Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

Forest fantasy

Image: Leonhard Lenz. Wikimedia Commons

Seren of the Wildwood  

Marly Youmans, Wiseblood books, illustrated, hb., 72pps., US$16

LIAM GUILAR is beguiled by a dream of tangled trees

The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch – the rituals of demon tribes / Who once played havoc with the universe, / And everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems is hidden here, / But also there are paths to blessedness.

So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange.

Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience.[i]

The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology, or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is.

Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story – but is rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream-like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home.

The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally. They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement:

[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.

The Bob and Wheel, famously used in Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.

Her poem is full of good lines:

Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower

And slower.

The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:

And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder, apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force – the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.

Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  

The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters, but what does it mean? This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy.

Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[ii]

Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped in the story by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion.

In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading.

Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.


[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish, regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry. 

Uplifting falling

The Book of Falling

David McCooey, Perth, Western Australia: Upswell Publishing, 2023, 109pps. Aus$24.99

LIAM GUILAR says David McCooey’s poetry is intelligent, skilful, varied – and plain enjoyable

The Book of Falling is David McCooey’s fifth collection of poems, and if nothing else, gives the lie to the invidious myth that people who work on academic writing programmes can’t write.

He’s very good at what he does. His poetry evokes Bunting’s praise of Scarlatti:

It is now time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti

condensed so much music into so few bars

with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence

never a boast or a see-here…

Every well-chosen word in its place, and each word doing the necessary work. In the first four lines of the collection a sense of vague but threatening menace is swiftly evoked:

The unseen night creatures – scaled and feathered

for their occult ceremonies – rasp and call outside

in the dark beyond the half dark that

surrounds this marbled, half lit house

(‘Questions of Travel’)  

Such deft verbal economy is a feature of the wide variety of poems that appear in The Book of Falling and plays against often surprising content. The first three poems are conventional poetic monologues as though the poet were setting out his stall and proving his ability. At the same time the subjects are anything but conventional. Elizabeth Bishop packs to travel; Sylvia Plath looks at her life on her 80th birthday; Marilyn Monroe divines the future and amongst other things, ‘…see[s] who will be forgotten first/ Queen Elizabeth, Molly Bloom, or me.’

These are followed by word play, short sequences about family, a group of satires and elegies, poems about urban life, as well as ‘Three Photo Poems.’ The latter is a new genre to me: three sequences which juxtapose very short texts (one of the sequences is made up of ‘found poems’) and photographs. 

The juxtaposition of pictures, either of the mundane, as in the sequence about bathrooms, or the family photographs which on closer inspection look anything but mundane, with short pieces of text, lead to the second reason you should read the book.

On a first reading you can never tell what’s going to be on the next page. This is a defining characteristic of the other two books of McCooey’s poetry I have read, and unusual in single author collections, where formal and thematic similarities tend to be on almost every page. The variety here is held together by a unified view of the world, a laconic wit, which takes pleasure in the commonplace while recognising how strange it is. Take his ‘Rain Poem’:

And as if someone uttered the trigger word

rain begins without ceremony.

But it’s not ‘driving rain’;

it’s just sitting outside

engine idling over the neighbourhood.

The poem could stop there, but it turns into something more than a pun and a neatly turned image.

It doesn’t give a damn

And then, like a poem ending

you look out the window

and the rain has stopped.

The birds have returned and the wind

has begun its invisible cover-up job.

Many of the poems present the everyday and familiar, but alter the point of view just enough to destabilise the way you’re used to looking at the world – Freud’s Uncanny perhaps, without the baggage attached to that word.

When was the last time you thought about how strange bathrooms are? ‘Bathroom Abstraction #3’ begins: “Windowless bathrooms are the cave of modernity”.

What you encounter as reader is an intelligence moving through time, and recording the variety of experience, taking interest and pleasure in the world – and above all wanting to share it with the reader. There are numerous single author collections where the reader is left feeling his or her presence is not required – or perhaps only required as an anonymous cheerleader who proved their devotion by buying the book.

If a poem can be a space for thinking through and in language, McCooey’s poems invite readers to look without telling them what to think. A short example is ‘Australia’:

Dropping my son at school.

It is ‘Art Day’;

students are to dress up

as their favourite artist.

I see a kid dressed in white.

He has sunscreen on his nose,

And carries a cricket bat.

