Vogon poetry appreciation chair

Peaks, troughs and organic wholes

This was a Facebook post from a couple of years back; I re-read it and decided it really belonged on the blog.

Just a personal thought. A poem, to my mind, is or should be an organic whole. That being so, it doesn't actually exist on the lyric heights for the whole of its length; it has peaks and troughs. Every line does not coruscate at you, jumping up and down shouting "notice me!" There are quiet, unremarkable lines, which swell up like waves under the surface of the sea until they foam over into something brilliant. These are lines which can easily be rubbished by a careless reviewer, who will point out the "boring" or "predictable" language, but in fact they are paving the way for what comes next. Try for yourself quoting brilliant, memorable single lines from a poem. Do they work outside their context? Would you not often feel impelled to quote the few lines before, to show where they emerged from, what they convey: why, in short, they are so brilliant and memorable?

Now there's a type of poem much written and admired, in fact often known informally as a "competition poem", which does try to make every line a peak. It isn't an organic whole; it is a series of flashy, notice-me lines which don't obviously grow from the poem. I don't care for these poems, finding them shouty and ultimately unmemorable because they are trying too hard to be unforgettable. But there's another thing, connected with the fact that these lines don't seem to grow naturally from the poem. They don't seem to come from anywhere, and paradoxically when a line doesn't come from anywhere, it COULD actually come from anywhere, including where it shouldn't. In fact, when marking student work, this kind of poem rings alarm bells. There might be all sorts of reasons for derivative work, but I'll put forward the notion that thinking in terms of fine phrases, knockout lines, moments rather than whole poems, might be one of them.
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Review of Homesick at Home by Kate O'Shea, pub. Revival Press 2018



We go together like certain words
but you are also my sentence
- "Erotomania"

This is a poet who is extremely interested in words and the ways they fit together. Her thought process, very often, is shaped by word-association: one word suggests another, either via rhyme, or accidental likeness (if puns are ever completely accidental), or ideas that connect them. Sometimes this affects single word choice, as "stock" in the poem "Deer" comes by way of "flowerbeds":
I tend flowerbeds
dreaming of a mother
Alice stands stock-still
amongst butterflies

Other times, it is more as if every word or phrase with a potential double meaning is a junction where the poem may wander off down some unexpected and often interesting byway:
maybe I could save up all the dust
in words and bookstores libraries
put it in the fog bank
an offshore account for tax avoidance
- "The Old Nubble Light Foghorn"

The minimalist punctuation is part of this: the less you use, the more possible meanings language acquires. Thus, in the ending of "The Doll's House",
I am apparent
in the language I write
there are no clocks
but I have time
it would be possible to put a full stop either after "apparent" or after "write" and change the meaning radically – "I am apparent in the language I write" or " in the language I write there are no clocks". This happens fairly regularly in the collection; the result being not that one needs to choose one meaning, but that the poet can have it both ways.

There are times I feel left behind at some junction, while the poem careers off into the distance. In the opening five-poem sequence, "The Somnambulist Who Stood Still", I feel I am totally missing something. It isn't a matter of trying to tease out meaning so much as intent; I can't figure out what she is trying to do in it, to the extent that I can't even see anything linking the five poems. I am seeing the connections between words (mainly via sound, in this case) but whatever deeper connections there may be behind the word-games aren't getting across to me. By contrast, in one of my favourite poems in the collection, "Hades Has Gone To Ground", I can freewheel happily along with a thought-line that involves Kore (Persephone as maiden goddess) getting thoroughly mixed up with core, as in apple. Hades, at a loose end during one of his consort's summer absences, is a curiously engaging character:
Hades didn't know what to do
so he bought a white sliced pan and tinned fruit
he enjoyed trips to the local-shop-cum-post-office
and really only wanted a stamp

My other big favourite would have to be "Parable of a Polish Émigré". This plays with words too - try working out the number of possible meanings in
the waves lap
note a lapse

but it goes beyond that to something deeper. The thought-line is there, but is the kind you react to before you analyse it.
The Polish woman said;

you can't abandon me
now that I am dead.

