Friday, 20 December 2013

The Franco-Prussian War - Geoffrey Wawro

In the course of exploring history, there are some areas which are comparatively poorly served, at least in the English language. On such is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. I suspect that if this topic was put to the average "man in the street" in Britain, you would be confronted with a blank expression, as the conflict did not involve "us", and fell in between other episodes, such as the Crimean and Boer Wars, which had far less significant long-term global repercussions.

The war has always held a certain fascination for me, for a number of reasons.  It inhabited a kind of "twilight zone", between the Napoleonic and "revolutionary" period and the First World War, exhibiting characteristics of both. It has a kind of "mystique" for non-German and non-French observers, because it was a localized affair, with the other powers watching from the sidelines with a mixture of foreboding and bemusement. Also, its ultimate legacy and side-effects are remembered more than the war itself.

The import of the Franco-Prussian war has been at the forefront of my mind since reading Geoffrey Wawro's excellent book, which manages to cover the causes of the conflict, the military campaign itself, and the aftermath.  In addition to a comprehensive account of the fighting, Wawro comes up with thought-provoking and trenchant views on the central characters in the tragedy, and also on the implications of its outcome.

The book contains an excellent analysis of the background to the approach and outbreak of war, an intriguing feature being comparisons between Napoleon III and his illustrious uncle. This is an obvious line of inquiry to pursue, but Wawro looks at it from a few different angles, pointing out that Louis-Napoleon, whilst striving to complete the previous emperor's unfinished business, was also anxious to avoid the errors of the past. Clearly, Napoleon III also saw emulating the "glories" of the early 19th century as a means of securing his own salvation. Clearly, the worsening domestic political outlook solidified the "case" for war in the estimation of some....

The other pivotal character is Otto von Bismarck, someone who may not inspire affection to modern sensibilities, but whose shrewdness and focus do command grudging respect. There is much illuminating comment here about the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Can it even be argued that in moral and political terms, that conflict represented a greater hurdle on the path towards German unification than did the collision with France four years later? In order to unite Germany, Bismarck firstly required a united Prussia. The war with Austria helped to placate and bring together disparate elements in the kingdom.

From absorbing Wawro's account, my interpretation was that Bismarck brought Prussia to primacy "on the blind side", achieving these aims bit-by-bit, gradually bolstering power, resources and strategic advantage. Prussia's menace was underplayed by means of diplomatic sleight of hand. By the time that France realized what confronted it, it was too late to redress the balance. Berlin could also count on Napoleon III's desperation, such as territorial ambitions, to assist in binding together any wavering German states.

There is a look at the situation in Germany during the 1860s, with heavy hints that things were by no means as cohesive and united as might sometimes be assumed, with rebellious states and acrimony over integration and harmonization.

The book contains a concentrated and sharp analysis of the final crisis, on the Spanish Question, how gnawing pressures drove France on to seek Prussian humiliation, Bismarck knowing exactly which buttons to press, firstly to provoke France, and subsequently to make them look like the aggressors, unreasonable and excessive.

One theme which came through was the contrast in approach and mentality which the two sides showed. It seems that the initial French enthusiasm and zeal was not matched by practicality, planning and efficiency. Inertia and stagnation soon emerged. Many decisions about personnel may have been based on favouritism and paranoia rather than merit or necessity.  Reading about the morale, organization and readiness of France in 1870 reveals distinct similarities with the position commonly supposed to have existed on the eve of Germany's attack in 1940. Apathy, buck-passing, drift....

The differing attitudes within the respective armies are also revealed. Many French soldiers were questioning, insolent, cynical and inquisitive, whilst their Prussian counterparts were subservient, "loyal" and acquiescent. Modern eyes would see the French approach as admirable, courageous even, but was it ever going to suffice to overcome the Prussians?  An interesting sub-text is found in comments about the education systems of the combatant countries. Wawro asserts that both the Prussian officers and the "ordinary" soldiers were better educated than their French opposite numbers, citing this as contributing to the outcome. An interesting reflection, when considering the traditional view of the two systems; the hotbed of revolution viewed against a conservative militarist aristocracy....

The author draws attention to the focused professionalism of the Prussian army, in contrast to the French, who were beset by infighting, over-caution and then defeatism. The French appear to have squandered what advantages they had. The Prussians were prepared to gamble, and follow up and capitalize on openings.

One is also made aware of the stark difference between the chaos of the French hierarchy, and the comparatively calm, determined and measured stewardship of Moltke, Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns. In saying this, these pages partially dispel the widespread notion that the Prussians swept all before them in an unending sequence of decisive victories. It was more complicated and difficult than that. Over-zealous Prussian commanders had to be reined in, and there were setbacks, with heavy casualties incurred.

This work features some graphic and chilling descriptions of the carnage on the battlefield, and the damage inflicted on human bodies by artillery shellfire, and the other new and vicious implements which science and technology had placed at the disposal of the armies. Another step in the mechanization and industrialization of warfare. Even so, it was still an age when people displayed some sang-froid about casualties.

Whilst saying that the Franco-Prussian war was influenced by the march of industrial progress, it doesn't always come across that way when reading accounts of the campaign. Yes, strategic railways, modern rifles and machine-guns were involved, but many aspects were little changed from Napoleonic times, including the politics, the morality and the socio-economic landscape. The composition and organization remained a touch archaic and feudal.

Wawro includes some poignant anecdotes about the fate of individual servicemen, placing the spotlight on the cruelty and horror, jarringly set against the grandiose political backdrop, and the grand strategy. Utilization of quotes and diary extracts from the "rank and file" soldiers on both sides helps to convey this. It is easy to lose sight of the impact on the humble soldier or civilian, in an often impersonal and soulless "war of numbers". Some of the quotes from people on both sides are very interesting, not always conforming to stereotypical expectations, or slavishly endorsing their own country's "party line".  An example of this is the sympathy occasionally expressed by Prussians for the plight of French troops. The details of the French ordeal at Sedan are quite harrowing.

The closing stages and conclusion of the war are outlined in their full complexity. The plots to establish new dictatorships or monarchies, the great importance of Alsace and Lorraine, and the continuing brutality and chaos. The weariness of French civilians, and their revulsion at the pointless continuation of the fighting, amidst plunder and poverty, shines through.

When appraising the consequences of the war, and the peace settlement, it is interesting to note the impact which was felt in France and Germany. France became more modern and united. The war may have accomplished long-cherished ambitions and aspirations for Germans, but many of its results were baleful and unhealthy. It reinforced the grip of militarism, regressed some and constitutional reform, and engendered wider political tension, mistrust and antagonism.

I would imagine that there are more comprehensive and extensive books about the war than this one, but Wawro's work would be a fine starting point.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Gertrude - Hermann Hesse

I was unsure what to expect when I read the Hermann Hesse novel "Gertrude". It does embrace many of the characteristic features and concerns of Hesse's novels, but takes them in some interesting directions. I also felt that the book read very agreeably as a conventional "story", quite apart from the philosophical ground which it covers. Some familiar Hesse ideas and themes are contained in a looser framework than is present in many of his other novels.

The narrator of the story is Kuhn, a composer and musician. He details some of the crucial staging posts in his adult life, and his career as a musician.  The two most important characters other than Kuhn are the singer Muoth and his future wife Gertrude. The relationship between Muoth and Gertrude, which is the source of some anguish and dismay for Kuhn, is the inspiration for his masterwork, an opera, and forms the main thrust of the later chapters of the book.

"Gertrude" contains much ruminating on issues of ageing, loneliness, love and spirituality, but for me the underlying threads which ran through it were what expectations we should have of life, whether we are unrealistic in presuming that happiness and contentment will be predominant, to what extent it is wise to intervene in events, and the importance of the interdependence of people.  These things are explored via Kuhn's own travails, and those of his friends and relatives, and are rationalized partly through Hesse's established lens.

