The Golden Bough (book) – Review


The Golden Bough is a famous work, and with it Sir James Frazer pretty much founded the school of ‘comparative anthropology’. It is a massive text which he revised and re-published several times; the abridged edition I read clocks in at over 800 pages, so it’s not a quick read. For the most part, it is relatively readable, so long as you accept that you won’t be familiar with all of Frazer’s references. Essentially, what he tried to do in The Golden Bough was to survey primitive magical rituals across the globe and the span of human history, and he incorporated a dizzying amount of material from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Frazer’s central idea is that there is a level of consistency across the magical beliefs and ritual practices of peoples around the world which suggests they stemmed from a common approach to understanding the natural world and in particular the passage of the seasons. Many of the rites, he suggests, have the character of practices designed to influence or control the earth’s natural cycle, or at a later stage of economic development, to boost agricultural production. Parts of the book deal with quite ghoulish subjects, particularly human sacrifice, which Frazer identifies as a common practice across many agricultural civilizations, in every part of the world. Some of these will be familiar to readers from movies and popular culture (cf. The Wicker Man).

Frazer has quite a pedagogical and accessible style, considering the challenging nature of his material, and he also has a dry sense of humour which brightens things up. Of course, as he was writing in the 1890s-1910s, there is a certain amount of what would be regarded now as politically incorrect terminology. But Frazer fundamentally has a humanist viewpoint and doesn’t take a racialist view of the world, instead highlighting the similarities between peoples and cultures at different stages of historical development. His writing style features the typically Victorian method of providing page after page of examples to illustrate his points, which can make for tiresome reading on occasion, and I would say to anyone considering reading this that it’s fine to skip forward from time to time. I read it cover-to-cover myself, but I wouldn’t have lost anything by cutting out large sections.

One of the reasons I was interested in The Golden Bough was because I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes this book as its starting point. I kind of wish I had read this first, as it would have helped me understand the context of The White Goddess a bit better. The Golden Bough is more readable, comprehensible, and responsible than The White Goddess, which has its points of interest but is ultimately a very self-indulgent work. Frazer was criticized for one of his main theses, though, to do with the role of corn-gods and ‘dying and resurrected deities’ in Asia Minor and Greece and Rome. This section was probably the least interesting part of the book, leaving aside the academic issues which I’m not really able to comment on.

One of the best services Frazer does here is how he documents pagan festivals which were widely practised around the world, and shows how they have been subsumed into common religious festivals and other events that persist to this day. Some of this was highly controversial when he wrote the book, particularly his treatment of the major festivals associated with the death of Christ. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween have a heritage going back at least 5,000 years, and probably a lot longer; they were co-opted by various religions in order to try and gain legitimacy by associating their mythology with well-established, common practices. There is a fundamental relationship between our intellectual and emotional lives, the mode of production, and the natural world, which urges us to celebrate or commemorate at certain times of the year. It’s far too common, if not universal, to be a coincidence.

Frazer’s book and overall method is deeply unfashionable in academic circles today: the whole idea of shedding light on different cultural practices by comparing them to one another is looked on with scorn by many who would argue that by doing so we lose the ‘singularity’ of specific practices by incorporating them into a ‘Eurocentric’ model. At its worst, this school of thought holds that the mere act of such comparison is itself harmful, causing psychic damage to the people whose culture you are comparing. There is no doubt that Frazer’s approach was Eurocentric, and that there are significant problems with his method and many of his conclusions. However, anyone who can read this book and not be moved by the common humanity its pages reveal is either a pseudo-radical poseur or a jaded cynic. Frazer not only points out the similar cultural practices among diverse people around the world, he also begins to unveil the functional basis of ritual and mythology, which helped lay the basis for later materialist understandings of cultural behaviour.