I must go home.
I have lived
in white cities
with stones
and birds
and tall people
and donkeys
The collection's title, Homesick at Home, indicates a sense of alienation, of not-belonging, which perhaps comes through most strongly in this poem but is elsewhere too. It does feel a bit like reading an émigré poet, though she is not one – unless, perhaps, she feels most at home in the country of words.
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Review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart, pub. Eyewear 2018

This is a first full collection by a poet who divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade as a blender and export manager. It's nearly always good news when a poet has a career completely divorced from poetry; it provides a whole hinterland of language and imagery plus that sense, for the reader, of assurance with the material, of listening to someone who knows what he's talking about, and indeed some of my favourites in this collection are the short sequences "Dos Vinos" and "In the Wine Trade". In the last section of the latter, "Final blend", I like the playfulness of the unforced comparison:
I pour and sniff, line up bottles
and row after row of glasses -
50/50, 60/40
80/20,90/10,
playing percentages for keeps.

When they're blended, neither can leave:
one lends smoothness, one offers bite,
their bodies meshing and lifting.
I know this couple's right.

Most of the poems are short, some very short, and a lot of them hinge on an object or incident being used to be emblematic of more than itself, perhaps because many concern loss, memory or change. This is a technique that can work well if you hit the exact right note, the one your readers will recognise from similar times in their own lives. In "3B", the second poem of the sequence "Debris", the object is a pencil which belonged to a dead father (I am interpreting here because he never actually says so, but I think the inference here and in other poems is reasonable).
Thoughts are unloading when the pen conks out,
but a dark rummage locates your pencil
perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife,

and words have scampered across the paper,
racing against the tip before it blunts
and a sharpener peels your work away.

Here it is not even precisely the object that becomes emblematic of loss and change, but rather the way it was used; the difference in the method of sharpening. The phrase "your work" elevates the father's act of paring the pencil-point to a kind of creativity in its own right, now, ironically enough, erased in the service of the son's creative impulse.

One peril of epigrammatic imagistic brevity is that the shorter the poem, the stronger every word needs to be. In "La trashumancia", (about the sheep parade in Madrid), the migrating sheep are "walking the streets unthinkingly/like Monday's flock of commuters", and I thought that likeness too predictable, indeed close to cliché. There were also a few "so what?" poems that didn't seem to me to go beyond observation: maybe I'm missing something, but "El Castillo de Villalejo" seemed to me to amount to "I climbed a hill", and even at only 8 lines that's a bit over-extended unless one can make something else of it.

But more often he does manage to catch whatever it is in an incident or object that goes beyond itself. In "Making Paella With David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:
Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.
That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect. Many will know Stewart from his lively and thoughtful poetry blog, Rogue Strands. I hope it isn't his work on that which has caused this collection to be twenty years in the making, because I would like to think we shall see another collection of his own work, especially if he writes more about his rather fascinating profession.
Seal in Shetland

Review of The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson, pub. Two Roads, 2018-02-17

First of all, this is not another selkie tale. I feel bound to stress this because the title nearly put me off – the seal-woman folk motif has been so over-used in poems and novels as to be boringly predictable and I'm fed up with it.

In fact it is a fictionalised account of the 1627 slave-raid on Heimaey, Iceland, which netted some 250 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. One of the few who returned was the pastor Olafur Egilsson, released to try to persuade the Danish king to ransom his subjects, and Olafur left a memoir. His wife was ransomed and came home a decade later; the novel is her (largely imagined) story.

This raid was part of the coastal depredations of the Dutch renegade turned Barbary corsair, Murat Reis, who also enslaved over 100 people from the Irish village of Baltimore, and I was attracted to the novel both because he's someone I've written about before and because it promised to draw on the Icelandic sagas I also love.

"Story" is an important concept in the novel: throughout it, people reconstruct their own lives in stories, which do not always tally with reality but are generally easier to live with.
"Do you remember, Mamma? You said that if we were parted one day, we would be able to meet whenever we wanted inside our own heads, like you do with Egill and Helga and Pabbi."
She reaches up to Asta's face and strokes her damp cheeks. "I was practising when I saw you. It's like going into a room, isn't it? You're inside a story that isn't really true but it makes you feel nice while you're there".

