The plot has some compelling elements. Suicide, blackmail, jealousy, resentment, avarice, deceit and of course murder.  The characters themselves are projected quite strongly in the novel, so that one acquires a reasonable understanding of their attributes and vices. The ending can be seen to fulfill more than one function. It surprises, especially to newcomers, but it is also left sufficiently enigmatic to leave some people wondering, and even proffering alternative, if sometimes fanciful, interpretations...

I did enjoy this book, but I wish earnestly that I had experienced it before I saw the television version. Its novelty and "shock" value was much diminished, I think. Repeated readings may alter my attitude, but it does surprise me a little that The Murder Of  Roger Ackroyd is revered to the extent that it is. I guess that opinions depend largely on the personal tastes and literary palate of the reader.

Despite the cleverness of the plot, and its gripping nature, I was not heavily engaged emotionally or spiritually. I was not left feeling inspired or emboldened, or moved by any sense of being uplifted or animated. I had finished the book, and that was pretty much that. It was an interesting and well-constructed novel, but its alleged status as a masterpiece was, I admit, lost on me, during this first encounter.

To my mind, there was little genuine examination of the motives behind the culprit's deeds, or of his underlying grievances, if he had any.  Also, the story is not really placed in any contemporaneous social context, in a way that could penetrate this reader's conscience and imagination. I would have recoiled at the callousness of the murderer, whilst simultaneously pondering any injustices or iniquities which might have been perceived to have fuelled the tragedy.

I think the message to me is either that I prefer pure crime stories to be audio-visual, or that glossy and atmospheric TV shows with lavish production values have tarnished or distorted my approach towards the crime novel genre....

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game

The works of Hermann Hesse have the rare capacity to force the reader to reappraise his or her attitudes to life and the world around them.

Of Hesse's novels, The Glass Bead Game, which I recently read for the second time, is one of the longest and most intricate, but the questions which it poses can be very readily distilled. The story basically revolves around the character of Joseph Knecht and his life of study and teaching.

Knecht enters the "pedagogic province" of Castalia, and becomes well-versed in the book's titular pastime, although a detailed knowledge or grasp of the game's niceties is by no means essential to an understanding or enjoyment of the novel.

Essentially, the theme of the novel is the tension between the abstract and the worldly, between the ethos of rarefied,contemplative study and that of the more "sordid" and instinctive life outside Castalia. This conflict, and the conclusions which spring from it, are explored with reference to the author's fascination with Eastern concepts of duality, transitoriness, renewal and rebirth. Certain characters in Knecht's orbit are held to be symptomatic of the existing set-up, or precursors of the future.

The heart of the argument, as I understood it, is to what degree "esoteric" academic and cultural pursuits such as the Glass Bead Game have any value for the real world, but equally how much such undertakings contribute to man's reason and enlightenment, bestow practical applications , and therefore lead to a more peaceful and just world.

Of course, this intellectual "elitism" was in effect subsidized by the man in the street. Such "luxuries" would clearly be jeopardized when emergencies such as war arose. As I deciphered it, part of the message here was that Castalia should try to inculcate Castalian principles and values in society proper.  This presumably on the theory that a more stable society would help to ensure the survival of Castalia in some shape or form, by nurturing a more conducive social and economic climate.

Some of the passages which ruminate about intellectual and cultural developments remind me of Thomas Mann. Some of this was tough going when compared to the purely biographical bits, but they are important in the overall.

The Glass Bead Game works on more than one level. It is easy to dwell on the societal ramifications of the Castalian set-up and its relations with the outside world, but the effects on individuals are equally pertinent. The suffocating impact of the secluded existence, being cut off from "real life", as well as the nagging sense that their talents are not being used for the general good, or indeed for an individual's own spiritual well-being.

An abiding trait of Hesse's writing is that he touches the very essence of life, our make-up and our equilibrium, the soul and what animates it. He makes such things seem so elementary and tangible, but also induces a yearning for self-discovery in those of us who have found the equilibrium elusive and troublesome.

The Hesse works regularly take place in remote settings or situations, but the characters are invariably wrestling with universal turmoils and concerns. Hermann Hesse has been a major influence on my life, and my outlook, in recent years.  Just a few pages are sufficient to rekindle that feeling of serenity and hope, like a reconnection with some semblance of love and truth, if only fleetingly.