This is both bemused and amusing, but open to different ways of being read. There is the traditional art community criticism of Australian attitudes towards ‘the arts’ in a sports-mad country – a criticism of the arts community’s failure to penetrate the education system even on a school day ostensibly devoted to ‘Art – or a wry celebration of the artistry of Australian cricketers, who can flog a rock-like ball a long distance with enough balletic grace to suggest cricket is indeed an art form. The poem holds all these possibilities (and others) open for the reader.

And finally – this may be a heretical comment: poetry is a highly sophisticated form of entertainment. It provides unique pleasures. Reading book reviews, it can seem that enjoying poetry is a subversive activity. The reviewer usually makes great claims for its importance, significance, ground-breaking genre-bending, appropriate ideological stance on the burning issues of the day, but rarely admits to having enjoyed reading the book under review. McCooey’s books are skilfully written, varied, thought provoking, and above all enjoyable. You should read them.

Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

Seers catalogue

The Prophets of Doom

Neema Parvini, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023, pb., 230pps., £14.95

BENJAMIN AFER welcomes a book about neglected thinkers, but wishes it was more systematic

The self-styled ‘reactionary’ Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez ‘Don Colacho’ Dávila once characterised periods of civilisational greatness as “the summer noise of insects between two winters” – an especially apt comparison when we realise that there is no set guidebook or sure path to making a civilisation great, or even to making or maintaining a civilisation at all.

‘Golden ages’ are mostly noticed only in comparison to a seemingly inferior present, long after they have ended, which makes every reactionary or conservative action a rear-guard one in defiance of overpowering forces. In his new book The Prophets of Doom, Dr. Neema Parvini (known better online as ‘Academic Agent’ – the name of his YouTube Channel – or ‘A.A.’, gives us eleven such rear-guardists, perhaps more accurately termed ‘seers’ than prophets. Their gift is the ability to get a complete understanding of not just their own societies and times, but the very concept of civilisation and the entropic forces that affect it.

The story of how Dr. Parvini came to discourse on such a topic could itself be a multi-volume book. What began as a series of YouTube videos and livestreams in 2017, dealing mostly with libertarian economics but also partly with the week’s headlines, took a dramatic turn in 2020 when Dr. Parvini found himself suspended from his day-job as an English lecturer at the University of Surrey – apparently as part of a hit-job by left-wing students and faculty. Since then, his focus has been increasingly on the decline of Western power, prestige and self-confidence under the rule of a simultaneously negligent, incompetent and malicious internationalist elite. This book marks the beginning of what we might call the ‘mature’ phase of that trajectory. Despite my reservations about the content of this book (dealt with below), there is no doubt that Dr. Parvini is among the best-read living academics on the subject of civilisational decline. 

That breadth of reading is apparent with a mere glance at the cover (a quality edition thanks to Imprint Academic). The thinkers proffered here are pleasingly diverse and idiosyncratic – a necessity when dealing with a topic as broad and monumental as the decline of civilisations. The roster is made up of Giambattista Vico, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur de Gobineau, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Julius Evola, John Bagot Glubb, Joseph Tainter and Peter Turchin. From this book alone a relative newcomer to reactionary ideas can gather that there are moral, metaphysical, economic, racial, mystical, religious and purely entropic aspects to the process, and as such, Prophets of Doom shows us that the thinkers of a yet-to-be-assembled reactionary canon are among the most sophisticate and keen-eyed of men to have ever undergone the intense intellectual disquiet that comes with witnessing decline.

That sense of genteel panic is evident throughout the work of all eleven thinkers and conveyed in miniature, but without loss of effect, by Dr. Parvini. The brief biographies provided are, for the most part, both interesting and useful, without straying as so many such books do into mere historical clutter. There is pathos to be found in some of these simple revelations about a particular ‘prophet’or his work, such as the fact that Brooks Adams awoke each morning and sang a tune of his own making to the words “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it,” or that Count de Gobineau’s work was always basically an attempt to find out why the French aristocracy had been reduced to the lamentable status of bourgeois clerks with titles. The reactionary is always a man driven by his instincts and investigations to warn everybody else, but whose words seem (to borrow again from Gómez Dávila) “absurd when he says them and obvious in retrospect.”

As is to be expected, many of the figures of the book are either ignored by the mainstream Western academies (Adams, Glubb, Evola) or dealt with reluctantly as unfashionable but necessary curiosities of the past (Carlyle, Spengler). It is a genuine delight then, to see Giambattista Vico, a central figure of Renaissance humanist literature, given proper due as a man far ahead of his own time, and in this way perhaps the most literally prophetic figure the book has to offer. Quoting an American thinker, Parvini tells us that Vico:

[M]akes it possible to give a rationalist defence of man’s basic irrationality. He gives a non-religious defence of religion. He gives a non-traditional defence of tradition, and an unconventional defence of convention. He’s a non-historical defender of historical life, particularity, and identity.   

