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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution by Robin Renwick, book review: Murky birth pangs of the rainbow nation

It was October 1989, shortly before Namibian independence. With the ballot boxes prepared for Namibia’s first free elections, and the South African troops there confined to barracks, Renwick was urgently summoned by Pretoria’s foreign minister, Pik Botha.

Namibian forces were about to launch an uprising, he was informed. Renwick refused to believe it and, with British soldiers controlling UN communications in Namibia, proved within three hours that the report was false, stopping a retaliatory South African mobilisation.

The claim of an attack, it emerged, had been invented by rogue elements in South African military intelligence wanting to re-ignite the Border War. It is a revelation, one of many from Renwick’s time as ambassador between 1987 and 1991, which underlines how fundamental double-dealing and betrayal were to this period.

The past can too easily appear inevitable in retrospect. But as this detailed, if overly dry, account of the end of apartheid makes clear, its peaceful demise appeared far from inevitable at the time, not least as the likelihood of a coup (one former army head warns he could take-over in “an afternoon”), or the ANC controlling its “necklacing” youth, was far from clear.

Renwick clearly had extraordinary access, bouncing in and out of the offices of PW Botha, FW de Klerk, and ultimately Nelson Mandela. The Foreign Office also waived its 30-year-rule to let him draw on official records, enabling him to provide considerable detail about the person he clearly considers his story’s most unsung hero: Margaret Thatcher.

Her involvement is as murky as anything occurring on the ground. She was pilloried for refusing to extend sanctions, but Renwick is insistent that in private his heroine was a leading light in petitioning South Africa’s white leadership to dismantle apartheid. He promises that this re-evaluation of her role will be backed-up as the official communiques are made public in coming years. For that, we will have to wait and see.

But what is clear now, is that Britain’s soft approach on sanctions was exactly why Renwick was welcome at apartheid-era Tuynhuys (the Cape Town office of the President), which did mean he was able to play the role of intermediary he so desired. What is less clear is if this role actually gave him the influence he believed he had with the wily Mandela, at a time when African nations were uniformly condemning Mrs Thatcher.

Repeatedly Renwick registers disappointment that the newly-freed leader would not say in public what he – and Britain – wanted, or had been told in private, complaining that Mandela could “be forgetful of what he owed” men like De Klerk. Double-talk, it seems, may not have only been reserved for use on men like Botha, but also on British ambassadors hoping to shape history.

View the original article here

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey book now a turn-off for library users

The first instalment of the best-selling “mummy porn” trilogy by EL James has dropped out of the top 100 most-borrowed library books, plummeting from third place the previous year.

Judith Watts, senior lecturer of publishing at Kingston University and author of Writing Erotic Fiction, said the book had become so ubiquitous that it was no longer enticing to readers. “I think it’s to do with saturation, it became so widely available,” she said. “Certain charity shops won’t take it any more.”

Fifty Shades of Grey became the bestselling book in British history in 2012 when it sold more than 5.3 million copies, overtaking  Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The official library borrowing figures in which it did not make the top 100 were registered between June 2013 and June 2014.


The latest library lending figures, released today by the Public Lending Right scheme, show that the American thriller writer James Patterson has remained the most-borrowed author for the eighth year in a row. He had 13 novels in the top 100, with Second Honeymoon the most borrowed of his work, at No 8.

The most-borrowed book of last year was Dan Brown’s Inferno, despite its critical mauling.

Six children’s authors made the top 10 including former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, the third-most-borrowed of the year, Daisy Meadows and Francesca Simon, who was behind the Horrid Henry books. 

Public Lending Right (PLR) was established by an Act of Parliament in 1979, giving authors the legal right to receive payment from government each time their book is loaned through the public library system.

This month the PLR will make £6m payments to 22,053 authors, with the rate at 6.66p per loan.

View the original article here

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson, book review: Parallel passion and poetry in New England, then and now

The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination, but it is surprising nonetheless to learn that it was only as recently as 1984 that details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, explored the facts in exhaustive detail.

But fiction has a truthful purpose, too. William Nicholson’s scrupulously researched story throws fresh light on the extraordinary love affair between Austin Dickinson, 55, and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for sure what they shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical base from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausibly as a biographer.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, the new director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and then entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then, the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she’d listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running parallel to the story of Austin and Mabel is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend, Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son, Jack, is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in her own affair, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems, and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but it’s a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative: “Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.”

While fictional stage directions are a reminder of the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is afoot. Alice’s problem (aside from tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich writers’ resource.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the 1,800 poems, and pushing forward to publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore the motivations behind Mabel’s efforts. His greatest achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst, is to compel us to approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

View the original article here

Monday, February 23, 2015

What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper, book review: The compelling economic argument for going green

In essence, this encapsulates the message of Tony Juniper’s campaigning book, timed for the run-up to the 2015 election: that it is only by putting a financial value on nature that politicians and businessmen will be persuaded to protect it. This is a direction many leading green activists are deeply sceptical about. We cannot devolve our responsibility to defend the rural landscape to those driven by the profit motive, they argue. Once it is seen as a network of “ecosystem services” that landowners and others can be paid to deliver, nature has effectively been privatised, its fate subject to the shifting winds of the market.

Juniper provides an excellent summary of the UK’s evolving ecological crisis: degradation of the soil and the loss of carbon-trapping peat bogs; the decimation of bees and other insect pollinators through the use of insecticides; the loss of marine habitats through destructive fishing practices; pollution of the water supply through phosphates. Agrochemical intervention is nothing new: 19th-century British entrepreneurs scoured the battlefield of Waterloo in search of skeletons to grind for bone meal and imported thousands of mummified cats plundered from Egyptian tombs to boost nutrients in the over-exploited soil.

Even if David Cameron has told his aides to “get rid of this green crap”, Juniper argues, he is out of step with the times: 4.5 million people in the UK belong to organisations supporting nature. With an election looming, can they be ignored?

Juniper finds heartening examples of businesses working with local communities to address environmental challenges because, like the Asian forestry tycoon, they are convinced it makes financial sense. Meanwhile, the market is shifting towards renewables as research shows that, in order to avoid catastrophic warming, two thirds of remaining fossil fuel resources should be left in the ground.

Where the market leads, politicians of a certain hue generally follow. But, despite the excellent work done by Juniper and his peers making the argument for the benefits that would follow, can they really be trusted to deliver a sustainable future?

Order for £9.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger, book review: Now, that’s a proper crash

Joe Haak, an analyst at city traders Lane Kaufmann, has developed a piece of software that can see into the future. By combing through every piece of financial journalism, every scrap of knowledge of every last supply chain, and every piece of economic activity in recorded history, Cassie (the Computer Aided Share Selection and Investment Engine) can, apparently, look ahead by a few hours and forecast share prices.

Led by Cassie into a spectacularly disastrous trade, a terrified Joe flees to the remote Cornish fishing village of St Piran. Then, as he begins to find some peace, Cassie starts predicting the end of the world.

Ironmonger clearly enjoys the contrast between the City and St Piran, where time runs slow, and, as one character notes, “the tranquillity of the village was almost geological in its permanence”. The Cornish passages are fable-like and dreamy,  while in London, traders whoop and Louboutins click.

The narrative weaves between the past and present, London and Cornwall, creating a tension that hums beneath Joe’s attempts at settling into his new home. There’s an atmospheric encounter between the protagonist and his boss, the mysterious Lew Kaufmann, while down in St Piran’s, a whale appears in the bay. But whether it is a symbol of Hobbes’s Leviathan or of Jonah’s deliverance, well, there’s little time to find out.

When events start to unravel they’re wonderfully underplayed. I was reminded of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, when the narrator tells us that “something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed” in a London bombing. This is human tragedy beyond scale, yet our focus is entirely on the ark that is St Piran’s. 

For all its switches in time and glimmering prose, the last third of the book offers few surprises. And while Joe Haak, Lew Kauffmann, and St Piran’s stern vicar, the Reverend Alvin Hocking, are well-drawn, the female characters feel flimsy. Joe’s love interest, Polly Hocking, is a flirt and little else, while the romantic novelist Demelza veers perilously close to cliché.

That said, this is a tremendously enjoyable book. And as the front pages crowd with headlines that grow ever more grim, Not Forgetting The Whale offers a very welcome alternative.

View the original article here

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July, book review: Bitter, twisted ... and surprising

Written from the first-person perspective, July carefully lets us see just what a lonely, oddball loser her middle-aged protagonist, Cheryl, is. She lives alone; she only uses one set of dishes and has perfected a “smoother living” system of housekeeping: “after days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore”. Cheryl has a globus hystericus, a hard lump in her throat that prevents her from crying. Childless, she nonetheless sees “her” baby in the eyes of strangers’ babies – a “special connection” with a child named Kubelko Bondy, endlessly reincarnated.

Cheryl also believes that the man she is infatuated with, Phillip, is a soulmate she has been married to thousands of times down the centuries; sadly, he is more keen on a 16-year-old girl .... Then, into her life walks Clee: the busty, blonde, surly, smelly 20-year-old daughter of a colleague, who needs somewhere to stay. Clee does not aid smooth living; simmering resentment rapidly builds into physical aggression, and July’s novel too takes increasingly weird swerves and slams.

Wrestling with Clee triggers a release in Cheryl: she feels “exquisite”. Her globus disappears; she becomes lighthearted. Are these “adult games” sexual? At first it seems not, but soon – July slipping things along swiftly yet always bringing the reader, wide-eyed, with her – Cheryl is consumed by sexual desire. There are pages of feverish masturbatory fantasies. Yet Cheryl, we subtly pick up, may be missing the chance that’s really in front of her.

Convulsively readable, with a sideways wit, July’s novel is confidently out-there – and yet emotionally convincing. You yearn for a better life for Cheryl, who repulses and attracts the reader in the same way she repulses and attracts Clee. Then July swerves. Again. Clee becomes pregnant, and the birth changes things entirely. Not only does the plot blossom, but the tone does too.

Being pacily readable, The First Bad Man does not feel like a large book – but July’s writing actually covers a lot of ground. Relationships rapidly morph, and yet remain believable. The writing is tightly controlled, as it unabashedly peels back the layers of Cheryl’s oddness to serve up the beating heart within. The First Bad Man becomes a warm book – not a sentimental, tied-up-with-a-bow one, but a humane one.

July has a rare ability to pin down people’s faults, frailties, and eccentric compulsions, rather than squirm from them – and then to make us love them anyway.

View the original article here

Friday, February 20, 2015

Invisible ink no 263: The strange case of solar pons

The nation went into mourning when it heard that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not planning to write any more Holmes adventures, so the young American August Derleth wrote to Conan Doyle and rather cheekily asked if he could take over the series. Holmes’s creator declined the offer, but the undeterred Derleth set about writing his own version, and assonantly christened him Solar Pons.

Derleth had built his reputation by being the first publisher of H P Lovecraft, and himself added to Cthulhu Mythos (that writer’s fictional universe), founding the publisher Arkham House, but he was also a fine pasticheur. His Holmes parodies were blatant swipes. Dr Watson was replaced by Dr Parker, Mrs Hudson by Mrs Johnson, Mycroft by Bancroft, and instead of residing at 221b Baker Street, Pons was based at 7B Praed Street. But Derleth cleverly added a detail that prevented his series from being a straight steal of another author’s work; Pons existed in Holmes’ world. Pons knew all about Holmes, and was not his exact contemporary, operating in a later time frame. The Pons stories also crossed over with plot devices from other authors including William Hope Hodgson, Lovecraft, and Sax Rohmer, creating a tangle of literary tropes in the way that authors Alan Moore, Kim Newman, and the TV series Penny Dreadful use now. Derleth tackled Conan Doyle’s mentioned-but-missing cases and went on to add other star sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, The Saint, and W Somerset Maugham’s agent Ashenden. He also wrote many more stories with his detective than Conan Doyle managed.

When Derleth died in 1971, his Pons character was in turn picked up by another author, Basil Copper (who explored Pons’s “missing cases” just as Derleth had done with Holmes, as well as adding his own original tales) so that we have pastiches of pastiches. He also rearranged the stories into correct chronology and removed glaring Americanisms that were the result of Derleth not having visited London. Several societies and magazines, including the Praed Street Irregulars and the Solar Pons Gazette, were dedicated to the memory of the pastiche sleuth, and further Pons tales were written by yet other authors, so that this strange homage continues to infinity.

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