Friday, 23 November 2018

Comic Book Shakespeare Might Be All the Shakespeare You Need

We hear a lot about the decline of traditional education, but my 10-year-old son knows all about MacBeth and The Merchant of Venice and has talked so much recently about Hamlet that his 8-year-old sister started getting into it too.

Precocious brats? Not at all. They have not of course read Shakespeare’s plays, they’ve just read children’s adaptations of them, which tell the stories in easy reading children’s vocabulary (retold by Andrew Matthews, illustrated by Tony Ross). Some might see that as dumbing down, but I see it as a brilliant leap forward. In fact it may well be the most important education about Shakespeare they ever receive.

I was about 12 when I first slow-read in class at school a Shakespeare play - MacBeth. In fact I can’t quite remember now whether we read all of it or just bits of it.

I do know that when I was 15, I read at school the whole of Henry V and loved it. To this day, I can recite with gusto the entire Chorus soliloquy that opens Act 1. Our class at school were even lucky enough to be taken to Stratford to watch a youthful Kenneth Branagh (pictured right) performing the lead role.

I should say that this imbued in me with a lifelong love of Shakespeare, the majesty of his poetry pulsing through me, but actually things played out differently. I opted for all science A Levels, wallowed in equations and formulae, and came into contact with no other Shakespeare.

I might have read for pleasure Don Quixote, Thackeray and Hemingway, but whenever some Shakespearian reference cropped up, I can still recall my sense of ignorance.

Once, a maths teacher made some reference to Desdemona and asked us what play he was referring to? I ventured, “King Lear?” Or, another time, in my first year at university I can remember some arts student made a joke that referred to Hamlet in some way and my laughing along, without a clue as to what he was talking about.

But who cares if you don’t know about these things? In the film of Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita, he has some ghastly pretentious arts pseud say to the gullible Rita, “Wouldn’t you just DIE without Mahler?” Isn’t the same true of Shakespeare? Would we die without Shakespeare? Most of the world gets on without him just fine.

Yet what redolently stays in my memory as a youth is not only my embarrassment about not understanding all these Shakespeare references, but how it affected my confidence as a whole. I felt in some way not properly educated and slightly intimidated by artsy others.

An important point to consider is not so much whether reading Shakespeare is going to propel you forward, but whether general ignorance about him and all the myriad cultural references to him holds you back. Rather than going on about Shakespeare enriching your life, maybe we should think more about the way he excludes and dare I say oppresses people?

As it happens, at the belated age of 21, I switched my university speciality to English and finally caught up on all the reading I’d missed. During the next two years, I systematically read, watched or listened to every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. Finally I could banish my Shakespeare hang up.

I love Shakespeare and I never tire of revisiting his works and feel fantastically inspired and stimulated by them. I enthusiastically recommend them to one and all. But they are not for everyone or even perhaps a majority of people.

I would hate those people to go through life feeling somehow excluded and inferior because of it. When they recently showed Ken Dodd as Malvolio (pictured left) in his garters, or you see Al Pacino as Shylock or kabuki versions of Hamlet, there must be a lot of people who just zone out and shy away.

But actually to stop feeling excluded, they don’t have to read the plays, they simply need to be briefly acquainted with the plots.

It might be that my kids will later go on to get the Shakespeare bug and be thrilled to read and watch all the plays. But it might equally be that iambic pentameter is not their thing. But whichever way, they are certainly not going to be nonplussed about these things in the way that I was.

At age 10, Hamlet and MacBeth is already old hat for my son. Bring on King Lear and Othello and As You Like It. They’ll be competing against Asterix and the Normans, Tom Gates, Captain Underpants and Harry Potter. It’s not exactly canonical reading: it has to entertain with a cracking yarn or will be on the childhood reject pile. It’s the best possible grounding in Shakespeare you could hope for.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Yukio Mishima's Epic Battle Against Time

(Ahead of the anniversary of the “Mishima Incident” on November 25, here is a reproduction of an article I wrote three years ago, which is no longer available online).

What do you think of when you hear the name "Yukio Mishima"?

