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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Classical World - Robin Lane Fox

For a few reasons, I find that the "classical" and ancient worlds are a more interesting and stimulating field of research and study than more modern historical topics. Because of the relative lack of sources and direct evidence, there is more scope for imagination, debate and ambiguity.



The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox, is a vibrant, absorbing and at times passionate look at Greece and Rome. Faced with such a vast and complicated landscape, the author wisely operates within certain parameters, using 5th and 4th century Athens and the Roman Emperor Hadrian as benchmarks and reference points of a sort. The changes and upheavals through the centuries are examined through the concepts of freedom, justice and luxury, and how they were interpreted and regulated.

The most refreshing thing about this book is that the author is not afraid of making it clear where his cultural and political sympathies lie, especially where the zenith of classical Greece is concerned. In addition, he succeeds in knitting together the various strands and elements of the subject in a way which is seamless, coherent and plausible. The fragments, when assembled, become real, rather than distant, diffuse and unfathomable.

Lane Fox explores the origins of "classical" Greece, referring back to the time of Homer, and detailing how technological, military, economic and cultural factors brought about social and political changes, by altering the balance of power between the classes. The transition to Athenian democracy is also tackled, and how the democratic ethos benefited the city in its conflicts with its neighbours and antagonists. There is also a compelling look at the spread of Greek influence in both the East and the West.

Of course, no account of classical times, in their broadest sense, would be complete without a look at the Macedonians, Alexander the Great and the "successors". Again, this section of the book blends effectively into the big picture, analysing how the fallout from Alexander's exploits affected the wider world.

The secret to this book's allure to me was the blend of enthusiasm, knowledge and authority of the author. His humane, enlightened and principled approach shines through. The classical and ancient worlds are enchanting for the casual observer, but that is nothing compared to how they look and feel when studied and portrayed by a figure possessed of insight and understanding, not to mention a graceful and potent way with words.

The recurring passages about social structures I found pertinent on more than one level. They show how things were, and how flaws still remain in our time. Our generations have less "excuse".  One is also reminded about the pivotal nature and role of the ownership of land...

Often, the phases of history covered by this publication can seem abstract; unreal and threadbare. Lane Fox manages to make them appear as vivid and relevant as the Napoleonic Wars and the Reformation. It seems to me that this was achieved by a combination of admirable focus and plausible interpretation of matters which are subject to endless scholarly dispute.

There is some highly intriguing material about the periods when Macedon, Rome and Carthage overlapped. The odd myth or popular misconception is debunked or dispelled along the way, too. The author also entertainingly points out the differences between the cultural lives and political ethos which prevailed in the various city-states and regions.

The chapters on the Roman Republic, and what came in its wake, are excellent in their level of detail and their erudition. Roman times, in comparison with the earlier Greek world, arguably contained less to be idealistic or enthused about, but they are hugely instructive for students of history and human nature. Rome may have been more "exciting", in a visceral sense, but Athens commands more fondness and admiration.

Throughout The Classical World there is considerable focus on the artistic and cultural consequences and accompaniments of major events, and how the Greeks and Romans saw themselves, as reflected and depicted in art, ceremony, architecture and ritual. Of course, these forms constitute much of the tangible and retrievable evidence by which we appraise and interpret those years.

In summary, this work is hugely enjoyable, imaginative and heartfelt. A stimulating and illuminating read.








Monday, 13 July 2015

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann

After thoroughly relishing two of Thomas Mann's novels, The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, I decided to move on to Doctor Faustus, published in 1947.

Doctor Faustus tells the life story of a fictional composer, Adrian Leverkuhn, through the narration of his friend Zeitbolm. The narration itself is delivered against the background of the unfolding horrors of the Second World War, allowing much scope for parallels with the time in which the events of the story actually occurred, and with the fate of Leverkuhn. The composer's fate or destiny are not blatantly employed as a direct metaphor for those of Germany, or vice-versa, but the implied comparison adds depth and lustre to the novel.



