I know about all the setbacks and and the successes. I know all the great put downs (Lady Astor: “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill: “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”). I know all the speeches. But I didn’t know about all the times Winston Churchill came close to death. It’s as though he lived his life right on the edge to derive the maximum use of his allotted time.
The central conceit of the book is that Winston was such a complex character, you have to see both sides to fully understand him. Each chapter is a kind of He Said, She Said testimony on each of Winston’s traits— Was he an alcoholic? Was his marriage happy? Was he suited to high office? —with anecdotes from his numerous friends and even more numerous enemies.
The overall effect of this rather shallow treatment is to reduce the great man to a series of caricatures and the sense of his overwhelming presence that comes across in more conventional tellings is somehow lost.
The book contains very little information that would be new to anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of Churchill’s biography but there’s one chapter in the middle that sheds a little light on his charmed life. In Churchill’s Destiny—How He Saw Himself, Gretchen rattles off all little details that might have become the most important episode in an ordinary man’s life; the kind of episode one might tell and retell at every opportunity. But, in Churchill’s over-stuffed existence, they barely merit a footnote.
Here’s a sample:
Churchill battled pneumonia twice: in 1886 and again in 1943.
At age eighteen, playing tag, Churchill jumped from a thirty foot bridge and tried to land in a treetop on the way down. He ruptured his kidney, injured his spine and was unconscious for three days.
A few month later, he nearly drowned in Switzerland.
In a letter to his mother in 1897 while fighting the Pashtun as a Second Lieutenant in British India, “I am so conceited that I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
At age 25, he helped rescue a train that was under attack from enemy fire. He was captured by the Boers.
After the Dardanelle disaster, Winston resigned and went to fight in the trenches (could you imagine a modern politician resigning and then going to fight in the trenches?). His shelter was destroyed by a shell five minutes after he left it to deliver a message.
After surviving the trenches, Winston took flying lessons. One plane caught fire; another flipped after takeoff; another crashed after the guiding stick failed. He finally quit after a fourth crash that injured his flying instructor.
He was hit by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931.
He was shot at by a sniper in 1944 in Greece. Winston’s response: “Cheek!”
After he became Prime Minister in 1940, Winston “was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
I’ve developed a habit in recent years of getting so excited after reading the first few chapters of a book that I want to write a provisional review before I even really know what it’s about.
Two chapters into Unapolagetic, I was shouting yes! yes! yes! and couldn’t wait to capture my agreement in digital ink. I even, for the first time ever, used the highlight feature on my kindle so that I could accurately report all the many, many points that resonated with my own experience.
On one point in particular Spufford was singing my life with his words. When he described that transcendental moment when I meditate on the immensity of eternity – Spufford calls it ‘praying’ but, whatever – and I experience a little shimmer in the corner of my mind’s eye and suddenly everything makes sense and the whole universe lines up for my inspection and appreciation…. I didn’t know that other people experienced it too. I thought that was just me and I had no idea that some people called that shimmer ‘God’.
Seeing my secret thoughts in pixels, I was tremendously excited to document my assent to Spufford’s project which, as I understood it from tentatively supportive reviews by a couple of Christian bloggers that I follow, was to describe Christianity’s benefits in words that a non-Christian could identify with. I could get behind that project.
Real-life intervened though and the reviewable moment was lost. An emergency dash down to Santa Barbara later and the blogging window slammed shut. As I ploughed on through the next chapter on theodicy all my admiration fell away.
Spufford concedes that the problem of evil is not a problem for atheists. It’s only a problem if you believe in one very specific kind of God: that is, a God who loves the world and is in full control of all the outcomes. There is no problem of evil if your God doesn’t care about children with cancer. Without love, there is no problem to be solved.
Likewise, there’s no problem with a God who cares an awful lot about you but is powerless to do much about it. That God would be lame and not much worthy of all the cathedrals that get built for him and he’d create all kinds of problems for his marketing department but he wouldn’t create any particular challenges for philosophers.
