The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Leo Tolstoy was not a fan of the work of William Shakespeare, even condemning the superb tragedy of King Lear. I am not sure what the great novelist and moralist would have made of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ as this bawdy entertainment might have appalled him. Further, an undertone of nationalism may have antagonised the Christian anarchist.

Tolstoy staked out his position thus:

“Am I to submit my conscience to the acts taking place around me, am I to proclaim myself in agreement with the Government, which hangs erring men, sends soldiers to murder, demoralises nations with opium and spirits, and so on, or am I to submit my actions to conscience, i.e., not participate in Government, the actions of which are contrary to reason?”

Fortunately for comedy, Shakespeare was not too censorious. His familiar hero Falstaff becomes embroiled in a complex plot of puns, drinks, tricks and innuendoes. Falstaff is too old to outwit the other characters. A victim of his appetites, the large knight is forced into several uncomfortable situations. Admirers of Tolkien might be surprised to see a reference to a bilbo. Coincidentally perhaps, Evans declares:

“But, stay, I smell a man of middle earth!”

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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

This debut novel is a grim take on life in modern Nigeria. The body count is high and the suffering intense. The text contains a prominent reference to Chinua Achebe, author of the superb ‘Things Fall Apart’, but it lacks the awesome discipline of that seminal work. Nevertheless, it is possible to derive some satisfaction from various aspects of the tale.

Of the violent deaths, the killing of an unwell man is arguably the most shocking. Sensitive readers should choose another narrative to examine. In an insane search for retribution, some of the finest writing can be seen:

“I could not kill, either. It is evil, and how might I, only a child, do it? But my brother had said he would carry out the plan with all the powers of persuasion, determined that he would succeed, for his desire had become an indestructible leech.”

Adrian Henri: selected and unpublished poems 1965-2000

This large collection of poetry is a tribute to the eclectic nature of the influences which informed the varied output of Adrian Henri. There is plenty of evidence of versatility and humour on display. However, a certain sadness and discomfort surfaces in much of the work. For example, the essence of unrequited love is captured quite adroitly:

“You make me feel like an empty lift

You make me feel like a worthless gift”

Nonetheless, it is dissatisfaction with his own identity that seems to haunt the poet. Fortunately, he has the ability to make some fun at his own expense. Nevertheless, his excessive ambition is discernible. His hot desire to compare himself with others is remarkable. He lists diverse heroes who he would seemingly have liked to be:

“Marx Dostoyevsky

Bakunin Ray Bradbury

Miles Davis Trotsky

Stravinsky and Poe”

It is worth noting that Marx and Bakunin were not amicable comrades. Their philosophical conflict had historic implications. While Bakunin predicted that orthodox Marxism would fail to bring down the state, his attempts at theorising capitalism were not as rich as those of his antagonist. It seems strange to be inspired equally by an anarchist and by Marx. Ultimately, many people on the left prefer to focus on the development of Marxism or anarchism. It is perhaps the inability to be content and the related inability to choose which ensnared Henri in paralysing contradictions.

The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley

This text should be required reading for acolytes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It might focus too much on the upper echelons of the Labour Party. It might neglect the importance of ideology. It might not explore critical details about the input of trade unions like the Warwick Agreement of 2004. However, it is a readable account of a political project that was destroyed by foreign policy blunders and inappropriate economic policies.

Further, the book underlines the fact that presentation is not enough. Politics cannot be reduced to a form of public relations. Managing the message is insufficient. Citizens know the gap between slick discourse and delivery in the real world. A successful political movement should impact significantly on the lived experiences of ordinary people. Chasing flattering media coverage is not good enough.

The narrative can read like a list of failure. Certainly it does not concentrate on the positive. Complexity is sometimes ignored. As a result, it is advisable to try to acquire a ‘history from below’ to counteract the tangible bias, but the author makes great use of his elite sources. The tragedy of Prime Minister Tony Blair is summed up succinctly with an apt quote:

“I began hoping to please all of the people all the time; and ended up wondering if I was pleasing any of the people any of the time.”

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This poetic novel won the Orange Prize many years ago. A claustrophobic melodrama, it is redeemed by the quality of its prose. There is little realism on show, but the pages turn swiftly. It might have been better for the author to avoid trying to tie the text to actual events, but this quibble is not highly significant.

There is no point in summarising the intricate plot. Nor is it worthwhile to describe the crowd of implausible characters. However, it makes sense to pay tribute to the simple effectiveness of the language used. It is hard to pick out a special passage, but this conclusion to a chapter is typical:

“I should have asked him into the house, given him something to eat and drink. It was exhilarating to be deliberately ungracious to him, to play against the grain of my liking for him. He made me see those orange trees kindling with fruit, sweet-scented in a velvet night. As I walked away from him into the house I felt myself smile.”

Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West

This ambitious novel takes its artistic characters on a colourful journey through the Great Depression. The heroine is a pianist who mixes with a variety of social classes on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the text is uneven, it is really poetic in places. The author was committed to the maintenance of high artistic standards and wrote:

“no good can be done by there being more bad music in the world.”

At the same time, Rebecca West seems to have taken a dislike to the Bloomsbury Group. Her work contains several disparaging references to gay people. One individual committed suicide because her son was caught in a compromising situation, for example. This unfortunate woman was then blamed for what had happened:

“Every day she grew less like a woman. It was no wonder if her sons were part men and part women.”

Although there may be a gap between the fictional remarks and the real attitudes of the author, a distaste for gay snobs and their antics runs through the book. While snobbery is an unpleasant trait, it is a shame that this novel is haunted by a fear of something improperly understood.