Indeed, Vico has been too much ignored by intellectuals. Many reactionaries would date the most general entropic decline to have begun around 1789, but inversion and subversion of hierarchies and the rise of the cult of Man have roots in the absolutist trends of the early 1600s, which coincided with the popularity of scientific humanism and the growing domination of Europe by its merchant class.  

Dr. Parvini deserves great praise for his condensing of Oswald Spengler’s central thesis of decline into what stands out as the finest chapter of the book – albeit one heavy on first-hand quotation to do a lot of the legwork. Though his name is famous, Spengler remains broadly ignored by the English-speaking academies; at least, his thesis is not given anything like as much attention as it ought to be. This is of course because Spengler is not an author that flatters the liberal-bourgeois delusions of many academics, and as such is indigestible.

There are both formalist and anti-formalist traditions in reactionary writing. The formalist would generally balk at comparisons to politics du jour, but as someone usually more sympathetic to the formalist side of things, I must break ranks and praise the deftness with which Dr. Parvini takes us from the considerations of, say, fin-de-siècle East Coast elites to the general stupidities of our own internationalist masters. It is a sobering moment when, having given the conclusion of Henry Adams’ summation of his brother’s Law (“The world tends to economic centralisation. Therefore Asia tends to survive, and Europe tends to perish.”) Dr. Parvini remarks:

At the present time, when many political commentators track the machinations of ‘globalist’ elites who gather at the World Economic Forum at Davos to plan new and ingenuous ways to ration our energy consumption during an ‘energy crisis’, while rising powers such as Russia, China, and India become ever more non-compliant to the increasingly absurd demands of a West that has lost all moral authority, these prophetic lines will not provide much comfort.

It is a shame then, that aside from the odd comparative remark to highlight the more obvious shared fixations, Dr. Parvini has done very little to give a sense of continuum between these men. A “world class scholar,” as he calls himself, should see the metapolitical necessity of building up a shared wisdom between these names, to build up a cohesive corpus of thought.

I feel bound to remark that this is a strikingly dispassionate work, perhaps a consequence of the author’s rather managerial insistence on value-free analysis. None of the authors featured in Prophets produced great work because they were stolidly neutral and ‘value-free’, and this would be a more spectacular book had Dr. Parvini understood this at the outset. Wherever his talent for droll comparative humour does appear (“Won’t someone think of the curry houses?”) it does a remarkable job of hammering home the lessons to be learned, but always leaves us wishing for more.

Most readers would expect The Academic Agent to have given this work the full force of his rather unique rhetorical powers, especially so if they followed his Twitter account (@OGRolandRat) during the period of composition. A great wealth of literature by and about most of the Prophets was being consumed in what looked like a fit of scholarly passion – as evidenced by the impressive bulk of endnotes at the conclusion of each chapter. The rather brief nature of those chapters though, leaves us wondering if this was not actually something like a fit of deadline anxiety. In any case, the summations of each figure are engaging, and helpful to the newcomer in that they spell out exactly what should make the subject of interest to the reader.

Perhaps the best rule of thumb for this kind of reading is that the more pregnant the silence of the mainstream academies when it comes to a certain author, the sharper and more troublesome their analysis. Names like Carlyle and Spengler are obviously too grand to be ignored, even if the attention they get is mainly of a dismissive nature, but it quickly becomes apparent why the weakly dogmatic, gelatinous minds of some present-day lecturers and intellectuals are incapable of grasping the analysis given to us by some of the Prophets.

How on earth could a progressive ideologue, convinced that we are only a few less racists away from world utopia, comprehend Lt. Gen. Glubb’s End of Empires thesis (publicly available online)? John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986) or ‘Glubb Pasha’, as he was known to his Jordanian colonial soldiery whom he trained and led into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, compared the average lifespans of great empires and discovered that they usually last for no more than 250 years. In such a thesis, our own times are merely the confused, decadent and foolish coda to a cycle all peoples are doomed to repeat ad nauseam, as opposed to the overture to a liberal-progressive stasis-world.

Brooks Adams (1848-1927), a cyclical thinker like Glubb, but one far more concerned with economy and the laws of mercantilism, offers little to sate the progressive ego, which always demands self-confirmation. His excellent and resonant criticism of industrial capitalism might be well received, but his preoccupation with Asiatic races as a looming threat to Western civilisation would surely condemn him as political undesirable. Indeed, I think it is because his warnings about the rise of Asia as a more-than-unfriendly power towards the west seems so terrifyingly prescient that he remains forgotten as “the last and least worthy of the captious Adams tribe.”