Magnusson is good on the culture shock of the new which hits Asta in Algiers, also on the mixed feelings of those returning to their native lands – for women, who would be engaged in household drudgery wherever they lived, there were some benefits to drudging in a city with running water, and they must have noticed ruefully the return from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and spices to one based on cod and puffin. Asta's changing relationship with her husband Olafur is well sketched too. But in the book's mid-section, the decade in Algiers, I don't get as much of a feeling of time passing as I would like. Magnusson has written several books but this is her first fiction, and I'm not sure it quite has the novelist's focus which, unlike a historian's, can zoom in and out, sometimes dwelling and sometimes glossing over. The voyage of the slave-ship is well drawn, as is the journey home, but I think both go on too long for the proportions of the book. I also wonder if the fashionable present-tense narration makes it harder to sense time passing.

She is good on character though, as when, on their arrival in the city, Olafur's insatiable intellectual curiosity informs his reaction:
Squinting up, Olafur notices that the copper fretwork […] is moulded with flowers, quite exquisite, where the metal is joined. The alley ends in front of a great wooden door adorned with rows of iron studs and framed by an archway of stone sculpted with more flowers, each with a disc at its centre and a fan of petals. Like the rays of the sun, Olafur decides. (Asta, miserable with heat and the hungry squalling at her breast, sees only a door to get through and the prospect of sitting down.)
The warning of the seal-woman (yes, there is one of sorts) does not really work if you know the sagas (and many readers, surely, will know Gudrun Osvifsdottir's words to her son). Not only is it obvious what the seal-woman is on about from the moment she speaks, it never becomes clear exactly what Gudrun's words have to do with Asta's situation, except that both have had more than one man in their lives. I might have known the selkie would be a problem… But the novel is a gripping narrative which holds the reader's interest – a good story, in fact.
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Review of Part of the Dark by Scott Elder, pub. Dempsey & Windle 2017



The title phrase comes from the poem "Drifting Slowly East and Filling":

The man at the helm is no

exception. He's just part of the dark steering you home.

There are quite a few ferrymen in these pages, and indeed boats, piers, harbours, halyards. It is one of the strands of vocabulary that recur, fugue-like, throughout the collection, as do variations on light and dark, snow, the moon, birds (about 10 different species, though blackbirds feature heavily) and the figure of a "lady". There are some clues to the genesis of this latter in the notes at the back. As often happens, she is a composite: in this case, of personal experience and the influence of art, a series of paintings by Maljen Sanchez. One of these provides the cover picture and an ekphrastic poem, "Portrait", which does not so much seek to "explain" the picture as enjoy being bemused by it:
Nothing will come of this, she muttered in Finnish.
Don't worry, he whispered, apart from the pink

all is utterly perfect
. She looked aside.
The sky wilted for an instant.

As you can see from the quotes, he makes interesting verbal music, and never more so than when he is indeed at his darkest. The end of "Captive",

The moon was a glimmer in the stem of her glass,
her look tender as an open wound

is a satisfyingly edgy surprise. There is another stratum of language running through the poems, which is not so much dark as moonlit, and this works less well for me. It includes refrain-words like moon, moonlight, pale, feather, tremor, whisper: the sort of words poets use to heighten emotion. I am not one of those who want to ban particular words like shard or gull from poetry; as can be seen above, "moon" works perfectly well in the right place and with a hint of menace, but context is important and so is cumulative effect. I do think "pale as the moon", as a comparison, is tired enough to be worth avoiding, and in the line "the tremor in my pencil's whisper", I would like to lose either tremor or whisper, because both in one line strikes me as one emotion-heightening, slightly "poetic" word too many.

Much more intense and memorable, to me, is the darker, sparer language of "The Trade":

I saw you in the fields trading the wings.
What did the crows leave in return?
A claw? A broken beak?

And what was that shriek?
You were staring at some furry thing,
small and grisly in your hand. Dead still it was. […]

And the harbor too.
All the freighters are sunk but one

Of all the poems in the book, this is the one I keep going back to; it is haunting because it contains, not "poetic" language, but plain language being used by a poet.

There are a couple of features about the layout that puzzle me. About a third of the poems are double-spaced, and I cannot work out why; they do not have anything special in common that I can see; also three titles are in italics for which, again, I can't see a reason (I don't think they are quotations). I'm not averse to unconventional layouts, but I do like to be able to see some rationale for them; otherwise I tend to waste time looking for one. The book, which is the first I have seen from this publisher, is well produced, a pleasing artefact.

You will be disappointed if you want poems to be like crossword clues that can be solved and filled in; there are plenty of enigmas and ambiguities here, and I suspect some are too personal to be easily decoded. Think of them as word-pictures and you will be closer to the mark. I don't know how many are actually ekphrastic poems, but several sound as if they could be, and gain their power by etching an image on the mind.
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Review of The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry, pub. Seren 2018

The Glass Aisle

The summer's clouds are moving east.
My father stokes their fires.

They do not know it is winter,
that I am already old.

Over the Sugarloaf they go,
full of my mother's songs.

Over the hill's white pebbles,
away, away from the sea.

I have noted in previous reviews how fugue-like Henry's poetry is, how much use it makes of refrain, repetition, variations on a theme. Naturally the longer a poet's career goes on, the more this kind of technique builds up, so that certain words are heavy with significance almost before he has done anything much with them. In the poem above, "Cliff Terrace Clouds", which opens this collection, the words "father", "mother", "song" and "sea" (the two latter in particular) are, for anyone familiar with his work, already charged with meaning and mood, so that when we read "away, away from the sea", we do not even really need the echoed "away" to know that anything headed away from the sea is a cause of grief. This loading of individual words enables a certain minimalism; some of the short poems in this collection are more pared down than anything I recall seeing from him before, without sacrificing anything in power or emotion.

Indeed in the long poem "The Hesitant Song" he is concerned with something he has mentioned before: the re-creation not of words or things but of the spaces between them, the "beat before the singer sings".
" It’s about listening in to the white space, each “bar’s rest”, the place where the poem’s heart resonates. My mother was a professional singer for many years. She sang as naturally as she spoke. What struck me after her death was the silence. How can we hear such silences if we talk over the white space?" (Interview here).

The "glass aisle" of the book's title poem is a stretch of canal above Crickhowell, and that inspired phrase is one of many in which he evokes it:
The wind picks at it,
water feature of its past,
stapled to the land.

An arch makes a moon
that cows amble over
and O it is tame.

                              A river
snuck under a town
and spawned it

and sometimes it knows,
a finch on a twig
surfs the hint of a wave

a duck's wake widens

to a forgery of the sea.

The canal is being viewed through the eyes of a telephone engineer who is repairing a line that crosses the watercourse to an old workhouse, and in the process finds himself "connecting" to the voices of its dead inmates. Their names and trades are from the 1840 census and inhabit the poem as hauntingly as those of Catrin Sands, Brown Helen & co inhabit the nostalgic poems in part 1 of the collection – or, indeed, as the sometimes eyebrow-raising names of Herefordshire apple varieties inhabit the poem "Windfalls". If Henry has a musician's fascination with rhythm and refrain, he has a poet's fascination with words and especially names.

It may have been the pared-down nature of the poems, as much as their consciousness of mortality and human frailty, that made them strike me as unusually and powerfully bleak. On the face of it, there is not much comfort to be had in poems like "The Seamstress" and "The Father in the Well". But there has always been a saving humour in Henry's way of looking at the world. In the middle of the title poem, with its stories of poverty and death, we have
Half-wool, half-air,
small gods, their sphere
a foot above the earth,
the lambs at bridge 114

all calling for the mayor.

(Think about it a moment; it'll come to you.) And indeed, there is a certain pathos about those small voices, but also a sideways trick of seeing and saying that can't help but raise a smile.

There is, by the way, a performance version of "The Glass Aisle", featuring songs co-written by the poet and Brian Briggs, which was touring at the time of publication. Henry is of course a guitarist and singer as well ,and I've no doubt this version will be something to hear. But in truth, there is enough music in the words themselves to echo in any reader's mind indefinitely.
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Review of "The Books of the Incarceration of the Lady Grange" by Andrew Drummond, pub. CreateSpace I



In all Drummond's novels so far, the narrative voice has been key. He tends to choose eccentric, sardonic character-narrators who observe events from the sidelines or get caught up in them in ways they cannot control. They have, however, all been recognisably human… so far. This one calls herself the Cherub of Desire, and though she can take human form she seems to be a spirit who sails, in a globe-shaped sphere, around her assigned dominion of the Hebrides in the year 1739:

To the GOOD LORD the whole of the earth encompass'd so on so forth to each Cherub a Dominion for to watch o'er in which to seek out men to exact tribute and to punish as she sees fit to the Cherub of Desire all that is desirable in the Hebridean Sea.

And here we come to the feature that may put some readers off: the Cherub's manner of forming sentences is not conventional; not only has she, understandably, an 18th-century cadence, she has little time for punctuation. Personally I found I could adjust to it fairly easily, possibly because I have long been a fan of Don Marquis's archy, the poetic cockroach whose inability to work the caps key of a typewriter had a somewhat similar effect. But it's undeniable that some readers cannot handle unconventional use of language and that the novel may be less commercially attractive as a result. I don't know if this is why this novel has been brought out by a self-publishing platform rather than by Polygon, who published his first four books for adults (he writes for children too). If Polygon did turn it down on those grounds, I would urge them to reconsider, and remember that Riddley Walker's unconventional spelling didn't stop it becoming a cult.

Shipwrecked on St Kilda, the Cherub finds her affairs becoming embroiled with those of Rachel Chiesley Erskine, Lady Grange, kidnapped from Edinburgh and marooned on the distant island for being an embarrassment to her husband. All Drummond's novels so far have some basis in Scottish history (even the one set in Russia) and the Lady Grange strand is factual, as are the two letters she wrote from St Kilda, though they were smuggled to her lawyer in Edinburgh by human agency rather than, as here, by the Cherub, who agrees to take them and have a holiday on the mainland at the same time. Thus begins a picaresque which, since she does not exactly go by the most direct route, takes in quite a lot of 18th-century Scotland:

At Allt-coire-uchdachan we stop for the sun is at her highest in the sky the red grouse cackles in the heather there is a fine bridge o'er the road where we may sit take our ease breathe in the parfums of the mountain of the bog of the heather taste the very air upon our tongue heaven upon the lids of our eyes then we mount ever higher. From each turn of the road we gaze down upon the deepest lochs of Loch-aber the vast landskip of Scotland stretched out before us there are distant peaks huge hills fertile glens the precipices drop all around us into terrible foaming cascades truly this is a prospect so magnificent none could with-stand it. We pause at the very heights of the mountain for to take our fill of the wideness of Scotland

The Cherub is just as forcibly impressed, though in a different way, by 18th-century Edinburgh with its mix of opulence and urban squalor, and by the far bleaker poverty of St Kilda. What makes her an intriguing narrator is her blend of caustic wit and a certain outsider perspective which comes of not being human and hence not always understanding what she sees as a human narrator would.

I am not, yet, 100% sure what to make of this novel (I am tempted to quote its end, which is unexpectedly moving, but shall refrain because I don't think that would be fair to the new reader). If I had to, I would theorise that the notion of "incarceration" in something other than a cell, and not necessarily even a physical space, is central to it – Lady Grange, for one, is imprisoned as much by her own nature as anything else. But I shall have to re-read it, and the one thing I am sure of is that I will, as I have all his other novels, several times.

