Monday, 7 May 2018

Reformation - Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 - Diarmaid MacCulloch

After a short hiatus, I am back to immersing myself well and truly in books about history. Diarmaid MacCulloch's book Reformation had been sitting invitingly on my bookshelf. It emerges as a beautifully written and highly illuminating work.

The book examines the major theological disputes and the ebb and flow of the fortunes of each faction. I was impressed by the manner in which the author places the Reformation, and related episodes, within the broader geo-political context of their times, although he does not dwell unduly on the intricacies of the various military campaigns which occurred.

I found myself being drawn in by the fluent nature of the writing style, the authoritative grasp of the subject matter and the confident control of the narrative. The whole vibrant, turbulent and nuanced picture is painted.

Throughout I could sense the author's exasperation with the obstinacy of some of the protagonists in the story, and his frustration with those who stymied efforts aimed at achieving compromise and peaceful co-existence. I increasingly prefer books which do not totally conceal the sympathies of the writer, as it adds some spice and interest.

It is a measure of this book's quality that I found myself gaining a whole new perspective on the Reformation, and on that phase of history generally. I had previously imagined that certain people were the "good guys", and that others were the villains of the piece. Now, having read MacCulloch's observations and analyses, my views have shifted somewhat.

The role of humanism is stressed at many points, and this exploration goes far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world. Much effort is made to illustrate events in Zurich, Geneva, the Netherlands, Transylvania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The sweep and richness of this telling is thereby enhanced greatly.

One gains a keen impression of how cosmopolitan and internationalist a scene the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were. Nationality and ethnicity were often transcended in these struggles, and even in an age before mass, instant communication, it was quite a "small world"

I particularly enjoyed the passages which addressed worship and religious organisation at a very localized level. Credit to the author, too, for a willingness to quote seemingly obscure and little-known examples to illustrate, or question, broader trends.

The latter chapters are some of the most noteworthy, as they take a look at church attempts to regulate or influence human moral behaviours, and also how Christianity engaged with movements such as the Enlightenment. Once again the writer's command of his subject, and his attention to detail, continually whetted my appetite for more.

A period which can seem murky, dark and austere is brought to life in vivid colour. It is made possible to imagine and visualize the landscape and the events, and the characters who participated in the drama.

In summary, this is a magnificent, thought-provoking and informative work.

Friday, 13 April 2018

With The Beatles (1963 album)

With The Beatles, the sophomore album by the Liverpudlian beat combo, was seen as a step up in polish and sophistication, if lacking some of the infectious naivete and spontaneity of the first record.

It has been observed that more time and care was taken over this one, as evidenced by the arty (and much imitated and parodied) cover design. The darker, less frivolous ambience does reflect a maturing of sorts, but in purely musical terms  the progression is perhaps only slightly discernible to the untrained ear.

As on the debut, they start off proceedings with a strong album-only track, although "It Won't Be Long" emerges as a fairly mediocre song upon closer inspection.  It is made memorable and impactful by the taut and urgent way in which it is put together, with fine vocal interplay and meaty guitar parts.  Lots of action packed into just over two minutes, with little time to draw breath.

A trend which emerges for me is how much more measured and in control the band is on this record. Quiet confidence and a less frenetic flavour. John Lennon excels vocally throughout, and songs such as "All My Loving" exhibit a growth in musical finesse and savvy. As has been frequently pointed out, it seems remarkable that compositions of this quality could be consigned to being "mere" album tracks.

It is worth acknowledging at this juncture that the record is not uniformly strong.  There is some filler, such as "Don't Bother Me"  and "Little Child", but the running order is cleverly arranged and paced so as to make the album seem slightly stronger than it really is. Versatility is much on display, with the boys having excursions into something approaching Tin Pin Alley ("Till There Was You").

