Archive | November, 2013

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

17 Nov

The wonderfully festive ghost story of the miserly Scrooge scarcely needs any introduction – according to Wikipedia, there have been more than 20 film adaptations in addition to TV, radio and theatre adaptations.  So what’s the appeal?

Yes, it’s a huge load of schmaltzy images of Christmas which are not entirely realistic (and I’m referring to more than just the appearance of 4 ghosts!)  But although the images of cheerful people showing charity and goodwill to one another while wallowing in some magical festive spirit may be unrealistic to many, isn’t this actually the story’s appeal?  It’s pure escapism and an antidote to some of the more brutal Christmas stories – I’m thinking especially of the ironically named song “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl, a duet which relates a bitter argument between a separating couple.

By comparison, “A Christmas Carol” provides a warm bath of cosy Christmas images.  Even the very non-cosy images – such as the chilling and sinister Ghost of Christmas Future who silently shows Scrooge the callous reactions to his own death if he doesn’t change his ways – are an effective way of increasing the festive feel of the nicer bits by creating a stark contrast.

And these cosy images are not just sentimental ones; there’s that gluttony-inducing passage when the Ghost of Christmas Present is introduced:

“Heaped upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”

I remember once being told (if I recall this correctly) that “the classics” are books that have stood the test of time because they say something profound and important, e.g. something about human nature, some message that endures.  Well, “A Christmas Carol” has certainly stood the test of time, having been published in 1843.  But does it really say anything profound?  The message is essentially “If you’re a miserable, money-driven, mean old miser, then nobody will like you and you’ll miss out on a happier life” – well, that’s hardly a revelation!  Are we really to believe that prior to Charles Dickens releasing this story, nobody had realised this?!

Instead, I think the appeal of the story really is very simple, as I detail above: pure escapism and an antidote to more brutal Christmas stories that are available.


“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

10 Nov

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

For me, “A Sparrow Falls”, the third novel, is particularly memorable.  I read it years and years ago but often re-read sections as it left such an impression on me.  Having read through the previous two, I felt that I knew the characters personally and even became emotionally involved in the events of their lives.  I realise this may sound like sentimental claptrap but it is an indication of the ability of the stories to draw in the reader, to enter a parallel world created entirely from ink on paper (or pixels on a screen).  I have found that I felt nostalgia when Sean returns to his original home of Ladyburg (as by this time he has around three separate homes throughout South Africa); and I felt a slight sense of loss that Ada Courtney (Sean’s stepmother) was not in this book, as she was very likely dead by this time.

Overall “A Sparrow Falls” felt very bleak compared to the previous two. There are several bleak aspects to the story but in particular his relationship with his son Dirk – who by now is in his thirties – is probably the darkest story thread of all.  Dirk was born in the wilderness of the Limpopo River region during the first novel “When the Lion Feeds” to Sean’s first wife Katrina who committed suicide a few years later.  Dirk developed a very close bond to his father and felt rejected by him when he didn’t provide the degree of physical affection that he craved.  Perceiving that he was being denied the level of affection he felt he was owed, Dirk gradually changed and became more and more sinister and even cruel.

In “A Sparrow Falls”, Dirk has several crimes under his belt: arson, manslaughter and then deliberate mass murder.  He has become far wealthier than his father, his riches gained from an elaborate and murderous heist. Sean has by now genuinely rejected him, on the grounds that while most people are a combination of good and evil, Dirk – he considers – is just pure evil.  Sean feels that he has been forced to turn his back on the son he raised.

This is not to say that Sean feels nothing for his son – he is reduced to tears by the failed relationship.  But he cannot accept him. And Dirk – for all his apparent absence of compassion and feeling – strives to make amends with his father.  But having exhausted all attempts to do so, Dirk vows to kill him – and does so.  And then kisses his dead father moments after his death – right up to the end, Dirk’s longing for love and acceptance is still there.

In his last attempt to make amends with his father, Dirk forces Sean to face the deeply uncomfortable possibility that it is he who has made Dirk the way he is – a thought that had previously crossed Sean’s mind independently of Dirk’s emotional manipulation.

