Tuesday, 14 December 2010


* Watsonworks 18

December 2010

Comments on Simon Sharma’s claim that
history teaches us who we are

*Digging among the skeletons
Tony Williams reviews the incendiary work of
Barbara Kingsover

Shama says history is good for us
Writing in the Guardian, TV culture and history pundit Simon Shama makes a powerful case for the study of history in schools, and links this to the current situation Britain finds itself in. History, Shama argues, teaches us about who we are; it reminds us, in case we have forgotten, what our identity was and remains, while offering a framework in which young people can find relevance for themselves and the national community to which they belong.

Says Shama in ‘Kids need to know they belong’ 9 November 2010, ‘even during the toughest trials it’s our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture’. The ‘understanding of the identity of us’ is ‘not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us’; quite the contrary, history is about inquiry which resists and probes ‘national self-congratulation’.

Children, argues Shama, need history the most: ‘Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that’s gone as soon as it arrives’.

Fact and fiction
Would a historian such as Shama approve of fiction as history (or history as fiction!): yes; but he backs the case which brought novelists to history in the first place: it is teeming with wonderful stories. Shama confirms that history is ‘so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping’; and his recommendation is for the reinvention of ‘the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly’ as fiction does.

History, whether it is conveyed through fact, analysis, research, seeking and finding, reconstructing, discussion or whether it is presented in fictional form has suffered loss of academic status where it has not disappeared from timetables altogether. The residue of Henry Ford’s alleged comment that ‘History is bunk’ is still with us as is George Santana’s pithy warning that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

Joining the debate
Shama’s Guardian article won plenty of support in the paper’s letters column. Head of history at Royal Holloway Sarah Ansari writes that history ‘faces the challenge of justifying its “usefulness”’ and thus the seemingly inescapable definition among some parties that education is entirely instrumental, all about jobs.

Professor Colin Jones, president of the Royal Historical Society, warns of ‘an Anglocentric vision that offers a one-eyed view of the past’. He believes that ‘schoolchildren need to know about the world in which they live and not just the country they inhabit’. He goes on, ‘they need to understand history isn’t only about “who we are” but also very much about who others are (and were) and how we differ from each other’.

In my own fiction I’ve attempted to carry readers out of ‘the country they inhabit’, away from what Colin Jones refers to as ‘the Hitlerlisation and Tudorisation of A-level teaching’ and in to journeys of exploration, including self-exploration, beyond our shores.

The young characters in Sign of the Swallow, my first story, cross Europe to Italy, meet the young Leonardo. Those in The Bull Leapers find themselves in Minoan Crete, prisoners forced to entertain the crowds in the sport of leaping the bulls.

In Legion of the White Tiger (see illustration), the reader joins an expedition from the middle east to the Great Walls of China, while in The Freedom Tree young British volunteers experience the viciousness of civil war in Spain and witness the horrific (and immensely symbolic) bombing of Guernica (the famous tree of freedom, by the way, survived and survives).

‘Surprisingly absent’
Shama selects a few particular events which he believes young people should be aware of and study. In some ways it is an odd choice. There is no mention of Tom Paine and the 19th century struggle to establish a free press, free speech and democracy in Britain; and this, surely, should be preceded by a focus on the rise of the printed word and its impact on Britain and the world.

In another Guardian letter Michael Leigh offers topics ‘surprisingly absent’ from Shama’s list – the Industrial Revolution, the Enclosure Acts ‘and the formation of the working class’, a ‘story that is being repeated today in the developing world, from South America to China and India, and it has never been more important that it is told’.

Five days later, again in the Guardian, James Vernon, professor of history at Berkeley, California, pitches in his dollar’s worth. First, his concern: ‘History, it appears, is not just in retreat in our schools, it is fast becoming a privilege of the privileged’. Blame may be laid at the structures out of which history teaching emerges or, connectedly, the ways in which it is taught, but Vernon reminds us ‘that the way history is taught in schools is itself a product of history’. He states that every generation ‘shapes the teaching of history around its own preoccupations and sense of itself, but these are always changing’.

Powers of analysis
Shama’s list is only a ‘for instance’ but along with others Vernon believes there are ‘conspicious absences of some of the central staging posts of modern European history – the Renaissance, the Reformation and the global missions of European religions’.

On the value of history teaching Vernon is in agreement with Shama, believing in ‘its capacity to reanimate our civil society and produce an engaged and capable citizenry’, but he disagrees with the assertion ‘that good story-telling will get you there’, asserting the importance of indispensable analytical skills, ‘for citizens who want to understand our present conditions’.

There should be no conflict of interest here between study and story; rather the two should be complementary and mutually supportive. Vernon fears history being turned into pure entertainment.

Yet fiction rarely plays history for laughs, and serious stories are more likely to prompt, rather than deflect, or get in the way of, the worthy aim of encouraging young people to ‘think critically and effectively about the world they live in’.

To think critically
Vernon concludes with the warning that history is not for ‘turning schoolchildren into Britons but by enabling them to analyse the present and to think critically when we hear ministers and advisers offering populist solutions to more complex structural problems’.

It follows that keeping history and history teaching out of the hands of politicians is of paramount importance. When ministers talk of ‘our great and glorious past’, they are not necessarily talking about my history or our history but theirs; one is mindful of Dr. Johnson’s comment about patriots and scoundrels and such attitudes as My Country, Right or Wrong. They are for the most part talking propaganda stirred with heaped spoonfuls of the wishful; and propagandists, as Jan Vladislav has said, ‘rely on people having short memories’, risking ‘new generations having no historical memory at all’.



Digging among the skeletons
Tony Williams reviews incendiary work by
Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes older readers back to times, places and monstrosities they either passed over or might prefer to forget. She is not afraid to dig among the skeletons, mainly left by the US past and its government’s misdeeds at home and abroad.

We might dimly remember the Congo of the 1960s, Katanga, the brutal murder of the socialist prime minister Lumumba and other atrocities, all for the sake of mineral exploitation and in no small measure orchestrated by the CIA. If it is hazy to us, Barbara Kingsolver brings it all back in The Poisonwood Bible, a fictionalised story of a Southern Baptist missionary family transplanted to carry the word of a protestant Christian faith to a previously happily catholicised jungle folk.

Cultural trespass
The author gives a tragically hilarious account of the total incapacity of the preacher and his family to grasp what they had landed themselves into. This is encapsulated in the title, the misplaced effort of the preacher to say “Christ is Risen” in the local Kisanji language which is the same expression for the poisonous root that spreads everywhere. One of the teenaged daughters is totally at a loss, being suddenly wrenched from her school Prom and dumped in a world without her accustomed Piggly Wigglies stores. It all ends in horror and disaster for the preacher, his children and the people of the Congo.

Trotsky laughs!
Try googling Bonus Army + Tiananmen Square and you will get 5000 hits at last try. Then try Bonus Army Eisenhower Patten MacArthur. Better yet read Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna where all will be made clear. This is another of her semi-fictionalised historical accounts, this time set in the Mexico and United States of the 1930s and 1940s. The young Mexican-US hero finds himself in the household of Mexican socialist artist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, at the time when they take in the Soviet revolutionary Leo Trotsky, fleeing Stalin’s NKVD assassins. A heavy time and a terrible topic, which does not prevent Kingsolver bringing all these personages to life with great wit and light ascerbity.

Broken promises
One episode takes the hero to Washington D.C. in 1932 where the Bonus Army of US World War I veterans is encamped in a long and peaceful protest to demand the wartime service bonuses they had been promised but never paid. The disciplined protesters with their wives and children are finally dispersed by the army led by General MacArthur, organised by genial Major Eisenhower and slashed by the unsheathed sabres of the cavalry spurred on by the eager Major Patten.

When the protesters reassembled, MacArthur ordered in the tanks to roll over the Bonus Army tents. The media duly reported two or three deaths, but if you read Kingsolver you will decide which version you believe. Socialist literature has never forgotten the Bonus Army massacre, but it seems that everyone else has and I am in debt to the author for Lacuna for shocking me out of forgetfulness. This an unputdownable well-crafted novel, with not a few laugh-out-loud moments. I had never imagined that I would chuckle at wry utterances of Leo Trotsky.

Thanks, Tony. I hope to receive more contributions from you and indeed from any reader signing in to this blog.

TextDisc Watsonworks:
A lifetime’s fascination with the early Renaissance artist PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
has prompted me to write, over the past few years, a full study of his work – Genius in Context: Piero della Francesca, A Journey Through His Art, complete with illustrations of the majority of Piero’s paintings. These, on screen, have all the clarity and colour that anything but professional printing lacks.

