Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Pursuit of Glory - Tim Blanning

Reading about European history can, in spite of its richness and scope, occasionally become stale and predictable. It is nice, therefore, to come across a volume which adopts a refreshingly different and somewhat thought-provoking approach, The Pursuit Of Glory (Europe 1648-1815), by Tim Blanning.

The book is divided into four separate parts, each addressing a different broad topic.

The first part looks at various different aspects of human endeavour, rather than the usual well-worn tales of dynastic intrigue, power-politics and military adventures. Such normally "mundane" matters as transport, agriculture and industry are brought to life, with colourful anecdotes and quotes from the travels of notables and unknowns alike.

Throughout, one gains the flavour of this transitional period - the continuing fall-out from the Reformation, early industrialization, new ideas, colonialism, and the emergence of new commercial classes. Britain, Russia and Prussia were largely in the ascendancy, whereas Spain and Ottomans were beginning their decline in power and influence. Things were changing, both at the rarefied heights of monarchy and power-politics, and also "on the ground", and Blanning ably conveys the extent to which these things were often inter-linked.
Another strand which emerges is the notion of a multi-track Europe. Whereas today Europe is very homogeneous, back then primitive communications, restrictive practices and privilege, superstition and cultural diversity meant that everybody did things very differently, with varying degrees of success. The world was still a very big place.
At numerous points, but particularly towards its conclusion, Frederick The Great features prominently, and the thought occurred to me that his importance lay as much in what his opinions were on some sacrosanct precepts of European life, as it did in his military and diplomatic exploits. His reputation does not just stem from the fact that he spoke French, and played the flute quite proficiently....
Of course, the period covered by this book saw the first stirrings of enlightenment and liberalism, and a plethora of new ideas in science and philosophy. Part of the fascination is the overlap which these developments had with the stubborn resilience of the "old ways".  The author seems highly unimpressed with the role still played back then by biblical teachings in dictating, justifying and solidifying many social attitudes.
We are given an excellent examination of how the conception of the more modern state was interpreted and implemented in the various countries, and the ramifications for the future, including the impact on relationships between the various social groupings and sectors.
Blanning has some interesting things to say about both the British system as it was in those days. In this reading, any British claim to be more modern and liberal is to be qualified and treated with caution.  It is quite tempting to believe that Britain "moved forward" quicker and earlier than most, but the reality which prevailed well into the 19th century did not always sit easily with the theory or the smug rhetoric. Was much of the "change", "reform", "progress" and "democratization" merely window-dressing, simply providing a mechanism for entrenched privileged sectors to proclaim their "legitimacy"?
The latter chapters, among other things, look at the rise of nationalism, its roots and its manifestations, and the development of popular participation in politics and the public sphere.
A handy and concise "guide" to the French Revolution is incorporated, with some trenchant and well-balanced observation and home truths.
The author also cleverly assesses trends in court life, palaces and architecture, and speculates what they tell us about the waxing and waning of dynasties, ideologies and nations. Similarly erudite attention is devoted to events in intellectual and cultural life,  the "revolution v evolution" arguments concerning "reason" and the Enlightenment, and also the potency of the romanticism movement.
To close the book, we have a brilliant and highly readable analysis of the wars of the period, encompassing the decline of France and the audacious rise of Frederick The Great and Prussia. The material on the French Revolutionary Wars, and the background to its inception and progress, I found especially illuminating.
The narrative is critical of Napoleon and his selfishness and stubbornness, but seemingly mildly praises the revised machinery of Europe-wide relations which arose from the wars. Here, as elsewhere in The Pursuit Of Glory, demographic data and statistics are harnessed to good effect.
Whilst reading this absorbing and challenging work, I was left to ponder our current times, and whether we have worked ourselves into something of a dead-end, with no immediately visible escape from some of the less edifying aspects of our modern world. Perhaps we need to summon up some of the dynamism which characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in order to navigate our way out of stagnation?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?

Just recently, whilst seeking inspiration and emotional sustenance, I dug out my DVDs of "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads", the classic BBC sitcom from the 1970s. The works of Dick Clement and Alan La Frenais are always a nice refuge, because of the depth and richness of their writing.

Apart from the quality of the scripts and the acting, the major strength of this show was its premise, Terry Collier returning from five years in the Army to find his best friend Bob Ferris immersed in his career, and on the verge of domestic bliss with Thelma. The tension and comic potential inherent in this scenario are harnessed to the full. However, it is the particular methods of the writers which created the real magic.

