Shackleton – Ranulph Fiennes

This fascinating biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton is written by Sir Ranulph Fiennes both knighted for their services to exploration and it is particularly interesting that Fiennes is able to add his own experiences of polar expeditions to accounts of Shackleton’s. He has previously written a biography of Sir Robert Scott, Shackleton’s original polar commander and then major rival in attempts to reach the South Pole and he treats each man fairly unlike the earlier biographies of Scott and Shackleton by Roland Huntford who was very much against Scott and pro Shackleton.

At 375 pages plus extensive index, appendix and bibliography this book could well be seen as the definitive biography of one of the foremost polar explorers of the so called ‘Heroic Age’, i.e. the early 20th century even though he never actually made it to the South Pole. The closest he got was one hundred miles away from it, setting at the time the record for furthest south on 6th January 1909 along with Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild. This record would not be beaten until Roald Amundsen actually reached the pole on 14th December 1911. Fiennes makes the point that if he had been on his own Shackleton would probably have risked another 6 to 10 days march to the actual pole but concern for his men made him turn back due to the low level of rations still available to them. This for me is one of the defining differences between Scott and Shackleton, the disappointment on not achieving his goal was considerably offset by the fact that they all made it home safely, unlike Scott who two years later chose to press on and ultimately this cost not only his own life but that of his team members. Fiennes at this point is able, through his own experiences, to give an excellent account of just what happens to the body in the extreme cold pulling sledges as the daily rations have to be reduced in order to complete a goal. He never got as extreme as Shackleton but the explanations as to just how tough the going must have been are given extra colour by having this happen to himself and his team mate Mike Stroud.

Shackleton is however probably most famous for his third expedition, which turned into his biggest disaster as his ship, Endurance, was torn apart by the ice and he was forced to lead a completely different expedition to that intended as he rescued all his men from what seemed like certain death including the amazing crossing of the Weddell Sea in a tiny boat, less than 23 feet long. Here Fiennes’s descriptive powers really come into their own giving a fuller understanding of just what Shackleton and his five compatriots went through, including Tom Crean who I wrote about back in March 2019. Fiennes has also crossed the ocean in a small boat as part of his five year Trans Globe expedition which visited both poles travelling over land and sea although not the extremely hazardous 800 mile trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia undertaken by Shackleton and his men to get help for those left behind.

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, to give him his full name, has written twenty five books mainly about his expeditions or biographies of fellow explorers and is an excellent story teller, really involving the reader in the hardships and triumphs of global exploration whilst seeking to rediscover the men behind the stories. He is frank about Shackleton’s appalling business sense which left him always short of funds and never as fully equipped as he should have been for any of his expeditions whilst making the point that the Royal Geographic Society, which could have been a potential major backer was very much committed to Scott so were positively against any support for Shackleton. His dalliances with other women outside of his marriage are also conjectured, along with the never ending support of his long suffering wife with a husband who was rarely even in the same country never mind at home. This is not a painted over all goody goody biography and is all the better for show all aspects of Shackleton’s character. The book was published by Michael Joseph at the beginning of the month and I have a signed copy.

I’d like to finish this review exactly as Fiennes does with a quote from another polar explorer and geologist from the ‘heroic age’ Sir Raymond Priestley who was part of expeditions by both Shackleton and Scott which I think perfectly sums up why I have a lifelong admiration for Shackleton.

For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

The Book of Tea – Kakuzo Okakura

From the second series of Penguin Books little black classics this charming book was first published in 1906 and seems to have been in print for most of the time since with a succession of publishers bringing out editions over the years all over the world, this edition was published in 2016. Kakuzo Okakura was born in Yokohama in 1862 and lived his whole life in Japan although travelled extensively promoting Japanese arts and working to preserve traditional techniques at home. Unusually for a Japanese writer of the time he mainly wrote in English and this, his most famous work outside of Japan, is no exception thus helping to spread his insights into Japanese life and arts to a wider audience. This short (109 pages) book is ostensibly about tea but it is in reality so much more.