As on several of the Beatles' early albums, we are served up a mixture of original numbers and cover versions. The covers are of variable quality here, it should be stressed. The rendition of "Please Mr. Postman" is a wonder of control and vibrancy, both Lennon, on lead, and McCartney and Harrison, on harmonies/backing vocals, starring. Their interpretation of "Money (That's What I Want)", packs a considerable punch, if less immediately likeable than some of their other covers.

The version of "Roll Over Beethoven" feels rather perfunctory and uninspired, but one wonders how different it might have turned out had McCartney or Lennon taken the lead vocal. "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" is interpreted with great acuity and restraint, once again the voices blend and intertwine beautifully. The group seemed especially suited to covering songs in this style or sub-genre.

For all its status as a song which became a Rolling Stones single, "I Wanna Be Your Man" is rather turgid, and helps complete the complement of filler. It is not surprising that the lads felt no qualms about "giving away" this song to their nearest British competitors.

"Devil In Her Heart" is minor but enjoyable, with some pleasing harmonies and chord changes. The Beatles in their element in many ways.  "Not A Second Time" is a fascinating and mildly "experimental" creation which is often forgotten, but it exudes in a quiet way some of those qualities which would soon place The Beatles well beyond the reach of most of their contemporaries.

So to sum up, With The Beatles is an advance on its predecessor, even it it less enjoyable and exuberant in an immediate sense. The musicians sound less anxious to please, having surmounted some of the pressing obstacles on the first record. The signs of their more folk-rock-orientated and acoustic phase, which was only months in the future, are not really there, but this only underscores the feverish and dynamic nature of the Sixties and the Beatles' artistic development.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The First World War - John Keegan

John Keegan's book The First World War is an authoritative examination of the 1914-18 conflict. It focuses primarily on military strategy and tactics, and contains relatively little material about the "home front", or the social and economic aspects of the war.

The writing style struck me as rather awkward, and for my own personal tastes lacks a certain fluency. However, the author's grasp of military matters and geopolitics is impressive, and this gives the book its main strengths.

Keegan has some interesting things to say about the circumstances under which war broke out, and about the factors which generated the fear and insecurity which sparked the catastrophe. He also guides the reader through the bewildering course of events on the Eastern Front and in Russia in 1917-18. The demise of Imperial Germany is related with a suitably dramatic flavour. People may not necessarily agree with all of the author's opinions, but they are carefully argued.

A recurring lament in this interpretation is the way in which Europe ruined itself at a time when it was flourishing in many respects. Some might justifiably contend that the fall of absolutism in Central Europe was a valuable and positive outcome, but the author points to the instability and resentment which these events triggered, with dreadful consequences in the years which followed. Change was not allowed to arrive "organically", perhaps?

Some of Keegan's viewpoints about the conduct of Allied generals, and also his conclusions on certain political developments, will probably not be fashionable amongst some 21st century observers. He seems to me to adopt a pragmatic but humane approach, and at several points in the book he appears to take a stab at "abstract" theories, both military and political.

The sense of pointless waste of lives pervades these pages, as it does with most accounts of the war. A continent seemingly intent on self-destruction, although the author, as I interpreted it, attributed the root causes to the ambition and vanity of one man (Kaiser Wilhelm II), whose actions and threats prompted much of the distrust and delusive alliance-building. The regularly quoted casualty statistics are sobering in the extreme.

The final paragraph ends the book on a rather enigmatic but reflective note.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Byzantium - The Surprising Life of A Medieval Empire - Judith Herrin

I have always been fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. It held a certain mystique, partly because I knew relatively little about it. Judith Herrin's book serves as a good introduction, and more.

This is not an exhaustive chronological history - the author examines various instructive aspects of Byzantium in a digestible and entertaining format.  I derived from it an appreciation of how the empire regarded itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, as well as being the descendant of ancient and classical Greece, and how these factors, together with the co-existence of pagan and Christian elements, helped to carve out a distinct identity of its own.