We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt.” p. 218-9

The White Goddess (book) – Review


I first came across references to The White Goddess while doing some general research on Celtic mythology, specifically the Morrigan, or Morrigan, the famous Irish goddess of fate and death. Pagan myths and legends have always interested me, and so I was quite eager to check out this book, which is widely regarded as one of the most important to investigate the links between goddess-worship and matriarchal culture. The book is written by Robert Graves, someone I’ve admired ever since I watched the TV adaptation of his most famous work, I, Claudius.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, it took me several months to read The White Goddess, which is a very challenging book. Graves is not primarily a historian, but a poet, and he describes his book as a ‘Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth’, rather than an academic work of history, anthropology or even literary criticism. The book is suffused with classical, literary, historical and mythological allusions and references, and it is frankly impossible and pointless to try and pursue all of the twists and turns Graves makes as he pursues his argument. This is partly because the book is ludicrously dense, as Graves bombards the reader with endless obscure references from all over Europe and the Near East, dating from any time between about 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

Much of the book is devoted to some hopelessly convoluted analysis of a few little-known Welsh and Irish myths and legends. Whatever the inrinsic interest of these stories, their appeal or indeed significance is not well communicated by Graves, who gets hopelessly lost in the maze of his own investigations and speculations. However, the one good thing I got out of these sections was a love for trees. I’ve never been interested in trees or plants, but the prevailing importance of trees in Celtic myths and legends is something I now appreciate, and I’m grateful to the book for opening my eyes to this hugely important, and indeed beautiful subject.

Graves’s critical method is quite undisciplined, and the book would have benefited from proper editing; but then again, it probably would have been impossible to edit this book properly. Graves is obsessed with the idea that all ‘true’ poetry is inspired by a ‘single poetic theme’, Goddess-worshship, and his book essentially consists of an unending effort to find evidence for this argument. At times it’s akin to a form of monomania. Graves has an absurd method of presenting ‘evidence’: if something seems to flatly contradict his thesis on the face of it, he will simply assert that the ancients got it wrong, and that in fact the true allusion or story behind the myth is literally the opposite of what it has been taken to mean for thousands of years. At times he presents a credible reason for this, but time and again he simply asserts it without backing it up at all.

What’s worse, towards the end of the book Graves has two chapters in which major parts of his argument consist of pure fiction. The first is a novel interpretation of the meaning of 666, the ‘number of the beast’, where Graves converts the number into Roman numerals and then imagines a sequence of words starting with the appropriate letters, DCLXVI. The second is a cringeworthy section where he ‘imagines’ a conversation between some Romans discussing the subject matter of his book. It’s excruciating and embarrassing to read, and a massive disappointment considering that these sections come towards the end of the book, just when you’re expecting his argument to finally come together in a coherent way. Graves describes these chapters as the product of ‘analeptic thought’, referring to the idea that you can throw your mind back in time to get a new perspective on something that happened a long time ago. This has been suggested as a way of examining prehistoric art, by looking at its intrinsic visual patterns and moving away from the methods of art criticism that are a modern construct and arguably not valid for examining prehistoric creations. However, there’s a difference between that, and what Graves does here, which I would simply describe as ‘making things up’.

The sad thing is, that the book does actually contain nuggets of inspiration as well as some fascinating comments on comparative religion and the development of religious mythology and iconography. Graves takes his inspiration from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a pioneering book which analysed the material basis for myths and legends in ancient and prehistoric rituals. This book’s best sections are in that tradition, and Graves highlights familiar religious tropes which can be traced across not just Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and Judaeo-Christian religion, but also between Norse, Germanic, Celtic, and Babylonian religious custom. Moreover, although Graves takes the subject in a personal and subjective direction, the core subject matter is something that has interested me since discovering the ‘materialist conception of history’ as a student and reading Friedrich Engels book, ‘The origins of the family, private property, and the state.’

The key theme here is the role of ‘The White Goddess’, also referred to as the Triple Goddess, who recurs in most religious pantheons as a mother/wife figure, often in a triple aspect as mother, daughter, and crone (or as maiden, seductress, and hag). The argument is that in matriarchal society, before the development of agriculture and before the Bronze Age, this goddess was a prevailing archetype across most of Europe and indeed the wider world, whose primary position was overthrown by male gods over a period of time due to the rise of patriarchal society and the concomitant development of patriarchal religion. This goddess figure was thenceforth subjugated in her commonly known forms such as Isis, Hera/Juno, Frigg/Freya, etc.

One thing that surprised me was that Graves doesn’t seem to examine the role of Gaia-type goddesses. In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia (‘Mother Earth’) is the original deity who gave birth to the fatherless Uranus, and then mated with him to produce offspring which included Cronus (the father of Zeus). The trope of a virgin birth, or the child without a father, is an obvious indicator of matriarchy or matrilinear descent, ie, a form of social organization where a child’s paternity is either unknown or unimportant. But Graves tends to shy away from this kind of social comment in favour of obtuse linguistic references. He also makes no comment on the well-known ‘fat lady’ iconography that existed across Europe in the neolithic period, and which is a clear sign of worship of fertility and the female form.