In a broader way, the story supports the notion that we benefit from a change of scenery, encountering different people, points of view, and atmospheres, and that we should not prolong phases of our life which have begun to decay and pall, and should move on. Of course, this is easier said than done for most people, and most would not rationalize such impulses in the "exotic" manner favoured by Hesse. We should also try not to entirely estrange ourselves from things which appear alien.

My feeling is that Hesse relied on the sensitivity and perspicacity of his readers to constantly juggle these levels of meaning, and to discern them in the first place. Otherwise, his writing would not possess its unique flavour and vitality. What first drew me to Hesse, when my life had been to a dark place, was the weight placed on self-discovery and enlightenment.  But knowing what we do about the man, it is apparent that he had an eye for wider social commentary, in addition to chronicling the journeys of individuals, the latter often serving as metaphors for the former. Matters of some moment were indirectly addressed in a digestible and "non-threatening" form, but the point was undeniably there.

The Glass Bead Game is grandiose by Hesse standards, and the occasional geopolitical tangent is atypical of the author's usual approach. Its depth renders it more demanding and draining on the reader's faculties. Contained within The Glass Bead Game is a conventional Hesse novel, but it is more "fleshed out".

To some less discerning observers it might seem that the story "tails off" or fizzles out, but one must remember that this is not a conventional novel, Hesse had said what he meant to say, and of course the manner in which the main bulk of the tale concludes encourages the reader to assess the possible interpretations. A whole vista of possibilities should really open up.

Admittedly, this book does not quite leave me with the warm and buoyant sensations engendered with some other Hesse works, but this is counter-balanced by the amount, and variety, of food for thought which it serves up. Thoughts about ourselves, our place in the world, and our responsibilities.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Vive La Trance - Amon Duul II - album review

It is the early albums made by the German rock group Amon Duul II which tend to define their influence, their legacy and their popularity, but my listening allegiance has lately shifted decisively towards their subsequent output.

Later releases, those released between 1972-1974, exhibit more melody, additional flair, and greater variety.  They also sound less forbidding - an easier and more pleasant listen, to be honest. Their level of invention, musical intricacy and elusive mystique has proved a revelation to me in recent times. Prominent among this batch of LPs is Vive La Trance, issued in 1973.

Much of this record is eminently accessible to mainstream listeners, but the adventurous impulses remain. It surprises and disappoints me that Vive La Trance is not singled out for greater attention when their discography is being appraised. Unless I have misjudged things completely?

The production on Vive La Trance has a fluency and freshness which permits the music to breathe and sparkle. The greater utilization of keyboards and other instruments (saxophone, violin, cello and so forth) supplements and enriches what might otherwise have been a stodgy recipe of guitars, bass and drums.

As the opening song, "A Morning Excuse" very much establishes the tone, with its bright and rhythmic foundation. I would have to say, though, that the highlights of the album are the tracks "Fly United" and "Jalousie".  The former is a very diverting piece with several haunting melodic touches, and a highly effective vocal arrangement. Indeed, the satisfying mixture of female and male voices is a hallmark of this record. "Fly United" has an enigmatic beauty which is hard not to find captivating. "Jalousie" is a highly tuneful and seductive affair, driven primarily by a confidently expressive Renate Knaup lead vocal.

"Mozambique" is a politically charged piece, which is hardly surprising for a German "progressive" act of that period, but the lyrics are perhaps more strident and blunt than one had grown to expect from Amon Duul II. "Trap" is another one of those numbers which make Amon Duul II sound uncannily like a New Wave act of the early 1980s, with its energetic, uncluttered flavour. Those looking for more experimental fare will be catered for by "Im Krater Bluhn Wieder Die Baume" and "Apocalyptic Bore".

Another thing to mention about this album is the largely sparing and tasteful use of guitars. The laboured and heavy riffs are few and far between, and there is considerable emphasis on melodic, dynamic and intertwining guitar parts which have an earthiness, but also a delicacy.