The humour is very British, but the subject matter is universal.  Much of the dialogue deals with the problems of leaving behind one's youth, and the conflicting attractions of domesticity, independence and carefree indolence. The show also examines issues of class, snobbery and social structures in a very natural and perceptive way, pointing out what really happens, not the version which tends to be projected by those with some axe to grind. The absence of preaching and moralizing is an advantage, and although contentious issues are not overlooked, they are not allowed to overshadow the levity.

A real asset of Clement and La Frenais' writing is the capacity to be honest and realistic about social mores and hang-ups, and to extract great and enduring comedy from it. Moreover, in addition to the laughs, the situation and the stories have the power to provoke reflection on the part of the viewer. The ground which is covered is that with which real people can identify, because it is rooted in everyday existence - social climbing, thwarted aspirations, nostalgia, family, friendships. This makes it timeless, like few other comedies of its era. Only the hairstyles and the fashions have dated!

The scripts are delightfully homely and organic, conveying the vitality, eccentricity and occasional absurdity of British life, its contradictions and foibles. Much of the material concentrates on the dichotomy between the less complicated worlds of childhood and young adulthood, and the practicalities and harsh but inescapable realities and responsibilities of being "grown up". Much of this is encapsulated in the episodes  "Storm in A Tea Chest" and "The Ant and the Grasshopper" - the battle to maintain a balance in the face of commitments, priorities and pressures.

The subject of friendship is also explored;its limitations, its virtues and its constraints, and how it evolves and becomes more complicated and occasionally burdensome.

If this wonderful show reminds me of anything these days, it is that whatever our idealism and nostalgia, the world of adult existence is one long series of compromises. Many of us either never fully embrace this, or realize it too late....

Sunday, 16 March 2014

2014 Australian Grand Prix

After much fanfare and uncertainty, the opening Grand Prix of the season is behind us, with many talking points.

The spectacle seemed ever so slightly subdued, and it may take some time to become accustomed to the dull drone of the turbos again, after twenty-five years of screaming normally-aspirated engines of various descriptions. Similarly, people will have to re-calibrate their minds to accommodate the modus operandi and vagaries of the new cars. On the plus side, there were encouraging signs of competitiveness, despite the impression that Mercedes enjoy a significant advantage out of the blocks. Also, the cars look much less ugly in motion than they do when stationary!

Mercedes do look impressive, and their whole package looks compact and efficient. Nico Rosberg seemed to have plenty in hand, and the onboard footage from his car suggested a user-friendly and sympathetic vehicle, whereas some of the other teams have yet to fully tame and harness their new creations.

The race in Melbourne also represented a renaissance of sorts for McLaren, and it was great to see Ron Dennis much in evidence in the pits, and even on the pitwall. It must have been very satisfying for the team to witness Kevin Magnussen achieve a podium finish on his debut. The young Dane has taken to Formula 1 like a duck to water, impressing in testing as well as during his first taste of "the real thing". His pass of Lewis Hamilton early on exhibited real confidence and flair, and had the mark of real class about it.

After enduring a miserable series of tests, and having an ultimately disappointing race weekend, Red Bull cannot be discounted. Daniel Ricciardo's race display, although ending in disqualification, is a persuasive sign that the reigning champions will be a force to be reckoned with before very long.

Williams might have been hoping for slightly better than what they got from Australia, but it is great to see them back as a major player. Although Felipe Massa was taken out at the start, Valtteri Bottas' comeback drive had real swagger and vigour, and confirmed the promise of both car and driver. As an added bonus, Williams have reintroduced to F1 one of the coolest liveries in racing!

I probably sound like a broken record in my effusive praise of Nico Hulkenberg, but the German once again showed his class at Albert Park, driving consistently and unobtrusively to a solid finish in the points. Any lingering disappointment at not landing a "top" seat will hopefully be assuaged by the knowledge that Force India have adapted to the new era better than most.

It is hard to know what to make of Ferrari at the moment. Their testing form was a touch inconclusive, but they hardly inspired in Melbourne. Fernando Alonso did his formidable best in the race, maybe even flattering the machinery, but there are signs that Kimi Raikkonen is struggling to get to grips with the new technology. The "superteam" may take a while to unleash its full potential.

In a way, the better than expected reliability which was seen in Australia was a disappointment, because it meant that the shake-up in the running order was less pronounced than might have been hoped for. Mercedes might have the edge, but as demonstrated by the gremlins which afflicted Lewis Hamilton, they are as yet far from infallible. I think that we can expect further surprises in the races to come, with interlopers popping up in unexpected positions.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Brief History Of The Crusades - Geoffrey Hindley

There are some areas of history which are so dauntingly complex in their scale and sweep that a concise book covering the main points is a pre-requisite to a basic understanding. One such book is "A Brief History of The Crusades", by Geoffrey Hindley.

There is a good preamble, setting the scene by way of detailing the landscape as the 11th century came to its close. How the concept of crusades was formulated and instigated, and the problems of leadership and co-ordination.

Hindley graphically covers the propensity of some of the participants to misbehave, recounting the chilling pogroms which occasionally took place, and their effects on the Jewish communities of Europe in particular.

One thing which comes through repeatedly in the story is the difficulty experienced in unifying the various Christian factions and rulers, preoccupied as they were by myriad domestic and dynastic concerns. Even when people could be persuaded to become involved, their own agendas sometimes meant that an enterprise was curtailed, or fatally compromised, before it reached its objective. Often only the divisions amongst the opposition came to the rescue. How easy it was for forces to be distracted by the prospect of financial gain or objectives outside the proclaimed remit of their mission.

Relations with the Byzantine Empire, which were frequently strained and complex, are another recurring theme in the tale.

Hindley provides portraits of some of the colourful characters involved, particularly the knights who spearheaded the military campaigns and those clerical officials whose duty it was to garner support and enthusiasm for the latest crusade.

There are also fascinating passages about the co-existence of the conquerors with the indigenous populace, and the nature of the administration which was established once the initial conquests had taken place. One is struck by the ebb and flow of fortunes over the decades and centuries as expedient truces were agreed and then breached, and new alliances forged to recover lost territory or pride.

To my mind, the author is very even-handed, telling it as he sees it, and making some pointed references to the relative degree of "civilization" or humanity displayed by the two (or more sides) in each engagement or phase of the struggle. Some examination of social conditions and lifestyles in the territories being contested is also included  - the role and status of women is considered in some enlightening detail.

An intriguing aspect of the story for me was how the power struggles in Europe impinged on strategy and diplomacy in the Holy lands, and vice-versa.

As well as dealing with the central conflict of Christianity and Islam, the other activities which fell within a wider definition of "crusade" are illustrated and analysed. The gruesome tales of purges of heretics and other alleged "subversives" are shocking, even allowing for the less enlightened and tolerant times in which they occurred.

The author cleverly avoids being overtly judgemental, but I detected in places an implied distaste and disdain for the arrogance of the established church and its presumptions.

The demise and decline of crusading zeal are covered too, including the degree to which other pressing priorities closer to home took precedence.

I certainly know more about the Crusades after reading this book, and a knowledge of this prolonged stage of history is, I would suggest, valuable for a balanced view of European history in general.  Doubtless much more extensive and comprehensive material is out there, but this stands as a creditable attempt to explain the basics in a concise and digestible format.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The New Beatles

I have recently been listening to some of the music made by the Welsh band Badfinger, whose story constitutes one of the more tragic tales of unfulfilled potential and thwarted hopes in music history.

When they first emerged, Badfinger were hailed in some quarters as the heirs apparent to the Beatles, who were nearing the end of their time. Badfinger were signed to the Apple label, had assistance and patronage from George Harrison and other members of the Beatles entourage, and also exhibited some Beatles characteristics, in their songwriting prowess and their facility for performing melodic pop/rock.

It is probably unfair to make definitive assertions about Badfinger's ultimate potential, because of the way in which their career was plagued and punctuated by false starts and assorted contractual hassles. It may be argued that these setbacks and difficulties hindered their artistic development, and inhibited experimentation and progression. Sadly we will never know whether they could have become as versatile as the Fab Four.

So what other bands could conceivably have inherited the mantle of Liverpool's finest? The auguries for the Electric Light Orchestra were propitious, but the early departure of Roy Wood meant that the enterprise became directed wholly by Jeff Lynne. If the Wood/Lynne duo could have been made to work, then who knows what might have transpired.  Such partnerships seemingly require an element of the "yin and yang" about them, complementary and contrasting talents and personalities which balance each other out to create magic. Examples which spring to mind are Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards. Were Roy and Jeff just too similar, meaning that the tension was never dissipated?

Of all the bands around in the early 1970s which might have justified the tag "the new Beatles", 10cc appeared to have the requisite raw material at least.  Songwriting capability in abundance, a quirky sense of humour and lots of instrumental talent. However, whenever I listen to 10cc's music I feel a sense of frustration, rightly or wrongly, that they never quite stretched themselves. Their singles, whilst superbly produced and crafted, and highly entertaining, seemed to focus excessively on pastiche and satire.

Who knows, maybe there is a young band somewhere out there now which has that intangible magic and chemistry, and which will eventually find itself in the right place at the right time. I doubt it somehow, but I hope I'm proved wrong....