More reviewing on hoof as I take a break from parceling Christmas orders.
I had intended to review The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje but I was so annoyed by the silly ending that I have been unable to bring myself to do it justice in a full review for, despite the ending, it is a very fine book. The prose is beautiful, and it is a more haunting book than the film (which I saw first), which I hadn't thought possible. The characters are fascinating and the rendering of the little group of war casualties, (nurse, unidentified patient, thief and sapper), is convincing and engaging. At the end I got the feeling that having got the characters there and delineated them so sharply against the crumbling Italian mansion, that the author did not know how to move them apart again. It ends with one character leaving for an unconvincing motive, with twenty-first century thoughts and motivations being attributed to characters anachronistically. I hate being thoroughly engaged by a book and then being let down by a daft ending. Don't let me put you off if you have not read it though as the first nine-tenths of the book are still worth it.
My other recent read is The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. I love McEwan's work and this is about the sixth of his novels that I've read. It is an extremely atmospheric portrait of a dysfunctional family and the tensions and jealousy between four siblings as they struggle to cope with the death of first one parent and then the other.
My mother had gone ...For a moment I perceived clearly the hard fact of her death, and my crying became hard and dry. But then I pictured myself as someone whose mother has just died and my crying was wet and easy again. Julie's hand was on my shoulder. As soon as I became aware of it I saw, as though through the kitchen window, the unmoving tableau we formed, sitter and stander, and I was unsure briefly which was me. Someone below me sat weeping at the end of my fingers. I was uncertain whether Julie was waiting tenderly or impatiently for me to stop crying. I did not know if she was thinking of me at all, for the hand on my shoulder was neutral in touch. This uncertainty made me stop crying. I wished to see the expression on her face.
Though The Cement Garden is one of his earliest works the trade-mark forensic style is already there and the subjects dealt with, as always with McEwan, are both very biological and very disturbing. Narrated through the fifteen year old son of the family, McEwan creates a watchful brooding presence, making the narrative electric. Watching is a key theme as Jack, the narrator, watches his family especially older sister Julie and boyfriend Derek. Behind the scenes younger sister Sue, who is rarely part of events and most usually described coming in or out of a room or sitting at the edges, is cleverly hinted at as also watching. We know she writes a diary. A stool is found next to the mother's coffin and it is later shown to be Sue's but we don't really know what she thinks. There are other watching moments for Sue which I won't expand on for fearing of spoiling the book. In the way literary fiction acts on and renews itself through parody and allusion, I can envisage someone doing a twenty-second century version of this novel from Sue's point of view in a hundred years or so.
It is a short book, and hard to review fully without spoiling the read for others, and frankly, it doesn't sit well surrounded by tinsel and holly. Hence the brief review. I am not sure when the ideal time of year for reading a book like this is as it is a compelling, uncomfortable read, but it is certainly worth making a time for it.
The title to this post is also in part the answer to the photographic question from my previous post. The poignant photograph is Lawrence Oates who suffered one of the tragic deaths of Captain Scott's 1910-1913 Terra Nova Antarctic expedition and is taken from I am Just Going Outside by Michael Smith. I think it is a startling photo because it doesn't feel like you are looking at an image of a man who died nearly 100 years ago. Images of men from the late Edwardian period usually show then smartly dressed with well oiled hair and neatly trimmed mustaches (think WWI soldiers) but Oates here, in his scruffy sweater with little threads unraveling, and his clean shaven face and modern soldier's cropped hair is sartorially so close to now as to make his long-ago death seem unreal.
Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, born in 1880, was from a family of explorers. His very wealthy Yorkshire roots included the naturalist Frank Oates. Lawrence Oates was an experienced soldier and a skilled horseman. He was involved in a dramatic incident during the Boer War where he bravely refused to surrender against a numerically superior force, earning for himself the sobriquet 'No Surrender Oates' and a leg badly shattered by a bullet. This wound probably contributed to his scurvy affected body's failure, and his heroic death, in the dramatic wastes of the Antarctic.
Smith's book, despite its bleak subject matter, is a vibrant, pacey read. He examines Oates' childhood, his struggles at school with his dyslexia, his affinity with horses and his love of hunting, his domineering mother, and the bored life of the wealthy gentleman. Oates' psychological state and his motivations to join the army are well worth comparing with Julian Grenfell whose biography by Nicholas Mosley is published by Persphone and makes a very good companion read to this volume.
The story of the ill-fated expedition is closely examined. Scott, as is more usual I think in later considerations of the events, does not come out well. The tradition of polar exploration was a naval one and Oates looked on events, and on Scott's decisions, with the eyes of a soldier and a cavalry officer. He was in fact called Soldier by his companions. Scott and Oates frequently fell out. Oates was there because of his expertise with horses but Scott would not follow his advice. Scott's decisions were often emotional or even romantic and he left the practical, unsentimental Oates baffled.
Two of Scott's more exasperatingly romantic decisions were his use of ponies rather than dogs and his inclusion of Oates in the last party to make the final leg of the walk to the pole. Scott felt ponies and man-hauling (where the men pulled their own sledges) were more dignified and 'British' than the use of dogs. The Norwegians of course used dogs to great effect to reach the pole, months before Scott, on December 14th 1911.
Perhaps the most fatal of the decision especially for the men selected was Scott's choice of company for that final leg. Scott, described as "remote and unapproachable", did not consult others, especially his doctors, on who best to take, and his remoteness meant that the doctors did not volunteer information on fitness. Bizarrely, romantically, Scott wanted Oates along so that both the navy and the army were represented at the pole. Oates with his injured leg over an inch shorter than the other had the resultant problems from a twisted spine. He was a cavalry officer picked for his ability with horses and not trained to march. He had poor circulation and he neither wanted nor expected to be in the final party now reliant on man-hauling and without pony-power at all. But Scott wanted the army there; a decision Smith mildly condemns as 'unscientific'. Of the ratings (Scott saw things very much as men and officers), Scott picked Teddy Evans even though Evans had been man-hauling longer than most and was exhausted before they set off on the last walk. All five men in the final party reached the pole but Evans and Oates suffered health problems immediately. They slowed the party down and their presence probably caused the deaths of the other three. Evans died but Oates lingered. According to Scott, Oates begged to be left behind, but Scott refused. So, on a unsure date but probably on his 32nd birthday, Oates, suffering from scurvy, hunger, frostbite, gangrene and exhaustion, told his companions in his famous throw-away comment, as casual as that sweater in the picture, that he would be going outside and might be some time. In his socks, his feet too damaged to wear his boots, Oates padded or crawled to his death. His body has never been found.
The tragedy for the five men and their families was of course great, and though many millions would not survive the next few years and the Great War, there is still something poignant about this expedition. Oates is perhaps the very last of the old fashioned heroes before the horrors of the trenches and the eloquence of the war poets made heroism a fashion of the past, as odd for men as long skirts were to become for women. Smith notes in his preface that, 'Oates was the finest example of how, if nothing else, Britons knew how to die'. We no longer expect our soldiers to die, though sadly of course they still do, but each loss is examined and gone over in the hope of avoiding a repeat. We rightly remember those that do die, and reward those that perform feats of bravery, but we no longer complacently expect it or treat duty and death as synonyms. I am Just Going Outside is a truly fascinating book and I think, makes vital reading for an understanding of pre-war attitudes to men and heroes.
Blogs.com are inviting people to submit lists of their 10 best blogs. I have submitted a list of 10 of my best book blogs which you can see here. Appologies to those blogs I missed off; it was really hard to pick just 10, and in the end it was a bit of sticking a pin in a list. There are lots of other lists on Blogs.com on all sorts of categories, so the site is well worth a visit.
Still sneezing in a snowy Yorkshire. The above is the view from our front steps. The five year old and I slithered down the hill to school this morning. This is quite a steep street as you can see from the stepping of the terraced housing opposite. The moors above the town can usually be seen in this view but their whiteness blends in with the sky today. The snow was pretty but not very easy. Just prior to taking this photo a man walked passed, uphill, carrying skis. Not a normal sight around here. It was the first decent fall of snow our little 'un has seen.