Here beginneth a heartfelt plea to publishers. The man is unclassifiable: his novels are by turns satire, picaresque, realist, fantasy, historical, and I suspect this may make him harder to market. What they always are is unusually well written, thought-provoking, entertaining and above all original. He says himself that he began writing because he couldn't find the kind of book he wanted to read, and it's a fact that his novels are not quite like anything else out there. They are what I want to read, but unlike him I don't feel equipped to write it and the reason I read more history books than novels is that most contemporary novels are bloody dull and predictable. It worries me that he appears to be self-publishing, because he's worth better and will never attain the readership he deserves without someone to do the marketing. If you're thinking short-term, Mr Publisher, please remember that Dr Johnson, for once, made an awful howler when he said "Nothing odd will do; Tristram Shandy did not last". Anyone considering awards for Scottish writers would do well to bear it in mind, too.
Bad news

Criticism and hackles

This arose from another FB poetry spat, but I'm putting it here and linking because of its length.

I have not noticed anyone "telling people what to read", in the sense of saying "You should read X. you should not read Y". Nor do I see anyone telling people what to write – what would be the point; are they at all likely to listen? I see people saying things like "I think X is a better writer than Y", or "in my opinion Z is overrated", or "such and such a genre does nothing for me". But that really isn't the same thing as telling anyone what to write and read, is it?

From personal experience, which we'll come to presently, I would say the real trouble is that people take poetry criticism absurdly personally, and I don't mean criticism of their own poetry. For many people, if you admit to disliking a favourite writer or poem of theirs, it is as if you had peered into their firstborn's pram and exclaimed "God, that baby's ugly!" Passionate as I am about my own favourites, I do not get this. If someone told me he thought the poems of Paul Henry, or the novels of Barbara Kingsolver, were no good, I should think the less of his judgement, but I wouldn't be personally offended – I should probably just conclude that I had the better taste, though I would try not to say so.

But I know all too well that this isn't the normal reaction. It is why I try, these days, not to comment on poems quoted in posts unless I like them (I don't always succeed, if it's a writer I viscerally dislike, but who's perfect?) There's an American writer whose Wise Words are often quoted on my newsfeed. I find her a bit trite and sentimental; she isn't greetings-card verse by any means, but as serious poets go, I would describe her as entry-level. I don't, because not only would there be no point, I'm aware that some of her fans would immediately take it as a personal attack on their own taste and judgement, rather than simply a refusal to share said taste and judgement.

I know this because the only approach to hate mail I have ever had results from my having disowned a poem that, though it became unusually popular for one of mine, displeases me by not being, in my view, subtle enough. I haven't tried to withdraw it from circulation at all; I just don't give permission for it to be reprinted in books, except very rarely for charities and not always then. But it's out there all over the web; I'm not depriving anyone of anything or stopping them reading it if they want to.

All I have done is voice, on my own website and blog, my own view on the thing. Now I have read a lot of fan fiction, some of which was not only better written than anything the original writers could manage but truer to the characters and spirit of the source. So I don't subscribe to the primacy of the author. (Dumas thinks, and often says, that Aramis is worldly, selfish and amoral. He's wrong.) But you would think the author had as much right to an opinion on his/her own work as anyone else. Not, however, according to some of the email I've had. "I get very cross whenever I read what you say on your website about this poem". (Yes, the quick solution to that problem is staring me in the face, too…) "You must try to like it" – aye, there's the "must" word at last.

I think what they are really saying is "you must validate my judgement, or at least not publicly dissent from it". Why they would need such validation I don't know. But I don't think this attitude does poetry criticism much good. I'll be honest and say I don't go along with the view that "it's all subjective". I do think there are valid ways of assessing how effective someone's use of language is. But even if you did not accept this, it would surely be valid to voice an opinion and by doing so, you would not be telling anyone what to read or write, merely what you like to read and write yourself.

I used to have to persuade first-year students that it was OK to voice reasoned criticism of someone else's poems – it was not "rude" or "insensitive", nor was it true, as one once said, that "you can't criticise something when it's sincere and heartfelt" (oh yes you can, it if happens also to be inept, or at least less ept than it might be). It was an attitude most of them grew out of. And yes, criticism can become uncivil and sometimes unfair; replying to such criticism is what correspondence columns are for. But in itself it is not some sort of personal insult to the fans of what is being criticised, much less a prohibition on what they choose to read. It is a disagreement with their taste, certainly, but since when was that illegal?
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Review of Bread for All: the Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick, pub. Allen Lane 2017

"When I went down to the Stationery Office to get it, there were queues of people buying it, and I was looking at it on the bus and the conductor said 'I suppose you haven't got a spare copy of that?'"