A dazzlingly prolific writer with more than 30 novels, 70 plays and umpteen volumes of short stories, essays and memoirs to his credit? A movie actor, martial arts enthusiast, body builder, political campaigner and world traveler? Or perhaps the man described by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of Japan’s first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, as the kind of genius who comes along once every 300 years?

Chances are, though, your associations will be somewhat different. Probably you will recall a man who died on Nov. 25, 1970, by an act of "seppuku" (excruciating ritual suicide) after the failure of a bizarre coup attempt known as the "Mishima Incident."

How to make sense of a man of so many different aspects, a literary man of such finesse and sensibility capable of actions of such extreme violence?

In the many thousands of pages of analysis that have been afforded to Mishima's death, inevitably the one object that commands the most attention is his 17th-century sword. Yet when I set about writing my biography of Mishima, I wished to demonstrate that the most telling object in his life is actually one that has passed unnoticed: Mishima’s watch.

Mishima’s interest in watches and clocks, and timekeeping in general, was a lifelong obsession. In the late 1960s, Mishima spoke of how he would loiter in front of shops on the Ginza displaying expensive watches and salivate at the thought of them.


Crucially, in 1944, when Mishima, as a youth of 19 had been nominated top of his class at the elite Peers School in Tokyo, he had been taken to the Imperial Palace and in a formal ceremony awarded a silver watch by the emperor himself. From that day on, almost as if he had received an imperial decree, Mishima always adhered to the most precise keeping track of time and was utterly unforgiving in any lapses in observance of time by others.

Despite being an enormously prolific writer, Mishima was famous for never having missed a deadline. No party was so entertaining that Mishima would not leave it in order to be back at his desk at midnight so that, as was his regular routine, he could continue writing until dawn. If you had a dinner date with Mishima and you were more than 15 minutes late, Yukio would be gone, having ordered dinner for you and left a sarcastic note in his wake.

Why was Mishima so obsessed with being on time? Partly it was the keenest manifestation of his general fastidiousness, but it also stemmed from the difficulties of his adolescence when, faced with a hostile father who violently opposed his knack for writing, Mishima had to secretly compose his manuscripts throughout the night while his father slept. Precise time management was the only means by which Mishima could keep his dream of becoming a writer alive.

The symbol of this obsessive devotion to strict time management was the watch. In his memoir about his sexual relationship with Mishima, the gay writer and teacher Jiro Fukushima describes the first time they went to a hotel room together in 1951. The next morning Mishima could not find his watch and - in the manner of Bruce Willis’ character in "Pulp Fiction" - turned over the entire room in search of it.

Mishima's scrupulousness regarding the observance of time was the foundation for all his musings about the nature of time itself. Having been born in 1925 and spending the first 20 years of his life in an oppressively nationalist and militaristic country, Mishima suddenly found himself spending the next 20 years in a largely Westernized state, committed to peace and relentless economic growth.

The politics of Mishima’s final five years, from the age of 40 onwards, were a conscious attempt to try to find resolution between this temporal disjunction, which ran like a seam through the center of his life.

Mishima’s wrestling with the concept of time was at the heart of many of his literary works. In his major novel, "Kyoko’s House" (1959), for example, Mishima pronounced that his ambition was nothing less than to "define an age" and in subsequent novels such as "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with The Sea," the sea appears as a symbol of transcendence beyond historical time.

In his final novelistic tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility," his self-proclaimed "life work," Mishima consciously thought about what device he could use to produce a great novel unlike anything that had been written before. Mishima desired to supersede historical time and found the answer in the Buddhist notion of reincarnation.


And so we come to the day of the "Incident" itself. That morning, Mishima had arranged for the last part of "The Sea of Fertility" to be handed to his editor. Mishima had been planning the precise unfolding of the day for months, had rehearsed minute by minute how everything would occur. But it didn’t all go to plan.

When Mishima appeared on the balcony to make his speech, he could be seen repeatedly checking his watch. In the words he spoke, he referred to how much he had "waited" - and waited and waited. Now he could wait no longer: Mishima was a man who did not like waiting.

