The Perils of Context

February 7th, 2019

Why it’s always a good idea to check the dictionary rather than relying on context to reveal the meaning of a word: I thought ‘afflatus’ meant farting. Turns out it means ‘a divine creative impulse or inspiration’. I only wish I could remember the context where I read it and thought afflatus meant farting!

Adventures in Bookland: Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

January 31st, 2019

There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, the TCBS, is both an appreciation of the subtle weaving of thought, experience and action, and an examination of that generation, raised at the height of Empire, who bled out in the holocaust of the First World War. If anything, the two members of the TCBS who died in France, GB Smith and Robert Gilson, are portrayed even more vividly than Tolkien himself. It is clear that Tolkien was a writer who particularly required the frank and unvarnished feedback of men whom he admired and who resonated with him: most famously CS Lewis, who cajoled and encouraged the writing of The Lord of the Rings but, Garth’s book shows, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman similarly played midwife to the birthing of Middle-earth through their talks, discussions and shared ideals. For someone who has always been solitary in his creative endeavours, I find this aspect of Tolkien’s work fascinating and inscrutable. I’m also, I think, rather jealous. Would that I might say, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”


Adventures in Bookland: Brian Helsing 1 by Gareth K Pengelly

January 31st, 2019

What would an English Buffy look like? Pretty much like Brian Helsing. Tall, lanky, generally useless, largely clueless, with a stomach for cheap cider, a taste for cheaper weed, and a thoroughly British way with profane language.

So Brian, the world’s worst second-hand car salesman, having been taken for a ride, literally, by a car-buying vampire babe, finds himself unwittingly recruited as a Helsing – a slayer. To everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he survives (at least until the sequel).

It’s all great fun and as unCalifornian as it’s possible to be.


Adventures in Bookland: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

January 31st, 2019

So, you’re the writer who has created the single most popular and widely recognised character in literary history and – you’re thoroughly sick of your creation. You’ve killed him off, sending him over Reichenbach Falls, and still he stubbornly refuses to properly die: a Hollywood villain before films had even been invented. So what do you do now? If you’re Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you set out to create another character as memorable, as distinctive and as iconic as Sherlock Holmes.

Professor Challenger. A genius.  Check. Acerbic. Check. Suffers fools badly. Check.

What was that name again?

Yes, it’s true, Conan Doyle’s new Sherlock wasn’t, on the surface, that different from the old Sherlock. But Professor Challenger never won over an audience in the same way as the resident of 221B Baker Street did. In part, that’s because Challenger is simply a boor, an intelligent one but a boor and a bully, whereas Holmes is never boring and only occasionally bullying, and that mostly to Dr Watson. But that, of course, is the second part of the equation. As with Holmes, the story is told from the viewpoint of the sidekick, a young journalist called Malone (Anglo-Irish if I remember correctly).

With Holmes and Watson, Watson is as important as Holmes. With Challenger and Malone, Malone is in many ways the more complete character – Challenger is a caricature of Holmes – but Watson on his own can’t sustain a series, and neither can Malone.

Nonetheless, the story is entertaining; an enjoyable breeze through early-20th century Edwardian life transplanted to South American jungles.


Adventures in Bookland: Ancestral Journeys by Jean Manco

January 18th, 2019

Few books manage to be simultaneously so fascinating and so eye glazing. The tale of the movements of the successive waves of people that have made and remade Europe is fascinating, and the new science of DNA analysis that allows for the extraction of ancient DNA and its comparison to the modern inhabitants of a country is a salutary corrective to the strong tendency in archaeology and historical studies in the latter half of the 20th century to deny all movements of people in favour of cultural overlay and small groups of elite warriors while the peasants remain, lumpen and unmoved on the land (although these lumpen peasants do, by this view, display a remarkable ability to change languages and cultures at the arrival of a new bunch of guys waving swords). Since all the contemporary accounts of the age of migration talk about the movements of peoples, it’s good to accord the contemporary witnesses some credit for telling what they saw. However, on the eye glazing front, I defy anyone to get through a few pages of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a1a and the like without their head drooping.


Adventures in Bookland: Archaeology of the Bible by Jean-Pierre Isbouts

January 18th, 2019

Coffee-table book of Biblical archaeology. Beautifully produced, with a great deal of reasonably useful material about the wider historical and archaeological context, but written with a definite although veiled Biblical minimalist view. That’s the view, adopted by some scholars, that there is essentially no, or very little, historical value in the Bible. They see it as a theological, cultural and political document, reflecting purely the realities of the times when the various books of the Bible were written, with an assumption that they were written much after the events that they supposedly record. Thus the stories of David and Solomon and the United Monarchy are not a history of what actually happened but an invented genealogy and hence rationale for much later kings. While a strong strand in Biblical archaeology, it’s by no means the only one, but there’s very little in this book to suggest that there any other interpretations of the evidence beyond those presented here. Somewhat disappointing.

