Sunday, 30 December 2018

Alain Prost - Christopher Hilton

Continuing my odyssey through assorted racing driver biographies, I turned next to the late Christopher Hilton's book about Alain Prost. This edition was published before he did his final F1 season (1993) with Williams.

I found this to be a frank exploration of its subject, looking at the darker and less appealing sides of Prost, whilst also acknowledging his undoubted strengths. Also, there is lots of valuable and intriguing material about the nature of the sport, with some illuminating contributions from colleagues and associates.

After re-reading this book I was left with the conclusion that the sport itself did not (maybe still does not) lend itself to the most pleasant relationships and to the most admirable behaviour.  Then again, these people would not have got to this position without exhibiting certain characteristics to an abnormal degree.  Extreme scenarios are not always conducive to compromise or even moderation.

As for Prost,  I was reinforced in my esteem for his driving ability, perhaps even enhanced, although his performances seldom stirred the blood like those of Senna, Schumacher and others.  I retain some ambivalence about Prost the person.  Yes, he was a man of principle and honesty in many respects, but was also quite manipulative and a bit of a moaner at times.

This biography is an even-handed account, I would contend, and I do not think that the author could be accused either of favouritism or of any bias. I enjoyed the passages about Prost's karting exploits, and the assertion (an assertion arguably supported by the facts and statistics) that in reality he did not exactly set the world on fire in that field of endeavour.  The opening chapter is also well done and impactful.

In conclusion, there is some good insight about what made Prost tick as a racing driver and as a human being. He was clearly suited to the tactical and technical demands of the mid-1980s, but successfully adapted to the later "sprint" era - 1990 was one of his greatest seasons, putting Nigel Mansell into the shade that year. Although the period is not covered by this book, I felt that he rather "phoned in" his drives in 1993, equipped as he was with the best car. The problem was that his effortless style did not inspire, because people prefer to see the effort up-front.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Ayrton Senna - The Hard Edge of Genius - Christopher Hilton

I recently decided to revisit some "old" books, starting with racing driver biographies, and first on my list was this work about Ayrton Senna, written by the late Christopher Hilton.

The Hard Edge Of Genius was written in the early 1990s, and the edition which I have takes the story up to the point where Senna had just clinched his second world championship title.

There have been many books about Senna, but to me this one still stands up as one of the best. It is notable for its relative brevity, its breezy tone and style, and its genuine efforts to explain and understand a man who was already regarded as something of a phenomenon.

An intriguing dimension of going back to this biography was to acquire a snapshot of how Senna was perceived when he was arguably approaching the apogee of his career. The story was not yet complete of course, but the notion of the "flawed genius" was already largely in place. The Brazilian did seem to mellow in later years, but when this book was written that stage of his development could not be clearly foreseen. Indeed, there are some fascinating predictions as to how the Senna tale might develop or end.

Like other authors who have tackled this subject, Hilton makes a creditable attempt to grasp the essence of what made Senna tick, and like others he was confronted with a complex, somewhat elusive set of conclusions. Some of the factors which made Senna special were what made people hostile towards him circa 1990, although I think that later on people appreciated him more, partly because he was sometimes cast as the underdog (in 1992 and 1993 for example), and this helped to fill out and consolidate the mystique which existed even before Imola 1994.

Good use is made of quotations and observations from people who knew and worked with Senna. This is important, because the author is able to make some credible assertions about the Senna approach and persona based on actual events which occurred long before he even reached the glittering heights of Grand Prix racing.

Going through this work again I was reminded most of all what a remarkable, unusual and multi-faceted person Senna was.  These characteristics are what make him and his story much more compelling than those individuals with merely statistical claims to greatness.

This biography stands as a very worthy effort to analyse Senna and the "Senna effect".  Hilton himself, and others, wrote books later which encompassed the whole story, including his tragic demise, but this remains a praiseworthy effort in its own right.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Berlin Wall - Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall, by Frederick Taylor, is a very readable account of the existence of that infamous symbol of the Cold War.

The author is quite trenchant in his opinions and his sympathies, and throughout he puts forward vehement criticism of the East German regime in particular.

I liked the mixture of material contained in the book, which alternates the grand strategy and political machinations with more personal and intimate stories and case studies of how individuals were affected, and their lives shaped, by the Wall.

Of particular merit are the chapters which examine the build-up to the Wall's construction, the tense period which followed, and the dramatic events of 1989 which culminated in the fall of the structure.

