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The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11
by Lawrence Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on Al-Qaeda, 14 Nov 2014
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It's not often deserving books win the Pulitzer. This is one of them.

Here, Wright tells the story of Al-Qaeda's birth and its long, knotted road to the 9/11 attacks. It's as readable as any thriller, but backed up by painstaking research, some taken from files on a recovered Al-Qaeda computer.

Wright reminds you just how improbable human beings are, and their history. The teenage Bin Laden was addicted to the TV show Bonanza, and, when holed up in Afghan caves, enjoyed watching his younger children play Nintendo. The obsessive FBI agent who spent the last years of his career trying and failing to convince the U.S. government of the threat Bin Laden posed was later found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, where he'd gone to work after being 'retired' from the bureau. Al-Qaeda operatives whooped for joy after purchasing what they thought was enriched uranium, only to learn it was merely Red Mercury - the nuclear world's equivalent of Fool's Gold.

I also recommend Wright's recent book, a blistering expose of Scientology.


Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014
Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014
by Clive James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lightning before death, 1 Nov 2014
You're a dying man. You want to sum up a lifetime of reading and writing about poetry, and you have to do it less than 250 pages. The stakes could not be higher. Thankfully, James rises the challenge, often in language that rises to the status of what it exalts. Of the penultimate line in Shakespeare's 129th sonnet, he writes 'Reversing the two words "well knows" so as to wind the spring at the end of the line gives a reserve of energy to launch the last line like a crossbow bolt'. He can get a complex argument into a simple-seeming joke. Martian poetry had its moments, but was 'all climax and no build-up [...] after Martian poetry became a drug on the market it grew apparent that might be better to have the narrator rowing out in his little boat to catch the mackerel, before the porpoises dramatically appear.'

Some have complained that James includes too few women poets in his personal list of greats (which rather ignores the space he devotes to Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath). As complaints go, that isn't as reasonable as it first sounds: personal choices are precisely that, and not subject to either quotas or the kind of people keen on imposing them.

The same goes for self-consciously 'experimental' poetry. James fully appreciates the innovations a Hopkins or a Whitman bring to the table, and is only too aware that bad verse is never improved by strict form, but (echoing Larkin, perhaps in many ways the hero of this book) never lets us forget that readability isn't something distinct from intelligence, but part of it. If that might sound a tad redundant to British readers, it's a point well worth stating.

The essays don't so much repeat his points but deepen them, and often challenge received thoughts - that Les Murray's recent work has added nothing to his stature, say, or that the best of John Updike's poetry was in his novels. I'm docking him a star for the moments when James forgets he is addressing a living audience instead of one made of strawmen, and which should have been edited out at an early stage. I have always found Christian Wiman's prose rather arrogant, and his poetry short of James' grand claims for it. That aside, this is a punchy, vigorous collection, and the best of it will be hard to improve on. If James' recent poems have been any indication, especially 'Japanese Maple', his next collection will be his monument.


Looking for a Ship
Looking for a Ship
by John Mcphee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.80

5.0 out of 5 stars One of his best, 26 Oct 2014
This review is from: Looking for a Ship (Paperback)
When I introduce John McPhee's work to other British readers - usually after they've outgrown Hunter S. Thompson, and junked Tom Wolfe - I urge them to start with Oranges, and work their way through his work from there onwards, but saving this volume for last.

Annals of the Former World might be the book that won McPhee the Pulitzer, but I still think this is his best single work. Informative, succinct and written in McPhee's unflashy, elegant style, it places you straight in the mind and nervous system of a merchant seaman, and imparts a surprising amount of history in a short space. Its success at walking in another man's shoes should be the envy of many novelists.


Selected Poems
Selected Poems
by Don Paterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Fear not: this is spiritual transport / albeit the less elevated sort, 12 Oct 2014
This review is from: Selected Poems (Paperback)
Don Paterson's first Selected Poems seems a long time coming. Simon Armitage published his first book only four years before Paterson's first, yet published his Selected Poems with Faber over a decade ago. You could make a case that Armitage is more prolific, and that would carry some weight. You could make another case saying Paterson is better, and that might carry more. Most other British poets are the warm-up. Paterson is the main event.

