24 November 2007

Charlie Brooker - Dawn of the Dumb

Charlie Brooker is a TV previewer and columnist for the Guardian. He may also be one of the funniest writers in England. His attitude is of misanthropy and bile, and his style is frequently profane, but I found myself laughing out loud on almost every other page of this collection.

The collection alternates his Screen Burn columns for the Guardian Guide, which I read regularly, and his weekly G2 columns, which I don't, and so were new to me. Much of the TV stuff is about trash - Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity, X Factor - which he skewers with a fascinated awe at the idiocy and grossness of the participants. As I don't watch any of these (any more), I ended up skimming many of these articles, although they were still funny even when I didn;t get the references.

He has a great talent for using exactly the right metaphor, often an obscene one. He describes Piers Morgan as 'looking twice as smug as a man who's just learnt to fellate himself', which is pretty apt on many levels. In fact, I could pull quotes at random from the book, it's full of great ones. Even the index is funny. Scanning through, I came across 'motherfuckers' (as you would, to which the reference is 'see psychics'. Under 'cunts' it goes 'see complete and utter cunts.' 'Complete and utter cunts - see psychics.'


22 November 2007

Nick Foulkes - Dancing into Battle

This is subtitled 'A social history of the battle of Waterloo', and as such deals very little with the battle itself, and almost entirely with the social environment of Brussels in 1815. Using first hand sources such as diaries and letters, Foulkes recreates the relationships and explains why so many of England's aristocratic families were living just 25 miles from one of the biggest and most important battles in history.

I had heard about the Duchess of Richmond's ball tangentially - it was a legendary event, held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, from which many soldiers went into action still in evening dress. It features in Vanity Fair, which I've read, long ago, and Childe Harold, which I haven't. David Miller produced a book on the ball in 2005, well researched down to analysing which crops had been most favoured by invitations.

Foulkes doesn't get so close in his descriptions, he provides more of an overview of the dramatis personae, and of their personalities. Wellington's consideration of his public reputation is shown - while he may have been apprehensive at the coming clash with Napoleon, he displayed an unflappable confidence. Foulkes suggests that Wellington had become aware of his significance to the British - even greater than his tactical or leadership qualities, his very presence gave the British extra belief. After the battle, he credited the win in part to his appearance on the battlefield at critical moments, and he may have been right.

Wellington's political beliefs, as reactionary as they come, underpin this history. He believed that only the aristocracy could be effective soldiers, and disdained professional (ie trained) soldiers, such as the artillery. Riding to hounds was adequate training for battle, and many of the battle descriptions written by the participants are in terms of hunts. Much of the pre-battle assembling in Brussels was in the form of London social occasions - balls and banquets, a whole class transplanted across the Channel.

But why were they there? Largely to take advantage of cheaper rents, and to escape creditors - many of the aristocracy had become involved in gambling around that time - but also to take advantage of peace in Europe for the first time in a decade to have a look abroad. Napoleon's escape from Elba took everyone by surprise - not least Wellington, busy in Vienna negotiating the treaty to divide Europe - and the speed of his advance on Paris more so.

Foulkes is very good on the attitudes of the English to their hosts, and to the displaced French court, using his sources wittily. Particularly memorable is the Duc de Berri not even causing the English soldiers to stop cleaning their kit, never mind be on parade for his review, once they realised he wasn't THE Duke. It is occasionally hard to remember which aristo is which - there are several Carolines - but the observation of their little parochialisms is entertaining.

As the imminence of conflict becomes apparent, Brussels becomes frantic with new forces arriving from Britain, some of the residents leaving, and Prussian and British forces requisitioning properties, in different styles. Foulkes doesn't question the reports of Prussian behaviour being more akin to an occupying army, and attributes the different attitudes of the national armies to the characters and examples of their commanders - Wellington and Blucher.