Overall, I found this book to be a stimulating and forthright analysis, refreshing in its directness and its sympathetic inclinations.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Holy Roman Empire - A Thousand Years of Europe's History - Peter H. Wilson

I approached this book with a good degree of anticipation, having been greatly impressed with the same author's work about The Thirty Years War.  It is an exploration of the structure which ruled over much of Central Europe for many centuries.

The first thing to stress is that this is not a straight chronological rendering of the story, but more of a study. This has advantages and disadvantages, as the book's structure might make it heavy going for some people. Nevertheless, it is remarkable for its level of insight and detail.

Throughout the work Wilson challenges many of the traditional historical interpretations of the Empire's role and its efficacy (or lack of it). He focuses on how various aspects of the machinery functioned, and how they adapted over time in response to circumstances, new ideas and threats.

I think that the author manages to get underneath the veneer, and gets to the heart of the Empire's nature, the reasons why it existed, and why it endured for so long.

Personally, I would have liked more material about Charlemagne, for instance. However, the passages concerning "imperial translation" are fascinating and illuminating, as are those which address the Empire's complicated relationship with the papacy.

Some persistence is required to cope with the surfeit of information contained here.  I re-read some sections, and found this beneficial. The trick is not to visualize the Holy Roman Empire as some fully rational, balanced, symmetrical entity.

One element which emerges is how some social groups felt that they fared better under the Empire's arcane arrangements than they would have done under more "enlightened" systems.

The closing sections of the book deal with the Empire's demise in the aftermath of the French Revolution and under pressure from Napoleon.

A very demanding but rewarding read.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Wicked Beyond Belief - The Hunt For the Yorkshire Ripper - Michael Bilton

Wicked Beyond Belief - The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, by Michael Bilton, is a sobering and detailed account of one of the most infamous criminal cases in British history.  The edition which I have was published in 2003.

The book is unsparing in its depiction of the terror which unfolded in the North of England from the mid-1970s onwards, the social problems which were prevalent, and the evident shortcomings in the police investigation.

Bilton goes to some lengths to illustrate the nature of the police service in those days, for instance including potted biographies of some of the senior figures in the inquiry.  The thing which comes across concerning the police operations is how overwhelmed they were by paperwork and the sheer weight of information. There was little space to develop distance and perspective.

One trusts that investigative and operational procedures have improved immeasurably since the Ripper case, but we must still be vigilant and inquisitive about those who are tasked with protecting our liberty and our society.

In referring to the social problems which the book portrays, I would say that many of them have not gone away;they have just assumed new guises, and their causes have shifted subtly.

It is easy to despair of the human race when reading of events like those chronicled in Wicked Beyond Belief, but we have to be realistic in seeing that there are no instant remedies. We can only learn, employ reason, and be sincere and honest with ourselves. Some compassion and broad-mindedness about the vulnerable would also not go amiss.

As someone who was a child in Yorkshire at the time of the Ripper murders, Michael Bilton's book brought back for me some of the fear and strain of those years. 

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Tunnel (2001 film)

Der Tunnel (The Tunnel) is a German film, released in 2001, and directed by Roland Suso Richter.

The movie is set in the 1960s, and is loosely based on the true story of a group of people in West Berlin who excavate a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in order to allow some relatives and friends to escape from the East.  We follow the often precarious tunneling operations, the hazardous border crossings made by members of the team and the efforts of the East German authorities to infiltrate and thwart the escape plan.

My view is that the film is not especially profound in its insights, and it is relatively sparing in its use of the philosophizing which often permeates films which deal with similar topics. However, it is well made, quite moving in places, with sober, grey and austere visuals. In addition, the acting is generally of a good standard.

Although I found myself rooting for the tunnelers and their friends, some of the tone of the film is ambiguous. Those who have escaped to West Berlin don't always find things as wonderful and straightforward there as might be imagined. 

This is a film which demands close attention, because there are necessarily plenty of nuances in the plot, especially in the parts where people are captured, interrogated and/or blackmailed by the East German secret police.

One feature of the film which stuck with me was the distrust and paranoia which appeared to be prevalent on both sides of the Wall. The tunnelers were suspicious of everybody, and took rigorous security measures in a bid to safeguard their plans.

As this picture progressed, I found myself becoming emotionally involved, and feeling for the participants. Their fear and anxiety were palpable, but so were their resolve and determination. I also found the blackmail by the East most unsettling, and recognized that the people affected by this were placed in an impossible position, and it is unfair for us to judge them too harshly.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film is the one where border guards shoot a young man, the boyfriend of one of the tunnelers, who is trying to escape to the West. Ordinary people caught in the crossfire, and used as pawns in the game. That scene I found quite unflinching, in depicting the pitiless nature of the struggle.