The opening chapter pulls no punches in his description of the misunderstandings between East and West and his conclusion that both sides see themselves as the height of enlightenment and the other as little better than barbarians

The beginning of the twentieth century would have been spared the spectacle of sanguinary warfare if Russia had condescended to know Japan better. What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems? European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster.

Japan was unknown to the West until the sixteenth century and was therefore influenced by its neighbours, specifically China, where it got tea from originally, and its own cultural norms surrounding Taoism and Zen. Early in the seventeenth century and for two and a half centuries after that during the Edo period Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world and only regained a place amongst other countries when forced to open up by the United States navy in 1854. This enforced isolationist policy meant that Japan had developed very differently from the West especially in aesthetic traditions and the importance of tea and the ceremonial around drinking it is one of these art forms unique to Japan and which goes back millennia. Okakura refers to Teaism which he sees as developing from Taoism but wrapped in the sacred nature of the tea ceremony and more specifically the tea house where the ceremony takes place. The dimensions and layout of the tea house is vitally important as is the simplicity of its construction and decoration. The separate entrance for the guests and the tea master leading to a room where the only decoration is in the tokonoma, an alcove where items can be displayed, and the choice of decoration is normally minimalist to western eyes, maybe a single flowering branch or a finely produced scroll or hanging. The idea of a matching tea service as seen in the west is anathema to the Japanese ceremony where if the kettle is round the jug for the water will be angular, contrast is important.

Okakura also gives a history of the three ways tea has been prepared, two of which had fallen out of fashion by the time the west discovered tea so we only have the third method using the steeping of leaves as our means of producing tea. Initially back in the fourth of fifth centuries there was a sort of pressed cake of powdered tea

the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.

Later on we have Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century who first wrote down and formalised the making of tea and this is the second method using finely powdered tea which was whisked with a bamboo whisk and Okakura extracts from ‘The Chaking’ his three volume book on tea

In the fifth chapter Luwuh describes the method of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He dwells also on the much discussed question of the choice of water and the degree of boiling it. According to him, the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar!

There is also a chapter on flowers in Okakura’s little book which given the significance of the decoration in the tokonoma and also in the garden approach to the tea house is not surprising however he turns it into almost a diatribe against the cruelty of people to flowers by picking them and watching them die in their homes. The book finishes with a chapter on tea masters of which the greatest of all is Sen no Rikyū (Rikiu in the book) from the sixteenth century who refined the tea ceremony and the tea room to how it is seen now and at the very end we have his final ever tea ceremony at the end of which he commits ritual suicide on the orders of his lord and master.

I’ve no idea what I expected from this book but it is much, much more than I could have thought. There is great insight into the Japanese traditions and the development over centuries of a culture so different to our own, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Concluding the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, the review of part one can be found here and part two here.

This book is in two sections ‘Search by The Mule’ which is sixty pages long and ‘Search by the Foundation’ which is almost twice the length at 117 pages. After the events in Foundation and Empire both The Mule and The Foundation come to the conclusion that the mysterious Second Foundation hinted at by Hari Seldon three hundred years ago when he created the First Foundation on Terminus is a danger to their continued existence although for very different reasons, but where is it? Seldon had stated that the Second Foundation would be created at the other end of the Galaxy to the First but where exactly was that?

Search by The Mule (Originally published in January 1948 as ‘Now You See It’). This story continues immediately after the ending of the previous book and looks at the five years The Mule spent looking for the Second Foundation using both his mentally controlled subjects and a man who wasn’t under his direct control in case the control itself was what was stopping the leaps of imagination needed to locate it. After five years he gave up determined that the Second Foundation didn’t exist and concentrated on his empire, this story explains why.

Search by The Foundation (Originally published in three parts from November 1949 to January 1950 as ‘Now You Don’t’). Another fifty or so years have passed and during that time the First Foundation has been studying the brain as never before, partly in an attempt to understand the almost mythical Second Foundation especially since The Mule had decided it wasn’t there to be found. But they were convinced that Seldon’s plan had to be true and that the Second Foundation had helped, in secretive ways, to defeat their enemies over the last 3½ centuries. At the start of the novella five men gather at a family home to start an audacious attempt to find the Second Foundation, this story is probably the most fun of all the ones making up the trilogy especially with the final unexpected twist right at the end.