In addition I have focused on one of Piero’s most famous masterpieces. The Flagellation, and compiled an analysis of the various explanations of what still remains a riddle. Masterpiece and Mystery: The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca is a 16-page study, on disc, of a painting that measures a modest 58 x 81centimetres, housed in the Ducal Palace in Urbino. Copies of this are available free to readers (or as an Attachment); orders please through Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk. The papers are also mentioned on the Facebook page of the PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA SOCIETY (UK).

FEEDBACK WELCOME. Next blog, mid-January 2011.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Watsonworks Blog 17


November 2010


Part 2 of a piece based on an article published in The Best of Books for Keeps (Bodley Head, ed. Chris Powling) on writing fiction for Young Adults. Blog 16 focused on why a sense of history is well worth encouraging in young readers; but understanding only comes when it is linked with politics.

Whoever believes that that history does not repeat itself is absolutely right if he or she sticks to the pedantry of detail. Hitler was unique; Franco was unique; the bombing of Guernica was unique, and President Pinochet of Chile was unique.

Tyranny, however, is not unique; nor are poverty, racism, sexism or exploitation. That much we can learn from history, though the root causes of such phenomena are admittedly less the task of the novelist to explain than that of philosophers, historians, sociologists and political scientists.

In tandem
If history is to be effectively learnt and taught it needs to be examined within political frameworks, very specifically the exercise of power. My own take on this, bearing in mind that stories only kick in when disequilibrium occurs (something dramatic happens), is to focus on the abuse of power.

The Freedom Tree follows certain events during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the action, which climaxes during the bombing by German war planes of the Basque market town of Guernica in 1936, the young actors both struggle to survive and search for answers to the questions how and why horrors such as these come about.

The reader sees history through the subjective experience of the characters and along with them shares that experience and, hopefully, asks the same questions why. In Talking in Whispers a story following the seizure of power by the generals in Chile, the event that sets the hares running for Andres is when his father, a nationally popular folk singer, is arrested and imprisoned, along with thousands of others, in the Santiago football stadium.

Response to crisis
Our interest is in how Andres and his new friends, the twins, Isa and Beto, react to the predicament they finds himself in; and here we are addressing wider questions – what can be done in the teeth of oppression, especially what can be done by young people caught in the eye of the storm?

I’m intrigued by the staying power that I believe young people are capable of in crisis, a staying power driven by certain fundamental values; in short a commitment to justice, what is fair, what is a human right. In Whispers 16-year old Andres falls into the hands of torturers. Partly through his courage, party through fortuitous circumstance, the torturers fail to extract the information they require from him about his father and his father’s friends. Most importantly, they fail to destroy his spirit.

One of the interrogators, the Hog, flings off all control:

He seized Andres. He roared not as the hog, not as the hyena but as the bull. He seized Andres as if suddenly he were all prisoners, as if he represented every wrong answer, every defiant spirit, every act of simple courage, every refusal to betray a loved one, every resistance to tyranny. He beat him. He dragged him. And yet it was his own cries which were loudest, his own wailing: his boundless despair.

That is arguably the testament of humanity’s faith in the triumph of good over evil. Yet it might be asked – for the young reader? If it were a universally observed right that children were protected from the realities of the adult world, privileged to escape the hardships suffered by their parents, then caution about putting too much ‘realism’ into stories for the young might be justifiable.

Sympathetic sharing
Children, though, are and always have been among history’s victims. Those of El Salvador, Eritrea, Brazil, Indonesia, Haiti or the Congo know that well enough. Our own children have generally been more fortunate: all the more reason for them, I believe, to at least know the plight of their peers; to sympathise, to empathise, eventually to understand the connection between the happiness of some and the misery of others; to feel a sense of solidarity – if that is not too emotively political a term – with others.

It is that which makes The Freedom Tree, Talking in Whispers, No Surrender, Ticket to Prague, Justice of the Dagger and Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa political. They are about uniqueness but they are concerned with universals: of justice and commonality. There is the danger of young people being swamped by the seemingly universal obsession with celebrity while education has constantly been at risk of being defined as job preparation, an instrumental activity, a galaxy of mission objectives, targets and league tables, bounded by the ever-presence of financial justification and regulation: does it pay; is it value for money?

No hiding place
The context in which we live, write and read is dominated by paradoxes – we are a rich nation, but ‘we’ are prepared to throw people out of work, deny young people the promise of a free education; and every day we hear how ‘our boys’, as the Sun has always likes to describe British armed forces, are doing such a noble job in Afghanistan, while simultaneously we are hearing (thanks to Wikileaks) about coalition troops handing over suspects to the notorious Iraqi Wolf Brigade.

Read further and we encounter official and British military instructions on approaches to interrogation which, with no exercise of imagination, amount to guidelines for torture. As for Britain’s part in Rendition, the full facts will come out sooner or later.

What are young people to make of all this? Surely not to write politically at such times is, on the part of the storyteller, something of a dereliction of duty? I think it is more important now than even in the past, because we have experienced a generation of near silence on the part of young people, crippled as they are by obsessions with measurement, diminishing work prospects and future landscapes overshadowed by debt.

‘Liberal’ claptrap?
In a companion piece to my article in The Best of Books for Keeps, Jan Needle takes the view that too many English novels for young readers are political; this I take it to mean in the sense that they reflect socio-cultural situations which are the product of centuries of political ‘management’ (or class cultivation). True, and he is also right in suggesting that ‘liberals’ are preaching to would-be liberals in secure ‘liberal’ contexts. That’s cosy, not convincingly real and scarcely to be commended.

I would guess, however, that Jan would not baulk at stories exploring the nature of justice, not only in our own, but other societies and also in other times. This I confess, though I hope it will not be held against me: my heroes and heroines (sorry for the stereotypical language, but would ‘protagonists’ be any better?) are generally articulate, thoughtful, serious and curious about where they find themselves in the world.

Words, dammit
That, I hope, does not make the stories unduly earnest, preachy or didactic, but it does acknowledge and affirm the critical role of language, its power of words to clarify, mystify, inspire, deceive, mislead, prompt hope and aspiration, nurture prejudice, hatred and bigotry; words that constitute the channel through which meaning is explored.

Much of the language of narrative finds expression in action, events, dramatic situations, conflicts, decision-making, but all the while it is what we say and how we say it, and what we don’t say, which does the defining. Too often, if not always, those who wield power in society are also the key operators of language, defining situation and meaning, selecting and deselecting according to vested interest.

Thus in George Orwell’s 1984, the meaning of ‘freedom’ is narrowed down to denote being free of fleas. That’s politics. In the stories I’ve been talking about, the purpose has in part been to recognise how the defining power of language is a terrain of constant conflict; and this reflects my own lifetime’s interest in the baleful tyranny of censorship in all its manifestations.

‘Other’ is ‘Us’
These days there is no such place as ‘elsewhere’, no such persons as ‘other’ (though many would persuade us that there are). We may, as the Con-Dem Cuts Coalition would have us believe, all in it together – but only in theory: in practice we have a hare and tortoise situation, and only in fairy stories does the tortoise reach the winning tape first.

Writers are in no position to redress the balance but they have the possibility of articulating in narrative values that address such problems as systemic inequality, the nurture of prejudice, the arguments that ‘There Is No Alternative’.

In Talking in Whispers Andres witnesses the burning of his father’s and his own books. The flames lick indiscriminately at philosophical tomes and children’s books alike. Today’s writer is faced with the challenge of producing stories riveting enough to hold attention in face of mass media competition and the allure of Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and the kind of role-modelling exemplified by TV programmes such as The Apprentice.

Among the difficulties facing writers today is not the risk of having their books condemned and burnt, for that would be an acknowledgment of their purpose and value; rather, in the maelstrom of current message systems, all competing for attention, the writer’s voice risks being ignored, if it is heard at all.


From Anna Perera
First many thanks for sending the blog. Yours are so refreshing to read. I admire the way you’re able to pinpoint and classify my own hazy, unregulated thoughts on fiction and history for Young Adults and can’t help remembering my own experience of school where I longed for unabridged versions and a variety of texts, as well as stories that brought the past to life as a result of writers like you. It was far back but the novelist Anya Seton taught me more about John of Gaunt than Mrs. Whatever-her-name-was, ever did.

As for the snippet of Besieged: The Coils of the Viper, it’s brilliant and I’m intrigued to read more. I can see why you advised me to give away a few morsels of the next book, though which ones is something I’ll have to think about. I agree writers should help each other…It’s the least we can do in this increasingly tough market.

Anna is the author Guantanamo Boy (Puffin), which was winner of the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Book Award (2010) and shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Award and the Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year Award. Her next novel for Young Adults is due out in the New Year.


BACK IN DECEMBER with details of new DISC-TEXTS from Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk available free.


Thursday, 14 October 2010


Fiction & History
On writing for Young Adults…

• New history novel: introduction and sample
• Notes in Passing: Robin Hood

Watsonworks Blog 16

A sense of history
An extract from an article published in
The Best of Books for Keeps (Bodley Head),
edited by Chris Powling.