The role of music, so prevalent in much of Hesse's literature, is very much to the fore in this novel. As well as giving the story an added lyricism, charm and flexibility, it is employed by the author as a universal medium, which explains many things much more eloquently than any words ever could, capturing the essence of what it is to be human, the harmony of life, and permeating the core of the soul.

Many of Hermann Hesse's works concentrate on matters of self-discovery, spiritual journey and renewal. These are touched on generally throughout "Gertrude", but the most attention is given to the concepts of one-ness, the merging of opposing elements, such as misery and happiness, melancholy and joy, and contentment and restlessness.

I first began to properly explored Hesse's work two or three years ago, and it has been both inspirational and moving. However, more than any other of his novels which I have read, I personally identified closely with one of the characters, in this case Kuhn. His constant agonizing about the merits, and consequences, of isolation and solitude, and the benefits of mixing with other people, really chimed with some of the thought processes which have been a feature of my recent existence. Is the full richness of life, as it was always intended to be, only experienced by embracing the whole gamut of emotions, moods and predicaments which it has to offer?  To cut oneself off from things which may be disagreeable or painful leads to wishful thinking, hollowness and emptiness.

Within the story there are supposed turning points, including the toboggan accident in which Kuhn sustains life-influencing injuries, and also the death of his father.  My reading of the ensuing situation was that rather than prompting Kuhn to massively change his behaviour as such, these episodes simply concentrated his mind on the true nature of life itself, and how far our behaviour can serve to transcend fate and destiny.  The incidents in question may have altered Kuhn's immediate plans, and on one occasion even saved his life, but they also affected his view on the world.

The symbolism of the tension between, and blending of, the personalities and outlooks of Muoth and Gertrude is in keeping with these concepts, but somehow feels separate and outlined with some finesse. It is quite subtly implied in the narrative that the relationship between the two formed the inspiration for Kuhn's opera, and the dynamic between the abrasive and unpredictable Muoth and the more temperate and placid Gertrude is not satisfactorily resolved. There is no happy ending.

"Gertrude" is a charming and poignant story, and does not just feel like a vehicle, or a series of hooks, on which can be suspended various ramblings about profound philosophical and moral questions. The settings and imagery seemed less abstract than in some other Hesse novels, with place names more prominent, and in this sense it is comparatively conventional and, I would suggest, a good starting point for people wishing to immerse themselves in this author's books.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

For Everyman - Jackson Browne - album review

After his acclaimed debut album, expectations must have been high for Jackson Browne's sophomore effort, destined to be entitled "For Everyman".  In the event, whilst containing some of his strongest and most memorable songs, it somehow lacks the uniform excellence of the records which came immediately beforehand and afterwards. Despite my occasional ambivalence about the LP, it is well worthy of examination.

The most immediately conspicuous thing for me about "For Everyman" is that it lacks the cohesion of most other Jackson Browne albums. The exact reasons are not easy to pin down, but the tracks do not fit together very seamlessly, despite the insertion of one or two segues. The presence of a couple of "filler" tracks also adversely affects the flow and continuity.

It almost feels like this record was partially assembled from left-overs and curios. The Browne rendition of "Take It Easy" emerges as quite anemic and perfunctory, as if there was some obligation to record it, and tick a box. "Red Neck Friend" and "Ready Or Not" are California rock by numbers, notwithstanding their amusing, charming or mischievous lyrical content. "The Times You've Come" and "Sing My Songs To Me" are well-crafted and tuneful, if a touch laboured and ponderous.

Thankfully, this is redeemed by the quality of the stronger numbers. It is here also that we seen the first signs of Jackson Browne's socially conscious side, in the title track, and in snippets of lyrics elsewhere on the set. Still, though, "confessional", introspective and personal subjects predominate. The first half (or side 1 on vinyl!)  is loaded with the more substantial songs, although the aforementioned title song rounds the album off in emphatic and powerful style.

There is a large cast list of session players and guest musicians and vocalists, but despite this, the album does not sound particularly disjointed or diffuse melodically or sonically.  There are some very pleasing acoustic guitar lines, with this instrument possibly more to the for than on any other Browne record.  On several tracks, the arrangements are quite heavily layered, with several keyboard and guitar parts intermingling, a departure from much of the debut album, and the succeeding "Late For The Sky".  A significant innovation is the emergence of the wonderful David Lindley as an integral part of the Browne sound.

Lyrically, this album undoubtedly contains some of Jackson's most penetrating and memorable lines, such as the opening sequence to "I Thought I Was A Child", the whole of "These Days", and "For Everyman". These pieces lend credence to Browne's status as a lyricist of insight and acuity.

"These Days" has become one of Jackson's most durable songs, having been covered by several other people. It has a simple but affecting melody which, in tandem with the lyrics, forms a profound impression. This is one of the first Jackson Browne songs to benefit from the guile and sensitivity of the aforementioned David Lindley, on slide guitar here.

"Our Lady of The Well" and "Colors of the Sun" are both slightly redolent of the stripped down haunting landscape of the debut album. Somewhat "pastoral" in nature, they conjure up mental images of rural living, community, hardship and melancholy. As elsewhere on the record, intricate acoustic guitar parts are well to the fore.

The first piano chords, and the ensuing words, perhaps summarize why some of us became so receptive to, and enthused by, Jackson Browne's music in the first place.  Yes, it bears distinct hallmarks of standard California singer-songwriter fare, but it also possesses that intangible Browne quality of striking an intimate chord with the listener.

The story of the origins of the closing title track is quite well documented.  It was apparently written in response to David Crosby's "Wooden Ships", and ironically features the very same Mr Crosby on harmony vocals. This is the most elaborate arrangement on the record, with strata of keyboards and guitars almost threatening to drown out the vocals and lyrics. The song explores similar, if not identical, territory, to the later "Before The Deluge";apocalyptic, but seeking to salvage some vestige of humanity and brotherhood. One can view it as part idealism, and part a reaction to the fears and threats of the age in which it was composed (Cold War, emergent ecological concerns).

As an overall package, "For Everyman" is not Jackson Browne's most consistent or coherent album, but it does show an artist in the course of development, on the road to the peerless "Late for The Sky".  The better tracks stand favourable comparison with anything else in his repertoire.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Moby-Dick - Herman Melville - book review

The epic novel "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville, originally published in 1851, had intrigued me for a while, but my increased inclination to read it arose in curious fashion. I learned that whilst imprisoned in Germany, members of the Red Army Faction urban guerilla group had been fascinated by the novel, even being allocated the names of the characters as pseudonyms when communicating with each other. It seems that the group discerned some allegorical relevance in the book when appraising their own struggle. As I am generally very receptive these days for books containing such moral or political symbolism, I added "Moby- Dick" to my Kindle.

In essence, the novel follows the voyage of the whaling ship the Pequod, commanded by the enigmatic Captain Ahab, who embarks on a personal quest to find and destroy the eponymous white whale, which had on a previous occasion permanently deprived the skipper of one of his legs.  However, as I was soon to discover, "Moby-Dick" constitutes so much more than this basic tale.  Narrated by a crew member, Ishmael, the book has a formidable sweep and ambition.  Written in what might be described as a quasi-Shakespearean style, and periodically going off on tangents which on reflection are not tangents.

One of the charming things about "Moby-Dick" is its refusal to conform to one's expectations.  I had fondly imagined that the lion's share of the work would be comprised of feats of derring-do on the high seas, but No!  Much space is given over to the social, scientific and philosophical aspects of whaling, and there is also a lengthy preamble, laying the groundwork for the delights to follow.

The unusual language may take some getting used to, but equally it is instrumental in conveying the atmosphere of time and place. This may initially impel the reader to intense concentration, for fear of missing salient points, but for me this quickly diminished. The occasionally meandering nature of the novel adds richness and texture, and helps to evoke a flavour of the colourful characters who inhabited this world.