It’s a significant problem that Graves did not do a better job with this book. This is an important subject, and one can’t help think that he was onto something with his central argument. The problem is that his irresponsible and self-indulgent treatment of the subject matter tends to discredit the whole line of investigation. Sadly, if you do an internet search about matriarchal religions today you’ll find the subject is largely the preserve of mystics and cranks, which is a far cry from the late-nineteenth century when there was a great deal of serious study devoted to this important subject, by women and men alike. As Graves points out in connection to the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy, the onward march of time brings regression as well as progression.


The intellectual life of the British working classes (book) – Review

In The intellectual life of the British working classes, Jonathan Rose attempts the significant and monumental task of documenting the literary interests of working-class British men and women from the industrial revolution (ca. 1800-1820) until the Second World War. Using primary sources, consisting mainly of working-class memoirs and but also social and statistical surveys and library records where possible, Rose is able to show how working-class people reacted to great works of literature. He shows which authors had enduring significance to working people, and also attempts to show how an appreciation of certain authors and literary works related to various individual and collective efforts toward self-improvement, as well as working-class movements for political and social reform, chiefly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is a very important subject and Rose received substantial plaudits for this work, which was first published in 2001. I recently read the second edition, which was published by Yale University Press in 2010. The book is quite long, at over 450 pages, with another 100 pages devoted to endnotes and a middling index. Rose’s book seems to have been received well not only among the academic community, but also among the liberal intelligentsia that is generally thought of as comprising ‘the left’ these days. While I agree that the book has its strengths, I would argue that these chiefly relate to its subject matter; and that, in fact, Rose’s treatment of the subject is flawed and ultimately stymied by his ideological approach, centrally by his overweening and obsessive hostility towards Marxism and the communist movement.

The attitudes of educated working-class people towards great works of literature is an important subject,  and to his credit, Rose motivates this reasonably well. Although ‘canons’ of classical works are often derided now as either elitist, misogynist, or racist, throughout history canonical works have inspired people from oppressed backgrounds. The desire to access culture, and to be able to live the life of the mind, not just to worry about where the next meal is coming from, has been part and parcel of most progressive social and political movements that have been based on the working class. Although particular left-wing political tendencies, ranging from anarchist to Maoist, have been hostile to culture and intellectual development, for the most part traditional trade union and Marxist movements have placed a major emphasis on education and literacy. The spread of literacy and reading was a core driver of democratic religious and political movements from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, connected to everything from the Reformation and the vernacular Bible, to campaigns against the Stamp Tax and ‘Taxes on Knowledge’. It is important to document how working people have reacted to ‘great’ literature over the centuries, because it helps us understand how people thought in the past, and also because it counteracts elitist propaganda about what working class people or the poor are interested in. Think back to the criticism of the Tories after their ‘beer and bingo’ budget a couple of years ago. 

Rose emphasizes the enduring value working people have placed on the canonical authors of English literature, in particular William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. He also highlights some authors who left-wing historians might not ‘want’ or expect working-class people to have admired or enjoyed, but Rose points out that often what readers (especially inexperienced readers) take away from a book is not necessarily what we associate with the author; an inexperienced reader may find a relatively simple idea or isolated episode to be inspirational or profound, without relating it to an author’s entire corpus or socio-historical context. Which is fair enough, and doesn’t in itself transform a reactionary author into a progressive one.

Rose repeatedly emphasizes the level of interest in pulp fiction, or escapist trash, that working-class people have had over the years,  which is common throughout history. But time and again, we find working-class people independently discovering great literature, and describing in euphoric terms the difference it has made to their lives and their understanding of the world. These sections tend to be the highlight of the book and are a testament to the value of literacy and reading. It is often people from the most underprivileged backgrounds, particularly women, who give the most striking descriptions of the impact that reading had on their lives.

