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Friday, 12 December 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band

There are relatively few rock albums which can be said to have heralded a shift in the prevailing direction of rock music, but The Band's Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, is one of those. Its honesty and earthiness went against the trends of the time, and persuaded listeners and fellow musicians alike that there was another way.  It also came to epitomize the notion of "Americana", in rock music terms anyway.
 
 
 
In truth, the true "Band" sound did not fully emerge until 1969's eponymous second album, but Music From Big Pink had something approaching a seismic impact. The likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison were enraptured, not just by the musical content, but also by the ethos and the modus operandi which underpinned it. There was no suggestion of The Band confronting the existing music scene ; they just played what came from their hearts and souls.

In asserting that the group's signature style was not fully shaped on the debut effort, we are acknowledging that they had only just struck out on their own, having spent much of the previous decade backing other people, most famously Bob Dylan of course. The Dylan/Basement Tapes influence is still keenly felt, with three of the songs originating from that era. In addition, Robbie Robertson did not yet dominate the songwriting stakes as he did on the "brown album" the following year. This renders the album less cohesive than its successor.

It is one of the numbers co-written by Bob Dylan, "Tears Of Rage", which opens the record, and for me it is one of the highlights. The boys make the track their own, and Richard Manuel's superb vocal brings out the full poignancy of the lyrics. As so often with The Band, the keyboards are much to the fore, but all the band members contribute in creating a most engrossing rendition. This is also an early taste of the distinctive vocal harmonies which would help to make The Band's music so captivating. Three distinct voices (Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko), blending and weaving together in a kind of ragged glory.  Few groups could boast a performance as confident and affecting as this to open their debut album.

This vocal interplay plays a prominent role in "To Kingdom Come", especially in the choruses. This track exudes the R&B-influenced ruggedness which would come to characterize much of the Band's best output in the years which followed.

Although The Band were often cited as an antidote to psychedelic music and its excesses and pretensions, they came perilously close here to making a psychedelic song, in the form of "In A Station". The mildly ethereal keyboard and guitar sounds, together with some of the lyrics, certainly point in that direction. However, these factors are counter-balanced by the homeliness and finesse typical of the group.

I always feel that "Caledonia Mission" is a Band song par excellence, with its blend of country/folk flavours with R&B funkiness, and its enigmatic but compelling lyrics. Perhaps Rick Danko's most impressive lead vocal performance with The Band.

"The Weight" is possibly the group's most famous song, and it has an enduring appeal, part of which is in interpreting the biblical and other imagery.  I think that many people imagine that the song is espousing the sense of community which is often associated with the group's music, but it seems that it was intended to be somewhat more complicated than that. What I really like is the simplicity of the arrangement, with the platform of acoustic guitar, drums and bass embellished by Garth Hudson's engaging piano flourishes. The interest is heightened by the switching of lead vocals between the three primary singers.

"We Can Talk" is a delight, from the sumptuous organ-driven introduction, to the amusing lyrics, to the satisfying drum sound (a feature of the whole album, incidentally).  Those inimitable vocal harmonies are more rugged and likeable here than ever, and the soulful "middle-eight" section still surprises and pleases after repeated listens.

"Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's On Fire" are probably the two weakest cuts on the record. The former, although lyrically interesting, comes out as ponderous and uninspired. "This Wheel's On Fire" has never really grabbed me as a song, and the Band's interpretation is not a patch on their own versions of "Tears Of Rage" and "I Shall Be Released".

There is a case for saying that "Big Pink" is more outright soulful and permeated with rhythm and blues than the follow-up, and "Chest Fever" is a prime example of this, although there is a strong dose of Johann Sebastian Bach (the organ sounds) as well as Sam and Dave!  The snare drum is once again a feature, and this recording contains some of Robbie Robertson's most effective and dextrous guitar work.

The next track, "Lonesome Suzie" can almost pass the listener by unless close attention is paid. Richard Manuel excels here, on his own composition, and his fragile and expressive vocal is complemented by delicate keyboard and guitar parts. The organ is a reminder of the pivotal role played by Garth Hudson, and his versatility, in the potency and vitality of The Band's music.

