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Books, Music, Life.



Updated: 2018-03-05T16:32:06.584+00:00

 



On the Move

2016-05-17T22:41:26.224+01:00

My new home on the web will now be at robspence.org.uk
This blog will continue there, and you'll also find some of my writing and current projects.
See you there!



Brand New Orchestra

2016-04-25T11:16:37.978+01:00

This review was originally written for North West End and is available here. The Brand New Orchestra is a thrice-yearly showcase event at the RNCM, where the student composers are given the chance to have their work performed by their colleagues on the instrumental side. Given the huge number of talented musicians studying at the RNCM, the forces available to the composers are immense, and they make full use of them, in the generous space of the RNCM’s main hall.The event was free, and very informal, which was fine, but to be so laid-back as to not even bother with a programme made it a reviewer’s nightmare. With so many family and friends among the audience, a programme would have been a great souvenir. One side of A4 is all it takes! Instead, we had a spoken introduction to the evening by someone – an academic, I assume, but he didn’t say who he was – who told us that there would be nine pieces, each to be introduced by the composer.  So before each piece the composer stepped up to the microphone and did just that. Naturally, some of them were quite nervous, and several were clearly rather diffident about speaking in public – which meant that their names were not always easy to catch, especially as some of them had rather exotic monikers. This review will therefore break the first commandment of reviewing by not getting all the names, and probably getting some wrong. My kingdom for a programme!The pieces premiered at this warm and upbeat event were very varied, suggesting that the future of classical music composition in this country is in safe hands. In an eclectic programme of short orchestral pieces, played by a very large band, the audience was treated to a really wide-ranging array of sounds, rehearsed, if I understood our MC correctly, in just two days, which made the ensuing excellence all the more remarkable.We started with a piece by (probably) Phillipos, who was interested in translating electronic soundscapes into orchestral mode, using strings. The piece, which had a seascape theme was dreamily evocative at times, though some passages sounded like they might have accompanied Janet Lee in the shower.  A student who introduced himself as Peter from Italy presented us with a remarkably cinematic piece, which began with the percussionists whirling tubes (they’re called bloogle resonators) around their heads to produce an eerily unworldly noise, taken up by the violins, and eventually developing into a big orchestral sound. Lushly romantic at times, and stridently brassy at others, it faded to almost silence as the whirly tubes, defying health and safety regulations, took over again.The third piece, possibly by someone called Charlotte, was quite different in tone from anything else we heard. The composer is working on a musical version of one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and presented four songs from it. This was probably the most mainstream item of the night. I was reminded of Sondheim, and then of Lloyd Webber. The female singers were excellent, and convincingly in character. Don’t be surprised to see this hit the West End in the not-too-distant future.Alex Simcox was one of two composers who presented a piece based on a poem. In his case the poem was by a colleague, and he was really inspired by just the final line, which gave him his title ‘Loops of Letting Go.’ This used the full forces of the orchestra, as well as the RNCM organ. The dense texture of the piece was relieved by sparkly lighter passages with woodwind and xylophone prominent. The other poetically-inspired piece was by William Marshall, and his starting point was Yeats’s well-known ‘The Second Coming’ whose first line gave him his title, ‘Turning in the Widening Gyre.’  The mysterious nature of the poem was evoked well in a piece that was slow and rather mesmeric, punctuated by the ominous tolling of the bell.Daniel Ryan’s piece ‘Amygdala’ is named after the part of the brain that looks after emotions, survival instincts, and memory. It explores the subconsci[...]



Shiny New Books 9

2016-04-08T09:51:45.651+01:00


The new edition of Shiny New Books is now available online, containing reviews of many exciting and intriguing books.  A few of my reviews are in there, including the entertaining and scholarly account of the British in Malaya, Out in the Midday Sun, by Margaret Shennan; Laura Feigel's fascinating follow-up to The Love-Charm of Bombs, this time investigating artistic life in Germany after the war in The Bitter Taste of Victory; and Howard Jacobson's latest novel, a volume in Hogarth's reinterpretations of Shakespeare series, in which the Mancunian author tackles The Merchant of Venice in Shylock is my Name.

There's lots more, including a new literary guide to Venice that is definitely accompanying me next time I go; Volker Weidemann's book about Zweig and Roth; the latest Julian Barnes biofiction, this time on Shostakovich; a new-to-me detective in Elly Griffiths's The Woman in Blue; and a book to feed my recently-acquired taste for espionage fiction, Helen Dunmore's Exposure.

As always with SNB, lots to read, lots to explore. Once again, a pleasing mix of the familiar and the new. Have a browse, why don't you?



Così Fan Tutte

2016-04-08T04:45:59.199+01:00

The title of Mozart’s opera is one of the few that are never rendered into English when the piece is performed. “Women – they’re all like that” would be a close translation, and that maybe grates on twenty-first century ears. It also suggests that the comedic tone will be coarser than it actually is. Opera North’s lively production, now touring, steers a clever course, avoiding slapstick on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other.The visually startling set, designed by Thomas Hoheisel,  is a key element in establishing this production’s atmosphere. As the curtain rises, we are presented with what seems to be a giant wooden box, with huge cutout lenses, which we soon realise is a camera obscura. This opens out to reveal a monochrome interior, which is where all the action takes place. At the beginning, Don Alfonso, played with wry humour by William Dazeley, stands outside the construction, and invites the orchestra to play: he is the detached observer of the mind games that will be played out within the box.The two sisters, Fiordiligi (Máire Flavin) and Dorabella (Helen Sharman) are indistinguishable when we first see them, but soon we note their differing personalities as they find themselves the unknowing guinea-pigs in Don Alfonso’s experiment to prove the fickle nature of women. Their soldier lovers, Gugliemo (Gavan Ring) and Ferrando (Nicholas Watts) are nicely distinguished too, with Ring giving Gugliemo a brash bravado, and Watts providing Ferrando with a plaintive vulnerability. The role of the maid Despina was brilliantly handled by Ellie Laugharne, whose energy and humour drove the action forward, particularly when she is disguised as the doctor as part of Don Alfonso’s deception. In her maid’s outfit, she wears a red hairpin, sticking out like horns, and hinting at the devilment she urges on her employers.With Mozart’s glorious tunes, and Da Ponte’s witty libretto (here sung in English, in an equally witty version by an uncredited translator), it’s difficult to see how Così Fan Tutte can fail. That it succeeds as well as it does here is tribute to a sparkling cast, directed with vigour by Tim Albery, working hard for each other in a series of vibrant set pieces, particularly the sextet in the first act, where the disguised soldiers return to woo the women, and the finale, where all of them agree to accept the vicissitudes of life.Tim Albery’s production, whilst providing many comic moments, nonetheless manages to explore the darker recesses of human nature hinted at in Don Alfonso’s philosophy. Fiordiligi’s second act aria in which she begs forgiveness is rendered with real poignancy by Máire Flavin, and Ferrando’s despair when he discovers that Dorabella has been tempted is invested with genuine emotion by Nicholas Watts.The Opera North orchestra, conducted by Anthony Kraus, performed with plenty of attack, complementing the busyness of the action.  Charlotte Forrest’s fortepiano in the recitative was a delight, really highlighting the characters’ words, and helping to propel the narrative.The sublime pairing of Mozart and Da Ponte will always provide marvellous entertainment, but this production works well on every level, helped by a consistent and highly original vision of the late eighteenth-century world.  This is a genuine treat for any fan, and would surely convert many who find opera too remote.This review was originally written for North West End[...]