Rose relies heavily on his source material, and I felt that he often failed to incorporate it into his narrative in a satisfying way. At times, the book reads like a postgraduate dissertation, where he makes use of any and every reference he can find to bulk out his argument, without showing sufficient discrimination or consideration for the reader. For that reason, the book can be difficult to read, and I do wonder just how many of the people who have bestowed upon it glowing reviews have actually read it from beginning to end.

Rose’s writing style isn’t the book’s chief problem, though, and neither is his tiresome habit of talking about the role of the ‘frame’ to analyse literary interpretation. Essentially, Rose argues that the way a reader engages with a literary work is shaped by the ‘frame’ they employ when reading it, which is connected to their view of the world and their place in it. For this reason, people can have wildly different interpretations of a work by virtue of having a different ‘frame’.

More problematic is Rose’s lionizing of the intellectual dilettante as a kind of ideal literary type. Throughout the book, Rose’s heroes are those who place nothing higher than their favourite authors, particularly if they happen to rise through the ranks of the Labour Party and make a career of criticizing communism. Ultimately, it feels like a teleological and self-serving posture, as if the liberal academic sensibility of 2000 AD is the epitome of humanity’s intellectual development.

Rose takes swipes against postmodernism throughout the book, many of which are completely correct, but he also finds himself trapped within its intellectual rubric. Without a hint of self-awareness, Rose lambasts how “professional vocabularies” and “postmodernist jargon” have been used as a “form of encryption, permitting communication among elites while shutting out everyone else”. In particular, he views the use of “jargon” by Marxists as an attempt to exclude newcomers from political movements. The lack of self-awareness evident here brought to mind the following from Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory:

“The characteristic feature of contemporary literary radicalism is that it rarely addresses the question of its own determination by the conditions of its production and the class location of its agents. In the rare case where this issue of one’s own location–hence of the social determination of one’s own practice–is addressed at all, even fleetingly, the stance is characteristically that of a very poststructuralist kind of ironic self- referentiality and self-pleasuring.”

The main problem with Rose’s book is that his loathing of communism causes him to present a completely skewed view of the role of Communists and Marxist theory in the intellectual history of the British working class. In general, whenever Communists enter Rose’s narrative they come across like anti-intellectual, sectarian, anti-social maniacs frothing at the mouth with Marxist verbiage. Now, that’s not to say that there have never been such characters in the communist movement; there obviously were, especially during the high tide of Stalinism; but then there have been in all political parties. Moreover, Rose refuses to acknowledge the liberating effect Marxism had on the intellectual lives of millions of people throughout the twentieth century. Again, to bowdlerize Aijaz Ahmad criticizing Edward Said’s anti-Marxism: for many people, the act of identifying with a political vision (in this case, Marxism), far from cutting off intellectual vistas, actually opened up new ones, and enabled them to see much further than they would have if they merely continued to cherry-pick individual ideas from disparate works of literature. It’s not the same for everyone, but by failing to acknowledge this fact Rose does his subject a massive disservice. In the end, having adopted a dismissive attitude towards large sections of the British working class (ie, those infected with communist ideology), Rose spends much of the last part of the book looking at the reading habits not of industrial workers, but of insurance salesmen; not exactly what the book’s title brings to mind.

In a book this length, and with this style, it is inevitable you’ll find statements that seem odd. For example, “After the implosion of world Communism and the 1997 ‘New Labour’ landslide, the WEA [Workers Educational Association] emphasis on non-Marxian socialism seems admirably far-sighted”… at least, until Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election in 2015. Rose occasionally steps on unsafe ground in his treatment of established authors, too, such as his bizarre suggestion that Thomas Hardy intended a hostile attitude towards Jude Fawley in Jude the obscure: that “His efforts to gain admission to Christminster are depicted as an exercise in futility, motivated partly by selfish ambition”; a view surely shared by few who have read the book, which inspires sympathy for Jude’s doomed efforts in a world hostile to the idea the working man has a right to education.

The fact that Rose gets away with giving the Marxist tradition in the British working-class such a hard time, is a reflection of the hostility towards Marxism that is so central to the bourgeois academic establishment. It is hard to think of another area of knowledge where such an obvious agenda could be advanced so brazenly, without any contrary evidence being presented. Considering that so many of the book’s testimonies describe literature’s power to let you see the world from another point of view, it’s a damning irony.