For me, writing is an interaction between the author and readers, a sharing of things held close to heart and mind. To begin with, I wrote stories that would be sufficiently exciting to stir in the young reader something of my own fascination for history.

I set quick-moving adventures in vivid historical settings such as the Florence of Leonardo in Sign of the Swallow, or among the Minoan splendours of Knossos in The Bull Leapers. The aim was to thrill and at the same time sow a seed-trail in the reader’s imagination, ready to germinate when he or she looked into the past with a more searching eye.

Trenches of Aragon
That old triple alliance of objectives – to entertain, to inform and (possibly) to educate – forms a reasonable basis for communication over distance and between strangers. For the novel, however, it leaves out the crucial role of being there; of being it. In my Spanish Civil War story, The Freedom Tree, the central characters, Will and Griff, find themselves in the cold, rat-infested trenches of the Aragon front, caught in a blazing cross-fire.

Suddenly, in the pitch darkness, they are eyeball to eyeball with a youth of their own age from the enemy side, as terrified as they are. What happens next, and how it affects the two friends, their relationship, their attitudes to the conflict and to death is unique to them and, I hope, to the reader.

For a split second, if the illusion has been well-enough staged, the reader is the experience: the mediation of the author, words and paper are forgotten in the same way that, with a film, the reality of celluloid, screen and light gives place to a reality of direct identification.

Mutual discovering
If that amounts to authorial power, then the irony is that the author rarely, if ever, knows what response there has been to that power. Yet the writer is not only talking to, sharing with the reader, but is undergoing his or her own route to discovery. To be interested in history is but a small step to the altogether more dynamic condition of recognising –and perhaps developing – a sense of history. Without this, it is difficult, in my view, to make sense of the present.

Nothing unique?
Whoever believes that history does not repeat itself is absolutely right if he or she sticks to the pedantry of detail. Hitler was unique; Franco was unique; the bombing of Guernica was unique, and President Pinochet of Chile was unique.

Tyranny, however, is not unique; nor are poverty, racism, sexism or exploitation of the weak by the powerful. That much we can learn from history, though the root causes of such phenomena are admittedly less the task of the novelist to explain than that of philosophers, historians, sociologists and political scientists.

Part 2, on the ‘necessity of politics’ will appear in Blog 17, due mid-November 2010.

On the stocks, historywise…
Just completed, a story set in medieval Florence at a desperate time in the city’s history. Here is an Introduction, followed by the opening pages of Besieged! The Coils of the Viper.


The mercenary armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, have brought terror to Italy. Cities such as Siena, Perugia and Bologna, have either been overcome in battle or been terrified into submission.

Florence alone stands out against him. It is the burning hot summer of 1402. For 14 months Florence has been cut off by a blockade mounted by the Viper, his intention to starve the citizens until they are too weak to resist. The River Arno has been reduced to a polluted trickle. Water supplies have dried up; plague stalks the streets. Visconti’s final order to attack the city is expected hourly. If Florence falls to him, all of Italy will become subject to his tyranny.

What was once the richest and most cultured city in Europe has been reduced by hunger, thirst and disease. A centre of banking, crossroads of trade, it has been cut off from all contacts with the outside world. Its streets are deserted except for rats scavenging on the corpses of those struck down by the Black Death or those who, in stepping out into the night streets in a desperate hunt for food, have been robbed and murdered by roaming gangs.

In the refectory of the priory of the Dominican brothers, the Master, one of Florence’s most distinguished artists, and Luca, his apprentice, see no choice but to continue with the great fresco that the Master has been commissioned to paint. They know that once Visconti’s mercenaries breach the city walls few citizens will survive the brutality that has become the Viper’s trademark.

Yet artist and apprentice continue to mix their plaster and their colours and prick out the lines of what might one day be one of Florence’s proudest masterpieces. There is still time, it would seem, for love. While escaping the heat of the August sun and sketching the masterpieces of Giotti in the gaunt but magnificent Santa Croce basilica, Luca becomes aware of the girl in a brown robe, hovering in shadow as if compelled to look over his shoulder at what his skilful hand commits to the page.

Will one of them pluck up the courage to speak?

1. Master and Apprentice

Resting his brush for a moment and talking up his spirits, the Master says, ‘A monster he may be, but I have it on good report that the Viper has a soft spot for the arts’. The Master is stooped, well into his fifties, a little unsteady on his feet, but bright eyed; with the paintbrush in his hand, bursting with ideas and energy.

He adds a touch of azure to the Madonna’s gown. ‘On a good day, when my Lord of Milan has fattened his belly on venison, suckling pig and sated himself on our Tuscan wines, he might spare a drop of mercy for us poor artists. After all, who will record his glories for posterity if our talents are extinguished?’

In reply, Luca grunts, ‘Doesn’t that make us slaves, Maestro?’

‘True, at the very best, we are mere servants at the tables of the rich.’ The heat of the afternoon is speeding up the drying of the fresco. ‘More lime, Luca, I think, before the light fades.’
The Master’s apprentice works swiftly, adding water to the lime mortar, mixing it into a thick paste. There is anger in his movements. ‘And the people, Maestro, will the Duke’s mercenaries spare them once they are through the city gates?’

Luca has just turned eighteen. These days he lives in a fury mixed with a sense of helplessness. His dark hair tumbles as far as his bony shoulders and his deep brown eyes appear to blink back emotions that threaten the steady eye and hand he needs in his work.
‘Luca, calm yourself. We don’t want two of us with hands shaking so badly we can’t draw a steady line. How often do I have to remind you? While we work, we dismiss our worries, put awkward and depressing questions behind us.’
‘I do my best, Maestro, to cool my blood. But it boils at the thought of how we have been brought low; and at how you are suffering for lack of a decent meal in so many weeks.’
‘We’ll not get fat on self-pity, Luca.’

The vast end wall of the priory refectory is closed off by wooden scaffolding, but light from the high windows floods across the half finished fresco of the Madonna and Saints in Majesty. The prior and the frati – brothers – of the Dominican order had, with this commission, planned to outshine all rivals in the city, and at least to match the masterpieces in the mighty churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.

Alas they are no longer present to witness the evolution of the Master’s work. At the news of the advance south of Visconti, Lord of Milan, with a vast and seemingly invincible army, of his rout of the Bolognese at Caselechio and the city’s surrender, of the terror that spread faster than the Black Death as his mercenaries plundered every town and village they passed through, the Dominican brothers quietly and under the shelter of darkness, made their escape, taking refuge in a sister abbey in the Casentino.

At first, the Master had been outraged at the departure of the frati. ‘Huh, Dominicans – the Hounds of Heaven, yet what do they do? At the first whiff of danger, with not so much as a blessing for those left behind, they high-tail it into the hills. Yellow-livered desertion, I called it. And do you know what the Prior’s answer was, Luca, when I made my objections?’

Luca has heard the tale often enough. He waits patiently to hear it again. ‘Says he, with a perfectly straight face, “We are not escaping Gian Galeazzo, Maestro, we are simply avoiding the stifling heat and intolerable dust”.
Oh dear, mia colpa! – my mistake. The Lord forgive me for misjudging their motives. Heat and dust – of course!
‘The scales of doubt fell from my eyes when the good Prior explained how the cooler air of the Casentino is more amenable to the contemplation of sin and sacrifice than the stifling odours of the city.

‘When I happened to mention the little matter of ten thousand cut-throats advancing like locusts from Bologna, the Prior assured me the frati would pray morning, noon and night that Florence be spared.
‘I felt so overwhelmed with gratitude, I nearly throttled him with his chain of office. Huh! Pious hypocrites. Give me a Franciscan every time!’ Still, the Master has had to admit, ‘They left us with provisions, though the wine they spared us is worse than dishwater.’
Luca corrects his master’s tenses: ‘Was worse than dishwater, Maestro. Our provisions ran out days ago.’
The Master sighs. ‘I am unhappy, Luca, that you have had to become a scavenger.’
‘Scavenge or starve, Maestro. There is no choice.’


Notes in passing…
US Award
Glad to report that Michael Scammell’s biography of Arthur Koestler, featured in Blog 12 (Lest We Forget: The Power of Biography,16 June 2010) has been awarded the 2010 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

A better than expected Robin
Ridley Scott’s take on Robin Hood was damned with faint praise by the critics. The feeling seems to have been that our national hero should have been played by an English actor. Yet both Russell Crowe (Robin) and Cate Blanchett are Australians – and where did Australians come from in the first place?

