Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Recent Reads – June 2018

Who Do I Think I Am – A Memoir by Homan Potterton


It’s hard to believe that Homan Potterton is a country boy from Trim. He comes across in this  gossipy memoir as not just a West Brit but as a Brit manqué.  For the most part it’s a tedious round of all the important people he knew and all the wonderful soirées he attended – dinner at Castletown with Desmond Guinness, lunch in the Kildare Street Club with Diane Tomlinson etc. - ad nauseum. Nice work if you can get it. He was clearly a precociously knowledgeable expert on art – especially 17th century Italian art but not perhaps robust enough as Director of the National Gallery to deal with an obdurate civil service and a philistine government. His tenure there was not perceived as successful although he should be given credit for his role in acquiring some of the Beit collection. While he’s frank with his opinions of the ignorant creatures he had to contend with (including Haughey quoted as saying “fuck his National Gallery, it’s not Irish anyhow and nor is he”) in his time as director,  he’s noticeably coy about his personal relationships and his homosexuality. We are given no insights into the life of a closeted gay man in the Dublin of those days and only the odd carefully phrased sentence even suggests that he may have had a gay relationship or two. A very selective memoir then that quickly runs out of steam. One is left at the end with a strong smell of prig.

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien edited by Maebh Long


These are for dipping into obviously and very many of them are quite tedious as he deals with banks and publishers about mounting debts and missed deadlines. However, here and there we come upon gems of invective that make the whole book worth while. Early on he interposes himself hilariously between Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and their literary feud in the letters pages of the Irish Times. On page 107 he defends Patrick Kavanagh against charges that he, a mere writer, shouldn’t be reviewing the RHA Annual Show:  “anybody who has a bob or the social brilliantine to get a buckshee invitation is entitled to laugh, jibe, praise, deride or get downright sick on the floor”. The personal rarely gets through but most of the letters are from his later declining years and reading between the lines we detect the ravages of drink. He seems constantly to be sick or injured and unable to meet a deadline or a bank debt because of it. Some of the letters to banks show that the spirit is still intact. “Your Sub-Manager says that this £100 allowance is generous. That I regard as impudence. It should be explained to your Sub-Manager by some person in authority that people who deal with banks are CUSTOMERS, not necessarily spivs.”

Why Write – Collected Nonfiction by Philip Roth


This was Roth’s last publication issued in the estimable Library of America series. It’s full of gems like his open letter to Wikipedia regarding its error about the source of the main character in The Human Stain – the one where a professor gets into trouble because he used the term “spook” meaning ghost but the PC brigade chose to interpret it as a slur on his black students. It’s mostly interviews and conversations and there’s one entertaining one with Edna O’Brien which certainly raises her in my estimation. A classic to be consumed in small slowly masticated bites.

Evelyn Waugh – A Life Revisited by Philip Eade


If you think Homan Potterton is a prig, and I do, he’s a long way behind Evelyn Waugh in this regard. Waugh came from a modest middle-class background but made it his life’s work to cleave to the great and the good and was quick to adopt the associated life style. If you like literary gossip and a lively turn of phrase, this is for you. It touches, of course, on his literary career and on the relationship between the life and the work but it’s written for entertainment rather then education. Waugh started life as a homosexual it seems before becoming a galloping heterosexual. I suspect the English public school system and the Oxford of those times meant a highly-sexed young man took his pleasure where he could find it. It’s replete with scabrous anecdotes including the one where Alec Waugh’s unconsummated first marriage was ascribed to his wife having “a hymen like a concrete portcullis”. Follow that.

The Uncommon Reader – A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith


Unlike the Waugh biography referred top above, this focuses on the work rather than the life. The life indeed seemed fairly uneventful apart from an interlude where Garnett’s wife became besotted with a Russian writer who taught her Russian and then saved the day (and the marriage) by dying.  It is a good academic biography where we are introduced to one of the great mid-wives of 20th Century English literature. In his role as publishers’ reader, Garnett helped the young Joseph Conrad to discover his literary voice and was even allowed into the creative process of the great Henry James.  He also worked with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Green. If all that wasn’t enough, his wife Constance Garnett was the translator who introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. A formidable duo done real service in this fascinating book.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al-Samawi

The following review appeared in the Irish Examiner on the 9 June 2018.