Gateway (novel) – Review


Gateway falls into that large category of Sci-Fi literature where the science fiction is interesting but the human drama is severely lacking. This is why I think the Sci-Fi genre, like horror, is especially suited to the novella form: the authors often have interesting technical ideas, or a good imagination, but lack the basic writing sense necessary to sustain full-length novels. Reading Gateway was a similar exercise to reading The Martian, which I reviewed a few months ago.

Written in 1976, Gateway is set in a dystopian future where overpopulation and resource scarcity are the order of the day. A decrepid humanity has managed to populate Venus (by living in tunnels inside the planet), and is searching for resources and livable planets elsewhere in space. Humanity hit the jackpot when it discovered ‘Gateway’, an asteroid engineered by an extinct, technologically advanced race called the Heechee to serve as a hub for FTL exploration of deep space. Nobody knows how it works, but basically Gateway is full of alien space craft that can be set to auto-pilot themselves to semi-random points in space. About one-half to one-third of the ships come back with their crews alive and undamaged, and only a few of those who survive actually find anything useful. But those few can become super-rich, and the desperate conditions endured by most humans means there is no shortage of volunteers.

Gateway’s main problem is its central character, Robinette ‘Bob’ Broadhead. Broadhead starts off as an unlikable protagonist and by the end of the story I foud him completely insufferable. Broadhead’s a boring, selfish, cowardly, aggressive, deceitful, petulant philanderer who initially reminded me of Jimmy from Margaret Attwood’s Year of the Flood series. However by the end of the novel I decided he was much worse than Jimmy. A major part of the novel revolves around Robinette’s psychotherapy sessions as he tries to exorcise the demons incurred during his days in space. He spends these sessions avoiding any meaningful exploration of his issues, and moaning to his therapist about irrelevant subjects in a deeply infantile manner. I don’t see how the author thought these sections, which are literally all about avoiding talking about anything important, would be remotely interesting or enjoyable. The novel also contains one scene of violence against a female character which I found really disturbing, not least because of the consequences (or lack thereof) later in the story. These days, if you wanted to address this theme you would be expected to handle it responsibly, but I suppose in 1976 maybe those expectations weren’t there, in this genre anyway.

The strength of the novel lies in its depiction of mysterious alien technology and in the exploration of space. The Gateway environment and Heechee technology are really fascinating and my impression is they have iconic status in Sci-Fi culture. The novel also has one good storytelling device in that it includes a lot of asides, embedded clips from newspaper

ads or ships’ logs, that provide context and amplify Gateway’s claustrophobic atmosphere. At its best, the novel put me in mind of Mass Effect’s Citadel, and indeed I wonder whether that game’s writers were thinking at all about the Heechee when they conceived of the Protheans. The two races perform very similar narrative functions.

This book is probably important to read for anyone with a serious interest in Sci-Fi literature. For anyone else, there’s no reason to leave the Food Mines and visit Gateway.



Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way (book) – Review


Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, was a critical and commercial success when it was released in 2002. The bulk of that book dealt with Campbell’s career in films and TV, stretching back to his debut in the Evil Dead series as a budding actor and filmmaker, through his work in TV shows like Xena and Hercules. Those sections were full of insights into the reality of life for a moderately successful working actor, dealing with the pressures of the job and managing the expectations of an unusually engaged and quirky fan base. I really enjoyed those sections, and Campbell came across as a likable, humble and intelligent guy with a great wry sense of humour. I was particularly pleased to discover he’s firm friends with Lucy Lawless, who he starred alongside in Xena.

The success of Campbell’s first book obviously inspired a follow-up, which we have here. Make Love is a novel set around Campbell’s unlikely involvement in a big-budget romantic comedy directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger (if those choices seem odd, bear in mind the book is set circa 2005).  If you’ve seen Campbell’s film, My Name Is Bruce, then this novel will feel familiar: it’s a comedy centered around Campbell, who sends himself up in a very self-deprecating portrayal, although he’s not quite as squalid and sleazy here as he is in that film. Campbell gets himself into a number of hilarious scrapes while researching his film role as a relationship-advice-bestowing doorman, which lead to (among other things) duelling outside a Gentleman’s Club, being arrested for attacking Colin Powell at a Spongebob Squarepants film premiere, and inducting Gere and Zellweger into the dark arts of B-Movie production.