It was an honest telling. For the first time in a Robin Hood movie the ‘saintly’ Lion Heart comes out of the tale badly; and deservedly. As a squady in Richard’s retreat from the crusade, Robin earns himself a spell in the stocks for saying the unsayable, recalling King Richard’s order for the slaughter of several thousand civilian Muslim men, women and children following the siege of Acre; Robin even mentions the Hill of Ayyadieh, where it all happened on 20 August 1191.

What’s particularly interesting about Scott’s choice of narrative is that Robin is no outlaw; indeed his life as an outlaw only begins as the film story ends. We encounter a differently calibrated King John in this version: a scheming, untrustworthy knave, indubitably, but when the French invade he leads his troops valiantly; Robin and he are almost comrades.

Given the power and confidence of victory, John then renegades on his promise to guarantee the liberties of the people, thus turning Robin Hood from national hero to outlaw. One wonders, is this ‘prequal’ hinting at a sequel, or is it a neat piece of historical reconstruction?

Either way, with convincing portrayals by Crowe and Blanchett, and a memorable vignette by Max von Sydow (the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), the film works, with some splendid set-pieces and top-quality photography.

The Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern is deservedly drawing in the crowds. It's thematically rather than chronologically presented so you can start at the end or the middle of the displays without losing the thread. You may be advised to do this considering the queues that have formed by 11.00 in the morning. Take care to step over the school kids busy committing Gauguin to paper.


Wednesday, 15 September 2010


James Watson


Blog 15
The Bull Ring
Three Thousand Years When Nothing Much
Happened: a Derbyshire reverie

Takes some finding: not a lot of people stop in Dove Holes; and unless you’ve read the guidebook you could be forgiven for walking past it without noticing. The locals do. Asked a Mum hastening home with her child from playschool: ‘Ancient site? Ooh, don’t know about that. But there’s this field where they do the fireworks.’

At least 2800 years old and it’s still scarcely on the map: an earthwork, bereft of fallen megaliths; a grassy entrance between modestly-raised grass furrows, a grassy exit. And yet a scene to wonder at.

They have it all at the more famous Arbor Low, and many more visitors, dropping a pound in a box before passing through a farmyard and to a site both ancient and famous; yet somehow a location steeped in loneliness.

One comes away with the wrong impression, for both Arbor Low and The Bull Ring were meeting places, and probably for hundreds of people, decade after decade, century after century.

Where did it all go?
Today, we have no time. Today, when people meet, they’re as likely to say, ‘Doesn’t time fly?’ as commune about the weather. Time – where did it go? What’s left of time is a chorus of ‘If onlys’. But not for the ancients assembling at the henge sites (there are scores of them in Derbyshire alone).

We know practically nothing about these sites, who actually used them, what they used them for, whether they were for worship or mainly communal gatherings, ancient equivalents of Appleby or Glastonbury. Was there music; were there games, buying and selling, parleys with sun, moon and stars?

Yet while the Bull Ring offers us less than Arbor Low in terms of furniture, its location gives us more clues. Its circular mound, with evidence of an outer rim, is more spacious than Arbor Low. The solitary tree in its centre has no ancient lineage; what counts, though, is what surrounds the Ring – a living community, and thereby ancient and modern connect.

The circular mound, with evidence of an outer rim, is still distinctive, though the mounds would have been higher and the ditches deeper. What the site was like has to be left to the imagination, for since it was abandoned there have been enclosures, the creation of a cemetery and the layout of football pitches.

Unlike Arbor Low, the Bull Ring remains a centre of community activity complete with a primary school and a children’s playground. And it’s to this Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age location that folks from miles around gather to watch the fireworks – the stars and planets and rockets bursting into the sky, sharing pleasure, experiencing a sense of awe.

I was reminded of the travellers congregating at Appleby, and the crowds gathering at Glastonbury, coming together for ritual, for social pleasure. In contrast Arbor Low is isolated, with a farm close by, but otherwise a lonely and abandoned outpost; disconnected yet no doubt once drawing thousands for purposes similar to these at the Bull Ring over hundreds of years.

Quietness that deceives
The modern visitor relishes the silence, the abandonedness, the contrast with the bustle of life in towns and cities, yet there is something of anachronism about the preference. As Mark Edmonds and Tim Seaborne say in Prehistory in the Peak (UK: Tempus, 2001), ‘far from being places of “quiet solitude” that we now seek to conserve, Arbor Low and the Bull Ring were sometimes alive with people’.

The authors write of a 'confusion of camps and animals in the environs; people moving in and out of clearings and approaching along different paths. The mess of building gangs or companies gathered around fires; cooking, eating, talking. And then, when the time was right, an order amongst the multitude; people taking their places to participate or to watch proceedings in the henge itself. A broad social geography mapped to a tight scale'.

What the authors refer to as ‘the shock of the multitude’ is compounded by the difficulty we have in imagining how these henges were built. The ditches would have been deeper and steeper, the banks possibly three metres above the ground surface – altogether more formidable, suggesting purposes beyond that of assembly. The mounds would serve as a ‘steep and dramatic barrier that fostered a sense of containment’, hinting at exclusion as well as inclusion: ‘Children would not have rolled down the slopes as they do today.'

Questions concerning leadership, control, social hierarchy, privilege and authority will go on being debated, especially whether these were memorials to heroes, gods or spirits. Edmonds and Seaborne are wary of such conjectures, for ‘to see henges only as monuments to leaders misses the broader and more varied purposes they served in bringing dispersed communities together’.

Multiple purposes
Nevertheless, whatever the many functions of henges there is high probability that they had something to do with the dead, with the ancestors of the tribe; and that the purpose of large gatherings was reunion, of communion with the spirits of the dead – not unlike the way the Chinese picnic beside the graves of the deceased.

According to the authors of Prehistory in the Peak the ceremonies that might have taken place at the henges ‘tied the flux of the present to tradition, and tradition in turn to the timeless'; all this set against ‘a backdrop of communal events’ suggesting that ‘participation in rituals renewed ties between people’ while at the same time, perhaps, honouring ‘the standing of particular individuals’.

It is this sense of framing and contrast, of the constant changes of the present day with a ritualised, and thus treasured, past that probably fascinates us most as we explore the sites of antiquity. We have minimal or modest fact to rely on, consequently we are left space not only to imagine who these ancestors were and what they did here, but to empathise with them; wondering, perhaps, what lessons the present might learn from the past.

My visit to The Bull ring inspired the following:


Appleby is where the travellers meet
As compulsively as migrant birds
Flock to foreign shores, driven
By the seasons, and past habits;
To the rational mind beyond all reason.

The scholars surmise such gatherings
Were witnessed across millennia.
At Arbor Low, its concentric rings home
To standing stones anchored in earth
Signalling a long journey’s end,
The prize of community awaited,
The blessing of renewal, the promise
Of encounters old and new.

The bleakness here waylays witness,
Misleads with its sparse emptiness,
Its tune of silence imposed by mystery.
For this site probably teemed with assembly,
With music and gossip, tall tales and laughter,
A place neither still nor calm nor even holy;
But a goose fair, pop festival, highland fling,
An assertion and confirmation of origin,
Breed, race, tribe, restoring patterns of us and we,
Refurbishing the spirit of belonging.

While Arbor Low speaks poetry but no people
The Bull Ring a day’s hike to the north, nestles
Within the limestone village of Dove Holes;
Again the circles, the grassy banks, the sense
Of waiting; yet here continuity stands out
As prominently as the megaliths of Arbor Low –
The playtime voices from the school yard; kids
On the merry-go-round, the climbing frame,
The Saturday cajolings from the soccer pitch.

Here fondly and without ritual, ancient and modern
Are accommodated to the point where
The walker and her dog shows hesitant recognition
Of the earthworks under her feet, no notion
Of the tread of others down the centuries, where or why
They came, but at least with this knowledge
That on days of celebration, there are fireworks here;
The crowds are something to see, gasping in delight,
In childlike awe at fire, cascade and fountain
Exploding in the dark memory of the sky.

As we pause at such meeting places, we sense
The flicker of recognition, and possibly of regret
That what must have been a constant gradually
Or swiftly, we do not know, ended, to be replaced
By other cultures; by hierarchies favouring
Property over access, the power of privilege
To bar passage to what once was communal ground.

We see the face of the past in many disguises,
Often little realising that as we enact the present
We re-enact the past; walk the same ancestral paths,
Resist in our unique ways those driven appetites
For change, improvement, betterment, profit,
That the ancestors of those who became masters
Nurture for their own interests and comfort:
History is re-defined, curtailed as heritage.
If we step off the roped path we are guilty of trespass.

Our possibilities now are largely substitutes:
We join the crowd, do Glastonbury, stop to snap
A bikers’ reunion; more quietly strive
To piece together the mysteries of hallowed sites,
And sometimes imitate the rituals we guess
Celebrated sojourn and solstice, solemnly
Noting that here the dead, enticed with gifts,
Asserted their right of presence and inclusion.