The New Iconocasts

2016-03-08T17:43:06.467+00:00

My latest on Medium is here.



Forty Thousand Years Wide

2016-03-06T17:32:42.322+00:00

To the Manchester Jewish Museum again, for the latest in their series of innovative concerts. In the last couple of years, the museum has showcased the work of Manchester University lecturer Richard Fay, who runs a klezmer module in the music department. The students play as a group, or kapelye, and also with Richard's ensemble. We have been to a couple of these concerts, and most enjoyable they were: the students are very proficient, and they play with skill and zip. This year, a more ambitious programme was presented. The Jewish presence in Manchester is mirrored by the Irish: both originally poor communities of immigrants who arrived in the booming Cottonopolis of the nineteenth century seeking a better life. The areas of Manchester where they lived were close to each other, so Richard imagined how it might be if the sounds of one community floated across the Irk to intrigue the ears of the other. For this, he needed an Irish group, and, in what is definitely a bit of a coup, he recruited none other than Manchester Irish music legend Mike McGoldrick, last seen by me on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in Mark Knopfler's band.Richard's programme was called "Amid the Mirk over the Irk," and while the pedant in me would want that third word to be "Murk", it described the context very well. A little scene-setting spoken word introduction quoted contemporary accounts of the filthy slums crowded around the "pestilential effluvia" of the River Irk around Red Bank (where the Jews had gathered) and the ironically named Angel Meadow, where the Irish had set up home. Then we were treated to a series of tunes where one or the other side would take the lead, with their counterparts joining in, and collectively they produced some glorious music. It actually seems relatively unlikely that there was much crossover at the time, but it's a nice conceit, and allowed for some vibrant fusion.McGoldrick brought along Dezi Donnelly, with whom he played all those years ago in Toss the Feathers, and the very accomplished banjo and guitar player Angela  Durcan. Mike called the shots when the two units played together, a nod of the head or a raised eyebrow being enough to convey his instructions. The former student group, L'chaim Kapelye, acquitted themselves brilliantly. We had seen some of them before in previous concerts, and once again were impressed by their virtuosity. They have a potential star in bass player Lucie Phillips, who again pleased the crowd with her renditions of  the jaunty "Der Rebbe Elimelech" and the old favourite "Yiddishe Momme," both of which she sang last time. I would love to hear her sing the Kurt Weill repertoire - she would give Ute Lemper a run for her money.The gig was covered by local writer Mark Davoren, and his very detailed account is already available. I won't add more except to say I was intrigued by the final spoken word passage, entitled "Our Ancestors Forty Thousand Years Wide" which seemed very mysterious. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the idea that art is generally agreed to have become a human activity about forty thousand years ago. It turns out that it's the name of a traditional klezmer tune which features on this album by Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars. Frank London, I discover, is a member of the fabulous Klezmatics. The tune has no lyric, other than a "ya-da-da" which we all sang along to as the final piece in the concert. A quick encore led by Mike McGoldrick, and we were off into the rainy Manchester night. Another excellent night at this venue, which is really working hard to make itself a destination in this most multicultural of areas.  [...]



Big in Japan 10

2016-03-02T18:41:10.488+00:00

We loved our trip to Japan, and had a wonderful time exploring its culture, history and geography. But like Prof. Macfarlane (remember him?) we felt that we had merely managed to skim the surface of the country, and that that we could spend a lifetime trying to truly understand it. We discussed this in Hiroshima, with someone who had lived there for twenty years, and he confirmed that feeling at home in Japan is a very elusive thing for a foreigner.That shouldn't put anyone off, however, so I thought I would offer some of our insights, in no particular order, aimed at the potential traveller to Japan.1. Travel at least once on the Shinkansen. It is a wonderfully relaxing way to get from A to B. The Japan Rail Pass is a bargain, and if you intend to move around on your holiday, it's essential.2. Be prepared for some surprising experiences when you go to the loo. In hotels and restaurants, you will often find an all-singing and all-dancing loo with switches for various types of warming or cooling bidet-style water jets, and music or birdsong to accompany your actions. Like this: allowfullscreen="" class="YOUTUBE-iframe-video" data-thumbnail-src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Rvb3qUtRFxk/0.jpg" frameborder="0" height="266" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Rvb3qUtRFxk?feature=player_embedded" width="320">3. Don't worry if you are vegetarian. We imagined that we would struggle, but certainly in the cities there are loads of ethnic restaurants that are fine for veggies, especially Italian. And of course, in Hiroshima, there's the possibility of a vegetarian okonomiyaki. One possibility we had considered before travelling was to eat at the temples, where you can sometimes get vegan food from the kitchen. Once in Japan, we found that the temples are now quite chic destinations for foodies, and that the kitchens are not open to the public that often, and the prices are sky-high.4. Try to use some Japanese, even if it's only "Hello" and "Thank you." The people will really appreciate that you made some kind of effort. English isn't spoken that widely, but we found that in the cities at least, most people had some basic English vocabulary.5. Bow. On greeting people, and leaving them, or when some sort of transaction is going on, like a shop purchase or a hotel check-in, bow. It becomes a habit, and it's a little acknowledgement of the more formal way of doing things in Japan.6. Be prepared to be ordered about, very gently, by people you come across. Japan's economic culture encourages long-term employment security above short-term economic gain, so people are employed in functions which would not be seen as necessary in England. For example, we often saw a smartly uniformed man or woman at the entrance to multi-storey car parks. Their job was to usher in the cars as they approached, and to hold up pedestrians who were crossing in front. Another instance was in hotels, where, rather than allowing the customer to approach the reception desk on their own, a group of employees would intercept you, and direct you to the right counter. A similar process obtained at the Japan Rail office at the airport, as I mentioned. This is related to their love of paperwork and bureaucracy. You will get receipts for everything.7. Use the Metro to travel around Tokyo. Tickets are cheap, the network is extensive, and if you avoid the obvious rush hours, the trains don't get too crowded. We never saw anything like this: allowfullscreen="" class="YOUTUBE-iframe-video" data-thumbnail-src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/b0A9-oUoMug/0.jpg" frameborder="0" height="266" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b0A9-oUoMug?feature=player_embedded" width="320">8. It's not as expensive as you might think. Because the Japanese economy has been stagnating for so long, prices are actually pretty reasonable from an English perspective. We paid no more for food and services than we would pay at home - maybe London prices [...]