Mishima’s final act before plunging the blade into his abdomen was to take off his watch and give it to one of his acolytes. This act, more than any other, was the sign that Mishima was shuffling off his mortal coil.

A career that had begun with the gift of a silver watch from the emperor ended with the divestiture of a watch in the name of an idealized emperor.

In the end, Mishima strangely succeeded in the impossible - in stopping time. When news of the Mishima Incident spread across the nation, everyone stopped, open-mouthed and stared at TV screens. The media frenzy that followed the Incident was unprecedented.

Mishima had managed to transcend earthly time to reach a form of immortality. Looking back now to make sense of that extraordinary life, it is Mishima's intense battle with time, and its dramatic conclusion, which should most command our interest: for Mishima, the true emperor was time itself.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

My German Adventures with the Japanese Philosophers of Nothingness

If you ever fancy having a truly disorientating experience that will challenge you and provide a mental adventure like no other, rather than travelling to some remote corner of the globe, you might try doing what I did last September and attend a 4-day philosophy conference. On Japanese philosophy. In Germany.

Surrounded by the golden autumnal fields of a pretty, historic and rustic campus on the edge of the small town of Hildesheim, near Hanover, I felt like I had arrived in some strange parallel universe where I did not speak the language but could discern that everyone greeted each other with the word “Hei..degger” ever five minutes.

Was I a Neo-Kantian or a Heideggerian? I dunno, truth to tell I don’t really understand the question. Many years ago, I dimly recall listening to a Japanese audio book called “Dare de mo wakaru Haidegaa” (“The Heidegger Anyone Can Understand”) but contrary to the title, I didn’t understand it or simply forgot what it had to say.

My knowledge of Western philosophy is patchy. I’m all over Plato, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Bentham, and good old J. S. Mill. But I’m pretty clueless about Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Bergson and many others.

Further, this conference (run by ENOJP, the European Network of Japanese Philosophy, a friendly group of international scholars), was going to be all about the connections between Japanese philosophy and European philosophy. And about Japanese philosophy I am almost completely ignorant. If Heidegger was terribly important to all the aspiring philosophers from around the world gathered in Hildesheim, then I soon discovered that his super-revered Japanese philosopher counterpart was Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945, pictured top), founder of the Kyoto School (referred to in a 2007 book by James Heisig as the “Philosophers of Nothingness”).

Slightly below Nishida in the Japanese philosophy pantheon, are his follower Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990) and other philosophers such as Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962), Teturo Watsuji (1889-1960) and Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945). I found I was initially at sea with Nothingness and could not easily get a grip on the paddles.

As someone noted to me though, conferences like this - many of which are open to people with only a tangential interest in the subject - are a great way to travel and make interesting new friends. Previous ENOJP conferences have taken place in Barcelona, Brussels and Paris, with Nagoya planned for next year, and talk of Brazil after that. Not only was it taking me to areas of the brain I had never visited before, it was also taking me to strangely beguiling places: Hildesheim is an alluring picturesque town I would have never come to on my own. Staying at the well-appointed Bergholzchen Hotel on a hill overlooking the town, I breathed in the fine vistas of wooded parks and splendidly historic church spires and asked myself again: what exactly was I doing here?

The conference started with some earnest but largely impenetrable papers by PhD students and recent postdocs. There were keynote talks on connections between Japanese philosophy and feminism, gender, identity politics, Islam, linguistics, even sports studies and my brain soon entered into the philosophy zeitgeist and started racing with thoughts on the connections between philosophy and lots of other subjects. How for example was philosophy connected to literature (a subject I tend to be on far safer ground with than philosophy)? I always think of philosophy as coming up with some interesting theories, which literature then attempts to put into practical experiment.

On Day Two at the conference I attended a session on the philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji and learnt that one of his key concepts was “Between-ness” (“aidagara”). If I’ve understood it correctly, the idea is that none of us are just individuals but exist in a state of inter-dependence and “becoming” with other things that give us a sense of self, and that this is particular characteristic of Japan. Watsuji apparently gave some examples from the “Hagakure”, a classic work celebrating what would become known as “the way of the warrior”, as well as the acting theory of the Noh dramatist Zeami (c.1363 - c.1443) and the theology of the great Buddhist preacher Shinran (1173 - 1263).

A professor of philosophy however raised his hand and objected to a continued discussion on the “history of ideas”, rather than the concept of “between-ness” itself. A few times during the conference I discovered that a pet peeve of certain philosophers is “history of ideas”. Philosophical concepts are supposed to be “eternal truths”, analogous to scientific truths or mathematical equations, so in that sense the background from which they sprang is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters, they think, is whether the ideas work as a coherent system.

If philosophers have issues with “history of ideas”, I soon discovered that an even greater bugbear of many philosophers is psychology, which is in many ways its arch-rival. When I hear that Watsuji concocted his theory of “between-ness”, rather than see it as “eternal truth”, I’m inclined to consider what was going on in Watsuji’s inner mind and private experience to make him think in such a way. But to some philosophers, such psychoanalysis is a loathsome, existential threat to their whole endeavour, frequently denounced as being reductive and irrelevant.

While mulling these deep concepts, I was most pleased to observe that the philosophers conformed to their Monty Python stereotype of drinking like fish and laughing uproariously at the social events laid on each evening. Between the tea and lunch breaks, and the night-time carousing, I managed to meet and chat with just about everyone of the dozens of people attending.

The philosophers gathered one evening for a panel discussing the potential for engagement between Western philosophy and Zen. One philosophy professor argued that while philosophy was the “logical reflection on existence”, it could yet communicate with Zen and either exert logic on it or receive from it a kind of critique of itself.

It seemed to me that his definition of philosophy was not quite correct, that philosophy was surely not just “logical reflections on existence” and that thinkers like Nietzsche had kicked down the door to the irrational but academic philosophy had not really followed him there and it was art, not academic philosophy, that had truly explored the potential of this. Indeed, many artists had immediately grasped the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy of the irrational and Zen.

At the final plenary session of the conference, a philosopher - who was like many others impressively fluent in English, German and Japanese - gave a talk on the Japanese star figure, Kitaro Nishida. There was a lot of talk of “first first person” and “eternal present”. I drowsed through most of it. An American turned to me afterwards and pronounced it brilliant. “I’m glad you got something out of it”, I said groggily.

After four days of listening to many hours of talks, I must confess that not a single philosophical concept made a strong impression on me. Yet I had learnt a lot of things. For one, I’d gained a roadmap of where Western and Japanese philosophy is up to at the moment and who I need to go off and read (Heidegger! Nishida!).

I’d also closely observed the world of academic philosophy. On the evening of the final day, I sat at a cafe in the main town square next to the professor at Hildesheim who had given the best talk, an inspiring, inter-disciplinary vision for the future of philosophy (10/10 on my mental scoresheet).

“Have you ever written any articles for newspapers?” I enquired.

This question was so left-field for the philosopher that I had to repeat it two more times before he understood it. I explained that many of the concepts and ideas of Japanese philosophy might be of interest to a wider audience if communicated effectively.

“I never read newspapers”, he responded. “I have not time.” It seemed as though he thought reading newspapers a very peculiar and frivolous thing to do. As as for writing newspaper articles how would that advance his academic career?

I can’t say I returned from my four day adventure with the philosophers enlightened, but I did have my sense of values thoroughly challenged and shook up. I bought a book on Kitaro Nishida by his famous disciple Keiji Nishitani and started reading it. Will I too become a neo-Nishida-ian? Only time and some moment in the eternal present will tell.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The True Meaning of Local Democracy

On a broad, leafy avenue linking the popular suburbs of Fallowfield and Chorlton in South Manchester, there is a seemingly infinite array of political party placards - every single one for the same party. Labour, Labour, Labour...

You wouldn’t think that Labour would have to campaign too hard in these parts - they currently hold 95 out of the city’s 96 seats and between 2010 and 2016 held all 96. Yet through the door come multiple Labour leaflets, while in many areas of the city, the Conservatives mount no active campaign at all.

In fact, for many years the Conservatives struggled to find anyone who would stand as candidates in the wards of England’s second city. You would have to be a complete mug, it seems, to even try.

I am one of those mugs...In many parts of England, standing as a Conservative may be the safe, establishment thing to do: not in Manchester, where there has not been a Conservative councillor in over 25 years. Here it feels like you are a reckless and gutsy guerrilla fighter.

I am running in the ward of Didsbury East, on paper at least the type of place where you might imagine the Conservatives would flourish. It has plenty of Edwardian and new-build mansions and is beloved by the chattering classes.

Yet I can’t think I have seen a Conservative placard on display anywhere in Didsbury, or indeed any part of Manchester, in the last 20 years.

I wonder if any academic studies have been undertaken on what the “tipping point” is that support must fall to before it becomes socially unacceptable to display a placard. Actually, not just socially unacceptable, but positively dangerous - inviting a torrent of doorstop abuse or your car being keyed.

It was going to be interesting trying to root out those “hidden Conservatives”... I announced to my 8-year-old daughter that I was going out campaigning, but she got the world “campaign” mixed up with “champagne” and started telling me how she tried some once but she thought it was fake (it was sparkling apple juice), all of which left me nonplussed. When I asked her if she would like to join me on the campaign trail, she enthusiastically responded, “Are we going to do that champagne thing now?”

I rather like the idea of going “champagning” rather than “campaigning”, though I suspect the connection of the word campaign to champagne might be premature. I personally hand delivered 2500 Conservative leaflets, and was amused by some of the responses. “Haven’t seen any of these in a while”, said one retiree. When I put the leaflet in one letterbox, a furious young man with a beard raced down the street and shouted at me, “Don’t put this **** in my letterbox!”

But there were numerous positive responses too. When a dog barked furiously at me as I passed one carefully tended garden, its owner hushed it with, “Be quiet, it’s the Conservatives!” Another lady stopped me on the street and told me how delighted she was that the Conservatives were back campaigning in Didsbury.

When I bumped into a LibDem delivering leaflets on the same street, I jokingly offered to deliver his leaflets for him, while noting there was a bin nearby.

What I take most from this process of walking up to hundreds and hundreds of doorsteps over many hours, so that my feet are quite blistered, is the importance of the democratic process itself. Like many people I tend to get irritated by endless political leaflets coming through the door, and admit I have sometimes in the past transferred them directly to the recycling. And in my campaigning too, some people in Manchester when offered a leaflet, refuse to take it when they see it is from the Conservatives.

Yet I think they are making a mistake, not because I want them to vote Conservative, but because they fail to appreciate how difficult it is these days to get minority parties to mount any kind of campaign in areas they don’t consider “winnable”. Pretty soon, people in Manchester just get used to the idea that Labour will win without their bothering to vote - after all the national turnout in local elections is around 30% - and the only possible alternative is the LibDems.

But this type of thing is a travesty of true democracy. I consider it my mission as I pound, solo, Manchester streets not just encouraging Conservative voters, but offering everyone a true democratic choice. It is appalling that Manchester has slid into being a one-party state - where none of the business of government is scrutinised by any kind of opposition in the Town Hall - and yet noone appears to be remotely bothered about it.

Just to be completely even-handed about these things, I wish to also tell you that it pains me that a few miles south, where family members live in the wealthy area of Bramhall in Cheshire, Labour never mount any campaigns or push any leaflets through the letterbox.

Do people in Manchester seriously think that 95 out of 96 councillors being Labour is a good thing? Or that people in Cheshire have no need to even read what Labour campaign promises might possibly be made to them? Whatever your politics, don’t you think that councils are likely to be better run, more diverse and democratically legitimate with some other parties represented? But no, in a “powerhouse” Northern city all they do is put up placards: Labour, Labour, Labour...

I personally take no glee in seeing different parts of the country dominated by one party or another, and then rather than attempting to make a comeback in areas where they have been rooted out, funnelling all resources into utterly dominating areas they already control.

The worst travesty - of which all parties are guilty - is treating local elections as national elections, concerned only by the end of the night with the grand totals of seats won and lost and what that spells for Westminster. But really, that type of thing is of much lesser importance. What really matters is that every party is fully represented and campaigning and engaging with the public in every local area. That is true local democracy at work.

What we have at the moment is a system that is grotesquely distorted, broken, and profoundly undemocratic.

For me, it will be a triumph not so much if I get elected, but if I have managed to connect with thousands of people in a ward in which they had come to think that there were at best two choices, that the Conservatives simply did not care about them and that it was hardly worth voting. I have put myself forward in order to offer a viable, important third option - whether they choose to take it is far less important than their actually having it.

If just some of the people of Manchester appreciate this revival of the more genteel, less world weary and less polarized politics of yesteryear, then I will truly consider my “campaign” to be worthy of “champagne”.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

A Tantalising Glimpse into a "Rogue" Soseki

There has been a truly fascinating and important discovery in the world of Natsume Soseki scholarship, one which begins with the tiniest of inscriptions...

According to the April 4 evening edition of the Asahi newspaper a postcard has emerged sent by the Japanese engineer Nagao Hanpei to a Japanese scholar of German literature then living in Berlin called Fujishiro Teisuke. The postcard depicts Robbie Burns and the Burns cottage in Ayr, Scotland and is co-signed by a “Natsume Kinnosuke” (the real name of Natsume Soseki). The card specifically indicates being in Edinburgh on November 1 1901.

Why does any of that matter? It has always been thought that during the two years Soseki spent in the UK between October 1900 and December 1902, apart from a single night spent in Cambridge at the very beginning and a stay of a week or two in Pitlochry, Scotland at the very end, Soseki never left London. But this postcard potentially explodes that idea.

About Soseki’s first year in London we have a pretty detailed knowledge because Soseki kept a diary. But a year in, the diary entries dry up and what he actually got up to becomes mysterious. This is just after the time that Soseki ceased his weekly sessions with his Irish tutor William Craig and became isolated and neurotic, obsessed with writing his “Theory of Literature”.

To adopt the parlance of “Apocalypse Now”, Soseki was about to “go rogue”, famously reputed to have sent his employers at the Ministry of Education in Tokyo a blank sheet of paper as the annual report on his progress. The gossip amongst the Japanese in London meanwhile, telegrammed back to Tokyo, would soon be that Soseki had “gone insane”.

Now suddenly we see Soseki pop up in Scotland and Edinburgh, one year ahead of schedule...

For me this opens up far more interesting possibilities. For example, I’ve always strongly felt that Soseki must have visited Manchester Art Gallery - above all art galleries, including the Tate in London, it is the art works contained there that most powerfully connect to Soseki’s later writings. Yet there is no proof that Soseki ever visited Manchester - indeed, quite the reverse, it has always been firmly believed that, with the above two exceptions, he never left London.

But now we have a glimpse of another “rogue” Soseki, failing to report on his movements, who could potentially have visited many places in the UK we simply do not know about. However if we look at the pattern of Soseki’s earlier and later life, then we can see that an impulse to travel, particularly as a form of alleviating stress, is a consistent feature.

The secret life of Soseki’s dark year in the UK, when he went metaphorically “up river”, is a mystery that still throws up tantalising clues and glimpses into the enduring enigma of Soseki.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wandering a Psychological Ice Palace

In the northern hemisphere we are approaching the coldest part of the year so I thought I might talk about a couple of favourite novels called 'The Ice Palace' and 'The Birds' by the great Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas:

It is winter time in Norway. At the edge of a rural village a waterfall has frozen and been transformed into an ice palace, an awesome structure of icy caves and cliffs. In a classroom at the local school, there is a new arrival, an eleven-year-old girl called Unn. She is quiet and enigmatic and so she is regarded with suspicion by her new classmates. But suddenly she forms a mysterious bond with a popular girl called Siss.

Siss invites Unn to the home where she lives with her aunt. It is almost as if there is a kind of strange telepathy between the two girls and an immediate intimacy. Unn has a secret that she wishes to share with the other girl, but Siss begins to feel uncomfortable and leaves. They will never meet again. The following day, Unn sets out to the ice palace on her own and becomes lost inside it. Then the search for her begins...

The Ice Palace, the novel published in 1963 by Tarjei Vesaas, is a work like no other. Broodingly written in a beautiful prose that demonstrates a powerful economy with words, it explores a difficult and fascinating subject: the mindset of children on the edge of puberty. The children are presented not as immature minors, but rather in their own terms, as persons not yet dulled into set patterns of behaviour, and capable of sudden impulsive acts that conform to their own sense of logic. More so than adults they are intuitive and expressive and alive to the mysteries of the world around them. We feel exactly what it must be like to be eleven-year-old girls interacting with one another, but we also explore how one person can enter into another's consciousness like an eternal presence, whose physical disappearance will haunt her for the rest of her days.

Tarjei Vesaas was born in Vinje in Telemark, Norway, in 1897. His family were farmers who had lived in the same house for over 300 years, and a strong sense of place and age-old tradition are central to the setting in many of his novels. Vesaas attended a local folk school and then in the 1920s travelled abroad, mainly in Germany, before returning to live in his native region from 1927 onwards. His wife Halldis Vesaas was also a writer.

Themes such as psychological isolation, guilt and death frequently recur in Vesaas' works. His 1957 novel The Birds, for example, tells the story of a mentally handicapped 37-year-old man called Mattis. He lives with his sister Hege who is slightly older and looks after him. Mattis is constantly aware of being a burden on his sister, who tries to make ends meet by knitting sweaters and encourages her brother to go out and find some work. He begs for work on a neighbouring farm and is asked to help thinning out turnips, but is humiliated by his inability to do the work properly.

Vesaas depicts Mattis in such a way that we see that although he is incapable of doing many basic tasks, of even forming his own thoughts into intelligent conversation, he is by no means lacking in thoughts. He has an innate feeling for the natural world – and indeed it is a great theme of Vesaas that it is those who are isolated from the ordinary adult world like Unn in The Ice Palace and Mattis in The Birds who most vividly connect to the primeval forces of nature.

It is almost as if the people in the ordinary adult world have had their senses numbed by the round of work and social interaction. When a woodcock flies over Mattis' house, it is for him an event of great significance which is entirely incomprehensible to his sister. A local boy hearing about the woodcock comes and pointlessly shoots it – yet only Mattis perceives this as a great tragedy, an affront to the majesty and beauty of the natural world.

Both The Ice Palace and The Birds are full of dark and mysterious symbols. In The Birds two wilted aspen trees are referred to by the people in the village as Mattis-and-Hege, but though both brother and sister are aware of this, they try to keep this insulting information from the other. When lightning strikes and one of the trees falls, Mattis panics that this is a sign that one of them will soon die – but which one of them will it be?

Vesaas' stories are both beautiful and deceptively simple. Reading about the ice palace, for example, almost makes one wish to head up into the north of Norway to find one. It is as if there exists in the frozen wastes something pure and powerful and wonderful, which is solid and yet appears almost as a mirage and then suddenly melts and disappears. It seems a metaphor for the very process of life itself – we wander around a psychological palace with many chambers. But perhaps we are most alive to its power and majesty, its deepest mysteries, not when we are adults but rather in the far-off days of our childhood when everything was new, when we acted on instinct and experienced everything with fresh eyes. When it made just as much sense to wander off on one's own to explore a frozen waterfall as it did to sit in a class and learn everything second-hand and written down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

12 Books to See the UK Through Brexit

Albeit that the recent UK General Election has now delivered a "strong and stable government", it's going to be a long 2 year slog through the Brexit process which formally began today.

It's going to be 1940 all over again: Britain alone, clinging on valiantly against the odds, facing the combined might of the Continent. We will fret whether we are going to survive at all, but secretly we will be rejoicing at having a chance of another long-overdue "finest hour" to triumph over the doom-sayers.

We are going to need to have some fine reads by our side to keep our peckers up and keep Britannia safe and sound. Here are my 12 essential reads to see us through.