Vive La Trance has an enchanting and beguiling air of mystery and freedom which is difficult to resist. It still sounds vibrant after all these years. Give it a listen, and you will be impressed and entertained, believe me.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

This Is Spinal Tap

When I am asked to compile a list of my favourite films of all time, This Is Spinal Tap always threatens to penetrate the higher reaches. It is not necessarily the "best" or the most profound, but it is right up there in terms of entertainment value and enjoyability.

Basically, This Is Spinal Tap, released in 1984, is presented as a documentary, or "rockumentary", following the fortunes of British heavy rock outfit Spinal Tap as they tour North America to promote their latest album. Numerous disasters and setbacks ensue, and these episodes form the basis for much of the comedy, and no little pathos.

I cannot really make up my mind why the picture is made in the style which it is.  Some of the "sloppiness" may be intentional, while some may even be a product of budget constraints.  Either way, many segments have a very gritty, "fly on the wall" character, either consciously or unconsciously drawing inspiration from some of the music documentaries of the past (D.A. Pennebaker's work springs to mind).  I also like the way that dialogue is delivered by the actors in an "untidy", ad-libbed manner. This adds realism, as does the editing.

The "amateurish" style is one of the factors which helps this picture to endure, whereas other similar efforts fall short by being excessively glossy or calculating. In addition to a certain innocence, a lot of elements in "Spinal Tap" conspired to engender a peculiar magic, the kind which defies straightforward explanation. Much has been made about the the cliches which the movie celebrates, but people forget that many of these cliches were popularized by the film itself.

A facet of This Is Spinal Tap which receives insufficient attention is the nature of the settings. Almost every scene is situated in a hotel room, concert venue, dressing room, airport or vehicle. This serves to illustrate the confined, claustrophobic and unreal world inhabited by rock musicians.

The acting by the main players has a naturalness which is a delight. The deadpan delivery is a key, especially at the funniest junctures. The more minor roles add much sparkle. Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman, and Paul Shaffer as Artie Fufkin really stand out. These characters are not stereotypes as such, but may be exaggerated conceptions of people who might have been around at the time.

Whilst according the cinematography and the acting due credit, it is the writing and the humour which really transports the film onto another level. Many lines and phrases have entered into the lexicon of popular culture, which is a tribute in itself. Moreover, many of the jokes and sketches are still fresh. I have viewed the film untold times, but still find myself laughing out loud.

The narrative manages to elicit sympathy, too, as Spinal Tap stumble from one misfortune to another. It is a little while before grim reality registers, and the downward spiral in the band's fortunes arrives almost imperceptibly. Gallows humour is mixed with humiliation, and desperate efforts to remedy the predicament (such as the "Stonehenge" sequence).

When I first saw this movie, many years ago, I recall being startled by the quality of the music. The songs, however, do not really stand up to the stresses of repeated listening and scrutiny, even if the lyrics remain hilarious, shedding none of their lustre.

Yes, the film satirizes the Neanderthal attitudes and pretentiousness of some rock musicians, but it also becomes a celebration of the absurdity and the energy of the genre. The running jokes about "drummers" and "the album cover" help to imbue the piece with some structure and continuity.

Viewers can probably discern references to certain real-life groups and artists, but a notable thing is that Spinal Tap can not be directly pigeon-holed and directly compared to such-and-such a band. There is a vaguely "Lennon and McCartney" dynamic in the relationship between David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, but only vaguely. Half the fun is looking out for allusions, but the writing is sufficiently subtle to leave one guessing.

An endearing feature of the movie is the amount which is left unsaid or unexplained. There is plenty going on in various scenes, involving extras and so forth, and enigmatic lines are left hanging in the air.

Of the characters, Nigel Tufnel's persona is perhaps the most forcefully projected, his uncomplicated and naive dimness shining throughout. The others are maybe less easy to pin down. Tony Hendra, as the group's manager, gets some of the most interesting and substantial lines, although the character himself feels more like a 60s/70s managerial type.

It feels like the funny lines are packed in to the picture, even "under" the closing titles, which is a testimony to the amount of strong material which the writers had. This Is Spinal Tap remains fine entertainment, and retains its unique charm after all these years. Modern audiences might be nonplussed by the absence of slickness, but the accent is on creativity and content, and not the "packaging".

A wonderful film.