As with the Chinese gathering each decade on Tap Mun
For the Festival of Peace, combining thanks and praise
To Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, with family picnics
Beside the graves of their dear departed, honouring
The space of those who failed to make the journey,
Introducing them to those arriving, those to come.

Whether at Arbor or the Bull Ring, Gibs Hill,
Hay Top, Withery Low or Gardom’s Edge
The visitor can expect a moment of reverence
But also of regret, as though discovering
A sudden loss; a feeling of having missed
An appointment with someone precious;
The same, perhaps, experienced aeons ago
By those gladly closing in on their destination
Only to count and mourn the missing faces.

From the Writer’s Notebooks
March 2009

Picasso: Challenging the Past was, on its first day out at the National Gallery, packed. I wonder how many felt numerous questions arise about a genius of prodigious energy spending so much time mining the past, for I wasn’t convinced ‘challenging’ was the right term.

Much of the work is, or borders upon, caricature. The pleasure of recognition is obvious and one is intrigued at what Picasso actually does with masters of the past; and the range, from Ingres back to Velasquez. He matches Ingres for sheer painterly bravura; but Velasquez remains so infinitely superior.

The homage is there and welcome, but why did he do it? The exhibition organisers seem reluctant to go beyond their own awe and admiration. My own favourite was not really reworking the past: it was him, Picasso, his Cubist portrait of a woman. Yes, the derivation is rightly claimed to be Cezanne, perhaps the first ‘cubist’. But this did not represent a play on Cezanne, rather a development from him. Here Picasso builds on the art of the past rather than exploits it (however pleasurably).

Just another Nabonidas
So many of these big and expensive exhibitions, like Babylon at the British Museum which I toured today, would be so much better if they were simply in book form. The items on display are small; often hieroglyphics on stone letter scrolls; and the print instructions gather so many people round them that one’s tempted to skip… At least it was interesting to learn that with his tormented Nebuchadnezzar Billy Blake got it wrong.

Nebs it would seem never went down on his knees with torment and madness. It was a later Babylonian monarch, Nabonidas, who, like King Tut, attempted meddlesome changes to religion; in his case switching allegiance from Marduk to the Moon God, and paying a price of condemnation and dismissal.

Apologies it would seem are due to Nebuchadnezzar. What, however, was especially memorable was the epilogue to the exhibition – photos of post 2003 invasion Babylon, the site occupied by a Yankee military camp: you destroy a country, it follows that you trample on its history.

To be fair, Saddam had already re-cast himself as the hero of Babylon and built his own palace in the grounds of the ancient city. Just another Nabonidas.

Moral: beware of tampering with the gods; or the Yanks.

For King and Country
Just a reminder of something I heard on radio: how the US, UK and France excluded black soldiers from the Liberation of Paris parade in 1944; at the same time as some British general issued instructions that black GIs should not be invited to people’s homes.

The general wrote in a memo that while there was a minority of normally educated negroes, the majority of them were simple and unsophisticated. I suppose the same sentiments would equally have applied to the Tommies, the British working class, reflecting an attitude that had come down the class divide for centuries. 6 April 2009.

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Thursday, 12 August 2010


James Watson
Blog 14

*What’s it about the Belgians?
* Hardy & Chekhov: happy endings?
* Lest We Forget… Gaza, the pusillanimous West
* ‘Snaps’ & ‘Tom Thumbs’

What's it about the Belgians?
No one seems to have much of a good word for the Belgians so I’m glad to report on a book that does them proud. The Twentieth Train, by German journalist Marion Schreiber, is an account of the Nazi occupation of Belgium and the persecution of the Jews; the key focus being the determination of the SS etc. to get the Jews on to trains heading for Auschwitz.

The 20th train was the one – the only one – in which escape took place, resulting from the hi-jack action by three Belgian friends armed only with pairs of pliars, a hurricane lamp covered in red paper and one pistol between them. The train was halted, a skirmish followed and 225 prisoners managed to escape.
The book matches any thriller, the events being described in the kind of detail which allows the reader to dramatically and movingly realise the wider picture.

In fact, the book devotes only a chapter or so to the ambush of the train – successful for many on board, disaster for others, including the leader of the tiny guerrilla band. The rest of the book focuses on the build-up to the attack, taking in the many connected people among the Jewish and non-Jewish community.

Protecting the hunted
What is so much to the credit of both Jews and non-Jews in Belgium is the respect that was shared, the very real (and dangerous) protection the non-Jewish extended to the Jews under the manic eyes of the Nazis. Families were hidden. Children separated from arrested parents were ‘adopted’. Time and time again Belgians risked their lives to protect the hunted.

Of course there were SS stooges who, to curry favour with the Germans, wormed their way into the confidence of Jews and then betrayed them; men such as the elegant and charming Pierre Romanovitch, the self-styled ‘Russian count’.

The leader of the ambush of the 20th Train, Doctor Youra Livichitz, having survived that fateful night of 19th April 1943, having so successfully kept the enterprise secret, relaxed his guard. Putting his trust in the apparently honest Romanovitch, he let slip the names of those needing help; and for that misjudgement paid the ultimate price. He was arrested, tortured and shot – as his brother, and fellow conspirator, had been.

It is a traumatic as well as a moving and inspiring story. Those that escaped were but a tiny fraction of those who completed their journey to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. But Schreiber’s excellent and important record of events pays due regard to the courage and resolution of ordinary Belgians during these horrific times; something folks should remember when a nation is classified as little more than a bunch of chocolateers.

Notes in passing…1
From the Writer’s Notebooks

Hardy, Chekhov & happy endings
Even in his short stories, Thomas Hardy sets Destiny against happy endings. While Chekhov’s Lady with the Little Dog does not exactly end happily, it does not end sadly; indeed though the affair between Gurov and Anna will continue to be troubled, because it has to be kept secret, it suggests there will be no end; that true love will overcome circumstances.

The same would probably happen in Hardy’s stories, but there is always the invisible hand of fate unwilling to permit happiness or true deserts.
Chekhov focuses on the human predicament of fate, nevertheless, in that both lovers are married to people they do might have been the opportunity to commit to love without concealment.

Love as identified in the Chekhov story is difficult to define, to pin down, and the characteristics which induce love in the first place are unclear. What is it about Gurov that makes Anna love him? He is twice her age, greying. In turn we learn very little about what he sees in her except her beauty, for her sense of guilt at the affair, of being a sinner, is not a feature that draws him closer; on the contrary.

So we are left with a mystery, though it might be asked whether the need for secrecy, the risks that are being taken, the on-the-edge nature of the affair is the spice which, for both of them, gives the relationship its frisson.

Notes in passing…2
From the Writer’s Notebooks

4th Jan. 2009: Another year, another protest
Having practically choked Gaza to death, Israel has now been bombing it for days. Last night they invaded. Meanwhile between London’s Embankment and Trafalgar Square thousands of us protested, in bright sunshine surrounded by an ocean of banners.

It may do us good, the marchers; make us feel that we are achieving something, but as with the million-strong march against the invasion of Iraq, we were powerless, probably even pathetic.

The war went on because those in power willed it, were in collusion. As always the odd man out was Joe Public. Of course the New Labour government’s response has been pusillanimous – oh, the grave concern of it, the wringing of hands; but as for doing something about the situation, nothing.

Politicians keep using the word ‘disproportionate’. When a rocket from Hamas takes one life in Tel Aviv and Israeli bombs kill a whole mosque full of worshippers, that is disproportionate.

What does that bloody-well mean? Not fair; not just; not playing the game? And yet, under media interrogation the foreign secretary, Mr. Arsole Miliband, refuses actually to speak a word. Oh yes, it has been collectively expressed at the United Nations – but for a minister of the Crown to say it out loud, no.
Of the many placards the one that took my eye said:


Snaps’ & ‘Tom Thumbs’
Visitors to the excellent blog of Sarah Salway (Sarah Salway’s Writing Journal) will have become familiar with her short stories of 50 words, the triggers for these being odd or intriguing snapshots. I’ve been doing something similar only (so far) without the snaps and with a more indulgent word-count of 100, or fewer. These tiny tales I’ve called Tom Thumbs. Who knows, Snaps and Tom Thumbs might catch on – an annual festival, maybe…

To round off this blog, here’s one that abides by Sarah’s rule of 50 words:

Two’s a crowd
The world’s greatest faced each other across the Signoria. ‘After you, Maestro,’ said Michelangelo.
‘No, after you,’ replied Leonardo.
You’ll need longer,’ argued Michelangelo.
Leonardo: ‘I’ll wait till you have a decent wash.’
Without adding a brushstroke they went their separate ways. A lesser painter, one Vasari, spared Florence’s blushes.