Since the God that Spufford worships is allegedly both omnipotent and benevolent, the problem of evil is a big problem indeed and Spufford absolutely demolishes all the usual excuses for why God allows evil to happen to good people. Let’s just say that if Spufford were in God’s marketing department, God would’ve fired him by now. Spufford works in mysterious ways.
I just went back to my Kindle to read over all the sections that I highlighted back when I thought this was a great book. Spufford really is an astoundingly good writer. He wasn’t just singing my life; he was strumming my secret pain in ways that make me wonder if he isn’t in league with the NSA. I really want his project to succeed but chapters three and four make me despair for the whole liberal Christian project, cuddly new popes notwithstanding.
When I was 20, my girlfriend’s brother bought me Bleak House for my birthday saying “I love buying books for people who will get pleasure from them.” I’ve flirted with Bleak House more times than I can remember but there is always some other book ready to steal my affections.
I’ve been through a substantial proportion of the Dickens canon in the last thirty years – and loved every one! – but, somehow, something about Bleak House keeps me from making that final commitment. But Colin! Believe me when I say that I am so grateful for your gift and your faith in me and, one day, I will prove myself worthy of your kindness.
I have been a committed reader since I first learned ITA and I formed the habit of keeping 5 or 6 books on the go soon after. I keep my active books in a pile by my nightstand, each waiting for the privilege of being the next to come to bed with me. I’ll sample a little of each until one seduces me, whispering I am the one, and commits me to reading on on on until the finish.
In the early days of my reading adventure, Green Smokeand The Little Wooden Horse and The Magic Faraway Tree were my night-time companions but, these days, Mr Bezos’s magical device sends me sample after sample to tease me and tempt me into making that brief, literary commitment. I do still have a few pre-electronic books on my nightstand, waiting for their turn to join me in bed and one of them is Bleak House, waiting longer than Pip waited for Estella – nearly 30 years now – for a turn under the covers.
Other friends have had more luck giving me books. Matt currently holds the title Most likely to buy me a fantastic book, a title he first earned with On The Road, telling me “I hesitate to give you this, because you might just take off and leave me behind”. In the end, it was he that took off and I stayed put, probably to both our chagrin(s). Matt has since bought me several books out of the blue and every one was a winner. I have tried repaying his complement on more than one occasion, but I fully expect my attempts to settle the debt are still piled on his nightstand.
Another memorable book-shaped gift came from Colin’s (and therefore Fiona’s) brother-in-law Rod. I can’t tell you how many times I re-read Fungus the Bogeyman and I’d be more than a little ashamed to tell you how many times it made me cry.
Perhaps the best ever surprise book came from an unusual source. When I was 15, my dad who, as far I know, never actually read a book, bought me Principles in Organic Chemistry, a second year (american) college textbook. I say my dad bought it for me, but what I almost certainly mean is that my stepmother bought it for me. Sue, if you are reading, I don’t know how you ever thought to buy me that book and I have been meaning to ask you since forever. That book was perfect for my fifteen-year-old self as, at the time, I loved chemistry and I read it over and over. I still remember all the methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- prefixes and the difference between an -ene and an -ane and how Americans had different names for everything (and still do!). I’ll forever be grateful. I wish I still possessed that book just as I wish I still possessed the Joy of Frogs (think: Joy of Sex but with frogs) that you bought me the year before.
It’s a little bit sad that I have no one to buy books for these days. Mrs Clown reads occasionally, but not any book that I would ever think to buy for her. I have bought her many a book but our secret agreement is that I buy the book for her, read it myself and then tell her what’s in it. She particularly enjoyed me reading Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind.
My biggest little clown couldn’t get enough of books when he was an even littler clown but one too many deadly earnest Great American Novels For Children doused his passion for books in elementary school. I seem to recall that Little House on the Prairie provided the final bucket of water that killed the flame forever. The other little clown still enjoys reading in theory but, in practice, has too many electronic temptations to sit patiently with something so old-fashioned as a book and certainly wouldn’t let people from another generation recommend books for her.