The three covers from this Panther edition make a complete image and it’s a great one from Chris Foss who I’m glad to say is still designing spaceships, including for the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the 1980’s Asimov returned to the Foundation series in an effort to integrate them with the other novels he had written, specifically the Robot series. One of the most striking aspects of the Foundation series when considered amongst Asimov’s other works is the lack of robots particularly from an author famous for his ‘three laws of robotics’ and numerous books about man and robots living together. The additional books comprise two prequels ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) and ‘Forward the Foundation’ (1993) along with two sequels ‘Foundation’s Edge’ (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). ‘Forward the Foundation’ was published posthumously as Asimov died in April 1992. Of these books I only have a copy of ‘Prelude to Foundation’ but maybe I should get copies of the other three and give them a read, I have after all enjoyed rereading the original trilogy after decades of the books sat on my shelves unopened.

Hangman’s Holiday – Dorothy L Sayers

By way of a complete contrast to last weeks religious poetry I’ve gone for this lovely Folio Society edition of Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers which I bought in the recent Folio Society autumn sale. I thought I’d read all the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but this includes four Wimsey short stories which I didn’t know, along with six Montague Egg shorts and a couple of other mysteries not featuring either of her long running characters. It has forty four illustrations along with the cover by Paul Cox who has worked on all the Dorothy L Sayers and P G Wodehouse editions for the Folio Society for more than three decades along with many other titles providing a lovely consistent feel to these series. I bought the book mainly for the Montague Egg tales as I’d not read any of those before and he is a definite contrast to Lord Peter, but let’s start with the Wimsey stories. All four of these are Wimsey alone without his trusty batman and collector of evidence Bunter and frankly I missed the interaction between the two of them. Two of the stories are quite disappointing, especially ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ where Wimsey takes on the character of a magician in rural Spain and you are left wondering why Sayers decided to have Wimsey do this as he is completely out of character throughout most of the tale. The other one I didn’t enjoy much was ‘The Queen’s Square’ which was just too convoluted to be much fun to read. The remaining two Wimsey tales are ‘The Image in the Mirror’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ both of which are fine as far as they go, but are definitely not in the first rank of Wimsey stories.

Moving on to Montague Egg, he is less of a detective like Wimsey than ‘a noticer of details’ which can be used by the police to solve a crime. His six stories are all quite short varying between nine and twelve pages when the space for illustrations is discounted but they each have quite a lot going for them despite their relative brevity.’The Poisoned Dow 08′ is an excellent introduction to Monty Egg as he is a commercial traveller selling wines and spirits and this is entirely within his area of expertise. Whilst on a return visit to a customer he arrives to find the police in attendance and his client dead, presumably by a poisoned bottle of port. Egg proves that there was nothing wrong with the port, that his firm had supplied, and that there was evidence of murder. Both ‘Murder in the Morning’ and ‘One Too Many’ have Monty Egg in the position of witness to a crime or rather the aftermath of a crime and the little details that he spotted at the time are critical to finding the solution whilst the remaining three stories have him operating much more as the archetypal amateur detective much loved by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and the other Queens of Crime from the 1920’s and 30’s.

I quite warmed to Montague Egg, the shortness of the stories meant that I could read one whilst waiting for my evening meal to cook and there was sufficient complexity to make the mystery worthwhile.

The two final stories are quite good fun and I’m sure I’ve read both of these before. ‘The Man Who Knew How’ has a character on a train talking to a fellow passenger and claiming that he knew a foolproof way to kill people and get away with it as it would be assumed that they died due to the temperature shock of getting in a bath that was too hot. His fellow passenger then starts noticing a pattern in news reports of people dying in hot baths and is convinced he was talking to a serial killer. ‘The Fountain Plays’ is a story of blackmail and murder with an excellent twist at the end and rounded off the book perfectly.

