Saturday, 20 August 2016

Frederick The Great - Nancy Mitford - book review

Of historical figures, Frederick The Great, the famous eighteenth-century Prussian ruler, has long held a fascination for many.  In my own case, I think some of this has to do with his similarities to, and also differences from, Napoleon Bonaparte.

I recently finished reading Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick, originally published in 1970. Though by no means definitive, I found it enjoyable, and it provided me with an interesting perspective on the man.

The book is written in a breezy and witty style, although I would guess that some might be put off by its "non-academic" nature and lack of  "gravitas".  It is not what I have to come to expect from such biographies, but in a way it made for a refreshing change, and it does have an idiosyncratic charm of its own.

On balance, I would say that Frederick emerges as a sympathetic figure, making allowances for the times in which he lived. In his reluctance to conform, and in his efforts to defy his domineering father, he stands out. It is easy to understand why the young man was so eager and anxious to escape the cultural and intellectual chains which were placed around him.

Frederick's outlook and cultural inclinations make his military prowess seem incongruous, to the modern day observer at least. I have heard it said that this book underplays Frederick's role in military aggression, and therefore paints an inaccurate portrait.  I don't think that Nancy Mitford seeks to conceals his mistakes, or some of the disagreeable foibles in his make-up, although she does pointedly highlight occasions when the king expressed his displeasure with war.

A constant theme in this work is Frederick's sometimes turbulent friendship with Voltaire. This forms an endearing and intriguing sub-plot, as the two fenced and sought advantage. There are also colourful tales of court life, intrigues and back-biting, and it was nice to be given a hint of life at the royal residences.

The fluctuating nature of some of the king's friendships, and his relationships with other rulers and influential figures, also receive prominence here. There are some quite touching passages, especially pertaining to Frederick's close bond with his sister Wilhelmine.  His alternating periods of joy and despair struck a chord. The author does a fine job of conveying the atmosphere of hopelessness and fatalism during the lowest points of the Seven Years' War.

What emerged for me was a complex man, with his flaws, like all of us, but one whose attitudes and approach were enlightened for the period. I enjoyed this biography more than I had anticipated beforehand, but perhaps more as a primer or catalyst, to encourage deeper research of the subject and the era.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

First World War - Martin Gilbert

I recently re-read Martin Gilbert's book First World War, and I found it sobering, if gripping.

This work takes the form of a narrative account, and it feels more compact than it really is, because the story is related in a largely "bite-size" format, within chapters covering clearly definable stages of the war.

For me, the book is imbued with its drama and poignancy by the inclusion of excerpts from the diaries and correspondence of a wide array of people who were involved in the conflict, or who were affected by it. It is possible to trace changes in their mood and attitudes as time goes on, as the realities and horrors slowly but surely sink in.  There are some anecdotes and stories here which should touch anyone's heart and conscience.

The style I would tentatively describe as moderate in tone, appealing to reason and a common sense of humanity. If anything, the restrained and matter-of-fact character of the writing succeeds by allowing the suffering and chaos to speak for themselves.

Due to the narrative format, the ebb and flow, and the fluctuations in morale and momentum, are vividly highlighted. Another effect of the author's diligence is to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the struggle, and the diverse array of landscapes and cultures on which it impinged. The Balkans and the Middle East are prominent, and there is constant focus on the aspirations of nationalities and minorities for recognition in the post-war order of things.

The passages which deal with the build-up to the war are relatively brief, but they do convey the somewhat bizarre nature of events. Complacency and wishful thinking intermingled with the insecurity of those nations imprisoned by alliances. The diplomatic prelude also caused me to perceive that in some of the nations the decision-making process was confused and indistinct, with monarchs, politicians and military leaders overlapping.

It is disturbing to read of the harsh and repressive measures taken by "democratic" countries to crack down on, and suppress, protest and dissent during the war, even allowing for the exigencies of wartime. In addition, the callous attitudes displayed by some of the generals, and politicians, towards soldiers and civilians alike are disconcerting.

Some of the most illuminating portions of the book are the ones which encompass the periods in 1917/18 when the "Entente powers" were under real strain, specifically between Russia's collapse and the entrance of American forces into the field in meaningful numbers. The desperation and anxiety of those in power is palpable, and superbly brought across here, partly by the tetchy dialogue between the military leaders of the Western Allies.