It’s a great shame because I so desperately want them to love the books that I love. I am still able, across the vast generation gap that separates us, to choose a movie and force them to sit still (put that phone down!) through those crucial first 15 minutes until the plot grabs them and drives the electronic temptations from their minds but it’s a skill I have to use sparingly because, although my success rate is impressively high, I feel that a little of my influence drains away each time I use it.
One small clown still trusts me to recommend TV series for us to watch together despite the attempts at sabotage by the other two but my book-recommending mojo is, I fear, gone forever. I still have full confidence in my ability to choose a book for my little ones, but I have no confidence that they will actually open it and let the words cast their magic spell. One little clown, just last week, even made it all the way through one of my favourite books from my childhood but I have no evidence at all that the Call of the Wild was ever more than mere words on a page for her.
If I had a teenage daughter to recommend books for, I would certainly recommend that she read The Bell Jar. OK, maybe I’d wait until she was a little older so she could appreciate the wit and the delicious cynicism more completely, but I have no doubt that she would love it and that it would change the way she thinks about life. It’s always risky to recommend a book when you are only half way through but I am sufficiently moved by the first half that I wanted to put down my Kindle for long enough to write how much I’m enjoying it.
Sylvia Plath, for me, has always been a footnote in Ted Hughes’s biography. Mr Banks, my teacher for the last two years of primary school, was a Ted Hughes pusher and if we weren’t reading poems about attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn, we were making enormous collages about The Iron Man but I didn’t know anything about his wife, Sylvia Plath, except the thing with the oven. I understood that a certain kind of american feminist held Hughes responsible for her death but I never understood why they cared so much about her death in the first place. Now I do. She’s a brilliant writer.
I’m not much of a feminist myself – and I’m even less of one after the PyCon thing last week – but if I were a woman and a feminist, I think I’d want to be the kind who succeeds because she’s great at what she does, not because she’s a feminist and Plath was a great writer and she tells a story that I know well. I hear she’s pretty good at poetry too, and that’s where my reading adventure will take me next.
They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.
[It’s that time again. That time when I rummage through my unfinished posts folder and decide which one’s would be better out than in and which belong in the digital toilet bowl. This one from March 2012 (barely) made the cut. 3 others weren’t so lucky. Two more (Run Silent, Run Deep and Confessions of a Comic Sans Lover) get to remain in limbo for a little while longer before the reaper calls again or my muse returns whichever comes first.
I still haven’t read the book but it’s waiting on my Kindle.]
I love reviewing books before I have read them then cycling back afterwards to see how completely I got the book wrong. In a sense, my pre-reading review is purer; unsullied by actual knowledge of what the book is about.
The blurb on Alain de Botton’s website says:
What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved on by Alain’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world.
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.
My initial expectation was that de Botton was proposing a project similar to my own campaign for ceremonial deism but, actually, as I learned from watch Bob Wright interview him on bloggingheads.tv, he is proposing something far more profound.
I found one idea particularly intriguing. When you go to church, they have sermons that are explicitly about virtue. While morality tales abound in cinema and books and, I assume, modern kids get to discuss ethics in the context of a novel or poetry, there is no context outside of a church where someone sits you down and says here are some important moral principles and you should follow them.
Now clearly, religion’s choice of topics, especially in 21st century America, does not entirely match my own. I expect that’s a big part of the problem. When Santorum talks about morality and virtue, he is talking about abstinence and contraception and gay marriage and other evils of the modern world.
[I’m sure the next paragraph would have been profound but, sadly, I forgot what I was going to write.]
The early entries were fascinating for their fleeting glimpse into the every day lives of people during the war. Orwell talks more about the price of eggs and about how his petunias are faring than about the bombs falling on London but, as times passes, he begins to talk more and more about politics.
[…Nowadays, whatever is said or done, one looks instantly for hidden motives and assumes that words mean anything except what they appear to mean.]
From the Italian radio, describing life in London:
“Five shillings were given for one egg yesterday, and one pound sterling for a kilogram of potatoes. Rice has disappeared, even from the Black Market, and peas have become the prerogative of millionaires. There is no sugar on the market, although small quantities are still to be found at prohibitive prices”.
One would say that this is stupid propaganda, because if such conditions really existed England would stop fighting in a few weeks, and when this fails to happen the listener is bound to see that he has been deceived. But in fact there is no such reaction. You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either.
Four years ago, I drove up to Portland, Oregon to make a new life and I fell entirely in love with every detail of the city. I loved exploring Portland and I found something new each time I looked.
I have a sense that the puritans never made it as far as Portland. In San Jose, the mayor is proud that they haven’t handed out a new liquor license in years. They just recycle the old ones. They make-believe it’s a virtue. In Portland, the mayor is named after a beer. In San Jose, bars are either dingy and shallow or new, shiny and shallow and when they die, they are replaced by another just the same. In Portland, bars spring up on every corner and reach for the sky as a tree in the rainforest reaches for the canopy and the sunlight beyond. Undaunted by the diversity of what came before, new bars are excited and eager to become part of the diverse ecosystem where everyone feeds off everyone else’s success.
I loved the little details of the city. I loved finding the kind of place that has 27 beers on a blackboard, ranked by IBU and scribbled out as new beers are put on tap and old ones run dry. I loved that Portland has more strip clubs per resident than anywhere in the United States and I loved finding myself in the middle of a World Naked Bike Ride and seeing co-workers cycle by with a delighted wave. I loved going to the movies and being brought my dinner on a tray. I loved seeing the realtime display above the bar announcing who had just checked in on FourSquare and I loved that every new bar had three new beers that I had never previously tried.
My favourite bit of Portland was the New Old Lompoc on 23rd. It was the kind of crappy, divey, dingy bar that is always filled with real people and even when it wasn’t made you feel real. The Lompoc brewed their own beer and I began with the Condor because I had been warned that the hoppier IPAs would shrivel my labia. Condor gave me cramps in my calfs just like Courage Sparkling Bitter did all those years ago and like no other beer since. By the time I was done with Portland, I always looked for the hoppiest beer or the strongest beer on the blackboard, genitalia be damned. In Portland, I found barley wines and even, for the first time in 25 years, a prize old ale at Steve’s wonderful Cheese Shop that took me back to that tiny pub in Horndean.
On my first visit to the Lompoc, four long years ago, the waitress brought me my Portland Dip and a pint of Condor and smiled the brightest, widest smile I have ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie. Last Monday, the same waitress smiled the same bright smile as she delivered my labia-shrivelling Kick Axe at my last farewell to Portland before I departed for my new life back in San Jose. The Lompoc is closing down next week to make way for some nice new condominiums. They tell me that it will reopen in a couple of years, but it won’t be the same. It feels oddly fitting that the Lompoc will close down just as my love affair with Portland ends and my new life begins.
This week, I started a new job with a brand new startup. The kind of startup where everyone looks at each other and decides whether we should use Python or Ruby or, perhaps, Perl because no one has really thought about trivial details like which technology to use yet. The kind of startup where the furniture is scavenged from a previous tenant and where, if you want to talk to the CEO, you swing your chair around and talk to him. WebMD wasn’t an especially big company but, in many ways, it felt like the biggest company I had ever worked for and by the end it felt very safe and comfortable. It’s time for something a little more dangerous and exciting.
The title quote, by the way, is stolen from the book I am reading.
Here we go out of the sleep of mild people, into the wild rippling water.
I have seen the movie, Deliverance, three or four times already but no one ever told me I should read the book too until now. The writing sears my senses.
In many ways it reminds me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There too, I had seen the movie so many times that I could almost recite the lines but the quality of the writing in the book just took my breath away. I was totally unprepared for how it would move me. I remember reading a paragraph of Cuckoo’s Nest and putting the book down gasping for breath at the audacity of the words and then rereading the paragraph to check that it was as good a second time. It almost didn’t matter whether the plot was good. He could’ve been writing about turnip farming and I’d still read it with joy for every root vegetable and planting.
Deliverance has that same quality. The movie catches a little of the delight of creating a scene where nothing happens but the nothingness is burned into your consciousness as when the albino kid joins Drew in Duelling Banjos. Who has ever seen the movie and forgotten that scene? It has nothing to do with the plot. The plot almost does not matter and those scenes keep coming and coming.
I am just at the point in the book where they put their canoes in the river, a little afraid of what’s around the next bend. For now, they know nothing of squealing like a pig or of what they will have to do to survive as their adventure turns dangerous but they have a sense that something important is going to happen.
I like to think that even if they knew all the things that might happen downstream, they’d still get in those canoes and paddle down that river and enjoy the thrill of the whitewater along with the calm certainty of future success. Anyone who has ever joined a startup knows the feeling of pregnant possibility and the quickening as the ideas swell and kick the new company into life.
It feels great to dip my paddle in new waters and to bend my bow knowing that the shot I fire will change the world. The rednecks hardly scare me at all.
Why is that these two statement evoke such different reactions?
I hear they are making a movie of The Lord of the Rings.
I hear they are making a movie of The Lorax.
Those of us who are fans of JRR Tolkien were positively thrilled when we heard the fantastic news all those years ago.
They are making a movie of the ring trilogy and it’s gonna be bloody marvellous!
No doubt Harry Potter fans had a similar reaction so why is that, when I hear that they are making a movie of my favourite Dr Seuss story, my reaction is:
They are making a movie of The Lorax and it’s gonna be shit!
I have a special connection to The Lorax. When the biggest small clown was much smaller, we had a huge pile of Dr Seuss books and we read them over and over. Our favourite was The Lorax and we read it so often that I ended up knowing it by heart (and can still recite big chunks of it).
One time, we went on a family trip somewhere far away like Yosemite or Lake Tahoe and the little clown was bored with the journey home. He couldn’t have been more than two years old and to soothe his restless spirit, I started reciting the Lorax while I drove.
Big Clown: At the far end of town where the grickle-grass…
Little Clown: GROWS!
Little clown joined in and completed each line for me.
Big Clown: And the wind smells slow and sour when it…
Little Clown: BLOWS!
Big Clown: And and no birds sing excepting old…
Little Clown: CROWS!
Big Clown: Is the Street of the Lifted…
Little Clown: Lorlax!
Naturally, I thought my child was a genius when we made it through the whole book without missing a line. We especially enjoyed the little drama of saying goodbye to the brown barbaloots and the poor swamee-sans when they left and we had to say our tearful goodbyes.
Dr Seuss wrote a number of books that are just astounding for the simple clarity of their message.
If we are not good stewards of the natural world, we will destroy it.
Star. No star. No difference.
Try it. You might like it.
Life’s gonna be excellent. But sometimes it won’t be. You’ll need to keep on striving anyway to reach the good bits.
Little clown is almost big enough now to hear that last message one last time before he, like the barbaloots, says his goodbyes. I hope he pays as much attention to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as he paid to The Lorax.
The movie version of The Lorax came out this week. I am determined not to see it because it will certainly, like every other adaptation of a Dr Seuss book, be shit. The littlest clown wants to see it though, so I read today’s review in the New York Times(possible paywall?) to see if it has any redeeming features. Nope.
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Those words are a permanent part of the literary heritage, and no movie can change that. And when the Lorax is around, warily befriending the ambitious Once-ler, you can almost believe you are in the Seussian universe. The parable of an ambitious entrepreneur who lets his ingenuity curdle into unchecked greed is more or less intact, and his corruption is conveyed in a few memorable, semi-inspired visual flights. But these only emphasize the hectic, willful mediocrity that characterizes the rest of the movie, and far too many of its kind.
In the film as in the book, the Once-ler ravages the landscape and destroys the Truffula trees to manufacture thneeds, knitted garments that have multiple uses but no real utility. Demand for them is insatiable for a while, and then, once the trees are gone, the thneeds are forgotten, partly because nobody really needed them in the first place.
The reviewer conveys exactly why Hollywood is unable to tell simple stories and – bonus! – even answers the riddle of how we knew in advance that the movie will be shit.
There is an obvious metaphor here, but the movie is blind to it, and to everything else that is interesting or true in the story it tries to tell.
I hear they are making a movie of The Hobbit! It’s gonna be bloody marvellous!
Tom lent me the Game of Thrones to read recently. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I couldn’t help but think that – if you take away the thin veneer of magic and fantasy – it reads a lot like the history of my country. And how much more fantastic to read a true story?
So that’s what I am doing now.
I’ve had Hume’s History of England in three volumes on my iPad for a while (it’s free in iBooks) and I ploughed through Volume I in no time flat.
Every English schoolboy knows that history began in 1066 but my knowledge of what came before was very shaky. I knew some names -Ældward the Confessor,Ælthelred the Unready, Ælfr?d the Great and a whole bunch of other kings beginning with Æ – but I was a bit shaky on the dates and the sequence of events. In my memory, the shame of the Danelaw went on for centuries and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was only for one king and one generation. I was also surprised that Alfred was much later (and greater) than I remembered.
Really, after reading the history of the Saxon times, I wonder why there is any need to make up fantasy stories. There are at least 10 kings of that era that could have an epic movie of their own. Why are we all so fixated on Robin Hood and King Arthur when the true stories are so much more dramatic? Where are the movies about those forgotten heroes?
I’m loving Hume too. I had previously read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (twice) and Hume shares with Churchill the endearing habit of making little pretence of objectivity. There are good guys and bad guys and Hume makes sure you know which is which. He even pulls off the neat trick of turning the Saxons from “them” – when the likes of Arthur are valiantly but tragically failing to keep them out – into “us” when we cheer on King Alfred’s miraculous victories.
I’ve often wondered about the them versus us thing in the context of Australia and the US. They talk of the first Australian explorers who made it to the red centre but those Australians quickly become British when Tasmanians are being hunted down and massacred. It’s odd when Australians and Americans do it and it was odd to witness the same phenomenon in myself.
Clearly, I identify with the Britons trying so desperately to fight off the Saxon horde but just a couple of hundred years later and we (the Saxons) are fighting off a new set of invaders. Funny how the Normans never became “us”.
Late last night I reached the Norman invasion and put my iPad down so that I could read it fresh today. The story was exactly as I remembered from Mrs Harris’s history class in 1977. The same charges. The same feints. The same tragic ending. It was a close run thing in Hume’s telling of the story. Odd too that I rooted for neither side. Harold got to where he was through treachery but he was, after all, one of us. William brought civilization to my country but it was a foreign civilization. I guess it’s best that he won but his victory feels like a defeat to me.
I leave you with Hume’s recounting of the end of the Saxon era while I move on to Volume II and the Normans and Plantagenets that I remember so well from school.
Thus was gained by William, duke of Normandy, the great and decisive victory of Hastings, after a battle which was fought from morning till sunset, and which seemed worthy, by the heroic valor displayed by both armies and by both commanders, to decide the fate of a mighty kingdom. William had three horses killed under him; and there fell near fifteen thousand men on the side of the Normans: the loss was still more considerable on that of the vanquished, besides the death of the king and his two brothers. The dead body of Harold was brought to William, and was generously restored without ransom to his mother.
Now that I have read about the brutality of William’s reign, I regret my former ambivalence and place myself firmly in Harold’s camp. Civilization, be damned.