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.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Ege Bamyasi - Can - album review

After releasing the epic double album Tago Mago in 1971, Can did something slightly different for their next release.  1972's Ege Bamyasi has a more direct and concentrated sound, although it is not as vast a departure from its predecessor as some might think.

In places the sound is more raw and minimalist, elsewhere the instruments are captured in a more "live" feel, especially the drums, which are such an integral feature of the Can world of the early 70s. Known for primarily being made up of shorter, more succinct songs, this album does in fact feature two lengthier compositions, more in keeping with the content of Tago Mago.  Also, many of the tracks are based on the same highly rhythmic foundation.

The "water" sound-effects at the beginning of "Sing Swan Song" are one of the highlights for me! The song itself is slyly hypnotic, and it is one of those Can numbers which only fully reveals its subtleties when listened to very closely and attentively.

It is reputed that this record, perhaps more than any other Can LP, was highly influential on subsequent generations of music, particularly the purveyors of post-punk, alternative and electronic music. This is something which becomes apparent a short way into the work.  Its directness, and what might be termed the deceptively melodic minimalism and sparseness of the arrangements. "One More Night" springs to mind in this regard. The likely effect of Ege Bamyasi on people over time is rather difficult to articulate, which perhaps only underlines its brilliance.

Possibly the best-known song on the album is "Vitamin C", a very infectious creation with hooks in abundance.  The chorus is sung with more vigour and "passion" than is often associated with Can's work of that era. Like much of the group's output, it largely defies conventional description, partly because there is very little with which to realistically compare it.....

The longest song on the set is "Soup".  The "introduction" section appears to presage the laid-back material which would characterize areas of Future Days, then it briefly threatens to resemble something approaching a conventional rock song, but reassurance arrives as it reverts to Can-type, the most experimental piece of work on the record, with heavy use of electronic effects.  The opener, "Pinch", is over nine minutes in duration, but is much less "out there" in nature.

Then back to more concise and compact territory to close out the record. "I'm So Green" is one of the many Can tracks to prompt the observation "it's incredible to think that this was recorded as long ago as (insert year)". Then again, it doesn't really sound like anything recorded in more recent times either. To use a cliche, a song which operates "out of time".

"Spoon" is another number which can be clearly seen to have inspired and enthused musicians of later years, that is the 80s and the 90s. The percussion feels more mechanical, and this song appears distantly related to the Manchester scene of the late 80s/early 90s, although this could be just a coincidence or an indirect link.

Ege Bamyasi does not, for me anyway, quite possess the capacity of Tago Mago to induce open-mouthed awe and wonder, but it is another captivating illustration of Can's singular genius and originality.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Cahoots - The Band - album review

1971's Cahoots is often seen as continuing The Band's gradual decline in creative energy and vitality, but I do not necessarily endorse that assessment, seeing it more as the onset of a plateau. The album contains fewer "famous" songs than its predecessor, Stage Fright, but I don't see it as significantly weaker.

Stage Fright feels to me like a collection of distinct songs, mostly pretty good ones it must be said, if lacking the charm and mystique of those from the first two records released by the group. Cahoots is more impenetrable, enigmatic and dark, less straightforward to define and, on the surface at least, not as easy to love. Even the mix seems muddy, without the exuberant and sharp clarity of earlier works.

The two best known tracks are featured up-front at the beginning of the record, the New Orleans-flavoured "Life Is A Carnival" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece", composed by Bob Dylan.  The latter is a spirited and likeable effort, with some exotic hues, and elevated by an endearing lead vocal by Levon Helm. It evokes some of the mystery and the qualities which had made The Band so important and refreshing.

"Last Of The Blacksmiths" is a song which in style and tone might have sat comfortably on Stage Fright.  It is ideally suited to Richard Manuel's voice, and he is on fine form here.

Coming up next, "Where Do We Go From Here?" adds credence to the notion that in the early Seventies, The Band's songs were beginning to sound rather too similar to each other.  This may have been a symptom of diminishing creative powers. This number is harmless enough, but it does verge on the anodyne.

"4% Pantomime" is a collaboration with Van Morrison. It has a pleasant R&B character, and Van's contributions alone make it worthwhile, adding an extra dimension. The trademark "Band" organ sound is also much in evidence.  It is a shame that this combination (The Band and Van) did not join forces more frequently on record.

If one was feeling uncharitable, it might be contended that "Shoot Out In Chinatown" represents "The Band by numbers". It is hardly surprising that Robbie Robertson's ideas were less potent and inventive by this time, when one considers the extraordinary burst of fecundity in the period 1968-70.