1. "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill. (1859)

Listen Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron, when Mill (pictured left) wrote this eternal paean to freedom, Bismarck was cranking up his political career in Prussia and the French Second Empire was yet to collapse into the chaos of the failed revolution of the 1871 Paris Commune. Mill preferred a more gentle, quintessentially British approach to liberty - not something to be attempted in fits and starts, but something that infuses the whole culture of the land and its people. Wave a copy with pride and send one to Herr Juncker.

2. "Goodbye to All That" by Robert Graves. (1929)

We fought for European freedom on the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele and look what thanks we got...Robert Graves called it right in 1929. We're disillusioned with getting embroiled in the continent and we'll happily give up residency rights - just so long as we can retire on Mallorca and all the other sweet Mediterranean islands.

3. "1984" by George Orwell. (1949)

Orwell had it precisely: Britain should never have been part of "Eurasia" and always belonged to "Oceania". We were always going to get back to the open sea...Now we are out of the way, the EU can get on with a stream-lined supranational state with an unquestioned Big Brother president. Let's have a double think about sex crimes though.

4. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka. (1925)

Joseph K wakes up one morning and finds himself threatened with a gruelling legal process. He bitterly grumbles about it, and yet races obediently to the court hearing though not even summoned....Joseph, why don't you just tell them all to take a flying leap? The trial exists not so much in reality as in Joseph K's own obeisant mind...No deal better than a bad deal? You better believe it.

5. "Far from the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy. (1874)

OK, so Hardy Country can be excruciatingly tedious and lead you fumbling for your passport and the next flight to the continent. But hey, there's something comforting about all those rolling green fields and timeless English ways. Grim and occasionally depressing? Sure, but in a comforting British sort of grumbling, miserable way.

6. "Whisky Galore" by Compton MacKenzie. (1947)

Who even cares if we don't get a trade deal? We've got all the stuff the French want anyway. If we can't sell them our Scottish whisky, we can drink it all ourselves. How wonderful would that be?

7. "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming. (1953)

You think the negotiations are going to be difficult and that we are going to have to hold our nerve? Thankfully we have just the man for the job. Just make sure his martini is very cold and very strong. It's Bond against Le Chiffre: stylish courage pitted against underhand bureaucracy. Just hold on to your vital parts if they sit you down in a chair with the seat cut out...

8. "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. (1818)

Mary Shelley could see it all coming when she jotted down this Gothic horror by a lake in Switzerland 200 years ago. Stitch together a lot of discarded limbs of European states and pump some political currents through them and this is what you get: a rampaging EU monster that is going to take some stopping. We should perhaps try and arrange the Brexit negotiations near the North Pole and lure the EU team into the icy wilderness.

9. "Victory" by Joseph Conrad. (1915)

Let's not get carried away. Conrad meant the title of this book ironically (he was one of those Polish migrants turned British gent after all). But still we need something to give us a bit of vim and remind us of the glorious British Empire and trade routes throughout the world, before we got hung up on this whole European project. Did someone say "Robinson Crusoe"? Never heard of it.

10. "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh. (1930)

Whatever happens we have to retain our sense of humour. After all, we don't actually make anything any more. We just do the finance, make costume dramas and export comedians. We have to make sure that they don't put import tariffs on comedy or we are sunk. If all else fails we must flatter them in such a cunning, idiosyncratically British way that they don't even grasp that we are are having a hilarious joke at their expense.

11. "The Labyrinth of Solitude" by Octavio Paz. (1950)

Why is Mexico and and its people so very different to its neighbour the United States, Paz (pictured left) pondered. Hmm, because they have different cultural influences and histories, he concludes. But that's fine. Solitude is the new cool. Soon everyone will want it and Britain will be the go-to minotaur in the labyrinth.

12. "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (1866)

You've done the crime, now do the time. Why did you murder that kindly old lady who never listened to a word you said and bossed you about anyway? You crazy, crazy people. Get down on your knees and repent. We need the whole world to see that the EU does not take expressions of autonomy and individualism lying down.