I’m not sure that is I had known how weak the Lord Peter Wimsey stories were I would have paid the full £39.95 for this book but at half price in the sale I’m glad to have added it to my Dorothy L Sayers collection. Now to find and read the other five Montague Egg stories.

Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.

No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.

Campaigns & Companions – Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett

OK, this is an extremely short book, being more a series of jokes about why you should never let your pets take part in Role Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it is however also extremely funny and beautifully illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt. I purchased the signed edition which comes with four art cards each signed by one of the two authors, the illustrator and the editor and which have on the back a character profile in the style of RPG’s of the illustrated pets including special skills and dice rolling advantages and disadvantages. It has arrived in the post today and has immediately leapfrogged over all the other books in my to be read pile.

As it says on the back cover “What if your pets could play D&D? And what if they were… kind of Jerks?”

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will be all too familiar with that particular feline trait. There are forty five double page spreads like this with a scenario from a game on the left hand side and an illustration which mainly stays on the right but occasionally strays over to mix with the text, There is also a centre page double spread picture of the animals playing whilst seated at a table just as if they are human. One I particularly liked, because a friends dog is quite capable of doing this, is a dog with his staff in his mouth not able to understand why he can’t get through an archway. I’ve watched her dog try to get through a door to greet me whilst holding a branch in his mouth that is clearly too large to go through and getting more and more puzzled as to why he can’t get in.

Amazingly all the jokes work, there is a preponderance of cat and dog tales but that simply reflects the spread of pets, at least in the UK but there are also gerbils, a hamster, rats, a chameleon, a rabbit, a snake and even a spider amongst various others, but everything rings true to the habits of the animals.

As I said at the beginning of this review the four art cards, each signed by one of the people involved in the project, have a different format to the rest of the book and take four of the featured characters from the book and add more details on the back of the card that would be relevant if they were taking part in a Role Playing Game. The four cards are as follows:

I’ll just show the top half of the card for Rexar the Fighter and Poppy which was signed by Rhianna Pratchett, who by the way in her dedication in the book says “To Pinky and Perky. My wonderful girls. Thank you for all the bleps, plurps and snuggles”, I just hope they were guinea pigs and that is why she chose to sign this one. The other three contributors also dedicated the book to their pets

This shows the sort of extra detail, and jokes, that are only available to owners of the signed edition and as this cost the same price I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t get this variant at least while stocks last, it is only available from Forbidden Planet whilst the standard edition is widely distributed. The book is published by Rebellion who I hadn’t heard of before but I suspect it will be worth checking out their catalogue. As Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop and the Fighting Fantasy series of books) says in his blurb for the book

Dangerously funny – I had to make a saving throw vs side-splitting. Pet adventurers – you have been warned.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

Continuing my reading of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov we have reached the second volume, my review of the first book can be found here.

This book consists of a longish short story (just over 50 pages) and a novella (113 pages) and continues the story of the Foundation on Terminus, both were first published in Astounding Science Fiction before being combined in this book in 1952.

The General (originally published in April 1945 as Dead Hand) – Set roughly 40 years after the end of the first book so 205 years after the creation of the Foundation on Terminus this short story reveals that the Galactic Empire is still considerably stronger than the Foundation believes it to be and is even now capable of launching an all out attack. Two men hope to stop them and they are prisoners of the Empire, Lathan Devers, a reckless trader and Ducern Barr, son of Onum Barr who had met Master Trader Hober Mallow on his investigations of the dangers of the Korell republic in the story The Merchant Princes.

The Mule (originally published in two parts November and December 1945) – It is now 300 years since the Foundation on Terminus was established and 80 years after the death of Lathan Devers and the trader planets are more or less independent of The Foundation which has come under a despotic ruling family. The Mule is an unknown, a mutant who has apparently effortlessly built himself a fleet and an empire and now threatens The Foundation. This story highlights why Asimov never became a mystery writer (although he did have a go at the genre), there is supposed to be a major twist at the end but I had guessed it within a couple of pages of the character being introduced right at the beginning of the novella. For all that though it is an entertaining story with a strong female lead character, which was somewhat unusual in 1940’s science fiction.