One does not generally expect a 172-page Government report, with the riveting title of Social Insurance and Allied Services, to sell 100,000 copies in a month. But this was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which became the basis of the postwar welfare state. This book is the story of how Britain arrived at that point, after around a century and a half of agonising about the causes of chronic poverty and how best to tackle it.

It is a story both of ideas and of the individuals who espoused them. On the ideas front, the challenge was to get beyond the conviction of many that poverty among the able-bodied must be the consequence of moral failings, like drink or idleness, and that any kind of state intervention would inevitably demoralise the recipients and render them even less willing to work. Even now, this has not wholly gone away, but in the nineteenth century it was unquestioned, until research by the likes of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree showed otherwise in the 1890s. One of the most oddly moving things in the book is the conversion of Edwin Chadwick, he who in 1834 had been partly responsible for deliberately making workhouses as unattractive as possible, lest the idle be minded to give up their jobs and move in. This is all most school history teaches about him, which is unfortunate, for Chadwick was that rarity, a man capable of learning better and admitting he had been wrong. The more he found out about working-class poverty, the more he realised that it was intimately bound up with ill health, and that this in turn resulted from the insanitary conditions in which many were forced to live. Like all converts, he then went too far and decided ill health was at the root of everything, which wasn't true either, but at least it had dawned on him that poverty was not necessarily the fault of the poor.

Rowntree's research in York went further, by identifying a five-stage working-class life-cycle of poverty and relative comfort. Basically he concluded that there were only two periods in which such a man might be able to save money. The first was when he first began to earn but could still live with his parents; if he managed to put enough aside, this period might last into early marriage, while his wife too could still bring in a wage, but the birth of children would put paid to it. The second was when his children were old enough to bring in a wage and had not yet left home. Even then, though, they would be near what Rowntree was the first to define as the "poverty line"; there was little spare to cope with illness or other calamity. In other words, the Victorian ideal of a family with a man earning and a wife and children at home did not work for this class, because with few exceptions, one man's wage would not support it. This was crucial, because it meant things could not simply be relied on to sort themselves out; there was something fundamentally wrong with the system. The question was how it could be put right: should wages for men be raised (Rowntree and others thought so) or was the radical feminist Eleanor Rathbone on to something in advocating child allowances? Various committees and commissions would debate these and related questions and methods hotly for the next 50 years, and it is an odd and recurrent theme that the people with the right ideas were often the most abrasive and apt to irritate their fellow-members rather than getting them on board.

One thing the research of people like Booth and Rowntree achieved was to open middle-class and intellectual eyes to a world about which they knew almost nothing and had inaccurately assumed a great deal. Much the same revelation would come to pass during the Second World War, as a result of evacuation, when many well-to-do country people came for the first time into contact with the children of the urban poor and were horrified enough at the state of them to realise that something radical had to be done. This may have been part of the reason for the overwhelming support for the Beveridge proposals shown in a poll by the British Institute of Public Opinion. This support crossed all social boundaries: there was 76% approval in the upper income group and 90% among those who worked in a profession. Henry Durant, the pollster, wrote, sounding slightly bemused, "People's view of whether the Report should be implemented does not seem to have been influenced by their calculation of whether they personally are likely to gain or lose. They seem to have approached the question from the angle of the public good."