A facet of First World War which enriches it greatly is the light which it sheds on the character and traits of participants at differing levels, with their varying temperaments, morals and intellects. Some of the quotes attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II made me shudder, as did the deluded thinking of some in the German hierarchy as the war neared its conclusion. They failed to clearly appreciate which way the wind was blowing.

Also prominent in my mind was a consequence of the war which is often overlooked. That is the sheer waste of natural resources, and the damage to the natural environment, which was brought about.

I think that humankind, or at least parts of it, have by and large learned, and progressed, in the past hundred years. However, books such as this one should be read by people of all backgrounds, generations and outlooks, as a cautionary tale, and as a stark warning and reminder.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Help! - The Beatles - album review

When I first bought the Beatles' albums on CD, in the mid-1990s, and listened to them in their entirety for the first time in my life, I remember being especially impressed with Help!, because of the pristine clarity of the stereo mix, the prevalence of electric piano and the jolly ambience of some of the songs.

As time has gone on, however, I have come to realize that this record is perhaps the most uneven in the Beatles' illustrious catalogue. It contains songs which are symptomatic of major artistic and philosophical advancement and insight, but these triumphs are interspersed with some rather insipid and lightweight material.

So whilst Help! exhibits clear signs of a growing maturity, it also betrays evidence of the "tiredness" and lack of inspiration which had also been deemed to have characterized Beatles For Sale. However, I would opine that "For Sale" had more coherence and substance.  Some of the "filler" on this 1965 release is little better than that being purveyed by other beat bands of the mid-60s.  The lifestyle changes and influences which the Beatles were encountering in 1964/65 did not have a uniformly beneficial impact on their work, and this may help to explain the inconsistency.

The reason why this album at first appears better than it really is, I think stems from the production and arrangements, which manage to conceal the mediocrity of a few of the songs. "The Night Before" is an example of this. Other tracks which are great performances, rather than masterly songs, would include "Another Girl" and "Your'e Gonna Lose That Girl", with their intricate vocal and guitar parts.

The version of "It's Only" which features here is, I think, inferior to the one later included on the Anthology 2 collection.  "I've Just Seen A Face", though, is Paul McCartney at his best, an engaging gem of spontaneity, exuding an energy and conviction which is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

Little else needs to be said about "Yesterday". It is another one of those Beatles classics which benefits from the group's (and George Martin's) uncanny aptitude for taste and quality control, knowing instinctively how to treat a high-quality idea, creating the requisite mood without blemishing or clouding the essential quality.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is a simple but sublimely profound song.  Several interpretations of the lyrics are possible, and several were likely intended, I suspect. It doesn't push itself too hard, a hallmark of the group at its best.

The title track also feels very natural and unforced.  Its words hint at some of the pressures which were having a bearing on the combo's output, whilst clearly illustrating their increasing willingness and capacity to articulate such emotions poetically and credibly.

The most energetic and assertive number on the record, "Ticket To Ride", is not totally out of kilter with what was being produced by the Beatles' contemporaries, but it is somehow rendered futuristic by some standout features. Ringo Starr's thundering but idiosyncratic drumming, and McCartney's brilliant harmonies, elevate it beyond the ordinary.

For me, the fly-in-the-ointment, is the cover version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" which closes out the album. In truth, it is not that bad a rendition, but it rather does signify the confusing and disjointed nature of the work. One expects the final track on a Beatles track to be a hint of impending growth and development, and its presence on the album would have been less egregious if it had been hidden away somewhere in the middle of the running order.

This is a fine record, for all its flaws, but despite the consummate quality of some of the music, as a project it still feels rather thrown together.  The stresses and strains of the treadmill of fame were clearly exerting some effect, but that undefinable magic pulled them through, and they were to go from strength to strength as recording artists.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Led Zeppelin II - (1969 album)

Led Zeppelin's second album, released in 1969, is often cited as one of the definitive hard rock albums, and judging it by the rawness and power which were carried over from the debut record, it probably is.