Big in Japan 9

2016-03-01T20:54:43.081+00:00

Our last day in Japan was a drizzly, overcast one in Tokyo. We had pretty much avoided rain the whole time we were there, so we couldn't complain. We set out to see some more of the capital, thinking that indoors might be best. When we were planning the trip, we had thought about visiting the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but discovered that to gain access, you needed to visit on particular days, having booked tickets in person for timed entrance, and we just couldn't manage it. Nevertheless, we could visit the grounds, which are huge, but first we looked at the rather splendid Tokyo railway station, with its redbrick façade, apparently modelled on Amsterdam's. Each corner had a spacious entrance hall, with an art nouveau look:Tourist in the rainAcross the way from the station was the shopping mall called Kitte (Japanese for postage stamp) which is housed in the old central post office building, a striking 1930s edifice, to which has now been added a huge tower to house all those trendy boutiques and restaurants. We went in to find some shelter and sustenance.We decided that we had to at least experience the Imperial Palace compound, so, bravely ignoring the rain, we headed for the gardens. It was really wet, but still impressive to see this bit of old imperial Japan, fortified by massive walls and a huge moat, in the middle of this exclusive part of the city.We resolved to go in search of culture to get us out of the rain, and went out of the north-west corner of the imperial grounds (having collected a token on entrance, and given it up on exit) to find the National Museum of Modern Art. We found that one of the major exhibitions was of an artist I'd never heard of, shamefully, despite the fact that he was a modernist operating in Paris in the twenties. He was Tsuguharu (Leonard) Foujita, and what a fascinating man he turned out to be. He knew many of the big names of the avant-garde, such as Modigliani and Picasso, had a chaotic personal life, and was more commercially successful than many of his contemporaries, mainly because he painted lots of cats. Foujita, Self Portrait with cat. Image: irinaraquel on FlickrUnexpectedly, he was also a war artist, and the exhibition contained some enormous canvases of battle scenes, some gruesomely realistic - the Japanese government required what they termed "war campaign documentary painting" from its artists, and Foujita supplied it. You can see some of his war work here. After that sobering experience, we walked around the corner to the Crafts annex of the museum, where we saw some brilliant examples of contemporary pottery. This small gallery was built around the same time as the station, and is again a very European-looking red brick building, originally the home of the imperial guards. The gallery's website gave another reminder of the war:The Headquarters of the Imperial Guards was also the setting of an event of great historical importance. In the late night and early morning of August 14 and 15, 1945, a group of Army officers plotted to prevent the broadcast of the Emperor’s statement to the nation announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, scheduled for noon on August 15. They murdered Lieutenant General Mori of the Imperial Guards Division and issued an order in his name to seize the recording of the Emperor’s statement and thus prevent the war from coming to an end. That attempted coup d’etat occurred in the Imperial Guards’ headquarters, making the building the site of one of the most critical incidents in the modern history of Japan.We enjoyed the work of Kuriki Tatsusuke, whose pots were decorative rather than functional, often featuring bands of clay woven around a central form. It was a pleasant and peaceful way to end our soggy trudge around this part of Tokyo.  We had an early start for the journey home, so we[...]



Big in Japan 8

2016-02-29T21:26:24.591+00:00

We returned to Tokyo for the last few days of our holiday, and determined to see as much as possible. On our first afternoon, we walked up to the Rappongi Hills complex, a huge high-end shopping mall with restaurants, cinemas and a convention centre. It wasn't much different from those you will see anywhere, though we were very impressed by the bookshop, which had quite a lot of English language material, and some intriguing Japanese items too, including a specialist book brush, which we bought for the home collection.  Who'd have thought that the Japanese equivalent of GQ would be called after a German romantic poet and philosopher? It is, though:As a sharp-eyed former colleague pointed out, the cover star here is none other than footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who once improbably spent a season playing for Bolton Wanderers.  The complex has, of course, an extensive garden area, and we went there to escape the hustle and bustle of some sort of product launch that was going on in the main building. The contrast of the greenery of the gardens and the glass and steel of the complex was startling.As we walked around town, other odd conjunctions could be seen. Even in the most fashionable part of Tokyo, you might still see very modest, traditional places cheek-by-jowl with huge statement buildings designed to show off corporate power.Our hotel, in the south western part of downtown Tokyo, was a few minutes' walk from the Hiro-O subway station, which gave us access to the quick and efficient transport system. The following day,  we wanted to see the some more of the capital, so we bought a cheap day ticket and headed out early, making our first stop at the Hama-Rikyu gardens in Shiodome, a peaceful green enclave in the midst of the corporate towers. The garden dates from the seventeenth century, when it was built as a retreat for the shogun and his family. There's an island teahouse, and lots of flora and fauna. It's a very pleasant way to start the day, but our main purpose in visiting was because it's the starting point for the Sumida River trip.Hama-RikyuHama-Rikyu teahouseHama-RikyuThe river trip takes you north to Asakusa, passing under many bridges, and giving a flavour of the city from an unusual standpoint. The landmark building at Asakusa is the Asahi brewery building, designed by Philippe Starck, which dominates the view when you arrive at the jetty. It's meant, apparently to look like a beer glass, to complement the beer mug-shaped building to the left, and the peculiar golden top is supposed to be the froth. For reasons that will be obvious, the locals refer to it as the "poo building" and the topping as "the golden turd."Asahi buildingOne of the attractions for us in this part of the world was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo's oldest, founded in 645, and dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Unlike other temples we had visited, this was not a peaceful backwater, but a bustling and very crowded area, approached through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and then via a long bazaar-like market, the Nakamise, packed with stalls selling souvenirs, traditional crafts, and food. We didn't fancy Octopus Ball, so hurried on to the temple itself. NakamiseLocal delicacy...Some smoke rising from the incense burnerIt wasn't a very spiritual experience, but it was quite a sight to see so many people crowding the temple precincts. One unusual sight was the crowd around the big incense burner in front of the temple. People waft the smoke over them to protect against illness. We sampled the atmosphere for a while and then moved on, taking some time to look at the hundreds of stalls in the covered arcades of the Nakamise.Our next stop was Ueno Park, originally yet another temple complex, but now home to several of the city's galleries and museums. Perhaps the most notable for us was the Le Corbusier-designed[...]