In the earlier chapters there is much musing on intellectual, cultural and socio-political matters. At first reading, these can seem like tangents or diversions, but they make sense in the end, both in terms of how the plot develops and in providing some background context on the times in which Leverkuhn, Zeitbolm and their contemporaries lived and worked. They serve too as indicators of how the composer was beginning to stand out from the crowd even in his formative years, in his outlook on life and culture.

In stating the above, I must confess to having found Doctor Faustus quite heavy going up until around the halfway point. Certainly when compared to the more "fluent" and accessible delights of The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, it can feel like this one takes an inordinate amount of time to "happen". The writing style and language are more impenetrable and less flowing.The passages which abound with musical technicalities, theory and jargon may not be to everyone's taste. Concentration and persistence are required, but one is rewarded towards the conclusion, as the fog disperses.

My impression, rightly or wrongly, was that Mann (via the narrator) left the main aspects of the story, namely Leverkuhn's mental afflictions and his supposed pact with sinister supernatural forces, ever so slightly ambiguous, and up to the reader to weigh and interpret.

As with the other Thomas Mann novels which I have encountered, the characters have depth and plausibility, and the author goes to great lengths to illustrate and convey their traits and characteristics. As this story progresses, the social circle of the composer and his associates becomes more familiar and intriguing, more central to the narrative,  and there are a few notable sub-plots, which enrich and augment the picture considerably by vividly depicting the social mores and hang-ups of this artistic and academic "community".

So, not as immediately enjoyable as the other Thomas Mann novels which I have read, but an imaginative and stimulating piece of work, displaying all the hallmarks which make him such an important and powerful writer.


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Vanished Kingdoms - The History of Half-Forgotten Europe - Norman Davies

In the past three or four years, I have had the good fortune to read some wonderfully informative and entertaining books about history, predominantly covering the history of Europe. "Vanished Kingdoms - The History of Half-Forgotten Europe" by Norman Davies is a worthy addition to that list. In essence, the author selected a number of defunct realms and kingdoms, some of which, directly or indirectly, either had a sizeable influence on the future course of events, or represented a staging post, however obscure, on the path to what we have today. Others are just interesting for their own sakes. Each state is allocated its own separate chapter.


At first. some of the choices can seem a little off the beaten track, but they all are compelling and thought-provoking in their own way. Medieval (and early Modern) Europe can be a daunting tapestry, but this book helps to fill in a few gaps, and create perspective and an enhanced understanding. The "bite size" format is also an asset. "Vanished Kingdoms" doesn't just give us a portrait of a particular region or political entity, but also broadens and enriches our view of whole epochs. Times of transition, turbulence and change.

"Burgundia" was perhaps my favourite of all the articles, as it helps to clarify the post-Charlemagne carve-up, and how the beginnings of modern France, Germany and Switzerland took shape, as secessions, horse-trading and expansionism did their work . This section for me is the heart of the book, as it encompasses the early medieval period, through to the growth of the Holy Roman Empire, and touches on papal schisms and the Hundred Years War.  Also Burgundia played an oft-forgotten part in the European Renaissance, and the rise of the Habsburg family, and it has a certain enigmatic richness and dynamism about it.

The "Aragon" section incorporates the struggles against the Moors (Reconquista) and the eventual "unification" of the Iberian peninsula, as well as touching on several other strands of Mediterranean and broader European history. Many of the stories told in the different chapters overlap, but the sagas are detailed in such an interesting and imaginative way that they never feel repetitive.

I was surprised at how brief the chapter on "Byzantion" was, but that is one of the delights of this book. It does not conform to any set pattern, and is full of twists and pleasant surprises. One of my tips for enjoying a book such as this is to avoid putting pressure on oneself to photographically memorise dates, names and chronologies.  Just absorb the erudition and the words, and the general thread will make sense in the end. The mix is further leavened by the writer's occasionally whimsical and laconic style.

Davies is careful to illustrate how the remnants of the past are preserved and interpreted today. Also, he examines the often divisive and contentious legacies of these defuct states, and the passions and emotions which many of them continue to arouse at a local and international level.