The thinker least familiar to me was Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who spent much of his life as a professor in Minnesota. Sorokin takes a highly complex and nuanced view of Western civilisation as a whole, developing a theory of “cultural mentality,” in which he described modern western nations as “sensate” – lacking in absolute truth and living in a state of chaotic flux.

It is never wholly fair to critique something for not being something else, but one does wish that Prophets took a more ambitious approach to its subject matter. I was put in mind of the Very Short Introductions series by the Oxford University Press, books of which unusually hover around the 200-page mark, as Prophets does; but the Very Short Introductions typically concern one author, school or concept. If a clear brevity was the aim of Prophets then it has been well achieved, but when we use the term brevity as a positive descriptor we do so in the context that a good poem or aphorism is brief, i.e. that it feels no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Packed with detail though each chapter is, the length and depth to which the ideas are discussed seems arbitrarily limited. I felt the jarring lurch of a sudden stop every time the vast lattice of endnotes came hauling into view. A subject such as this, addressed by a man as capable as Dr Parvini, could have led to a truly remarkable book. Prophets of Doom is in many ways an admirable work with memorable moments, but ultimately only serves as the briefest beginner’s guide to the decline of civilisations.  

Nevertheless, if one remains unfamiliar with the theories of cyclical history but would stop short of diving straight into Spengler, then this book is most worthwhile. Even an initiate will doubtless find something new in the discourses on little-known writers like Glubb and Adams. Personally speaking, Prophets of Doom was worth reading purely for the chapter on Vico. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Prophets of Doom, it is the root of ‘Don Colacho’s’ remark that being a reactionary is not about believing in certain solutions, but about having an acute sense of the complexity of the problems.

The long road between London and Rome

Faith of our Fathers

Joseph Pearce, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022, 384pp., pb, £16.36

WILLIAM McIVOR is irreligious, but finds much to admire in an account of English Catholicism

Nobody can accuse Joseph Pearce of lacking ambition. Faith of Our Fathers attempts a history of Catholicism in England, and the cultural and social impact of the Church, from the earliest times to the present day. So immense a subject could fill a score of worthily turgid tomes, but this is a fleet-of-foot single-volume study that dances across almost 2,000 years of English history, giving tantalising glimpses, and a surprising amount of detail, into its subject matter. It will surely inspire readers to investigate further those historical periods, or cultural, social and philosophical areas, they find of most interest.

The author is a practicing Catholic, edits a well-known Catholic literary and cultural magazine, the St Austin Review, has written a number of well-received volumes about Catholic literary figures, and the Ignatius Press is a Catholic publishing house. Readers will not be surprised, therefore, to find that Faith of our Fathers is written from a joyfully enthusiastic Catholic standpoint.  As an equally joyful and enthusiastic atheist, this reviewer is not put off by such a fact – better this than tediously ‘unbiased’, dispassionate, indeed passionless, writing – but readers should be aware this history could have been written from other standpoints.

Faith of our Fathers covers three distinct epochs in England’s religious history: ‘Merrie England’ from the legend of Joseph of Arimathea to the coming of the Tudors – secondly, under Henry the Eighth the horrific persecution of the Catholic faith, that continued for nearly 300 years – and finally, as attitudes changed from the late eighteenth century onwards, the rebirth of the Church alongside a cultural blossoming brought about, at least in part, by a growing number of Catholic literary converts.

The earliest stages of ‘Catholic England’ date from the first century, with the supposed coming of Joseph of Arimathea. As Mr Pearce notes, it can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to distinguish myth from history in these early centuries, before England was indeed England, following the Anglo-Saxon incursions into previously Celtic lands. He argues, however, that what was significant is the fact that the myths were believed  – because the populace wanted to believe them, thus indicating a natural affinity between the mindset of the ‘proto-English’ and early Church teachings. This is, I believe, an important truth.

It is a curious fact that religions often migrate from their original point of origin. Broadly, Christianity shifted from the ‘Holy Lands’ into Europe. Islam moved westwards from the Arabian peninsula to the Arabs lands north of the Sahara, but not significantly into the lands to the south. Buddhism originated in India but made most progress in East and South-East Asia, leaving Hinduism dominant in Siddhartha Gautama’s homeland. Doubtless there are many reasons for these phenomena, but I would suggest that there is one major factor at work. The differing religions have their own distinct characteristics, differing greatly in what they preach and how they preach it. The various peoples on this planet also have greatly differing desires, as regards what they seek in a religion. Like plants which are found growing on the soil that best suits their needs, creeds take root among the peoples that most appreciate them and their values. That the early Church took root so readily in early England tells us much about both the early Church, and the early English.

