Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Slowly reading Shakespeare's Henry V (after seeing the Kenneth Branagh film) and enjoying it - We band of brothers, we happy few...and alternating - this is bedtime reading -  with reading about Shackelton and his last trip to Antartica - (The Endurance, Shackelton's legendary Antarctic expedition, Alfred A. Knopf 1999).

None of my education took place in English, so never studied Shakespeare. I've tried to read him in the past, but only now is my command of English good enough to cope. Here is one word I loved: womby -  we would say something like womb-like nowadays...I search an old dictionary for some of the words I don't know and they are mostly there, whereas more modern words usually don't feature.

Something interesting: Shackelton, who was gifted with great leadership qualities and was mostly revered by his men (except for the grumpy, exceptionally skilled chippy McNish) felt threatened by one man and therefore kept him close to himself: the clever daring photographer Frank Hurley, also endowed with leadership qualities. Shackelton did not trust him. The two other men who helped run the expedition were loyal beyond questioning.The fantastic photos are the originals are Hurley's originals.The story reads easily and fast.

It is very harrowing: I've reached the point where they are in open boats after the ship sank. They had spent many months on an icefloe, sometimes having to watch all night in case it broke up and they were separated from their provisions and their goods. They slept in tents which were very thin, so thin that the wind could blow the cigarette smoke about inside them; they had no waterproof tent liners to lie on, no real protection. They had used igloos before - could they not build them now? The book is by Caroline Alexander and she evokes the atmosphere very well - so well that I've decided not to read the book just before going to sleep.

I lie awake and wonder: how did they arrange the toilets when they were on the floe? People only seem to suffer from sciatica - not diarrhea or digestive upsets, despite the odd food (penguin meat) - and they lie down for long periods because of it. They were together there for so long, what about homosexuality? There were 27 of them, so statistically there should have been 2 or three...

The link between Henry V and Shackelton's expedition is happiness: a strange bird, this happiness, who knows what makes it alight. One man - Lee - wrote in his diary about feeling extremely happy - and is described as a loner. I wonder if being stuck on an icefloe meant that he was at last part of a group even though they used his snoring as a pretext to get him out of one of the tents and make him sleep in the supplies hut...He was acutely aware of the food shortages and so was under no illusions.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

France today a la Houellebecq

Visitors and writing don't mix, despite strenuous efforts. Neither do events like the annual Passover ritual of the Seder. Our household will only tolerate a Humanist Haggadah (a Godless one) and the one I've downloaded for us to use is so limp as to have no impact on readers. T and I immediately set about correcting it with the help of the old Progressive Haggadah, finding the bits that would be acceptable to our atheists and inserting them where we could. Every now and then T would say something which I thought  worth writing down as well, and I think that we might in due course make our own Haggadah, rewrite it at the seder and make something with more oomph and less political correctness. One can be oomphy and still offend no one, there is no need to crawl and creep around.

The discipline of writing was rewarding as managed to do some for my own book which I am pleased with. Today there was no time due to preparations for the Seder. But got home early thinking about writing and managed to squeeze this in.

The author I have been obsessed with over the last four days is Michel Houellebecq, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt for his book, La carte et le territoire (Flammarion, 2010)- published in English as The map and the Territory (translated by Gavin Bowd, Knopf). A review was published in the Canadian Globe and mail which explains the controversy around him well. Houellebecq's reader is given an insight into the way France is now - different from how I remember it from my childhood many years ago. The insights he provides document the status quo, a little as if he were a friend arriving with news he knows I'll want to know.

What kind of thing? That only 10% of the people staying at French tourist hotels are actually French, many of the visitors are Chinese and Russian. The French can no longer afford their own hotels. (P said glumly - I suppose that will be true in the UK as well). That there are areas of Paris where the police dare not go because gangs have taken over. I have heard since that he calls Islam a 'stupid' religion - or was it 'idiotic'? I'd like to read the piece where he says that, to find out why.

Some of the patterns of modern life he describes are familiar, and those ring true, so I am inclined to believe the rest as well. I also very much like his style of writing, which takes the back step, so that you can concentrate on the content or rather listen easily to his light voice telling you a story you want more of.

Am now reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Slow and fast (Farar Straus & Giroux, 2011). A thick tome, reads marvelously - no effort involved, though one is aware of being shown things and being made to think.