Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Sunday Times review of Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days In August

Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days In August

As Max Hastings writes in his Sunday Times review of Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days In August[1]  France is almost the only main participant of the Second World War that has never published an official history of its national experience, and probably never will because there is no possibility of achieving a consensus about what happened.” [2]
For many years the French had their own highly regarded and best selling unofficial history of the war based largely on eye witness accounts - Henri Amouroux’s La Vie Des Francais Sous L’Occupation [3] (Life of the French Under the Occupation). By 1993 this work had grown to 10 volumes. Hastings’ point about consensus might be borne out by the fact that the Resistance fighting, Croix de guerre owner Amouroux, was accused of being an apologist for Papon and the Vichy Government in 1997 - and if not discredited certainly became an ‘ambiguous authority’.
Hastings continues “Almost all important modern research on the period is the work of British or American historians. The French do not want to go there.” The irony here is that Amouroux’s testimony was used in the Papon case to counter the American historian Robert O. Paxton's version of Vichy France. Amouroux’s case, and rightly, was that  Paxton could not know or understand the highly complex internal tensions and relationships the French underwent during the war- his life’s work was testament to that. It is hard to know what Amouroux’s work was if not ‘going there’ and in a very painful way. Marcel Ophuls’ Le Chagrin et la Pitie (The Sorrow and the Pity) film is absolutely about ‘going there’. Hasting would have done well to have looked at Cobb’s sources and previous works[4] to see that there are many French academics working away at their doctorates and publishing on the subject.
Hastings is perhaps frustrated and perplexed by the nature and complexity of a different type of warfare for him, a war where unpredictable unaccountable civilians are one side and a ruthless, seasoned and organized army is the other. “My regret is that he [Cobb] is less convincing about the big picture. He seems unsympathetic to the cautious spirits in the French camp, and a trifle naïve about the colossal military difficulties and dilemmas.”
Cobb did not set out to write a general history of the Second World War, he chose specifically to write about eleven days – one battle. He is of course required to contextualize the battle, but not more. Hastings would know, had he read Cobb’s other work that he is far from ‘naïve’ or ‘unsympathetic to the cautious spirits in the French camp’; he is merely trying to remain objective and avoid the trap of being partisan. If there were ten Resistance fighters in a cellar there were ten ideologies and ten views of how the battle should be fought. Hastings pointed out this problem of consensus himself.
In short, it is a pity that Hastings has shown a gap in his knowledge and could not be more generous in his praise. Matthew Cobb along with Richard Vinen are the leading English authorities of the Resistance and occupation of France.

[1] Cobb. Matthew Eleven Days In August The Liberation of Paris in 1944  Simon & Schuster  2013
[2] Sunday Times Culture 21/4/13 p37
[3] Amouroux. Henri La Vie Des Francais Sous L’Occupation Artheme Fayard 1961
[4] Cobb. Matthew The Resistance The French Fight Against The Nazis Pocket Books 2009

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Long Bows

Long Bows

The importance of the yew tree in British history is often overlooked in favour of the oak which for several hundred years provided the wood for the nation’s battle ships. “In 1812 is was stated in a parliamentary report that no less than two thousand well-grown oak trees were used in the building of one 47-gun ship.” [1]  
As the English long bow was the weapon of choice for much of the 14th 15th and 16th century yew trees for bowstaves were in great demand. Successive British Kings implemented laws to ensure enough yew was grown or imported for the protection of the realm; in so doing it made the yew tree a precious commodity  - and almost extinct in Europe.
Long bows took years to make, the wood being dried for up to two years while the bow itself could take as much as another four years. The real genius is that at some point a bow maker realised that by using a section of the tree where the hard outer wood and soft inner wood met a more flexible and resilient bow could be made.
In the Tudor period it was law that every man and boy should practice archery regularly from an early age - longbow men were a professional elite. They were men of stature in every sense – socially highly respected and physically big enough to pull 200 lbs (90 kgs) of a 6 ft (1.83 m) bow. The average arrow was 30 ins (75 cm) long and the highly trained and skilled archer was thought to be able to fire 12 a minute.
The magazine Current Archeology is again reporting research of longbows and longbow men.[2] Interest was first stirred in this area when skeletons were recovered from King Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose when the wreck was raised from the Solent in 1982.  Many of the archers on board were from Wales and the south west of England so it was fitting that staff from Swansea University examined the skeletons to see if they could identify them and discover what impact the life of an archer had upon the body.

