Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Finest Hour of Lady Smith of Badajoz

For the last week I've been travelling in southern Spain on the trail of Harry Smith (1787-1860), a famous soldier statesman of the British Empire who was the most famous resident - marked by a blue plaque - of a property in the UK I am currently restoring. 

Smith had a quite incredible life that took him on a breathless odyssey from campaigns in Uruguay and Spain to America, France, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa and India. He somehow managed to be the man offering a truce at the Battle of New Orleans to being a brigade commander at Waterloo, and distinguished himself in the Sikh Wars before ruling Cape Colony. He even seems to have been one of only 40 men who broke into the White House during 1814 and ate President Madison's dinner (roasted meats and the finest madeira wine on an elegantly laid table) before burning down - on his general's orders - the White House (an act Smith referred to as 'barbaric').

I thought the best place to start my research on Smith was by reading his autobiography, written intermittently over many years so that one chapter starts 'written in Glasgow in 1824' and the next, 'Commenced at Simla, Himalayas, 11th Aug. 1844'. 

In only the first 40 pages, Harry is involved in the Battles of Montevideo and Colonia (1806) and imprisoned in Buenos Aires; he is nearly wrecked at sea on the return home, then is shipped to Gothenburg in Sweden, then sent to fight in the Peninsular War in Spain against the Napoleonic forces. He rounds up 20 bandits in the interior of Spain, campaigns in one bloody siege after another, is sent home to England and back to Spain again. He has a shrapnel ball lodged in his foot, which makes him lame, and is sent to Lisbon to convalesce and finally endures excruciating surgery to have it taken out.

From that point on however, Smith led a charmed life...As the Peninsular War dragged on in endless tactical manoeuvres, of offensives and retreats across a dizzying array of landscapes, Smith's fellow officers are killed one after the other, introduced on one page as a 'fine fellow' and mortally wounded on the next (sometimes while they are actually talking to Smith). In one instance, one of his injured comrades gets angry at the insolent remarks of a landlord, whereupon 'the carotid artery must have been wounded, for it burst out in a torrent of blood, and he was dead in a few seconds, to our horror, for he was a most excellent fellow'. Smith meanwhile sails through the action unhurt, while others fall like flies around him. 

Smith was extraordinarily lucky not just in war, but in love. The war narrative spills into one of the most famous romances of the early 19th century when at the bloody fourth siege of Badajoz in 1812 he meets the love of his life, a young Spanish girl called Juana (pictured top). 

Left orphaned at the age of barely 14 with only an elder sister at her side when Badajoz is stormed by blood-thirsty and lustful British troops (image below), she is placed under the protection of the elite 95th Rifles Brigade and immediately captures the heart of Brigadier-Major Smith, aged 24, who married her several days after meeting her. 

The couple would become virtually inseparable and she would travel with the Brigade for the rest of the war and - highly unusually for the era - travel with Smith on his adventures throughout the world over the next 50 years, eventually lending her married name of 'Lady Smith' to three towns in Canada and South Africa. 

It's historically curious though that Smith's fascinating autobiography was first published in 1901. Why would the memoirs of a man who died in 1860 be first published 41 years after his death? 

By the mid-19th century, Smith was a figure famous throughout the British Empire, lauded by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Commons and fondly known to Queen Victoria. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, he was fading into obscurity. Then something happened which made him of great interest round the world once again...

In 1899, the Anglo-Boer War broke out in southern Africa and the British suffered the humiliation of seeing the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley besieged by Boer forces. The fate of these three towns dominated the news in Britain as the country every day waited and prayed for the news that they had been relieved. 

As Ladysmith became a focus of international attention, people began to ask, 'Who exactly was this "Lady Smith"? And why was there a town in southern Africa named after her?" To answer this upsurge in public curiosity, the long-forgotten autobiography of her once famous husband, Sir Harry Smith - formerly the governor of Cape Colony (1847-52) - was rushed into publication. 

Yet if the British public expected to find in 'Lady Smith' a quintessential English heroine, they were in for a surprise. For 'Lady Smith' was not English at all, but a Spanish girl whose original name was Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that the Spanish woman who lent her name to this famous siege town in southern Africa was herself the most notable survivor of the terrible siege at Badajoz in Spain 90 years earlier. 

While the life of Harry Smith has partly inspired Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' novels and TV series, his wife has had more unexpected historical echoes. Juana's memory lives on for example in the name of the group, 'Ladysmith Black Mambazo', who have become an iconic representative of South African music and who sang with Paul Simon on his 1986 Graceland album and accompanied Nelson Mandela to Oslo in 1993 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

When in 1940, the historical novelist Georgette Heyer told the story of Juana Smith in her romance, 'The Spanish Bride' (still in print today), she published at a time when Britain itself was under siege. Juana became part of the zeitgeist of 'The Finest Hour' and readers found in her grit and determination, resonances of the determination of the British to stand up to the Nazi onslaught. 

It's a remarkable, unpredictable worldwide imprint for a 13-year-old Spanish girl escaping the chaos of war back in Badajoz, Spain in 1812. As I walk the streets of Badajoz today I'll be curious to find out whether this unassuming Spanish town (picture of alcazar below) remembers the legacy of one of its most famous daughters, with a strange capacity to reemerge into historical focus whenever the age requires her. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Laying of Odds on Murakami, Critics and the Nobel Prize

The announcement on Friday of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has led to much opining about the connections between literature and pop music. I'd like to discuss that intriguing subject on another occasion, but just for the moment I've been thinking more about the connection between literary stallions and bookmakers...

Haruki Murakami (pictured above) - the perennial bookies' favourite in the UK - failed yet again to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whatever the literary merits of this, there is an interesting linkage to be made between the betting on the Remain camp (favourite with the bookies while failing at the polls) in Brexit and Murakami constantly being the bookies' favourite while not winning.

As with Brexit, being the favourite leads to the impression that the bookmakers are making a judgement call, whereas in fact they are just reflecting the 'weight of money'. Which leads to the fascinating question: who is it that bets on winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature? At first sight, it seems a very odd mix of literature and betting.

Murakami being the year-in-year-out favourite (4-1, this year) represents not an assessment by any informed pundits, but presumably a desire by the millions of Murakami's fans in the West to have their reading tastes sanctioned by their author winning the ultimate accolade.

If Murakami did win, it then raises the question of whether the constant pressure of this 'weight of money' made an impact (conscious or unconscious) on the judges - so far it seems to have not the slightest impact.

Rather than reveal the tastes of the Nobel Committee however, Murakami constantly being favourite and yet not winning tells us a percentage of his fans 1. Like to have an online bet (I can't see them going to a high street bookies); 2. Have disposable wealth (We knew that already...); 3. Are not very streetwise (given that they keep on losing).

Surely this demonstrates the dangers of the ill-experienced wagering through sentiment rather than market insight? Well, you can look at it that way, but I would like to offer a different insight.

Literature and betting might appear at first to be two totally incongruous activities. Reading literature is a profoundly internalized, ultimately vague and lingering activity: you are never entirely sure how it affects your thought processes both now and into the future. Betting, by contrast, is entirely externalized, with a short thrill of uncertainty followed by complete clarity, win or lose. It seems to me to be entirely natural to wish to offset your internal literary musings with a punt on a bit of external reality.

The Nobel Prize indeed offers a potential opportunity for a flutter to those millions of people who have no interest in sport or the naming of royal babies. The Nobel Committee should perhaps be applauded for offering a gambling outlet for all those who fill red wine and book clubs up and down the country.

But even without betting on the big prizes, there is another means of externalizing your internal literary musings in a risk-laden endeavour: it's called 'criticism'. Whenever I put down my feelings on a subject and publish an article or upload a blog, I always feel like I am taking a risky punt: there's a certain mix of thrilling unease and anticipation as you wait to see what reaction your critique will garner. It's a highly unpredictable endeavour. Some of your bets will come romping home garlanded with praise; others will sink without trace or be the butt of ridicule and scorn.

I know a few people who are habitual (if not compulsive) gamblers, who can not get through a week without laying a bet. But I've rather come to recognize the same quality in myself, just transferred to a compulsive need to keep sending into the world little essays of criticism. Many people erroneously think I indulge in journalism, talks and blogs for the fabulous riches and worldwide fame they afford, but I assure you that it is the compulsive intellectual gambler inside me that whips me onward.

Once, back in my Cambridge days, my English supervisor - like me, a devotee of Nietzsche - gave me a gem of wisdom I've never forgotten: 'all great essays take risks'. Many people think that to write critically on a subject involves rational analysis and a summation of what has gone before. But what's truly essential is the ability to think creatively and to offer new insight.

If criticism does not challenge consensus, then it is pointless. Great criticism takes risks and flies in the face of convention. When it succeeds it manages to build a new consensus around its new tracks of interpretation.

The Nobel Prize is in many ways the ultimate statement of critical appreciation. Yet, paradoxically, when it merely represents a 'critical consensus' on a writer, it ceases to function as 'criticism'. In this sense, although I do not necessarily agree with the appraisal of Bob Dylan, at least the Nobel Committee are actually functioning in a critical capacity by advancing a new appreciation of Dylan's work. They have taken a punt, even as they have frustrated the bets of the legions of Murakami fans.

Anyone who is a critic is at heart a gambler. When Natsume Soseki published in 1907 his revolutionary 'Theory of Literature', he was criticized in some quarters for offering a profoundly scientific analysis of literature. But literature is not science came the critique. That's true, Soseki responded, literature is not science, but that's not to say literary criticism can't be scientific.

Soseki too was gambling big time on his radical criticism, but despite the fact that 'logic', 'emotion' and 'will' form the cornerstone of all his cultural analysis, he curiously neglected to see how 'wilfulness' - the desire to assert oneself, embrace danger and challenge convention - is just as essential a part of being a critic as 'rationality'.

So, in short, I have every sympathy for the Harukists laying their bets on the Nobel Prize. Because although literature and gambling might seem far apart ('The Nobel Prize is not a horse race', Murakami himself is supposed to have sniffily remarked), literary criticism and gambling are actually profoundly connected.

When it comes to your intellectual life at least, I think you should live dangerously and bet the house. Over the coming weeks, I'll be advancing new literary theories to challenge the consensus. It will be interesting to see whether my horses get over the line first or I am left seriously out of pocket...

Monday, 10 October 2016

Of Love and Letters

When it comes to the pictures of the Floating World (Ukiyo-e), I've discovered through bitter experience that I am a man of firm likes and dislikes. Throughout my late twenties and early thirties, this picture above, 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (c.1725 - 1770), hung on the wall of the modest 'one room mansion' I used to rent in Kansai in central Japan.

I can't quite remember where I first came upon it, but in classic student fashion, I had no funds to frame it and hang it gracefully, but rather attached it directly to the wall with blue tack at the corners. It would periodically fall off and I would have to re-press it firmly to a slightly different section of wall, leaving brown thumb marks on the corners of the poster and bluish, frayed marks on the wall.

When I finally came to move home in my mid thirties, the poster alas did not survive the move: it was far too grimy for the pristine walls of my new palace and into the bin it went. Having now entered the 'Harunobu-less' years of my life, I began to pang for ukiyo-e and would periodically find myself excitedly visiting exhibitions and leafing through books. My mind being confused however, I would forget that it was Harunobu whose poster I used to gaze on every day and I would misremember that it was by another famous ukiyo-e artist, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) instead. But whenever I looked at Utamaro's pictures, I would be disappointed - they appeared to me to have less finesse, beauty and warmth - until I finally recalled that it was never him that I liked in the first place, but rather Harunobu.

Harunobu, Harunobu, Harunobu. I had to remember it was him that I liked, but then I forgot again and sat through Mizoguchi's film "Utamaro and His Five Women" (1946, thought by some to be a masterpiece - not in my opinion) and wondered once again what I had ever seen in Utamaro, until I finally recalled that I had misremembered it once again. Damn Utamaro!

Clearly I needed Harunobu back in my life. As recipients of my Facebook feed will be aware, I have been engaged in a restoration project of late on a 19th century mansion in the UK. One of its rooms I am naming the 'Arthur Waley Room' in honour of the great scholar, translator and popularizer of East Asian literature. This room will contain a writing desk and so it was a no-brainer what picture I would wish to have hanging over it: 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (in an even larger, framed version this time round).

In the ten years I spent looking at this picture while I was researching literature in Japan, a particular set of interpretations fixed themselves in my mind. As I will explain in a moment, this view was partly based on a misinterpretation of the picture, but I'll tell you first what particular meaning this picture of two people simultaneously reading a letter had for me and why I would wish to have it hanging over a writing desk.

Firstly, it reminded me that what you write should be capable of being read and re-read. It should be composed to last and to be mulled over. Second, it reminds me that the perspective of each person reading what you have written is different (which doesn't necessarily stop me winding up people of every possible stripe with ill-considered remarks).

Thirdly, it reminds me that if you communicate your passion on a subject, it will be of interest not just to your 'intended' audience, but to all kinds of other readers as well. In fact, it is this unintended 'secondary' readership that always provide me with the greatest thrill as a writer - those people in the farthest reaches of the world, or people with no particular interest in the subject, who somehow or other come upon what you have written and find their own interest sparked by it.

During the ten years I gazed at this picture in my room in Japan, I mostly spent my time at a Japanese university, preparing for a standard academic career. I contemplated the life of publishing articles in academic journals, producing books of academic research, tutoring graduate students - all very worthy and noble - but not, I concluded, one for me. I wanted to write things that would find not just the pre-ordained, 'intended' audience but reach out for that secondary, unintended readership. I wanted the scroll of scholarship to unfurl and land in unexpected, fascinated hands.

But when I came to order the half-remembered print after a 10 year gap, I suddenly discovered that it had a quite different meaning to what I had always assumed it to have. Knowing it only by its English title of 'The Love Letter', I had carelessly assumed it to be a picture of two female courtesans reading the same love letter, intended for the girl at the top, but also being read with interest by her friend under the blanket.

When I looked up its Japanese title however, I was startled to see it was 'A Man and a Woman Reading a Letter by a Kotatsu [A blanketed table])' The figure under the blanket is a man - you can also tell this from the hairstyle, which often reveals much information in ukiyo-e prints. This rather changes the dynamic of the picture and adds a sharp satirical edge.

But now, more than ever, I'm feeling this is a suitable picture to have hanging over a writing desk: reminding me than even the most familiar works of art have the ability to suddenly radiate in an unexpected light according to a new critical interpretation laid upon it.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

All Aboard the Mishima Express

In Japan they have a variety of exotically decorated theme trains dedicated to famous writers. For example, in Iwate in north-east Japan, there is the 'Night on the Galactic Railway' train dedicated to the memory of fairytale author Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933). Or else on the island of Shikoku, there is a 'Botchan' train, based on the famous story by Natsume Soseki, which will take you round the city of Matsuyama where 'Botchan' is set.

I was thinking however that they have surely missed a trick in not having a Yukio Mishima-themed train that will take you to the city of Mishima, near Mount Fuji. (Geekish note: Yukio Mishima's real name was Kimitake Hiraoka and he took the pen-name of 'Mishima' from this very town in 1941.)

In Japan if a train is bound for somewhere they add the suffix 'yuki', so the Mishima-bound train is known as the Mishima-yuki train. This would afford the ineffable daily pleasure to the announcer of being able to pronounce that, 'This is the Mishima yuki Mishima Yukio train' which would surely elicit a smile every time.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Both Awful and Wonderful? It must be "Yabai"...

About 15 years ago, I remember having a conversation with an Irish bartender in Osaka about the Japanese word "yabai". The word was originally used by Japanese criminals as indicating the threat of imminent capture by the police but had entered common parlance as representing something you did not like the sound of. I droned on that it was quite a difficult word to translate into English. My Dublin friend, with characteristic impatience for such pretentious blather, immediately cut me short and remarked that what "yabai" really meant then was "F*** that!" - which both made me laugh and stays in my mind as the best possible translation.

But reading a newspaper a few days ago I was shocked to discover that while I wasn't paying attention, "yabai" has completely changed its meaning. It seems that even 10 years ago, 70% of teenagers had switched to using "yabai" as meaning "terrific" or "wonderful".

It's interesting the way that words have the capacity to completely transform their meaning. In English, the word "sick" has undergone the same transformation from negative to positive meaning. And if you go back far enough, you discover that the most bland-seeming words like "nice" apparently once had the meaning of "terrifying".

What people seek from language is not necessarily clarity of meaning: language often represents the restlessness of the human condition, constantly seeking to invert and subvert that which has gone before. It's easy to become numbed to the fact that some of the words we use are a previous generation's ironical inversion of what they received from their forebears. When you attempt to adhere to fixed definitions of meaning, you alas lose sight of the way that language is in a constant state of rebellious evolution.