The book is entertaining throughout, and hilarious times, but isn’t really satisfying as a novel. See, a big part of the plot here is that there is a conspiracy against Campbell along the lines that he is infecting Nichols’ A-List film with something known as the ‘B-Movie virus’. Problem is, when making the film Campbell does regularly suggest doing things the way they’re done in B-Movies, which really does cause problems for the production. I’m not sure how much of if it is deliberate–maybe he’s trying to point out just how lacking in self-awareness this version of himself is–but there’s such a pile-up of parody and satire that it can be hard to know what is part of the plot and what is just Campbell making fun of himself. At the centre of the story is (of course) a deranged fan with a grudge, and the ending degenerates into surreal slapstick and hokey action that would be worthy of the even the lowest-budget B-movies.

But most people won’t be reading this book for the plot or narrative cohesion. The best parts of the book are Campbell’s portrayal of himself and other celebrities, and the frequent jokes about lazy, selfish actors and arrogant and aloof executives. Campbell has a great turn of phrase, and there is something naturally comedic about his diction and delivery–discernible also in his movies–brilliantly communicated through his prose and dialogue here. The book is also punctuated with a lot of visual gags, in the form of photoshopped photos of Bruce in various unlikely or compromising situations, or of one of the many unwholesome alter egos he assumes over the course of the book.

As in his autobiography, Campbell is much more candid about the nature of the business than you’ll find in most books or documentaries, although because it is a work of fiction this is of course less educational than If Chins Could Kill. For that reason, this book is probably harder to recommend if you’re not already a fan of Bruce Campbell. This is a book for confirmed fans, or for people who don’t yet know they’re fans. I would guess that narrower appeal is why Campbell hasn’t published any books since this came out, but as time goes by we’re surely getting closer to a true sequel to his autobiography. Groovy.


Invincible (book) – Review


I don’t talk about football often on this blog, but I’ve been an Arsenal supporter now for about 25 years. George Graham’s Arsenal won the league in 1990-91 when I was seven years old. David O’Leary still played for Arsenal then! Paul Merson and David Rocastle were my favourite Arsenal players, followed by Ian Wright when he signed shortly after. Ian Wright was a wonderful goalscorer and great character, and his exhuberant personality and joyful style of play appealed to me as it would to any child. Wright’s goalscoring and Arsenal’s stingy defence dragged Arsenal through to the mid-90s with a few successful cup runs. But eventually, the dour style of play and various off-field problems (particularly a culture of addiction centred around drinking and gambling) led to Graham’s exit, precipitated by a bung scandal when he signed a couple of average Scandinavian players. Arsenal had become a mediocre team; but things were soon to change.

‘Invincible’ is a celebration of Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ season, when they went unbeaten over the course of winning the 2003-2004 Premier League title. The book is careful to trace that success back to the period almost a decade earlier when David Dein first brought in Arsene Wenger as the club’s new manager. Foreign managers were practically unknown and treated with great scepticism in Britain at that time; but there was already a feeling of rebirth around Arsenal, which had started with the signing of legendary Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp and England midfielder David Platt just a season or two before. Wenger’s first signing was a young Patrick Vieira from AC Milan, and author Amy Lawrence does a good job of capturing the impact of Vieira’s first performance in a 4-1 route of Sheffield Wednesday. Wenger also credits Vieira with establishing his own credibility. Eight years later, Vieira would go on to score the last goal in Arsenal’s invincible season, and the importance of his contribution to Arsenal and Wenger’s success over his nine years at the club cannot be overstated.

The book’s arrangement is not strictly chronological, but Lawrence does chart the development of Arsenal’s team between 1996 and 2004. Arsenal had won two ‘doubles’ (winning league and FA Cup in the same season) prior to 2003-2004, in 1998 and 2002. But those teams had been hybrids, including players Wenger had signed as well as important members of Graham’s old Arsenal defense, like Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, and goalkeeper David Seaman. At the risk of oversimplifying, the success of those teams stemmed from a dynamic, European style of attack and possession (with most midfielders and attackers hailing from outside the UK) and George Graham’s well-drilled English defense. The book makes the point that Wenger didn’t really understand defensive work and left it to captain Tony Adams to organize the defense. But by the 2003 season, Graham’s defenders had all left and retired, with the exception of an ageing Martin Keown. As such, the 2003-2004 team was entirely Wenger’s creation–and what a team it was.