He'd probably swing for me for saying this, but it's hard not to feel an almost paternal pride at seeing a writer whose work you've followed since his first book do as well as Paterson has. Not to belittle either the awards or the big names that have tuned in to him since, but it's the feeling of the deserving getting its due that sticks best.

I should own up to a fudge here: that line in the subject heading, and the poem it's taken from, isn't included in this volume. But, as with a greatest hits album, that's one of the incidental pleasures of a Selected Poems: guessing which ones will make the cut, which won't, and seeing the final result. I'm happy to note only three I'd expected to see aren't included ('Graffito' and 'Seed' from Nil Nil, 'Prologue' from God's Gift to Women); and happier still to note the 'Alexandrian Library' series has been left out.

What's been left in tells an interesting, between-the-lines story. The bite and brashness of the early work is wholly intact, vivid and alive in 'Filter', the closing stanza of 'Nil Nil', and my enduring favourite 'An Elliptical Stylus', which sets up the tale, breaks the fourth wall in the middle, and closes with a fist shaken at the audience:

'But if you still insist on resonance -
I'd swing for him, and every other ****
happy to let my father know his station,
which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.'

Most great writers are two people, if not more: their art grows out of the splits in their personalities. The man that 'tilted the bottle towards the sun / until it detonated with light / my lips pursed like a trumpeter's' is also the man that urges you (twice) that none of this matters. Among other things, it's that split between Paterson's erudition and urge to demolish that charges the poems.

The oeuvre, too. Not that the early work lacked tenderness, but the further you go, the more you see it flower in the poems, trusted to stand on its own without getting either too misty-eyed or too wised-up, especially in 'Advice to Young Husbands', 'A Private Bottling', 'Waking with Russell', 'The Swing', 'Why Do You Stay Up So Late' and 'Correctives':

'The shudder in my son's left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands

the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand's kindness to the other.'

Keeping it all in balance, somewhere in the middle, is Paterson's sense of fun. The playfulness isn't all surface, as with the typography (as in the ones taken from The Eyes, such as 'Sigh' and 'Poem', the latter a swift, perfect little fusion of content and style); the subject ('Two Trees') and including a poem in name only and probably the shortest one in the language ('On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him').

This volume - witty, vigorous - has been long overdue.


Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014
Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014
by Simon Armitage
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Real Boy Wonder, 11 Oct 2014
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When I pass a shelf and see a Selected Poems by either Heaney, Hughes or Hill, I somehow feel that they've always been there. On seeing this, the second Selected Poems from a poet whose career began when I was 8, that feeling isn't there. A rather unique kind of buzz, however, is.

I won't pretend Simon Armitage's background didn't help put that there. Armitage actually went and saw something of the real world (he was a probation officer for seven years) before setting it down in mature work. Although interested in poems that want to crack the code for The Self, Identity, etc. as well as ones that want to sing songs and tell stories, he ultimately preferred the latter. He didn't think the more unreadable a poem was, the better it was by default. For the winner, he wasn't just another product fresh off the Oxbridge Assembly Line, or even from the South. That's the kind of biography I'd like to see on the inside of more books, and Faber ones in particular.

The volume is fatter than you might expect, even for a poet as prolific as Armitage. As well as selections from his last three collections, there are excerpts from his growing list of translations, work that previously appeared only in limited editions, and even three poems from his next Faber title. Not that Armitage has ever wanted for versatility, but it's a pleasing reminder of how many plates he can spin.

Before reading, I made a mental note of all the poems I expected to see, and tallied up how many actually did. Long-time favourites like 'It Ain't What You Do, It's What It Does To You', 'Great Sporting Moments: The Treble', 'The Two of Us', 'The Tyre', 'I Say I Say I Say' and 'Poem' (from Kid) all re-appear, as does 'To His Lost Lover', which still strikes me as Armitage's best poem. Surprisingly, other gems like 'Lines Thought to Have Been Written on the Eve of the Execution of a Warrant for His Arrest' and 'To Poverty' don't make the grade a second time around. I said this when the last volume came out, but I still would have loved to see more poems from his first collection Zoom! (such as 'Dykes', 'The Night Shift' and 'Somewhere Along the Line').