In summary, "Vanished Kingdoms" is a charming, absorbing and entertaining look at some political entities and territories which have disappeared from the map over the centuries, and in its own way traces much of the story of Europe from around the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire through to the present day. One of those works which exudes the author's enthusiasm for his subject, and the diligence and scope of his knowledge and research.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

In Search Of The Lost Chord - The Moody Blues - album review

It is fair to say that some of the albums from the psychedelic era have not aged well. However, one of the musical artefacts from that time which warrants attention is the the 1968 record "In Search Of The Lost Chord" by The Moody Blues. In some ways, it is the quintessential psychedelic album, and one is left marveling at how far these guys had traveled from their early days as a cuddly "British Invasion" combo.

The main reason why it stands out from many of its contemporaries is the way in which it encompasses both the whimsical "childlike" flavour of British psychedelia and the more "philosophical" school of the genre which existed on the West Coast of America. In addition, there is some truly beautiful, haunting and affecting music on the record...



Yes, this album does sound "dated", in its production values and to some degree the subject matter, but these are no bad things to my ears. It is an absorbing listening experience, a feast for the senses. After the opening vignette "Departure" comes "Ride My See-Saw", arguably the most famous song on the record.  With a driving and energetic core, and its grandiose and dramatic production, this number ideally and compactly sets up the fare which follows.

"Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" is a kind of hybrid song, incorporating two persuasions of psychedelic rock, with its cute verses and more "profound" choruses, both of which essentially explore the same themes. Ray Thomas' lead vocal is most endearing and likeable.As the title of the LP implies, much of the material concerns broad issues of spiritual and personal exploration and development.

Next comes "House Of Four Doors". Musically complex, and featuring some great "door" sound effects.  The nice flourishes on mellotron, harpsichord and flute add vital texture, and the chorus vocals are beautiful if decidedly "sixties". This track, and its shorter "reprise" could be said to constitute the heart of "In Search Of The Lost Chord".

"Legend Of A Mind", a paean to Timothy Leary, is also an important building block in making this album so good, and also serves as a reminder of the importance and input of Ray Thomas to the project. He wrote this song, sang the lead vocals, and performed the haunting flute solo.

Another of the album's best known compositions, "Voices In The Sky", although a good tune, feels a touch lightweight in the context of some of the other items. "The Best Way To Travel" sounds more like other British psychedelia which was around in 1967/68.

The piece de resistance of the album in my opinion is the beguiling "Visions Of Paradise". Melodically seductive, and drenched in the luxuriant flute of Ray Thomas, it is a simple but effective song which for me epitomizes the appeal of the record as a whole. The sitar is a pleasant touch too. A song to lose oneself in....

"The Actor" has some similar virtues and qualities to the song which precedes it, if in less "esoteric" clothing. Some expressive and evocative singing by Justin Hayward, and containing the same order of instrumental finesse which pervades much of the album.

After another brief interlude, "The Word", we find the closing number "Om". An Indian-influenced piece, and dare I say it, much more appealing and convincing than similar things released by certain other British groups of the period. The vocal harmonies are sumptuous, and the "exotic" instruments are employed here again with considerable aplomb.

"In Search Of The Lost Chord" is an enjoyable and absorbing album to listen to. Even people who are not particular fans of The Moody Blues or the psychedelic/progressive music of the era should find it enjoyable, because it is a beautiful and coherent artistic statement, possessing real impact and charm.








Saturday, 20 June 2015

Put Me Back On My Bike-In Search Of Tom Simpson - William Fotheringham

A book which has won many plaudits is "Put Me Back On My Bike", William Fotheringham's biography of the British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France. I recently read the book myself.



I had enjoyed Fotheringham's biography of Eddy Merckx, and found this one even more compelling. As well as chronicling his life and achievements, it examines the tragic circumstances of his death and his legacy for British and world cycling.

In the past, I had rather shied away from fully exploring the Simpson story, mainly I suppose because of its tragic end and unsettling elements. It is a tale with many old-school elements, but also starkly pertinent for modern eyes and eyes. 

What emerged most of all for me, over and above the well-documented episodes, is Simpson's complex and quirky personality. He appears to have presaged characteristics which we associate with modern sportspeople, but there were endearing traits and contradictions. I found myself warming to the man, even allowing for his flaws.  Aren't we all flawed in some way?  The Tom Simpson who is portayed here is much different from the one who, in my ignorance, I had sometimes imagined. His interest in money, the mild English eccentricity and the mischievous side. The one area which I expected more to be made of was the notion of the "working class boy made good", but it seems that this was only a part the story

It could even be said that he was a visionary in the context of the British scene, having his eyes on the Continental arena from an early stage, and in his renunciation of the insularity and backwardness of the domestic landscape. His approach to training and preparation is also covered in detail here, from his focus on diet to his constant striving for any minute technical or tactical advantage, his hunger for knowledge and information, and how he was prepared to stretch himself and his physical limits.

The testimony and anecdotes, together with the documentary sources, are part of what makes this book work for me, giving it real substance and authority. The recollections of those closely associated with Simpson all go towards composing a vivid picture of the man and his life. The human nitty-gritty is uncovered, not just the dry facts about races won or lost. Some of the stories are funny, others are unsettling or poignant. The author also visits some of the locations central to the tale, augmenting the tapestry.  The book is compact and to-the-point, but the level of detail and insight is impressive.

In relating the Tom Simpson story, Fotheringham also evokes the atmosphere of cycling, and to a lesser degree, European society in the Sixties. Whilst the vibrancy and cosmopolitanism are celebrated,  I sensed his unease about the organisation and financial structures of the professional sport in that era, which often placed the competitors in an invidious position. We also gain a taste of how Simpson was in some respects a man of his time, when sports and the world in general were going through a transitional phase. There are some touching and intriguing passages about the "expatriate" cycling community in Belgium, and how Flanders welcomed and embraced the young Brits who went there to pursue their dreams.

The last third or so of "Put Me Back On My Bike" necessarily assumes a darker tone, as the factors contributing to Tom's death are addressed, as is the issue of drug use in cycling, and how the peloton and the powers-that-be viewed it. Needless to say, these chapters contain much less in the way of levity and lightheartedness than the earlier parts of the work. It seems to me that the standard line that "everybody was doing it" is only accepted by the author up to a point, and he elaborates on the reasons for this.

All in all, I found this book to be an engrossing and informative read. It is well put together, powerful in places, and candid. Highly recommended.






Sunday, 14 June 2015

Merckx : Half Man, Half Bike - William Fotheringham

For some time, I have been fascinated by the great Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx.  He was one of the world's pre-eminent athletes during the early years of my childhood, and for years afterwards his name was synonymous with the sport of cycling. Fortunately, the world has been quite well served in recent times with books about the great man. I had already read Daniel Friebe's biography, and more recently came across William Fotheringham's book "Merckx;Half Man, Half Bike".



My interest in Merckx was only deepened when I learned more about his approach to his sport, and how he was perceived by his contemporaries. It is probably true to say that he remains something of an enigma.

The thing which stands above all in this relating of the Merckx story is the sheer workload which he took on year after year, There was little picking or choosing of events, by him or his peers, and no concentration on a few select races, as would become the norm in the 1990s.

Fotheringham gives due prominence to the cyclist's upbringing, and how the influence of both of his parents impacted on his temperament and his outlook on life and racing. It is also interesting to note that Merckx came from a slightly different social and cultural background to many of his rivals. This painted him as an outsider, but also has been cited as enabling him to have more universal, less parochial appeal. Of course, how "The Cannibal" sat within the linguistic and cultural make-up of Belgium, and Belgian cycling, is a theme which recurs throughout this work.

One of the things which interests me most about Merckx is how he shunned and broke down many of the cosy conventions and assumptions which prevailed in cycling when he arrived on the scene. This antagonized some, but drew acclaim from others for the way in which it shook up the status quo. It is noted here that his riding style drew ire from some purists, but he won over some sections of the press and public because of the intensity and courage of his modus operandi.