Heino Ferch delivers an excellent, authoritative and believable performance as the main character Harry. A resourceful, resilient and humane person who rarely seemed to lose heart or his nerve.

The ending to the movie is tense, emotional and adroitly captured and paced.

This is an entertaining and, in places, compelling film.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Eolomea (1972 film)

My odyssey through Eastern European science fiction continues with Eolomea, a 1972 film which I believe was an East German/Soviet/Bulgarian co-production. It was directed by Herrmann Zschoche, and based on a book by Angel Wagenstein.

The plot concerns the disappearance of some spaceships and the severing of communications with a large space station. An investigation is instigated by the authorities on Earth, and a series of curious events unfolds.  "Eolomea" refers to the name of a mysterious planet which it turns out is the ultimate objective of clandestine manoeuvres by space personnel.

The first thing to say about this one is that it appears to take a while to get going, or at least for a large part of its duration it appears to be going nowhere. There is lots of rambling dialogue, apparently about nothing in particular.  Towards the end, however, it all begins to make sense, and I found myself identifying with some of the characters on a human level, because of the care taken to exhibit their traits and concerns.

In the final analysis, I enjoyed it. A genuine story, not just a series of scenes put together for "philosophical" purposes.  Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but a reasonably engrossing watch.  There are some flashback sequences, and these are initially a little confusing, but they do add to the overall effect of the story.

As is almost standard in sci-fi stories of the time, the tale is related against a backdrop of international unity and co-operation, with the goings-on at the beginning of the movie under the scrutiny of some kind of "space council", with representatives from all over Earth. I liked the performance of Cox Habbema as Professor Scholl, the leader of the investigation and the subsequent expedition to the space-station Margot.

Overall, then, an interesting movie, which is less flashy and ostentatious than most of its genre.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Per Aspera Ad Astra - (1981 Soviet film)

Continuing my exploration of Soviet science fiction films, I duly moved on to this intriguing work from the early 1980s (also known as Through The Thorns to The Stars), directed by Richard Viktorov, and based on a novel by Kir Bulychov.

To summarize the plot, a space expedition inspects a crippled spaceship, and recovers a beautiful female humanoid (Neeya), bringing her back to Earth for analysis and evaluation. She suffers from some memory loss, but it also emerges that she possesses mysterious and special powers.

Later on, Neeya somehow manages to stow away on a spaceship which is bound for her home planet.  The situation there has become dystopian and brutal, with the landscape ravaged and polluted, and controlled by tyrants.

The earlier portion of the movie which is based on Earth is in places quite unsettling, but it also has a wistful charm. The future which it portrays is rather reassuring, as it appears to be based on scientific research, space exploration and progressive universal values. The visuals here are crisp and alluring, and the overall feel of these sequences betrays self-confidence and quiet authority.

The narrative is strong and compelling, but there is ample room for messages about the need to understand aliens and outsiders, rather than being afraid of them, the dangers of people being manipulated and the misuse of science.

I must admit that I enjoyed the second half of the film a good deal less than the first, though I can appreciate that the Light verses Dark motif is impactful. The sequences on Neeya's home planet are occasionally hackneyed, even if the subject matter which is being explored is important and profound. Topics such as human cloning and environmental destruction come to the fore at this stage, in addition to the favourite Soviet topics such as class oppression and economic exploitation.

The ending is somewhat hysterical and clumsy, unlike the cool and assured nature of the early parts of the film, and I gradually lost interest. A word though for the mesmerizing and sympathetic performance of Yelena Metyolkina as Neeya.

In conclusion, an intriguing, well made, but slightly flawed movie.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Planeta Bur (1962 Soviet movie)

In continuing my exploration of Soviet science fiction, I next moved on to Planeta Bur (also known as Planet Of Storms), directed by Pavel Klushantsev, and first released in 1962.

The film revolves around a voyage by three spaceships to the planet Venus in a Soviet mission, and the subsequent adventures and discoveries which the crews experience.

Overall, the atmosphere of the film is claustrophobic, grim and austere, with a tone of foreboding and unease. Venus I guess was, and is, a more mysterious and nebulous concept than the Moon or Mars, and this angle accentuates the apprehension, as the cosmonauts go outside to brave the surface of the planet.

