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Posts tagged ‘Opinion’

Literary resolutions 2013

To read as many titles published by the Persephone Press as possible. Neglected, often but not exclusively female, writers resurrected in elegant gray covers, they so rarely miss the target and are worth every penny.

To subscribe to the New York Review of Books – they provide a fresh take on writers the UK does not cover, as our broadsheets relentlessly poach off each other from the small pool of authors found to be universally acceptable, or at the very least commercially viable.

To attend, and report on, more literary festivals, especially in Scotland. In April Ian Rankin and John Banville are reading at the Colonsay Literary Festival (an island in the Hebrides with a population of 126). Expect several Compton Mackenzie references when one of our editors reports.

To finally complete The Man Without Qualities. This may have to wait until the summer.

To review more novels published in the last decade.

To buy a proper bookshelf.

To spend more time/money in London bookshops.

The Editors

Unpopular writers 3: William Faulkner

Clifton Fadiman, reviewing Absalom, Absalom! for The New Yorker in 1936, wrote the following: “Seriously, I do not know what to say of this book except that it seem to point to the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent… this is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.”

This fragment is curiously appropriate for this time of year given the culinary reference; it would feel facetious to quote from Light in August. Faulkner may seem like an odd choice given how lauded as a Southern writer he once was, and his international recognition in the form of the Nobel Prize in 1949, however today his reputation is rather less well established.

His less than generous portrayal of women as breeding cows, dervishes and hags is problematic, together with Faulkner’s good ole boy person as a genteel, diminutive drunk distracted from his writing by a series of affairs, leaving his family in Mississippi for several years to peddle scripts in Hollywood. His use of violent religious language and apocalyptic imagery to depict the screaming South in all of its dysfunctional glory may no longer have a place. I was less than impressed at his abuse of the word shibboleth while wading through his 19 novels and 125 short stories, even less so by the extent of secondary criticism on Faulkner: he was the most discussed author in my university library stacks aside from Shakespeare.

However, the fact that his middle name is Cuthbert, together with the fact that no one has come close to writing anything remotely comparable to The Sound and The Fury are factors to consider before banishing him to stand in the corner next to Ms Rand. The sense of unease permeating the page as the coffin slowly makes its journey through As I Lay Dying, and the tissues of symbolic reference he builds up throughout The Snopes trilogy are a form of private language in of themselves. He wrote under constant pressure of insolvency, aware of the fact that he was not physically able to take up a more standard profession in order to support his family. As he failed to distinguish himself during the War, he fell back on storytelling to sustain him and enrichen his existence. The result dilutes the reader’s conception of the true South and of the author’s true self, but enables the delivery of a hurtling slideshow into a mythical country inhabited by men riding furiously in pursuit of revenge and lust, always hopelessly, that almost amount to a dirge in their rhythmic fanaticism.

The land that he created amounted to a desperate blur, finite by definition, however it takes a certain amount of skill in order to craft such a compelling world within a world. The critical canon is a testament to the task of attempting to analyse how he managed it. I would maintain that it is still very much worth a try.

The Editors

Not reading

I have to confess a problem. I have been writing for since its beginning – in fact I was one of its a Co-Founders and am one of its Editors. I have been an avid reader for several years (since my last year at university before which I did what was necessary). To my mind, reading is about personal development, a source of mental health and strength, just as running or walking or going to the gym are sources of physical health; physical strength. But recently, I have not been reading, or at least not well. There is a small pile of books with dog-eared, bookmarks poking out of their tops which lie unfinished in my bedroom. Among them The Tin Drum, Molloy, The Magic Mountain, Thinking Fast and Slow. The list is gently lengthening. The time I spend reading gently decreasing. The pleasure I derive from forcing myself to do something for which, in my mind at least, I do not have time nor capacity for concentration, is also on the wane. This is problematic because I am not reading and I edit a blog about reading. But there is also some consolation: I understand what some people mean when they say they do not have time to read. Before my dry patch struck, I was happily cracking along at around a medium length  book  per week (300 or so pages). It wasn’t particularly straining me to read at that pace but it took a little effort and some organisation. Now it seems a distant and heroic past.