Although Music From Big Pink did not attain massive commercial success, it still endures as one of rock music's most important records. It has a pull subtly different from the sophomore release which followed. It sounds as fresh and as "musical" now as it must have done way back in the late 1960s.


 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Queen II (the second album)

Following the recent release of "Let Me In Your Heart Again", I have been listening to Queen intensively, and realised that I had not committed my thoughts on their second album to blog.
 
I have grown to see "Queen II" as a reaction to the circumstances under which the debut record was pieced together, and it is important to bear that in mind when placing it in the context of their discography. The first album was quite a frustrating affair, and the follow-up reflects the relief of a group given a bit more freedom and time. The entire "package", right down to the sleeve and the artwork, is more coherent and focussed.
 
 
 
It is often remarked that the most distinguishing feature of Queen's music is the multi-layered sound. I would contend that this is an over-simplification; to me, the "trademark" multi-tracking is less important than the individual instrumental and vocal sounds, and the keys in which many of the songs are written. I am insufficiently qualified to comment with great authority on the latter, but suffice to say that, in contrast to some people, I don't regard "Queen II" as the quintessential Queen album. It has a distinctive sound and feel of its own, more ethereal and elaborate in nature than the majority of their other work.
 
Going back to the peculiar circumstances under which the album was recorded, it has always seemed to me that the band compensated for the lack of time and continuity allowed on their first effort, and went all-out to produce an extravagant LP, getting much of the multi-tracking thing out of their collective systems In Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable, they had producers who were only too willing and able to help them accomplish this. The juxtaposition of band and producers' intent helped to bring about the finished product. The assertion that this record signified a "purging" is lent credence by the more stripped down and succinct musical statements which pervaded the next album "Sheer Heart Attack".
 
The "Side White/Side Black" idea on the original vinyl LP was another case of Queen flirting with the notion of concept albums without ever fully committing themselves to it.  It is an area of Queen's potential, like film soundtrack music, which they never fully explored. That said, the "white/black" theme helps to imbue the album with a kind of unity, the sort based on "duality"?
 
The songwriting duties continue to be dominated by Freddie Mercury and Brian May, although Roger Taylor chips in with "Loser In The End" (which admittedly is a touch out of place here).  Freddie's later signature style is continuing to evolve, whilst Brian is still exploring what on the surface appear to be philosophical and quasi-mystical themes.

A major pointer to the future was in the adroit use of "light and shade" - moments of chaos and intensity, followed by passages of delicacy and subtlety.  This is most evident on "Father To Son" and "March of The Black Queen".  The former betrays influences, both sonically and melodically, which are hardly difficult to discern, but both songs show the band learning how to construct music combining complexity with affecting hooks and chord changes.

"White Queen (As It Began)" has an eerie and esoteric flavour, accentuated by the acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar parts and the vocal "choir".  Although the song arguably worked better in the concert setting, the studio original has a charm all of its own. "Someday One Day" is another one of Brian May's poignant and reflective acoustic folk-inflected compositions, which he continued to contribute to the Queen canon until the early 1980s.

The "Freddie half" of "Queen II" commences with "Ogre Battle", a track which manages to combine real incisiveness and bite with an affecting melodic base. The two verses in the early stages are classic Queen. As with several other numbers on this record, there is a slightly nebulous middle section, which builds up tension for the final phase of the song. Some pleasing guitar riffery from Mr May here, too.

"The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke" is an intricate and appealing piece of work, with fine harmony vocals and the nice touch of the harpsichord.  The lyrics were seemingly inspired by a painting which Freddie saw, but the imagery is vaguely in keeping with the content of other songs at this stage of the group's career.  This song does not appear to have been played live that often, presumably because of its demanding technical nature, but evidently the boys made a fine job of it when they did.

"Nevermore" is a stylish vignette, containing those dreamy vocal textures which, for me anyway, scream "1974!". The piano also sounds great on this song. "Funny How Love Is" sounds a touch like a Phil Spector pastiche, perhaps hinting that Queen owed a debt to this other side of the pop music tradition, in addition to the "usual" influences (Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles etc). The song possibly stretches the boundaries of multi-tracking and overdubbing more than any other track on the album.

Although "Seven Seas of Rhye" was Queen's first hit single in many territories, in the context of this album it feels almost like an afterthought. I must admit that I have never particularly warmed to the track, for reasons which I find difficult to pin down. Although exhibiting some of the traits which permeate the whole set, the song is a little uninspired compared with what went before. 

"Queen II" is an uncompromising album in some ways, embracing excess and charm is equal measure, and it has inspired and influenced some unlikely people down the years. This wasn't the "finished article", as far as the definitive "Queen sound" was concerned, as there was some additional polishing and fine-tuning still to take place.  However, as both a staging post, and as a fine rock album in its own right, it is well worth a listen.
 
 
 
 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Peacemakers - Margaret MacMillan

After a gap of two or three years, I recently revisited this book about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Not only did it turn out to have fewer pages than I remembered, but it is also very wide-ranging, embracing the discussions concerning the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia as well as the "core" European concerns.
 
The tone is generally entertaining and breezy. It was a good idea to set the scene with character sketches of the main protagonists - Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Indeed these pen portraits, extending to various politicians, diplomats and hangers-on, are one of the most likeable aspects of "Peacemakers". They are supported by passages conveying the "culture" of the conference, and the social activities which went on.
 
 
 
One of the things which struck me was that the "Big Three" were all nominally of a similar political creed - liberals. This, however, did not prevent numerous tensions, antagonisms and disagreements. All were acutely aware that, in addition to forging what they saw as a new international order, they were playing to their respective domestic political and public galleries. The two were not always wholly compatible. Short-term feelings of revenge or schadenfreude might be scant consolation for bitterness and complications stored up for future years.
 
It was sad to be reminded of the attitudes which still prevailed in 1919 towards people from Asia and Africa, even among self-proclaimed "liberals". This was especially visible in the dealings of the "powers" with Japan and China. At least the Americans occasionally delivered a subtle anti-colonialist dig at the British. Still, double-standards were evident throughout, in the approach of the British and the French. The writing was on the wall, but much British energy was still being expended in seeking to preserve the empire.  Should they have been looking more to the future?
 
This book also provides an intriguing window on attitudes to the Bolsheviks, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. As Wilson and Lloyd George correctly observed, it was injustice and cruelty which had given to rise to the revolution, but there was also much naivete and wishful thinking about what the Bolsheviks might turn out to represent.
 
Looking back, it also seems ridiculous for Allied governments to have been contemplating further military involvement in the internal affairs of Russia, after what the troops and civilians had just had to endure during World War One. No wonder there were mutinies and protests. Thank goodness that sanity prevailed before too much damage was done. Any further intervention might have been counter-productive, by spreading revolutionary ideas, and the muddled policies were probably a blessing in disguise. The ones who really benefited were the Soviets, who gleefully used the appearance of Western bullying for propaganda purposes.
 
How important was the Russia question in dictating how the conference proceeded?  The author rightly points out that the vexing social and economic pressures in Europe were largely independent from what was going on in the East. They would have existed regardless of the Russian Revolution.

The most troubling chapters of "Peacemakers" deal not with Germany, but with the debris of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The frustration of the three major powers over Italy's territorial demands and obstinacy is palpable. On the other hand, the conduct of the Allies concerning Turkey and its periphery seems like little more than shambolic. As mentioned above, the treatment of Japan and China was shabby, and the consequences for the West were arguably just as momentous as those stemming from decisions pertaining to Europe.

As this book went on, I began to lower my opinion of the pre-eminent statesmen (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George), for varying reasons. I suppose that whenever one probes deeply into the lives of prominent people, their negative traits and characteristics become more apparent, and some illusions are eroded.

One of the fascinating things about the conference was that it represented a change-over, or at least an attempt at one, from the old diplomacy to the new way of doing things.  Thus, countries felt they had to cloak unjust territorial or political demands in the clothes of the new order, citing dubious statistics and historical "facts" of questionable veracity.  Still, the disingenuous behaviour of some was hardly less admirable than the double-standards often displayed by the main powers, in seeking to perpetuate their colonial influence and strategic and economic advantages.

The Americans were quite justified in their exasperation at the "secret deals" made by their allies earlier in the war, and the way in which these complicated the post-war negotiations.  However, the thought occurs that they might have been on more solid ground if they had entered the conflict earlier. France and Britain were fighting for their lives before 1917, and in the real world, any sort of expedient or advantage must have seemed worthwhile.