The special effects and general technical quality of the film are pretty good, considering the likely budget and the time when the film was produced. There are occasional lapses in to near B-movie standards as regards props and sets, but in general it holds up, and in truth the realism of the effects is not the main point here.  What is there is perfectly adequate, and more, in conveying the mood and the direction of the narrative.

Soviet science fiction movies do tend to tackle weighty topics, but I find that they come across as more convincing, and less patronizing, in so doing. There are times when sci-fi tries too hard, and emerges as excessively earnest and preachy, but this picture does not fall victim to that failing.

Planeta Bur examines a few big questions, both scientific matters and also ones concerning humans and their relationship with space and space exploration. There is an interesting sub-plot, not uncommon in science fiction, namely the extent to which "normal" rules and commands, adhered to on Earth, are also applicable or practicable once people are in space. This is seen with the decision to proceed even when one of the three spaceships is destroyed.

There is something about scenarios where people are far from home, and forced to co-exist with others. Temperaments are laid bare, and improvisation is important. This film does pose some questions about the role of the individual when set against the need for team-work, the notion of self-sacrifice and to what degree individuals are expendable in extreme circumstances.

One of the scenes which I found affecting was one where some of the cosmonauts start firing on and killing some of the creatures on Venus. This raised the thorny question of what right humans, in their urge to explore space, have to interfere with other worlds.  After all, Venus had not threatened Earth, and they could argue that they were defending themselves.

Planeta Bur explores some fundamental questions about evolution, ancient civilizations and so forth, but I like the way that the debate amongst the cosmonauts is left largely unresolved, leaving much for the viewer on which to ruminate. The presence of a robot permits the standard agonizing about the relationship between humans and machines and technology.

How scientifically accurate or "valid" all this is must be open to debate, but this is science fiction, and of course in the early 1960s much less was known, or perhaps more correctly more was unknown. Having said all this, this film works well partly because the "science" is kept reasonably within the bounds of plausibility and human comprehension.

I think that the minimalist and understated approach to production values and to the storyline suits this film admirably. Also, the dialogue is intriguing, with plenty of dry humour in there, and not just run-of-the-mill sci-fi fare. Things are kept simple, but the movie is gripping and always interesting.

Oh, and the film's ending is wonderful....

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Taming Of The Fire (1972 Soviet film)

I was recently pointed towards this movie and, having greatly enjoyed a couple of Andrei Tarkovsky's pictures, decided to watch another example of Soviet cinema from the Seventies.

Taming Of The Fire chronicles the progress of the Soviet rocket, missile and spaceflight programs, mostly through the lead character, who is quite clearly based on Sergei Korolev.  Names were changed, presumably in the interests of secrecy.

This is quite a long film, but it pretty quickly grabbed my attention.  This was due in part to the way in which the subject matter is handled, and also by the superb, believable and sympathetic performance by Kirill Lavrov in the lead role. 

The visuals are stunning in places, and the atmospheric music also contributes to a welcoming ambience. In addition, the producers evidently had access to real facilities and installations, which tended to augment the realism somewhat!  This meant that the film could contain "real" launches of rockets and missiles.

One thing which did concern me early on was that the movie occasionally jumped forward in time, with little or no explanation. However, my fears were gradually allayed, as the chronology becomes clearer and less confusing, especially in the sequences which follow the end of World War Two.

A dimension of the movie which intrigued me was the way in which disagreements within the Soviet Union were portrayed. Also, there is the odd subtle dig at "the system". My interpretation was that there was comparatively little in the way of Cold War points-scoring going on here, and at times the tone was genuinely of the "progress of mankind in general" variety. An optimistic approach, which some Westerners should perhaps bear in mind.

There are some interesting sub-plots, none of which are that original, but bear consideration. The age-old tensions between scientists and bureaucrats, idealists and pragmatists, the visionary and the practical, are presented in the form of discussions between the lead character and his political and military superiors. 

In parallel with his momentous achievements in his chosen profession, we see the unsteady and awkward course of Bashkirtsev's personal life. I must admit that I found these parts of the film less interesting, but they presumably serve to demonstrate the difficulty which many brilliant people experience in maintaining basic human relationships and handling complex emotions, and balancing professional fulfillment with other aspects of life .  By contrast, the certainties of science must seem straightforward and comforting.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent film, technically very good, and Lavrov adroitly conveys the driven, restless and visionary nature of the character, with the attendant pressures and strains. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Last Viking-The Life of Roald Amundsen-Conqueror of the South Pole-Stephen Bown

I find that reading about exploration is a very good way of restoring some perspective, whilst at the same time allowing a little escapism. Stephen Bown's biography of the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is both highly readable and illuminating.