Like a singer varying the set list for each leg of a tour, Armitage has tweaked his selections. As an example, 'And You Know What Thought Did' has been dropped, while two more ('Phenomenology' and 'Don't Blink') from Zoom! have been added. With the exception of Moon Country (which now contributes two poems rather than just one), the number from the later volumes has reduced, including the long sequence 'Five Eleven Ninety-Nine'.

Of the work since 2001, I think it's more uneven. All writers produce work that's outstanding, middling or plain minging, of course. From The Universal Home Doctor, you get poems of the calibre of 'All For One', 'Birthday' and 'The Shout', but from then on, the quality control wobbles. 'The Spelling' moves, but the overall selection from Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid lacks the power or quotability of the earlier work. I can appreciate the integrity of a writer trying to do something completely different from anything he's done before, but I don't think the results from Seeing Stars, unwisely included here, come off.

Thankfully, things not only pick up from here - they soar. The excerpts from 'Black Roses - The Killing of Sophie Lancaster' are crisp, cinematic, memorable, and urgent. The selections from In Memory of Water are among his very best Armitage. Armitage is usually known for his medium-sized poems that tell a story, often a comic one. But it's interesting to note how when he brings out his two-line stanzas, all excess baggage is dropped, and they glow with tenderness. Within the flinty joker that speaks your one-liner, there's a lyric poet trying to get out. After cameo appearances in 'To His Lost Lover', it's nice to see him main-eventing beautiful poems like 'Snow'. I hope to see even more of him next time around.


Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
by James Booth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Larkin Again, 4 Oct 2014
When Letters to Monica was published in 2011, you might have been forgiven for thinking the stink left after the publication of Larkin's biography and selected letters had long dispersed. After Motion's biography followed Richard Bradford's, then Maeve Brennan's memoir, to say nothing of a steady flow of intelligent criticism. Larkin topped The Times' list of the best 50 writers since World War 2; his Collected Poems secured a place in John Carey's Pure Pleasure, a list of the best 50 books of the twentieth century. After a brief but furious debate about the man's character, it seemed, the work stood inviolate as ever. Was another biography, then, seeking to 'reinstate a man misunderstood', necessary?

Booth, unsurprisingly, thinks so. His credentials - at first - seem right. Booth was a colleague of Larkin's at the University of Hull for seventeen years, has published two critical studies on Larkin, is the Literary Adviser to the Philip Larkin Society, co-edits its journal, and saw an edition of Larkin's early fiction into print. His Larkin on Ice, presumably, is forthcoming.

Booth's credentials, while extensive, are also his major weakness. He writes as if Larkin's reputation was still locked away in a tower, awaiting the heroic Sir James to turn up and rescue it single-handed. Booth's constant finger-wagging at, variously, Larkin's women, friends, acquaintances, publishers, biographers, critics, together with the weather, Hull, London, the provinces, and readers of Larkin's poems besides Booth himself, is rather annoying.

To give credit where it's due, the biography pours more smoothly than any before it. Making the life of a partially deaf, unmarried, Hull-dwelling, near-hermit Librarian sound interesting is a feat by anyone's standards. Jargon, allowing for some technical words relating to the intricacies of meter and rhyme, is all but excluded. His comments on the poems are frequently incisive, and an improvement on those Archie Burnett devoted so much space to in the 2012 edition of Larkin's Collected Poems. One particularly remembers this one, on 'Here': 'Larkin pulls out all the organ-stops of rhyme and assonance to create a sumptuous music of consonant clusters and shifting vowels, unlike any else in his poetry.'

Booth is also to be praised for reminding the scolds - Tom Paulin, Lisa Jardine (though sadly not Bonnie Greer) - that the man they condemned as a racist hailed Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong as his artistic masters. Like Bradford before him, Booth points out that every instance of Larkin's supposed deep-seated racism was in the language he used to shock his unshockable friends, usually expressed in private correspondence. The letters were evidence of a voice modulating according to its receiver. As John Banville put it, they showed 'less the grimace of a bigot than a mischievously fashioned Halloween mask.' The porn - two samples of which are included in the photo section - seem as tame and quaint as Friday the 13th Part 1.