The author makes some persuasive and well-balanced points in appraising the merits of the treaties and the effects of what occurred at the Conference. The Treaty of Versailles allowed Germans to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that it was unjust and humiliating, whilst at the same time its provisions and its implementation, did not do enough to avert future aggression. As MacMillan rightly says, though, the peacemakers could have done worse. They were not dealing with a simple, ideal or perfect world.  A lot of water had still to pass under the bridge during the inter-war years, and World War Two was by no means inevitable. That was how I interpreted her conclusions, anyway!
 
This is the sort of book which reminds me that much has changed in the past ninety-odd years, but also that much has remained the same.



 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Let Me In Your Heart Again - Queen

It is always nice to receive a pleasant musical surprise, and the newly released Queen song "Let Me In Your Heart Again" is one of those. It is not a new song of course, but dates from 1983/84, and the recording sessions for the album "The Works", and it was subsequently recorded by Anita Dobson.

My first reaction, on hearing the track, was that this was a "Freddie song", so authoritative and natural are his vocals, but of course it was composed by Brian May. It sounds a little like one of the piano ballads which Freddie was so prolifically turning out during the 1980s, but it also has elements which are similar to "Hammer To Fall".

Perhaps one of the reasons why the song did not make the cut for "The Works" was that it in places it sounds a bit like both "Hammer To Fall" and "It's A Hard Life"?  On reflection, it is actually stronger than some of the material which did end up on the record, and it is surprising that it was not revisited for any of Queen's subsequent LPs. Then again, songs are sometimes viewed as ephemeral, and if they are not deemed appropriate for a particular moment in time, they are permanently discarded, no matter what their evident strengths. "Let Me In Your Heart Again" was just in the right place at the wrong time.

For me, Freddie's performance on the song is a minor revelation. He sounds very confident here, as if he instinctively knew how to approach each line and how to phrase each word. Each part of the number is sung slightly differently, and the second verse is delivered powerfully but not excessively. It is always nice to be reminded just what a versatile and talented singer he was, comfortable and adept with all manner of material.

Considering that this track originated in 1983/84, it is also mercifully largely free of 1980s production values, which tended to obscure the melodic qualities of songs during that era. If I have one gripe, it is that some of Brian's guitar flourishes are a little too ostentatious, and they could have been toned down marginally.

Overall though, a worthy addition to the Queen catalogue.

 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (If Not Us, Who)

I recently watched the 2011 German film Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (English: If Not Us, Who), directed by Andres Veiel. The movie is largely set in the 1960s, and tells the story of Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin. The two main roles are played by August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis. The template for the movie was a book by Gerd Koenen.

Although this picture was produced by different people, it can be see in some ways almost as a "prequel" to The Baader Meinhof Complex;Ensslin went on to co-found the Red Army Faction. There is some overlap in the period 1967-70. Wer Wenn Nicht Wir follows the young duo in their literary endeavours and political activities, and their struggle to come to terms with their country's immediate past.
 
This movie is less flashy and "Hollywood" than others of its type, and the visuals have a very agreeably dusty and bookish feel to them, being understated and restrained.  The dialogue concerning literature is cleverly played so as to gently propel and complement the narrative. Real archive footage is employed in places to instil the context of the times. There are some excellent performances, most notably from Diehl and Lauzemis in the leading two roles.
 
Rightly or wrongly, I saw the efforts of Vesper and Ensslin to establish themselves as publishers as symbolic of the wider effort of the younger generation to break free from the shackles of the past, whilst at the same time endeavouring to confront, and make some sense of, what had occurred two or three decades before. There are some powerful scenes with both sets of parents, and a revealing one with a landlady when the couple are viewing an apartment, where they were given to understand that "co-habiting" without being married was seen as some kind of heinous sin.  It is hard to believe that such attitudes were still prevalent in the 1960s, but it gives some idea of the tenor of the times.
 
The hardening of Gudrun Ensslin's outlook becomes evident only quite imperceptibly, as the personal and the political continue to inter-mingle, but the move to Berlin was clearly something of a watershed. Something of which this film also reminds us is that up until about 1967/68, even the political radicals still wore sober suits or pretty dresses!
 
