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therealus "therealus" (Herts, UK)
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It's Great To Be Alive
It's Great To Be Alive
Price: £20.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best bands in existence? Here's the evidence!, 2 Nov. 2015
This review is from: It's Great To Be Alive (Audio CD)
When I reviewed Alabama Ass Whuppin, Drive-by Truckers’ first live release, when it was rereleased two years ago, I expressed the hope that the band would not allow their ongoing efforts on the road to go the way of those of the Clash, unrecorded. Whilst I doubt I have the ear of Hood, Cooley and the rest of the gang, I’m accepting this as the answer to my plea.

Though it’s impossible fully to capture the excitement, this is an album that captures many of the differences between a good live rock performance and a studio recording. You can’t smell the crowd, perhaps fortunately, but you can hear their enthusiasm and guess at some of the things that are happening as they shout, roar, scream, whistle, whoop and clap, and there’s plenty of all of those at a DBT gig. But the band is also able to breathe new life and new meaning into its songs, as for example with Made Up English Oceans: Cooley explains that the song is aimed at the Klan, and particularly a demonstration they mounted during a visit President Jimmy Carter paid to Cooley’s hometown during the late seventies, which not only disgraced them but shamed the town itself, to the singer’s disgust. Armed with that information it is possible to understand Cooley’s purpose, but the delivery of the song itself conveys, far more than the studio version, the anger he feels at the myopia, idiocy and bigotry, not just in the vocals and lyrics but also in the music, which doesn’t have to be shouty or loud; it just communicates the feelings through its understatement, its accumulating rage. It’s a feeling I just don’t quite get from the studio version.

In a similar vein, Hood provides some additional narrative to the slow-grinding funk-fest Goode’s Field Road, which gains an extra two minutes over the version on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, and the sublimely executed closing song, Grand Canyon, comes in at a well-deserved thirteen minutes.

Throughout, the playing is strong, and particularly noticeable is the additional dimension Jay Gonzalez’s keyboards give. As has been said by another reviewer, the recordings appear untouched, so the singing is warts’n’all, which is what the best rock’n’roll is. Keep it Dirty!

The song selections rove freely over the band’s career. Like anyone else, I have favourites which have not been included, but some of those are available on previous live releases (including on Jason Isbell’s Live In Alabama), so I’m not going to fret, and it’s great to hear how some of the newer material is performed in front of an audience – it’s a regrettably long time since I saw the band.

It’s nine years now since I bought my first DBT record. Since then I have looked forward to every new one, and snapped up the earlier ones, and this one brings home how much they have changed over that time, but also how much they have remained one of the best bands, live and in the studio, in existence today.

Live In Tokyo 1975
Live In Tokyo 1975
Price: £14.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Miles Davis, red in tooth and claw, 20 Oct. 2015
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This review is from: Live In Tokyo 1975 (Audio CD)
Good to see the tapes of Miles keep emerging. Sony are trying with their Bootleg series but other agents are in possession of live material from the seventies. Hopefully there’s more.

This particular one is from the same tour which produced the albums Agharta and Pangaea, just before the period of hiatus of the late seventies during which Miles neither toured nor recorded.

Some bits on this you’ll recognise from the other Tokyo recordings, though not necessarily in the same order. There are bits in between that will be new to you, and some bits that are familiar but played on different instruments or in different ways. It has a rougher, funkier feel from the others, perhaps less smoothed-for-general-consumption, therefore maybe more as Miles would have wanted: Davis red in tooth and claw.

Intermittently, Michael Henderson’s bass is bone shaking, and Turnaroundphrase is a scorcher, threatening to strip the paint from the walls. Features such as these compensate for the fact that there are possibly no guitar breaks quite as good as those on Agharta’s Theme From Jack Johnson, which means that in some ways things balance out.

This is therefore not a substitute for, but a complement to, the other two.

It’s a shame Sony were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make available the rest of the 1975 set from which Mtume was taken that features on Volume 4 of the Bootleg Series, but it would be nice if someone else could release the rest of it, even if they don’t.

Shakespeare in London (Arden Shakespeare)
Shakespeare in London (Arden Shakespeare)
by Hannah Jane Crawforth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Fertile Ground, 20 Oct. 2015
In Shakespeare in London, the three authors demonstrate how Shakespeare’s plays, whilst nominally set in diverse locations around the world, in fact often reflected the playwright’s surroundings in the London of his time. Within this intriguing thesis they additionally present some fascinating incidental vignettes to further enrich our understanding and appreciation of the Shakespearean canon.

They begin with an analysis of how Titus Andronicus, possibly Shakespeare’s most gut-churningly violent play, was written within, and therefore likely informed by, the then violent goings on in Shakespeare’s city, from the regular public executions at Tyburn, through the ugly spectacle of bull and bear-baiting, and on to the religious persecutions, by then aimed at Catholics and involving excruciating torture and still more executions.

Later they show how Richard II is informed by the political networks of the day, as well as how Shakespeare makes some of his points through the devices of chiasmus; the geography of Romeo And Juliet takes as its basis that of the Strand of Shakespeare’s day, and The Merchant Of Venice draws strongly from the discourse of London’s legal institutions. There is also later an exposé of the economics of the theatre.

When I was formally studying Shakespeare back in the seventies, The Tempest was still considered to be his final play. Shakespearean scholarship has made big advances since then, and that calculation is now reckoned to be two plays out. And in dealing with The Tempest, the authors give us an insight not only into how the plays were informed by their environment but also how theatre was being revolutionised by it. They examine the scientific cluster around Lime Street of the time and how its innovations were affecting the way people perceived the world. There are references to alchemy and necromancy, which brought to my mind Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which shares the apparent fascination. And they also point out how the colonisation of the island echoes the accelerating colonisation of the Americas at the time, and the concomitant expropriation and displacement of their native peoples.

I’ll confess there are subjects I would have liked covered that aren’t, such as the extent to which the bawdy house episodes of Henry IV reflected Shakespeare’s, rather than Prince Hal’s, Eastcheap. I initially found it quite enlightening that the period should be referred to as “early modern”, but found the constant repetition of the phrase somewhat irritating; in another context it may be a rhetorical tic, here it makes the text sometimes seem like the answer to an exam question which constantly has to make reference to the question. There’s also an overuse of the word “iconic”, but they’re not alone in that particular peccadillo. At one point they put the location of Bedlam to the north and west of St Paul’s, when its location in Shakespeare’s time, Moorfields, is to the north and east, as is its original location in Bishopsgate. And there are rather too many spelling errors and such-like, as when they use “practice” as a verb (they mostly use “practise”, though) or speak of a “momento mori” (it’s “memento”).

Yes, I know, if only everyone were as perfect as I am!

None of these little niggles takes away, though, from the value or enjoyment of this book. Whether you’re reading for pleasure or answering that exam question about “early modern” London, this is fertile ground.

Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets
Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets
by John Plender
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.24

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong core; limp ending, 14 Oct. 2015
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John Plender’s Capitalism is an erudite study of the eponymous economic system, Plender himself a highly-respected FT journalist. It is unlikely that you would have escaped reading his articles if you have even the vaguest interest in keeping up with financial affairs. The book progresses through themed chapters, examining the upsides and the downsides of the functions of capitalism, the ethics that operate within it, the role of governments and other policymakers and their advisers, and the asymmetric power structure that permits those at the top to extract a disproportionate gain.

Many of the explanations, critiques, apologies, condemnations and justifications Plender recounts are fairly familiar from other recent books, although often approached from a novel direction and set about by colourful examples and background information: in his discussion of the mystery of the enduring value of gold and its destructive potential he reveals that the original story for the Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the bimetallic system, based on silver and gold, with the yellow brick road representing gold and Dorothy’s shoes being originally silver – it was Hollywood that made them red and converted allegory into nursery tale.

He has some interesting stories regarding attitudes to money and wealth, many from the arts and literary world. There is a revealing cautionary vignette involving executives from the Industrial Bank of Japan, a restaurateur, a porcelain toad and the bank’s demise. He makes a rare observation regarding the common tendency to hold manufacturing up as a true value creator, unlike services, whilst at the same time reviling it as brutal, dirty and dehumanising.

Like many commentators now, Plender is scathing of the conventional wisdoms of market fundamentalism such as the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, and lampoons Eugene Fama, its author, for continuing to hold that there is no flaw within its logic. He has no sympathy for those who unconditionally reject the idea of governments running deficits: if businesses held the same view there would be little or no investment, and commerce would wither away; where governments hold the view in hard times, such as prevailed during the Great Recession, they run the risk of prolonging the crisis as businesses and consumers become ever more fearful of spending, the logical outcome of the paradox of thrift. He tells the tale of Arthur Laffer persuading Ronald Reagan that decreasing the tax rate would motivate people to work harder, earn more and therefore pay more tax. The result? Increased government deficit.

On balance, Plender concludes, many of the criticisms of capitalism turn out to be well-founded. He begins the final chapter with an overview of some of the sceptics, including Goethe, Hyman Minsky and Marx and Engels, all warning of the inherent evils and instabilities of the system. The attempts by governments to alleviate the downsides he suggests have become entangled in a rising tide of debt and a decline in the number of working age people, together with a failure to develop a new General Purpose Technology with the impact of the railways, electrification and so on; he maintains, consistent with the Solow paradox, that the internet has had far less impact than its boosters would have us believe. Productivity growth has slowed and its benefits are increasingly concentrated within a shrinking elite. Worse, we’re due another crisis, and we’re not over the last one yet, as many others have warned, and the necessary measures to prevent wholesale meltdown in the banking sector have not been taken. At the root of all this is a shift in the power structure of capitalism, with no countervailing power to that of the aforementioned elite, who have promoted successive governments committed to undermining the power of the unions and other civil society groups. Meanwhile, corporate executives are becoming increasingly short-termist, cutting back on capital investment and R&D in order to boost short-term profits and the value of their stock portfolios. Notwithstanding the presence of a few “good capitalists”, Plender’s depiction of the prospects for capitalism are depressingly dystopian, and he further adds to the gloom with an assertion that Schumpeter’s prediction of the demise of capitalism is unlikely.

Nevertheless, his ultimate verdict is that, despite its shortcomings, capitalism has many virtues – the increases in wealth and health under the capitalist system cannot, certainly, be denied – but that we must “do something” to prevent its decline, though exactly what he doesn’t specify. This, and his closing gambit of, rather too predictably, adapting Churchill’s dictum on democracy for capitalism (and I know, learned reader, you do not need me to elucidate further on that) led me to the conclusion that deadlines may have been calling and that the enterprise therefore needed to be brought to rapid closure. The result, unfortunately, is that for all its inner strengths, Capitalism has a limp ending.

But perhaps that’s a metaphor in itself?

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Vintage): Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Vintage): Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday
by Angela Y. Davis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Enrich your listening, 7 Oct. 2015
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In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis directs our attention away from the normal biographical and technical narratives of blues histories and instead focuses on the social issues raised in the songs of three legends of the blues, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, together with their position within the realm of black, and equally importantly feminist, consciousness.

Most of her attention is directed towards Rainey and Smith, and in addition to analysis of the songs there are transcriptions of their lyrics, occupying about half of the book, in themselves an invaluable resource.

Davis identifies the context for the making of the blues as the sudden freedoms experienced by the black population of the US following the Civil War. In particular there was suddenly a release of agency in what former slaves did with their time, and also where they spent it. All of a sudden they were able to go more-or-less where they pleased, the reason why so many blues songs refer to geographical movement.

Aside from the possibility of education, the other change delivered by emancipation was in sexual agency, again the subject of many blues songs, not in the least those of Rainey, Smith and Holiday.

With direct reference to the songs, Davis explores the many facets of the blues in relation to sexuality, noting that conventional ideas of romantic love and family life are all but absent. Instead there are strong expressions of female sexual desire as an end in itself, as well as specific references to physical abuse, prostitution, same-sex relationships – Rainey was well-known to be a lesbian, but songs also refer to male same-sex relationships – and infidelity. On this latter subject there is the occasional reference to imposing the ultimate sanction on a cheating man, a detail having its male equivalent in songs such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe many years later.

Sexual promiscuity was partly aided by geographic promiscuity, and the women studied by Davis were as open to both as were men.

Given that no live recordings exist of Rainey and Smith, the songs we have access to by them were according to the mediation of white record executives, hence probably the rarity of an overt political message. Nevertheless, there are songs which address poverty, inequality, the drudgery of work and the privations of imprisonment. There are also, Davis points out, messages encoded within the lyrics, not to mention the very act of producing a black art form of such high sophistication in itself constituted a very political statement. Moreover, the blues offered a very concrete alternative to the dead hand of the church, which recognised the threat and wasted no time in condemning “the devil’s music”. The threat was the greater for the songs’ frequent utilisation of symbolism from African cultures, and Davis provides several examples where specifically Yoruba symbolism and beliefs are evident.

In the penultimate chapter, the first of two predominantly concentrating on Billie Holiday, Davis articulates a familiar duality: on the one hand regretting Holiday’s apparent inability to gain agency within her relationships with men and the way this is often reflected in her lyrics, talking of unfaithfulness and violence; on the other hand celebrating Holiday’s ability often to subvert a literal interpretation of the lyrics through the inflection of her voice. Notwithstanding the feminist temptation to dismiss Holiday as a gendered equivalent of Uncle Tom, there is ultimately the irresistible urge to embrace Holiday as a sister articulating one reality of being a woman. Furthermore, Davis – and she is not alone here amongst female commentators – dismisses some of the more negative views of Holiday’s life, characterising Motown’s depiction in Lady Sings The Blues as a kind of reverse Disneyfication where everyone lives miserably ever after.

What is incontrovertible, though, is the all-encompassing courage Holiday displayed in performing and recording Strange Fruit. If the expression Career Suicide had been extant in 1939, when the song was recorded, there could have been no better exemplar for it. Hitherto, Holiday’s repertoire had avoided overt social commentary, thereby enabling the critical fraternity to laud her for her pure artistry. Holiday gave as her motivation for adopting the song the experiences of her father, who died due to a war-related sickness which went untreated due to hospital service segregation in the southern states. But the threat of lynchings was still all too real: Davis informs us that there were 150 in the four years following the Wall Street Crash, and gives a macabre description of gothic proportions of a “lynching” in Florida in 1934 which involved extensive pre-death torture.

Fortunately, Holiday’s career survived, and even thrived on, the backwash. Strange Fruit constituted a watershed moment for American popular culture, placing the reality of lynching and racial brutality in general in the public arena. It also broke the previous taboo of mixing fame and commercial success with social consciousness.

The devil, as it were, is in the detail, and while I can’t here emulate that I can say that Davis does an excellent job of getting into, around and underneath the songs of her subjects, and some of their contemporaries, to show that it is fine to treat them at face value, but that there is so much more to be discovered on closer examination. Anybody wishing to enrich their listening would profit from reading this book.

DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Seattle
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Seattle
by Collectif
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent ideas list, 6 Oct. 2015
For some reason, rather than rely just upon Lonely Planet for a guide on my recent visit to Seattle I also bought this. As I’ve said in my review of the LP, this is slightly more useful, and the LP rather disappointing. Neither carries the kind of detail I’d like – the information on Discovery Park, Chittenden Locks and EMP Museum, for example, are pretty sketchy in both – but this is more straightforward, more accessible, and doesn’t waste its time trying to be cool.

The restaurant recommendations are more like places to avoid, but that’s no different from LP. Seattle is highly walkable, but also has abundant cheap public transport (including trolley buses!), so it’s a pleasant journey of discovery in itself just touring the abundant local restaurants, browsing their menus and peering through the windows.

The maps aren’t up to much, but your hotel (which you’ll best find on the internet) and many other places will have ones that are adequate for downtown.

Ultimately, whilst the information is less than detailed, this is an excellent ideas list, and so worth the investment.

Lonely Planet Seattle (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Seattle (Travel Guide)
by Celeste Brash
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 6 Oct. 2015
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Unusually for a Lonely Planet – the only other example is its guide to Montreal & Quebec – this is something of a disappointment. I already knew a little about Seattle before I went and so had a few things I knew I’d like to do, but this didn’t add much to the sum total.

Discovery Park, for example, is an excellent city-based natural space, with ample walkways but nothing by way of amenities such as refreshments, unlike, say, Stanley Park in Vancouver. It has two car parks, North at the far end and South at the entrance, and offers magnificent views over Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula and, in one or two places, Mount Rainier. It is also the site of an old military base. I only got about half of that from LP. The rest I got myself. The write-up in LP is a little dull, and doesn’t really recommend the park as much as it deserves.

Likewise the Chittenden Locks in Ballard, a couple of miles away. This is a real piece of theatre, not only watching the Locks themselves, but also the men who are directing the boats, whose no-nonsense demeanour is an object lesson in how to maintain the safety of large numbers of people in a confined, potentially hazardous space. No sense of the drama is conveyed by LP, though.

Same for the EMP Museum, surely the coolest museum in the world with its Sci Fi and Fantasy relics and exhibitions dedicated to the Seattle Seahawks (not my team, but a good exhibit nonetheless), the history of the guitar, Hendrix and, especially, Nirvana. But after reading LP I almost didn’t go. It was only on the recommendation of a local that I did.

As for hotels, you’ll probably find the internet more useful, and it’s way too biased towards the currently trendy micobrew beers to be of any use to me when it comes to restaurants. None of the ones I ate at are mentioned, leading me to the conclusion it’s best to walk the streets and find your own.

On the upside, the maps are pretty good, although I found the local giveaways more useful for downtown Seattle, and the pullout map doesn’t even extend to Discovery or the Locks.

Based on the information it makes available, I would recommend the more concise Top 10 Seattle over this. Neither is brilliant, but Top 10 is cheaper!

Bread & Roses
Bread & Roses
Price: £8.96

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tantalising half hour, 1 Sept. 2015
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This review is from: Bread & Roses (Audio CD)
The latest, for me, in a recent series of live bootlegs of Joni Mitchell, this particular one was recorded at the 1978 Bread and Roses festival organised by Mimi Farina, Joan Baez’s sister. In all it clocks in at just over thirty minutes over six tracks, but one of those tracks is Mitchell Introducing guest pianist Herbie Hancock.

At the time Mitchell was in the process of finalising the recording of Mingus, and that is the focus of the recordings here, although the first track is a song from Hejira, Furry Sings The Blues.

Always given to spoken introductions of her songs, Mitchell then explains the background to The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines, the first song from Mingus, before launching into an a capella version, in contrast to the heavily orchestrated version released the following year. This is followed by her intro to Hancock, which leads into her spoken intro to an extraordinary rendition of A Chair In The Sky, with Hancock’s keyboard on fire.

The third Mingus track is The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey. This has always been a personal favourite, and here it doesn’t disappoint. Mitchell initially substitutes her voice for the wolves’ own howls, to great approval from the audience. The guitar follows a similar pattern to that on the album, although she is slightly less pugnacious with the strings. Then towards the end the familiar taped wolves kick in, and when I first heard that it gave me goose bumps. Second time round too.

According to Karen O’Brien, Mitchell had only acquired the tape the night before in one of those happy episodes of serendipity that seem to have accompanied the Mingus album. O’Brien says the tape came from a drunk in the bar at Tim Hardin’s hotel. The story Mitchell tells on the record is slightly different, but doesn’t altogether contradict O’Brien’s. (Consulting Mark Bego’s Mitchell biography on the subject I found him, as so often, no help at all.)

Encore or no, the Wolves are followed on the CD by an ensemble rendition of The Circle Game. Wonderful as the song is, it is somewhat anticlimactic. There is no indication on the sleeve of who sang or played on this, nor whether this was part of Mitchell’s own set. Nor is there any specific indication of who accompanied Mitchell at the festival apart from Hancock, although there is a picture of Mitchell along with Hancock, Jaco Pastorius and, I think, Peter Erskine on the back.

The sound quality of the recording is good, although there are places where it is apparent the tape has stretched, so there is there is occasional distortion. Personally though I’d have bought this if it had been recorded on a Dictaphone that had been immersed in boiling water. It’s a fascinating document of the development of one of Mitchell’s most innovative records and, despite its brevity, well worth having.

by Anthony B. Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.95

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If only..., 24 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: Inequality (Hardcover)
Anthony Atkinson’s study of inequality is a worthy and accomplished piece of analysis. The book is divided into three parts, in simple terms the Why, What and How: Why it matters, What can be done and How it can be done, which includes an econometric analysis of costs and benefits of some of his proposals.

Why it matters includes, inter alia, intrinsic and instrumental reasons for concerns about inequality. On the intrinsic side is both a broad idea of justice coupled with a simple statement of economic thought from Hugh Dalton based on the idea of utility: when you transfer a pound from a rich person to a poor person, the poor person’s utility is raised, whereas the rich person’s utility is not lowered, thus raising aggregate utility for society as a whole. On the instrumental side are concerns for outcomes for society as a whole in terms of a lack of social cohesion, increased crime, ill-health and so on. Echoing Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and Francois Bourguignon (The Globalisation of Inequality), Atkinson shows how inequality has grown since the second world war, partly because the institutions that grew out of the social solidarity that the first half of the twentieth century produced have been shrinking in more recent years, probably starting from the elections of Thatcher and Reagan.

In the second section Atkinson puts forward fifteen proposals for action, plus five ideas to pursue. These include adoption of policies aimed at boosting technological advancement, reducing unemployment and assuring workers are paid a wage commensurate with maintaining a decent standard of living. Some are radical, some look like proposals that have already been on the table. Atkinson accepts that none is straightforward and discusses some potential issues. One I think he missed, relating to his idea of providing a capital endowment to all on reaching adulthood, is how to avoid dubious practice in the financial industry, in a similar way to payday loans, whereby before coming of age a recipient may take out a loan at usurious interest rates. However, in a book for the general reader of only 300 pages it is difficult to cover all the details.

The final section discusses implementation and benefits. I found this the least well-expressed section. In the same way as Atkinson reduces each proposal to a short statement, so his refutations of the conventional “wisdom” that often acts as a brake on progressive ideas could have been stated more simply up front before entering into the detail. I suspect that here as in a few other places he lacked strong editorship, perhaps the reason why “expence” slips in a couple of times and the expression “there is no smoking gun” is used where I suspect he meant there is no silver bullet. However, on the strong side he demonstrates that implementation of just five of his proposals would, for the UK, reduce inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient. I also felt his case against certain provisions in the TTIP agreement is better made than that of Owen Jones in The Establishment, mostly that whilst it makes plenty of provisions for investors and corporations it makes none for consumers and workers.

Overall then a worthwhile read, giving substance to the case against inequality, providing strong economic principles on which to build the case, and doing some of the cost-benefit legwork needed to satisfy the bean counters. Nevertheless, as good an argument as Atkinson advances, I have little hope that the current government is about to implement any of his proposals in the next five years.

Oh, and just incidentally, one of the items Atkinson discusses is the issue of “uncompetitive” wage demands in the UK. As he points out, when housing prices, whether to buy or let, are so high, then people quite rationally will attempt to maximise their wages to pay for accommodation. Thinking about it, the premium on housing in the UK is worse than any formal tax; it is in practical terms a stealth tax imposed by the failed policy of selling off social housing and inability to keep up with growing demand. It’s a market failure; as usual the knight in shining armour, also known as the market, has not ridden in as predicted. Build more houses, bring down prices, reduce the need for spiralling wage increases. Unfortunately it gets complicated once you think of the potential for trapping more people in negative equity. Thus successive governments’ abysmal record on housing since the 1980s has painted us into a corner. As the joke goes, I wouldn’t start from here.

Herzog (Penguin Modern Classics)
Herzog (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Saul Bellow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His second best?, 24 Aug. 2015
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Herzog, more than any other, reveals James Joyce’s influence over the novels of Saul Bellow. It is for much of its length an internal conversation conducted by Moses Herzog with himself, some of which he occasionally commits to paper as part of a series of notes to personages both dead and alive, ranging from existentialist philosophers to his former sexual partners. He remembers his hardscrabble childhood, with his family’s migration from Canada to Chicago, echoing Bellow’s own, and the struggles of his father in making a living, including his foray into bootlegging which earns him a serious beating.

Occasionally other people intrude. He spends a night with his latest girlfriend, Ramona. He rather creepily stalks his ex-wife Madeleine and her partner at her home one night, watching them through the window. He takes his daughter to the zoo carrying an antique pistol, loaded, wrapped in a blanket of czarist roubles, is involved in a minor car crash and finds himself in the police station charged with possession of an unlicensed weapon. In amongst this he travels around New York, Chicago and his country pile in the Berkshires.

For the reader there is little doubt that Herzog is a little unhinged. How else to explain his resentment at the anger displayed by Madeleine when she collects their daughter from the police station? How else to explain the capricious wanderings by train, plane and automobile? How else to explain the compulsive scribblings?

Some of Herzog’s musings reveal a streak of misogyny. It is not possible to say definitively that this reflected Bellow’s own attitudes, but some of the circumstances in the book reflect Bellow’s own at the time. His musings in particular on his treatment by Madeleine suggest it is she, not him, who is the crazy one; he twists her every action so it appears to him a part of a typical feminine conspiracy effected over a long period of time which somehow included marrying him and having his child just out of spite. In his later novel, Humboldt’s Gift, the protagonist Charlie Citrine finds himself strung along by Madeleine’s alter ego, Renata, who ends up dumping Citrine in favour of an undertaker. Ramona on the other hand ostensibly represents a different side of women, more nurturing, forgiving. But she, too, is able to dump lost causes, and it is possible to see Ramona and Renata, and therefore also Madeleine, as the same woman, just seen from different angles.

Returning to this novel after forty years – my college dissertation addressed the works of Bellow – I was struck by how much it is a novel of its time. Published in 1964, it represents a time before the collapse of the post-second world war boom; the big battles of the Civil Rights struggles of the sixties were yet to come, and the counterculture was still in the wings. It is instructive to read it to acquire a sense of what in those days were common modes of discourse, even in the context of liberal art, on a variety of subjects. More prosaically, it is shocking to find Herzog being questioned in the police station, following his road accident, with an untreated head wound. Surely, it occurred to me, a cop nowadays would ensure somebody involved in such an incident would first receive medical attention to ensure there is no concussion? Different times, different priorities, apparently.

Malcolm Bradbury, in the Introduction, suggests that this is Bellow’s best novel, but I don’t agree: Humboldt’s Gift I would say is better executed, has a more interesting worldview, and is also more amusing. Herzog has its moments, and is certainly a fine piece of literature, but four decades on I was less captivated by rereading this than I was when I reread Humboldt’s Gift a couple of years ago. But all that means is that it’s worth trying both to see if it’s me or Malcolm you agree with.

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