[1] Wilkinson, Gerald. Trees in the Wild  Stephen Hope Books 1973  P55
[2] Current Archeology March 2013 Issue 276 p 11    http://www.archaeology.co.uk/

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Sex on Twitter

Sex and Twitter

In the months that I have had a Twitter account I have been fascinated by what I have found on it. But what has really intrigued and shocked me is the variety of pornography freely available. Much of the material that I have seen is what thirty years ago would have been called ‘top-shelf’ or ‘hard core’.  Every conceivable fetish has followers that tweet pictures of their particular ‘pastime’.
Years ago in a newsagents an unusually long and quite prominent ‘top shelf’ caught my eye, it had 36 ‘sex’ magazines of different kinds. Who, I wondered, bought them? The obvious ‘untruth’ trotted out by most ‘blokes’ is ‘I don’t buy them - I read me mates!’ But the blunt economic fact is that they would not have been on the shelf in the first place if there was not a market for them. It puzzles me how people on Twitter make money from their porn. For years economists have used sales of pornography as an indicator of an economies disposable income, both in legitimate and black market trading terms. Despite the terrible pun, it is not earth shattering news, that sex has undergone commodity fetishisation and is a product that is bought and sold – like any other commodity.
There is some interesting and intelligent blogging by sex workers on Twitter who find that many ‘clients’ (read ‘customers’) think that because of the nature of the commodity, the normal rules of transaction do not apply. The culturally accepted myth is that couples, male and female, should be, or are, happily engaged in a loving, fulfilling and sexual relationship. But as Freud and many psychoanalysts since have testified, this is far from the truth. Wilhelm Reich in particular wrote about deep seated personal and social sexual frustrations and proposed state brothels for both men and women. Many countries accept that the world’s oldest profession will exist despite laws and have come to some sort of compromise with it. This compromise is, again, often to the detriment of the sex worker.
Fortunately, Twitter is a good platform for individual sex workers or organisations like
The English Collective of Prostitutes, US PROStitutes Collective, International Prostitutes Collective, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children @ECPATUK to lobby for and end to some practices and better and safer working conditions.
50 Shades of Grey has sparked off a quiet bedroom revolution for what might be called ‘bondage lite’ while ‘bondage heavy’ or at least some of what is posted on Twitter is unpleasant and demeaning – for everyone involved – even the voyeur. Most ‘poses’, across a wide range of themes, are the same for male, female and transgender and all slightly absurd when looking at them from the point of view of meaning. It is interesting to apply Roland Barthes theory of semiotics to these images, to ask what is the ‘signifier’ and what is being ‘signified’?  In writing about Anne Desclos’ The Story of O, Barthes said that the most erotic ‘signifier’ was the ear, because it was were the commands/desires of the master/lover were received ‘signified’.
It seems that there are rules for staging pictures if not facial expressions - which range from deep longing/satisfaction to pain/distaste or are just plain vacuous absurdity. It is difficult if not impossible in most cases to discern what is being ‘signified’. The complexity and contradictory nature of what an individual finds erotic frustrates the simple sex photo. There are no blurred images, as there are no hairy or overweight participants. In short, the pictures are created to a well worn formula and far from ‘real’. There are, what used to be known as ‘readers wives’, ‘swingers’ and now  M.I.L.F.’s (Mums I’d like to f***) the so called amateurs. There seem to be thousands of people who are happy to take intimate pictures of themselves and put them on Twitter.
The press is full of stories of adolescent girls who are forced by boys to post pictures of themselves naked on the internet, so they must be confused when they find one of the many mum Twitter accounts, where ‘loving mum of two – likes sex’ has posted pictures of herself naked. There might be a number of mixed messages here, but socially acceptable behaviour moves on. Like tattoos -once worn by men to signal a dangerous and aggressive air - are now common and indicate not much more than a life style choice or a free spirited individual. It seems that Twitter has more than just a few exhibitionists.
The big question then is why? Why do people post intimate pictures of themselves on Twitter, Facebook or other social media websites? Why do people go on prime time national TV and expose their ‘embarrassing bodies’ or display quite awful and intimate illnesses? Is this a new form of social autonomy? Do people feel that autonomy is found only in some sort of social media presence?  It would seem that the nature of - intimacy – has changed or is changing. What will it mean for people trying to read Sartre’s ‘Intimacy’ in the future will they understand it? What will ‘erotic’ or ‘sensual’ come to mean?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

To Read or Not....

Are books read or bought?

Allegedly 50,000 copies of Jane Austen are sold a year*. They may be bought, but are they read? If statistics are to be believed, the average household has four books – a Bible, a cookbook, a car or house manual and something else. This may well be different now with electronic book readers. But the point is not so much about people having books but about reading.  I am always amazed when people tell me they ‘never read’, or if they do it is ‘not fiction’. Again, if the statistics are to be believed, on the whole, men and women still reflect stereotypical reading preferences of adventure and romance. However, recently there was a buck in the trend, when women started reading ‘explicit erotic literature’ in their thousands, because they could do so anonymously on electronic book readers.
A real reader, often a solitary creature, will read literally anything. Sitting and holding a book is part of the solitary, personal addiction. This sometimes expensive habit is best fed by libraries, but there are second hand book shops where indescribable experiences of pleasure can take place. For the bibliophile, online secondhand books are a real dilemma and danger, a joy and a betrayal both at the same time. The ubiquitous, anonymous, unfailing online book seller has the book that is ‘wanted’, but at what cost to the usual supplier - the secondhand book shop.
Never was so much owed by so many to so few – the small independent booksellers and secondhand shops who continue their brave fight with passion and love for books and literacy, in the face of philistinism. I must shamefacedly admit that I do not buy new books – I have got to a certain age. But I do want wholeheartedly to support my local shops. Burway Books in Church Stretton http://www.burwaybooks.co.uk/ is a truly great little shop, love of books ooze out of the shelves. Much More Books in Much Wenlock http://www.muchmorebooks.co.uk/  is probably one of the best secondhand book shops in the country. Like all good secondhand book shops there is no snobbery. The owners love and read books too and know what ‘real readers’ want, so there is a Mills and Boon section.

Here is my first suspicion about who are the real readers, if any, of Jane Austen. Mills and Boon the publishers of romance novels and their readers are always looked down upon like the poor relations. I think it is these ‘real readers’ who are responsible for a large part of the 50,000 sales a year of Austen. These avid romance readers also read other classics like the Brontës, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskill etc.

My second suspicion is that people buy books because they think they should read them. This is intellectual ‘improvement’ by association. Years ago I knew someone who always had a worthy tome under their arm and gave the impression of reading them, which made them seem ‘well read’. As a mutual acquaintance pointed out, they had never seen the person in question reading anything, which was pretty much the truth. For non ‘real readers’ there is no guilt attached to buying books and not reading them; books exonerate themselves by being worthy objects to have around the house or be seen with – even more so if they are ‘classics’. The non reader can also claim that the book is in a state of not ‘not read’ just ‘waiting to be read’ – when there is more time – it has been started! A ‘real reader’ knows time to read books is made, or stolen. A ‘real reader’ will give a book a chance, because books have surprises or twists.

A new film or TV series is made of a ‘classic’, the book of the film etc is re-branded with the actors on the cover, and it turns into a impulse purchase. The re-branded ‘classic’ is bought very much like a film magazine, not really for the content but the images. The re-branded book is bought because the person buying it wants to be reminded of the film and associate with it.
One of my favorite books is Vanity Fair – and I do like the idea of Thackeray laughing at me laughing at him – wherever he is. The TV tie-in of Vanity Fair has the dashing Jack Klaff on the cover – what whiskers! Ah! dear reader –

"Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!" which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?"

I truly hope that next years 50,000 copies of Austen are bought ( if they must be) in the independent bookshops…. and some from secondhand book shops

* www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21227207Cached Jane Austen's "one darling child" Pride and Prejudice was published ... that Pride and Prejudice sells up to 50,000 copies each year in the UK.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Future of the Novel and Lists

 Top 100

Someone recently tweeted a reference to a list of the ‘Top 100 Books’ and asked for comments. It was really an attempt to get some sort of discussion going about literature and increase hits on their website. To be honest the list looked very much like the Penguin modern classics catalogue and of no great excitement. But the real fascination with lists like these is to see if they confirm or challenge personal prejudices.

Adding the term ‘of all time’ to the bald ‘Top 100 Books’ reveals the futility of such lists. Even at the arrival of Armageddon it will still be impossible to put the definitive list of top novels ‘of all time’ together. The problem with such lists is the criteria used to compile them. If the list had been ‘The Top 100 Writers’ it would have been a completely different list - including playwrights, poets, essayists etc. Had the list been complied in terms of sales or library lending statistics it would be different yet again. Naturally, it is another list when books in translation are included.

The criteria used to produce a ‘canon of literature’ are notoriously complicated.  There are many lists and books of the 100 books that should be read, in order to be ‘well read’. But what does it mean to be ‘well read’? Does it make a difference to an individual to have read a certain number of the ‘right’ books?  Why is there a list at all and are some books really better than others, or just different? What makes a book ‘great art’ and thus worthy of reading? It is not surprising that groups of people should create lists of books to reflect their own interests and personal prejudices. The lofty answer might be that literature that exposes and examines the human condition or ‘being’ is worthy. To be philosophical, as Socrates is reported to have claimed – ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’. Should only ‘high art’ rather than ‘popular art’ be examined? If art is thought to reflect society isn’t it possible that all books reflect the human condition in some way or another? There are many problems here with regard to the nature and function of art that need much more detailed analysis – but as a general overview it shows the problems with lists.

As with the transformation of music from plastic discs to digital downloads, will the concept of the novel change as it moves from paper to different downloadable electronic formats? Will the concept of the novel with its set number of words continue to exist in the electronic virtual future? More importantly, will the new electronic forms of the novel still be allowed to acquire the cache of ‘art’, or will literature become more egalitarian? Will this have consequences for academics and critics?

Harold Bloom compiled an extensive ‘literary canon’ and Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution brings the history of the novel to life – and names the best selling Victorian authors that no one now remembers.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Fiction - Satire - Chafing Pt II