Thanks for reading this. As ever, feedback welcome.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Point and Purposes

The Internet made the blog possible, but it did not invent it.
Once upon a time when printing and publishing were cheap writers could express themselves in many different forms. As well as the long stuff, they produced essays, papers, edited newspapers and magazines.

Jill Walker Rettberg in her recent book, Blogging (1) claims that the French novelist Alexandre Dumas was the first blogger: ‘he was truly into the new technology of the modern press, introduced in France in the 1830s. Dumas’ first newspaper was written solely by himself, and was called Le Mois, with a tagline that sounds so bloggish it must be in use by some blogger, somewhere: jour par jour, heure par heure (‘day by day, hour by hour’)’.

Dodging the crush
Contemporary writers have, until the last decade, depended in one way or another on the mass media to open doors to their publications, short or long. Such has been the competition for access that inevitably queues form as fortunes rise and fall and as new kids come rolling or skateboarding on to the block.

Agents have queues at their door; publishers have slush-piles of unread scripts. The BBC Scriptwriters grant a ten minute window for every submitted script; what doesn’t impress in that time goes back into the stamped-addressed envelope.

Fees apart, fat or thin, that scenario prevails in the markets for mass media and mass consumption. The Internet, however, has opened other doors. Would-be writers, or established ones, are no longer limited, as broadcasters have been, to ‘wavelength rationing’. They don’t have to line up for judgment, largely by people they’ve never met and are unlikely ever to meet as big publishing companies swallow up smaller, more intimate and often more supportive ones.

Today, one has an idea for a story, a play, an article, an essay, a poem, even a haiku, and one can post it for the world to read, free of intermediaries. The writer is liberated from gatekeeping.

True, though there are ways of checking the numbers out there who key in to the uploaded texts, the writer can rarely be sure that the readers have sustained their interest, read a sentence, a paragraph or the whole piece. That, of course, is also true of texts in print: who’s reading your book, in what way, and to what (if any) effect?

What blogging on the Internet does allow, makes easy and indeed purposeful, is feedback. Uploaded texts can prompt discourse between author and reader which one-way print media or traditional radio or TV broadcasting rarely can.

Quality control?
Resistance to the notion and practice of blogging is an offshoot of a long tradition concerned with standards. Unless you’ve gone through the mill, how dare you seek to bypass those who police quality? The trouble with standards and quality is that they fluctuate and often defy accurate or even fair definition.

Culture is as much about restricting entry as nurturing it; like so much education, it serves to favour the few over the many. It views talent as essentially a restricted commodity, both highly selective and exclusive.

There are good reasons for careful scrutiny of, for instance, citizen journalism; after all, journalism is a respected trade, requiring many skills and ideally preparatory training and experience. Yet few bloggers aspire to be ‘professional’ in the traditional sense of journalism, and very few, if any, have ambition to replace those trained, practised and professionally committed to journalism.

Uneasiness about citizens ‘intruding’ on the patch of media professionals centres less on standards than on economics. As in most other businesses, employers are constantly on the lookout for cost cutting in a labour-centred industry – why pay a professional photographer, for example, if amateurs are happy to get their snaps in the paper for little or nothing?

Yet it is not bloggers who are shutting down papers but competition in and between traditional media industries. A solid case can be made for saying that Internet communication has benefited mass media. A scan of the press indicates an already well established synergy between traditional media and blogging. Newspapers dedicate columns and sometimes whole pages to the comments of bloggers on particular topics in the news. They do it for liveliness, originality and brevity.

A vital role
Further, it is important to recognise and celebrate examples of the way bloggers contribute to our knowledge of what is going on in the world. Reports by Salam Pax from Baghdad during the war in Iraq were individual in transmission and content, but of global interest – because they were issuing from the epicentre of events.

Salam Pax was in no position to report – as professional journalists would be expected to do – ‘objectively’, but the personal in this case was what was so valuable and unique.

Such citizen postings will increase as online readership searches for information, news and views which escape the mediation characteristic of traditional media ownership and control.

While expecting objectivity from blogs is to mistake their nature, other principles that apply to serious mass media reporting should be equally honoured and observed. Bloggers often function as anonymously as Salam Pax, for similar or different reasons, but there are quicksands ahead for those who set out to deceive their audience.

Principles of performance
Sooner or later scams get found out and the backlash can be devastating. Narratives that purport to be real such as the video blog Lonelygirl15 which turned out to be a fiction, scripted and acted out by professionals, invite rejection, censure and disillusionment.

The freedom to be anybody on the Internet inevitably blurs the
line between truth and fiction and between what’s real and what is simulation or simply PR. Trevor Cook in ‘Can Blogging Unspin PR?’ published in Uses of Blogs (2) believes that bloggers, professionals or otherwise, need to maintain trust by affirming ‘fairness, balance, accuracy and integrity’.

Thus if you’re earning a few pounds, dollars or euros from product sponsors, then you must come clean about that sponsorship. Even on the Internet there is no such thing as a free lunch. For most of us, though, blogging is free because we are not reliant on income to finance our messaging.

A ‘common possession’; but for how long?
What bloggers are reliant on is a free field of delivery and access. There have long been fears that cyberspace will prove to be less of an open prairie than it used to be.

Currently, what the late Roger Silverstone in Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (3) refers to as the ‘otherwise invisible and unheard’ and the blog as ‘a phenomenon to contest the already weakening stranglehold of the national press and broadcasting systems’ remains ‘a platform for public participation’.

Silverstone sees this alternative to mass communication as ‘a common possession’. He envisions a mediapolis characterised by justice and what he refers to as ‘hospitality’ – openness, the acceptance and welcoming of Other, equality of exchange; but he also states his uneasiness about a situation that is ‘constantly at risk both of its own self-violation (paedophile and terrorist networks) and its enclosure (by transnational corporations and political controls)’.

What has scared Netizens in recent years is the threat to network neutrality. In a Washingtonpost.com article (4), media analysts Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney wrote that network neutrality ‘means simply that all Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate’.

Pressure to legislate for precedence
Lessig and McChesney’s article is entitled ‘No Tolls on the Internet’. They write that network owners ‘could slow down or even block the websites and services of their competitors…Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it cost’.

The authors refer to the ‘smell of windfall profits in the air in Washington’ as the phone companies ‘are pulling out all the stops to legislate themselves monopoly power’.

Blog battlers
Alerted to this corporate threat to their futures, bloggers by the thousand, aided by over 700 Internet groups, successfully pressurised the American Senate Commerce Committee into approving the AT & T merger with BellSouth in June 2006 on condition that network neutrality was preserved.

The New York Times commended this ‘limited but important victory for net neutrality’ but added that ‘it should not be necessary to negotiate separate deals like this one’. Net neutrality remains, but so do the ambitions of the corporate sector. As the New York Times asserted, ‘On the information superhighway, net neutrality should be a basic rule of the road’.

Loose wheels on the big-buck tumbrils
Corporate Man has never been hesitant to follow the rule If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them. How many global Internet sites are not in the hands of the big spenders? MySpace passed into the ownership of Rupert Murdoch in 2005 for an estimated £200m.

In the following October Google snapped up YouTube; while Facebook, with its millions of ‘friends’, has been described by journalist Tom Hodgkinson as an ‘extension of the American imperialist programme crossed with a massive information-gathering tool’ and which is commoditising human relationships; success, it would seem, guaranteed (5).

Yet a prevailing feature of the Internet is uncertainty. What goes up usually comes down, and often with a sudden bump; even the media masters get their fingers burnt. Hundreds of jobs have been lost at MySpace. In June 2010 AOL sold Bebo for a sum dramatically less than it paid for it.

David Teather writing on social networking (6) talks of ‘soured investments’: ‘Ever developing applications and a lack of customer loyalty mean social networking can become huge, almost overnight, and crash just as quickly’.

Keep up the sharing
But to close on an up-note: enthusiastic student of, practitioner and advocate of blogging, Jill Walker Rettberg declares in Blogging, ‘People like participating in the media. We like contributing and sharing our ideas, and we’re unlikely to stop now that we have the technology to allow it’.

She goes on, ‘Participatory media which makes publishing available to everyone is like fire: once the cunning Prometheus had stolen the secret of fire from Zeus and given it to us mortals, there was no way for the gods to take it back’.

Rettburg receives ample support from Net guru Clay Shirky interviewed in the UK Guardian by Decca Aitkenhead (7). He argues that those who post – free of charge – their thoughts, views, knowledge, opinions on the Net do so because it satisfies ‘the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness’.

Compared to traditional media such as the press and TV, Shirky says the Internet ‘has removed the barrier to universal participation and revealed that human beings would rather be creating and sharing than passively consuming what a privileged elite think they should watch’.