The sound, however, somehow lacks the inviting nature of the first LP, with a harshness which is not always totally comforting.  That said, the "live" flavour is still very much there, apparently achieved in part by the judicious employment of microphones and amplifiers. I think that the "blues" component is sometimes subordinated to the pure "rock" elements, and here perhaps lies the reason for the album's influence on generations of musicians.  At some point, the music ceases to be "blues rock" and becomes "hard rock", loath as I am to acknowledge such rigid labels.

Despite this set's reputation as a seminal staging post in the development of heavy rock styles, it is more eclectic than might be thought. The group's melodic, reflective and folk-rock inclinations are allowed free rein on "Thank You" and "Ramble On", and there is some quite pure and authentic blues. In its bite, Led Zeppelin II exudes a distinctive character, removed from the rest of Zeppelin's catalogue, and there are numerous memorable and exciting moments to savour.

The fame of "Whole Lotta Love" can be seen to dominate this album and overshadow all else,and this is a pity.  The song's perceived importance is out of all proportion to its artistic merit, in my opinion. Minimalist, it has "shrunk" on me as the decades have passed.  The middle section is quite affecting in its suspense and its otherworldliness. Otherwise the allure has slowly but surely diminished through honest scrutiny and over-familiarity.

For me, the album proper commences with "What Is And What Should Never Be." , a classic instance of the potential of "light and shade", with some very satisfying guitar flourishes and hooks. "The Lemon Song" is a song which encapsulates the "organic" flavour which makes the early Zeppelin records so engrossing.  The gritty but "natural" feel is very pronounced here - the rhythm section in the middle part, the lovely fluidity of Jimmy Page's playing.  The vocal is also given a nice fuzzy treatment.

"Thank You" is a nice surprise in its elegance, gentleness and poignancy.  It features one of Robert Plant's more endearing and heartfelt vocals, and the production carries distant echoes of the psychedelic and folk-rock genres. By contrast, "Heartbreaker" is constructed around an irresistibly voluptuous riff, great sounding drums, and "that" guitar solo in the middle.  One thing discernible in this track is that the overdubs are more "obvious" in places, a departure from the first record.

"Living Loving Maid", which feels like a natural follow-on from "Heartbreaker", is pleasant filler material, appearing more substantial and musically profound than it really is, due to clever production and arrangement. "Ramble On" is one of the record's definite high points, although if one is not careful, it can pass by almost unnoticed. More light and shade, a generally idiosyncratic and ethereal nature, and the employment of "exotic" instruments make it a pleasing piece. It stands up better than most Zeppelin tracks to the passage of time.

"Moby Dick" is a bit of self-indulgence. A "skip track", to be totally truthful.  Great to hear John Bonham's prowess, but I actually prefer the instrumental "verse" section; the strong riff and the flourishes of guitar.

"Bring It On Home" is yet another example of light and shade . The understated, almost reticent bluesy verse, abruptly superseded by more ebullient and vigorous passages , Harmonica is also effectively used.  Not a great song, but an impactful and effervescent piece of music.  In fact, the same could be said of many of the numbers here.

In appraising Led Zeppelin II, I would say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Few of the tracks possess the capacity to animate the spirits, or to instill real emotion.  Still, it holds the attention, even if it lacks the personality and charm of other Zeppelin works. We are "meant" and " supposed" to accept its rightful place in the pantheon, but thinking objectively, I would have to say that it is one the band's weaker efforts.  This is not to say that it is a bad album, far from it, but I don't think it is quite as spectacular as the "mythology" sometimes asserts.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere - Neil Young, with Crazy Horse

Neil Young's album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, issued in 1969, had drifted in my affections in recent years, my attention tending to focus on the material which was released by the Canadian singer-songwriter in the mid-to-late 70s.  Part of the reason for this may be down to an (erroneous) perception that the sophomore record is unduly dominated by the two "epic" tracks, "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl in The Sand".

Closer and honest inspection, however, underlines the overall quality and depth of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It certainly exudes more bite and energy than the artist's debut album. This record is a showcase for the harder-edged dimension of the Young repertoire, though balanced out by some mellower and more melodic fare.  The LP introduces us to the inimitable and idiosyncratic Crazy Horse groove.