The author is keen to emphasize the role of Byzantium in allowing "Europe" the time and space to develop and breathe, by constituting a "shield" in the East. She also makes some interesting observations about how the empire's participation in religious matters, for instance with the Slavs, helped to shape the future make-up of the world farther north.

The ebb and flow of the relationships between East and West is deftly and accessibly outlined, even if some of the theological struggles and disputes seem obscure and bewildering to a modern reader. Above all, this book details how Byzantium constantly reinvented itself, and adapted to new challenges and to the emergence of new influences and threats.

Occasionally the legacy of the empire is placed in a modern context, and there is recurrent reference to archaeological finds, and to the signs, reminders and remnants of Byzantium's existence and vitality which still remain today. The author warms to the task of addressing and analyzing the vehement criticism which the empire was subjected to after its demise, especially during the Enlightenment.

As so often happens with these matters, my opinion of the Byzantine world has actually diminished as a consequence of learning more about it.  Dynamic and idiosyncratic it may have been, but the fact that it was influential and intriguing does not obscure some things which seem less agreeable. One is left feeling that the world had even regressed in some respects since the classical era. Byzantium did not seem to fully incorporate some of the more progressive features of the civilizations which it claimed to be the successor of.

Whatever one's personal opinion of the "goodness" or otherwise of the empire, though, this is a well-written and thoughtful introduction to the subject.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection is a philosophical novel by Leo Tolstoy. It chronicles the efforts of a Russian nobleman to atone for his previous misdeeds towards a young woman, who has found herself in prison. The protagonist, Nekhlyudov, blames himself for her fall from grace and her later incarceration.

As Nekhlyudov tries to help Maslova, he becomes acutely aware of the injustice, cruelty and corruption around him, and this ensures that his mission extends beyond mere personal redemption.

I had not read any Tolstoy since my teens (War And Peace), and the consensus seems to me that this later effort, Resurrection, is not as "literary" as some of his earlier novels, with less depth in terms of storyline and characterizations. It does act as a platform for the author to expound some of his political beliefs (by this time he was a Christian anarchist).

I was drawn to this work in part because of my own interest in the economic theories of Henry George, to which Tolstoy had become an enthusiastic adherent.  The book, though, does not go into as much detail about the workings of Georgism as I had been led to expect.

Resurrection might not be on a par in artistic terms with Tolstoy's acknowledged masterpieces, but I found the story quite absorbing, and the subject matter should tug at the conscience of most people. Some of the passages concerning the conditions endured by the prisoners are genuinely disturbing and moving.  Also, Nekhlyudov's interactions with Maslova are quite complex, and how one interprets and gauges their attitudes to each other at various stages adds to the interest.

It is possible to argue I think that there is not sufficient space in the novel to fully explore how the Nekhlyudov character arrived at his world-view - it seems that even before his liaison with Maslova he was harbouring grave misgivings about "the system", and at the disparity between the luxury enjoyed by his own class and the plight of the downtrodden. On the other hand, his indignation at what he witnesses, and his energetic moves to intervene, help to propel the story.

I found highly interesting the descriptions of some of the less appetizing representatives of the ruling classes and the bureaucracy, and the way in which their attitudes of arrogance and indifference compounded Nekhlyudov's disaffection with the milieu with which he had hitherto been closely connected.

So, Resurrection is an interesting read.  The world may have changed considerably since this was written in the late 19th century, but the broader issues which it examines can, with some imagination, be transferred to modern times.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stalker (1979 film)

Having been gripped by Solaris, I moved on to watch another of Andrei Tarkovsky's most acclaimed works, Stalker, released in 1979.

The storyline revolves around a group of men who undertake an expedition to a region known as The Zone. Within The Zone is a room which supposedly has the capacity to fulfill people's innermost desires. What follows is an absorbing and intense series of ruminations about the room and its implications and meaning, with an emotional and intellectual depth which will tax the viewer's brain, but at the same time will be immensely rewarding.

