Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon

When it comes to fox hunting, the verdict of Oscar Wilde has endured in the popular imagination for humane reasons. “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” is succinct, in the way that the poet Sassoon was not. However, this volume of memoir has a deserved reputation as a worthwhile, elegiac, and interesting read.

The novelist Angus Wilson has praised the story as an emotional account of becoming mature. However, the narrative has an underlying social critique which is harsher for being superficially gentle. Nonetheless, its depiction of aristocrats and ex-soldiers who never fought is softened by the class origins and temperament of the author.

The surprise is that the partly fictionalised Sassoon was reluctant to condemn and slow to wake up to the reality of war. It was perhaps his easygoing disposition that made him unable to perceive what was happening earlier. One of his friends was killed and he still had not really questioned the logic of what they were doing. Of course, in later volumes of his trilogy he did condemn the war in the strongest terms. Nonetheless, the specific text in question is a cautionary warning about the need for political vigilance.


Mao in Manchester: inside the Whitworth Art Gallery.

An art exhibition in the Whitworth Gallery has underlined the way in which the towering figure of Mao Zedong continues to have a considerable impact on the artistic and philosophical world. For Chinese dissident artists, Mao was simply a tyrant, a key part of a state with totalitarian aspirations. They particularly deplored the cruelty associated with the Cultural Revolution.

One of their number was even directly inspired by the work of Andy Warhol. In 1971, the exponent of Pop Art had claimed that Chinese people: “don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong.” The complex irony of being inspired by an advocate of such a dubious position is self-evident. None of the artists in the show have chosen to present a nuanced picture of life and struggle in Mao’s China.

The philosopher Alain Badiou has articulated a different perspective on some of the worst excesses of Maoism, viewing the Cultural Revolution as an anti-bureaucratic move against corruption:

“So the Cultural Revolution was important because it was the last attempt within that history to modify that in a revolutionary manner. That’s to say they made an attack on the communist state itself to revolutionise communism. It was a failure but many interesting events are failures.”

Perhaps more time is required before artists and philosophers can come to terms with the triumphs and disasters connected with the political life of Mao.

A Short History of Slavery by James Walvin

This brief history of an economic system has been constructed with care. A diversity of sources have been used to illuminate the dehumanising system in question. The text has been composed to focus on the contradictions and cruelties of slavery in the British Empire. However, the forces which pushed for the abolition of the triangular trade have also been documented.

Slavery within the British Empire was a complex phenomenon which contributed to the economic development of capitalism. However, it was not simply morally dubious in the extreme. The wastage of labour power was inefficient, while reoccurring slave revolts were a cause of chronic instability. The political economist Adam Smith had contended that slaves were actually one of the most expensive types of labour on the basis of poor productivity. The lack of incentive for a slave to be industrious was pinpointed by Smith.

When slavery was formally abolished within the British Empire, the British began to compel other nations to travel in a similar direction. The zeal with which Britain had implemented slavery was almost matched by the zeal with which it clamped down on some forms of slavery elsewhere. However, the strength of this account of slavery was not its highlighting of imperial hypocrisy. The power of the narrative was in its attention to the details of how many brave slaves endured barbaric treatment:

“Despite the arduousness of their lives, slaves made the most of their time at rest. Foremost among those impressions were slaves’ musical pleasures…”

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

This colourful novel has the capacity to take the reader on a remarkable journey, but the unusual narrative structure means that an emotional distance is maintained throughout. The stories of romance, insanity and war are told to a child by unusual characters who seem at best partly conscious of their own filtering processes. The result has a pleasant whiff of Woolf or Mansfield, but the apparent commitment to Modernism is watered down by a nostalgic move back towards Romanticism, while the elaborate plot has arguably something of James about it.

‘The Ballad and the Source’ has a captivating strength, but it lacks the sheer power of ‘The Weather in the Streets.’ The emotional intensity of the latter work makes that novel a genuine contender for masterpiece status.

Several of the novels of Rosamond Lehmann have an autobiographical element. Nonetheless, to read her work is to be in the presence of a vivid imagination. ‘The Ballad and the Source’ is no exception to this rule and it is highly recommended as a summer read in particular. It is a story composed in part of remarkable voices which have a haunting quality:

“Sometimes in dreams voices speak suddenly like this, empty ventriloquist voices making trivial statements whose tremendous meaning appals us.”