I was already aware of Amundsen's thorough and meticulous approach to leading expeditions, so the main revelations for me from this book were the complexity of his character and the turbulent and often precarious nature of some aspects of his life.

Much emphasis is placed not just on the Norwegian's rational and diligent methods, but also on the mentality which he brought to his endeavours. In contrast with the "romanticism" of other explorers of that age, one of Amundsen's major priorities appears to have been to achieve an objective, but also to minimize the risks and dangers by leaving very little to chance.

As I worked my way through this biography, I found Amundsen and elements of his philosophy of life to be quite inspiring, especially his attitudes towards personal industry and its connections to motivation, harmony and well-being. Also, his thirst for knowledge and self-improvement serves as a great example, as a means of averting stagnation and complacency.

Although some definite strands can detected, I also found Amundsen's personality to be rather elusive and difficult to pin down. He was above all, either consciously or otherwise, modern in his outlook, pointing the way to the future in many respects. His attention to detail and willingness to embrace new ideas was combined with his gradual utilization of the media and publicity, although apparently he sometimes found the latter distasteful and wearisome.

The author's writing style I found entertaining and absorbing, if sometimes breathless. The enthusiasm for the subject is palpable, and this gives this work an edge, a zest and a vibrancy which elevate it above the ordinary.

One of the most curious facets of Amundsen's life was his perpetual financial difficulty, and it is a galling irony that he, the most competent and masterly explorer of his generation, was regularly in such dire fiscal straits, whilst others were generously bankrolled by governments and public institutions. This side of the story helps to construct the picture of a man whose life and career were not as orderly and perfect as the legend might occasionally suggest. He sometimes had to improvise in order to get the job done.

It is heartening that this book gives prominence to some of the expeditions which are perhaps less famous in the public consciousness as well as, for example, the race to the South Pole. I was particularly fascinated by the chapters which examined Amundsen's experiments with aviation, and his sojourn in Siberia.

I think that Bown presents a balanced and plausible portrayal of a complex and remarkable person. What emerged for me most of all were Amundsen's restless energy and his constant quest to cover new ground and surmount fresh challenges.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Memories of The Bear - A Biography of Denny Hulme - Eoin Young

I recently read Memories Of The Bear, by Eoin Young, a biography of Denny Hulme, the 1967 World Formula 1 champion.

If one of the measures of a good biography is whether it imparts an enriched understanding and appreciation of its subject, then this particular effort generally succeeds, although I would not regard it as a definitive study.

The book contains many amusing anecdotes, and enough to evoke a strong sense of the nature of motor sport in the 1960s. Much use is made of material from Denny's own magazine columns, and this gives the tales a flavour of immediacy, and of how things were done back then. His laconic humour is rather endearing.

One of the things which shines through for me is Hulme's no-nonsense and pragmatic approach to his chosen profession. He has perhaps been seen as something of an enigma, when compared to some of his contemporaries, but upon closer inspection he comes across as a determined and highly capable racer, who has been rather underrated by history.  His achievements were impressive and numerous, and on reflection we do not need to rely solely on the statistics sheets to assess these.

In part due to the era in which he participated, Denny Hulme can be viewed as something of a transitional figure. Old school in some respects, but also very modern in his views on the increasing commercialisation of the sport and on matters of safety.

Highlights of the book include a look at the controversial 1966 Le Mans race, and Denny's mixed experiences at the Indianapolis 500. Not surprisingly, there is major emphasis on the Can-Am series, which provided Hulme with some of his most notable triumphs.

The care taken to examine Hulme's early life, and the values instilled by his upbringing, help us to understood how he turned out as a racing driver. Very much a hands-on figure at the races, and unpretentious in his lifestyle, rather uncomfortable at times with the plaudits and the media attention. I think that some of these traits obscured his genuine merits, and contributed to him being under-estimated.

One area where I think that this biography is slightly lacking is in putting flesh on the bones of his racing career.  What was the background and the motivation behind some of his important career decisions, such as switching teams?  I would have liked more material to join together the racing seasons, and to place them in context. In that sense, the accounts of the racing seasons are a touch dry.