And so this particular thread of story raises the question: who is actually to blame?  I doubt anyone could totally free Dirk from blame for his money-driven murders, but does Sean have some degree of blame?  Could he have known the effect he would have on his son? Should he have known?  In cases like this, the true answers (insofar as we can know the truth) would be different in each case but there is one thing that often occurs in very emotive conflicts (whether personal, political, military or whatever): and that is the portrayal of one side in as negative or evil a light as possible.  Sean stands his ground and rejects Dirk telling him that he is pure evil, rather than a mix of good and evil.  Does he say this in order to avoid facing up to his own part of the blame, his own failed parenting? Probably.

This is an extreme case: Sean could scarcely be blamed for the murders his son commits. But perhaps he could be blamed (in part only) for the more minor acts of cruelty Dirk commits when growing up.  Should he have tried to understand Dirk more, before his cruelty turned into mass murder?  And as he did not, is his total rejection – in the face of Dirk’s pleas for reconciliation – a way of avoiding his part of the blame?

We hear of soldiers describing conflicts in which they’re engaged as “the forces of good against the forces of evil”.  Opposing sides in a political / societal debate on a particularly emotive issue can resort to extremely narrow views and aggressive confrontational language, pushing aside any evidence that creates grey areas and thus hinders their claim to the moral high ground.

Would some wars be prevented if there were more understanding of what drives our supposed ‘enemies’ to armed conflict in the first place?  And this discussion could go on to other political / societal issues besides war too…….

I would just like to use this post to mention my own debut novel that is now over half-way through and should be due for release late 2014 or early 2015.  It is on the subject of mind-control and brainwashing and also deals with the issue of radical viewpoints.  Further updates to follow – WATCH THIS SPACE!

“A Voyage to Lilliput”, from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

6 Nov

This is Part One of “Gulliver’s Travels” and it works as a stand-alone novella/short story without the rest of the book. From what I can remember, I think the children’s book version of “Gulliver’s Travels” covered only this part, which is about the kingdom inhabited by people about one twelfth the size of normal, i.e. around 6 inches tall rather than 6 feet.

As I mention, there’s a children’s version of this story, but the original is very far from a childish story: it’s a satire of the government, royal family and political events of 18th Century Britain. This means some readers – like me – may need a version of the book with detailed notes at the back, to explain the historical events that are the target of Swift’s humour. Unless you’re an expert on 18th Century British history.

As one example, Swift satirises the religious discrimination of that period against Catholics (in favour of Anglicans) by likening it to a dispute over how to eat a boiled egg, thus demonstrating the pettiness of minor doctrinal differences.  This particular piece of satire also includes the War of Spanish Succession (which I therefore assume was at least partly a Protestant-Catholic war).

There are various other targets for Swift’s satire too but I won’t list them all here.

I wonder also if the story’s setting in a land of tiny people was intended to belittle even further the people who are satirised in this story.

There may have been another reason for the setting in a land of tiny people: could it have been intended to highlight how good organisation can enable people to overpower someone physically far bigger and stronger? Brute strength is no match for clever organisation – was it Swift’s intention to show this? Although Gulliver is outnumbered by the Lilliputians, it is still hard to imagine that a full-sized, able-bodied human would be unable to escape easily from large numbers of rats, for example (although he’d probably receive several bites, but like the Lilliputians’ arrows, they’d probably not be fatal). Therefore, Gulliver’s need to use elaborate means to escape – rather than simply walking away – could have been intended to show how the cerebral power of the Lilliputians is more than a match for his physical power.

Finally, another thing that really strikes me about this is the risk that Jonathan Swift took in writing such a subversive story.  He wrote it around 10 years after the events it satirises, so presumably many of the targets of his lampooning would have still been alive.  I had thought that 18th Century Britain was still the type of controlled society in which insulting the government or royals could lead to execution or at least a lengthy prison stay (in conditions no doubt worse than today’s prisons), but maybe Britain had progressed already…. Answers on a postcard please…..

“Nineteen Eighty Four” – George Orwell

5 Nov

No blog about books could be complete without a post about George Orwell’s scary distopian future perspective.  If I searched the net, I’m sure I’d find hundreds or thousands of articles on “1984”.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).

The final page of the novel is – to me – perhaps the most memorable section. At the end, Winston has been put through all manner of torture, as well as threats of torture to force him to betray his lover, and yet he is actually happy. Really happy!  “He had won the battle with himself: he loved Big Brother!”  Aren’t we all this way with views we know (deep down) to be uncertain?  We’re happier if we follow the crowd or at least a crowd (e.g. a fringe political group), and we ignore data or facts that contradict the views of that crowd. Of course, Winston’s situation is an extreme case but the principle is still true. He knows the Party, as represented by Big Brother, is all about lies and cruelty, yet he has forced this knowledge from his mind in order to love Big Brother.

And how did the Party manage that? By taking away his other love: by forcing him to betray her, he cannot love her. And as everyone needs to belong to a group or at the very least to be connected to another person, then without her, love of Big Brother fills the need. So he ignores the blatant evidence that Big Brother and the Party are in fact harsh and cruel liars. Less extreme examples could be found in all of us, I’m sure. It may be uncomfortable to admit it, but when you really look into a strongly held political view shared by your peer group or your wider society, you will very likely find flaws in it. But you’re happier if you ignore the doubts and go on believing your view to be rock-solid. And I really think this could apply to almost any view whatsoever: there’s very little, if anything, that is completely certain.

Personally I hold some views on certain issues that go against widely accepted views in society. I hold these views because of evidence yet it can still be uncomfortable to disagree with people, especially those I’m close to. I could be happier by ignoring evidence and just following the crowd rather than having confrontational discussions; but then I’d be happy like Winston! Of course I can have doubts about my own views also – nothing is really certain!  So I try to keep an open mind but it’s not always easy. Sometimes a decision is needed.

As Rene Descartes said “In practical life it is sometimes necessary to follow opinions which one knows to be quite uncertain, just as one would if they were indubitable”. In case it’s of any interest, that quote comes from Part Four of “The Discourse” and is shortly before the famous “I think, therefore I am” quote.

I would just like to use this post to mention my own debut novel that is now over half-way through and should be due for release probably 2016.  Like “1984” it is on the subject of mind-control and brainwashing.  Further updates to follow – WATCH THIS SPACE! For more on “1984”, check out this post written by fellow blogger Katie:

Also readers should check out this post on the subject of opinions, by another fellow blogger:

Bushwalking in Kalamunda, Western Australia (just outside Perth)

5 Nov

Now for some more words around those pictures I’ve just posted. Photos don’t really do justice to a place. I think you have to actually be there to appreciate the (cliches coming up) rugged, natural beauty of Kalamunda.

Just need to add some important warnings here:

– CHECK THE BUSHFIRE RISK with the authorities before going bushwalking

– Take first aid kit for snake/spider bites and a mobile phone to call for an ambulance

– Suncream, sunglasses and hat: skin cancer is a real risk

– Check any other necessary precautions for the location you’re going to: I can’t remember them all here, so check in a book or online

Now back to the post: Kalamunda has some beautiful bushwalking. You can get a bus from central Perth (and elsewhere within Perth), then head out of the town and into the bush, Geology, fauna and flora, they all add up to make this place just feel wonderful! And no, I don’t mean “breathtaking” or “stunning” or those other emphatic adjectives; but it has its own under-stated beauty, a nice little piece of the world, an escape from the city. OK, it’s hard to avoid cliches here!

I did get lost after dark though (remember a torch!) – I had to just head for the streetlights in the distance and when I got there I found my way to an intersection of two streets and phoned for a taxi. I gave the street names and they asked “What suburb is that?” so I replied “I’ve no idea, I’m completely lost!”


Bushwalking in Kalamunda, Western Australia (just outside Perth)

5 Nov

Bushwalking in Kalamunda, Western Australia (just outside Perth)


Bushwalking in Kalamunda, Western Australia (just outside Perth)

5 Nov

Bushwalking in Kalamunda, Western Australia (just outside Perth)