The first part of Faith of our Fathers is uniformly interesting, but it is when we come to the second part that Pearce’s passion for his subject really shines through. The story of how Henry VIII fell out with the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, declared himself head of the Church in England and commenced the persecution of Catholics is well known, but the author’s passionate abhorrence of these events brings them vividly to life.      

Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has considerable resonance for today’s world: wise leaders do not lightly get involved in wars, because of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’. Henry did not declare war on another country, but he effectively declared war on the Church and sought to win over nobles by bribing them with stolen Church land and property. The consequence was that said nobles gained greatly in wealth, and hence power, relative to Henry  ̶  surely not what he planned. There is an obvious parallel today: Vladimir Putin’s desire to unite ‘All the Russias’ was not inherently an ignoble idea, but the method chosen, the military invasion of Ukraine, has had the unintended consequence of creating an anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine that will last for decades, if not centuries.

Henry was, in due course, followed by the Catholic Queen Mary, or ‘Bloody Mary’, as Protestant Whig historians dubbed her. Pearce acknowledges that atrocities continued under her reign, this time against Protestants.  However, he points out that all the atrocities the medieval mind was capable of devising – hanging, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, racking, flogging, etc – were enthusiastically carried out by Elizabeth against Catholics, to an extent that made Mary took like a novice in the atrocity stakes. For example, following the Northern Rebellion against her rule, a merciless Elizabeth had some 800 Catholics hung, without trial. This led Pope Leo V to excommunicate Elizabeth from the Catholic Church. It is beyond my comprehension why this should have irked the Protestant Elizabeth, but irked she clearly was: anti-Catholic laws were then enacted which, by the time of Elizabeth’s death had led to the execution of 189 people, including 126 priests, who were found guilty merely of practicing the Catholic faith. At least they had a trial before their execution – so that’s all right then…

The Jesuit Fr. Edmund Campion, martyred in 1581

Other events during Elizabeth’s reign also illustrate the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. As Pearce points out, at the time of the Spanish Armada, Catholics were still, despite all persecution, likely a majority in England. Philip of Spain doubtless thought of his ‘special military operation’ (where have I heard that expression recently?) as liberating that majority from tyranny. Apart from the fact that the Armada was a naval disaster, it also meant that Elizabethan spin-doctors could portray it as a great patriotic triumph: a major foreign power had been prevented from invading England, thanks to gallant Protestant defenders. The further persecution of ‘traitorous’ Catholics could then be justified.

For almost 200 years after Elizabeth’s death, Catholics continued to be persecuted, until by the early eighteenth century there were no monasteries, convents, public places of worship, and fewer than 100,000 adherents, where once there had been millions. It makes for grim reading: one is left with the unpleasant feeling that the message – obviously unintended – of this section of Faith of our Fathers may be that brutal persecution simply works.

As said before, this reviewer is not a religiously minded person. Nonetheless it was with some relief that I came to the third section of Faith – detailing the ending of Catholic persecution, starting with the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778, which led eventually to the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act.

The nineteenth century saw a growing realisation of the bias of ‘Protestant history’. Pearce gives an interesting example: the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen who, “wrote her own ‘History of England’ which lampooned and satirized the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books.”  As Pearce puts it, “In supporting Mary Stuart against the anti-Catholic Tudors the young Miss Austen was countering the pride and prejudice of her times and was exhibiting the sense and sensibility that would make her one of the finest and most perceptive novelists of the following century.”

The author argues that, as the nineteenth century advanced the Church started to experience ‘a second spring’, both culturally and theologically. He gives two exemplars: Augustus Pugin who designed the Houses of Parliament in a neo-Gothic style, and John Henry Newman, a major Anglican theologian and lodestar of the Tractarian Movement, whose conversion to Rome in 1845 caused shockwaves to run through the established church.

It is when we come to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we find Pearce on his ‘home ground’ as it were. (And I am not referring to his beloved Stamford Bridge!) Pearce’s first major work was Literary Converts, his account of a number of prominent authors, whose conversion to Catholicism greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world.  To what extent their conversion enhanced these authors’ contribution to English literature depends on their readers’ sensibilities; readers of this review can form their own conclusions.  However, their conversions undoubtedly greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world. Pearce is now well-known for his later biographies of numerous Christian literary figures, including Tolkien, Chesterton, Belloc and Solzhenitsyn.

