More book stuff:South (Sir Ernest Shackleton, edited by Peter King): This book gives Shackleton’s account of his Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. It’s grim, gruelling stuff in terrifying conditions (and all undertaken with no communication with the outside world!). Edmund Hillary is quoted as saying: “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”. After reading this book (and I’d previously read “Endurance”), it would be difficult to argue against Hillary. This edition (bought for £3 instead of the original £20!) – which includes Frank Hurley’s stunning photographs – also contains Peter King’s fascinating additional notes based on recent research and provides fresh insights into Shackleton’s life and methods (eg. major defects in his organisation, inadequate finance, lack of training provided for his crew, failure to provide proper supplies of food … and other various ancillary issues: his womanising, his temper, his disregard for his parents in their declining years, his attitude towards his wife and children – including living off his wife’s money etc). Nevertheless, despite all this, Shackleton (who was almost worshipped by the team in his charge) was clearly a remarkable individual and a highly-gifted “leader of men”. A truly epic, harrowing story.
The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (Owen Jones): A very special book. I’ve been a great admirer of Jones’s articles in The Guardian over the past couple of years and also heard him talk at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas last October. A tough book about how we’ve all been stitched up by The Establishment (well, that’s his view and, frankly, I wouldn’t argue with him at all). It left me feeling angry (that we’re being hood-winked), enlightened and frustrated. Hugely impressive (I also blogged about it here).
The Long March (William Styron): A novella that I first read 20 years ago. Eight Marines are killed by misfired mortar shells whilst training in Carolina in preparation for the Korean War. The battalion Colonel calls for a 36-mile forced march to inculcate discipline. The march itself takes up less than half the book, but Styron’s prose is powerfully explicit… “a study in the pathological absurdity of military exercises”.
Utz (Bruce Chatwin): I love reading Chatwin. He writes beautifully… and with humour and great knowledge (especially if it involves art and/or travel). This is only a very short book (of some 150 pages?) and I first read it probably 15 years ago. The narrator goes to Prague in 1967 (a year before the Soviet tanks overran Czechoslovakia – I was in Yugoslavia at that time) to track down a man rumoured to have an incredible collection of Meissen china. The story is essentially an investigation into art, collecting and passion.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Hilary Mantel): This is our book group’s next book. Published in 1988, this novel provides a pretty frightening account of life in Saudi Arabia as experienced by a British couple living in an expatriate compound (the husband working as an engineer on a massive construction project and accompanied by his wife). The position of women in this Muslim kingdom and their secluded lives; the wealth and power of the royal family; the attitudes of men; the fear; the rumours; the rules that need to be obeyed; the rats and the cockroaches… It’s all the more real because Mantel herself had lived in the kingdom for four years and she had experienced things that the vast majority of journalists and politicians would never face. It’s a compelling nightmare of a book and beautifully written and observed.