Islands of civil discourse
This is a hearteningly optimistic point of view, but would need to be considered alongside Decca Aitkenhead’s more sceptical position, ‘bewildered’ as she is ‘by the exhibitionism of online social networking’, its ‘juvenile vacuity’, ‘baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler’ and ‘a little bit dismayed by Facebook’s revelation of almost infinite narcissism’.

Shirky’s answer is that ‘even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. And I’d still take the most inane collaborative website over someone watching yet another half hour of TV’. In other words, don’t blame the medium for the message!

Along with other commentators, Shirky recognises that while anonymity can make people ‘behave more meanly’, he remains confident that ‘we are slowly going to set up islands of civil discourse’. His message is, be yourself: ‘We need to set up the social norms which say in this space you need to use your real names, or some well-known handle’. He sees ‘the really big challenge’ is how to maximise the Net’s ‘civic value’.

(1) Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging (Polity Press, 2010).
(2) Trevor Cook, ‘Can Blogging Unspin PR?’ in Uses of Blogs (Peter Long, 2006), edited by Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs.
(3) Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (Polity Press, 2007).
(4) Lawrence Lessig and Robert W.McChesney, ‘No Tolls on the Internet’, Washingtonpost.com, 13 June 2006.
(5) Tom Hodgkinson, ‘With friends like these…’ Guardian (14 January, 2008).
(6) David Teather, ‘Social networking curse strikes again as Bebo is sold’, Guardian, 21 June 2010.
(7) G2 ‘If there’s a screen to worry about in your house, it’s not the one with the mouse attached’, Clay Shirky talks to Decca Aitkenhead, 5 July, 2010. See Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Allen Lane, 2010).


The author is currently working on the 8th edition of The Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies (with Anne Hill).
Thanks for reading this. Feedback welcome as usual.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The Power of Biography

James Watson
Blog 12

Blog: A mode of Internet communication expressing the author’s interests, preoccupations, opinions and biography, to a known and sometimes unknown audience; with potential for interactivity.


Michael Scammell, Koestler:The Indispensable Intellectual (Faber and Faber, 2010).

Prescient in almost all his judgments – on politics, history, literature and science – Arthur Koestler (1905-83) wrote in his diary ‘Every writer is forgotten after his death’. Plenty of people, even dedicated readers, might be forgiven for never having sampled Koestler’s vast and diverse output, and at best having the vaguest notion of who Koestler was or why he should be remembered.

Michael Scammell’s 689-page biography should restore Koestler to the pantheon of literary celebrity, not only because Koestler had much to say that still has relevance and interest but because of the amazing times he lived in. While reading about Koestler’s life one is reminded of the Chinese philosopher, faced with wars, famines and more wars, prayed that he might ‘live in uninteresting times’.

Running for his life
A Hungarian Jew, Koestler had scarcely emerged from his teens before he was in the thick of it. A bold and resourceful journalist he reported from the Spanish Civil War, was arrested by the Fascists, imprisoned and was a hair’s breadth from being executed.
Caught in Germany as Nazism ceased its pretentions to parliamentary rule, Koestler was once more on the run.

Desperate and remembering how in a film he had seen Jean Gabin escape a police hunt by joining the French Foreign Legion, Koestler, needing to disguise his Jewish origins, took the name of the Limoges police chief, Albert Dubert, and briefly became a Legionnaire. The rest of this tale can be followed in Chapter 16, Darkness Invisible.

The UK authorites, in particular M15, were slow in offering Koestler asylum. His record as a Communist activist (even though he had rejected Stalinism) led to his incarceration as a dangerous alien. It was probably only because of his well-placed friends – chiefly the literati – that he was not subjected to prolonged imprisonment during the 2nd World War. He escaped a life behind bars by signing up with the aliens’ Pioneer Corps (whose emblem was a crossed pick and shovel).

Koestler saw service in Ilfracombe and Cheltenham, largely digging tank trap holes before, in March 1942, being written off as ‘permanently unfit’ for service. Later in the war he worked as an air-raid warden and an ambulance driver.

Controversy: second nature
In his Prologue to Koestler, Michael Scammell writes that ‘Provocation and controversy were meat and drink to Koestler, elements of a tumultuous life in which he rarely experienced peace or quiet…Hungarian in his temper, German in his industry, Jewish in his intellectual ambition, he was never comfortable in his own skin’.

It was evident to those who knew him well that, despite his achievement and his fame, he suffered from self-doubt, ‘an undisguised vulnerability and painful honesty, a self-conscious shyness and morbid sensitivity’. This, ‘combined with his boyish exuberance and devil-may-care daring made him a magnet for innumerable women’.

Details of Koestler’s contribution to and involvement with historical events of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s are for the reader to discover. However, what particularly warrants recognition is Koestler’s energetic campaigning as writer and activist against Capital Punishment in Britain.

Implacable opposition
During his imprisonment during the Spanish Civil War, 17 of his fellow prisoners in Seville jail had been shot to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. Among them was 19-year Nicolas who Koestler had befriended during periods of exercise. He was later to dedicate Dialogue with Death to Nicolas.

It was from these experiences, writes Scammell, that Koestler’s ‘implacable opposition to capital punishment was born’ and led to the publication of his influential Reflections on Hanging. Koestler was also to demonstrate a lifelong sympathy for the imprisoned. He set up and financed annual awards for prisoners who demonstrated creativity in the arts – a scheme that continues to this day to reward endeavour in the visual arts and literature.

Animating the past
Koestler the man warrants the description ‘prodigious’ as indeed does the biography, Koestler. The product of ten years research and preparation it succeeds Scammell’s equally epical, Solzhenitsyn (1051 pages, Hutchinson, 1984). What we get in both cases is an immensely detailed historical tapestry. With the protagonist at its centre, the past is suddenly happening again, the reader being carried along as though actually involved in events.

A graduate in Russian from Nottingham University, translator of several books from Russian and Serbo-Croat, the founding editor of Index on Censorship magazine, now a professor at Columbia University, Michael Scammell conducted upward of two hundred interviews with Koestler’s friends, relatives and professional colleagues.

His Notes alone cover some 80-odd pages and he travelled in 14 countries in three continents in pursuit of one who had first sprung to fame after reporting on the first flight of the Graf Zeppelin from Berlin to the North Pole in 1931.

Dynamic but overstretched?
In one communicative form or another, Koestler, writes his biographer, ‘investigated a multitude of political movements, religions and scientific disciplines, from Zionism to Catholicism and even Buddhism, from anti-fascism to communism and anti-communism, from astronomy and evolution to neurobiology and parapsychology’.

Notoriously, and with little approval, Koestler allowed himself to be lured into the terrain of ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception), professing himself horrified at the prospect of coming out publicly in support of it, ‘fearing and relishing the risk, and feeling that having come so far, it would be cowardice not to follow his instincts’ (See Scammell’s Chapter forty-six, Chance Governs All).

The danger, as Scammell points out, has been an ‘inevitable unevenness’: Koestler could be accused of writing ‘too much in too many genres’ – novels, essays, biographies, scientific speculation.

Yet Koestler’s second novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, has never been out of print and though his other novels may ‘seem rather dated now’ – The Gladiators, Arrival and Departure, Thieves in the Night and The Age of Longing – ‘each has passages of imaginative power and intellectual brilliance’; while his science books such as The Sleepwalkers ‘brought both a storyteller’s eloquence and characteristic activism, for his urge is there, as in all his fiction and nonfiction, not just to describe the world, but also to change it’.

Scammell deals frankly and fairly with Koestler’s reputation as a womaniser. In his many relationships with women Koestler was ‘an egotistical, mercurial, and unpredictable perfectionist…whose demands knew no bounds’. He was ‘too hard on his women (and on himself)’. While they were ‘far from infantile Cinderellas…it was true he had met many of them at vulnerable moments in their lives and had harassed them and bullied them all into submission’.

A ‘stream of righteous abuse of Koestler that continues to the present day’ concerns the confession in 1998 by Jill Craigie, wife of Michael Foot, to another Koestler biographer, David Cesarini, that she had been raped by Koestler.

Scammell is of the view that there ‘are many ambiguities surrounding Cesarini’s (and Craigie’s) account of the incident. First of all, Craigie waited so long (nearly fifty years) to make her accusation public when Koestler was no longer alive to defend himself or ‘give his own version of this meeting’.

Scammell cites Koestler’s diary for that day: ‘Jill Foot –Sunday pub crawl on Heath’, and states, ‘Given that Koestler was gloatingly totting up his conquests in his diary at that very time, it’s surprising that he made no mention of having had sex with Craigie, unless he was so drunk he completely forgot about it’.

Craigie joined Michael Foot and Koestler for lunch at the House of Commons a week later, ‘and some twenty years after that, in 1975, she and Foot were guests at Koestler’s seventieth birthday party’. For further comment, see Chapter Thirty-Six, The Phantom Chase.