The emergence of personalities – from genuinely principled philanthropists like Rowntree through abrasive oddities like Beatrice Webb to Lloyd George and Churchill, both ready to betray any cause at any moment for party advantage – is part of what makes this book much more readable than its academic subject might suggest. The writing style is generally accessible and entertaining. It does have some irritating tics, notably his belief that "as if" can be replaced with "like": phrases such as "it looked like he did not care" grate horribly on the ear and there are a lot of them. But in general he has done a good job of showing what led up to a momentous revolution in ideas of what the state can and should do to make life better for the individual and for society as a whole, and also what a difference this revolution made to people who, for the first time, did not have to decide whether they could afford to call in a doctor, or go about half-blind for lack of spectacles. The book concludes with a timely warning: "Many of those who lived through the war and the difficult decades that preceded it greatly appreciated what had come into being by the end of the 1940s. Yet the generation that followed found it much easier to take for granted something that quickly became central to everyday life in Britain. […] But as the 150 years before the end of the Second World War show, building something like the welfare state is immensely more difficult than allowing it to fall apart."
me

Blog review of City of Brass, by S A Chakkraborty, pub. HarperCollins 2017

I'm a bit of a sucker for anything set in Cairo, also for djinns and afrits and similar beings. So this should be my sort of novel, and in some ways it was. I don't mind magic realism, nor the mixing of human and mythological characters, and the central character Nahri, a young Cairene street con artist from the time of Napoleon, comes over as very believable and sympathetic (also, despite her magic powers, very human).

When the scene shifts from Cairo to Daevabad, populated by various tribes of djinn plus djinn-human hybrids called shafit, those who are averse to fantasy will begin to worry, particularly since in truth, the concept of a race of magical beings looking down on and ill-treating non-magical ones, and especially despising mixed-bloods, is a bit too Harry Potter for comfort. Also, like many novels with a fantasy element, this one has rather too much back-story for the structure to cope with, and certainly too many weird species to recall easily..

Do not despair, however, for it soon becomes apparent that what we have here is less a fantasy than an allegory, and the species it really relates to is humanity. The novel's main theme is schism and its effects, religious, racial and personal. What is wrong in Daevabad (just about everything) can be traced back, first to Suleiman's arbitrary division of the djinn into tribes, then to religious differences that arose between one tribe and the others. The result of these two events has been several centuries of genocide on both sides. People's response to accusations of the various atrocities they and their ancestors have committed is always the familiar one of whataboutery - "what about such and such that your ancestors did?", as if one atrocity justified another. Since djinn live for many centuries, one at least of our characters is among the original war criminals, and one of the novel's more interesting facets is how a person might still be in love with such a character even when she knows what he has done.

It isn't difficult to transfer the djinn wars into human terms - the great schism of Islam, between Shia and Sunni, would probably come first to mind, but there are other parallels; the Daeva tribe, for example, have some resemblance to Zoroastrians but their situation in Daevabad more closely resembles that of Jews in many times and places. Perhaps the key thing to bear in mind is that nobody's hands are clean; whoever is currently in power is doing the oppressing and there is every sign that if the wheel turned, today's victims would cheerfully become tomorrow's tyrants, having learned nothing from experience (much as the Pilgrim Fathers, once safely arrived in America, could hardly wait to start persecuting Quakers).

The attraction of Nahri as a character (for me at least) rests partly in the fact that she is so much her own person, so resistant to defining herself by race, religion or anything else. She is brave, chippy, seldom at a loss for an answer, even when speaking to a king:
"You look terrible; there appears to be a journey's worth of blood on your clothes alone."
"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not all mine."
The last sentence of the book proper would suggest that she is still essentially an individualist, a pragmatist. But there have been odd disturbing hints that she might have begun to identify at least partly with one side, and the epilogue makes it clear that the sectarian faction-fighting is set to continue.

I like the novel for being about big issues - goodness knows that's better than some Aga-saga about Roland and Petronella's marriage breaking up, as if anyone cared. And the actual writing is always fluent and readable. But there are flaws. A few too many loose ends that I don't think were intentional, and at least one unforgivable get-out, when a vital ring turns up in the hands of a woman who had no obvious means of getting hold of it:
Kaveh immediately closed his hands over the ring. "By the Creator," he breathed. "How did you-?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask."
That won't do, and the overload of back-story, invented history and above all, tribal and language names doesn't help either. But it is a page-turner, nonetheless. I'm not absolutely certain whether I shall re-read it, but am not sorry I read it the once.