Next up, "The Moon Struck One" stands out slightly, due to another heartfelt Richard Manuel vocal, and a more inventive, confident melody and arrangement, endowing the track with a more gripping, almost hypnotic atmosphere. Some passionate singing helps "Thinkin' Out Loud", along with Robbie's Robertson's understated but affecting guitar-playing.

Like many Band numbers, "Smoke Signal" has lyrics which are worth taking close notice of, even if the tune here is itself nothing out of the ordinary. As with much of the band's post-1969 output, the vocal harmonies have become too "regular", somehow eschewing the wonderfully ragged vocal style on Music From Big Pink in particular.

"Volcano" constitutes a welcome change, including some lively horns and a nice helping of Robbie's distinctive "brittle" guitar work. This song is minor, but entertaining nevertheless.

The record concludes with "The River Hymn", which is more cinematic in its scope than most of the other items here. A gospel feel is very discernible, with the occasional glimpse of the combo's former magic. It finishes the album on some kind of high note.

It would be erroneous to describe Cahoots as "uneven", because few of its songs really stand out for any reason. The intensity may be lacking, but the music is well-crafted as always, and it is also a document of where the group, and perhaps the world in general, was in the early 1970s. In its own way, it has a nebulous, quirky appeal.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Fangio: The Life Behind The Legend - Gerald Donaldson

Furthering my campaign to revisit some of the motorsport-related titles residing on my dusty bookshelves, I recently re-read Gerald Donaldson's 2003 biography of the great Argentinian driver, Juan Manuel Fangio.

Fangio still holds a special fascination and a particular aura, matched perhaps only by those of Ayrton Senna, although they were quite different people. Fangio was revered by his peers, and still represents something of a benchmark, as much for his human qualities as his consummate skills behind the wheel of a car.

His upbringing was in stark contrast to that of today's stars, and indeed to most of his contemporaries. In addition, his racing apprenticeship was unusual, and may have helped to equip him with the qualities which separated him from his competitors when he embarked on his international career.

The early chapters are an intriguing window on the world of the early twentieth century, when motor vehicles were still a relative novelty, and in the infancy of their technical development. The picture which emerges is of an early life characterized by the inculcation of certain imperatives, such as the importance of hard work.  Even the early years suggest Fangio's hallmarks of mechanical sympathy, adaptability and resourcefulness.

A crucial part of the story is Fangio's participation in the epic South American road-race marathons. The author unfurls evocative  accounts of the sheer scale of these undertakings, the hardships which were undergone, and the perils and hazards which confronted the competitors. The range of emotions and environments which he encountered must have been character-building. Describing the dramas, the surroundings and the sensory experiences is a strength which is noticeable in some of Donaldson's other books, and those skills are well employed here.

This biography paints a picture of the tenor of an epoch, where improvised machinery and improvised racing schedules were the norm. Also, the comradeship and friendly spirit which prevailed among the drivers throughout comes across strongly.

Fangio seems to have been a self-made man, also self-taught to some extent. From humble origins, a strong work ethic had helped to instill a resilience of character which was crucial to his success. The author does not portray the man as some kind of saint, but his flaws and weaknesses were evidently less pronounced than those of most people, and a practical, pragmatic approach served him well. It also appears to me that Fangio combined old-fashioned virtues with the more entrepreneurial spirit of modern times. A more complex individual than is sometimes made out, perhaps.

The book contains some interesting material on that "lost" period between the end of the Second World War and the 1950 inception of the World Drivers' Championship. It is sobering to be reminded of the frequency of fatalities and serious injuries back then, both to competitors and spectators.  The stories of the Grand Prix races are related entertainingly but sparingly, and they capture some of the essence of what was still a "heroic" age. Indeed, some might contend that the "heroic age" came to a close when Fangio retired from racing.

There is a little insight into Fangio's character, and his philosophy of life, via quotes and anecdotes. These focus on his means of coping with danger and challenges, and with the nature of competition. An element which permeates these pages is just how much physical discomfort the drivers of that period had to withstand, whether through primitive, ill-handling machines or via the elements. Comfort was still some way in the future.

This biography is compact and balanced, although I don't think it is quite as fluent and impressive as the author's books about Gilles Villeneuve and James Hunt. It will, however, enthuse the reader about the man and the era in which he competed so ably and nobly.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Last Road Race - Richard Williams

Whilst sifting through numerous old books on my shelves, I came across "The Last Road Race", by Richard Williams, originally published in 2004, which tells the story of the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix.

