Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Eleanor Rigby: Lonely or Loner?


Richard Coles’ autobiography Fathomless Riches opens with a story of a priest he knows retiring to bed at Christmas with a bottle of vodka. This sad vignette put me in mind of Father McKenzie from The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby:

Father McKenzie writing the words
Of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near.

One of two characters in the song, the other being the eponymous Eleanor. Both alone, and not, the song tells us, in a good way, with its insistent refrain “ah look at all the lonely people.” We have Eleanor wandering through an empty church, clearing up after a wedding. Someone who “lives in a dream” and hides behind the brave face she shows to the world – described in the arresting image “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” We don’t know where she lives. When she goes home and bolts the door, what is the true face that emerges? Why does she go to the church? And there is Father McKenzie, living alone and darning his socks. As no-one hears his sermons (except Eleanor perhaps?) the church would seem to be little used.

The song’s killer punch is reserved for the last verse:

Eleanor Rigby died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

What a piteously sad image. The only person present the officiating priest, Father McKenzie, who “wipes his hands as he walks from the grave”. The only survivor from the song, perhaps now lonelier than ever, returning to his solitary sermon writing and sock darning. Who will pick up the rice after weddings now?

Where do the lonely people come from, where do they all belong. The insistence in this refrain is perhaps too insistent. Loneliness is assumed, taken for granted. Eleanor may very well have been lonely, but she could also have been a loner. The put on face does suggest the presence of others and needing it to hide behind, but it also suggests a self-contained person, one that keeps its true self hidden and private. One that craves solitude and does not fear it. Or as Philip Larkin put it:

Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

(from Best Society)

The absence of mourners does not contradict this. The song’s storyteller has assumed things about her, on what seems at best to be a passing acquaintance. “Where do they all come from?” may be a rhetorical question, or even, if the pronunciation stresses are changed, a suggestion of distaste: there’s too many of them, where do they all come from?

“Where do they all belong?” is rather presumptuous, and follows easily from the earlier assumptions. They belong wherever they feel they belong, or perhaps don’t feel the need to belong at all.

Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but the inference drawn by the storyteller is a common one. And while it could be correct – Eleanor and Father McKenzie could indeed be lonely – ultimately, it turns on assumptions so is as likely to be wrong. “No man”, says John Donne “is an island/Entire of itself/Every man is a piece of the continent/A part of the main.” Oh really? Who says?


Review: Warship, a Blake’s 7 audio, Big Finish Productions, 2013


Big Finish, perhaps best known for their Doctor Who audio adventures, have now started producing audios for Blake’s 7. Warship written by Peter Anghelides is the first full cast story. Set between the end of the second TV series and the start of the third, we see Blake, who has spent the first two series trying to fight the brutal dictatorship of the Federation now having to ally himself with it in the face of a greater threat.

I was keen to hear the cast reprise their roles and I was not disappointed. They step back into their characters effortlessly, and though some voices have changed over time, they’re instantly recognisable. It’s a good, well-paced story that gives every character plenty to do. In the absence of Peter Tuddenham (who sadly passed away in 2007) the voices of computers Zen and Orac are ably voiced by sound designer Alistair Lock. The only things that jarred (and then only a little) were that the original sound effects could not be used for copyright reasons, and Vila’s constant grumbling.

These minor niggles aside, this is a very good story and I will look forward to future releases with eager anticipation.

On Nostalgia, Into My Heart an Air that Kills, A.E. Housman


This short poem is from A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. Its two stanzas of four lines each form a dialogue on the nature of nostalgia. In the first, the poet asks a question, prompted by a sudden, painful remembrance: “an air that kills” has blown straight into his heart from some “far country”. The recollection takes the form of an idealised pastoral scene of “blue remembered hills” with church spires and farms nearby. Just what is this place? the poet asks.

He answers his rhetorical question in the second stanza. He sees his past, a time when he was happy: “the land of lost content”. Clear and close, yet he knows he can never get it back, never return to “the happy highways where I went”. This is, I imagine, a common experience: it’s certainly one I often feel. Yet it’s surely the mark of a great poem where the poet can describe such an experience so originally and effectively, with some truly memorable language: “blue remembered hills”, “the land of lost content”, “the happy highways”. And he describes it so concisely, capturing in eight lines both the power of memory and its ultimate futility. Futile it may be, but it’s a very human impulse which this beautiful short poem captures to perfection.

from A Shropshire Lad


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

In Praise of Michael Wood


I’ve just finished watching Michael Wood’s latest series King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. As usual, his almost boyish enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject was infectious. Though I learned a little about Alfred at school, my knowledge of the so-called “dark ages” is limited. Under Wood’s enthusiastic guidance, they seemed anything but dark.

I first came across him in my first year at high school (1980), in a programme that was also about the Dark Ages. His exuberant style impressed me then and ever since, I’ve always tried to watch his programmes, regardless of subject. And he’s covered many and diverse topics: India, the Conquistadors, The Third Reich, Beowulf, Alexander the Great, Shakespeare. Most I knew little of or had little interest in, but Wood has that rare knack of livening up any subject and quietly drawing the viewer in and enthusing them. Even though he is now in his sixties, he has lost none of his enthusiasm and it remains as infectious as ever. Long may he continue.


The Horses, Edwin Muir


While having a clear out recently, I came across a file of writing that had survived from my university days. I wrote this piece towards the end of my time there, having come across the poem by chance. I recall being very affected by its post-apocalyptic vision, which as the Cold War apparently wound down, seemed even more resonant. It continues to do so now, with the news full of the belligerent noises being made by North Korea and Iran. A good time to revisit then.

In his preface to the 1965 edition of the Selected Poems, T.S. Eliot describes this poem as “that great…terrifying poem of the ‘atomic age.'” The poet foresees the possibility of a catastrophic war, presumably nuclear, that will overthrow and destroy the existing “order”. He looks at the present, clearly finds it wanting, and as a result, harks back to a simpler time. This is a common desire for those uncomfortable and dissatisfied with things happening in their own time: they look back to the “good old days” when everything was apparently good and wholesome. You only have to look at certain politicians who speak with apparent reverence for “Victorian Values” and harbour desires to “get back to basics”, whatever that means.

It can be argued that such backward-looking in the face of contemporary problems is an escapist evasion, or to use a more down to earth phrase, a cop-out. Confronted with events you neither like nor think you can do anything about, you merely ignore them and look back to a time when they weren’t there. However, each age has problems of its own, many unique to that time. Eyes become blinded to this fact by the current evil, which is seen as worse than anything that ever preceded it, and all the negative aspects of the past era being eulogised are conveniently forgotten. So, is Muir doing the same in his poem?

He describes some future time when the feared apocalypse has happened: “the seven days war that put the world to sleep,” and its survivors are having to adjust to their new existence; they have “made their covenant with silence.” Evidence of the horror of what has happened comes later, when a warship passes with corpses piled on its decks, and a plane crashes into the sea. It is a world of silence and fear. The old established order has been abruptly and swiftly destroyed in the cataclysm, all technological advance suddenly halted and then reversed. This a clear demonstration of the fragility of “progress”, it has let everyone down. For all the scientific and cultural sophistication it brought, it was unable to prevent the war, and hence its own destruction.

The “strange horses” that appear so mysteriously one evening about a year after the war has ended represent that past that the poet looks to. The modern age has broken down, symbolised by the failure of the radios to work any more, and the subsequent abandonment of the tractor to rust and decay: “They’ll moulder away and be like other loam.” The radio, and anything else connected with that time, would not be admitted to the post-war world, even if they were to miraculously start working again:

If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That bad old world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp.

With the repudiation of modern machinery, the acquaintance with the past, with the old ways, is renewed. The survivors have to adjust to those ways, the ways of their forbears, in order to survive. The arrival of the horses seals this relationship. They are a catalyst in the search for “That long-lost archaic companionship.” The colts that came with them are to be the new beasts of burden, they represent hope, the possibility of a new life amid the destruction, “their coming, our beginning.”

So is Muir being merely nostalgic? What is his view of the “atomic age”? He foresees the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, the ultimate fulfilment of man’s destructive nature. Yet, in Muir’s apocalypse, through their rediscovery of their past, humans survive. This takes the poem beyond mere nostalgia, and presents what is ultimately an optimistic view of humanity. Yes, we can destroy, but we can also adapt and survive. The poem is not simply a wish to uninvent the Bomb or return to the “good old days”. It is far more sophisticated than that. After its bleak descriptions of the aftermath of war, it ends on a profoundly hopeful note. It is, nevertheless, a stark warning. In a time when more and more countries are acquiring nuclear weapons, its dystopic vision is as relevant now as when it was written.


The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Edwin Muir

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