Booth's line goes wonky when it arrives at the subject of Larkin's women. Here, Booth's mission leads him into saying things not only dim, but borderline despicable. Just as the editors who turned down Larkin's early jottings have to be demonised for not recognising the Genius Among Us, Booth has to brand Larkin's women as grasping, hypocritical, fame-seeking, neurotic, and difficult, constantly making him 'the victim of the breadth and generosity of his sensibility and the narrowness of theirs.' Uh-huh.

I don't think it unfair to question Booth's critical judgment, and his bad habit of passing opinions off as indisputable facts. Remember the last stanza of 'High Windows'?

'Rather than words come the thought of High Windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And, beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.'

At the end of the draft version of the poem, Booth tells us, Larkin wrote as an alternative to the last three words 'and f*****g p***.' Booth says this has 'now become an inextricable part of the poem [How, given almost no one has seen this version of it?]; indeed it makes it a more profound work.' Why?

Booth also contradicts himself. In the introduction, he talks of a 'critical orthodoxy' (a rather odd, self-justifying term for 'an awful lot of readers that independently reached a common conclusion') that disliked Thwaite's decision to put Larkin's Collected Poems in chronological order. It has its uses, he says, for biographers - undoubtedly true. But for ordinary readers, that was no order at all. As Clive James, who is never referenced in the entire book, once put it, when a man is careful to arrange his works in a certain order, it is probably wiser to assume when he subtracts something he is adding to the arrangement. If Booth disagrees, he's entitled his opinion. What he isn't entitled to is patting himself on the back for pointing out the careful design Larkin imposed on his poems here, acting as if no one else has ever noticed this before, then berating people who prefer that order elsewhere. You can see why some are already saying James' review of Larkin's Collected Poems said more about Larkin and his work than Booth's two studies of the poet combined.

This is an enjoyable book in spite of itself, and despite its often misplaced zeal, I still think it worthy of any Larkin fan.


Hella Nation: In search of the lost tribes of America
Hella Nation: In search of the lost tribes of America
by Evan Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.51

5.0 out of 5 stars Malinowski Among The Meth-Heads, 27 July 2014
One of the best reads I've had in quite some time. There are other living US journalists worthy of an intelligent reader's attention - John McPhee, Eric Schlosser, David Remnick - but none as funny or as ferociously engaging as Evan Wright.

His work has picked up some lazy comparisons to that of Hunter S. Thompson - not always due to the Rolling Stone connection - but the comparison misleads. However wacky, deluded or bizarre his subjects (porn starlets, eco-terrorists, neo-Nazi's), the tale remains in the foreground, not the teller. Wright has a gift for the telling detail, whether comic or bittersweet, and the piercing phrase. Some favourites:

'A man next to me politely passed the mustard. The bottle was sticky with KY Jelly. I never attempted to eat on a porn shoot again.'

'Shayla's voice was gravelly and sweet, as if her vocal cords had been marinated in whiskey sours since puberty.'

'The owner of the breast, an amphetamine-thin brunette with a feathered biker-chick hairdo, solemnly thanks them [Motley Crüe] and declares she is heading straight to the tattoo parlour to have their signatures gone over in indelible skin ink.'

Wright's care for the people involved comes across too - quite an achievement under the circumstances, perhaps none more so than the pathetically stupid Hollywood agent Pat Dollard. Despite being a cocaine-addicted narcissist with no particular talent for anything, Dollard is somehow allowed to tag along with a band of US soldiers during the Iraq war, intent of showing the 'bedwetters' back home 'killing is one of the most sacred and noble greatest things to go on in the world'. One feels almost like cheering when that sacred and noble thing almost decorates the nearest wall with Dollard's brains, not via the enemy army but an American soldier fed up with his toxic presence.

If I have a complaint, it's a small one: the better stories are all at the front of the book, and in his longer pieces Wright has a tendency to go off on tangents just as the story needs to knit together for the finale.

Wright has also written a book called Generation Kill, about the second Iraq War. It's been compared to classics of war reportage such as Michael Herr's Dispatches - and more than lives up to it. I heartily recommend both.


Updike
Updike
by Adam Begley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'What a threadbare thing we make of life', 4 May 2014
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This review is from: Updike (Hardcover)
Borges once said of James Joyce that he was less a man of letters than an entire literature. If you wanted a sentence that sums up the career of John Updike - who published over fifty books over a long writing career and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - you'd struggle to dream up a better one than that.