Of course, the scenario changes after 2 June 1967, and the arrival of Andreas Baader on the scene. Now jeans, leather jackets and cool shades begin to proliferate. A word for Alexander Fehling and his performance as Baader. He manages to capture some of the directness and impudence which we have been told about. It was intriguing to hear the Baader character say that you won't change anything with books. What did Baader and his cohorts ultimately change though? Less than words and peaceful protest did, I would contend.
 
This is a "dramatization", but it seems to stick quite closely to what we know of the true story. The scenes surrounding notable events are quite measured and plausible. Thankfully, there is a relative absence of "crowd scenes", which never quite work out in any movie....
 
One of the most significant scenes in the whole picture for me was in the prison, where a female prison official seeks to reason with Gudrun Ensslin about the methods being employed. The official may have had a point, in referring to the lack of mass grassroots support as a major flaw. She also used the phrase "small steps in the lowlands" - better than attempting giant leaps which alienate everyone and achieve little?
 
All in all, a fine movie, well worth a viewing, and not just for those interested in the precise subject matter.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann

After finishing "The Magic Mountain", I was sufficiently enthused to immediately seek out Thomas Mann's first novel, "Buddenbrooks", published in 1901.
 
"Buddenbrooks" chronicles the fortunes, and gradual decline, of an affluent north German merchant family, and its social circle, during the nineteenth century. This is set against the backdrop of social and political changes in Germany and the wider world. The socio-political stuff is not at the forefront of the narrative, but it does form part of the fabric of the story, and the effects of change are occasionally evident in the dialogue between characters and their attitudes towards their elders or contemporaries. Possibly the most overt manifestation is in the chapters which address the upheavals and ferment of 1848.

One thing which "Buddenbrooks" exudes is evidence of diligent research and a grasp of the world in which such a family existed. This was a multi-faceted world, and it was rarely simply a case of one generation, or one social class, being at odds with another. The notion that all groups were moving in certain directions, as part of some uniformly seismic shift,  is quietly dispelled here I think.

Often the outlook of individuals was determined largely by their upbringing, their associations and their obligations within an extended family. It was still a world of deference, where people tended to "know their place". Many had no incentive to be worldly-wise or enlightened, because they were insulated, reliant on others, or did not truly own themselves. It was often only the disturbance of the equilibrium by some extraneous jolt which upset this "comfort zone".
 
The thought passed through my mind that although the social conventions which prevailed in those days were stifling, they also ensured a kind of stability and security - provided you were born into the right measure of prosperity and influence. It must be borne in mind that not all people enjoyed the privileges and the relative certainty of outcome of the Buddenbrooks.

The pivotal characters for me in the novel are Tom (Thomas) and Tony (Antonie). Both are superbly rounded and convincing creations, full of contradictions, flawed but also admirable. Their experiences and viewpoints form the backbone of the story as they struggle, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds, to keep things together.

Some of Tom's reflections are quite revealing. He appears to recognise some of the anomalies and injustices of the world in which he operates, but either can not, or will not, bring himself to confront them, partly because of the underlying need to "keep up appearances". Difficult decisions were avoided because of the tethers of loyalty and obligation. Set against this landscape, perhaps things were always going to change slowly.
 
Another character who I found captivating was "Hanno", the son of Thomas Buddenbrook, who showed little interest in his father's world of commerce, and instead found refuge in music and the arts. This invokes the age-old examination of the tension between the "bohemian" outlook and the bourgeois existence. Countless authors have explored this area, but it never gets old or tired. 
 
The chapter set in Hanno's school provides a window on some of the emergent trends as the nineteenth century wore on, with some young people unwilling to subscribe unquestioningly to the ways and the values of their elders. Insubordination had always been there in some form, but were the new ideas of that time just more coherent and potent?
 
The one character who I found curious was "Morten", with whom Antonie has some contact quite early on in the piece. I was expecting him to return in a major way at a later stage, but he didn't.  He had some profound things to say in his brief appearances. However, when I think about it, the fact that he was something of a "red herring" actually enriches the overall.
 