Adventures in Bookland: Commando by James and John Evans

January 9th, 2019

Yes, it’s marines in space. Royal Marines. Royal Marines of the Second British Empire. Either that will make you put down the review and dial up the Amazon page immediately or the book’s not for you. If you’re already dialling up the Amazon page, then you’ll soon find out that the Marines in question are downloaded into waiting clone bodies when there’s a bit of a barney brewing, and that they’re proper British Marines – which means understatement in the face of overwhelming odds while still getting the job done with astonishing efficiency and bravery – rather than their gung ho, overgunned namesakes across the Atlantic. The aliens they’re fighting might not, it turns out, be all that alien but you’ll need to read the next volume in the series to find out more, as well as more about the galactic extent of the Second British Empire. For lovers of military science fiction written with true Brit.

Adventures in Bookland: Chronicles of Chaos by John C Wright

December 26th, 2018

Five children who are all its – non-human titans – are raised as humans in a boarding school in England (well, Wales, actually. John Wright is American and labours under the usual confusion as to the relations between Britain, England and Wales) by teachers who are no more human than they are: classical gods and supernatural beings. But the children slowly realise that they are not human, as their powers, all very different, awaken, and their teachers/captors become increasingly wary of their charges. It’s a sort of grown-up Harry Potter/Percy Jackson, but one that takes seriously the nature and powers of the gods. Unlike with the YA stuff of Percy Jackson, the gods are the amoral, ruthless, highly sexual creatures of classical mythology. Wright takes his classcial mythology seriously, and works through its consequences with impressive thoroughness. This seems to have upset a sub-section of readers, judging by the reviews. Reading through them, I note how censorious and proscriptive a culture we have become. For myself, I enjoy the exuberance of Wright’s invention and the humour, both sly and slapstick, that peppers the books.

Adventures in Bookland: The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez

December 18th, 2018

A friendship is an elusive beast, being made of the affections and interests and shared histories, so how much more difficult is it to write a biography of a group of friends than it is to write a biography of a particular person. In The Oxford Inklings, Duriez attempts to tell the story of a most singular group of friends, the miscellaneous bunch of academics, plus an assortment of solicitors, soldiers and doctors, that made up the Inklings, the most significant literary group of the 20th century. While the Bloomsbury Set garnered more column inches during their existence, as did the Algonquin Round Table, in terms of sales and influence, the Inklings leave all other literary coteries in the dust of deleted books. For people knew to the study of Tolkien, Lewis and their circle, Duriez does a good job of relating the parts the less attested Inklings played in the life of the group, particularly Owen Barfield. Lewis wrote, with both philosophical passion and writerly detachment, on the nature of friendship and it is clear that his analysis stems from the central role that friendship, particularly male friendship, as much based on debate and disagreement and mutual, good humoured derision as it is on beer and companionship, played in his own life and work. Without the Inklings, neither Tolkien and Lewis would have achieved half of what they did achieve. So thank Eru and Aslan for the Inklings – the literary circle whose conversations I would most wish to have been invited to hear.

Adventures in Bookland: Athelstan by Tom Holland

December 18th, 2018

No king in England’s history has been more unjustly forgotten than Æthelstan. This forgetting is all the more poignant in that Æthelstan can reasonably claim to be the first king of England. Not many other nations would flush their founder down the memory hole: Washington adorns dollar bills, every Roman could tell you the story of Romulus and Remus, and Napoleon, the founder of modern France, has had more books written about him than any other human being in history apart from Jesus Christ. But on Æthelstan, almost nothing.

Hopefully, Tom Holland’s marvellous little biography will go some way towards rescuing Æthelstan from his obscurity. With all the excitement that the story deserves, Holland whisks the reader back to 10th century Britain, when the Northmen did not merely launch picturesque, TV mini-series worthy raids, but embarked on expeditions of conquest; this was a country that had suffered two generations of depredations, when anyone living near sea or navigable river went to sleep with the fear that they might wake to find their homes being ransacked and fired, and their children being carried off into slavery. For amid the revision of Vikings as romantic heroes, little attention has been paid to the fact that their most valuable booty was human: men, women and children hauled off to be sold in the slave markets at Dublin, the Viking town that stood at the nexus of the slave routes that delivered captured people to miserable new lives from which they would never return.

Æthelstan, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Alfred, and his father, Edward the Elder, was a man committed to defending and instilling civilisation in the face of the barbarians. For, make no mistake, for all their accomplishments as explorers and traders, the Vikings were barbarians. Three generations of the most remarkable family in English royal history had made it their lives’ work to first defend and then to reconquer England, and Æthelstan stood at the summit and consummation of this extraordinary familial endeavour. Then, when all seemed accomplished, all was thrown into doubt when the kings of the Vikings, of the Scots and of Strathclyde united against him. The ensuing battle, Brunanburgh, was ‘the battle’ for a hundred years, the battle that ensured that England would be England, and not dismembered. Read Holland’s book and marvel at the scale of Æthelstan’s accomplishments and how much we have to be grateful  to him for.