An enjoyable read, but one which left me wanting a bit more.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Reformation - Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 - Diarmaid MacCulloch

After a short hiatus, I am back to immersing myself well and truly in books about history. Diarmaid MacCulloch's book Reformation had been sitting invitingly on my bookshelf. It emerges as a beautifully written and highly illuminating work.

The book examines the major theological disputes and the ebb and flow of the fortunes of each faction. I was impressed by the manner in which the author places the Reformation, and related episodes, within the broader geo-political context of their times, although he does not dwell unduly on the intricacies of the various military campaigns which occurred.

I found myself being drawn in by the fluent nature of the writing style, the authoritative grasp of the subject matter and the confident control of the narrative. The whole vibrant, turbulent and nuanced picture is painted.

Throughout I could sense the author's exasperation with the obstinacy of some of the protagonists in the story, and his frustration with those who stymied efforts aimed at achieving compromise and peaceful co-existence. I increasingly prefer books which do not totally conceal the sympathies of the writer, as it adds some spice and interest.

It is a measure of this book's quality that I found myself gaining a whole new perspective on the Reformation, and on that phase of history generally. I had previously imagined that certain people were the "good guys", and that others were the villains of the piece. Now, having read MacCulloch's observations and analyses, my views have shifted somewhat.

The role of humanism is stressed at many points, and this exploration goes far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world. Much effort is made to illustrate events in Zurich, Geneva, the Netherlands, Transylvania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The sweep and richness of this telling is thereby enhanced greatly.

One gains a keen impression of how cosmopolitan and internationalist a scene the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were. Nationality and ethnicity were often transcended in these struggles, and even in an age before mass, instant communication, it was quite a "small world"

I particularly enjoyed the passages which addressed worship and religious organisation at a very localized level. Credit to the author, too, for a willingness to quote seemingly obscure and little-known examples to illustrate, or question, broader trends.

The latter chapters are some of the most noteworthy, as they take a look at church attempts to regulate or influence human moral behaviours, and also how Christianity engaged with movements such as the Enlightenment. Once again the writer's command of his subject, and his attention to detail, continually whetted my appetite for more.

A period which can seem murky, dark and austere is brought to life in vivid colour. It is made possible to imagine and visualize the landscape and the events, and the characters who participated in the drama.

In summary, this is a magnificent, thought-provoking and informative work.

Friday, 13 April 2018

With The Beatles (1963 album)

With The Beatles, the sophomore album by the Liverpudlian beat combo, was seen as a step up in polish and sophistication, if lacking some of the infectious naivete and spontaneity of the first record.

It has been observed that more time and care was taken over this one, as evidenced by the arty (and much imitated and parodied) cover design. The darker, less frivolous ambience does reflect a maturing of sorts, but in purely musical terms  the progression is perhaps only slightly discernible to the untrained ear.

As on the debut, they start off proceedings with a strong album-only track, although "It Won't Be Long" emerges as a fairly mediocre song upon closer inspection.  It is made memorable and impactful by the taut and urgent way in which it is put together, with fine vocal interplay and meaty guitar parts.  Lots of action packed into just over two minutes, with little time to draw breath.

A trend which emerges for me is how much more measured and in control the band is on this record. Quiet confidence and a less frenetic flavour. John Lennon excels vocally throughout, and songs such as "All My Loving" exhibit a growth in musical finesse and savvy. As has been frequently pointed out, it seems remarkable that compositions of this quality could be consigned to being "mere" album tracks.

It is worth acknowledging at this juncture that the record is not uniformly strong.  There is some filler, such as "Don't Bother Me"  and "Little Child", but the running order is cleverly arranged and paced so as to make the album seem slightly stronger than it really is. Versatility is much on display, with the boys having excursions into something approaching Tin Pin Alley ("Till There Was You").

As on several of the Beatles' early albums, we are served up a mixture of original numbers and cover versions. The covers are of variable quality here, it should be stressed. The rendition of "Please Mr. Postman" is a wonder of control and vibrancy, both Lennon, on lead, and McCartney and Harrison, on harmonies/backing vocals, starring. Their interpretation of "Money (That's What I Want)", packs a considerable punch, if less immediately likeable than some of their other covers.

The version of "Roll Over Beethoven" feels rather perfunctory and uninspired, but one wonders how different it might have turned out had McCartney or Lennon taken the lead vocal. "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" is interpreted with great acuity and restraint, once again the voices blend and intertwine beautifully. The group seemed especially suited to covering songs in this style or sub-genre.