The prominence of literary Catholics was one of the factors behind the growth of the Church, to the extent that Pearce can now confidently assert that the Catholic Church attracts more regular adherents than the moribund Anglican Church. A major reason for this, he argues, is that the Catholic Church has largely stayed true to its own eternal values, whilst Anglicanism has sought to find favour with ‘modernists’ by fawning on every passing fad, both religious and secular. It is here that I might venture a small criticism: ask a thousand people what they understand by the term ‘modernism’ and I suspect you will get a thousand different answers. We can make a reasonable guess what it means to Joseph Pearce, but for the avoidance of doubt it would have been helpful if he could have defined exactly what he means by the term.

One of the haunting memories left after reading Faith of our Fathers is the extent to which some people in medieval times – laity as well as clergy – faced the most agonising and degrading deaths, which they could have avoided by renouncing and denouncing their beliefs. Instead, they preferred to suffer the torments of the rack or stake. One is left to wonder what our present-day leaders – religious or secular – would do if faced with such deaths. Would they hold true to their beliefs?

This inevitably leads to another sobering thought: what would I, what would you do in their place? It has been this reviewer’s pleasure to have known Joseph Pearce for over 40 years. In that time, I have seen him stand up to threats, including that of imprisonment, that would have broken many others. He is of course human, so I do not know for certain how he would react if he ever felt his joints dislocating and his tendons snapping on the rack, as was the Elizabethan practice. But this I can say with certainty: of all the people I have ever met he is the person most likely to hold fast to his faith, regardless of the cost. His very personal journey equips him admirably to understand the doubts, fears and sufferings of all those over the centuries who sought to stay true to the faith of their fathers.

Prom perfection

Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE relives a wonderful Last Night

For some it is all about vexillology.  For some the study of the flags being waved defined the evening. For the Daily Mail, the plentiful EU flags were a clear and obvious betrayal of Brexit. But they chose not to notice the quite resplendent union jack blazer on display in a plush box or the St George flag shirt (mine) on display in the stalls.

I had to look up another dominant flag being waved in the hot, sweltering arena. It was the flag of Norway to honour the statuesque mezzo soprano Lise Davidsen. Her voice soared around the Royal Albert Hall as she embraced arias by Wagner, Mascagni and Verdi. She stands tall – indeed, the same height as conductor Marin Alsop even as she is perched on the conductor’s podium. Lise’s dresses (three changes) were wonderfully theatrical and created for her for the evening by Norwegian designer Carejanni.

The programme was diverse, adventurous and traditional. The perfect mix. Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei was played with great sensitivity by star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who for one piece took up a solo location in the centre of the arena, giving the ardent Promenaders, many of whom had queued since early that morning, a privileged view.

Marin Alsop in action in 2017. Image: Mastrangelo Reino /A2img. Wikimedia Commons

We had three world premieres with the composers present and spotlighted after the performances – James Wilson’s 1922, Roxanna Panufnik’s Coronation Sanctus and Laura Karpman’s Higher Further Faster Together. You felt the strong guiding hand of Alsop in these choices. She is a pioneer of new music and, as she said in her closing speech, gender equality in classical music. She was even brave enough to mention Aberystwyth as a location of a Proms concert next year. She admitted she had been practicing the pronunciation all day. I imagined the maestro stalking the back rooms of the RAH not with a Verdi score but a guide to Welsh place names. Let’s hope Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiligogogoch puts a bid to host one year. Marin will certainly earn her fee.

It was a party atmosphere but tempered by reverence for the performers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out, and the loudest sustained cheers were for the BBC Singers, once threatened with extinction but now sort of reprieved (we must remain vigilant to keep them a going concern). The BBC Chorus was full of gusto for Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory and the concluding Auld Lang Syne when our collective voices drowned out the orchestra. Marin turned to conduct us all as balloons were sent soaring and crackers were set off almost in time to the music. This was a profound, passionate celebration of classical music with the barriers of elitism and traditions dissolved into pure joy.  In one evening we had the soaring wonders of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the festive and glittering Coronation Sanctus of Roxanna Panufnik composed for King Charles III’s coronation service and the theme from the upcoming film The Marvels by flamboyant US composer Laura Karpman with Marvel Comics celebrating super heroines; very appropriate given Marin Alsop’s absolute control over the proceedings. Super Marin, perhaps.   