Even though this novel could be seen as somewhat downbeat, in that it deals largely with decay and misfortune, I found it uplifting and moving, in its celebration of human foibles, the richness of life and the stoicism and resilience of people. For all its depiction of momentous social change, it is also quite simply a magnificent piece of story-telling.
 
On my first reading, I did not fully take in the significance and relevance of the author's unusually diligent concentration on the personal appearance, characteristics and mien of many of the characters.  Much symbolism to be savoured there, methinks.  That calls for a second reading of "Buddenbrooks", then....
 
 
 

 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Rising Sun - John Toland

For me, the Pacific theatre of World War Two holds a special fascination. Not only because of  certain peculiar strategic issues, but also because of the perceived cultural factors which contributed to the outbreak of hostilities and to how the campaign was conducted.
 
The period, and the Japanese empire of that time in general, are comprehensively chronicled in John Toland's epic "The Rising Sun". Here the story is told primarily, but not exclusively, from the Japanese perspective. For some unfathomable reason, I had imagined that this book commenced with the Pearl Harbour episode, but in fact the opening chapters are an illuminating and gripping look at the factors which triggered the conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, and the rebellion (s) by Army officers. 
 
People often assume that the Japanese conquests were motivated solely by blind nationalism and rapacious economic greed, but these pages stress that, at least in the beginning, the position was more complex. Japan suffered grievously in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and there was also revulsion about political corruption. It is often forgotten that some in the military and elsewhere saw Manchuria as a "new Jerusalem", where socialist ideas could be implemented, and then possibly transplanted to the homeland itself.
 
The book also amply illustrates how Japan's clock was set ticking once the oil embargo was imposed in the summer of 1941, and how the mixed messages emanating from both sides helped to breed mistrust. Were Japanese officials simply trapped by encroaching economic woes and also by fear of a revolt by sections of the Army, and did the Americans do all that they could have done?
 
There is an extended description of Pearl Harbour, largely from the point of view of individuals. The unpreparedness of the Allies in the face of the Japanese onslaught is sobering to be reminded of. The horrors of the Philippines campaign are afforded stark attention, with unflinching detail of the hardships inflicted on Allied troops, and the agonizing over the decision to surrender. The author does mention that some Japanese officers repudiated the harsh methods employed by their colleagues.
 
The sections dealing with the Battle of Midway really bring across what a psychological turning point this event was, because of the dent which was delivered to Japanese confidence, and the knowledge that the material advantage of the US and its allies was now likely to prove decisive.  The harsh reality was that perceived spiritual virtues would largely be powerless to sway things.
 
Throughout "The Rising Sun", Toland looks at the broader question of Asian self-determination, and Japan's efforts to harness these energies.  The condescending attitude of many in the West to the Asian peoples is also clear, and one is left wondering whether the Japanese might have had more success if they had adopted a different attitude to the populace in the territories which they occupied. As with the proclaimed socialistic sentiment, it is a moot point whether the rhetoric about fighting colonialism was a ploy to seduce and entice the people of Asia. Perhaps some were more sincere than others in adhering to these views.
 
In addition to the documenting of the military events, and the first-hand accounts, there is some fascinating coverage of the big wartime conferences attended by the major leaders, and some amusing anecdotes concerning the dialogue between Stalin and Churchill in particular.
 
The thing which never ceases to amaze, and depress, me when reading military histories is the petty wrangling between commanders, and the egotism on show. It seems absurd and bizarre that professional self-interest and vanity were allowed to interfere with the overriding objectives, but that is human nature, I guess. Perhaps such things are less easy to understand from the vantage point of seven decades later. How many lives were lost because of compromise decisions, effected to smooth over ruffled feathers?
 
It was interesting to read, towards the end of the story, examples of Japanese soldiers questioning the ethos which guided the nation and its military, and the self-sacrifice which was expected. This belies the conventional "wisdom", and is in keeping with the tendency of this book to pose some awkward questions about both sides who were engaged in the struggle.
 
Needless to say, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given due prominence. The stories from the cities are harrowing, and should trouble the conscience of anyone who blithely and complacently states unquestioningly that the attacks were necessary or unavoidable.
 
I must admit that reading this book again has affected me quite deeply, in its portrayal of the futility and cruelty of war, and the intransigence and callousness of  some of those who wield power.  A thought-provoking and rewarding read.