The premise of the book is that the race represented the closing of an era, in that it was the last World Championship Grand Prix to be staged on a particular type of circuit, and in a certain set of conditions. It is a compact work, packed with details and anecdotes, and it contains several evocative passages.

Only a relatively small proportion of the book is actually taken up with the Pescara race itself.  Much of the space is given over to scene-setting, with portraits of some of the key participants in the event, and analysis of the key trends which determined its outcome, such as the emergence of the British constructors.  In some ways, "The Last Road Race" also functions as a brief history of motor racing in the period up until 1957, a chronicle of how that point had been reached.

The tenor of the era comes through, such as the more relaxed, informal feel of less regimented times and even through the improvised arrangements for travel, accommodation and so forth. There are some amusing stories about these aspects.

Much of the story revolves around Stirling Moss, either directly or indirectly.  Whenever I read anything about Moss, my admiration for the man rises. His professionalism, his talent and his energy combined to make him a compelling study.  There is some illuminating material how about how he organized himself, and how his approach differed from some of his peers. Moss comes across as a transitional figure on more than one level.

In addition to Moss, another person who impresses is Tony Brooks. An intriguing character, whose opinions and frank observations about racing and life are always worth reading.

I discerned quickly that the drivers had varying views about racing, their motives and their anxieties. Some were at home on the classic, perilous natural road courses, and bemoaned the sterility which later infiltrated the sport. Others were candid in expressing their unease about some of the conditions which they raced under.  Less romantic than some of their contemporaries, they were more pragmatic and business-like. Not everyone later complained unfailingly that things were better in their day.

From today's vantage point, the 1950s feel like a fabulous period for racing. Post-war optimism and renewal, the rise of the British drivers and teams, and the beginnings of technological upheaval, overlapped with the remnants of the pre-war age. This book manages to capture much of that atmosphere and excitement.

The actual competitiveness of the racing was often lacking, but the spectacle was enticing, and that seemed to be enough. It was real theatre, this dimension being heightened by the greater contribution of the driver, and the manner in which that contribution was more immediately visible.  Yes, some things in today's world are better, but those far-off days had an innocence and a raw drama about them.

Also, the media and the public did not constantly agonize about "the show", and subject it to minute scrutiny. In some respects the audience, and expert observers, had a more nuanced and sophisticated view. Attention spans were longer, and there was less pressure to pander to some perceived requirement to "entertain".

In 1957, the world was already beginning to change, but old-world courtesies lingered, and some timeless values were scrupulously observed. The drivers from that era were a diverse but likeable and noble group. They were not perfect, and had their flaws like all of us.

"The Last Road Race" is an enjoyable and stimulating document on a place and a time, written with enthusiasm and some style.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Amazing Summer of '55 - Eoin Young

Just recently, I surveyed some of the unread books piled up in a corner of my humble abode.  One which caught my attention was The Amazing Summer of '55, written by the late Eoin Young. This tells the story of the dramatic, tragic and turbulent motor racing season of that year.

The book takes the form of a series of articles, arranged in chronological order, covering the pivotal racing events of 1955. Extensive use is made of quotes from participants and excerpts from diaries, giving many of the episodes a genuine rawness and immediacy. The individual articles are concise and breezy, and they cover not just the "obvious" topics and incidents, but also some more obscure and less-publicized things which occurred during the year in question.

Human interest stories are combined with technical details.  The informality and relative lack of regimentation of the mid-Fifties shines through, although doubtless the "old hands" of that period bemoaned how things were different from previous times.

This was an intriguing epoch, not just in motor racing but in the wider world. The remnants of the "pre-war" world were increasingly in collision with elements of modernity such as technological progress, scientific advances and social change. The stories concerning Ruth Ellis and James Dean help to illustrate and emphasize the latter.

The epic and momentous nature of the Mille Miglia never ceases to impress and captivate, and it is accorded due prominence here. There are some evocative quotes and passages, and amusing anecdotes.

A strong quality of this book is how it covers the broad canvas of motorsport, not just the Grands Prix, but also sportscar racing in all its facets, and also the Indianapolis 500. One can get a real flavour of the culture of racing back then, and the attitudes and motivations of the people involved.

Of course, the disaster at Le Mans in 1955 figures strongly in this work, and the horror is powerfully evoked. Some interesting material is featured relating to the aftermath, the ramifications and the investigations, especially on the response of Mercedes to the tragedy.  These sections, and also the chapter examining the Tourist Trophy race at Dundrod, highlight perhaps most acutely the differences between now and then.

I worked my way through this book through it very quickly, which is generally a good sign. It is the kind of book which prompts the reader to seek out additional information about some of the topics covered.  A lively and enjoyable read.