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[...] poets scorn

The boundaried love of country, being free

Of winds, and alien lands, and distances

Vagabonds of the compass, wayfarers

Pilgrims of thought, the tongues of Pentecost

Their privilege, and in their peddler’s pack

The curious treasures of their stock-in-trade

Bossy and singular, the heritage

Of poetry and science, polished bright

Thin with the rubbing of too many hands

Last Monday Stephanie and I travelled out to Kiama to take in the sights. It was a beautiful day, the sun was causing little birds to queue up for shallow bird baths and the town itself has a lovely series of shops that stock tasty condiments, dessert sweets and some unusual jewellery. There was of course also a second-hand book shop, which I made a bee-line for.

There I picked out this book, as I have always wanted to learn more about Vita Sackville-West. All I really knew about her was that she inspired the Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Indeed she is most famous these days as Woolf’s lover, a great woman reduced to a footnote. I flipped through the book, with its water-damaged cover and dedication dated 1939 – and found on the back page a poem written by the book’s original owner.

So here’s what I am doing folks. I am going to quote the poem in full, here, so that it lives on and survives this decaying book. Just a little gesture on my part to this book lover who was inspired by Sackville-West to write his own poem -

Plus and Minus

What is a tree before the Spring?

A skeleton, a scaffolding

And yet the inner spirit grieves

At the officiousness of leaves

 

When does it most delight the age?

In January or July?

And in the sum of loveliness

How much is figure, how much dress?

George Keogh

Anyway, back to the business of reviewing.

Sackville-West long-form poem is split between the four seasons, beginning with Winter. Each seperate season is allocated it’s own canto and within each of these the perspective of an assortment of labourers, farmers and country-folk is described. The relationship between man and the land he tills is described as an alternating master/slave dialectic:

There is a bond between the men who go

From youth about the business of the earth,

And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave

This same passage leads to what I think is the most devastatingly beautiful line in the collection:

Life’s little lantern between dark and dark

Her purpose is not to condescend to the ‘yeoman’, and ‘shepherds’ cited within their verses, but to celebrate them, frame their labour as an expression of the purpose of humanity itself. Sackville-West takes the pastoral Romantic vision of, say Wordsworth, and  injects it with the individualistic thrust of Walt Whitman. The Land is also passionately nationalistic:

An English cornfield in full harvesting

Is English as the Bible

The English weather is cited as a temperate ideal envied by ‘exiles’, in other parts of the world.

The purpose of the poet is to celebrate and promote such ideals of individuality and nationhood, but also the essential role played by ‘ordinary workers’, in sustaining humanity’s foothold on the earth. In a sense, Sackville-West is attempting to collapse the rarefied divide between upper-class literary society and the working class. High learning may be of no practical use, but the farmer, the bee-keeper and the gardener has a deeper understanding of the world than insensate Romantics:

I have not understood humanity.

But those plain things, that gospel of each year,

Made me the scholar of simplicity

The passing of the seasons is shown not just to require different activities in relation to harvesting and husbandry, but in turn causes the men who work the land to change. The fields that have been ploughed and tilled should not be mistaken for a beaten opponent. Those who work the land should respect it as an ally, a companion. Somewhere in between the free-flowing verse of pastorals and the dry concerns of farming, a middle-ground is sought, where true understanding can be found that outstrips empty talk of Nature(!).

To a contemporary reader perhaps Sackville-West‘s language seems too old-fashioned, but consider the audience she was pitching this work to. The Land received the Hawthornden Prize in 1926, so I imagine her message was heard. Of course the idealism and forward-looking culture that rose up following the ‘Great War‘, would soon be lost..

A socially conscious corrective to Romanticism, beautifully captured.

 

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

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