Sunday, April 18, 2010

Back to the Books

Its been some time since I've written anything for the blog - for a few other areas yes but blog entries have been sadly lacking. And god knows that its not that I'm not at the computer! I am! Both at work and at home - often with the two hounds from hell fighting over my lap. However I've decided that I have got to get back to regular blogging but also spend a bit less time at the keyboard.

So last weekend when I joined Laurent in Palermo I didn't take my IBook with me - I won't even go into the IMac saga at the moment. I thought I'd leave the recounting of our trip to him; which he did here and here. He had left a few days before me and got to see more of the city than I, but we both enjoyed it. He had the good fortune to be given a lovely birthday present by our friend Lionel - at a loss as to what to give someone who has almost everything he gifted him with a private guide for a tour of the stunning Serpotta Oratories. It was an original and very thoughtful gift.

As for me I may not have had an IBook but I had a Book! Yes you read right, a Book! So the time spent sitting around both Fumicino and Palermo (due to a confusion in reservations I had an extra 3 hour wait there) airports and the hour long flight to and from were spent reading. Mind you there are worse things that sitting on the terrace by the seaside at Palermo Airport enjoying a good book, a coffee and canoli. Hey you can't go to Sicily and not have canoli.

My choice of reading material was a book I bought last summer when I was on a bit of a Jan Morris kick. I had been to Trieste and my blog buddy David had suggested that as a follow up I read Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. And speaking of David I really do owe him a post about the great evening we spent in London with him and Jeremy. A night of music, fun, food and friendship for which I thank them both and assure him that blog silence on the occasion is the result of my own recent inertia and nothing else.

I had bought, read and loved the Trieste book and followed it up with Conundrum and The World: Life and Travel. Now I felt it was about time that I started into the British Empire trilogy which is one of Morris's major works. The first book, Heaven's Command, traces the Empire from the coronation to the death of Queen Victoria. The breadth of the subject is enormous but Morris has a way of bringing history not only to life but making it intimate and personal.

I grew up at a time when a good deal of any map was pink - indicating the remains of the Empire that even as a new Queen was being crowned was dissolving. I was taught about the glories of the British conquest of India, China, South Africa and Canada - a conquest that brought with it good solid British traditions, prosperity and Christianity. Of course I wasn't taught about the cost of those conquests. Nor was there the least suggestion that being a part of that Empire was less than a privilege and honour.

Writing at a later time and freed of the constraints of that Empire Morris talks with often brutal honesty of the high cost - human particularly - of Empire. And of course there is so much we were never taught in school as it would have conflicted with the official line of the time. Yes as shocking as it sounds most of us now know that we were fed historical propaganda at school.

The chapter on the Afghan war of 1839-42 makes for fascinating reading. At the end of the war 16,000 British soldiers, families and supporters retreated from Kabul. Of that number only one man returned to tell the story of a conflict that involved flawed intelligence, lack of understanding of the people, culture and terrain, hostile locals, tribal rivalries and alliances, religious intolerance (on both sides), a resented installed government, inept British commanders and double dealing Afghan allies. Sound familiar - so much for learning from history!

As I read her chapter on the Great Irish Potato famine of the 1840s I quite honestly found myself tearing up. Her descriptions of the people and the times are heart breaking and at times almost unbelievable. And unlike so many writers she does not come down heavy on one side or the other but looks with equanimity at the natural, the cultural, the religious, the English and the Irish causes of events that changed the face of the country forever. And the same stands true of her handling of the story of Louis Riel and the uprisings in Canada. Again a page of my country's story that when I was being taught history was a whitewash of English Canada of the period and a definite condemnation of the Métis culture of Manitoba.

And so it goes in chapter after chapter - India, Hong Kong, the West Indies, Ceylon - a historical view wealthy in fact, fiction and anecdote. Morris is one of those authors whose personal life is as rich as her writing and who I am content to be returning to. If the remaining two books of the trilogy are as engaging and exciting as the first one - and given that its Morris I'm sure they are - then I'm in for a few weeks of great reading.

18 aprile - San Calogero


David said...

Well, we raised a glass to you after the latest instalment of the Martinu last night - the most wonderful of all, the Third Symphony which has the most translucent and tear-jerking ending I can think of in any 20th century symphony (Shostakovich included!)

Alas, we didn't go to St John afterwards, though next time you must join us for lunch in the Chelsea Physic Garden, heaven on earth this afternoon whatever might be happening 8km above our heads...

I still long to see Palermo - but I've been thinking of my night on top of Stromboli a lot in the past few days...

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I read Jan Morris's Conundrum a gazillion years ago when I was a teenager. I was so taken with her brave transformation!


i haven't read that book..but i will now..thanks..

aisha said...

I may have to write the modern version... :) But the stories i could tell... :)