"Cinnamon Girl" is a concise and accessible interpretation of the Crazy Horse pattern. The title track combines the gritty guitar sound with a melodic country-rock atmosphere - a pleasing and satisfying blend.

The overall mood of this work is one of introspection and melancholy, although the odd slice of qualified optimism does strive to break through.

"Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" has a genuinely hypnotic quality, and it harks back in tone and style to the first album, to my ears at least. In truth the song goes on for too long, although I'm not usually someone who complains about such things. It is easy to begin to lose interest just after the halfway mark.

One of the centrepieces of the record, "Down By The River" has that insistent groove, the instrumentation managing to ally minimalism with vitality, especially during the soloing. The fine vocal harmonies nicely embellish the track.

"The Losing End (When You're On)" is mournful and likeable, if rather lightweight. It doesn't exactly constitute light relief, but it is a nice contrast to the other numbers. Again, tinges of country-rock, with added punch.

The next song, "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)" has more substance, a distinctive ambience, largely supplied by the haunting violin. My reaction when listening to this one is to liken it to a traditional folk song. Neil's vocal here is very restrained, but intimate and effective. The guitar textures help to create an affecting mood.

The second of the "epics" is "Cowgirl In The Sand", with enigmatic lyrics which may or may not be about some mystical or idealized woman. This one has a real energy and verve, partly due to the "shuffling" rhythm and some unusually prominent bass. Another noticeable feature is the "separation" between the lead and rhythm guitars,

So to summarize, when listened to closely this album reveals itself as very organic and powerful, and one of Neil Young's strongest and most consistent artistic statements, containing very little in the way of filler. Unsettling and haunting in places, but beautifully crafted and quite absorbing and atmospheric.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Odyssey - Homer

Having got through Homer's Iliad, I recently set about reading the poet's other celebrated work, The Odyssey.  This was E V Rieu's translation, which was done in a "prose" style.

The poem essentially documents the wanderings, adventures, fortunes and misfortunes of Odysseus (and others) in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  The main thrust of the plot is the quest of Odysseus to return to his home in Ithaca, and his later measures to address the ominous events which had taken place there in his absence.

During the story we are immersed in the world of the palaces  The settings are varied and the story derives much of its richness from the grandiosity or beauty of the locations, and the way in which these are introduced and described. Ironically, this world, as much as it bears some resemblance to historical reality, was shortly to decay and eventually disappear.

In part due to the exotic and evocative settings which form the backdrop for the various portions of the poem, the Odyssey, there is very much a fantasy and/or fairy-tale character to the work, with passages referring to bounteous orchards, streams, forests, springs, exotic fruits and other idyllic features. The mythological element is strong. The constant and elaborate presence of the gods and assorted mythical beings and creatures accentuate this impression.

In other ways I was reminded of some of the stories written by Hermann Hesse, although the precise motivations behind Odysseus' travels were not always the same as those nurtured by Hesse's characters. One can readily appreciate from reading this work how influential Homer has been, subconsciously or otherwise, on many generations of writers, novelists and poets.

For all the tranquil and picturesque landscapes, the Odyssey is not without its violent and disconcerting episodes. The encounter with the Cyclops, and especially his culinary inclinations, certainly raised my eyebrows.  One thing to note is that the story is slightly confusing from a chronological viewpoint, in that much of the plot is related "retrospectively" by Odysseus to the Phaeacians. Once the reader has untangled the order in which the various stages happened, then he or she will be fine, and it should make perfect sense.

The Odysseus is, on the face of it, not submerged by portentousness and gravitas, and some of the dialogue between characters has charm. Moral questions are tackled in a milder and less onerous manner, and this ensures that it is digestible and enjoyable, even if intense concentration is desirable in order to derive the most from it.

It is a gripping and absorbing story, and is well worth reading, and not just for people who have already experienced the Iliad.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Iliad - Homer

Commonly regarded as the beginning of European literature, Homer's epic poem The Iliad is set in the latter stages of the Trojan War, and largely centres on the experiences and emotions of the character Achilles, and to a lesser extent his Trojan counterpart Hector.  I recently undertook the gruelling but truly rewarding task of reading the work in its entirety.

