Friday, 25 July 2014

Connemara Journal

Connemara Journal. Ethel Mannin. Westhouse, London, 1947. pp 190. Wood engravings.

This review was written on January 16th 2010

Illustration by Elizabeth Rivers
This journal in the rough form of a diary was written by the author after the Second World War when, with the exception of a week or two in London, she was living alone in her cottage in Connemara. She was born in England of Irish parents who had long since emigrated to their host country. She was a writer who visited Ireland in the late 1930s and fell in love with Connemara where she bought an abandoned cottage on the Atlantic coast. After returning to the UK for the five years of the war, she returned to her cottage where she was soon to write this journal. She was apparently married to somebody whom she called Himself but she and he had decided that they could continue a loving relationship best away from each other.

She had fallen in love with Ireland and with her little restored cottage in Connemara. Her love for Ireland and the Irish was frequently expressed in glowing and sentimental terms. She describes her views of the beauties of Connemara on several occasions but I found her descriptions of the sky, sea, mountains and their colours, and the ubiquitous bogland and the surrounding vistas difficult to visualise. She is at times breathtaking in describing the colours and their changes which she sees. It was hard to imagine the greens and the gold, the brown and the red, and her description of the changing skies and mountains. She was besotted about Connemara despite her frequent reference to the wild wind, the storms and blinding rain.

She underlines the uniqueness of the Irish country people. She is proud as an English person of Irish parents of the long fight for our independence. She is aware of the divisions between the Irish and the English in terms of culture, religion and tradition, and of the failure to change the Irish and their independent spirit over the centuries. She is over-sentimental in her devotion to the country and her affection can be expressed in somewhat cloying ways.

In later pages she talks about one’s outlook about death, religion, the brutality of Man, particularly during the last Great War, the meaning of love and its expression amongst the people. She talks about love, passion and passion’s relationship to morality. She tends to talk gloomily of love and its withering but she is not gloomy about her own personal relationship with her mostly absent husband or companion, who remains a very shadowy figure in the background and whom she mentions only a few times. She meanders about death and wonders whether death is best endured suddenly or after a long and declining period of disability and illness or as a result of ageing. She clearly has no moral or other objection to suicide, and as a stated atheist, this seems understandable.

A Connemara Village - Paul Henry
In looking at life and its meaning she provides many literary quotes which are relevant to her writings. Her paragraphs on Thomas á Kempis might please her as she quotes his  "love of solitude and silence" and freedom ''from superfluous talking and idle visitors, ----", both consistent with her contemplative life in her Connemara cottage. One might agree with her when she is critical of Thomas á Kempis who also wrote "all carnal joys ---- at the end bring remorse and death" but this seems too gloomy in to-day’s society where the more liberal aspects of sexuality are widely shared (and enjoyed). I can only say that love, both spiritual and carnal, brought me great joy during my lifetime.

Ethel Mannin apparently came into close touch with Dublin society.  She talks of social occasions in Dublin and mentions a number of well known nationalists including Countess Markievicz, Maude Gonne McBride and Douglas Hyde. There is probably some name dropping. She was careful not to mention the Civil War in her approval of the nationalist movement, despite her admiration for Maude Gonne and Markievicz, who were noted for their extremist notions on the Treaty but I would expect that her sympathies are with the anti-treaty minority although she might be reluctant to accept the civil war as a response to the rather limited restrictions imposed on Ireland by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. She would not be the first English person to be converted to the Irish cause and who would to be extremist in her views about Irish nationalism.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse

The Great Melody – a thematic Biography of Edmund Burke. Conor Cruise O’Brien. Sinclair Stevenson, London, 1992. pp lxxv+692. Illustrated.

This review was written on June 2nd 2011

I found myself at a loose end after publishing my first book on Amazon, My challenge to ageing. It was then that I picked up this book in my library. I had been given it by Mark Hederman in 1992 but did not read it until 2011. It is a long book, heavy going and at first unlikely to be finished because of a long and tedious introduction of 75 pages dealing with the  different attitudes of his many biographers to Burke’s significance as politician, orator and patriot. One wonders at times whether the function of historians is to add new knowledge to their subject or simply to contribute ad nauseam to the cyclical admixture of revisionism. However, I persisted to the end as I became more interested in Burke, his role in the late 18th century in England and his sympathetic attitude to Irish aspirations, the country where he was born.

The 75 pages of the introduction deal with the author’s reasons for attempting the biography. He reviews the works of the many other authors who preceded him on Edmund Burke and of the changing opinions which prevailed during the last two hundred years about Burke’s role in English history. It is clear from these early pages that O’Brien ranks Burke as a dominant political figure in England during the latter half of the 18th century but he underlines a long period during the middle of the 20th century when many historians were dismissive of Burke’s importance as a leading figure during his time.  This long introduction was heavy going and adds little to one’s interest in the subject of the biography.

The book is described as a thematic biography because it deals with four separate and major themes during Burke’s career as a public figure in England. These are his public statements about Ireland, the American Revolution, the French revolution and the British occupation of India.

Stature of Burke at Trinity College, Dublin c. 1870
Burke was born in Ireland, almost certainly Dublin, in 1729. His father, Richard Burke, came from a Catholic family from limerick but he converted to the established Church of Ireland in 1722 so that he could qualify and practise as a barrister. His wife, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic and hailed from Co. Cork where her family were moderate land owners and had an extended influence in their area. She remained a Catholic despite her husband’s conversion. For about 5 years Edmund lived in the Catholic ambience of his mother’s family, the Nagles, in Co. Cork and his time there left him with a permanent attachment to the Catholics of Ireland even though he espoused his father’s newly acquired attachment to the Established Church of Ireland. Edmund left Dublin after he had qualified with high honours at Trinity and went to London where his first seven years or so has left little record of his activities there.

He joined the Whigs when he entered politics and was subsequently elected to Parliament. He soon made his mark as an orator and as a member of the Whig party although his history proved that he was a loner in terms of Anglo-Irish relations and in international affairs. He, like the Whigs during King George 111 reign, was concerned about the political power of the Monarch. During his earlier years in Parliament he and his party were responsible for a diminution in the power and influence of the King. Burke retained his interest in Ireland and while he was reticent about his Catholic background, he had a lifetime interest in the wellbeing of the Irish Catholic majority and he advocated their admission to full citisinship in Ireland and the United Kingdom and would have supported the existing Dublin Parliament of the late 18th Century which was abolished by the Act of Union of 1801. He undoubtedly played a large part during his thirty years in Westminster in achieving the abolition of most of the penal laws imposed on Catholics in Ireland. His enemies in Westminster spoke disparagingly of him as being a Catholic, as being under Catholic influence and as being a Jesuit. 

He was heavily involved in the American Revolution and in the ultimate loss of the American colonies. He was opposed to the early attempts by the King and the administration to impose the Stamp Duty and other forms of taxation on the Americans. He finally realised that it was no longer practical for the United Kingdom to maintain control of the rapidly expanding American states and was opposed to Britain’s military attempts to subdue the American forces.

Probably much of the greatest part of his endeavours were devoted to opposing the French revolution and here he was opposed by most of his colleagues in Westminster. He believed that from the fall of the Bastille France was being influenced by a mob which was out to destroy the fabric of France and of its monarchy and its Catholic ethos, and that their intentions were to carry the French revolution to the other countries of Europe through its military intentions and propaganda. Much of his many prognostications about the effects of the revolution were realised. His prolonged opposition to the French revolution was perhaps his single most sustained role in parliament and was a major source of the opposition to him by his many colleagues.

His involvement in India rested on his criticism of corruption in the East India Company’s administration. He emerges in this area as  a relatively lonely figure opposing the Establishment, as indeed can be said about his public attitude to Ireland and its problems. He married Jane Nugent, the daughter of a Catholic physician in Dublin. She remained a Catholic all her life and the union lasted forty years and proved to be a happy one.

See this later note on Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson:  

Thomas Jefferson believed that all men are equal. His life was contemporaneous with the writings of Paine in his Rights of Man and Jefferson’s whole political life was based on its self-evident truth. Paine himself in his famous book and in his prolonged stay in America greatly influenced the progress of the revolution there and the concept of the equality of all. 

Having read the above biography of Edmund Burke I was aware of how rational Burke was in his approach to the American Revolution and how his views conflicted with the bellicose George 111, the Tories and other British politicians.  It would be interesting to know how closely Burke and Jefferson’s views were about these two signal revolutionary events of history.

See blog review of Thomas Jefferson. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

This is one I definitely want to borrow

The Man who died Twice. The Life and Adventures of Morrison of Peking. Peter Thompson and Robert |Macklin, Allen & Unwin, 2004. pp 380.

This review was written on May 18th 2005

I found myself in the reading and writing doldrums at the end of April and during the month of May, although I did read The Man who died Twice which is an account of the life and adventures of the Australian journalist, George Morrison, who lived for many years in China. The book was given to me by Neil and Elaine Race, our friends from Melbourne, who were staying with us for a few days. Because of the reputation he earned as the inspired correspondent of The Times in China, he became known as Morrison of Peking.

He was a man of extraordinary energy and courage who undertook and appeared to enjoy marathon journeys on foot. On his own he  crossed Australia from Victoria in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, returning on the same route, and making hazardous journeys in New Guinea and across Asia from the East of China to India and the approaches to European Russia. These marathon journeys were accomplished during his earlier days. The first few chapters of the book deal with his Australian and New Guinea adventures and with the more tragic experience of others who attempted the same journeys. He was then still in his early twenties and his story was an incredible account of courage, endurance, luck and indifference to danger or hardship. The reader cannot but wonder how he survived his early adventurous years of lonely travel and exploration.

While his personal story is of interest, the real value of the book as far as I was concerned was the insight it gave into the machinations and the aspirations of the European Powers in Asia and particularly in China. It was the time of or just after the scramble for Africa by the European Powers, so ably described by Thomas Pakenham in his history of the same title. The Morrison account underlines all the tensions which existed between the European Powers, including Russia, in their various relations with the eastern Asian countries, illustrated particularly by their attempts to establish enclaves on the Chinese mainland and islands, and to exert political and economic pressures on the Chinese people. China at that time was a huge primitive, multiethnic, and politically backward subcontinent which was vulnerable to the predatory incursions of the more advanced and brutal Japanese and of the more distant Europeans.

There is an interesting description of the Boxer Rebellion which occurred and struck Peking like a thief in the night at the end of the 19th century. It was a spontaneous and inflammatory reaction among the Chinese Left to the presence and undue influence of foreigners. George Morrison played a highly significant part in the defence of the many Europeans and some Chinese Christians who were isolated for a few months in their enclave in Peking where they were under continuous threat from the Chinese army and mob. Morrison also, through his advisory role, later played an important part in defending the Chinese and China mainland from the predatory ambitions of Japan at the turn of the century. He became devoted to China and the Chinese people and, as the officially appointed adviser to the Chinese Government in his later career; he wielded an important influence in determining the political evolution of the country and its relations with other powers.

Morrison died at the age of 58, apparently from a chronic progressive condition highly suggestive of cancer. He had a laparotomy some months before his death because of loss of weight and energy, and mounting abdominal symptoms. The conclusion after this procedure was that he suffered from inflammation of the pancreas but it was much more likely that he had a malignancy of the pancreas, a notoriously progressive and fatal disease.  One was struck by the different opinions proffered by his many doctors during his last year, and by the very poor standards of diagnosis which existed among the profession. Even much later, during my early years as a student and young doctor, the standard of diagnosis was very poor among physicians and I have previously observed (in my review of the biography of King George 111) that the greater the ignorance among my teachers and preceptors, the greater the arrogance. I believe this failing is endemic in all human behaviour.

A Times colleague, Lional James, wrote after his death about Morrison’s many-sided greatness, his seriousness elevated by his humour, his dignity and infinite capacity for taking pains, his unerring memory, his cold judgement on men and matters, his peculiar vanity (and what successful men are not vain?) and his pride in his native Australia.

On looking back one wonders just how futile were the pressing policies of the European nations who competed so urgently for the wealth and favours of the less developed Asian countries, and of the many wars, both big and small, which were fought and engendered by patriotic greed and paranoia. And one wonders also if we have learned anything from the copious history of these and other days.

The biography of Morrison is worth reading and portrays a picture of a remarkable man of greatness of character and courage. The book provides a splendid and educational gift to one’s growing family.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Global Forest – 40 ways trees can save us. Diana Beresford Kroeger. Particular Books, Penguin, London. 2011. pp 175.

This review was written on October 21st 2011

I bought this book for Richard but had enough time to read it before it was delivered to him. The book deals with the North American forests and trees, and is divided into 40 chapters, each of four pages. This arrangement makes for easy reading and for dipping but I have to say that some of her science, while based on genuine research, can be a little difficult to understand.

As implied by the title and subtitle, the author is concerned about the vital role trees play in the health of the planet and the future of humanity. She is as much emotional and spiritual in her expressions of concern as she is in the life story of trees in our current environment. Her writing is a mélange of mysticism, symbolism, history, natural history and science - all based on her main principal silvicultural themes.

The author is a botanist and medical biochemist. She was born in Ireland and her introduction provides an idealised account of her early days as a child living in a farm, almost certainly in the West of the country where, among other features of the Irish landscape fifty years or more ago we find the contented cattle living close to humanity, the family donkey and cart to carry the older people to church on Sunday, the ubiquitous furze in the fields and massive hedgerows, now called gorse by our urbanised citizens. We also hear of the Seanchai, the traditional travelling story teller who attracted the family and local people around the turf fire at night.

The message which she imparts is the crucial role of trees in our natural history and our folklore, and the changes which are being wrought in our forests and their gradual destruction. She writes about the lifelong relationship between trees and humanity, about the loss of the Savannah in America, and the profound effect the loss of trees and forests is having on our biodiversity.

Biodiversity is defined by her as an expression of genetic flexibility. She describes the Savannah as the natural forest which in the past was an expression of a perfect balance between primitive Man and the  world’s flora and fauna. She regrets the modern dominance of humanity and particularly humanity’s greed so destructive to nature.

One theme of her book is summarised by the last few lines of her introduction

We are all of it in a unity that transcends the whole. Maybe, just maybe, this resonates of God. If that is so, then we are all his children, the earthworm, every virus, mammal, fish and whale, every fern, every tree, every man, woman and child. One equal to another. Again and again.

The chapter ‘the Forest, the Fairy and the Child’ finishes as follows

For you see, there is so much in a child. The conception of a child is the conception of all knowledge. Take away the tree and the fairy and you take away the child. This is the future. Listen to the child and remember the fairy--- too.

This may be pure sentiment but a reading of this chapter is moving and disturbing. The parable of taking away the child could be easily translated into the taking away of humanity and the destruction of the wonderful natural life of our planet.

Might we be better to return to the author’s early life in Ireland where we still lived in harmony with Nature and God?