Wenger has never been a literal advocate of ‘Total Football’ but his teams have always had a lot in common with that model, and his Invincible team was the best example. In Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Wenger had arguably the best combination of strikers in the world at the time, Henry being probably the world’s best footballer in that season. He had great attacking midfielders in Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg; a robust, skilled, and determinded midfield in captain Vieira and Gilberto Silva; and a powerful, pacy, and technically proficient defensive line featuring England internationals Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell and young African footballers Kolo Toure and Lauren. In goal, Wenger had signed the ‘mad German’, Jens Lehmann, to replace David Seaman. Lehmann was Germany’s second-choice goalkeeper but only because Oliver Kahn, their number one, was aruably the best goalkeeper in the world. Wenger also had a number of talented replacements at his disposal, such as hardworking and talented midfielders like Ray Parlour and Edu, experienced strikers Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, and veteran defender Keown.

Going through the team now, it’s clear why they did so well–it had no weaknesses and featured some of the world’s best players in every part of the team. Moreover, as the book makes clear, it had some great leaders and fighters, intelligent and experienced men of strong character like Bergkamp, Henry, Vieira, Lehmann and Campbell, who were absolutely determined to win and would accept nothing less than total commitment from themselves or their teammates. This aspect of football has been lost a little in the last decade, and Arsenal have certainly suffered from lacking these sorts of characters. As much as I dislike Manchester United, for years they benefited from the same sort of strength and determination, driven on by footballers like Roy Keane and Gary Neville.

It is to be expected that a book like this will do a good job of reminding you how good the Invincibles were. However, I would have appreciated a bit more insight into why that was. David Dein features prominently in the early stages of this  book, and indeed Dein was absolutely central to a number of the deals that brought players like Campbell and Gilberto to Arsenal. The book also fails to really examine why Arsenal failed to win more than the league in 2003-2004, a year when they were probably the best team in the world. Arsenal were on course for the treble (league, European and FA Cup) until a single week at the beginning of April when they were beaten in the FA Cup semi-final by Manchester United, and knocked out of the European Cup in the quarter-final by Chelsea. Both of these ties were matches Arsenal were expected to win, and it was a point of great disappointment to players and fans that Arsenal would not repeat Manchester United’s ‘treble’ season of 1999.

Lawrence doesn’t dwell on this, which is understandable given the celebratory tone of the book, but again, I feel there is more to be said on this subject than we have here. The only glimpse of insight into these defeats is Bergkamp speculating that Arsenal ‘lacked confidence’ to go through, while Wenger comments on the difficulty of competing in three competitions at once. However, even with hindsight Wenger seems to just suggest he should have sacrificed participation in the FA Cup for a better chance in Europe, which surprised me. That year Arsenal should have been able to win all three competitions, and that they didn’t weakens the legacy of that team as well as Wenger’s own legacy.

Going a whole season unbeaten is certainly a remarkable achievement and something of which all Arsenal fans and everyone associated with that team should be proud. But it is a somewhat provisional achievement at the same time, and should have been crowned with the European or at least FA Cup. I would have welcomed more comment on the achievement from outside Arsenal, from neutral observers or even critics of the club, to try and ground the achievement a bit more fully. Arsenal’s finest achievements of that period are all tainted by caveats–unbeaten in the league, but choked in Europe; a season unbeaten, but cheated out of going 50 games unbeaten by a Wayne Rooney dive at Old Trafford; two ‘double’ seasons, but never retaining the championship the following year. For all of Arsenal’s success over those years, there was and remains a sense of ‘what if’, and frustration that Arsenal never really usurped Manchester United.

The book makes a good point that the unbeaten season came just in time, before Roman Abramovich’s billions turned Chelsea from nobodies into one of the biggest clubs in world football, followed of course by the same pattern at Manchester City. There is scope for a whole book on that subject and on Arsenal’s peculiar ten-year trophyless spell from 2005-2014, while they paid for the move from 38,000 capacity Highbury to the 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium. Author and Arsenal fan Nick Hornby makes an interesting point about how Arsenal’s dominance in 2003-2004 damaged the relationship between the club and fans, many of whom expected that dominance to continue, when in fact it dissipated soon after that notorious match at Old Trafford. For one season, Arsenal were the best team in Europe and playing football on a par with, or better than, giants like Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that fans like myself expected that to continue, but there is an element of truth in that subsequent teams are always going to be compared to the Invincibles, and will always come off second-best.