I must confess that the central story was not quite as momentous and stomach-churning as legend had led me to expect. The character of Ahab was not quite as crazed and irascible as I had anticipated either. Only in the closing chapters does the reckless, totally driven and volatile side of the captain's nature make itself fully visible.

As I continued to read "Moby-Dick", the theme of Ahab versus the whale was in danger of becoming incidental. I was much more interested in the subtexts, which explored themes of religion, class struggle, superstition, culture clashes, community and morality.

"Moby-Dick" is also one of those books which is susceptible to a myriad of interpretations. In it I detected a clash of philosophies, with more modern ideas of science, reason, and rationality coming into conflict with superstition, tradition and custom. This is perhaps unsurprising in view of the time when the book was published. Also, the relative virtues of "savagery" and civilization are touched on throughout, but Melville employs some guile in this respect, appearing to see good and deficiencies in both. Savage and primitive cultures had some noble and virtuous features, which "we" could learn from.

The relations between Ahab and his men begin forth some ideas and some thought processes which acquired much greater import and menace many decades after this work was composed. The mesmeric power of autocrats, the ability of men to manipulate their fellows, the propensity for humans to permit "loyalty" to over-ride reason, coupled with the corrosive effects of ambition, greed and self-interest.

Some of the most intriguing parts of the book are those which compare human sensibilities and characteristics to the whale's, through eyes, ears and so forth. The relation of whales to other sea dwelling creatures could be perceived as having parallels to the "pecking order" in the human social structures. I think the author may also have been hinting at ideological extremities in his appraisal of different types of whales.

The socio-political allusions become a little more strident after the halfway stage, and I thought that the analysis of the "rules of engagement" of whaling, and the explanation of the Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish scenarios was the most overt of these, and part of projecting whaling as a microcosm of, or mirror on, the human world.

The tension intensifies in the closing chapters, as Ahab closes in on his quarry, and the ending of the story is suitably apocalyptic and symbolic.  The captain (hoist with his own petard?) perishes, and our hero Ishmael is the sole survivor.

So can we discern one central meaning or moral in "Moby-Dick"?  I certainly didn't. Even the infamous white whale of the title is open to a multitude of interpretations. The characters in the novel appear to have had varying attitudes towards him, depending on their own mindset and needs, and I suspect that this will apply to the majority of readers. Does he represent the state, "the system", God, or does he symbolize more generally a focal point for all the base instincts and violent, irrational impulses of man?

However you seek to "intellectualize" or rationalize various aspects of this book, it is a stimulating and challenging read, so different from so much other literature, even of its own time...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Funeral In Berlin - Len Deighton

The Cold War is such an inherently captivating and dramatic setting that is tempting to say that even a writer of mediocre talents should be capable of turning out a moderately praiseworthy spy novel set in the period. In reality, a high degree of suppleness.finesse and knowledge is required to write a convincing and exciting one, and but few are endowed with these capabilities. One of the people possessing these talents is Len Deighton, author of Funeral In Berlin.

The initial plot of Funeral In Berlin centres on a plan to arrange the defection of an eminent Soviet scientist to the West, via certain "intermediaries".  However, the waters become muddied, as the murky and equivocal backgrounds of some characters are gradually unfurled. The shadow of the death-camps, collaboration and war-crimes soon descends. On several levels, I detected echoes of this book in Frederick Forsyth's later novel The Odessa File.

The beginning of the story is suitably enigmatic, helping to convey the shifty, subterranean world of espionage.  The eccentricities, the double lives, the solitude, the boredom and the loneliness. There is shrewdly sparse exposition, dropping miniscule morsels, for instance leading the reader to be inquisitive about the importance, or otherwise, of various characters.

Many of the spy thrillers of the era portray London as a grim, monochrome and austere place.  Funeral In Berlin partially follows this trend, but there are a few definite splashes of Swinging Sixties optimism and style. In this novel, Deighton also creates a vivid sensation of a Berlin full of contrasts, vibrancy and character, more freewheeling and "technicolour" than is often depicted.

Another intriguing aspect of the story is the series of references to the development of the post-war German psyche, at what some might describe as a transitional point between the aftermath of the war and the blossoming of the new, modern, prosperous Germany.  A time of tension, opportunity and confusion, where the ambition and self-confidence of certain people helps to mask their deep-seated fears or guilt.

I would say that the plot of Funeral In Berlin is less intellectually arduous than some other espionage thrillers, but the storyline is no less clever for all that. Rather than being rigidly taxing and impenetrable , it consists of a series of fluid jigsaw pieces, each carrying strong hints, with a few different permutations available. It is simply a case of the segments becoming joined, although some elements of the overall picture are still a little ambiguous, and left to the imagination of the reader, at the end.

This was the first Len Deighton work which I have read, and I was greatly impressed by his whimsical style in painting pictures with words, and scene-setting. Real care is exercised in fleshing out the characters to make them seem plausible and human, and a clever ploy is to emphasize traits or eccentricities of players, which eventually turn out to be red herrings, but enhance the overall tapestry and atmosphere.

A nice touch was the series of chess analogies, both by way of the quotations introducing each chapter, and the references to the game in the "dialogue".  One of those things which contributes towards lifting something above the ordinary.

I didn't find Funeral In Berlin to be quite as suspenseful or pulsating as some thrillers which I could mention, but then again it probably wasn't intended as a thriller, but a spy novel.  Judged on those terms, it is a very enjoyable, well conceived and astutely structured novel....

Friday, 6 December 2013

2014 World Cup Draw

I often think that the draw for football's World Cup Finals has more suspense and excitement about it than the tournament itself. The prolonged and tedious nature of the preliminaries and ceremonies, the esoteric and incomprehensible draw itself, and the conspiracy theories and forebodings of doom which customarily follow the conclusion of the proceedings.

Mercifully, today's draw in Brazil seemed to go by quickly, and it has thrown up some intriguing match-ups for the group stages, and possibilities for the later stages. As the draw unfolded, though, my over-riding sentiment was that the draw felt a little unbalanced, with some groups packed with strong teams, and others looking weak, at least on paper. The seedings undoubtedly contributed to this state of affairs, but at least it has spiced things up;for example, Switzerland now look like a good bet to reach the quarter-finals...

Firstly, England have been handed a very arduous group, being drawn against Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy.  As England's first match is against Italy, some hopes might be pinned on the Azzurri making their traditionally sluggish beginning to a major tournament! The Uruguayans are brimming with talent and confidence, and Costa Rica will in theory be favoured by factors of climate and support.  In fairness, England were probably "due" a tough draw, having been given some comparatively easy tasks in recent tournaments, not always capitalizing on them.

There will be a scramble to finish on top of Group B, in order to avoid the likelihood of facing Brazil in the second round. The hosts facing the Netherlands at that stage would be a very enticing prospect, although the talented Chileans should not be under-estimated.  I am assuming here that Spain will top Group B, but I wonder whether by next summer the World and European champions will be even further past their peak....

Groups C and E both look quite even, and a case can be made for almost all of the countries in those groups qualifying for the knock-out phase.  Bosnia-Herzegovina must have a good chance of emerging as second in Group F, assuming that Argentina finish in first place there.

I have taken the liberty of doing some quick calculations, to see who is most likely to progress to the latter stages of the tournament. The upshot was a semi-final line up of Brazil v Germany and Spain v Argentina. Hardly earth-shattering, I know, but the reality of World Cups rarely conforms to deliberations conducted on a cold evening during the previous December. The vagaries of form, climate, injuries and luck will all play a part.....

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Endurance:Shackleton's Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing

Like many a schoolboy of my generation,and those which preceded it, I was brought up on the exploits of Robert Falcon Scott, and I avidly devoured the story of his doomed Antarctic expedition.  However, the achievements of Ernest Shackleton barely crossed my radar screen during those years. It is only in very recent times that I have investigated the Shackleton story, and it has been eye-opening and inspirational to say the least. However, I was on the lookout for an unvarnished account of Shackleton's 1914-1916 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, unsullied by the often cynical and agenda-driven approach of modern times. I found what I was looking for in Alfred Lansing's 1959 work, Endurance:Shackleton's Incredible Voyage.