Admittedly, 'struggle' isn't the first word you associate with Updike's career, but after reading Adam Begley's assured, informative biography, you might well modify that judgement. Updike was the only child of poor, Depression-era parents. The creator of juvenile basketball ace Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom doesn't sound like the type of kid you'd pick for the school team. Young Updike was gawky, shy with a bad stutter. Besides psoriasis, Updike also suffered frequent stomach pains, hay fever, and his hair would, at times, suddenly fall out in clumps. Home life was idyllic but secluded after his Mother moved the family to a farm. If you overlook Mother's mood swings, lack of ability for farming, producing publishable manuscripts, and tendency to ban her little treasure from seeing girls, she was undeniably devoted to pushing her son towards his literary destiny. In an interview, she talked of receiving 'a premonition' that if she married Updike's father, 'the results would be amazing'. She was not exaggerating.

Those results were longer coming than you might think. Updike entered Harvard on a scholarship and remained a hard-working student, but often felt out of his depth among the rich, privately-educated boys who formed the bulk of the studentry. His repeated submissions to the New Yorker came back with depressing regularity. Applying for Archibald MacLeish's creative writing class, he was rejected twice; homesickness struck him dysentery. Somehow, as if by magic, things suddenly began to go right. Updike met a girl, continued to produce and send out cartoons, poems and stories, and saw his humourous pieces published in a college periodical. A publisher, keen on those student pieces, asked him if he'd care to submit something to them for publication. A short story first written in the classroom, submitted to the New Yorker largely unchanged, netted him not only an acceptance but, four months after its publication, a job offer at the magazine. The jammy sod married the girl, too.

Begley wisely focuses much attention on Updike's short stories, not just for practical reasons. (The New Yorker's 'whale sized' cheques financed Updike comfortably for the length of his writing life, ensuring he would never need a publisher's advance.) At their best, the stories are matchlessly sharp and poetic, but they also form a running commentary on Updike's life, from dreamy, precocious teenager to happily married father, from not-so-happily-married father to serial adulterer and beyond. Fiction isn't life, of course, but it's hard to deny that a great deal of life provided the blueprint for Updike's fiction. Like all literary biographers of merit, Begley does a tactful job of tying his subject's characters to the people that inspired them. (Sometimes those ties were too close: one of the husbands from the time Updike was writing Couples, who also happened to be a lawyer, very nearly sued him.) Updike asked for some of his rawest stories to be 'banked' by the New Yorker for publication years into the future, and the novel Marry Me, first written in the mid-sixties, was shelved for over a decade before seeing publication. Although 'the vessel of circumstantial facts is all invented', Updike wrote, 'the liquid contained may, if spilled soon, scald somebody'.

On the novels that follow, Begley makes a qualified case for Marry Me, and gives considerable space to Couples (which, we learn, made Updike over a million dollars, and saw his annual income rise from around $50,000 in one year to $410,000 in the next after the sale of the film rights). As is only proper, ample space is given to the Rabbit novels (though, oddly, little on Rabbit At Rest: a mistake, since it's the tetralogy's crowning achievement). Canny readers will have spotted Rabbit's predecessors in Updike's work, notably in the poem 'Ex-Basketball Player'. Now, we know Updike's editor, Katharine White, actively discouraged him from writing about people the New Yorker of the time looked down upon. She also told a friend, somewhat acidly, that fiction wasn't Updike's best vein, and wondered if he was 'too versatile for his own good'. Far from being a New Yorker 'creation', Updike's greatest fiction was created almost in defiance of it.

Begley knows when to trust the details, especially the small ones, and has room for the illuminating anecdote. For his first New Yorker story (out of 136) Updike was paid $490, $612.50 for his second and $826 for his third, at a time when his Father's annual salary amounted to $1,200. We may have noticed that Rabbit At Rest ends in Florida (where Rabbit was unsuccessfully trying to escape to at the end of Rabbit, Run), but we now know the city where he dies is named for the hero of one of his mother's unpublished novels. A celebrated piece on the famous baseball player Ted Williams was written only because Updike had called on a nearby mistress who wasn't at home.