Coming to the end of the second book in the trilogy I realised something else about Asimov’s science fiction and that is the almost complete lack of aliens in any of his writing. The Foundation trilogy covers the entire galaxy but nowhere is there an alien species; it is covered instead in humanity that has spread out from a semi-mythical home planet millennia ago. I have read dozens of his books and apart from one short story, written for Playboy, and the much later novel The Gods Themselves (written in 1972) I cannot remember there ever being an alien species referenced and this is odd. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University so was certainly aware that where life can exist it will, at least on Earth, why did he not then extend this to encompass life on other planets? It is suggested in the Wikipedia article about him that when he was starting out an early story was rejected for having aliens more powerful than humans so he decided to not write about them at all, but I don’t buy that explanation as other authors had powerful aliens so maybe we’ll never know the true reason for his humanocentric universe.

As teased in the first review the covers join together to make a whole image, with the first two books it is less obvious but if you follow the smoke and light trails you can see that we are looking at two thirds of one painting. It must have been tricky to select this as each cover has to work on its own whilst also being part of the whole thing.

The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne

It’s thirty five years since I first read this book and it has definitely stayed on the shelf since then. I remember writing to the person who sent it to me and recommended I read it that the most remarkable thing was that it contained it’s own review in the opening line of chapter fifteen.

Several days passed over the Seven Gables, heavily and drearily enough.

Still maybe thirty five years have changed my opinion…

Well I enjoyed the book more than the last time but it is interminably slow, taking at one point nineteen pages to talk about a dead body sitting in the chair where he expired and in the 363 pages that the novel takes very little happens that couldn’t have been told in half that. The novel starts by describing the wrong committed against Mathew Maule by Colonel Pyncheon who under the pretence of calling him out as a wizard, for this was the times of the Salem witch trials, took his house and land to build his own mansion on, the eponymous House of the Seven Gables. Maule curses the Colonel as he is on the gallows that he shall die and very specifically

“God” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy; – “God will give him blood to drink!”

When, on the very first day of the house being completed and open to guests the Colonel is nowhere to be seen and is later discovered sitting at his desk with a great gout of blood on his chest which had gushed from his mouth the curse of Mathew Maule is remembered and the descendants of Pyncheon are reckoned to be likewise cursed. The book then leaps forward to the present day, or at least to the late 1840’s (it was written in 1851) and we are slowly introduced to our small cast of characters. Hepzibah Pyncheon is an old maid and now sole occupier of the house apart from the lodger Holgrave who inhabits one of the gables, cut off from the main property by a bolted door. She is agitated when we first meet her as she is about to do something that if it wasn’t the poverty that she had been reduced to she would never have attempted and that is to open a small shop in part of the house, Hepzibah is not cut out for trade. On the first day she meets her cousin Judge Pyncheon who is most upset with her opening the shop and bringing, as he sees it, disrepute on the family name. There is clearly animosity between Hepzibah and the distinguished judge, but the root of what it is we won’t find out for over three hundred pages.

Fortunately for Hepzibah the next day her cousin Phoebe arrives from the country and proves very good at running the shop and then a little later the household is completed by the arrival of Hepzibah’s brother Clifford who is aged and apparently simple minded, but has also apparently been the cause of scandal and has been away for thirty years. From the hostility Clifford shows to his cousin the judge it is clear that there is bad blood between them. And there the book remains, dealing with minor household triumphs and tragedies for a couple of hundred pages whilst the reader is left wondering when Hawthorne is actually going to get round to doing anything significant with these characters he has assembled. Ironically just after my original quote about dreariness the plot suddenly speeds up as a crisis brings everything to a head but by which time we are well after page 275 and I have to wonder how many readers have given up before then.

Despite Hawthorne’s statements in the preface of the novel that there is no specific locality where the story is set other than a generic ‘New England’ he was actually inspired to write after visiting a 1666 colonial property owned by some relatives of his in Salem, Massachusetts. The house at the time had been remodelled and only had three gables but when it became a museum, in the early part of the 20th century, another four gables were added along with a representation of Hepzibah’s cent shop which had never previously existed. I visited the house in 1986 which was the reason for reading the book in the first place. It has taken 35 years for me to pick it up again and I might have another go in another 35 years but I can’t really see me making the effort somehow even assuming I’m still around to do so.

The copy I have is a very tatty copy of The Pocket Library ninth edition from 1959, originally published by them in 1954 so it must have been popular. The Pocket Library was a very short lived imprint from Pocket Books lasting as it did from 1953 to 1959.

Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

Porterhouse Blue was Tom Sharpe’s third novel and the first set in England after two mocking the apartheid regime in South Africa where he had lived from 1951 before being deported for sedition in 1961. Before going any further with the review however it is important to take note of the language used in a couple of early chapters and one later one, which can euphemistically be referred to as ‘of its time’ especially of the early 1970’s by a white person who had spent a decade in South Africa. It also probably goes some way to explaining why the book does not appear to have been in print for the best part of two decades in the UK. These three paragraphs aside the book is a fun read, with the conflicts, and other relations, between the characters driving forward the story. The opening paragraph sets the scene as the hidebound, male only, Porterhouse College with it’s tradition of big dinners, sporting prowess and low academic achievement has no idea what is about to hit it with the appointment of a new Master of College.

The new Master, Sir Godber Evans, has plans to shake up the old ways in this bastion of maleness; for a start he wants to be co-educational, start accepting students on the basis of academic qualifications rather than muscle for the rugby team and rowing crews, and horror of horrors turn the dining hall into a self service cafeteria run by outside caterers. More disastrous plans come to light, disastrous at least in the eyes of the senior faculty who quite like the big dinners, fine wines and a laissez-faire attitude to educational success that has characterised Porterhouse College for centuries. He must be stopped but how?

Another bastion of the traditions of the college is Skullion, the Head Porter, a role he has held for 45 years. It’s a job he is ideally suited for calling as it does for a total deference to ‘his betters’, i.e. the faculty, at least to their faces, a mindless application of the college rules especially where students are concerned and limited ambition. All these traits he gained in the lower ranks of the army along with fastidious attention to the shine on his shoes which he polishes daily as part of his fixed routine and which serves as a calming influence whenever he is upset. Being upset is going to be his standard position from the arrival of the new Master onwards and often with good reason. It is Skullion we follow more than any other character as the plot unfurls as he seeks to thwart the new masters plans with the help of former pupils known to himself as Skullions Scholars who he has helped pass their degrees by hiring capable students from other colleges to write essays or at the last resort sit the final exams for them.

There is another plot line, which barely touches on the main plot, and that is of Zipser, Porterhouse’s only research student, and the lustful feelings he has for Mrs Biggs his bedder, or servant who cleans and tidies his rooms in college. Mrs Biggs is a lady of mature years and large figure who not only realises Zipser’s desire but determines to reciprocate, Mr Biggs having passed away many years earlier. Zipser and Mrs Biggs storyline however reaches its climax just over halfway through the novel and only the aftermath is dealt with following that.

It’s worth pointing out the origins of the title. A Blue at Cambridge or Oxford is a person who has represented the university in a sporting event between the two universities and as Porterhouse is depicted as a sporting college then students from there would clearly be represented amongst the Cambridge Blues. But a Porterhouse Blue has another meaning as well and is down to the huge meals consumed there regularly and refers to the likely stroke that people with high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, obesity and probable diabetes brought on by such an unhealthy diet are likely to suffer from.

The book was adapted by Malcolm Bradbury as a four part TV series in 1986 starring David Jason as Skullion and Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans and that is how I first came across it. My copy is the 1976 first paperback edition with a cover illustration by Paul Sample which I bought second hand probably soon after the TV series was broadcast. The cover depicts one of the funniest scenes in the book as Skullion attempts to rid the college grounds of over 200 gas filled and highly slippery condoms in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. There is no way I’m explaining how they came to be there or the circumstances of their removal you’ll just have to read the book.