To summarize, the expedition's aim was to undertake a land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but these plans were abandoned when the ship, Endurance, fell victim to the ravages of pack ice. From then on, it was a question of survival for the party.  Drifting on the ice for months, then an agonizing boat journey, which made landfall on Elephant Island. Six men then travelled approximately 800 miles by boat to South Georgia, and after three of them crossed glaciers and mountain peaks, reaching a whaling station, the remainder of the men were rescued. These mere facts, however, do scant justice to the sheer magnitude of what occurred.

I found that Lansing's book is written in quite a spare, economical measured manner. The story is remarkable enough, and speaks for itself, therefore requiring no embellishment. The author's own words are augmented by quotes from the diaries of the participants, and extensive research and interviews. Whilst there is no hyperbole here, it is also far from a sanitized version of events.

The book format permits a detailed and rounded assessment of Shackleton's personality and leadership style. This is no airbrushed portrayal, either, emphasizing his foibles and contradictions. His methods encompassed decisiveness, finesse, ruthlessness, attention to detail, pragmatism and expediency. Above all he was focusing on the over-riding objective; initially, the missions objectives, and subsequently the need to save the lives of the Endurance party.

Throughout the story, we are shown Shackleton's man-management techniques, and how he employed psychology to extract the best from the men under his command. Examples of this were the arrangements for who would sleep in which tent, and the chosen composition of teams for important enterprises. He was constantly having to juggle the management of expectations, in order to avert any drastic reduction in morale, whilst at the same time seeking to appear credible and humane.

It is notable that Lansing does not fall into the trap of attributing every success or positive development to the genius or foresight of Shackleton. He highlights the role of the chief's many capable subordinates, who were able to bring their qualities and skills to bear in a time of great trauma.  It is also discernible that bouts of optimism or buoyancy were not solely induced by Shackleton's leadership prowess, but emerged via perfectly rational and reasonable appraisals by individuals of the prospects for success.

It is also true that humans are innately resilient and versatile, and that these virtues are deployed when we are faced with the prospect of doom. An instinct for self-preservation and survival?  So when assessing what happened, we perhaps need to look further afield than romantic cliches. An extension of this theory is the capacity for people to adapt in their social relations, in terms of mixing and learning to co-operate with people from different backgrounds or philosophies.

At various stages there are reflections on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the various expedition members, and as the drama progresses, we see how these facets manifested themselves as the going got tough, and how Shackleton and the other personnel handled any friction or discord which developed. Although there were occasional squabbles and disputes, in the circumstances the men showed staggering tolerance and stoicism.  Even those who became disgruntled returned to "the fold", although again this might have been the imperative of self-preservation calling.  It is touching nevertheless to see how the comradeship and solidarity was maintained in the face of adversity.

One of the striking features for me was how Shackleton retained his coolness and presence of mind, when confronted with such onerous responsibilities, workloads and privations.  He was ceaselessly having to improvise and react to the evolving situation, keeping track of and balancing a plethora of variables and imponderables. It is easy to see why Shackleton's methods are often cited during modern courses on leadership and management.

Shackleton truly stepped up to the plate following the loss of the Endurance, providing inspiration, direction, encouragement and drive.It would be inaccurate to state that the story moves up a gear at this point.  Rather, it simply becomes more humbling and harrowing. The quotations from diaries reflect the constantly fluctuating moods and sentiments of the men, as hopes were regularly raised and then dashed. The primacy of food and warmth became a ubiquitous subject, as they sought short-term solace to get them through each day or part-day.

The account of the boat trip to Elephant Island is superb and uncompromising.  The desperation and suffering are palpable, and the awesome power of Mother Nature is amply depicted. We get a graphic idea of what the men were going through, and Lansing lingers on these days to great effect, in order to evoke the sense of terror and despair, but also the resourcefulness of the boat crews in coping with their plight.  It seems amazing that the men retained some semblance of composure and awareness during this ordeal.

Similar emotions are engendered by the chapters pertaining to the epic mission to reach South Georgia.  The numerous false dawns, the necessity to make instant, potentially fateful judgements and decisions, are all laid bare. The text really helps to illustrate the colossal obstacles, the almost insurmountable odds, and the sheer physical distances and dimensions involved in the rescue and survival efforts.

Even a superficial knowledge of this subject is sufficient to inspire wonder and admiration, but Lansing's rendering of it helps to bring it to life, whilst maintaining an essential realism and balance.  Attention is given to some of the less heralded episodes, characters and elements which characterized the endeavour.

If ever I feel jaded or despondent about life or people, the Shackleton Expedition is one of the things which I turn to, to gain some perspective and some inspiration.  I would recommend it in these terms to anyone.  I know that it sounds trite, but this was a triumph of the human spirit.  Prepare to shed the odd tear when learning about the full momentous story for the first time....

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Hamlet, Education and Life

One of the clearest memories which I retain from my high school days is from the time when my English Literature class was studying William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   A few of us remarked how much we were relishing “the Scottish play”.  Our teacher, a most avuncular and kindly fellow, assured us that if we thought Macbeth was impressive, we should wait until we experienced Hamlet, which in his estimation was on a different level altogether.

That little interlude stayed with me in the ensuing decades. However, I never got around to reading Hamlet, much to my regret.  Until recently, that is.  As part of an effort to re-acquaint myself with Shakespeare, I read the play in its entirety.

My tentative verdict is that Hamlet is one of those works which demands repeated readings before its full philosophical and emotional depth can be appreciated. I find that one of the “perils” of reading Shakespeare is that one becomes so bound up and captivated by the rich and sinuous wordsmithery that some of the subtexts can slip through the cerebral net. Hamlet, with its sweep and ambition, is a case in point.

Some of the character traits and themes which I was led to believe played a central role in the tale seemed barely discernible on this first visit.  Hence my suggestion that further readings should draw out the morals and nuances in the story.  It will be nice for the numerous strands of Hamlet to fall into place.  When they do, I will perform a knowing smile and a nod of approval, an acknowledgement of the portent of that exchange in a dusty classroom almost three decades ago.

This all served to remind me of the  functions which aspects of our education fulfill at differing stages of our lives. In early adulthood, I was more concerned about the leverage to be gained by those little pieces of paper which the authorities called “certificates”, awarded to signify how well my powers of memory had coped in a hot and uncomfortable hall on a nerve-racking June morning.  Eventually, after a prolonged period of “sleepwalking”,  I became aware that for practical purposes, these adornments had actually counted for little, and less tangible “soft skills” were more desirable, the type with which schools don’t necessarily equip us.

As my life has unfolded, I have cultivated a healthy cynicism about much of the “advice” and counsel which I was given during my time in school. However, a few selected teachers did seem to have genuinely altruistic motives, going out of their way to share their enthusiasm for their subject, and not just blandly going through the professional motions.

Other than the aforementioned English tutor, there was a music teacher who exuded a genuine passion for his subject, which he was eager to transmit to us.  It was only twenty-odd years later that the seeds of my love for classical music, planted back then but hitherto dormant, germinated and flourished. At an earlier stage, another teacher constantly sought to impress upon his pupils the importance of discarding our “blinkers” and appreciating the things around us, particularly nature and architecture.

It is perhaps significant, heartening even, that in among the morass of “knowledge” which was acquired and almost as quickly stagnated, those nuggets of encouragement still shone brightly.  When and if we step off the treadmill,  they are there to be picked up and harnessed, to genuinely enrich our lives.  I don’t remember calculus and algebra helping me to savour beauty, humanity and creativity…..

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Musical Odyssey

Music has played an important part in my life since childhood, and I am constantly surprised at the way in which my tastes and interests have evolved.  I have come a long way since purchasing my first 7 inch single at the age of nine!  In that time music has served numerous functions; as a frivolous means of relaxation, as an outlet for youthful rebellion and assertion of identity, and as a palliative in times of trouble.  Like many people, I tend to trace pivotal points in my life by way of the music which I was listening to at the time.