Yemen is a country mysterious to most Westerners. Its under-reported war where Saudi Arabia, Iran and their proxies inflict famine and violence on its populace North and South, shows no sign of reaching a resolution. This is the story of one Yemeni’s escape from the early stages of that deadly and pointless conflict, but more pertinently is shows him breaking free from the divisions and prejudices that cause such conflicts in the first place. Al-Samawi grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sana’a Northern Yemen – an area dominated by Shia moslems. His father was a senior figure in the medical establishment and despite being physically handicapped after a childhood stroke the author grew up to be a smart and curious young man. Cut off from sport and the usual pursuits of healthy teenagers, he finds solace on the Internet and in Facebook particularly. A sympathetic English teacher gives him a copy of the Old Testament and on reading it and researching the subject further, he discovers that his view of Jews and other non-Moslems is a partial and incomplete one. Through Facebook he establishes dialogues and makes friends across the religious divide, including many Jews.

In the course of his narrative we get behind the shutters of the restrictive world of the Moslem family. A girl in school daringly allows him to snatch a glance of her face when she briefly pulls aside her niqab. His parents find out and, after briefly considering marrying them off, terminate the relationship when they discover her family is poor. A cushy job and a suitable bride are arranged by his father and he settles into family life. You are struck by his absolute filial obedience to this authoritarian father. Even later, at the age of 26 and with a full-time job, he’s asking his permission to leave the country on a business trip.

Al-Samawi maintains his ecumenical interests and is soon attending conferences abroad for the promotion of racial and religious harmony. This leads to tensions at home and some creepy anonymous phone calls accusing him of being a Zionist spy. Ironically, as it transpires, he seeks safety by moving from his home in Sana’a to Aden to escape his accusers and to protect his family.

Shortly after he arrives in Aden, normal life in Yemen begins to fall apart. The Houthis, an extreme Shia group in the north depose the president and threaten to engulf Aden which is a Sunni stronghold. They are resisted by Al Qaeda on the ground and by the might of the Saudi Air Force. Al Samawi finds himself trapped in a small apartment with his food and water supplies dwindling. He dare not risk the Al Qaeda road-blocks because his name, his fair-skinned appearance and his accent all mark him as a Shia.

The core of the book involves his efforts to escape from this situation. He had built up a network of contacts through the Internet and manages to alert these friends to his plight. Indian ambassadors, American congressmen, high-ranking officials in international agencies, and sympathetic business men all cooperate in efforts to extricate him. Plans involve planes, helicopters, and boats and there are many false starts and dashed hopes before he manages to get out. The story is told in a naïve and breathless style and there are times when you wonder at the veracity of the whole thing. It seems astonishing that amidst the breakdown of civilized life in Aden he always managed to have an Internet connection. Also, there are two incidents involving encounters with Al-Quaeda that seem unconvincing. However, overall it’s an absorbing story and a window into a dangerous and exotic world. Al-Samawi now lives in the USA but his book concludes on a note of anxiety as he worries about the fate of his parents and family back in beleaguered Sana’a.

Scribe UK
PP. 310

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2018

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Justifying Justify

All romantics want Justify to win the Belmont Stakes this evening and so achieve the Triple Crown. You could quibble that he’s never run over 12 furlongs but neither have the rest of the field and most of them, including Justify, seem to be bred for a mile or 10 furlongs at best. One statistic about him gives me pause. His five races so far (from first to most recent) have been won by 9.5 lengths, 6.5 lengths,  3 lengths, 2.5 lengths and .5 length - in other words by diminishing distances. He’s clearly the best horse in the field but he’s had a hard couple of months and is untried over the distance. He’s got the worst of the draw in the number 1 stall - the same draw coincidentally that another hugely hyped horse Saxon Warrior had in the Epsom Derby. Also he’s 4-5 so I won’t be backing him. I’ll watch the drama unfold and look for each way value with Tenfold.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

My Derby Preview

Looking at it from a form perspective, Saxon Warrior has to win. He’s unbeaten and was always expected to be a Derby rather than a Guineas horse. Also the result of the first race today suggests that the number 1 draw will not be a problem. However I don’t back odds on and although I’d like to see him confirm his reputation I’ll be looking for value elsewhere. The two that stand out are Roaring Lion and Young Rascal. Roaring Lion was behind Saxon Warrior in the Guineas but he won the Dante convincingly and his breeding suggest he’ll stay the extra two furlongs. He’s trained by John Gosden who knows how to win a Derby. Young Rascal has won over 11 and 12 furlongs so he’ll stay and has an improving profile. He’s trained by William Haggas who’s also a previous Derby winner. Both horses are priced at around 10-1 so an each way bet on both of them looks the best option. Of course who knows what O’Brien has in the locker with his other runners - remember his 40-1 winner last year.