So, I have been thinking carefully about the conditions that have created this new and unproductive pattern of half-reading. My first thought is that I have changed my commute as a result of work. Where I used to spend half an hour on London’s Central Line each day, I take a fifteen minute underground train, a fifteen minute overground train and a fifteen minute bus. Where I once had a linear journey, apt for concentration, I now have a haphazard and broken one, always looking to the next leg, always watching to check that I will make the right train to be on time to my first meeting of the day. My commute is emblematic of the problem, but it is not the problem itself. More worryingly, it is a metaphor for the mental fragmentation that I have allowed in, that I have accepted – thinking about my career, about my short and medium term future, about my family, about my past, about going for a run, about reading a book, that is to say, thinking about life. That is a far more likely and honest cause.

I have increasingly found myself cannibalising my well-read-favourite books for posts, rather than reading new material – no bad thing in itself but worse for being involuntary. I confess to rushing posts out in the evenings or early mornings rather than taking my time to craft them as I like to – which is brewing the idea for a few weeks before pouring it out in a quick rush on a Saturday afternoon in the library. It reminds me of one author interviewed in the Paris Review (forgetfulness perhaps also a sign of the fragmented mind): “If writers let life get in the way, no books would be written at all.”

This brief introspection has forced me to focus on the place of reading in my life – its constance – that delicious boredom that comes two thirds of the way through a book like a silence promising an end as a reward for my perseverance. Perhaps it is the mental equivalent of the sound that mountaineers hear on their way toward the summit – nothing but the blowing wind, the long view back down the mountain and the certain difficulty of the last push to the peak in an atmosphere at times lacking in oxygen. I have not experienced this on a mountain but I have read about it in books.

I am not sure I have broken my patch of ‘reader’s block’ by writing a post about it but I am looking for lessons to take from it. I am not yet entirely overawed by the pile of books yearning to be finished in my room, by the short fragmented opportunities for reading them, by the long list of things to be done before there is time for reading but I feel close. I know that reading is the best of the things available for me to do. For a while it seems however life has kidnapped me; taken me to a place of movement without reading. I long soon to return from it but in the meantime I am hopeful, even confident, that at least some of reading’s reward can be had from the attempt.


For your consideration

Apparently “slush pile” is the technical term for unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher, as in “have a wade through the slush pile and see if there’s anything decent.”  It must be a daunting experience for first-time or unpublished authors to submit their creations to publishers in the knowledge that the default reaction of the latter will probably be to assume that what they have been sent is rubbish.  I suppose it is understandable really, given that of the thousands of manuscripts sent to a publisher there are probably only a handful that are worth reading let alone publishing.  This undoubtedly makes the publisher’s role a difficult one: how to be selectively dismissive without missing the real gems out there?  It is not a new problem, nor is it confined to literature.  When Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed it was variously called a “vulgar din” and “the end of music”; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring started a riot on its opening night in 1913.   Clearly, human beings are not enormous enthusiasts of novelty, and it can take decades for an artist’s work to be fully appreciated.

Sticking to literature though I thought it might be amusing to collect a few quotes of publishers’ initial reactions to classic novels, partly as a way of encouraging budding authors not to take criticism too seriously and partly because they’re sometimes quite a hilarious reflection of human ignorance and misunderstanding.  I owe most of them to the recent book This Is Not The End of The Book, in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière discuss, among other things, the history of human stupidity.  If anyone has any others (or personal experiences), we want to know about them –

On Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “It may be a lack of intelligence on my part, but I fail to understand why it should take thirty pages to describe how someone tosses and turns in their bed, unable to sleep.”

On Hemingway’s Fiesta: “Sir, you have written a travel book.”

On Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “Sir, you have buried your novel beneath a hotchpotch of detail that is very well done, but utterly superfluous.”

On Melville’s Moby Dick: “There is little chance that a book such as this would interest a young readership.”

On Emily Dickinson: “Your rhymes don’t work.”

On Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It’s no good trying to sell the Americans a novel about animals.”
The Editors

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 4

Continuing his adolescent odyssey, Simon Akam this week turns his attention to Frederick Forsyth…

Frederick Forsyth, unlike Clancy, at least began as no pot-bellied shore side scrivener. As a journalist he covered the Biafran separatist war in Nigeria. The ‘Dogs of War’ opens with a clear facsimile of the end days of the enclave there – “I didn’t bring any supplies, sir, there were no more supplies to bring.” Subsequently we follow a disparate collection of mercenaries through their reengagement to topple the government of a West African state to secure a platinum concession for a London mining entrepreneur.