William Boyd - Waiting for Sunrise

2016-02-29T21:46:24.057+00:00

William Boyd keeps producing engaging, literate fiction, peopled with believable characters who have interesting stories. I was first aware of him in the early eighties, when I enjoyed his debut novel A Good Man in Africa. This blackly humorous tale of diplomatic disaster in a fictional African republic led to comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, and that was about right: Boyd had that same rather cynically comic detached voice. Since then, he has produced a series of memorable fictions, particularly his two big century-spanning epics, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart,  both of which bear comparison with Anthony Burgess's masterpiece, Earthly Powers. He has developed a particular line in espionage fiction, too, not only through being selected to write a James Bond novel by the Fleming estate, but through his own original work too. Restless was about the lifelong consequences of involvement in the world of cold-war espionage, a theme also entertainingly explored in Jeremy Duns's Paul Dark series.  Somehow, Waiting for Sunrise, Boyd's 2012 novel, set immediately before and during the First World War had passed me by, so I was pleased to find a copy at the excellent Chorlton bookshop the other day.Waiting for Sunrise opens and closes with an anonymous second-person observation of the central character, Lysander Rief, as he goes about his business. This technique places the reader as an observer / voyeur and makes Rief a performer, which is apt: he's an actor, and will become a secret agent in time. As in Boyd's other historical fictions, real people intermingle with the fictional, though this is kept to  minimum here. Since we begin in Vienna in 1913, with Rief seeking psychological help for an embarrassing condition, Boyd must have been tempted to enrol his protagonist on Freud's roster of damaged psyches, but he avoids that, using an English disciple, Dr Bensimon, instead. In the doctor's waiting room, Rief encounters Hettie Bull, an impulsive and passionate young artist, to whom he is immediately attracted. The  consequences of that meeting will shape Rief's future, and plunge him into the dangerous world of international espionage. The narrative, apart from those two passages at the beginning and end, is divided between a third person narrator focalised through Rief, and Rief's own observations, written down in the journal of his thoughts that he advised to keep by Dr Bensimon. The chapters are very brief, for the most part, and given descriptive headings in, I suppose, a deliberately archaic style. The plot advances quickly, as Rief's love-life leads him into a situation where he is obliged to show his ingenuity in order to escape potential imprisonment in Vienna. Once free, he is doing his duty as a soldier at the outbreak of war, when the call comes to undertake a mission which will expose a mole at the heart of the British war machine. This central section of the plot, which takes place in Geneva, shows Rief as a resourceful and intelligent agent, whose astute appreciation of potential trouble keeps him one step ahead of the game.But this is far more than a routine historical thriller. The characters and locations are fully realised, with an attention to detail that enables the reader to immerse themselves in pre-war Vienna or wartime Geneva. Boyd uses factual data well for his own narrative means: a Zeppelin raid on London, which hit the Lyceum theatre, for instance, is employed as a way of developing two plot lines, one about the personal life of Rief, and one concerning his suspicions about his mission. I think John Walsh, in his review of the novel in the Independent, hits the nail on the head: "He whizzes the story along...but lingers over evocations of people and buildings, so we feel we know their texture even as the plot gallops along."In genre f[...]



Big in Japan 7

2016-02-26T15:03:40.668+00:00

View towards the western mountains from our friends' apartmentWe said goodbye to Kanazawa, and headed back to Tokyo, where we changed to the suburban train to Fussa, where our friends were living. Fussa is a fairly ordinary place, a city of about 60,000 people west of Tokyo, but with a huge American air force base. And by 'huge', I mean really big - about a third of the city. It is, in effect, a small American town in itself, with schools, shopping mall, cinema, sports facilities and all the other conveniences of life in the USA. Our friends, who live outside the base, say some of the military families there never leave the confines.Fussa is really part of the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo. As you travel the fifty minutes or so from the capital, you don't see that much countryside. I suppose it's not unlike the metroland around London - commuter territory for those who work in the centre.The presence of the air force base means that there are quite a few US-style diners in town, but you don't need to go far to find an authentic Japanese environment. It's a quiet, unassuming sort of place, but a good base for exploring. We had already visited Mount Fuji from here, and we decided to get some more value out of our Japan Rail pass to make a day trip to Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo that was once, in medieval times, the national capital.On arrival at Kamakura, we hopped on the local streetcar Enoden service, which winds back and forth along the coast, allowing visitors to explore the numerous  temples and shrines that are dotted around. Waiting for the Enoden streetcar at HaseThe old fashioned electric streetcar was a great way to get about, as the day pass allows you to jump on and off whenever you like. We stopped first at Yuigahama, to have a stroll on the beach, where we were pretty much the only people there, except for a young woman who had decided to serenade the sea with her trumpet.In the far distance, Mount Fuji was just visible on this clear, bright, November morning:We moved on to our next stop, Hase, where we walked up the hill to the Great Buddha. This is an enormous bronze statue that was cast in 1252, and has remained standing, through earthquakes and fires, whilst the temples built to house it have perished. It's a popular spot for Japanese and foreign tourists. Back in Kamakura, we took a local bus out to the Hokokuji temple, which is remarkable for its bamboo grove. A little path takes you around the temple and into the cool and quiet of the bamboo, and you can also admire the gravel gardens, very like the ones we saw on the Philosopher's path in Kyoto. In an area we couldn't access, some caves contained a little army of figurines.We caught the bus back into central Kamakura, and had time for a stroll around the streets before setting off back to Fussa. This was a lovely, quiet day, supported by the brilliantly efficient Japanese railway system. Kamakura felt very different to the bustle of the big cities we had visited: peaceful, relaxed, with a sandy beach looking out over Sagami Bay. It was just what we needed to prepare for the last few days of the trip, which were going to be back in Tokyo.[...]



Medium

2016-02-24T20:08:40.237+00:00

I'm trying to keep this space for book reviews, cultural matters and travel. I thought I would try Medium for musings on other topics. My first post there is now online. Next here will be the latest instalment of the Japanologue.



Big in Japan 6

2016-02-23T12:03:51.431+00:00

IKanazawa railway station is quite something. After the Shinkansen glided in, coming to a stop at precisely the correct second, we were soon able to see its bold modern design, dominated by the Tsuzumi-mon gate, shaped like the traditional Japanese drums, but also, we thought, reminiscent of a temple gateway. The main interest in the city is all to the east of the station. Our hotel was a few steps to the west, so we were well placed each day to walk through the lively station precinct and the Tsuzumi-mon gate to commence our sight-seeing.This place had all the main essentials covered.Kanazawa, in the northern central mainland of Japan, is worth a visit because of its historical interest. It has not been subject to the kind of modernisation enforced on other cities after war or natural disaster, so it preserves more widely than elsewhere the buildings and the culture of the past. We found the main sites within easy walking distance of the centre, and set off first to explore the famous Kenrokuen Garden via a stroll through the impressive grounds of Kanazawa Castle, of which more later.Kenrokuen is a major tourist attraction, so the advice is to get there early. It opens at eight, and we were there not long after. Despite some rain, the first we had encountered in Japan, there were a good many people around first thing. Kenrokuen, which was originally the private garden of the feudal ruling family - which is why it adjoins the castle - is huge, varied and beautiful, with something to catch the interest at every turn. According to Japan Guide, "Kenrokuen literally means 'Garden of the Six Sublimities', referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden." Even through a rather persistent drizzle, it was difficult not to be impressed by the trees, the plants, the fountains, the lake... Here's the obligatory Brit in raingear shot:Really, though, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for this place. We wondered around for quite a long time, at the end of which the promised hordes had indeed appeared, and it was getting quite crowded. We were glad we'd made it an early start. You can see literally thousands of photos of the garden taken in better weather here, so I won't post many of our rainy shots. Here are some items of interest, though:This fountain, which looks quite modest, is claimed to be Japan's oldest.This stone tablet contains a haiku by Basho, which goesAka aka toHiwa tsure naku moAki no kazuor something like "How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind." Again, it's a rather modest monument, but is much revered as it commemorates Basho's visit in 1689 on the narrow road to the deep north.The gardeners were out in force, in outfits that hadn't changed much in three hundred years.We left, slightly damp, but very content with what we'd experienced, as the rain stopped.The castle, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1881, has been partially, and painstakingly, rebuilt, using the same techniques and materials as in the original. It was the first fortified building we had encountered in Japan, and it was clear that it presented a formidable obstacle to potential enemy forces.Climbing up on the ramparts gave us a view of the city and showed how dominant the castle must have been when it was built in the late sixteenth century by the local feudal lords.I especially loved the huge wooden gates that guard the entrances. They don't supply these at B&Q:IIExploring the main city, we chanced upon a coffee shop run by an American, from Seattle, and his Japanese wife. Sol was a really friendly and welcoming[...]



Big in Japan 5

2016-02-17T12:54:34.322+00:00

Taxis in Japan, we found, were beautifully clean, retro-sixties style monuments to kitsch, replete with head-rest doilies and cute seat covers. For our day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima, we needed an early start, and our helpful host arranged a taxi. Our man was waiting as we emerged five minutes before the appointed time from the apartment. He was dressed in an immaculate uniform, complete with white gloves, and drove us smoothly to the station, dropping us off at the Shinkansen entrance. No agonising about the tip, of course, because in Japan you don't tip.We could go for a day's outing to Hiroshima because, even though it's about 225 miles away, the bullet train would take us there in less than two hours. We planned a further visit that day, so on arrival at Hiroshima, we took another train and a short ferry trip to the island of Miyajima  We could see the Itukushima, a floating shrine, guarded by the Torii gate  from the boat. On arrival, a short stroll through streets where deer roamed freely took us to the remarkably orange floating shrine.The shrine, which dates originally from the sixth century, though nothing from that era survives, is a World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Its broad wooden platforms, supported by pillars, stand in the sea, and it's thought that the original intention was to worship the island spirits. Even though we visited alongside lots of other people, and the inevitable school party, it was a peaceful, enlightening experience.We moved on to look at some of the other shrines and monuments that are thickly dotted about the island. We didn't have the opportunity to linger, as we only had a couple of hours, but it was enough to get the flavour of this unique place. Having climbed a short distance up Mount Misen, we arrived at the Daisho-in temple, where we were greeted by five hundred heads with little knitted hats:Stoke City fans, possibly.A couple of encounters with some scary guardians, more tame deer, and then time to say sayonara to this wonderful place. We took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima, and headed out on a tram to the Peace Park. After the beauty of Miyajima, this was a sombre reminder of the other side of human nature. The first thing we saw was the famous "A-bomb dome", the shell of a building very close to the epicentre of the explosion. It is a striking and effective monument, and reminded us of the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, which has a similar purpose.We spent the afternoon walking around the park, looking at the various monuments. We were particularly struck by the Children's Monument, inspired by the story of Sasaki Sadako. On the day we were there, lots of schoolchildren took turns in singing and performing poems dedicated to peace. It was touching to see and hear.We found that being English attracted attention from the kids. They wanted to practise, and many had worksheets to fill in, where they wrote down the answers to simple questions they asked us: what do you like about Japan? and so on. We were quite the celebrities for a while. Here's me with some of my army of adoring fans:The Peace Museum at Hiroshima is a must-see. The displays are heartbreaking, documenting in relentless detail the horrific effects of the bomb. We spent an hour or so there, until we were to meet up with a friend of a friend, with whom we were to see the main part of the city.Hiroshima now is a modern, bustling city, with hardly anything pre-1945 standing. We did see the Bank of Japan, that survived largely intact, but nothing else. Big broad streets, some of them covered, made up most of the commercial district, but we weren't there to shop. We were on our way to eat Okonomiyaki...Our new friend has lived in Hiroshima for[...]



Marina Warner at The John Rylands Library

2016-02-13T10:54:30.069+00:00

To the John Rylands library to see Marina Warner (does the Dame come before or after the Professor?) give her lecture Oracular Narrative: Timing and Truth Telling. This was a very pleasant event, with a drinks reception beforehand, and then the lecture itself in the historic reading room of the grand neo-Gothic building:( Image: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)The lecture, accompanied by some striking visuals in a slide show, had clearly grown out of Dame Marina's recent work on fairy tale, particularly the Thousand and One Nights. She made the point that prophecy, in its widest sense, dominates discourse: markets deal in futures, reporters and experts speculate on what happens next, rather than accounting for what has happened, and so on. She linked this to the presence of prophecy in art and literature, in a very wide-ranging talk that took in Shakespeare (particularly The Winter's Tale), the carvings of Amiens cathedral, the Mabinogion, Kafka, Judith and Holofernes, and the Qalendars' tales in the Arabian Nights, among many other topics.As well as exploring the role of "what will be" in these texts and artefacts, she looked at how that tradition manifests itself in contemporary world literature. The novels she chose were by writers who had been considered for the International Booker Prize, whose panel she chaired last year. All, shamefully, were new to me - more titles for the TBR pile.   Mabanckou's  Memoirs of a Porcupine sounded intriguing, maybe an African Rushdie; Ibrahim al-Koni' s Gold Dust deals with universal themes in a desert setting; Gamal al-Ghitani's  Zayni Barakat uses the fictional biography of a historical figure to make political points about recent Egyptian politics; Radwa Ashour's Siraaj  is an Arabic take on sub-Daharan African geopolitics;  and the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance seems like an extraordinary tour-de-force from Dame Marina's description on the Man Booker prize site.So, much food for thought, expressed in clear and crisp sentences that engaged the listener without attempting to baffle with jargon. Marina Warner is a genuine public intellectual. We need more like her. (Image of Marina Warner: Dan Welldon)[...]



Big in Japan 4

2016-02-10T21:32:09.147+00:00

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, enchants the visitor at every turn. And it's not just the temples and shrines. The modern buildings, too, command attention, none more so than the railway station, which we saw quite a bit of in our travels. It's a massive glass-fronted edifice in the centre of the city, and you can travel to a rooftop garden via the escalators to take in the view - though only through glass panels, which reflect when you take a photo of course. Still, spectacular:We set out to see some of the major sights on our second day in Kyoto, and on another bright and sunny morning, we walked south from the station the few blocks to began with the  Toji temple, which dates from the eighth century, but what strikes the visitor immediately is the pagoda, the tallest in Japan, and one that has been cunningly built to survive earthquakes. The current structure is over three hundred years old, and is built to last.We walked north of the station to seek out the Hongan-ji Temples.  These massive complexes date back in parts to the sixteenth century, and remain very important sites for Japanese Buddhism. The first, Nishi Hongan-ji, has all sorts of treasures, including what's thought to be the oldest Noh stage in Japan. The scale of the buildings was impressive, as was the air of quiet dedication about the place. All was calm and serene as we strolled around the grounds, and glimpsed inside the halls where some people were at prayer.The Higashi temple was undergoing refurbishment, so we caught the bus back up to the Gion district, where we embarked on a walk around eastern Gion and Higashiyama. This district is very distinctive, almost a separate enclave, which has retained its traditional character. The paved streets are narrow, and quite touristy now, but the district is packed with architectural and cultural interest. We took the walk recommended in the guide book, which involved a steep trek up the hill to the Kiyomizu temple and then a stroll around the packed streets. The temple area was thronged with people, and we made the decision not to join the crowds, but to head for the little streets. It was the season for school trips, and everywhere we saw very well-organised groups of kids, all sporting distinctive caps to mark them out. Here's a group joining the masses at the Kiyomizu temple:Apparently, the Kiyomizu temple, founded in 778, is one of those places that every Japanese will visit at least once. Most of them seemed to be there that day! Back on the streets, it was not unusual to see people in traditional dress, often, we were told, hired for the occasion, so that the wearers could promenade around the area:The streets are full of shops selling handicrafts to tourists, both foreign and Japanese. They are of very high quality, and priced appropriately. We just window-shopped. After another walk up the hill we arrived at the Kodai-ji Temple, next to which was, rather incongruously, the main coach park for the district. There is an impressive bell:It was getting towards dusk by now, so we went out by the startlingly colourful Yasaka shrine and on to the bustling streets of fashionable Gion, where fashionistas and politicians mix.That was enough for the day, especially since we had an early start the next morning. We really loved Kyoto, but we would be leaving it for our flying visit to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen the next day.  [...]



Dan Hicks

2016-02-07T11:24:24.719+00:00

I suppose it will have been in late 1971 or early 1972. I was meeting my girlfriend, but had stopped on the way to pick up my monthly copy of Zigzag, an odd, rather amateurishly produced alternative magazine that featured articles and interviews about mainly American rock music. It wasn't like Sounds or NME, which concentrated on the charts. The fact that it was named after a Capt. Beefheart song gives an indication of where it was coming from. It also had Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees, where the various incarnations of groups would be presented in diagram form - ideal material for me, who liked to know everything about the bands I favoured. Anyway, when I arrived at my girlfriend's house, I remember her saying "I see you've got your instructions, then," referring to the copy of Zigzag in my hand. I argued feebly that I could make my own mind up about what to like, but she was right. I tended to follow the advice I found there, as a way of broadening my collection of records by loon-panted denizens of Laurel Canyon. And sometimes, this led to my acquiring albums that really weren't worth persevering with, but I would try because Zigzag said they were good. Thus, I had a copy of Poco's A Good Feeling to Know, which was not a good album to buy, try as I might to like it. There were a few other duds of this proto-Eagles country-rock type. But Zigzag also alerted me to people I would never otherwise have come across, and whose music I have been listening to in the intervening forty-odd years.

One such is Dan Hicks, whose death was announced yesterday. I took a chance on his album Striking it Rich, bought from Rare Records in Manchester. Along with his backing group the Hot Licks, Dan went on a streak of brilliant records in the early seventies, but for me, that album, with its giant matchbox design, was the pinnacle of his achievement. The sound has elements of Django Reinhardt, and of western swing. The songs are often wryly observational, and frequently funny, delivered by Dan in a laconic, throwaway style, and supported by the Andrews sisters-style harmonies of the Lickettes. I played that album over and over again - to my soon-to-be-departed girlfriend's annoyance. I loved the interplay of the voices, the timbre of Sid Page's violin, and the timeless quality of the sound: this didn't seem to be music of the seventies, or any other decade. It still sounds, to me, brilliantly fresh now. Have a listen to "I Scare Myself" from Striking it Rich to see if you agree:

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Eric Ambler: The Levanter

2016-02-05T17:31:05.848+00:00

I read, as I suppose many of my generation did, Eric Ambler's  The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy when I was a teenager. They were exciting tales of action in a Europe on the brink of war, with heroes not of the John Buchan mould (I'd read the Richard Hannay books of course) but ordinary men plunged against their will into extraordinary experiences. Journey into Fear, memorably filmed with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, is another prime example. Since my teens, though, I hadn't read an Ambler novel, but my revived interest in spy fiction, sparked by the huge enjoyment I derived from reading Jeremy Duns's  Paul Dark sequence, sent me back to Ambler.The Levanter is late Ambler, first published in 1972. It is set a couple of years earlier, largely in Syria, and is concerned with the way in which one of those typical Ambler protagonists finds himself embroiled in a terrorist plot. Reading this novel in 2016 is instructive, if only to realise how depressingly little attitudes in the Middle East have changed in the intervening forty-odd years. The eponymous Levanter is Michael Howell, whose very British name conceals a more complex mixed Armenian, Cypriot and Lebanese heritage. He's the head of a family engineering company with a long history of business in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and is doing well in the difficult circumstances of the time, negotiating with the one-party Syrian regime with the help of his Italian secretary/lover. But, as is so often the case with Ambler, his relatively cosy world is about to be shattered by the intrusion of some brutal political realities. A terrorist group, the Palestinian Action Force (modelled on one of the many such groups that emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967) has infiltrated the company in order to manufacture bombs to use against Israel. Howell, for reasons carefully explained, cannot simply go to the authorities, and the scene is then set for a tense game of cat-and-mouse as Howell attempts to outwit the coldly sadistic leader of the terrorist cell, Salah Ghaled.The narrative is split between three first person narrators: Lewis Prescott, an American journalist, who provides the background detail through his account of an interview with Ghaled; Teresa Malandra, the secretary, who offers a wry perspective on her boss; and Howell himself, who carries the bulk of the narrative, mostly attempting to justify his actions since he has been, we glean, vilified by both sides after the events have concluded. Howell is always at pains to show how his actions stem from the best of motives, and his self-deprecating stance helps the reader to identify with him as he becomes increasingly entwined in the terrorist plot. Ambler stresses his ordinariness - he is a successful and enterprising businessman, yes, but as Howell ruefully points out, "when the commodity is violence and the man you are dealing with is an animal" his business skills are of little use. Howell's narrative is careful and detailed - that attention to detail is one of his character traits, but also leads to the only parts of the story which drag a little. I'm not sure the reader needs to know quite as much about the construction of dry cell batteries as we are given here. That said, the second part of the novel, which concerns the attempted raid by the terrorist group, moves at a fair pace, and the scenes on board Howell's ship the Amalia as the climax approaches are gripping.Ambler maintains his usual high standard in this tale, where every character is flawed and no-one completely blameless. In a world stripped of moral certainties, How[...]



Entartete Musik

2016-02-02T19:07:56.599+00:00

To the Manchester Jewish Museum, on Holocaust Memorial Day, for a concert of music condemned and banned by the Nazis as "degenerate." This was a bold move by the museum, which has decided to host more events to gain attention ahead of a big rebuilding programme.After a glass of (kosher, of course) wine, we were invited in, to find the inner space dominated by the famous poster which was used as part of the Nazi campaign against music of any kind which did not suit the Nazi philosophy. The campaign, during which concerts were held in which the music was vilified, ran parallel to the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition, which condemned virtually all experimental art, particularly that produced by Jews.The programme featured songs by Weill and Brecht, Krenek, Holländer and some atonal Schönberg. The show was devised, presented and sung by Peter Brathwaite, who gives a full account of the artistic process in this article. We were delighted both by Brathwaite's strong voice, and the engagingly innovative style of presentation. A series of evocative photographs accompanied each song, animated through some computer trickery, with a translation of the lyrics alongside. It gave each song an added dimension, and really enhanced the show. You can get some idea from these stills on the @MusicDegenerate Twitter feed:Brathwaite, of whom I predict great things, is an assured and accomplished performer. His German pronunciation is excellent, and he attacked each song with relish, really bringing out the savagery of the satire, and the black humour too. It was great to hear the Brecht / Eisler "Solidarität" from the wonderful film Kuhle Wampe as a song in its own right.  And, inevitably, we finished with Brecht and Weill's  "Mackie Messer", a song whose bizarre transition into a standard easy-listening tune about mass murder deserves a post of its own.Peter Brathwaite, on this showing, is a star in the making. I would love to have a recording of his versions of these songs, and surely that will come. In the meantime, he tells me, we will be able to see some footage filmed on the night. I look forward to that immensely. [...]



Big in Japan 3

2016-02-02T14:15:50.234+00:00

Onto the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto. Note the position of the apostrophe: we are talking about one philosopher here, Nishida Kitaro, a professor at the university, who walked here daily in the nineteen twenties, and whose work, rather pleasingly, is described as "path-breaking." Nishida's best-known philosophical concept is "Absolute Nothingness" but it's difficult to imagine he came up with that idea on his daily constitutional, since the walk is full of life and interest.The paved pathway runs either side of a small canal on the western side of the city at the base of the Higashiyama mountains. We approached along suburban streets that reminded me of the posher suburbs of Berlin or Hamburg. The walk is not a taxing one, and there is no particular advantage in starting at any one place, so we just joined it at the nearest convenient entrance and walked north.At every turn on this walk, the visitor encounters something of beauty, whether it's the autumnal colours which were so vivid when we were there, or the serenity of the shrines that line the pathway. One stop was at the Eikan-do temple, which has a pagoda whence panoramic views of Kyoto can be had. We strolled further, past several smaller shrines, to the Honen-in temple of the Jodo sect, which is very rustic in appearance, with a thatched roof, and some fine examples of the raked-sand Zen gardens that we encountered many times on our trip.We walked further, encountering quite a few well-fed and happy-looking cats, who seem to be part of the Philosopher's Walk experience. They certainly must be among Japan's most photographed cats: everyone stopped for a quick snap.The main attraction on the walk is the fifteenth-century Ginkagu-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. Not that it's silver - that was the original plan, apparently, but the shogun Yoshimasa, who wanted a silver version of the Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion in Kyoto city, was frustrated by the intervening war, and the plan was never executed. This is the most popular spot on the walk, and we saw tour groups there, whose whole experience of the walk was a bus to the entrance of the pavilion, a quick look round, and then back on the bus. They missed a lot. It has beautiful gardens, including a massive raked sand area. We loved the colours.We walked down to the southern tip of the walk, where the large Nanzen-ji temple complex awaited us. This is a series of buildings, dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with much open space around it. We wandered around, enjoying the peace and the massive presence of history:One curious feature of the area is the presence of a very western-looking aqueduct, built in the late nineteenth century to carry water via the canal to Kyoto. It seems incongruous amid all the formal temple architecture.Our final stop on this walk was the lovely Tenjuan temple, a kind of haven dedicated to the Zen master who served Emperor Kameyama in his religious studies, and most notable now for its gardens. After a long day's stroll, we really enjoyed sitting in the garden, particularly around the lake, where the carp are quite demanding:This was a perfect day. The walk was full of historical interest, and had plenty of places to find refreshment and unusual crafts, of a definitely superior kind - no tourist tat here.We had another day in Kyoto, which will be covered in the next instalment. Stay tuned.[...]



Shiny New Books

2016-01-31T12:52:41.784+00:00

Shiny New Books 8 is now out. As usual, it features an eclectic range of book reviews both fiction and non-fiction, including my take on the fourth Paul Dark espionage novel. There's also my guide to the fiction of Manchester. But don't let that put you off - there's lots of stuff here to whet the appetite of the most jaded reader. I was intrigued by Eleanor Franzen's review of Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time, the first in a series in which contemporary novelists present their versions of Shakespeare plays. I look forward to Howard Jacobson's Merchant of Venice. In Bitter Chill looks like the start of a promising crime fiction career, and a new novel by Umberto Eco is always an event.

In non-fiction, Neurotribes, about Autism, seems to be a compelling read, and Barbara Howard makes a good case for yet another biography of Charlotte Brontë. In the reprints section, interesting to see that the small independent press Daunt has reissued John Collier's quirky 1930 novel His Monkey Wife.
So, lots to read and enjoy at SNB. Have a browse!



Jeremy Duns: The Moscow Option

2016-01-28T09:18:25.046+00:00

The third volume in Jeremy Duns's terrific Paul Dark series takes our troubled agent back to the beginning of his career, to meet his nemesis in a scenario where the world is in danger from a possible nuclear war.I would strongly urge you to read the first two volumes if you haven't done already - see my review of Free Agent and Song of Treason. The stories stand alone well enough, but are so interlinked that it would be a pity to miss how Duns weaves the various complex strands together over the three volumes. And of course, you get three times the pleasure from discovering how Dark ends up with Sarah Severn in the hands of the Soviets in October1969.After the Vatican rooftop climax of the previous volume, Dark is now imprisoned in Moscow, but begins to realise, after an encounter with Brezhnev, that a failed operation in which he was involved at the end of the war as a tyro British agent holds the key to the situation which is even now unravelling into a potential nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA.As ever, the odds are stacked against him. He is locked up in Moscow, the prisoner of a repressive regime, and his unlikely story is not going to be believed by his captors. The situation calls for urgent action, and, as is customary in this series, we get it.Having effected his escape - Duns provides a useful primer on the "Duck and Dive" method of exiting a moving vehicle - the scene is set for a chase across Russia to the Finnish island where Dark had undertaken a perilous mission in the final days of the war.The narrative moves at breakneck pace, and whilst the reader sometimes has to suspend disbelief - would it have been that easy to track down Donald Maclean, and get him to help? - the plot's many twists and turns carry you forward to the inevitable showdown.One of the most satisfying aspects of the Dark series is the way in which the agent's whole career over twenty-five years hinges on a single decision made at the end of the war. That decision governs everything that happens to him later: its presence is almost Hardy-esque in its ubiquity. And Duns, having carefully planted the relevant clues in the previous volumes, brings the consequences of his action home in a climax that telescopes the cold war into one brutal confrontation on remote Finnish ice.The story has its roots, as always with Duns, in the documented history of the cold war years, so while the adventures of Paul Dark are (we hope) fiction, the backdrop against which they are played is fact, however incredible it might seem. Duns manages to handle a large cast of real (Brezhnev, Andropov, Maclean)  and fictional characters very adroitly to present an exciting and wholly engaging tale. The background notes he provides are reassuring, especially when some of the detail seems wildly implausible - would you have thought that the allies formed a "committee on dumping" at the end of the war, and disposed of 296,000 tons of captured German chemical weapons, much of it in the Baltic Sea? Me neither, but it's true.I have been enthralled by this series, and am now thoroughly enjoying Dun's latest, of which more soon. Duns has produced a great addition to the espionage genre, informed by a deep knowledge of the cold war years, but which never loses sight of the need to keep those pages turning. Highly recommended.[...]



Big in Japan 2

2016-01-28T08:17:39.711+00:00

We took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo. These trains are an absolute delight: spacious, smooth, quiet, incredibly fast, and punctual to the second. Mobile phones are banned completely, except in the space between carriages, and even then, you are expected to keep it quiet. The result is a carefree and relaxing journey, everything a typical outing on an English inter-city train is not. And when I say speedy, I mean quick. Our train covered the 318 miles in 140 minutes. We loved the guard, who bowed and greeted the carriage before inspecting tickets. And of course, we had our planned view of Mount Fuji as we sped through the countryside.Our lodging in Kyoto was a small apartment in a modern block just outside the centre. We took a (surprisingly cheap) taxi to the quiet street on which it was situated, collected the key, and phoned our contact (on the mobile provided) as arranged. She arrived quickly, and was very helpful, showing us how everything worked, and giving us some useful tips about the city. If you want an apartment in Kyoto, you couldn't do better. Details are here.We liked the decor - these guys stood guard over us:Kyoto is steeped in history, and unlike many Japanese cities, did  not suffer significant damage in the war, apparently at the behest of Roosevelt's Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson. We walked out on the first evening to see the Pontocho area, a maze of little alleys packed with bars and restaurants. As dark descended, these places opened for the passing trade, and we enjoyed a stroll along the bustling streets, which are no more than passageways, really.Earlier that evening, we had gone into central Kyoto to eat. One of our concerns before travelling had been about food - we thought Japan was not going to be very veggie-friendly. We were wrong. Whilst most restaurants are heavy on fish and meat, there is plenty for the vegetarian, partly as a result of Japan's apparent love affair with Italian food. As we had in Tokyo, we found an Italian restaurant, and had an excellent meal with some decent wine. We were also entertained by the waitresses. At this place, they announced, in Japanese, the meal they were serving as they approached, and then placed the dish on the table with a resounding "Buon Appetito!"We were well placed for a stroll along the Philosopher's way, which could easily be reached on foot from our digs. On our way, we passed the Okazaki Shinto Shrine, where the presiding spirit animal is the rabbit. There were a lot of rabbits. The daily encounter with shrines and temples (shrine: Shinto; temple: Buddhist) was to be a feature of this trip. They are everywhere. But as Prof. Macfarlane tells us, this does not necessarily indicate a devout population. Indeed, as he points out, religious belief is largely a modern phenomenon in Japan, brought about as a reaction to the growth of Western powers. In a fascinating section of his book, he discusses the origins of the renewal of Shintoism:He goes on to point out that the chosen system was given strong support in schools and quickly became part of the cult of Emperor worship that the Japanese had chosen as a kind of counterpart to Christianity. He says:So, whilst there was an ancient tradition which believed in guardian spirits in nature, its modern revival seems to be simply a case of expedience. And now it seems the Japanese use it in the same way some people use superstitious rituals. So if your daughter is taking an exam, yo[...]



Jeremy Duns: Song of Treason

2016-01-26T13:23:36.841+00:00

Not that long into this second instalment of the Paul Dark saga, I found myself reading an obscure article from the online archive of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet.  I had been moved to check something in Duns's text, because it sounded rather unlikely. Had there really been a small explosion in St Peter's, Rome in July 1962?  I clearly should have known better, having read the first novel in the series, and noted the meticulous way in which Duns contextualized his hero's adventures through  authentic historical detail, the sources for which are detailed in the extensive notes at the end of the book. The explosion, along with a mass of other real-life events, is listed in that appendix.

This instalment in Dark's history is set immediately after the end of the previous novel, in May 1969, and like its predecessor, begins with a tremendous and unexpected shock, which propels Dark into a perilous mission to Italy during which he will be once again caught between the competing demands of his cold war masters. Duns skilfully organises the narrative, using Dark's first-person account to lend immediacy to the action-packed plot. Dark, the servant of two masters, has to play one side off against another in an increasingly desperate race against time to prevent an assassination attempt. In the murky world of cold war espionage, no-one is to be trusted, and every action Dark takes is a risky one. In the end, he is forced to risk everything to stop a conspiracy that has its roots in the realignment of European power after the Second World war. As in the first volume, the narrative links together threads from Dark's past - here, his experience in Istanbul in the early fifties, as well as the crucial period in the last days of the war - to produce a complex and believable backdrop to the action.

And the action is relentless. Duns habitually uses precise dates as chapter headings - Thursday 1 May, 1969 - so the reader is aware that the plot is unfolding swiftly, and the main events of the 1969 narrative take place over just three days. The story moves at a blistering pace, hinging on Dark's increasingly frantic attempts to understand the situation he is in, and to save his skin - and that of Sarah Severn, the diplomat's wife who has become caught up in the crossfire of double-dealing and treachery that constitutes normality in Dark's world.

I enjoyed this tremendously. It is a worthy successor to Free Agent, and whets the appetite for the third story, a taster for which is added in the paperback edition. Duns has created a character who can stand alongside Smiley and Harry Palmer in the annals of cold war fiction.



Big in Japan 1

2016-01-26T09:32:39.281+00:00

In October and November last year, 'er indoors and I travelled to Japan. We stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, and travelled to Hiroshima too. It was an absolutely fascinating trip, during which most of my preconceptions about the country were challenged, and I felt that I learned a lot, but also that there was so much more to learn. So, partly in order to debrief myself and try to make sense of what we experienced, I thought I would start a series of posts focusing on the country and our encounter with it.Part of the preparation we did was to read a fascinating book by a Cambridge academic, Alan Macfarlane, which disarmingly starts with a confession that he feels he can never completely understand Japan, and that the "Alice in Wonderland" connotations of his title are intentional: "Japan is a one-way mirror out of which the Japanese can look, but which outsiders cannot look into. It also seems to be a world that even those inside the mirror find difficult to understand."That was quite encouraging in a way - if a distinguished anthropologist, who had visited Japan on numerous occasions over a twenty-year period felt like this, then the pressure was off: we just needed to enjoy the experience. And we did.Our first stop was the Japan Rail office at Narita airport, where we were to pick up our rail passes. This was a valuable lesson in Japanese mores. First, we had ordered and paid for the two-week pass online. A courier had delivered two rather flimsy chitties, which we were to present at the office. We turned up, and were met by a charming woman, who asked us to fill in a form, in which we had to give all the information we had already given online. There seemed to be no point to this: our details were surely in the system, but here, as elsewhere, we found that Japan creates jobs for its people, and this woman's job was to meet and greet, and sort out forms for tourists like us. This was our first taste of the Japanese fondness for bureaucracy and paperwork. Next, at the desk, another lovely young woman made, very deftly, the passes - stout card, with our details in ink - and then arranged, with astonishing speed and efficiency, a series of reservations for the Shinkansen bullet trains we were going to use to travel around, even making sure we had seats on the correct side to view Mount Fuji. More on the trains in a later post.We travelled to our hotel in the business district of Tokyo, Shinjuku, and marvelled at the size of the station, and the huge numbers of people it contained - but also at the sense of calm that prevailed. In big stations in the UK, there's always that sense of chaos just beneath the surface. Here, all was serene. At the hotel, another example of job creation: instead of just going to the desk, three or four people were employed to filter you to the next available desk clerk. Again, everything was done with a smile and with great efficiency. Our room was one with everything the modern traveller might need, but, because it was a 'traditional' room, with tatami matting, it felt as if we were staying in some old Samurai dwelling, rather than on the top floor of a chic hotel.On the street outside the hotel, some work was being done on the road, so a section was coned off - except cones weren't used. Instead, this:Yes, the all-purpose Hello Kitty road traffic control device.We spent just one day in Tokyo before visiting friends in Fussa, a small town to the we[...]