The early portion of the movie has a bleak and ascetic flavour, and this atmosphere scarcely relents over the full duration. Even more than Solaris, this picture probes the very essence of human nature and its vagaries. Matters of perception, truth, honesty and sincerity are examined. "The Room", and its presence, certainly prompt questions concerning what we truly need or want, and how our consciousness may impact on certainties, and prevent us from ascertaining when we are being manipulated, misled or exploited.

Many thoughts, some less than comforting, emerge from the film's subject matter. We chase our dreams despite the perils and the pitfalls. The existence of  "The Room", or its equivalents, drives us on - the mere thought or notion of being fulfilled. At the same time, could we be happier by neglecting some impulses, and simply live in the present moment, savouring things for their own sake?  In this respect, The Zone may be interpreted as a microcosm for how we live our lives, and what we put ourselves through, the thrill of the chase keeping us going. As The Zone is a hostile and stark place, some might see it as a very apt metaphor for the wider world.

My interpretation might be wishful thinking, but strikes a chord with some of my recent reflections. We don't appreciate what is all around us or right under our noses, or appreciate what we can derive from those things. People striving to be benevolent or altruistic miss the point, in failing to see the basics, the root issues.

The movie also contains some periods of relative inactivity, affording the watcher space to think and reflect. The dialogue warrants close scrutiny, and when I watched the film I marveled at it.

The "something to aim for" is abstract. In contemplating the notion of "free will", we must accept how much we are estranged from our true feelings and needs. It is the hope that kills us. Human nature defeats us, and it is surely preferable to live life as a series of small steps, being mindful and extracting the most from each second, minute, hour, day. We should seek to transcend our nature this way, rather than strive for the unattainable and emerge disappointed.  All easier said than done, however.

Stalker, with a suitably eerie soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev, is a gripping, if unsettling, watch.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Lenin.....The Train (1988 TV movie)

Lenin.....The Train is a TV movie from 1988, which chronicles the railway journey made by Lenin and his associates from Switzerland,via Germany, to Petrograd, in the run-up to the October Revolution. Ben Kingsley stars as the Russian revolutionary.

The film begins with a look at the tortuous negotiations between Lenin's people and the German authorities, the Germans being anxious to help Lenin with his revolutionary programme, as a means of getting Russia out of the First World War. Of course, negotiations also took place between the various Russian factions.

In some respects this is your typical TV-movie fare, but the gravitas and the general quality are elevated somewhat by the standard of the acting, Timothy West standing out in this regard. Initially, my opinion was that Ben Kingsley should have adopted a Russian accent, and that this was necessary to imbue the picture with authenticity. However, by the end I had concluded that this was no major issue, as Kingsley's mannerisms and gestures are very consistent and believable, and convey a distinct persona.

I feel that the movie portrays Lenin as the voice of reason and moderation, his sole objective being to instigate and foment the Revolution. To him, hotheads and indiscretions posed a threat to the prospects for the entire enterprise. Lenin knew that some emotions had to be suppressed, so as not to endanger the quest for the main prize. A plus point is that this film depicts the Bolsheviks as reasonably normal people, not as overly fanatical, belligerent or obsessive.

This movie contains repeated reminders of the futility and injustice of the war. When one looks at the tasks which the troops on all sides were being asked to undertake, it is a wonder that revolutions did not break out in all of the combatant nations. Whatever one thinks of the Bolsheviks, there is a case for arguing that they did the world a favour, by forcing the "democracies" to adopt more enlightened policies and attitudes. The soldiers and the masses had been acquainted with potent new ideas, and their co-operation and deference could no longer be taken for granted.

The picture concludes with the arrival of Lenin's train in Petrograd, an the film-makers thereby cleverly avoided having to cover the October Revolution itself.

Lenin.....The Train is surprisingly good and "learned" for a made-for-TV production The acting clearly lifts it, as does a sensitive and balanced exploration of many of the crucial issues.