I think that Fotheringham scores highly because he continuously delves into the mind of Merckx, to see what made him tick, how insecurity and a fear of failure, as well a colossal work ethic, drove him on. He was constantly challenging himself, finding out what he was capable of, rather than just doing the minimum necessary to win. These imperatives, coupled with immense natural physical gifts, make a select few sportspeople very special. The author documents how Merckx's methods evolved and were refined throughout his career, from junior days, to the amateur ranks, through to his peak years as a professional, and to the period of decline. The author also draws on his knowledge of the finer technical, as well as tactical, points of cycling.

This book seeks to address some of the mythology which has built up around elements of Eddy's career, including the assertion that he lacked genuine opposition. These themes are explored in a nuanced and balanced way, and I was left with a much enhanced understanding of the Merckx phenomenon.








Monday, 8 June 2015

We Are The Damned United-The Real Story Of Brian Clough At Leeds United-Phil Rostron

The 44-day tenure of Brian Clough as Leeds United manager in 1974 has probably commanded more column inches and popular cultural scrutiny than any other period in the club's turbulent history. An addition to the oeuvre is Phil Rostron's book "We Are The Damned United - The Real Story of Brian Clough at Leeds United", originally published in 2009.



This particular subject touches a raw nerve among Leeds supporters, and there is a tendency for people to become defensive and touchy about it, not always indulging in lucid and critical thinking. The whole affair, I suspect, is somewhat difficult for outsiders and insiders alike to comprehend, and its nebulous and nature still makes it intriguing and frustratingly elusive four decades later.

This book is not a strict chronicle of the 44 days. There is ample build-up and scene setting, and several tangents are pursued. Some readers may seek a little more coherency and focus, but overall I found it enjoyable, if not that comprehensive.

The backbone of the book is formed by the contributions of numerous individuals who were connected or associated in some way with either Leeds United or Brian Clough, or both. We do not just hear from the "usual suspects" either;we get observations and recollections from people whose view of events has perhaps not been widely heard previously. It often seems to me that most of the established Leeds players of the time closed ranks, and decided on a story from which they would not deviate.

A nice touch for me was the inclusion of  excerpts from contemporaneous newspaper reports from the time in 1974 when the drama was unfolding. The match reports do not paint a picture of unmitigated gloom or despair, although the real problems were of course manifesting themselves behind the scenes.

Whilst "We Are The Damned United" is in many ways evocative of the atmosphere and ethos of football in the Seventies, it also serves to remind us that egos and intransigence were just as prevalent in those days, no matter how different the financial ground rules have become. Human nature has not changed in the intervening period.

What shines through here also is Brian Clough's approach to the game and to coaching. The simplicity of his footballing philosophy is something which many could learn from. His laissez-faire style was perhaps one of the things which the Elland Road stalwarts had most trouble adjusting to. The stories here about the regime in training sessions are quite illuminating.  The assertions that Clough's methods would only work with youngsters and misfits, and not established stars, do have some merit, but may be an over-simplification.

Was either side disposed to make concessions and meet half-way, or as the author suggests, was this a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object?  It would be nice to think that the impasse could have been resolved, but my feeling is that this was an unusual set of circumstances which made the situation untenable. We do not live in an ideal world, and "ifs and buts" are merely academic in this case.

It is pointed out by several contributors that the absence of Peter Taylor from Clough's side deprived him of a potentially emollient influence when dealing with his new charges. This is often cited as an "excuse", often by those who do not wish to confront more uncomfortable aspects of the saga. At the same time, the Taylor factor is undoubtedly part of the complex state of affairs which together dictated how things would turn out.

There is a wealth of anecdotes here about Clough's idiosyncrasies, and his often unconventional style. and it is hard not to find the eccentricities endearing, even if they were not always appreciated by those on the receiving end. Even in the football landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, his achievements with Derby County and Nottingham Forest still inspire awe and respect. One or two nuggets here also paint an interesting portrait of the man - one story from Duncan McKenzie springs to mind, in which he touches on the loneliness and isolation which Clough may have felt during his sojourn at Leeds.

All in all, this was a pretty good, if rather disjointed read. It is probably true to say that the definitive tome on "Cloughie At Leeds" has still to be written.