Despite Koestler’s domineering conduct towards the women in his life, his second wife, Mamaine, found him, in her own words, ‘as angelic as ever’, while his third wife, Cynthia, obedient servant to Koestler’s every whim, knew no doubts about a life without him. He was 77 and in ailing health. Still only in her 50s, she shared his preparations for suicide and chose death rather than be without him.

More to come?
Closing this massive, complex and elegantly written biography, readers will be left with an appetite for more, in particular from Koestler’s actual texts. His publishers should persuade Michael Scammell to assemble a companion volume to Koestler, an anthology of those bits across the author’s oeuvre that possess ‘imaginative power and intellectual brilliance’.

In his Prologue to Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual, Scammell writes that he was ‘a romantic whose quixotic hopes that some variant of the utopian dream might lead to happiness on earth were constantly being shadowed and undercut by a pessimistic acknowledgment of the realities of human nature’.

His ‘quest for enlightenment was not some arid, abstract sort of research, but a deep instinctual urge, powered by personal unhappiness and psychological frustration, which started early in his life and continued to the very end of his days’. In this sense, Koestler was ‘emblematic of the twentieth century’s own flailings in the search for a workable form of utopia’.

Notable works by Koestler: Arrival and Departure, Darkness at Noon, Thieves in the Night, Scum of the Earth, Promise and Fulfilment, The Age of Longing, Reflections on Hanging, The Sleepwalkers, The Lotus and the Robot, The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine, The Case of the Midwife Toad, The Roots of Coincidence, The Challenge of Chance, The Thirteenth Tribe, Janus, From Bricks to Babel (an anthology).

Further information can be found at the author’s website,
http://www.michaelscammell.com/; and feedback to Watsonworksblog.blogspot.com is of course welcome.



Blog 1
3 September 2009

(Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5), a human rights novel for Young Adults; a story about the struggles of Natasha, a talented young footballer in Ukraine. Her journalist father is on the run for revelations he has made about government corruption: the consequences for Natasha and her brother Lonya are not only career-threatening, but life-threatening.

To further complicate things, there is Natasha’s friendship with Monika who, on the face of it, is a tour guide, but what secret is she keeping about her and her family; and how has she come to be in possession of the Pushkin Ring that went missing from a Moscow Museum during the Russian Revolution?

The story heads for a dramatic climax on the Steps of Odessa made famous by the massacre scene in Sergei Eistenstein’s film masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin: could something similar happen on those steps that ‘seem to reach to the sky’?

Blog 2
15 September 2009
Introduces the BUXTEHUDER BULLE PRIZE awarded annually for Young Adult novels on human rights themes and judged by young German readers. The author’s Talking in Whispers was a winner and he was invited to Buxtehude near Hamburg to receive the prize.

I was so delighted by this old Hanseatic town with its canal (and its noisy ducks), that I wrote a children’s story, The Noisy Ducks of Buxtehude (later published in a dual-language version by Verlag an der Est, ISBN 3-926616-90-3). This blog gives an account of ‘a quacking tale’ translated into German by Heike Brandt and illustrated by Bjorn Holm.

Blog 3
29 September 2009
THE TROUBLE WITH MONUMENTS. In Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, there is Babi Yar, site of the barbarous executions perpetrated by the Nazis, and collaborators, during World War 2, a sacred site of immense symbolic importance. With the prospect of international football coming to Ukraine, there were those on the city council who wanted to build new hotels close to and overlooking the site. This blog protests about the proposal; which thankfully was rejected by the Kiev city council.
In contrast, in Senegal, one of the world’s poorest countries, a 49 metre bronze statue now dominates the capital, Dakar. It glorifies at prodigious expense the hubris of those in power, a £17m assertion of elitism over equality.

Blog 4
23 October 2009
HISTORY’S NEGLECTED WOMEN. In researching for a play on the struggles for press freedom and democracy in 19th century Britain (Out Damned Spot!) I came to realise what a vital part women played in those struggles, and how they seem to have been written out of the records.

They worked as hawkers of the radical press, printers and writers, and their sufferings were equal to men’s in the pursuit of those struggles – crippling fines, imprisonment and in a few cases deportation.
Eliza Sharples, second wife of the combative editor, Richard Carlile, became a star, addressing packed audiences in London’s Rotunda, while her husband languished in jail. Act 4 of Out Damned Spot! focuses on Eliza, and is titled The Lady of the Rotunda.

Blog 5
10 November 2009
IN PRAISE OF WOMEN’S SOCCER. Research is an author’s archaeology. In preparing Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa I was startled to discover that once upon a time in the UK women’s football was immensely popular; women’s matches drew huge crowds.

Yet on 5 December 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. This blog looks at how women’s soccer has fought to reaffirm itself in Britain, and how football has become one of the paramount sporting interests of women and girls.

Blog 6
15 December 2009
LAST FLIGHT OF THE HEYFORD K 6875. In July 1938 a six-crew RAF Heyford hit a violent rainstorm in the Derbyshire peak district. Before the days of radar navigation, the plane was off course and dipping towards Edale. The Heyford’s design was such that it blocked the pilot’s view immediately in front and below.

Another 30 metres or so, and the plane would have avoided Broadlee Bank. Instead, the plan struck ground, and the crew were consumed in a fireball.
Among the crew was my Uncle, Jim Barker. A version of this account, a tribute to the dead, was published in Derbyshire Life magazine.

Blog 7
7 January 2010
This was the first of five postings on ASPECTS OF STORYTELLING. Part 1, TRIGGERS AND PROPS, opens with a look at how stories get started, what triggers interest and motivation, and how such triggers carry the story forward, from a major national or world event (like the military overthrow of democracy in Chile, triggering Talking in Whispers) to a fleeting snatch of conversation (such as a reference to a misspelt tattoo triggering The Great Tattoo in Make Your Move, and Other Stories).

Supplementing the main course of Blog 7, in Notes in Passing, another World War 2 disaster is described; a disaster which result from an officer’s arrogance in the face of good advice.

A newly-arrived squad of Canadians encamped above Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. There was a wonderful view of the sea. A local man warned the officer that his men were encamped under the flight path of German planes.

His men were a sitting target. The officer knew better than to take advice from a civilian. As predicted, the Messerschmitts came. They could not believe their luck. It was too late for the Canadian officer to change his mind.

Blog 8
15 February 2010
Following on from Blog 7, a look at the role played by props in narrative, from Cinderella’s glass slipper to the jewelled pendant worn by Madeleine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the Pushkin Ring that serves to animate a sub-plot in Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa to the Michael Jackson T-shirt that proves Eloise, in The Ghosts of Izieu, does not belong in 1942.

The author’s childhood hobby, hand puppets and string marionettes finds a literary outcome in Talking in Whispers in which the twins, Isa and Beto, use their puppet, General Zuchero, to protest at tyranny.

Notes in passing… Gives the thumbs down to Avatar.

Blog 9
15 March 2010
Part 3: Frames, Codes and Character.
A look at the structures of stories, how they fit in to forms or genres. The narrative forms of soaps and sitcoms are compared, the templates that govern them and how symbols illuminate and guide them.

The five narrative codes posed by French philosopher Roland Barthes, expounded in his book S/Z, are examined – the Action Code, for example, being traditionally associated with male characters, the Enigma code with women; codes, of course, inviting the writer to reverse or overturn them.
Also introduced is the categorisation of characters by the Russian Vladimir Propp in his study of folk tales.

Blog 10
14 March 2010
Part 4: Fiction and News
This posting explores the interlink between fiction and news, both of them narratives with common objectives though differing formats. What’s happening in the real world, in the news, has always influenced the content and approach of fiction.

Just as there is newsworthiness so there is fictionworthiness; and what is newsworthy triggers fictionworthiness. On the other hand, sometimes what happens in the news is so strange or exotic that in fiction it would be regarded as failing to suspend the reader’s disbelief.

Feedback…from novelist Anna Perera, author of Guantanamo Boy (Penguin).

Blog 11
15 May 2010
Part 5: Tale Power
Humans are essentially storytelling animals. We live stories, they are part of us, individually and collectively. This posting investigates the power that stories have to influence us – our attitudes, opinions, our outlooks, our values and sometimes our behaviour.

Though some downsize the power of stories, classifying them as little more than entertainment, a scrutiny of censorship, present and past, will at least indicate that those in authority, those in power, are fearful of stories ‘getting a hold’ on people, particularly if stories threaten to influence large numbers.

A simple 17-syllable haiku in Burma can get you a five year prison sentence, never mind the endless stories of the persecution of authors down the ages, from Sophocles to Solzhenitsyn.
The posting concludes with questions on how the Internet, in the Age of Twitter, is affecting, and will affect tale power.


CONTACT: Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk