For the Joy of Reading: Sacrifice Zones

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of doing so, I recommend that you get hold of a copy of Samuel Tongue’s new collection of poetry, “Sacrifice Zones”.   At the moment, it has the huge advantage of fitting through your letter-box without any difficulty.   What you will get is 36 thoughtful and thought-provoking poems.   You will certainly be challenged to think about the world in ways that are different from your normality.   That is something to be grateful for in these challenging times.

Some of these poems have been published elsewhere, but it is a delight to find old friends amongst the new material.   My favourite as Capel-y-Ffin.   Samuel Tongue translates this into English as Chapel at the end.   I would have preferred Chapel at the edge or Chapel at the border, because that is exactly where it is.   The mountain ridge to the east of Capel-y-Ffin is the border between Wales and England.   What he describes is the environs of the chapel built by the monks of Llanthony Priory, a little to the south in the Honddu Valley.   The poem is an accurate description of the place that I remember, as you look up to the hills in the words of the psalm.  

There are other poems like this, such as “A View of the Small isles, with Electricity Pylons” which are equally evocative with its description of “an appendix of rock, a small shrug in the harbouring sound”.   Another favourite is “The International Whaling Commission Answers Back” with its Biblical questions about Leviathan and its answers based on what is allowed in hunting whales. 

There are also political poems, poems about the modernity of life and poems about relationships.   I particularly liked “Some Data Points for Cambridge Analytica” but how could a librarian resist a poem that starts “I offer up information as an offering, every time I register online?   It is a truth, as Jane Austen would say, universally acknowledged.  Or there is Carhenge, offering “Twin exhausts are organ pipes, emptying”.   I have never thought of an exhaust pipe in such poetic language before, and this will stay with me.

Or there is “Animal Trials: Statement from the Trial of the Weevils of St. Julien”.   Apparently, in 1587, the weevils of St. Julien were put on trial for ruining the vines and therefore the grapes for the wine.   I have no idea if this is true, but why would Samuel Tongue make it up.   He puts into the mouth of the weevil leading the defence a statement about our irrelevance as a species, in the greater scheme of things.   Straight from Genesis, he takes the phrase “God created animals first – each creeping thing – and gave us every green herb for food”.

Each poem contains at least one thought of this kind.   Each poem will make you think, which means that each poem is worth reading.   And, let us be honest, you have nothing better to do at this time.

For the Joy of Evidence: Gathering Evidence

I think that I can now say, without any fear of contradiction, that I know far more about Bonobo chimpanzees than is strictly necessary for someone who lives just off the Great Western Road in Glasgow.   The Bonobos are, however, essential to the plot.   They are what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin.   Everything centres around them and without them there would be nothing.   The three of them have gone there to study the Bonobos, who are on the brink of extinction.   (I do not know if this is actually true, but it is a necessary motor for the plot).   Things go wrong from the start.   The company that own the park in which the Bonobos live is sinister, to put it mildly.   One of their party, a doctor, goes missing on arrival, and the three have to start their project without him.   They are marooned three days walk away from the main gate, and they are in danger.   Something cloven-footed visits their camp at night.   They do not see it, but it makes its presence felt.

While they are in the jungle, Shel’s partner, John has moved to oversee the building of their new house.   He is assaulted by something.   We do not know what, but it has left him hospitalised and seriously injured.   He is allowed to go home, and receives daily visits from his doctor.   Think Dr Jekyll here, and you would not be far wrong.

This is where the book starts to become eerie.   The narrators are Shel and John.   Shel is in a nightmare situation, completely isolated, in a jungle.   John is suffering from concussion or a much more serious head injury.   It is very clear that neither of them has a grasp on reality, have a sure understanding of what is happening to them.   This is a cross between “Robinson Crusoe”, “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby”.   This is a seriously unsettling story.   It plays to our fears in a way that would make MR James proud.   You do get the feeling that if someone whistled, something really nasty would be the result.

The Shel comes home and has to understand what happened to John, and he has to understand what happened to her.   That is when the real terror begins, and that is where you the reader are left with nothing resolved.

For the Joy of Reading: Blue Sandbar Moon

This is a book about grief and how it does not go away.   It simply mutates over the years into something that we have learned to deal with and how in that process we change.   This is essentially a meditation on the death of his daughter, more than a decade after it happened.   Miriam Aoife was 4 years old when she died, and what you have is a heart-rending series of poems about the loss of her life, not just at the time of her death, but what it means to him now when he does not have a teenage daughter to nurture and care for.

This involves memories and visiting places where she had been in her short life, and also visiting the places where he now lives and works.   These are places, like Bosnia and Belfast, that have deep-seated tragedies of their own.   It is not possible to overlook the broad sweep of historical catastrophe, but these poems are essentially deeply personal while the poet embeds his loss in the overarching.

For instance, the poem that begins “For the first time” records the night before Miriam’s death, when the poet is sitting in the hospital, praying to the Yahweh-god, to Allah that his daughter might live.   This is in Dubrovnik   He says that he prayed

Forgetting altogether

The wounded one

Sombre as hell.

This poem was written on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 13September 2013.   It is not stretching things too far to think that God has not atoned for the death of Miriam.

Some of the descriptions of Glasgow seized me by the throat because the places were so recognisable, but it is the description of the paintings in The Mauritshuis in The Hague that affected me the most.   This is because I have sat in front of those paintings, contemplating them as the poet has done, but without the burden of a death hanging over me.

I do not think that it is possible for anyone to read these poems without being moved.   They are an exceptional tribute in which the poet bares his bereavement for all to see.

The Sharpeville Massacre: Sixty years ago

60 years ago, on 21st March 1960, the world changed forever.   It was no longer possible to believe the avuncular Dr Verwoerd when he asserted that black people benefitted from apartheid, and that it was a policy of good neighbourliness.   It was the day on which the world became aware of the evil that was apartheid.   It was the day on which apartheid became an issue for the international community.   It was the day on which the worldwide campaign against apartheid was born.

It was the day on which the women of Sharpeville decided to hold a demonstration against the extension of the pass laws to women.   It was a demonstration called by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) which had broken away from the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest liberation movement in Africa because it disagreed with the non-racialism of that organisation.   Hundreds of people assembled in Sharpeville and marched to the police station in order to burn their passes.   The police commandant panicked and ordered his men to open fire.   They did.   68 people were killed and hundreds were wounded.   One person died the following day.   South Africa was plunged into crisis.   Hundreds of people publicly burned their passes, including Chief Albert Luthuli, the President-General of the ANC, and Nelson Mandela.   There was a huge demonstration in Cape Town, led by Philip Kgosana.   He and the other leaders were persuaded to enter a building to negotiate with the apartheid authorities.   They were arrested.   The government announced the banning of the ANC, the PAC and many other organisations.   There were mass arrests.   The clampdown however did not achieve its purpose.   Although some organisations, like the South African Liberal Party, dissolved themselves, the ANC and the PAC went underground.

The Sharpeville Massacre set off the long trail of events that led to the demise of apartheid – the launch of the armed struggle, the Rivonia Trial, the rise of Black Consciousness, the Soweto uprising, the township uprisings in the 1980s, the release of Mandela and eventually the 1994 election.   It also set off the international campaign against apartheid.   In 1962, South Africa left the Commonwealth rather than be expelled and declared itself a Republic.   The United Nations imposed an arms embargo.   The cultural and sporting boycotts were imposed, and were enforced by mass protests   But, it did more than concentrate minds on the evils of apartheid.   It was obvious that apartheid was wrong because racism was wrong   This became even more obvious when Rhodesia issued its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and the Monday Club, the right wing of the Conservative Party, campaigned in support of the illegal Smith regime because they were “our kith and kin”.   Racism was a defining feature of the Conservative right wing and groups even further to the right.   It had to be challenged which it was in the UK through organisations like the Anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism.   Sharpeville was such a defining moment in international politics that the UN declared 21st March to be the International Day Against Racism.

Sharpeville became a byword for the cruelty and viciousness of the racist project.   It was one of the defining moments in the history of the later part of the C20th, like the Bridge at Selma or the picture of the naked girl, covered in napalm, running away.   The Sharpeville Massacre was what convinced thousands and thousands of people in my generation to “take up the spear” against apartheid and to stick with the campaign, through thick and thin, until on 10th May 1994 we saw Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected President of South Africa, take the oath of office.

That however was not the end of the struggle.   The ANC had been elected on the basis that it would implement the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).   It was a programme that sought to distribute some resources to the poorest in society.   It was not that radical, but it still attracted the ire of international capital and the world financial institutions.  

Many things have been achieved.   Children, other than the whites, are now inoculated against typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio and other killer diseases.   This was not the case under apartheid.   The infant mortality rate has plummeted.   There are street lights and pavements in many of the townships.   We, in the West, are so used to them that we forget that they make our surroundings safe.   People have access to electricity.   There are many complaints about power-shedding but that is because people have got used to having it, when they didn’t under apartheid.   This is not to defend power-shedding because people should be able to have access to electricity 24 hours of the day.   Power-shedding did not happen under apartheid because most of the population had no electricity.   These kinds of things may sound unimportant, but they are transforming lives.

The odious debt, that is debt incurred by any government to oppress its own people, inherited by the new governments of Namibia and South Africa was not revoked as it should have been under international law.   As has been shown in the recent ACTSA report, The Money Drain (, the banks continued to extract money from southern Africa by illegal, immoral and unjust methods.

The mining companies had to be taken to court, by ACTSA and others, to secure compensation for miners who had contracted asbestosis, mesothelioma, pneumoconiosis and silicosis because apartheid laws did not require them to be supplied with basic safety equipment.   Cape PLC declared itself bankrupt in an attempt not to pay such compensation.   It did not work.   This has been a long struggle to secure a victory, and ACTSA has been in the lead.

Let us be clear.   There are many things that are wrong in South Africa.   The creaming off of resources into the pockets of private individuals has to be stopped.   The belief that “It is my turn to eat” justifies the outright theft of money from the state coffers is quite simply criminal.   It means that money that could have been spent on infrastructure, on health and education, has been stolen.   The greatest danger to stability and peace in South Africa is, in my view, the latent, if not blatant, racism of those who refuse that they did anything wrong – that apartheid was not a crime against humanity.  It was.

If we are to honour the women and men who were murdered at Sharpeville, most of them shot in the back as they were running away from the police, then we need to help build the Rainbow Nation.   Now is not the time to turn our backs on our friends and say “You are on your own”.   We have put our hand to the plough, and much of the field has still to be tilled.

Let us complete the task.

David Kenvyn

(Vice-chair of the Trustees of ACTSA.   The views expressed are my own)

For the Joy of Reading: The Mirror and the light

This is the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the other two being “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”.   You do not have to have read the other two books to read this one because the story of Henry VIII is well-enough known.   What is astonishing about these books is the detail, the bringing to life of some of the minor players in what has become a defining moment in English, indeed British, history.   It is also striking that Thomas Cromwell is the hero, which he has not been for a very long time.  The last book I remember in which the centrality of his role was remembered was G.R. Elton’s “Tudor Revolution in Government”.   It is usual for Thomas Cromwell to be the villain, as in “A Man for All Seasons” and not for that role to be played by Sir Thomas More.

By the start of this book, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More have both been executed and Katherine of Aragon is dead, but their ghosts haunt all the people they knew.   Henry has married his third wife, Jane Seymour after the death of Katherine of Aragon, so there can be no doubt that she is Queen-Consort, but she has no son, no heir for the Kingdom.   [These were the days when there had never been a Queen-Regnant in England.   Matilda had attempted it but was not successful.   Stephen, Henry II and Henry VII all claimed the throne through their mothers, who were alive at the time].   The succession was not secure.  

Henry VIII was older than both his grandfathers, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Edward IV when they died, both suddenly and unexpectedly.   He was approaching the age at which his father Henry VII had died.   Henry VIII also had an ulcerated leg from a jousting injury, and it would not heal, causing him a great deal of pain.   He was becoming aware of his own mortality.   The need to produce an undisputed heir was urgent.

The King had an illegitimate son, Henry Duke of Richmond, by Bessie Blount, and two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, that he had declared to be illegitimate.   There were also the children of his two sisters, Margaret, the Queen of Scotland and Mary, the Queen Dowager of France and Duchess of Suffolk, but there was no male heir if you did not count James V, King of Scotland (and he never seems to have been considered).  

The other thing that had happened was the Reformation.   The history of the English Reformation would have been very different if any of Queen Katherine’s sons had survived for more than a few days, weeks or months.   But they did not.   The need for a male heir led Henry VIII to petition the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine.   Unfortunately for Henry, Pope Clement VII was a prisoner of Katherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V who felt duty bound to maintain his aunt’s honour.   [He did not take the same view about his own mother, Queen Joanna, who he had imprisoned in the castle of Tordesillas, so that he could rule Spain].

This is the political situation at the start of this last book in the trilogy.   This summary should enable you to read this book, even if you have not read the first two volumes of the trilogy.

Having spent this much time briefing you on the history, what about the book itself.   It is quite simply a tour de force.   Hilary Mantel sweeps you through the events that formed the country that we know.   It was the period in which Henry VIII broke free from the Roman Church and set England and therefore Britain on a trajectory that affects us to the present day.   It is a story that she tells through the eye of the people who were at the centre of events.   Some of them are well-known, and some of them are figures on the edge of events.   Some of them, such as Christophe and Jenneke, are invented but drawn with such conviction that they fit into the story without any difficulty or intrusion.   Others like Hans Holbein, were real but played a very small part in the political events of the time.   Others, like Rafe Sadler and Eustache Chapuys, were significant witnesses of and players in the events that are described.   The two figures, of course, who dominate the story are Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell which is only appropriate as they dominated the political events of their time, and were indeed the driving forces of those events.

Hilary Mantel draws an intimate picture of the court life of the time.   Through the minor characters, such as Lady Rochford, Lady Margaret Douglas, Lady Lisle and Lady Oughtred, she shows how the women of the court were both able to influence events and how they were at the mercy of those events because of their proximity to power.   Lady Rochford was the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn and played a significant role in securing her execution by accusing her of incest with Lord Rochford.   Lady Margaret Douglas was the niece of Henry VIII, and made a marriage that did not have his consent.   Her son, by a second marriage, was the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.   Lady Lisle was the aunt of Henry VIII, having married the illegitimate brother of Henry’s mother.   Lady Oughtred was the sister of Jane Seymour.   All four were at the heart of events.   All four had their lives determined by those events.   All four were at the mercy of events and their menfolk.   I have chosen the women to illustrate a point.   The men, such as the Duke of Norfolk, Bishop Gardiner and indeed Thomas Cromwell, were able to influence events, but were not always in control of them.   That can be said even about Henry VIII.

There are also the bravura scenes, such as Henry VIII talking to Thomas Cromwell whilst his defining portrait is being painted by Hans Holbein.   Or Lady Rochford telling Thomas Cromwell that the marriage to Anne of Cleves has not been consummated.   Or Thomas Cromwell in a room in the Tower, contemplating his past.   Hilary Mantel is a mistress of descriptive power.

There is also a very useful list of the characters and how they relate to each other, in case you lose track.   I am not so convinced about the family trees.   One shows Katherine of Aragon as the daughter of Henry VII, instead of being married to his two sons.   This is just sloppy but it is nothing to do with Hilary Mantel.   There is also a useful afterword which tells you what happens to the various characters, following the death of Cromwell and then Henry VIII.   Strangely, it does not say that is was Thomas Cranmer who passed the evidence to Henry VIII, proving the adulteries of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard which led to her execution, and that of her cousin, Henry, Earl of Surrey.   It does say that the Duke of Norfolk escaped execution because Henry VIII died first.

904 pages may seem daunting but it is not.   This is one of the easiest reads I have had since “Bring Up the Bodies”.

For the Joy of Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness

If ever there was a novel that requires a suspension of disbelief, then this is it.   First, you have a planet that is in the throes of an ice age.   Then you discover that it is inhabited by hermaphroditic humans, in that for most of the year they are asexual, but when they go on heat, they have the ability to become either male or female.   You also have an intergalactic confederation sending an emissary to the planet to persuade it to join them, for mutual cultural benefit.   Nothing there that is difficult to believe when you are reading the book.   The concept, of course, is mindboggling.

The story is told by Genli Ai, the emissary from the Ekumen to the planet Gethen and revolves around his relationship with Estraven, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Karhide.   Genli Ai is black, which may not be so surprising now, but at the time the book was written it was extraordinary.

The point, really is that Ursula Le Guin has created a world with its own rules, in order to make the reader think about the world that we live in.   When you are confronted with the sentence “The King is pregnant” and you do not bat an eyelid, you realise the extent of her achievement.   If it does not occur to you as the reader to ask “How is this possible?”, the author has achieved her objective.   She has made the reader realise that defining people by their gender is not the point.   She puts forward an equivalent of Martin Luther King’s argument, that people should be judged on “the content of their character”.   The fact that this is still of relevance in the world that we live in is not an indictment of Ursula Le Guin.

Not only does Ursula Le Guin challenge gender roles, and thus take on the concept of patriarchy, but she also challenges the use of patriotism in politics.   Karhide and its neighbour, Orgoreyn, have been locked in dispute over an essentially useless piece of land for a very long time.   It is a situation like that of the Border Reivers of England and Scotland – a lawless frontier with the raids and counter-raids of a low-intensity guerrilla war.   Le Guin, however, has politicians in both countries who are prepared to stoke the fires of patriotism to secure their own positions, even if this is at the risk of a full-blown war.   The problem is that honour, known as Shifgrethor on planet Gethen, is at stake and the concept is very samurai in its requirements.   Honour has to be maintained at all times, even if it is suicidal to do so.   Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide, is a victim of Shifgrethor and this is what leads to the desperate journey across the ice between the two countries by Estraven and Genli Ai.

The requirement of this book is that you should think.   There is no requirement to agree with the author.   Ursula Le Guin would be very annoyed if you agree with her ideas simply so that you did not need to think about them.   The challenge of this book is to get deeply into the humanity of her characters and then to make a decision about what is right and what is wrong.   It is an extraordinary book in that regard.

For the Joy of Reading: Memoirs of Hadrian

I was six years old when this book was first published in English.   The book is probably as old as me (I do not know when it was published in French) and tells the story of the Emperor Hadrian.   In this country he is known for one thing – the building of a wall between Carlisle and Newcastle, which is supposed to serve as a border between England and Scotland, although not one stone of it, not one rampart, not one fort is in Scotland.   The Hadrian that Margaret Yourcenar depicts would probably have appreciated this historical irony.   What we do not know is that she has produced an accurate account of her subject.   It is certainly a believable one.

This is an attempt to get into the mind of the Emperor who defined the limits of the Roman Empire, which lasted until its collapse in the C5th CE.   The British are right about the importance of Hadrian’s Wall.  It is a symbol if his decision that the Empire would go this far and no further.  His successor, Antoninus Pius, attempted to expand the Roman Empire to the firths of Forth and Clyde, but this did not last.  Hadrian’s Wall marked the boundary between peaceful prosperity and barbarism.   The Rhine and the Danube and the deserts of Arabia and Sahara were also markers in this respect.

Yourcenar takes us through the thought processes of the Emperor.  We see how his predecessor, the Emperor Trajan, launched Rome on a period of expansion.   He crossed the Danube and launched wars against the Dacians and the Sarmatians.   The war against the Dacians ended when King Decebalus and his councillors committed mass suicide rather than submit.   The Emperor Hadrian, in this book, remembers how terrible these wars were, as an active participant in the campaign.   Then Trajan launched the most spectacular invasion of his career.   He attacked the Parthian Empire, marched into Mesopotamia along the Euphrates Valley, captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and annexed the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris.   All this is commemorated on Trajan’s Column in Rome.  

We also see how Hadrian responded to this.   Historically, he drew back from this over-extension of the Empire beyond its resources.   He withdrew from Trajan’s conquests, as Rome did not have the financial resources to retain them.   The Arsacid dynasty moved back in, but their days were numbered because it had been shown that they could not defend their territory.   The Arsacids were overthrown by enemies from the east, not the west, not by Rome.

Yourcenar takes us through the historical uncertainties of the period.   When the newly-enthroned and elderly Nerva, following the assassination of Domitian, chose Trajan as his successor it did not necessarily follow that Hadrian would be the heir.   Trajan and Hadrian may have been cousins, but their were powerful rivals, and Hadrian had to prove his worth which he did in the Dacian and Sarmatian wars.  Also, the rivals had to be removed.   Hadrian’s succession was not guaranteed until it actually happened.   In this sense the book is very much like “I, Claudius” except that it is a much less racy and more serious account of a succession struggle.

The other factor in Hadrian’s story is Antinous.  He is probably one of the best-known male faces of the ancient world, because Hadrian had so many busts and statues of him to commemorate the love of his life.   Antinous was a young Bithynian from the Black Sea area of modern Turkey.   He was extraordinarily handsome.   There is no question that, when Antinous drowned, Hadrian was grief-stricken.  Hadrian made him a god, he named a city after him and he ordered hundreds, if not thousands, of commemorative busts and statues, many of which have survived until the present day.

Yourcenar’s story combines the steady, experienced soldier with the thoughtful ruler, the imperial statesman and the passionate lover.   This is a remarkable testimony to a man who deserves to be remembered for more than a wall across the north of England, even if that wall is an impressive monument to the central political decision of his reign.