For all its status as a song which became a Rolling Stones single, "I Wanna Be Your Man" is rather turgid, and helps complete the complement of filler. It is not surprising that the lads felt no qualms about "giving away" this song to their nearest British competitors.

"Devil In Her Heart" is minor but enjoyable, with some pleasing harmonies and chord changes. The Beatles in their element in many ways.  "Not A Second Time" is a fascinating and mildly "experimental" creation which is often forgotten, but it exudes in a quiet way some of those qualities which would soon place The Beatles well beyond the reach of most of their contemporaries.

So to sum up, With The Beatles is an advance on its predecessor, even it it less enjoyable and exuberant in an immediate sense. The musicians sound less anxious to please, having surmounted some of the pressing obstacles on the first record. The signs of their more folk-rock-orientated and acoustic phase, which was only months in the future, are not really there, but this only underscores the feverish and dynamic nature of the Sixties and the Beatles' artistic development.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The First World War - John Keegan

John Keegan's book The First World War is an authoritative examination of the 1914-18 conflict. It focuses primarily on military strategy and tactics, and contains relatively little material about the "home front", or the social and economic aspects of the war.

The writing style struck me as rather awkward, and for my own personal tastes lacks a certain fluency. However, the author's grasp of military matters and geopolitics is impressive, and this gives the book its main strengths.

Keegan has some interesting things to say about the circumstances under which war broke out, and about the factors which generated the fear and insecurity which sparked the catastrophe. He also guides the reader through the bewildering course of events on the Eastern Front and in Russia in 1917-18. The demise of Imperial Germany is related with a suitably dramatic flavour. People may not necessarily agree with all of the author's opinions, but they are carefully argued.

A recurring lament in this interpretation is the way in which Europe ruined itself at a time when it was flourishing in many respects. Some might justifiably contend that the fall of absolutism in Central Europe was a valuable and positive outcome, but the author points to the instability and resentment which these events triggered, with dreadful consequences in the years which followed. Change was not allowed to arrive "organically", perhaps?

Some of Keegan's viewpoints about the conduct of Allied generals, and also his conclusions on certain political developments, will probably not be fashionable amongst some 21st century observers. He seems to me to adopt a pragmatic but humane approach, and at several points in the book he appears to take a stab at "abstract" theories, both military and political.

The sense of pointless waste of lives pervades these pages, as it does with most accounts of the war. A continent seemingly intent on self-destruction, although the author, as I interpreted it, attributed the root causes to the ambition and vanity of one man (Kaiser Wilhelm II), whose actions and threats prompted much of the distrust and delusive alliance-building. The regularly quoted casualty statistics are sobering in the extreme.

The final paragraph ends the book on a rather enigmatic but reflective note.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Byzantium - The Surprising Life of A Medieval Empire - Judith Herrin

I have always been fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. It held a certain mystique, partly because I knew relatively little about it. Judith Herrin's book serves as a good introduction, and more.

This is not an exhaustive chronological history - the author examines various instructive aspects of Byzantium in a digestible and entertaining format.  I derived from it an appreciation of how the empire regarded itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, as well as being the descendant of ancient and classical Greece, and how these factors, together with the co-existence of pagan and Christian elements, helped to carve out a distinct identity of its own.

The author is keen to emphasize the role of Byzantium in allowing "Europe" the time and space to develop and breathe, by constituting a "shield" in the East. She also makes some interesting observations about how the empire's participation in religious matters, for instance with the Slavs, helped to shape the future make-up of the world farther north.

The ebb and flow of the relationships between East and West is deftly and accessibly outlined, even if some of the theological struggles and disputes seem obscure and bewildering to a modern reader. Above all, this book details how Byzantium constantly reinvented itself, and adapted to new challenges and to the emergence of new influences and threats.

Occasionally the legacy of the empire is placed in a modern context, and there is recurrent reference to archaeological finds, and to the signs, reminders and remnants of Byzantium's existence and vitality which still remain today. The author warms to the task of addressing and analyzing the vehement criticism which the empire was subjected to after its demise, especially during the Enlightenment.

As so often happens with these matters, my opinion of the Byzantine world has actually diminished as a consequence of learning more about it.  Dynamic and idiosyncratic it may have been, but the fact that it was influential and intriguing does not obscure some things which seem less agreeable. One is left feeling that the world had even regressed in some respects since the classical era. Byzantium did not seem to fully incorporate some of the more progressive features of the civilizations which it claimed to be the successor of.