Foulkes doesn't deal much with the battle itself, instead referring the reader to more focused histories such as a recent one by Andrew Roberts, but does follow the fates of the notable persons the book highlights. The Earl of Uxbridge, possibly the most dashing British soldier of his age, leader of the cavalry, famously lost his leg while in conversation with Wellington, and Foulkes puts his reputation in context - he'd scandalously seduced Wellington's sister-in-law a decade before, and was a very famous figure even before the battle. The place where his leg was amputated became part of the Waterloo tourist trail, his leg even buried in the garden and marked.

The slaughter of the battle itself was horrendous - supposedly it was one of the most intense battles ever, in terms of the numbers of men in such a small area - and many casualties were still lying, alive, on the battlefield a week after being hurt. Most poignant was Wellington's quartermaster, chosen despite his protests because the man to be appointed was in Canada, who arrived from his honeymoon, with his new wife, and was killed in the battle. Of course there were many thousands more deaths, each with a similar story, and Foulkes's focus on the aristocracy feels a bit limited, but that's the significance of the battle - the last in which the upper class of Britain played such an overwhelming part.


17 November 2007

Stefan Fatsis - Word Freak

Fatsis is a Wall Street Journal correspondent, specialising in sport and business. He started writing a quirky article about the world of professional Scrabble, and realised it was a fertile enough topic to expand into a book - but only if he participated himself. So he spent a year endeavouring to get to the standard of the best in the world, and compete in the top division at the national championships in the US.

His start isn't auspicious. He plays some trial games, with top quality players giving him tips, and when one says he could have played 'CONGER' or CRONE' instead of the word he played, he admits he didn't know either word. At this point I considered that his basic vocabulary was so low (especially considering his profession) that no learning of word lists could possibly make up for it.

But he isn't deterred, and learns the 2 and 3 letter words, the essential building blocks of Scrabble. The main tactics of professional Scrabble though are to keep the board tight and build a rack so that a bingo (a word containing all 7 letters on a player's rack) can be played, gaining 50 bonus points. A lot of the book the techniques several top players have for learning the 7 and 8 letter words. It's meant to make them sound endearingly loopy and obsessed, which it does, but it's also rather dull.

The mechanical nature of the rote learning and application does seem to take the genius out of the game, but there is a lot of tactical nous required too. But mostly, it's a game for obsessives, dominated by oddball men rather than women, misfits, some of whom struggle to hold down a job. Fatsis is good at presenting these characters, as you'd expect from a journalist, and he makes friends with many of them, who encourage him in his ambition. It's funny on occasion, a little tragic, and not quite as fascinating as Fatsis believes it to be. But then, he's drawn into the obsession, which requires that he loses some perspective.


13 November 2007

Guy de Maupassant - A Woman's Life

Maupassant is known as a short story writer, but he wrote 6 novels, of which this is possibly his best, by reputation. It's a simple story, of a woman who marries when young, has a difficult marriage to a man who betrays her, and a son who wastes all the family money.

It's a rather depressing story, expertly told. Many of Maupassant's stories have the same cynicism about life, the cruelty of events and of people. This novel is full of his greatest virtues - the attention to emotional nuance, the precision and conciseness of the prose, and the indulgence in lyrical beauty - which mean reading it is a delight, even though the emotions evoked are of pity.

The book depicts a fatalistic attitude. Things happen to Jeanne, the innocent are victims of the ruthless, the avaricious and the careless. There's much of that in Balzac too, but he has active protagonists, whereas Jeanne, the woman of the title, is passive, helplessly accepting life's buffeting. She's a pathetic heroine, but we have sympathy for her because of her simplicity - her naive love for her husband and her son leads to her ruin.

Her life is contrasted with that of her previous maid, Rosalie, who she grew up with, and who was seduced by and made pregnant by Jeanne's husband. Rosalie's toughness and rough honesty is part of Maupassant's characterisation of Norman peasantry, who feature in many of his stories, often as comic butts, but here with respect and affection.

