Sun, 29 Jun 2014
Life After Life

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

When I bought this book, looking for something of a change, all I knew about it was that it was highly regarded and had won a prize (Costa Award). I don't think I'd heard of Kate Atkinson. However, I was not long into it before realising that it promised to be one of the best I'd ever read. This doesn't happen very often and nearer the end, I really didn't want it to finish.

A very finely told story of a girl and her family, the effects of the First World War and then the Second. The characters, and particularly the family life, are so beautifully realised. And the big difference to Ursula's life is that it ends, very early. But then starts again. Ends, Starts. And every time her path through life is different and we see and learn new things from different perspectives.

The book is very funny, as well as sad, even grim on occasion. It is also unforgettable and extremely moving. I can't recommend it enough. It's a book I look forward to reading again.

Mon, 16 Jun 2014
The Valiant and the Damned

Above, a wall display in at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition The Great War in Portraits. This is The Valiant and the Damned room.

Cutting across nationality, age, gender, background, role and responsibility, the group below includes medal-winners, heroes and celebrities, interspersed with those wounded, killed in action or shot at dawn. Between these poles of experience are poets, artists, memoirists, nurses, conscientious objectors, representatives of the British Commonwealth and those exemplifying the important part played by women.

The gallery web site has an interactive page where you can select each person and read a bit of background. Some famous names here, including Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Von Richthofen and Mata Hari. Also some unusual ones, like a Maori and an Afro-Caribbean officer.

On the right, a German soldier wears an "improvised gas mask".

The exhibition finished on Sunday 15th June and was free. Small but worthwhile. The web site has some very good content. As well as the Valiant and the Damned page above, there is also a Curator's Tour.

Sun, 15 Jun 2014
Bring Up the Bodies, RSC

The second of the two Mantel stage adaptations, after Wolf Hall a couple of weeks ago.

I was not disappointed. This was another masterful production, wonderful script and great acting. The RSC and everyone involved have made a real masterpiece. Laugh out loud funny at times, at others a dread horror at what's happening on stage (a silent theatre, pin-drop).

Telling the story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the machinations that take place are nothing if not like the Italian Mafia as fictionalised in Coppola's Godfather films. Cromwell is charming and witty but he is also cold, calculating and ruthless as he tries to do the King's bidding in the Tudor court. He has to have his wits about him because the double-dealing, plotting and hatreds run deep.

As the play reaches its climax, one starts to feel the chill as we get to see some of the darker methods at play, as Cromwell works his way around the Queen's inner circle, probing for information, weakness. We also start to see bit more of the child-like Jane Seymour, a girl Henry's become infactuated with: no artifice here, no worldliness at all it seems. Jane is portrayed as painfully shy, empty-headed and witless, She doesn't deserve what's in store: we know how this story ends.

Man is wolf to man.

Fri, 13 Jun 2014
Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark

Who started the First World War? This is something that Christopher Clark, an Australian historian, considers in his recent book The Sleepwalkers. This year is the centenary of the start of the "war to end all wars" and his book has been very well received.

So who did start the war? Lots of people, some eminent, have expended a great deal of time, money and effort trying to determine the answer to that. It's proven very hard to nail down. For a start, this is not an exact science, but a lot of pre-war action and debate has been hidden, obfuscated or forgotten as well.

Clark assigns blame very liberally, with no one really understanding what a calamity the war would be, and no one realising how long it would last. The world was different and the power blocs were increasinly locked into alliances that set rigid "red lines", promising aggressive action (i.e. war) that should never have been countenanced before. Much less flexibility. Everyone seemed to consider themselves as having their backs to the wall and seeing their behaviour as defensive, even as their armies crossed national borders.

Like many boys, I was fascinated with war, battles and the two big wars of the 20th Century. But the books I read were much more interested in the actual fighting of the war than their causes. In fact, my most abiding memory now of this history is more the literary, and the great war poets like Wilfred Owen.

This book definitely shatters a few myths however.

The biggest one is that Germany was the primary cause and the major aggressor. It is hard to read this book and still believe that. Although it certainly bore much blame, in the hierarchy of causes, France and Russia sit as high, or even higher. And let's not forget Serbia, a nation dreaming of a mythical past glory almost within its grasp again, reuniting a Southern Slavdom under its leadership. Willing to use every underhand and odious means to progress this e.g. The Black Hand.

Yes, lots of blame to pass around. A good book and a useful reminder that history and propaganda are sometimes far too comfortable bed-fellows.

Fri, 06 Jun 2014
Wolf Hall, RSC

People might know how highly I rate Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Amongst the best books I've read.

Earlier this week I went to see a stage production of Wolf Hall at the Aldwych Theatre. It was superb. Back when I first heard of the planned theatre shows, I worried that an abridgement and transfer wouldn't work in the theatre. Luckily I was very wrong. The reviews that started to appear were all so glowing, I was completely mistaken in worrying about the stage version, and should have trusted the skill of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The books are beautifully written, a real pleasure to read, and the highlight of the stage play is how well they has been adapted by Mike Poulton. Alongside such a good script, the acting was also first class.

Having bought a ticket for Wolf Hall, I've now got one for Bring Up the Bodies in a week. If you get a chance to see these, take it!