Last Night of a distinguished Prommer

MARTIN GODLEMAN witnesses Sir Simon Rattle’s LSO swansong

Sir Simon Rattle. Image: Monika Rittershaus. Wikimedia Commons

I should have had a more pronounced focus on advanced ticket sales of Prom 56 when I casually noticed that Simon Rattle would not only be present at the eight week festival of music, but there to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No.9 [27 August, but available until 9 October on BBC Sounds].

Rattle, himself British-German, was born in Liverpool in 1955, the same year that the International Gustav Mahler Society was established. Needless to say, the concert had sold out almost immediately by the time I had become aware of it. Fortunately, thanks to a generous and industrious benefactor, I managed miraculously to procure a seat for myself just a week before the event.

Mahler, an Austro-Bohemian, actually earned his living at the turn of the 20th century as a conductor of opera, interpreting the stage works of, amongst others, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. His was a career that led to his post as director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. On his days off, most of which he must have spent travelling across the world from concert to concert, he managed to somehow find time to attend to his other passion as a composer, one that brought him little financial success in his own lifetime, but one which, thankfully for us, he never abandoned.

Perfect then that Rattle, whose lifespan covers the years over which Mahler’s reputation as a composer has been established, should conduct him. Equally sublime that Rattle, for whom this is a final UK outing as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, should choose to conduct Mahler’s farewell symphony, the ninth. Rattle himself was knighted in 1994, eight years before becoming principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, then taking on the challenge of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at his opening performance in September 2002, almost exactly 21 years ago.

Gustav Mahler

I had been fortunate enough to attend Mahler’s ninth at the Proms before in July 2011, when Sir Roger Norrington conducted the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in his final concert with them. The appeal of this piece of music to orchestrate a professional farewell from one’s role as principal conductor of a world-renowned orchestra was therefore not lost on me, or indeed Rattle. Few conductors are recognisable from outer space, but I’d wager that any alien with a penchant for classical music would immediately recognise the white, crimped locks of Rattle, monochromous tonight against his smart black livery.

Rattle takes initially to the podium to conduct the BBC Singers performing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine, a cantata, a hymn to freedom, dedicated to Picasso and composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. The BBC Singers were also behind its premiere in London, in English, on Palm Sunday, 25th March 1945 – the score having been smuggled over to the UK five months before the war ended. A beautiful and intense choral work, chosen specially by Rattle who has described it as ‘profoundly moving; one of the greatest masterpieces that people don’t know.’

It was tonight the perfect appetiser for the evening’s main course, radiant in energy and harmonic, a choral masterpiece against tyranny. Rattle makes a point of leading out Sofi Jeannin, the Swedish chief conductor of the BBC Singers, to share the applause she has paid a central part in promoting. Then, after a short rehydration break, the conductor faces his ‘farewell’ challenge with the LSO, a group of people he has on more than one occasion described as his ‘family’. There is something religious about the falling silent of audience, orchestra and conductor before the onset of a final performance, whether it be of the night, a concert series, or of a career in post.

The ninth is, I would argue, the most self-consciously reflective of all of Mahler’s works, its tone set by the ponderous and lugubrious opening to the symphony, so alien to any of Mahler’s other, bolder dramatic initiations. I am gripped in anticipation by that silence. What a man is Rattle that he can let the whole of this majestic, mysterious and magnificent piece of music inhabit him as he hangs over that silence, ready to conduct.

Through Rattle, Mahler’s work tonight occupies a landscape of sound, narrating a man’s pain as cuckolded husband, unrecognised composer, dying… a man who was intimately aware of his own fate. James Joyce once said that for anyone to be serious about the study of his writing, they would have to be prepared to dedicate a lifetime to the task. For me, this single piece of music cries out for the same attention.

I find myself drawn to the horn section, and tonight the emotion of the opening movement is cradled by the subtlety of their handling of its many hanging moments. With his back to me, I cannot see Rattle’s cheek puffing, his teasing out of the connect between the players and the piece, but I can see them looking up at him, their eyes smiling. His family. The tiny mallets skilfully tap out the ringing of the tubular bells at the edge of that first movement; the climbing and scaling of the players across the terrain that Mahler has challenged them to cove. From the roof of the piccolo to the floor of the contrabassoon, Rattle weaves them in and out of the musical foliage.

It is a wondrous performance, and like the knowledge of death that Mahler hints at across the piece, the experience tonight is ultimately mortal. At the end of the first movement, Rattle nods knowingly in judgement of what we have all experienced, players and audience alike. I wonder at how effective my ears are tonight. Like reading a book at 18 and again at 65, the words, the notes, are static on the page, only ever brought to life by the human experience. As the orchestra move gently, urgently, left and right, I contemplate the cold fact that Mahler never heard or directed this piece himself. It only ever moved in his head, as he wrote it. What would he think about all of this? This performance 114 years on from the writing of it, conducted by someone whose love of the work has given us all this sublime evening. The thought is worthy of something with which to underpin tonight’s unforgettable experience.