Part Two

Helen Fulsome looked longingly through the window at Stan Slycer’s fingers buried in the white wax flesh of a pig’s rump. He was a strong, silent, earthy man. His shop was a traditional butchers shop with sawdust on the floor and dead birds and animals hanging over the counter. The smell of raw flesh and blood filled the air. He heaved the side of meat off his shoulder and slapped it onto the chopping block as she entered the shop.
An involuntary shudder went through her.
“Morning Stan,” she said a little too loudly placing eggs on the counter. “Two dozen short this week. The hens are off about something.” She said feeling foolish. He stared at her. Under the green buttoned woollen hacking jacket he saw the blue and white stripped blouse hugged well formed breasts. Riding breeches clung to well rounded buttocks.
“Bacon,” he said as he wielded the clever deep into the pigs flesh “and eggs.” He stared again. “I like bacon and egg in the morning, after a good nights…..” He paused and she tingled in anticipation “…sleep” he said deliberately. He stared at her so hard she thought she would faint. “Do you want it now?” he said moving from behind the chopping block. She held onto the counter for fear of falling. He came and stood in front of her putting his hand under his apron. There was a long pause as they looked at each other. “The money for the eggs?” he said at last. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
 Digger Davies nodded to Stan as he entered the shop. “Stan.” For a moment the three stood and assessed each other.  “Helen,” he said in greeting. They stood like three heffers in a field.
“Digger” Stan nodded back. Helen blushed.
“Is it true you’re the real Slim Shady Stan?”
“You don’t want to believe everything you read in the papers Digger.”
“No, it was on the internet, chat forum.”
“Oh yeah and which one was that?”
“Rather not say in front of present company.”
They looked at each other again.
Digger nodded at something hidden under his coat. “A man said you might want...” he let it hang in the air.
Stan nodded. “Better go out the back then.” Digger smiled at Helen. “Helen,” he said and disappeared through a chain curtain.
 “I’ll come back , you’re busy…” she stammered.
“Morning Stan, Helen,” said Dick the postman and nodded at them.
“Dick,” Stan nodded back.
“I hear you’re the real Slim Shady.”
“You don’t want to believe everything you read on chat forums.”
“No, it was on Twitter. Where you want these letters then? Not much. Emails are doing me out of a job.”
“Digger’s out there,” he said
Dick nodded at Stan smiled at Helen and disappeared out the back.
Stan took a step closer to Helen and said in a low voice “Close at 4.00.” He was so close she could feel the heat of his body, it made her dizzy. She tried to speak but failed. She dipped her head like a young swan by way of reply and walked hesitantly to the door.
Duggie Davies, who was in some way related to Dave Davies, stopped as she passed him and watched her to the Range Rover. He adjusted the baseball cap under his hoodie, spat and took a sip of beer from the ever-present uplifted can in his right hand. “Slim Shady my arse,” he mumbled and entered the shop.

Jardine Meredith Puckersque a renowned raconteur and wit, and some said sot, wrote a history of Chaffing on the Wold between the wars - the Boer War and the Great War. The briefest glance showed that it was more anecdote than substance in nature, and in truth, much was fiction. Jardine Meredith Puckersque had done a great deal of his research in the Black Heart Inn aided and abetted by locals who drank as much as him. Stimulated by a glass or two they were able to regale him with the real history of the village. “Great sport was had in its making.” He was reported to have said in the local press. A revision of his history was made by the more abstemious Rev Jeremiah Launston Smyth a very thin and dry man. No one was really sure how the copy in the reference section of the library had been so liberally annotated in green ink.  

Chafing on the Wold is a beautiful village….

….. where a divided rural community with its retired educated narrow minded interlopers, and its uneducated and close minded natives, participate in the pretence of a master/slave relationship. It is full of ignorance, whether among those who had been gifted by a great white Victorian God with clear moral values and the natural bearing of authority, or those who grow cabbage. In short, had the Raj not returned to Cheltenham it would have found its home here.
…….possibly pre Saxon in origin. Visitors……

…….have found that there are three tea shops where seething animosities are expressed and exchanged in low voices and warm smiles. The local tea shop is for locals, but the local, local tea shop, is only for locals, while the local, locals, local tea shop, is only for local locals…They will not
….have found the village to be a welcoming stop on a visit to the Wolds.
The village can boast at least twelve families that can trace their ancestors back as far as the Doomsday book.

……The exotic proverbial migrant birds of a feather collect together and roost high, bathing in the warm glow of the setting sun of their successful lives, while the natives, are testament to life being short, brutish and nasty. A sentiment often expressed at the bar of the Black Heart Inn is ‘It’s all bastard bollocks ent it!’

Ley Lines

Ley Lines


Forty years ago I half read and skimmed Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track which had been pressed on me by someone who thought I would be interested in it. The book suggested that Neolithic man navigated by walking straight lines along features that could be seen. The features included ancient monuments, standing stones, ridge-tops, pools, wells and streams. These ancient tracks or ways Watkins called ‘ley lines’. Some years later whilst reading W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape I had a vague recollection of Watkins ideas, in particular his ‘salt ways’, routes that peddlers of salt would travel. The ‘salt ways’ seemed even more interesting when I started reading about drovers and drovers ‘roads’.

There were several good reasons why, in 1974, I dismissed the book as being flakey. In the late 60’s early 70’s UFO’s, the lost world of Atlantis, astral projection, and other fantastical topics were popular. Abacus, who re printed The Old Straight Track, also printed a vast range of pseudo academic books based on these subjects which sold in large numbers. ‘Ley lines’, because of  the writer John Michell undertook a mystical transformation and ended up being cited by those whole believed in ‘out of body’ experiences or astral projection, as  the lines along which energy traveled. This case was strengthened by the belief that ‘ley lines’ were what guided those dowsing. Many of the hippies of Cheltenham (where I lived at the time) believed that Cleve Hill was where there was a ‘significant’ convergence of ‘ley lines’.

As the years went by and I did more and more walking, particularly in mountains, I started to ponder on how Neolithic man had moved about and why. I began to wish that I had read Watkins’ book more thoroughly and understood the theory of ‘ley lines’ properly. I just had a feeling that there was something to ‘ley lines’. I once asked a geologist how the Romans knew where to mine for coal, lead, silver and gold, did they have geologists who knew what to look for? He thought not, they probably just stole existing working mines. This made me wonder whether they also stole existing ‘roads’. It is certain that the Romans built new roads all over the country but did they survey them too. There are Roman ‘roads’ in some quite isolated and unusual places in the Lake District, Mid Wales and the Brecons.

It was quite an emotional moment when I found The Old Straight Track in the second hand book shop in Wenlock. The price of the book, a paltry £2, is a sad reflection of how Watkins’ life work is valued today. The reason for this is that some years ago a very bright young mathematician sat down and ‘proved’ that Watkins’ theory of ‘ley lines’ was essentially just chance and the archaeologist Richard Atkinson put another nail in the coffin with his ‘telephone box leys’ argument. This, in short, was that it would be possible to make a case for telephone boxes, or anything else come to that, being set out in ‘ley lines’. I am not convinced by these arguments, there are problems with both. I agree that when putting a meter ruler on a map it is possible to find any number of ‘significant’ features that ‘might’ indicate an ‘old straight track’. However, getting away from maps, anyone who has ever navigated on a compass bearing across a mountainside knows only too well that an obvious landmark is what you look for and walk to – a tree, stream, pond, rock, dip in a ridge. There is evidence that our ancestors used trees and rocks etc as significant track markers, what is not clear is whether they diverted tracks to trees and rocks or moved trees and stones to existing tracks. When there were few or no compasses, navigating by visible features would have been the logical option.

Watkins writes “The open air man in a new district will take the first chance to get on high ground to ‘see’ or ‘spy’ ‘the lay of the land’… it was ‘lay’ and not ‘lie’, as recent writers have tended to give it.” The expression he claimed meant to survey the land.  He goes on “The present words lea, lee, lay, ley (practically identical) have the same spellings in early records with many other forms as leah, leaz, lez,leye,lai etc and is defined as a ‘tract of cultivated or uncultivated land’.”  Watkins claims that the study of place names can also show where the old straight tracks existed.

There has been a renewed interest of late in natural navigation which is fascinating. As a lot of people can navigate by the sun and tell time, there are those that can do the same by the moon. Celestial navigation only requires the knowledge of 16 stars. There were native Indians in Newfoundland who allegedly navigated at sea in fog by feeling and tasting the water for temperature and salt. Most know from the shape of wind exposed trees that the prevailing wind on this island is Westerly. Neolithic man probably had heightened navigation skills but why did he/she want to move around? Does the reason for their movement effect how they moved? Did they go up and over hills just to keep a straight line? For all the criticisms Watkins’ book is full of questions and ideas that need much more consideration and study.