Whatever one's personal opinion of the "goodness" or otherwise of the empire, though, this is a well-written and thoughtful introduction to the subject.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection is a philosophical novel by Leo Tolstoy. It chronicles the efforts of a Russian nobleman to atone for his previous misdeeds towards a young woman, who has found herself in prison. The protagonist, Nekhlyudov, blames himself for her fall from grace and her later incarceration.

As Nekhlyudov tries to help Maslova, he becomes acutely aware of the injustice, cruelty and corruption around him, and this ensures that his mission extends beyond mere personal redemption.

I had not read any Tolstoy since my teens (War And Peace), and the consensus seems to me that this later effort, Resurrection, is not as "literary" as some of his earlier novels, with less depth in terms of storyline and characterizations. It does act as a platform for the author to expound some of his political beliefs (by this time he was a Christian anarchist).

I was drawn to this work in part because of my own interest in the economic theories of Henry George, to which Tolstoy had become an enthusiastic adherent.  The book, though, does not go into as much detail about the workings of Georgism as I had been led to expect.

Resurrection might not be on a par in artistic terms with Tolstoy's acknowledged masterpieces, but I found the story quite absorbing, and the subject matter should tug at the conscience of most people. Some of the passages concerning the conditions endured by the prisoners are genuinely disturbing and moving.  Also, Nekhlyudov's interactions with Maslova are quite complex, and how one interprets and gauges their attitudes to each other at various stages adds to the interest.

It is possible to argue I think that there is not sufficient space in the novel to fully explore how the Nekhlyudov character arrived at his world-view - it seems that even before his liaison with Maslova he was harbouring grave misgivings about "the system", and at the disparity between the luxury enjoyed by his own class and the plight of the downtrodden. On the other hand, his indignation at what he witnesses, and his energetic moves to intervene, help to propel the story.

I found highly interesting the descriptions of some of the less appetizing representatives of the ruling classes and the bureaucracy, and the way in which their attitudes of arrogance and indifference compounded Nekhlyudov's disaffection with the milieu with which he had hitherto been closely connected.

So, Resurrection is an interesting read.  The world may have changed considerably since this was written in the late 19th century, but the broader issues which it examines can, with some imagination, be transferred to modern times.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stalker (1979 film)

Having been gripped by Solaris, I moved on to watch another of Andrei Tarkovsky's most acclaimed works, Stalker, released in 1979.

The storyline revolves around a group of men who undertake an expedition to a region known as The Zone. Within The Zone is a room which supposedly has the capacity to fulfill people's innermost desires. What follows is an absorbing and intense series of ruminations about the room and its implications and meaning, with an emotional and intellectual depth which will tax the viewer's brain, but at the same time will be immensely rewarding.

The early portion of the movie has a bleak and ascetic flavour, and this atmosphere scarcely relents over the full duration. Even more than Solaris, this picture probes the very essence of human nature and its vagaries. Matters of perception, truth, honesty and sincerity are examined. "The Room", and its presence, certainly prompt questions concerning what we truly need or want, and how our consciousness may impact on certainties, and prevent us from ascertaining when we are being manipulated, misled or exploited.

Many thoughts, some less than comforting, emerge from the film's subject matter. We chase our dreams despite the perils and the pitfalls. The existence of  "The Room", or its equivalents, drives us on - the mere thought or notion of being fulfilled. At the same time, could we be happier by neglecting some impulses, and simply live in the present moment, savouring things for their own sake?  In this respect, The Zone may be interpreted as a microcosm for how we live our lives, and what we put ourselves through, the thrill of the chase keeping us going. As The Zone is a hostile and stark place, some might see it as a very apt metaphor for the wider world.

My interpretation might be wishful thinking, but strikes a chord with some of my recent reflections. We don't appreciate what is all around us or right under our noses, or appreciate what we can derive from those things. People striving to be benevolent or altruistic miss the point, in failing to see the basics, the root issues.

The movie also contains some periods of relative inactivity, affording the watcher space to think and reflect. The dialogue warrants close scrutiny, and when I watched the film I marveled at it.

The "something to aim for" is abstract. In contemplating the notion of "free will", we must accept how much we are estranged from our true feelings and needs. It is the hope that kills us. Human nature defeats us, and it is surely preferable to live life as a series of small steps, being mindful and extracting the most from each second, minute, hour, day. We should seek to transcend our nature this way, rather than strive for the unattainable and emerge disappointed.  All easier said than done, however.

Stalker, with a suitably eerie soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev, is a gripping, if unsettling, watch.