However, Forsyth’s journalistic background, though it may have provided him with elements of the required material, hampers his fiction prose. The balance of the text is concerned with the preparations for the coup; the procurement of weapons, a ship for their carriage to Africa and so forth. All too often the exposition of these processes involves a complete step back from the narrative, a blunt intrusion of authorial voice.

Such prose not only violates that cardinal creative writing school principle of show not tell, but also undermines any three dimensionality the characters may otherwise have acquired. Blank statement of facts has a place in journalism but it is an affectation to be wary of in fiction. Long sections of ‘The Dogs of War’ read like the middle passages of magazine stories, as the following example illustrates.

“The trade in lethal weapons is the world’s most lucrative after narcotics, and not surprisingly the governments of the world are deeply involved in it. Since 1945 it has become almost a point of national prestige to have one’s own native arms industry…”

The target of the coup is called Zangoro. The conceit of the fictional West Africa state has pedigree, with some antecedents that are recognisably more literary than Forsyth. Graham Greene never names Sierra Leone as the analogue for the ‘colony’ in ‘The Heart of the Matter’, while, seven years after ‘The Dogs of War’ was published, William Boyd set his debut novel ‘A Good Man in Africa’ in fictional Kinjanja. Despite the track-record of such a device it can be clumsy though, necessitating repeated references to an unnamed former ‘colonial power.’

Likewise, while Forsyth writes from a more substantial reservoir of experience than Clancy, elements of authorial fantasy-enactment still find way into the text. The industrialist’s minions employ their particular dog of war at the recommendation of a freelance writer who has written stories about mercenaries. So far, so fair enough, the writer is evidently an avatar of the author. Is this a cunning metafictional device, à la the appearance of a writer called Martin Amis in the Martin Amis opus ‘Money’?

Readers, it is not. The in-text writer has a girlfriend who is a model, who has been to “model school” with the daughter of the mogul commissioning the coup. Anyone who uses the term “model school” cannot surely be acquainted with many of the graduates of such institutions. Is this ironic, Mr Forsyth, a clever witticism? I am not convinced. (Nb. The use of the rhetorical question here despite my previous criticism of the form is hereby acknowledged).

We have parsed two thrillers now, two novels both purportedly marketed at an adult market, which I read in youth. A penchant for right wing views binds the books together; these sentiments are more widespread in Clancy but occasionally more pointed in Forsyth, whose hero, for example, hits a woman as a badge of his non-nonsense character.

But true common ground, the binding stuff of the thriller, is surely the concentration on surface matters, the emphasis on process and action at the expense of characters who often come across as one dimensional cut outs with no inner life.

As I mentioned before, much of ‘The Dogs of War’ concentrates on exposition of contraband processes; on buying arms or shipping them. The neglect of the inner life, combined with the forms of international communication widespread at the time the novel is set, make Forsyth’s book a kind of eerie reconstruction of EM Forster’s ‘telegrams and anger.’ Let us not forget that telegrams and anger are precisely the irrelevancies of life. To connect is what matters.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 3

In the third part of his series on revisiting the literature of male adolescence Simon Akam moves from Biggles to the American thriller writer Tom Clancy….

Now Tom Clancy. A change of tack in every sense. ‘Red Storm Rising’ is a tome, 830 pages in all. The date is present day, so actually about as old as I am, for the novel was published in 1986. The canvas is expansive; a wholesale, though non-nuclear, war between east and west, a thought experiment in violent conflict betwixt the Warsaw Pact and NATO writ large. The author is a former insurance salesman.

In many ways too – on reacquaintance – ‘Red Storm Rising’ is also a very bad book. An excoriating Christopher Hitchens essay from the New York Review of Books in 1996 does much of the heavy lifting of what can, with only a slight smirk, be called Clancy ‘criticism.’  Hitchens damns, among other failings, “two recurring Clancy tropes… his matey populism and his deference and snobbery.”  For those unfamiliar with that raging, and highly recommended screed I will outline Clancy’s other faults here.

First, serial numbers and abbreviations. Perhaps these are a necessary adjunct to the production of the techno-thriller, but they do become wearisome rapidly. Must we, Mr Clancy, be told repeatedly that it is an “E2-C” surveillance aircraft, an “AN-22” transport aircraft, or an “ASAT” missile? Perhaps we must. But I do not want to know.

Likewise, I would argue it is simply unacceptable in a purported work of fiction to refer to characters solely by the condensed acronyms of their positions in a military command hierarchy. To do so strengthens the already robust impression that these individuals are not in fact human but rather simply stanchions on which to hang the hardware, the true stuffing of the techno-thriller.

Only in the very death throes of ‘Red Storm’ (when the West has won, just to throw in that profoundly surprising spoiler) do we learn the name of SACEUR (for the uninitiated Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Eisenhower’s old job). Thus far he has remained just SACEUR. Perhaps we haven’t been told because Eugene really is not much of a name for a warlord, but for the love of god Clancy why?

A prefatory note assures us that ‘Red Storm Rising’ began with an encounter between Clancy and a certain Larry Bond at a war games convention in 1982– frankly not an auspicious zone for initial literary inspiration. Credit – or perhaps it should be responsibility – for the subsequent novel, Clancy tells us in a preface, should be shared equally between Bond and himself, though magnanimously only Clancy’s name appears on the cover. The broader point here though is given this proven willingness to collaborate – with, of all things, the designer of a board game – why did Clancy not simply subcontract out the dialogue in his novel? To, perhaps, Tom Stoppard? As he did not we have to deal instead with enormities like “You’re strong and you’re brave… I know you love me Michael.”

Repeated and deliberate turns away from moral ambiguity – itself the stuffing of greater fiction – is also characteristic of Clancy’s work. He writes in a world of moral certainties, Manichean good and evil. When a Moscow-based journalist, named with what passes for nomenclatural flair here, Patrick Flynn, collaborates with British intelligence the act is one of simple patriotism (“For the hundredth time, the Reuters correspondent blessed his decision to cooperate with the SIS”). In the hands of, for example, John Le Carré, we would have had instead a gradual sell out of personal principle.

Yet the nadir of Clancy’s prose is elsewhere. Indeed these nadirs are twin, like the humps of a Bactrian camel held inverted by its ankles. The first is the authors’ penchant for catapulting wimpy rear echelon types oddly reminiscent of Tom Clancy himself to martial glory. In ‘Red Storm Rising’ a lanky air force meteorologist gets to stomp around Soviet-occupied Iceland committing acts of derring-do, while a naval reservist called Bob Toland elevates himself to an oracular authority on Soviet intentions, trusted by admirals and admired by veteran salts. Given Clancy’s own plump civilian status it is all too easy to read these types as a gushing exercise in authorial wish-fulfilment.

The other nadir is, if anything, worse. When he attempts – and mercifully such actions are relatively rare – to chronicle the inner life of one of his so-called characters his favourite trope is the rhetorical question, often italicised, a device of ground–breaking laziness. This failing could be illustrated with a quotation, but it is more telling to use a composition instead. In the following paragraph I will attempt to distil the experience of reading Clancy (as an adult) in the style of Clancy himself.

“Could this dialogue really be this wrenchingly awful? He thought. Are we really expected to believe that one of the protagonists is called COMSUBLANT? Would he ever see his wife and kids on Chesapeake Bay again or will he have to spend purgatorial years toiling through dross like this, punctuated only by the occasional hard right assertion or cod-aphorism? Oh well, staff officers can sleep after the war.”

It is fun, this Clancy bashing, but it is a cheap kind of fun with undertones of cruelty, like mocking the obese or cock fighting. It is a kind of denial too. A denial of the gripping nature of the work. Christopher Hitchens could excoriate Clancy in better faith than I, having never read him as a teenager (a chronological impossibility, when Clancy’s prentice work ‘The Hunt for Red October’ was published in 1984 Hitchens was already in his mid thirties. I was unborn).

Counterpointed against my own waspish slights must lie the fact that I read in youth not solely ‘Red Storm Rising’ but a host of Clancy’s other novels. But more than that, not only did Clancy grip me at 14, but it did not fail to grip me at 26. I kept on through the 800 odd pages, negotiating the reefs of atrocious dialogue and catalogue-sized consignments of serial numbers, as though propelled by an invisible force, like gravity. I fell through the book. The experience was less grim than wading through some of the other texts at stake in this essay too – Oh Willard Price, waiting in the wings, confident of your merits, listen to my apostrophe and quake at the prospect of my forthcoming rage. That is the Clancy paradox; on adult reacquaintance its faults are undeniably clear. However, its narrative drive does not dissolve.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 2

In the second part of his series on revisiting the literature of male adolescence, Simon Akam turns his attention to Biggles…

Let us commence with Biggles. Not least because, out of all the books under examination here, he came first. The para-textual apparatus of my edition informs me that ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ was first published in 1935 by an institution genuinely called the ‘Boy’s Friend Library,’ an imprint that I suspect cannot have survived long into the second half of the twentieth century. For many readers I imagine Biggles requires no introduction, but for those unfamiliar with him by dint of deprivation or gender a brief précis is as follows.

Captain WE Johns’ books chronicle the escapades of a British aviator, James Bigglesworth, through the First and Second World Wars and a number of subsidiary peacetime scrapes. Johns, once a Norfolk sanitary inspector, is himself an appealingly elusive figure, the rank of captain that prefaces his name on the cover of the books apparently self–appointed, and his own First World War flying career chequered. Johns destroyed so many British aircraft in accidents that were he a German he would have been categorised as an ace. In Johns’ defence, such right offs were apparently not uncommon at this juncture, given that contemporary airframes were constructed largely of balsa wood, canvas and cellulose dope.

(Such a naming of the parts necessitates a parenthetical note; cellulose dope is a substance used to render fabric covering aircraft wings taut and aerodynamic. In the mid-to-late 1990s chez Akam model aircraft production was interrupted by a series of experiments by my brother and I to ascertain whether, as rumour avowed, the dissolution of expanded polystyrene (used for packaging Nintendo 64s, cassette tape decks and other items of now-vintage consumer electronics) into cellulose dope (sometimes adulterated with petrol and mixed with egg whites for consistency) did indeed produce a passable simulacra for napalm. Results were encouraging)

‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ came from Abebooks in an edition with which I was subconsciously familiar. The Red Fox paperback’s cover bore a realist painting, presumably in acrylic, of a dogfight between a roundel-daubed British aircraft and a Maltese Crossed German biplane. Below, at a rakish angle, lies a red-roofed farmstead of vaguely New England appearance, though presumably intended to indicate the rural build of Flanders or the Somme. Credit for these visuals lies with the scarcely credible design house of “FABA/NORMA,” which, just possibly, could be the ‘Boy’s Friend Library’ rebranded for a crueller world.

A glance at publication dates reveals too whence the familiarity came. This edition, noted in pencil to have once been the property of a Callum Brown, was published in 1992. In 1992 I turned seven, the state of life at which the Jesuits offer to relinquish their charges, confident of their eventual manhood, and at which a child (unless they are a girl or have perhaps spent the previous seven years with the Jesuits) enters the early stages of Biggles engagement.

By contrast ‘Biggles Flies East’ came in an altogether funkier edition with which I was unfamiliar. The publisher remained Red Fox, but the production values were much changed. Gone was the wall-of-the-officers-mess school of aviation ‘art.’ In its place came a desert sky washed jaundice yellow, before which sprint silhouette figures, all block black in their flying jackets (credit this time to a certain David Frankland).

Again, a glance at dates explains my lack of familiarity. The redesign dates from 2003. By that juncture I was 18, and well into the early thrall of literary pretension. It was in 2003 that I man-hauled a paperback ‘Middlemarch’ to the summit of Austria’s second highest peak, the 3774m Wildspitze, to the amusement and derision of my fellow post A-level expeditioners. There was not time for Biggles by then.

‘Biggles Learns to Fly,’ which chronicles the eponymous hero doing just that in circumstances of quite extraordinary amateurism, bears structural clues that it came about from the splicing together of a series of individual magazine stories. Characters are unnecessarily reintroduced deep into the text. For example, we encounter “Second Lieutenant Bigglesworth (Biggles for Short)”, as late as chapter eight. More striking though, on adult reacquaintance, is the pervasiveness of death.

Along with its wartime cousin disfigurement death is widespread, nor is it confined to faceless foes. The following passage takes place at the “School of Fighting,” a training establishment in England. Biggles is seventeen (and, God, how young that seems when one is not five years younger oneself)

“A flight-sergeant was watching him grimly. “A nasty one, sir,” he said casually, as if he had been watching a football match in which one of the players had fallen. “You’ll soon get used to that, though,” he went on, noting Biggles’ pale face. “We killed seven here last week.”

Once we reach Biggles’ squadron in France the slaughter continues; Harris dies, Mappleton dies, two pilots die “whilst learning to fly the very tricky Camel,” even Biggles’ doughty crewmate Mark Way loses his right hand and an eye. The action is impressively unsparing, its philosophy summed up best by a passage in ‘Biggles Flies East’ (which, in fairness, shows a subtlety of plot and counterplot twisted around its sandy espionage theme that indicates that Johns could build a full length novel when he set out to do so from scratch.).

“Some things are not in the least like what artists and writers would lead us to expect, many are definitely disappointing, very few reach the glamorous perfection of our dreams…”

On re-reading then Biggles offers a wholly unexpected realism. Johns does have a tendency to indulge in pseudo-phrenological characterisation – admittedly a wider failing of literature of this vintage – in which a “the squareness of his chin and the firm line of his mouth” really does reveal “a certain doggedness, a tenacity of purpose, that denied any suggestion of weakness.” But the broader point stands. There is relatively little fantasy.

(Another additive is required here. During the composition of this article, a process, like its eventual length, of unexpected duration, I mentioned the theme over lunch while in London to an old friend, sometime literary editor of the New Statesman. When I said I was re-reading Biggles he pointed me in the director of Derek Robinson’s novel ‘Goshawk Squadron.’ This extraordinary book, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971 (according to the author it was Saul Bellow’s pick for the gong), is a fascinating example of the milieu of Biggles reconstituted for a more cynical age.

The action takes place in a Royal Flying Corps Squadron in France in early 1918 – familiar territory indeed. However, Robinson’s chief protagonist Stanley Woolley – hero is the wrong word – is cut from a very different cloth to the pilots in ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ who decry those who make a “flagrant breach of the expected rules of air fighting”. Woolley is determined to beat – sometimes literally – all notions of fair play and gentlemanly conduct from the pilots in his squadron, to push them to acknowledge that the business undertaken in their flimsy machines above the trenches is murder and they are murderers. In the following passage we see him in flashback, supine in a field hospital in 1916 having broken both his ankles in a flying accident.

“He was soon the centre of scandal and unrest. Anybody with anything juicy to report went to Woolley for an audience and a bottle of stout. He ran a sweepstake, supposedly based on the intake and discharge of patients; actually the winning number was the daily total of deaths in the hospital. He got a key to the blanket store and rented it out to randy nurses and hungry walking-wounded, many of whom he had introduced in the first place. For a sensational week he published a news-sheet which libelled everyone from the governor’s wife to the assistant chaplain, including both together. He won a piano-accordion at cards and taught himself to play sea-shanties. He circulated two new rumours a day: cholera was sweeping Paris; the Kaiser was in Rome looking for a divorce; Lloyd George had been charged with rape, Switzerland had invaded Germany. Nurse Jenkins was pregnant. The hospital was about to be moved underground. The Czar was going to visit the wards at 10 AM next day and everyone would get a medal.”

Goshawk Squadron is terribly, apocalyptically funny, up with John Kennedy Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ as one of the very few novels to have made me laugh out loud. Its contemporary obscurity is extraordinary; to my mind it absolutely deserves a place in the pantheon of Great War novels and perhaps even status as a great war novel. However, for our purposes here its major interest is as an object lesson to prove that the materiel of Biggles can be poured into a rather different mould.)

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

Addicted to E

In honour of World Book Day, there was an article in the Stylist by Lucy Mangan complaining about how much she hates e-readers. Unfortunately, I agree with much of what she says, but in the name of balance I feel a pro-e piece must be penned. I mean ‘typed’, of course, because the only people who still use pens are either 8 years old or 80.

Yes, I know. Books are lovely. They feel good in your hands, they smell good, and they even sound good when you flip pages over, thump them down on a table or snap them shut. Bookshops are fertile hunting grounds and far more fun than supermarkets. Bookshops have carpets, classy music playing and soft lights, as opposed to the standard supermarkets’ loudspeakers playing all the hits you hate on Radio Blergh, fluorescent strip-lighting and the ubiquitous smell of stale milk (why?).

But in order to enjoy the bookshop, you have to get to the bookshop. This means un-lovely, un-classy public transport for most of us, time spent on buses in London traffic, as far as I am concerned, being time wasted because I can’t read on the bus due to my weak sea-legs and strong puke-reflex. You also have to lug the chosen books home with you. Once you’ve read said books you’re stuck with the damn things, and they start falling apart and biodegrading. Otherwise you’ve accidentally spilt tea on them or dipped them in the bath (we’ve all been there), the cat got hold of one corner and your flatmate borrowed your book for a trip to the coast and now it’s full of sand.

Online bookshops may not have carpets or Kenny G, but they are convenient. Anywhere there is WiFi or 3G there is a bookshop in your hands. I cannot describe my joy in discovering that many titles are even free because of something to do with this thing called ‘copyright’ magically wasting away over time, just like bladder control. This means that normally expensive works of the classical canon are mine, all mine, for free! My miserly streak and glee at getting things for free notwithstanding, I think this is a very encouraging step in the right literary direction.

As you’ll no doubt be aware due to the high saturation of adverts, the e-reader offers a comfortingly wide array of titles to choose from. I’ve relished downloading a number of titles I’d otherwise have avoided for being too heavy – literally. Anyone familiar with the ritual of tube travel in London knows that clinging to a handrail and holding a heavy tome such as ‘Shantaram’ open one-handed is almost impossible. My Kindle would have been particularly handy (aha) when I broke my wrist last February and had to use my chin to open books in the right place, and then try to pick up the errant bookmark with my toes when it went floating away. My mother once infamously bisected a book for being too heavy (it was Women Who Run With the Wolves) and posted out parts of it to various female relatives who were shocked to receive one third of a book glued together inside an envelope, no doubt reminiscent of body parts sent for ransom purposes.

In her article, Ms Mangan argues the case for bookcase-gazing. This is fine, though arguably not a productive use of time. More to my point though, is that not many have the luxury of space in their homes in which to have a bookcase. In my crammed household we have room only for the bare essentials like a dining room table, a few sofas, an indoor tree and a fluffy cat. We were thinking of shaving him to make him more compact. I hear my housemate awake in the morning with mugs falling off his windowsill, shoes piled up next to his bed and a cupboard door that won’t open because of a pile of clothes and his battle cry is sounding alarmingly like “Lebensraum!”. I have one shelf above my bed which is groaning dangerously under the weight of the 20 or so books I decided to keep. The rest were reluctantly given to the charity shop because I just don’t have the space, and I’m unlikely to ever read those books again. On top of the danger of these books toppling down and smothering me in my sleep is the sad fact that many of the books I have kept are not pretty. The colours on the spines don’t all match, and one of my all-time favourite reads is frankly pug-ugly – it’s all dandruff grey and bilious yellow and I would much rather have it on my Kindle. No, bookcase gazing does not appeal to me. Neither does bookcase dusting, or death by falling bookcase.

My e-reader, though, is pretty, and not likely to crush me in my sleep. I gaze at it for about 2 hours every day. It has a brown leather cover that matches my bag and my jacket, though I’m careful not to wear the matching brogues at the same time, obviously; one needs to know when to stop; and little images of birds and famous authors sprinkle into existence whenever I tell it to sleep. The unexpected joy of seeing John Steinbeck when I was 10% through ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ one day was all the more poignant for how being an experience unique to a Kindle reader. Also it was good to finally see a human face not etched into my mind’s eye as starved and homeless. It is light too. I have notoriously weak arms (described as ‘al dente’ by my dance instructor) but even I can manage a Kindle one-handed while I do something important with the other hand like stir spaghetti or shave the cat.

Sarah Fern Middleton