Sunday, June 21, 2015

june 2015 books

More book stuff:
The Borgias (Mary Hollingsworth): The front cover of Hollingsworth’s book describes the Borgias as “history’s most notorious dynasty” and it would be difficult to dispute this claim. The book outlines the family’s “progress” from the early years of the 13th century to the mid-14th. Even before the election of the first Borgia pope in 1455 (77 year-old Alonso Borgia, choosing the papal name of Calixtus III), advancement and power was only secured through blatant corruption… and a second Borgia pope (Rodrigo, taking the name Alexander VI) followed in 1493. Once in power, other Borgia family members were promoted to ridiculous positions of power and influence… and massive wealth. Certainly, at that time, the idea of celebate popes was something of a joke – Alexander, for example, had a long affair with Vannozza dei Cattanei while still a priest, but before he became pope; and by her had his illegitimate children Cesare Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, Gioffre Borgia, and Lucrezia. A later mistress, Giulia Farnese, was the sister of Alessandro Farnese, and she gave birth to a daughter while Alexander was in his 60s and reigning as pope. Alexander fathered at least seven, and possibly as many as ten illegitimate children, and did much to promote his family's interests (like a 9 year-old being appointed an Archbishop!) - using his offspring to build alliances with a number of important dynasties. He appointed Giovanni Borgia as Captain General of the Church, and made Cesare a Cardinal of the Church - also creating independent duchies for each of them out of papal lands. Two descendants of pope Alexander VI also became queens of England, Scotland and Ireland (Catherine of Braganza married Charles II and Mary of Moderna married James II)! The Borgias even make FIFA look pretty tame by comparison!
Vintage Stuff (Tom Sharpe): Re-read another Tom Sharpe book (well, they make easy summer reading and are entertaining!). I apparently read this one shortly after it was published in 1982… but I couldn’t remember ANYTHING about it! It’s about a very minor public school with assault courses for over-active underachievers, cold showers and beatings – you get the general idea. Predictably farcical.
Vietnam! Vietnam! In Photographs and Text (Felix Greene): I was very much opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. My copy of this book (published in 1966 – one year after large scale US troops were deployed) is an ex-library copy that I bought for 20p at a jumble sale some time ago… and which I’d only really “flicked through” until now. Greene was born+educated in the UK (he used to work for the BBC), but lived most of his life in the USA. The book combines more than 100 awful, stunning pictures by world-renown photographers together with Greene’s cogent comments. I think it’s one of the most shocking, saddening books I’ve ever read – and a powerful indictment of American aggressive intervention in Vietnam. It’s frightening to be reminded of how the US used its giant resources to argue the case for the “defence of freedom”. This is not the place for a history lesson(!), but I AM going to include just a few quotes from the book: “The facts are plain. This war was begun by armed American aggression aimed at perpetuating the unnatural and unintended division of Vietnam into North and South, in full violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954”… “It would probably come as a painful surprise to many Americans to realise how universally the war in Vietnam is viewed not as a ‘complex issue’ but as a simple and blatant act of aggression by the United States”… “morally, politically and militarily unjustifiable”… “We have used our power with great restraint” (President Johnson, May 1966)… “US Air Force flew no fewer than 26,858 sorties against Vietnam in a single week” (Newsweek, October 1965)… Believe me, I could go on and on! It’s a truly remarkable book and, even now, nearly 50 years on, one that you should read if you have an opportunity.
A Month In The Country (JL Carr): This is a rather lovely short novel (first published in 1980 and, apparently, also made into a film in 1987) about two men who meet in the quiet English countryside of a hot summer in 1920. They’re both survivors of the Great War. One (Tom Birkin) is temporarily living in a church uncovering and restoring a historical wall-painting and the other is camping in the next field in search of a lost grave. Birkin is the narrator – looking back in old age of his memories of his idyllic summer spent in Yorkshire (at the very end of the book, he dates his account as 1978), when he felt he’d glimpsed happiness and contentment. However, this is countered by his lack of money, his horrific wartime experiences, the painful break-up of his marriage and things that might have been.
It’s a gentle, tender and elegant book which I read during the course of a beautiful summer’s day.
Britain In The Sixties: The Other England (Geoffrey Moorhouse): The “Other England” is what Moorhouse calls everywhere else other than the “Golden Circle” around London. I was somewhat taken aback by the condition of my rather battered copy of this book… until I realised (rather like “Vietnam! Vietnam! above) that this might be due to the fact that it’s over 50 years’ old (first published in 1964)! How can that be?! Yes, this is definitely a book for ME – because it outlines the time of my youth (I started at university in 1967). Fascinating to be reminded that, at that time, Britain had not yet joined the Common Market (the EU if you’re too young!) and was about to swallow the implications for the nation’s railway network as a result of the Beeching cuts. It’s sobering to realise how communications have changed so dramatically over the past 50 years – at one point, Moorhouse talks glowingly about the huge telecommunication advances everyone had experienced thanks to the introduction of telex and STD! It was written less 20 years since the end of WW2 and the need for slum-clearance throughout the country is referred to constantly (and also the levels of appalling pollution). Moorhouse was also clearly very enthusiastic about what was going on in Birmingham (where I was born and stayed until 1967) in the 1960s – describing it as the “most go-ahead city in Europe”. Yes, much was happening but, in my view, the highway engineers were given far too much of a free hand and, sadly, the quality of much of the architecture (and the materials used) was desperately disappointing. Reading the book today also makes you realise just how many of the country’s key industries of that time have disappeared or changed beyond recognition – mining, textiles, heavy machinery, manufacturing, shipbuilding and steelworks, to name just a few. I was also struck by the following incidental comments: a) talking about age 50-something redundant millworkers in Lancashire having “a life expectation of anything up to 20 years” ahead of them (these days, we might anticipate a few more years!) and b) one person in eight was a car owner in 1964 (it’s now probably more like 1 in 2?).
An absolutely fascinating book - well, to read now at least!

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