To his credit, Begley doesn't indulge the biographer's vice of hagiography, but I think he is unduly harsh in places. Having established that Updike wanted to leave New York to avoid narrowing his fiction, Begley then snaps the verbal ruler on Updike's hand, then claiming instead that he did it solely to be 'a big fish in a small pond'. Writers, I think Begley will find, are a competitive lot, and often have grumpy spells, not just Updike. I doubt Updike actually did carry out a malicious act of literary vandalism when he described his Mother as an author on the dust jacket of one book, then called her 'an aspiring author' on its inside cover. I am not convinced by Begley's case for Updike's poetry, and I think he gives too little space to Updike's personal and professional relationship with John Cheever, and on the last three decades of Updike's life. (Admittedly, given his often unsparing depiction of Updike's second wife, there may be a good reason for that.)

I also wish that a man keen on overseeing a surge in Updike's posthumous reputation had used the most powerful weapon in his arsenal more often: namely, his language. A few sentences from the short stories, although unpacked well, simply won't do. Whether describing what passes through Rabbit's mind while jogging, the scratch of a key in a lock, the texture of human flesh or even a row of condoms at the local drugstore, Updike's writing makes you look at things as if they have never existed before. When people say Updike was a poet moonlighting as a novelist they pay him a sincere compliment, for his best work celebrates the ordinary, richly fulfilling its creator's aim of 'giving the mundane its beautiful due'. There will be other lives of Updike, but they will have to run fast to overtake this one.


The Faber Book of Utopias
The Faber Book of Utopias
by John Carey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Building Better Worlds, 5 April 2014
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Despite the title, this is a surprisingly grim work. The problem with utopias, as Carey points out, is they aim for perfection. That sounds noble, even benevolent - at first. But human beings are far from perfect, and so are the societies they build around them. A utopia cannot tolerate imperfections: they delay our progress to a better world, and bear down on the people who will achieve it. By necessity, that means wiping out an awful lot of people today for the benefit of people tomorrow.

Carey picks excerpts from a variety of works, many picking up on this paradox knowingly, some otherwise. The range is impressive: Homer, Tacitus, Sir Thomas More (of course), Andrew Marvell, B.F. Skinner, Hitler, Julian Barnes and many others.

Taken together, they're a bracing mixture of idealism and inhumanity. The theme of making people disappear is present even in Plato's The Republic, and is carried on by a disturbing number of others. There are methods other than killing, of course. Huxley and Skinner both describe worlds where criminality has been bred out by a programme of conditioning.

Carey's commentaries on each entry are lively, often with some licensed naughtiness. The World State from Brave New World wins praise as well as blame: they have eliminated crime, and managed the eternal problems of happiness, death, over population. The latter is crucial: the world's population is kept stable at around 2 billion. Our global population is due to reach 8.6 billion by 2025 - a number of people the Earth has never had to support before. How long this can carry on - and the changes to privacy and freedom - is a recurring question. (Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes is an especially dire vision of an overcrowded planet.)

For me, Julian Barnes' vision of Heaven (from the novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters) comes out as the best realised and executed. In Heaven, your food is perfect; your football team never loses; you have time to meet whoever you want, master every skill, craft or sport you choose, read every book, watch every film, and sleep with supermodels daily. It turns out there is still death, even in the afterlife. After a while, people ask - often beg - for oblivion, and get it. Shocked, Barnes' character asks how many people ask for this. Everyone, is the answer. It turns out that at an eternity of always getting what you want, in the end, has the same effect as getting nothing that you want. It's a uniquely human problem. Then again, it's one this book covers with envious range and thoughtfulness.


The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
by John Carey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'A history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it', 22 Mar 2014
I remember a conversation with a friend, about fifteen years ago. We'd just seen the Lindsay Anderson film If.... and were talking about the bits we'd liked best. I said that I'd liked the weird bits the most. He said, 'Yeah - the bits in black and white, all the surreal stuff?' I looked a little puzzled, and gave my answer. It was a list of all the day-to-day things that happen in a public school, which its inhabitants clearly seemed to think were ordinary. Ever since I've had an enduring curiosity about what actually goes on in The Great Universities (TM) - if only in the same way an anthropologist does about a tribe of humans previously thought lost to civilisation.

The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:

'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'

Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.

After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:

'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'

Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.

From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.

I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'

He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.

Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When Carey complains about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to (such as Ian Hamilton's). While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.

These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.
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