Italian light, and Nordic darkness

Image: Stuart Millson
STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms

‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.

There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.

Sir William Walton. Image: NPG (Wikimedia Commons)

For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.

The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.

Image: Daniel Nyblin (Wikimedia Commons)

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.

Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree? 

Decadents abroad

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War, 1929-39

Florian Illies, Simon Pare (trans.), Profile Books, June 2023, 336 pages, £20

KEN BELL says Weimar-era Bohemians failed to respond to the Nazi threat

On one level, Florian Illies’ Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War comes over as yet another lockdown volume produced from the writer’s own resources when trapped in his home. Thus, it draws exclusively on previously published sources, presumably pulled from Illies’ shelves at home, with whatever could be found on the internet added for good measure. I have reviewed quite a few such works over the past year, and I suspect that lockdown works have become almost a niche in their own right. That said, this is a work that transcends its lockdown limitations and presents the reader with a lyrical account of bohemian, intellectual life in the decade that ended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

Love in a Time of Hate is not divided into chapters; instead, the whole work is presented in three sections named Before, 1933 and finally After. Josephine Baker features prominently in the first section as a warning sign of what was to come. As a dancer in the 1920s, this Black-American woman was both famous and popular in Germany, yet when she returned in 1929, the press was outraged when she danced with a White German girl. The Volkischer Beobachter, never one to be outdone in the crude attack stakes, described her as a “half-ape”, and SA men then set off stink bombs at one of her performances. By then, the Jewish producers of the show had come under attack, so Miss Baker cancelled the tour and fled back to Paris in the early summer of 1929.

Others, perhaps the majority, were far more sanguine. Christopher Isherwood travelled to Berlin in his Cambridge tie because he knew that the city “meant boys” whose seductive company he longed for. Ruth Landshoff continued to be the good time that was had by all, and introduced Charlie Chaplin to her favours. Ruth loved swinging both ways and had enjoyed a dalliance with Marlene Dietrich, so spoke with authority when she advised one of her casual lovers: “Go for Dietrich. She has legs you’ll want to run your fingers along all day.”

Looking at this cast of characters, the reader is amazed at just how indifferent they seemed to be to the political events that swirled around them. The hedonism on display in a country where the bulk of the population were struggling to survive, against a backdrop of a state that to many people was only semi-legitimate, was not calculated to make them very popular with the average man in the street or his wife. Unfortunately, the role of the bohemian intellectuals in the rise of the Nazis is not a theme Illies discusses.

Of course, 1933 marked the start of the intellectual exodus from Germany, with George Grosz leading the stampede, leaving for the States even before Hitler came to power on the 30th of January. His satirical drawings – “the fat bellies, the top hats, the naked dancers, the madness and the poverty” – depicted Weimar with searing acuity. As Illies notes, “Someone who kept such a close eye on the age is able to sense when it is over.”

Second only to Grosz in the Nazi hate list was probably Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who drove wildly for the Swiss border on the 29th of January and settled into a comfortable exile in his palatial home. By May of that year, his book had been banned in Germany and all copies in private hands had to be handed in to the authorities. Soon after, Remarque moved to the USA where he spent most of his remaining life bedding film stars and barmaids. The Nazis took vicious revenge in 1943 by beheading his sister.

The exodus that began with Grosz and Remarque continued throughout the 1930s, but it is interesting that very few of these exiles ever got involved in anti-Nazi activities. Some did, such as Marlene Dietrich, but she was quite the exception rather than the rule. Most, such as Remarque, just seem to have settled down into a comfortable exile and lived the same hedonistic lifestyle that they had enjoyed in 1920s Germany. Illies should have made that point. Actually, most of the 1920s bohemians would have made a pretty poor example of a resistance movement, but it says a lot about them, that so few even tried to create one.

Of course, the vast majority of writers, dancers and film makers made their peace with the Nazis, and continued to live and work in Germany. Leni Riefenstahl is the one Illies mentions, which may give the impression that she was exceptional; actually, she was the norm, since most people desire a quiet life and go along with whatever governments want.

Florian Illies has produced a mellifluous account of the final days of post-Great War German bohemianism, without fully analysing just what role hedonistic bohemianism may have played in helping to create the terrible reaction. That seems a pity, in what is otherwise a fine work about a doomed world.