When reading The Iliad, it is tempting to become preoccupied with the "historicity" question, (i.e. to what degree the poem accurately reflects real events), and to let this hinder one's enjoyment of the story-telling and the language.  Perhaps the wisest course of action is to read it twice - once purely to relish its literary beauty and gravity, and then again to cross-reference minutiae with the archaeological and scholarly canon.

One thing which strikes the reader almost immediately about The Iliad is its sheer power and immersive vitality. As some people have observed down the decades, the experience can be almost overwhelming to the reader.  Although the central thrust of the story is the "rage" of Achilles, and his resentment towards Agamemnon, the length of the work permits a diverse array of characters to come under scrutiny, and their presence greatly enriches the depth of the picture.

Of course, much of the narrative is taken up with the deliberations of the gods.  These supernatural and mythical features of the story do endow it with much of its poetic vigour and mystique. I found myself adopting a dual strategy, of both taking those elements literally, and also of divining more rational and worldly interpretations.

It seems an odd thing to say, but it is surprising at how "sophisticated" the narrative is, as if guile, emotion and a grasp of the vagaries of the human condition had not yet been invented three thousand years ago!  Some newcomers may also be surprised at the graphic nature of the descriptions of the combat. There is little effort to cushion the horror, to sentimentalize it or to shroud the actual consequences in cryptic phrases.

In some ways the story can be distilled down to a study of, and comparison between the "heroic" figure of Achilles and Hector.  The latter perhaps embodies the qualities which would be seen as admirable in later, classical times.

A feature of The Iliad which struck me right away was how it brings the senses alive, making the reader feel as if he or she was there on the battlefield, or beside the Achaean ships.  I could almost reach out and touch the action, and taste it.

Parts of the story have something of a medieval fairy-tale quality about them, and I have heard one or two experts proffer this impression too.  Going back briefly to the gods, I could imagine that a modern audience would draw a parallel between their involvement and the "puppet masters" who, we are told, influence and orchestrate wars and upheavals in our own time. Is this me being over-analytical?

As mentioned earlier, the length of the poem allows time and space to dwell on some of the supporting characters, such as Diomedes for instance. Their "back stories", and details of their background and lineage, enhance the piece. The heterogeneous nature of that world is also highlighted, with portrayals of local natural features, and the traits and activities which distinguished the inhabitants of each region.  Colourful pictures are painted, and the reader is drawn even further in.

It probably helps to have a little knowledge of the story beforehand, as well as the historicity and archaeology, in order to render it a more seamless literary experience. A person approaching it "green" may find the breadth of characters and mythology excessive and bewildering.

I can readily appreciate that many 21st century readers will be ambivalent at best about the world which is depicted in The Iliad.  Even if they are awed and captivated by the beauty and intricacy of the poetry, they will be repelled by the values espoused by some of the characters.  I would contend that if we look beyond this, some simpler, timeless and more noble virtues can still be made out.

My perception was that the tension in the poetry escalated towards the end, and this would be more acutely felt if one had an inkling of what is to come, or if one had worked it out along the way. For all the bravado which emanates from the main players, their fear and anxiety are also easily discernible, which reflects well on the quality of the storytelling. I found that my own revulsion at the pitiless and unscrupulous methods of the fighters rose as I got deeper in; the animalistic lust for vengeance and blood, the deafness to pleas for mercy or clemency.  Still, I was transfixed.

It has been asserted that Iliad embodies the tragedy of war, but it also serves as a commentary and a window on the darker, less palatable and edifying aspects of human nature. It is still relevant, even though we like to convince ourselves that we have conquered, or at least tamed, some of our more unpleasant inclinations.

Troy's inevitable doom, and that of some of the central protagonists, hangs over the piece, and contributes heavily to the drama and the pathos. It is also worth remembering that some of the familiar points of the Troy legend are not in this poem, or else are only referred to obliquely.

The ending, which might have been regarded as a redemption for Achilles, would be uplifting in its way, if we did not sense what would follow, having been placed on notice in the text. This ambiguity, and the curious ending, are additional factors in The Iliad's appeal.

The Iliad is a sometimes uncomfortable, daunting but enthralling read, It will also place much other literature in perspective.