Maupassant's attention to minor characters is notable - Aunt Lison, the old maid, is frequently present, but never noticed, and the small cruelty of Jeanne laughing at the idea that anyone might consider marrying her is very touching. This is typical of his short stories, which occasionally are based around just one example of an exquisite moment.


9 November 2007

Byron Farwell - Burton

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of his, or any age. As an explorer he discovered Lake Tanganyika, as an adventurer he performed the Haj to Medina and Mecca, in disguise and under great peril of discovery, as a linguist he mastered over 25 languages, and as a translator he produced the definitive edition of the Arabian Nights. Yet he never found the acclaim he felt was his due, and suffered professionally due to his arrogance and stubbornness, spending the last part of his career in the backwater of a consulship in Trieste.

There's lots of research material available for a biographer as Burton was immensely prolific, publishing about 25 volumes of travel journals, most of which weren't well written, and didn't sell particularly well. Farwell uses all this material, and much more, and is quite condescending in the appendix about previous biographers who didn't read everything Burton published (although he admits much of it isn't very readable) He plainly has a lot of affection for his subject, while admitting he was not always a very likeable man, and was rather self-destructive in his arrogance.

Burton is most famous now for his translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra - the former was a huge success, partly no doubt because of the sexual content. Farwell deals with that, but, rather like Burton's wife, who burnt much of his diaries and unpublished works after his death, he is a little prudish about the sexual texts, such as the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden, and doesn't much discuss this aspect of Burton's career. Farwell first published this biography in 1962, and he's plainly an old-fashioned colonialist, recognising the bravery and restlessness of Burton, but not his more esoteric tastes.

Burton was very remarkable in many ways, driven by a need to know, and by an unsappable energy, that meant he was always active, learning languages, writing up his trips, planning more trips. For several years he managed to persuade the Army to fund his travels, being nominally an officer in the Indian service; later he joined the Diplomatic Service, in Brazil and Trieste, but spent more time away from his posts than doing his duties, to the frustration of his employers.

Burton's methods were extraordinary - he developed a system that enabled him to learn languages within 2 months each. He would devote himself to vocabulary learning, carrying word lists with him during the day and devoting several hours each day to studying. He would also immerse himself in the culture in a curious way, setting up a market stall in the town bazaar, dressing up as a local, and talking to those around him. He would be able to improve his accent, and find out as much as possible of local customs. Periodically, he would go to Bombay to take the Army language exams, in Punjabi and Gujerati and Hindi and several others, and inevitably come top.

One would imagine that these methods, the languages and his travels would lead him to a particular affinity with the people he studied, as it has with many travel writers, but this appears not to be the case. Burton was a man of his age, an extreme one certainly, but he contained all the prejudices of the Empire to the extreme. While he could no doubt affect sympathy while in disguise, never more so than on his perilous Haj to Mecca and Medina, dressed as an Afghan, he was in reality very dismissive of most non-English. His interests were wide, but the objective was the accumulation and display of knowledge.

He did both in a haphazard way. Supposedly his travel writing was more or less a transcription from his notebooks, in the order that he considered them, and also full of his prejudices, rants and digressions. He made important journeys, particularly in Africa, but didn't have either the nous or inclination for active self-publicity, and the ruthlessness to see the main chance.

Because of this he lost the opportunity to discover Lake Victoria and the long-sought source of the Nile, which Speke, on a diversion from their joint trip to Lake Tanganyika, found and took the credit for. Burton never recovered from this, and bore a lasting grudge against Speke, refusing for many years to believe that Lake Victoria was as big as claimed, or was the source of the Nile. This enmity was typical of Burton, whose 'career' as an explorer ran out of steam relatively early, and who wasn't suited for routine or chains of management. He deserves to be remembered though, as he is, for his translations, of the Arabian Nights and Camoens.

I picked up my edition, a Penguin reprint from the 1990s, secondhand for £2, and it was intermittently inspiring and fascinating. It led me to visit his grave in Mortlake, a tomb in the shape of a tent, erected by his wife, and also including her coffin. Here it is: