From a Ship at Sea to Cairo

What am I reading?

I last asked this question exactly a month ago and since then I have finished both The Miseducation of Cameron Post and – finally! – T. E. Lawrence’s Letters. I will write about them in separate posts, but here are my two ‘new’ books on the go.

The Cat’s Table
by Michael Ondaatje
(102/287)

I’m reading this book, of course, because Ondaatje wrote The English Patient (1992). I could have read that again, and at some point this year, I hope I do, but if you really love an author you will do more than just read your favourite work by him over and over again. That was why I read In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and it is why I am reading The Cat’s Table.

The book is set on an ocean liner, the Oronsay, as it makes its way from Sri Lanka to England. The narrator is an eleven year old boy named Michael and in short chapters he describes the people that he and his friends meet and the adventures they get up to during the journey.

You may be wondering what adventures could anyone get up to on a ship. Well, next time you go on a cruise, get yourself tied down to the deck during a storm so that you can witness it from the outside – the wind so strong that it pulls the buttons off your shirt and wash as it floods the deck; if you do this, and survive, you will have done just as Michael did.

So far, The Cat’s Table is a light hearted and enjoyable read. The story flows ever so easily – in half an hour this evening I read 25 pages. All in all, it feels like Michael Ondaatje at play and that’s just fine.

Orientations
by Ronald Storrs
(76/521)

Ronald Storrs (1881-1955) served in the Egyptian government from 1904 until the First World War when he joined the Arab Bureau where he worked alongside David Hogarth and T. E. Lawrence. By the end of the war, he was governor of Jerusalem. Not quite, as he claimed, the first westerner to hold this position since Pontius Pilate, but only once removed.

After the war – well, I’ll let you know when I get there. I know Storrs through his connection to Lawrence so my knowledge of anything else he did is minimal to nil. At this moment in time, the only thing I know about his post-war life is that in the early 30s his house caught fire and burned down.

Orientations is Storr’s autobiography and it is packed with anecdotes and interesting stories about his life. If I open the book now, I come to the ‘scandal’ of the badly written invitation to a party hosted by Britain’s Governor-General in Egypt, Sir Eldon Gorst. Storrs was in charge of the invitations but never wrote it. Who did? Who embarrassed him so?

Then there is the case of the assassination threats. Gorst seems to have received them quite often. And didn’t mind doing so. As Storrs says, the G-G simply praised ‘God for one letter which required no answer’.

And further back there is Harry Boyle, the G-G’s Oriental Secretary who was once asked if he was the hotel pimp at the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Rather than remonstrate, Boyle took revenge by informing the mistaken stranger that while he was that man, he was also on his break, so if the fellow didn’t mind, the chap over there would help him. The chap over there was Sir Thomas Lipton, presumably another British official, but certainly not a pimp. The stranger went over to him and as Boyle stepped into his cab, he heard ‘the sound of a fracas, the impact of a fist and the thud of a ponderous body on the marble floor’.

At this moment in time, I can’t fault Orientations at all. What I am less keen on is this edition of the book. It was published in 1945 according to ‘book production war economy standard’. The paper is not the finest, therefore, and each page has upwards of 45 lines to it. As the book has over 500 pages, I think I will be reading it for a while. Such is the quality of Storr’s writing, however, I think I can live with that quite easily.

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The Rich Legacy of John le Carré

I was just finishing my lunch today when I read some great news, really great news, on Twitter: John le Carré has written another book; and not just any old book but a new George Smiley novel.

le Carré has written over twenty novels in a career spanning sixty years but it is his Smiley, or Karla, trilogy that defines him as an author. It started with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), continued with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and finished with Smiley’s People (1979).

In Tinker Tailor George Smiley is brought out of retirement to uncover the mole who has betrayed MI6 (or, the Circus, as le Carré laconically calls it) to the Soviet Spymaster, Karla. The Honourable Schoolboy takes place in the aftermath of the events of Tinker Tailor and follows the far-eastern adventures of ex-Circus man, Jerry Westerby. In Smiley’s People le Carré returns to George himself as the latter tries to bring down Karla once and for all.

All three books are full of tension, excitement, memorable characters and moments. If you have never read any of them, I cannot recommend the trilogy highly enough. Judging by le Carré’s website, his new novel – titled A Legacy of Spies – is set after the end of the Cold War. Smiley’s one time sidekick, Peter Guillam, is living in retirement in Brittany, but is called back to Britain to answer for his actions while at the Circus.

If the story is taking place in Guillam’s old age, George Smiley must surely be dead. So, although A Legacy of Spies is being touted as Smiley’s return, I would assume that he will only appear in flashbacks. We shall see.

John le Carré is now 85 and his decision to revisit George Smiley brings him full circle. Smiley first appeared in le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). He last appeared in The Secret Pilgrim (1990) and, though I may be wrong, I don’t believe le Carré intended to write about him again after that point. But I wonder if le Carré’s advanced age, and ever heightening awareness of his mortality, has persuaded him to finish where he started and give his most famous creation a proper send-off in the process.

Whatever the answer, I hope that le Carré lives for many years and blesses us with as many more books as he wishes to write. In the meantime, though, I wait with baited breath and a glad heart for A Legacy of Spies.

Links
John le Carré’s website

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Man’s Pain and God’s Promise

What am I reading?

I have enjoyed another good reading week – continuing to manage an hour almost every day, and slightly longer at the weekend. It feels good to have got on with T. E. Lawrence’s Letters and The Miseducation of Cameron Post but that feeling has been alloyed by the fact that there have been other books I need to get on with but which have fallen by the wayside. This is partly my fault for starting too many but also a consequence of having varied interests and wanting to keep up with all of them at the same time. What is the answer?

T. E. Lawrence’s Letters
(Ed. David Garnett)
(394/873)
When I wrote my last WAIR update, it was 1917 and Lawrence was in the middle of the Arab Revolt. It is now 1923. The Arab Revolt has ended. The First World War has ended. The Peace Conference that followed the war has ended. And I think a little piece of Lawrence has ended as well. How else to explain his decision to join the RAF as a private? This is the man who could have joined the government or taken a top job in Britain’s colonial administration if he had wanted. I’m sure he could have helped Gertrude Bell found Iraq. But all that wasn’t for him. He wanted to be famous but also left alone. Sadly, leaving people alone is not the way of British newspapers and he has just been slung out of the RAF after the Daily Express wrote an expose of him serving there.

A couple of things that stick out from my reading of this book over the last week is a quotation belonging to John Maynard Keynes who in 1919, at the Paris peace conference observed that at the start of ’19 Lawrence ‘was a man fully in control of his nerves’. In other words, he didn’t think TEL had been done in by the war as people – including myself – have often thought. In Keynes’ opinion, it was what happened at Paris that turned Lawrence. The editor of the book states that he was also damaged by a plane crash that he was involved in.

The second thing that stands out is Lawrence’s correspondence with Air Vice Marshall Sir Oliver Swann who, under orders from the government, got Lawrence his job in the RAF. Lawrence writes various rather familiar letters to him but Swann is quoted as saying that he never met TEL until the order to get him in the RAF came through and didn’t like the whole business of helping him so secretly. This makes reading Lawrence’s letters rather awkward as he is being quite chummy to someone who doesn’t seem to have had that much time for him.

On another note, Lawrence’s letters to Charles Doughty really are (as E. M. Forster is quoted as saying) full of ‘consideration and gentleness’ and so are the perfect antidote to the Swann ones.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
(Emily M. Danforth)
(Chapt. 15)
This might be my last update of Cameron Post as I am up to Chapter 15 and the book has 21 in total. I am now in Part III of the book. Cameron has been outed – by Coley her girlfriend of all people – and been carted off to God’s Promise, a ‘Christian school and center for healing’.

What went wrong? Cameron and Coley were in bed together when the latter’s brother, Ty, and his friends arrived at the flat. They didn’t see the girls in flagrante delicto but afterwards – after, that is, Cameron had left the scene – they managed to get the truth out of Coley. How that happened we can’t be quite sure but it sets up a potentially explosive encounter between Cameron and Coley later in the book. Especially since Coley seems to have cast her as the villain of their piece.

Cameron is sent to God’s Promise at the behest of her Aunt Ruth who regards homosexuality as a spiritual disease to be cured. The book jumps forward from the day on which Cameron is busted and her arrival at the school. By the time the latter takes place she is, not surprisingly, openly hostile to her mother. Because we don’t see the days in which that hostility would have developed and boiled over Cameron’s sudden anger felt a bit discordant, almost like she had had suddenly become a different person to the rather laid back figure of before.

What of God’s Promise? I was dreading reading this portion of the book as I thought it was going to be some kind of mad Christian boot camp with goodness knows what kind of abusiveness going on in the name of God. But actually, it is presented as a pretty normal place. There are no pantomime or more sinister villains, though the assistant director, Lydia March, has the potential to be either. The students (called disciples) are not automatons, brainwashed by the Bible, though there is talk about how they forget themselves in the midst of their counselling. They don’t forget that much, though, as we see Cameron go off with other students to smoke pot.

This doesn’t mean that God’s Promise is ‘fine, after all’. Philosophically speaking, it is still a very problematical place. It is, after all, dedicated to pursuing the annihilation of character. Or, to be more nuanced about it, the annihilation of an element of people’s character. From the Christian perspective its work makes sense – homosexual inclination being a disorder of the spirit after all. But I don’t accept that and the knowledge that this view is still the prevalent one within the wider faith (and, more specifically, my Catholic Church) is a great trial. There are other reasons why it is a trial but I will not go into them here.

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From Aqaba to Montana – People and Love

What am I reading?

When I last asked this question it was 3rd December 2016. Back then, my two books on-the-go were A Most Wanted Man (John Le Carré) and T. E. Lawrence’s Letters. I finished Le Carré’s novel not long after but I’m afraid to say that through December and January I did little with the Letters. Things came to a head at the start of this week, however, and I picked up the Letters again and every day this week have managed to read it and my other book-on-the-go for half an hour each day. The internet and social media hasn’t cracked my ability to concentrate just yet, which is a great relief. As for A Most Wanted Man, as I said in my previous post, I didn’t enjoy the book to begin with but by the end it was definitely my favourite of the three Le Carré novels I read (the other two being Our Kind of Traitor and A Delicate Truth).

T. E. Lawrence’s Letters
(Ed. David Garnett)
(236/873)
It is now September 1917 and the Arab Revolt is well underway. Lawrence is still finding time to write the very occasional letter home but most of them now are to Cairo. What sticks in my mind about this week’s reading is the brevity with which Lawrence describes the Battle of Aqaba. ‘… we marched into Akaba on the morning of July 6’. Well, there was a battle,  you know; you took part in it before accidentally shooting your camel and knocking yourself out when you fell off it. This quotation, however, comes from Lawrence’s account of events leading up to and after the occupation of the vital port for The Arab Bulletin so I suppose he had to be brief. That aside, it continues to be a treat to see his letters to D. G. Hogarth and even documents that were once classified ‘secret’ included.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
(Emily M. Danforth)
(Chapt. 8)
Despite slowing my reading of T. E. Lawrence’s Letters to a halt during December and January I didn’t stop reading altogether. A little Tolkien passed my way (The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun) as did Xenophon’s Anabasis. They weren’t part of the Books-on-the-go scheme, which is a shame because I enjoyed them both. A week or two ago, I began Cameron Post. She would not have been part of it either had I not picked up TEL again. Anyway, I did, so here we are.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a 2012 novel about a girl, Cameron Post, who is a lesbian. It starts with Cameron and her best friend, Irene, kissing each other. Cameron likes it but life moves on. A year or three (I’m not actually sure about the timeline) Cameron makes out with Lindsey, her chief rival in swimming competitions. Next will be Coley, the ‘It girl’ of her school. And it is there that things will go downhill for Cameron. She lives in the religiously and socially conservative American state of Montana. As I haven’t got to that part yet I can’t say for sure what will happen, but I believe Cameron and Coley are caught and Cameron is sent to a religious camp to have her homosexual urgings cured.

I know the theological arguments against homosexuality but for me they stand opposed to the fact that the love that same sex couples have for one another is every bit as consensual and in its own way fruitful as that which heterosexual couples enjoy. So they can’t have children, well neither can a husband and wife after a certain age. I hope that one day same sex relationships will come to be seen as God willed. In the meantime, it is very hard – embarrassing and cutting – to see how the faith, particularly my own Church, that of Rome, regards homo-/bi-sexuality, etc.

So far as Cameron Post is concerned, she attends what looks like an evangelical church. I suppose as a Catholic this means I can divorce myself from their actions towards her but that’s nonsense and in any case as a Christian I certainly can’t. So, I am rather dreading where this book will go and how it will end. There’s no backing out, though. I am in this book too much to do that.

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We’ll Never Tell Them: Chapter Seven

We'll Never Tell Them Front 6x9With Chapter Seven we reach the end of Part 1 of We’ll Never Tell Them. Before starting this post, I looked back to see when I wrote my review of Chapter Six. I thought it was in last month but it turns out to have been last October. I am amazed it was that long. I wonder if I will finish this series before 2100! I hope so.

Anyway, as you may – or probably don’t thanks to my tardiness – recall, Liljana was unfairly accused of stealing by Mrs Burnett and hauled off to the police station. Upon his return home, she was rescued from there by Mr. Burnett. In Chapter Seven, he and Dr. Hampton debate what to do with the poor girl. They decide to send her to a private school run by Dr. Hampton’s brother in England. After reading this chapter, I jotted down some key words:

Torture
As Dr. Hampton discovers when he visits Liljana, the police have burned her with cigarettes. He applies iodine to the wound and we marvel that Liljana is able to hold herself together as it stings and burns her. But after our first thoughts, there can only be sadness that she is so capable of holding her emotions in as this ability is the product of a life lived harshly and most cruelly.

Identity
There is a sense in which Liljana lacks identity. The policeman who sunk the lit end of his cigarette into her neck did not see a fellow human being, and a very vulnerable one at that, and by not giving her a place in their discussions, Dr. Hampton and Mr Burnett also turn their backs to her face. Well, at least their intentions are good. In a way, Liljana also denies her own identity, for when she freezes her emotions out she denies the truth of who and what she is. Dr. Hampton notes her stunted growth, caused by ‘years of undernourishment’. Liljana is quite literally not the person she ought to be, and therefore, less of what she ought to be. This also diminishes her identity.

Voicelessness
Connected to identity – Liljana’s voicelessness is caused by her exclusion from Dr. Hampton’s and Mr. Burnett’s discussions, and again, by her lack of emotions. At the end of the chapter she boards the ship that will take her to England. She is heading into an effective exile from a society that – as de Maria notes – has no place for a mad woman or her daughter.

Damage
This has to be the key word going into Part 2 of the book. Liljana is damaged. How will this play out in her new life? Are we heading towards a tragedy? Well, we know from Leo that Liljana will one day have a child but not much more than that.

At this point in time, the odds do not seem very good for Liljana. Only the lightness of Fiorella de Maria’s writing stops We’ll Never Tell Them from becoming a hard-to-read darker-than-night drama.

***

When I started writing my chapter-by-chapter review, I wanted to highlight how the book seems to change genre from time to time. I think so far we have gone from chick-lit (Kristjana ditching her job), to children’s story with a little contemporary fiction in between. I have to admit, though, the changes haven’t been as pronounced as my memory told me. I should point out that in terms of the book’s quality, all this is neither here nor there. We’ll Never Tell Them is a good work.

One last thing; as I prepare to turn the page and begin Part 2 (hopefully before April), I do have one pang of regret – that we haven’t learnt more about why Kristjana decided to chuck her job and leave Britain. Will it come later? The scene where she drops her mobile phone into the water in St. James’ Park was such a powerful one, I would love to know what lead up to it.

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Rogue But Faithful

Recommended?
YES. Rogue One is an expertly made film. No doubt it has its faults but two days after seeing it I still can’t think of any that are significant. 9/10.

***

WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! 
The Force Awakens
was such a huge disappointment that I was severely tempted to call time on watching Star Wars films. I’m still umm-ing and ahh-ing to myself about going to see Star Wars VIII but I think I will if only to see what happens to Luke Skywalker.

Despite this, the Force fiasco meant that until recently I had no real intention of going to see Rogue One, the off-shoot Star Wars film that opened at midnight on Wednesday this week, and is currently playing round the clock at my local multi-screen cinema.

However, perhaps because the Star Wars franchise is such an icon of cinema and part of my film life going back to the early 80s, I suspect I may have decided to go and see it even before I discovered that the co-writer of the screenplay was Tony Gilroy, who (c0-) wrote the Bourne Trilogy. I love those films to pieces, and so, as I had the day off work on Thursday I headed off to the cinema.

In a way, Rogue One couldn’t fail. Thanks to The Force Awakens I had no expectations at all that it would be any good. However, what I saw was not only a good film but a great one. Not that the competition is very fierce but Rogue One is, in my opinion, easily the best Star Wars picture since The Empire Strikes Back.

The two principle reasons for this are that it had a really good story and characters. The secondary reasons were the way in which the film paid homage to the previous Star Wars films and built upon them but without losing its own identity.

The Story
Rogue One takes place immediately before Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Thus, it is concerned with how the Rebellion manages to steal the plans for the Death Star. My favourite aspect of this story is the way in which it convincingly explains how Luke Skywalker was so easily able to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope. The story develops at a perfect pace. I have to admit that despite this I never did keep up with the names but in a film where they are so unusual and there is a large cast that is probably not a surprise.

Characters
English actress Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the heroine of the piece. Unfortunately, the large cast means that Jyn never quite gets the screen time/character development that she deserves. This is a shame because she does have a very intriguing background, having been brought up by a violent extremist and ended up a convicted criminal.

Of the other characters, I was most taken by Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) who though not portrayed that way seems to me to be a rather tragic figure. He is Force sensitive but his development in its ways is stunted as a result of the destruction of the Jedi Order. Another stand-out character was the sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). He, or it, is a breath of fresh air after having to put up with the R2-D2 clone, BB8, in The Force Awakens.

So far as the characters are concerned, I could go on. Here, though, I will simply say that they were all distinctive and – despite the limitations of time – given such depth as to make me hope, even before the film ended, that we might learn more about them in books, etc.

Paying Homage
I’m sure there are lots of websites with lists of references to the other Star Wars pictures. I have already seen one that shows where the film references books and the cartoon series. My favourite references were the ones that also subverted well known SW tropes. Hence, at the start we saw the ship being overshadowed by a larger ship – which turned out to be the rings of a planet, and then when Jyn told K-2SO to hush after he started Han Solo’s famous line, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’.

The Rogue Identity
I called Rogue One ‘tougher’ than any other Star Wars picture. This is because while the plot is centred once more on the Rebellion vs Empire it shows the war being a lot dirtier than in any other Star Wars film. The prime example of this is in the fate of Jyn’s father, Galen. The Empire forced him to work on the Death Star. When Jyn finds out where he is located, she heads of to rescue him. A rebel leader, however, gives the leader of her party a secret order to assassinate him. He can’t bring himself to do it but Galen still dies – not at the Empire’s hands, but by Rebel X-Wings when they bomb the facility he is working at. All very unheroic but also realistic. As is the deaths of all the major characters at the end of the film.

***

Rogue One, then, has for me breathed new life into the Star Wars franchise. In a single sweep it has overcome the disaster of the prequels and Force Awakens and shown what Star Wars is capable of being when good writers are in charge. Whoever at Lucasfilm or Disney hired Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy* (and, for that matter, the director, Gareth Edwards) should be given a big pay rise this Christmas. I earnestly hope that the Star Wars VIII creative team are able to rise to the challenge that this film has laid down.

* And John Knoll and Gary Whitta who wrote the original story

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Hamburg to Aleppo and a dash of sherbet

What Am I Reading?

It has been over a month since I last updated Hail Eärendel and for once it wasn’t because I have been lazy, distracted or any other negative reason.

In fact, I was taking part in the NaNoWriMo challenge and am happy to say that I succeeded in writing my fifty thousand words before the end of November; substantially so, in fact, as I reached the target on 19th Nov.

The novel is not yet finished, however; as of today, 3rd December, I am just under half-way through it.

As a result of my NaNoAntics I did not do a great deal of reading in November so have not advanced as far as I should have liked with my two main reads. But neither have I been idle…

A Most Wanted Man
At the end of October I was reading Our Kind Of Traitor and doing my best to finish it before NaNoWriMo started. Not only did I succeed but I managed to fit in A Delicate Truth as well. I enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor although I never really got on with le Carré’s non-linear narrative. Where’s the tension when you know the character survives whatever threatening situation he is in? A Delicate Truth was more linear and so for me a more enjoyable read.

In Traitor, le Carré uses the 2009 banking crisis as the backdrop to his story. In Truth, the world of New Labour, extraordinary renditions and modern day mercenaries take centre stage. The book is every bit as bleak as Our Kind of Traitor except, perhaps, in its ending, though only slightly.

That’s them; I am now reading A Most Wanted Man, the third of the three le Carré novels that I committed myself to reading. This book is the oldest of the three, being published in 2008 but also has a very contemporary feel being concerned with Islamic terrorism at least in part if not in whole.

I have to admit, when I opened the book up I was really not taken either by the character of Issa – the Russian/Chechnyan/Islamic figure at the heart of the story – nor by Tommy Brue, a banker – but I am now eighty pages in and the plot is starting to warm up nicely. Not only in terms of Issa’s and Brue’s relationship but with a sub-plot involving a heavy smoking and hard drinking German intelligence officer named Bachmann. To be honest, he is the one who is making the story ‘sparkle’ at the moment.

T. E. Lawrence Letters
I have to admit I did not open TEL’s Letters once during November. I only did so for the first time since October this morning. A month ago I said I thought I might finish the book by Christmas. When I read it I read it pretty fast as Lawrence writes in a very readable fashion but I am definitely not going to finish the book before 2017. As of today, I am on p.150/873.

It is 1912 still and Lawrence is still engaged at Carchemish, writing from Aleppo, avoiding cholera, falling foul of malaria, affectionately addressing his twelve year-old brother Arnold as ‘ancient beast’ and ‘worm’, drinking rose leaf sherbet with snow (which sounds lovely), and witnessing gunfights between Kurds and arabs. Lawrence’s archaeological finds get a mention here and there though I don’t have the impression that they are of ultimate significance. Meanwhile, war has broken out in the Balkans…

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