I did come from a vaguely musical family, as my mother had played the piano and worked in a music shop. My parents’ record collection was, shall we say, eclectic, comprising things as diverse as Julie Andrews, Franz Schubert and the Mamas and the Papas.  I half absorbed some of the images and sounds reaching my senses from the radio and television, but very little of it made a major impression.  At that stage, music was just one of the many good things in life.

Things began to change in the closing months of 1979, when my attention was drawn to a single just released by Queen, entitled “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.  What drew me to this record, and to this group, more than others which I had heard, is difficult to pinpoint in retrospect.  It may just have been a case of “right place, right time”, meaning that I was receptive to something which seemed, to my youthful ears at least, to possess both substance and mystique.  Thus commenced my love affair with music….

My teenage years, like those of many people, were ones of uncertainty and change, in my case partly conditioned by the after-effects of family upheaval.  There was the obligatory casting around for direction, dabbling in sub-cultures, often succumbing to peer pressure, but as adulthood presented itself some things began to crystallize.

Other people have observed that my tastes and inclinations in music tend towards what might be termed “craftsmanship” and “the organic”, and I think there is some merit in this assertion.  Much of the music which I have gravitated towards during the past two decades could loosely be said to have these qualities.  I have occasionally pondered whether humans possess some kind of innate genetic disposition towards certain styles, intricacies or genres, and to what degree one’s tastes are influenced by social interaction, environment and accumulated personality traits.  A debate for another time, methinks!

In my own case, preferences have tended to develop in several ways.  After teenage experimentation and restlessness had begun to subside, my tastes were really quite narrow.   Such a restricted outlook eventually breeds curiosity, and in my case I began to wonder what other delights were out there.  So my listening habits began to broaden from the safe, “populist”, some might even say lowest-common-denominator, towards things which, although nominally connected and within the same genre, were also more rewarding and esoteric.  When I stepped out of my comfort zone around twenty years ago, a whole new kaleidoscopic world began to emerge.

Once I had crossed the frontier,  awe and wonder bred further inquisitiveness.  I would liken this process to a “family tree” , with each new discovery inspiring me to explore the numerous sub-branches.  For example, an initial affinity for the shiny, anodyne country-rock of the Eagles has led via a tortuous route from Californian rock to folk-rock, singer-songwriters and British folk music, and the search continues.

Other strands of my musical “development” have emanated from other sources.  There is a natural resistance to embrace those things cherished by one’s siblings or antagonists. Once this crumbled for me, a new vista of musical delights opened up, and I was happy to admit to those antagonists and siblings that “you were right”. 

Happy chance can also enrich our landscape.  A cursory glance at a thread on an internet forum a couple of years ago reawakened an interest in classical music, which had lain dormant since my school days.
One of the wonderful things about music is that the possibilities are almost endless.  Just when we think that our “portfolio” has become  static and stable, we stumble across a new artist, “scene” or style which sends us off in another stimulating area of research.  This is of course greatly facilitated by the myriad tools available to us via the internet.

Although music is very important to me, I increasingly try to remind myself not to take it too seriously.   It enhances life, and can also reflect life, and for some people music represents a statement of allegiance or lifestyle choice. When all is said and done, however, it remains an art and an entertainment. By being too “precious” or insular about it, people are actually depriving themselves of a great deal of enjoyment and fulfillment.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Laura Nyro - The Early Albums

A little while ago, after my first substantial acquaintance with the music of Laura Nyro, I wrote a blog post about this important and much missed singer-songwriter. I have now made another attempt at an appraisal of her early records....

In common with many people I will have arrived at the debut record first, by virtue of it containing several of Laura’s best-known songs. Originally released in early 1967 as “More Than A New Discovery”, and then re-released and re-packaged a few years later as “The First Songs”, it is a supremely confident and well-crafted work.  

A common view is that this album is excessively poppy and commercial, and unrepresentative of what followed. Yes, people who are introduced to her work via “The First Songs” might be in for a shock when they explore the more edgy and experimental music which she made in the subsequent few years, but that is not to say that the contents of this debut are totally divorced from the rest of her output.  Several of the compositions (“He’s A Runner”, “Buy and Sell”,”Lazy Susan”) definitely signal the way ahead.

Actually, I would argue that her sophomore effort, “Eli And The Thirteenth Confession”, is not that radical a departure from its predecessor.  The compositions and arrangements have simply become more uniformly and consistently adventurous.  More rough edges are left in, and there is less of the lushness which characterizes the first record.  ”Eli” is less easy listening, and makes greater demands on the listener’s attention and patience, as more layers are there to be unpeeled and the subject matter becomes more original and daring.  Not that the debut is overly conservative, but there is a real feeling of liberation, and removal of the shackles here.  Less immediately accessible yes, but still evolution rather than revolution?

There are real signs on this second LP of the things which became so influential on the female artists who followed.  Another thing worth mentioning at this point is just how fresh and contemporary these records still sound in the 21st century.  This is due to the production, the mixture of styles and influences and the lyrical topics explored.

Once any initial reservations are overcome, the complexity and ambition of tracks such as “Timer”, “Sweet Blindness” and “Eli’s Coming” are truly exhilarating.  Some songs have a suite-like quality (the stunning “Emmie”, for example), embracing several shifts in tempo and mood. Luckily, we can come down to land with the warmth and reassurance of “Stoned Soul Picnic”.  In general there is much more dynamism, stridency and punch to these songs.

Laura’s vocals on “Eli And The Thirteenth Confession” are more varied and less “safe”, and her versatility more on display.  This is part of the fascination.  The singing might not always be as conventionally “pretty” as on the first album, but it is great fun trying to predict what direction she will move in next during each track!  Sometimes the songs threaten to go out of control, but they usually return to base, before veering off somewhere else interesting. After listening to “Eli” I am left marveling at the self-confidence, talent and commitment of one so young at the time…

Because of its aura of cohesion, “Eli and The Thirteenth Confession” almost feels like a concept album. Its follow-up “New York Tendaberry” comes closer to justifying that epithet.  Dark, moody, uncompromising and evocative – just a few of the words to describe it.

“You Don’t Love Me When I Cry” sets the tone.  We are now firmly into what would shortly be dubbed “singer-songwriter” territory.  Almost a genre in itself, rather than borrowing from various other styles.  The arrangements are sparser, consisting mostly of piano and selectively deployed strings.  It is also noticeable that the vocals are projected more prominently, but also more coherently.

The whole thing holds together impressively as a piece, by dint of the continuity between tracks, and the stability of the piano/vocals foundation. Clever use is also made of “light and shade”, quiet delicate passages being interrupted by more exuberant and animated moments, often with dramatic effect.  The directness and clarity of vision (and sound quality) make this a very intimate listening experience.

As already mentioned, the piano playing serves to anchor the songs, and because embellishments are used sparingly, they have additional impact when they do appear. This is true of the brass section on this record, which is quite striking in places.

Of other tracks, “Time and Love” is an invigorating gem, the harmonies both soothing and mesmeric. It is noteworthy how those Laura Nyro songs which became hits for others sound so much more interesting and profound in her own capable hands.  This is the reverse of what often occurs in the music world…

Even more so than the second effort, “New York Tendaberry” is an emotionally demanding (even draining!) collection, but an absorbing and captivating journey.

The last of the quartet is “Christmas and The Beads of Sweat”.   Parts of this record are arguably even more introspective and ethereal than “New York Tendaberry”, with a shroud of eeriness.  There is more focus on challenging and sensitive topics of concern, and the tone is perceptibly bleaker. Another hallmark of these albums is Laura’s reluctance to take the easy option, and her willingness to push boundaries, in order to get the message across.

The spared-down arrangements permit the vocals and melodies to breathe and shine through.  I detected in some respects a return to the flavour of “Eli and The Thirteenth Confession”, with emphasis on piano, and soulfulness. Intricate vocal harmonies and complex song structures are to the fore, as exemplified by “Blackpatch”.  The glittering supporting cast of musicians appearing on these tracks is perhaps testimony to Laura’s burgeoning reputation among her peers.  However, even Duane Allman’s virtuosity on “Beads of Sweat” is insufficient to overshadow Laura’s sheer presence and inventiveness!

To listen to these albums is to witness the flourishing of a unique talent, whose own releases may not have achieved massive commercial success, but whose work remains as compelling and vital now as it was then.  It is heartening to see how much interest and affection there remains for Laura’s music.  These are not just songs, but musical and emotional statements  imbued with a real sense of theatre and occasion, and delivered with passion and ingenuity.

Colditz:The Full Story

Much of the public's "understanding" and image of prisoner-of-war camps doubtless stems from watching movies and television dramas, or from sensationalist or one-sided documentaries.. It is always worthwhile to read a first-hand authoritative account, in order to separate myth from reality, and to obtain a grasp of the dynamics prevailing in the camps. A great example of such scholarship is "Colditz:The Full Story" by Major Pat Reid, a British officer who himself escaped from the infamous fortress.

Reid's account draws on his own experiences and those of his fellow POWs, as well as the diaries of key players in the story, and benefits from research conducted in the decades following the war.  Where details or facts are contentious, the author often cites differing versions of events.

One of the first things which I took from this book is how much the truth is at variance with the romantic notions which some people have about Colditz. Down the years, I have heard it intimated that the conditions there were comfortable or benign. However, this account largely discredits such theories, documenting the hardships and travails which the prisoners endured, including food shortages, illness, and endless disruptions and upheavals. Also, the spectre of the Gestapo and the SS, and their brutality, was a constant fear....

Reid provides some enlightening and detailed background information about some of the key protagonists, which not only enriches the reader's appreciation of them as people, but also aids in a grasp of the nature of the times, particularly the troubled Europe of the early 20th century. To his credit, he devotes much attention to the activities and valour of the non-British prisoners, notably the Polish, French and Dutch. The sometimes awkward relations within the national groups are examined frankly.

From reading this history, I gained the impression of a diverse group of men, and while there were some common traits and factors which bonded the prisoners together, many of them were all the while fighting their own private battles of conscience, coping in their individual ways with the privations, the frustrations and the moral dilemmas which arose. Beneath the bravado often lurked some dark forces and thoughts.

An impressive thread which runs through the chronicle of the war years at Colditz is the principled stance taken by so many of the men, presenting a defiance and resolution to the enemy at all times. There was clearly a moral dimension to this, the Allies believing in the justice of their cause, but it no doubt also served as a coping mechanism for many, enabling them to feel as though they were continuing the struggle by another means.

The battle of wills between captors and captives in POW camps is regarded as a microcosm of war itself, although it could be argued that the playing field was more level. It was a contest of intellect, fortitude and moral fibre, and not just brute force, industrial muscle and absence of scruples.

There was also a discernible undercurrent of "give and take" at times in the relationship between the prisoners and the Colditz authorities, both sides tacitly accepting that an agreeable rhythm of life and some semblance of equilibrium had to be maintained. This is often cited as a pervasive phenomenon in penal institutions generally. This is not, though, to imply that a code of chivalry existed between the adversaries...

The dedication and diligence with which the POWs went about their escape activities, and engaged with their enemy, is a reminder of the zeal with which a generation united, put aside minor differences, and fought a virulent threat to freedom and civilization. Would the same happen today, if a malign force comparable to Nazism emerged?  I sometimes find myself wondering whether the world has changed too much, but remain optimistic that ultimately the values of humanity and decency remain much the same as they were back then. Hopefully, my theories will never have to be put to the test.....

Reading this work, it is remarkable how much initiative and autonomy the captives exhibited, partly a consequence of so many officers, serial escapees and robust, energetic characters being thrown together in the same place. The amount of planning, intelligence gathering and ingenuity involved in the escapes and general organization was staggering, combining savvy, patience and obduracy. Persistence and perseverance were also essential, given the likelihood that the bulk of escape attempts would not result in a "home run".

The chapters which deal with the closing months of the war are absorbing and sobering. Chaos reigned in Germany, and the POWs became acutely aware of what might befall them in such a scenario. It is often overlooked just how precarious and uncertain their position was shortly before Colditz was liberated by American forces in 1945.

Reid also underlines the role played by the Red Cross, neutral countries and voluntary organizations in supporting and advising the prisoners, these efforts regularly conducted in perilous circumstances. The people, including resistance movements and ordinary civilians, who rendered assistance, deserve enormous admiration and respect.

My chief emotions after reading "Colditz:The Full Story" were those of being humbled by the courage, finesse,tenacity and stoicism shown by the prisoners. Even in the direst of adverse circumstances, they rarely wavered in their resolve and focus. An example to us all.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Lewis Collins 1946-2013

It is with great sadness that I heard this morning of the death, aged 67, of the actor Lewis Collins, best known for his role as Bodie in "The Professionals".

In large part because of his image as the quintessential tough-guy or action-man, the contribution which Lewis Collins' acting talents made to the success and appeal of "The Professionals" has been underestimated. His performances often revealed a capacity for comedy, and also for more gentle and cerebral moments. The characters of both Bodie and Doyle were more complex and rounded than the typical TV cops or secret agents, but only the latter has been accorded the great acclaim of the critics, being perceived as a sensitive, culturally-aware type. However, if one closely watches the episodes, it can be seen that the dialogue involving Bodie was often challenging and above-average in its profundity. The exchanges both with Doyle, and with the irascible George Cowley (played by Gordon Jackson) often brought out the idiosyncrasies in the Bodie psyche. Above all, Lewis Collins managed to make his character seem both human and vulnerable, as well as heroic and resourceful.

As many people have correctly observed, he would have made a superb James Bond....

Many people of my generation will be touched by today's news....

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Running On Empty - Jackson Browne - album review

By 1977/78, Jackson Browne had established a well-deserved reputation as one of the standard-bearers for the singer-songwriter movement. His first three albums had virtually formed the template for this sub-genre. His 1976 release The Pretender had introduced additional musical diversity, as well as a broadening of the lyrical subject matter. The next record, Running On Empty,also embraced some of these trends, whilst maintaining many of the elements which characterized Browne's "golden" period, but against a fresh backdrop.

The album features tracks recorded in a number of environments, from the concert stage, to the soundcheck, to the hotel room, to the tour bus. There are even cover versions and songs co-written by Jackson with other people, another departure from the usual Browne formula.

It can almost be said that Running On Empty is a concept album, as quite a few of the numbers deal with the pressures, strains and delights of life for the touring musician. This is ideally matched by the rawness and spontaneity, which in turn is partly a reflection of the circumstances under which the recordings were made. The tenor of the songs also evokes the atmosphere of the times, one which is captured by the vague air of resignation and apathy.  The shallow hedonism of the rock lifestyle as a metaphor for the disillusionment of a generation?  None of the ten songs here contains much in the way of overt "social commentary", with the exception of the title track, but in its own way this collection eloquently conveys emptiness,disaffection and even retreat.

It has been claimed that some of the songs here are lightweight, trite even, and it is difficult to dispute that taken in isolation they lack the incisiveness and gravitas which people had become used to. However, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the balance largely achieves the effect which the artist was seemingly aiming at.

Some backbone is provided by two tracks in particular, "The Road" and "Shaky Town". The former has a haunting melody, accentuated by David Lindley's violin. The lyrics depict a vivid flavour of the road life, and are delivered with the requisite amount of laconic and careworn cynicism. "Shaky Town" possesses a similarly bluesy, ponderous flavour which aptly complements the words.

The instrumentation and sound on Running On Empty are somewhat unlike that on the previous records, but primarily it is pleasingly sparse, economical and intimate. I hesitate to use the word "craftsmanship", but this is not over-laboured, being counter-balanced by the immediacy of much of the material.  For Browne devotees there are the comforting tones of David Lindley's lap-steel playing, both exuberant and delicate.

It would probably be inaccurate to say that this album was a major turning point in Jackson Browne's career;that would not occur until the early 1980s. However, it is one of the most intriguing projects which he has undertaken. Although we have hinted that the songs may not be as instantly memorable and profound as some of his introspective classics, the record has hidden depths and is relatively "undemanding" emotionally. An enjoyable and novel excursion....

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Crimean War

It is a curious thing that people in Britain know comparatively little about famous, or infamous, episodes in our history. The Crimean War is a case in point. Most of us are familiar with the stories about Florence Nightingale or the Charge of the Light Brigade, but ask the man in the street to give even a basic explanation of the geo-political background, or the strategic "reasoning" behind the conflict, and one is likely to be confronted with a blank expression.

Throughout my own childhood, the war was a constant subject of media references, and even of conversation amongst elderly relatives, seeming to conjure up a certain mystique and mythology. In order to remedy some of the gaps in my own knowledge and understanding, I recently did some reading, part of this process being Alexis Troubetzkoy's book on the subject (part of the "A Brief History Of.." series....)

In the book, the scene is set against the backdrop of the Tsar's visit to England in 1844, which proceeded most amicably, although the seeds of later conflict were buried beneath the surface of the diplomatic exchanges which took place.

Reading about this period provides an important, and disconcerting, reminder of how deferential and reactionary a place Britain still was in the mid 19th century, and how many callous attitudes still prevailed. Different times, yes, but no more edifying for all that.

The time between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War often appears to me like a "twilight zone" in British history. It must have seemed to many like a period of tranquility and peace, but instability remained, and new grievances and designs were being nurtured.  The sources of potential were many and diffuse.

Troubetzkoy's book to me underlined the importance of Europe's years of revolution and upheaval (1830, 1848), and equally how incomplete and unevenly distributed the genuine change was. Some of the structures and movements which supplanted and succeeded the "ancien regime" were, looking back, hardly beacons of enlightenment. In some cases it was considered that the only way to consolidate power and prestige was to be strident and belligerent, and to curry favour with regressive elements.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the reasons for the outbreak of war, and the way in which it was ultimately conducted, are more complex than is popularly considered to be the case.  The role of religious privileges in Turkey, for example, although the extent to which this was employed as a smokescreen for the exercising of imperial pride and grandeur, and commercial interests, is open to debate.

The central role of Napoleon III is also clear, possibly determined by his need to assert and consolidate his domestic position. It seems like Britain was forced into a diplomatic corner by France and Russia, forced to choose between alliances and wars.  They may have sought to contain the Turkish difficulties, but the alternative would have been a Europe-wide conflagration.

As with so many major events around this time, one appreciates the leverage and power of independent and ambitious diplomats, with their own agendas, awkward to control in the era of rudimentary and primitive communications. Colourful characters they may have been, but their influence was often malign.

Many aspects of this war remain obscure to the general reader, such as the fact that Britain was gradually relegated to a junior role in the "coalition" as the fighting progressed, and the level of distrust between the military commanders, and between the military men and the politicians. The campaign seems to have been largely improvised, and been characterized by compromise, muddle, vacillation and misunderstanding. The Allies "won", but this could have been achieved at much less cost for all concerned. The war did lead to some calls for reform in various areas, but this was to be a long and slow process.

Learning about history is often cited as a means of ensuring that we humans learn from our past mistakes. I would also offer the thought that it can help us to appreciate that, for all our gripes and misgivings, the world has progressed in at least some respects.....

Monday, 25 November 2013

The 2013 Formula 1 Season

So, another season of Grand Prix racing comes to an end, with Interlagos witnessing another victory for the imperious Sebastian Vettel.  It is worth reflecting on the year just passed, and looking forward to what 2014 may have in store.

After the (freakishly) competitive and close-fought 2012 season, expectations were high for another riveting campaign.  Although victories were shared about amongst some of the leading contenders in the opening half of the year, there were ominous signs of the underlying strength of Red Bull and Vettel.  I remember thinking around the time of Canada that the die was already cast, but few were expecting the Vettel steamroller to render the remaining races so disheartening and one-sided.

As a few people have remarked, F1 was "due" a less than sparkling year.  The dividing line between what spawned this year's fare and that of the 2012 season was comparatively thin, and we were lucky to get 2012 as it was. I am far from despondent. Some of the issues which contributed to how 2013 unfolded will not necessarily be there next year;they will doubtless be replaced by new variables and imponderables. To me, Vettel's dominance did not somehow "feel" so overpowering or overwhelming as, for example, Williams in 1992 or McLaren in 1988.  The slender margins were focused in areas where Red Bull personnel excel, and their weaknesses are not ones which are greatly magnified by the current F1 format and circuits.

The sense of ennui and disgruntlement engendered in many quarters by Vettel's domination should not be allowed to obscure the other sub-texts and feats which characterized the season. The gallant and relentless efforts of Fernando Alonso are so taken for granted these days that there is a danger that they become under-valued.  He coped with the adversity, and came out it still exuding some buoyancy. Although the performance of the 2014 Ferrari out of the box gave grounds for cautious optimism, there were a few races where things dipped alarmingly.  How many other drivers could have finished runner-up in the championship under those circumstances?

The presence of Mercedes at or near the front of the field has acquired a greater sense of permanence, and although second place in the Constructors' standings is a fine accomplishment, in a strange away it only serves to underline what still needs to be done. More changes may be in the pipeline, but fine-tuning rather than radical measures may be all that is required, provided that they don't make a mess of embracing the new regulations. By and large, Lewis Hamilton appears to be adjusting to his new surroundings, and a tolerably harmonious partnership with Nico Rosberg has been established.

Some may advance the view that Lotus simply trod water, failing to make that further step, but others may interpret this as consolidation. There is clearly change ahead, and the loss of Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari deprives the team of its catalyst and spearhead, but the rehabilitation of Romain Grosjean was one of the good news stories of the Formula 1 year.

For McLaren it was a year to forget on the track, but sweetened by the tantalizing prospect of a renewed partnership with Honda in 2015.  Even Jenson Button's renowned good humour and forbearance were severely tested at times, and for Sergio Perez, though an opportunity he could not turn down, it was a hugely challenging season, culminating in his departure. The young Mexican, who occasionally showed glimpses of his raw talent, has much to offer, and it is good to hear that he is likely to remain in Grand Prix racing. There is inevitable speculation that 2014 will be an interim year for McLaren, with the impending change in engine suppliers, but you never know, they might just produce an effective chassis this time around!

So, we move on to the new turbo era. The most radical change in engine regulations since the move to 3.5 litre normally-aspirated units in 1989?. There are a few ways of regarding this new dawn. There is a school of thought which maintains that all major regulation changes unduly favour the larger, well-financed teams, whose resources give them the capacity to concentrate on the current season's contest, whilst at the same time laying substantial groundwork for the new requirements. Also, the perceived tightness of the modern rules does not perhaps allow such fluctuations and dislocations as occurred, for example, in the early 1980s, when turbo units were becoming more commonplace. On the other hand, the "envelope of uncertainty" surely makes it more than likely that one team or engine manufacturer could hit a sweet spot, and prosper in this new age, while others may struggle to adapt initially. Added to the continued vagaries of the tyre situation, this is surely a recipe for potentially greater volatility fluidity?

Whatever reservations or cynicism one may have, however jaded we may have become by the predictability of the recent Grands Prix, once the New Year is upon us, and the car launches and testing commence, the spark and buzz will ignite anew, and we will relish the prospect of a new season.

A couple of other random thoughts. It is great that Felipe Massa is to remain in the sport. The move to Williams could herald a new lease of life for the likeable Brazilian. Their driver line-up looks to be a perfect blend of experience and youthful vigour.  My other abiding hope is that Nico Hulkenberg also finds a race seat for next year.  If he does not, then there is genuine reason for us to be disgruntled. Encouragingly, we are hearing rumours of a Hulkenberg/Perez pairing at Force India. That should be worth watching....

Roll on 2014!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

German Experimental, Progressive and Electronic Music

It is always satisfying, but also strangely troubling, when one’s resistance to a genre of music is overcome, and a whole new vista of exploration and enjoyment is opened up. Satisfying because in a funny way the fact that there was a reticence to embrace the music makes one savour it all the more, troubling because there is an acute sense of what one has been missing.  In recent times I have felt this way about German progressive, experimental and electronic music.

I always knew that it was there, and it seems unaccountable that I had not taken the plunge much earlier.  My tastes are quite eclectic, and some of my other musical interests should have logically and naturally led me there.  However, first impressions count, and in retrospect I think that I chose the wrong entry point.  I began my previous “exploration” by listening to the internationally well-known acts from the genre, such as Can and Faust. I did not “get” the German prog scene until I approached it from a different angle, that is via British prog acts such as Yes.  A journey which included Tangerine Dream led to the more psychedelic and “kosmische” bands such as Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh, and their various offshoots, and the door was well and truly flung open…

This music also ties in with my interest in the German political scene of that period, which was quite turbulent.  It has often been commented that the recordings by a few of these artists was closely identified with the social and ideological tensions then making themselves felt.  That said, the messages in the songs are generally delivered with a deal more finesse and subtlety than those produced by purveyors of similar sounds in other parts of the globe.

Despite a reputation in some quarters for being gloomy, introspective and angst-ridden, I have found much of the music made by these bands to be wonderfully optimistic, life-affirming and infectiously joyful.

Much has been made of the extent to which the German musicians of the 1970s influenced future generations, particularly in Britain, and I feel that the concentration on this has almost obscured the merit of the music in its own right.  An appreciation of how a track was “ahead of its time” can detract from a grasp of the innate vitality of what was being performed.

One thing which is noticeable when looking at the fraternity is how quite close-knit it seems, with members of the pioneering groups often leaving for new and stimulating pastures.  And many of these solo projects and offshoot ventures added something genuinely new and vital, rather than just being curios or blind alleys.  Real adventure and ambition was much in evidence, taking the various sub-genres into exciting and uncharted territory.

For neophytes, my own advice would be to first sample the sounds of the more psychedelic and electronic-orientated exponents, with their ethereal and invigorating textures and soundscapes.  This should ensure that the more esoteric and challenging groups make more sense, and feel less discouraging and daunting. I can understand how the work of some of the latter can seem “hit and miss” at times.  When the dust has settled, you may well, like me, see Amon Duul II as an important group, with a sound both accessible and clearly ahead of its time in several respects.

One other impression which I gleaned from exploring the German music of the era in question is its relative lack of self-consciousness and pretentiousness.  A sincerity and spontaneity is present which one does not always find in similar musical movements elsewhere. Once they have taken the plunge, many people will find this world very comforting and inviting, and it is quite a diverse arena, with something there for almost everyone, if one remains open-minded.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Deep Purple

In recent months, I have been listening to some of the music of Deep Purple, primarily that which the group recorded during what is generally acknowledged to be their peak period, 1970-73.  It occurred to me that Purple are still somewhat under-estimated in the grand scheme of things, and it is tricky to pinpoint the precise reason for this.

Over the years, the musical “establishment”  seems to have crystallized its view of which artists demand inclusion in some kind of pantheon.  For various reasons, many of the influential writers have had blind spots about artists who by any objective reasoning deserve greater respect.  It strikes me that Deep Purple is one of the groups which suffers unfairly in these deliberations.

I have detected a particularly ambivalent attitude towards Purple here in England, the country where the band was formed.  It is often said of my countrymen that we sometimes fail to appreciate the value of what we have on our doorstep, and this could be just another example of this phenomenon.  Even the mighty Led Zeppelin have fallen prey to this shortcoming, in my opinion.

There may be a residual stigma resulting from Purple’s perceived role in the development of “heavy metal” (debatable in itself), and also a sense that they epitomized the excesses of Seventies rock.

In addition, they were never consciously or identifiably part of any “scene” or “movement”, emerging from disparate origins and sources, and tended to plough their own furrow in the music world.  Also, the fragmented and sometimes acrimonious nature of the band’s history may leave people disorientated.

Although Deep Purple seem to have enjoyed the support of certain journalists who were known to be sympathetic to the practitioners of hard rock and progressive rock, to others they were much less palatable.

Perhaps Purple’s “crime” in the eyes of some pundits was to possess technical proficiency, and to be base their live shows on a display of their improvisational prowess.  Or maybe the group’s lyrics were not as “socially conscious” as the self-appointed arbiters of taste would have preferred?

Oddly enough, many of the factors which led to resistance are the ones which I find so endearing.  A cursory listen to their blistering live album “Made In Japan” should convince anyone without tin ears of their qualities.  It is easy to see why the Mark II incarnation of the band regarded this record as its crowning glory.  Dynamism, energy and inventiveness in abundance.

Admittedly, things post-1973 were a trifle patchy.  If only the Mark III version of Purple had been able to maintain the standard of the title track of the “Burn” album, in my humble estimation one of the high points of the entire Purple saga…

Blonde On Blonde - Bob Dylan - album review

It is often said that the series of albums recorded and released by Bob Dylan in the period 1965-66 represents one of the most fertile bursts of creativity of any artist, ushering in the "rock" era by making mainstream popular music socially relevant and worthy of critical and erudite analysis. I too subscribe to these theories, but in recent times the worthiness of Blonde On Blonde to belong in the same company as its two predecessors has become questionable to me. I sense a propensity to bracket the record with those which went immediately before it, simply because it was Bob Dylan, and that it must be similarly wonderful because to say otherwise would spoil the narrative...

The two albums which came before, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, were effervescent efforts, brimming with creativity, bearing all the hallmarks of a man with lots to say, and who was eager to express himself. There was a breathlessness, spontaneity and urgency about the songs, which must have seemed at the time to form an inexhaustible reserve.

It is curious that Dylan himself has been quoted as saying that Blonde On Blonde constituted the "sound" which he had been aiming for all along.  There is certainly a "progression" of sorts in the character and ambience of the three albums, from the vitality, energy and bite of Bringing It All Back Home to the jaded cloudiness and ennui of Blonde On Blonde. The fact that the great man's career took a dramatic detour immediately afterwards may or may not be instructive....

There is a deceptive listlessness to many of the songs, particularly the longer "epics" such as "Visions of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". On the other side of the coin, I have come to regard many of the tracks as bordering on "comedy songs" ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, "Just Like A Woman", "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat"). This may indicate that my hipster antennae are insufficiently developed. Their exuberance does at least balance out and alleviate some of the gloominess which otherwise pervades the work.

When saying that on close inspection the songs are not as instantly and spectacularly memorable as those on the two earlier records, it is also true to say that Blonde On Blonde hangs together very well as a mood piece, the kind of album to immerse oneself in on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The lack of immediate accessibility demands a patience which not everyone possesses!

The lyrics are less cryptic and oblique than on earlier records, but in their own way just as enigmatic and impenetrable, if less conventionally evocative.  Equally, the soundscapes are more murky and nebulous. These factors do contribute to the album's relative absence of overt sparkle and immediacy, but they also imbue it with its distinctive quality.

Although it is commonly asserted that the "turning point" in Dylan's career occurred shortly after this album was released, it might be more accurate to state that Blonde On Blonde itself signals a new beginning. Despite all all my caveats, provisos and reservations, it is still a rewarding and ultimately enjoyable listen, and essential to an understanding of the Dylan mystique....

My blog posts about other Bob Dylan albums:

Blood On The Tracks

Highway 61 Revisited

Bringing It All Back Home