Overall, I enjoyed Lawrence’s book, and its weaknesses are probably down to its limited scope more than anything else. There’s not really much here for anyone who isn’t already an Arsenal fan, and I maintain that’s a missed opportunity; and I came away from reading it without having learned much of anything new. It’s nice to be re-acquainted with the class of 2003-4(Ashley Cole excepted of course), but also a depressing reminder of how much the football business has changed for the worse.


Mr Mercedes (novel) – Review


I used to love Stephen King’s work. As a teenager and into my early twenties, I devoured most of his early novels, from Cujo and Firestarter to the Bachman Books to the Dead Zone and It to Needful Things and Desperation. As I got older I eventually tired of his style and, as well, King went through a period of really bad writing in the 2000s. But in recent years his writing has recovered somewhat and I enjoyed Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to The Shining, released in 2009.

So, killing a few hours waiting for a delayed plane before Christmas, I decided to pick up Mr Mercedes, one of King’s recent offerings. Released in 2014, the novel is a self-styled ‘hard-boiled detective book’ and marketed as King’s first foray into noir territory. I took that with a pinch of salt as King has always simultaneously dealt with varied subject matter while having his own distinctive style and I expected to find that here–accurately, as it turned out.

I wanted to like this book, but sadly, it sucks. It starts quite strongly, with a dramatic opening that sets the scene for the rest of the novel. This is followed by an unusual and very interesting section where the wretched protagonist, retired detective Bill Hodges, reads a lengthy letter from a mass murderer who evaded capture during his career. I found this interesting because the letter is written in a curiously affected style which immediately brought to my mind the thought patterns of someone with moderate to severe autism. I have very rarely, if ever, encountered this style in fiction, and I don’t know where King got the idea, or whether it was even intentional, but it’s uncanny.

The problem is that King uses up his two good ideas for the book inside the first twenty or thirty pages, the rest of the novel serving up a diet of unapologetic cliche. As indicated above, Hodges is a big part of the problem. The retired detective is completely lacking in charisma or charm. Self-regarding, shallow and obese, he is said to be contemplating suicide at the beginning of the story but nothing about his personality or life reaches out to the reader. He is supposed to have been a brilliant detective but the detective work that goes on here is perfunctory, and you will learn nothing about the actual content of policing as you might expect in a procedural novel. The early stages of the book make knowing references to shows like The Wire but, to me, King demonstrates here a lack of will to engage with the reality of American police work and instead borrows liberally from every half-baked cliche from mob and crime films of the 1980s and 1990s.

Hodges is in his early 60s, massively overweight and spends his days eating and watching daytime TV, before being lured out of retirement by the eponymous villain. He’s obsessed by puddings and sweets–yes, really. Yet somehow, he is seduced by a beautiful, athletic, charming, and charismatic multimillionaire heiress who is almost twenty years his junior and who apparently hasn’t had sex in two years. Wow, I never knew there was such a shortage of eligible men in America. Oh, and she also has him on a PI retainer for thousands of dollars a week. In other words, it’s a fantasy for delusional middle-aged men.

I found the sections involving their whirlwind romance to be unreadable. It gets worse, as Hodges’ beau buys him a fedora which becomes a recurring motif throughout the film. King apparently is not familiar with the fedora meme, but suffice to say, trying to compensate for a complete absence of personality or physical appeal by wearing a fucking hat at ‘just the right angle’ is about as lame and pathetic as it gets. Overall, Hodges is a completely unlikable and forgettable lead and one of the worst I’ve encountered in years.

Hodges has a few sidekicks to help his investigations, namely a 17-year old black teenager, Jerome, who does odd jobs for him; and Holly, a neurotic woman in her 40s who has an inexplicable admiration for the rotund retiree and who undergoes a sort of metamorphosis under Hodges’ influence. There’s not much to say about these characters. I found King’s use of racial humour here to be cringeworthy at best, which struck me as odd as it’s not something I remember much from his other work. One strange thing about Holly is that towards the end of the book Hodges mentions that the age gap between them (17 years) makes him think of Holly as a ‘kid’, despite the fact that the woman he was sleeping with was a year younger than Holly. I doubt there’s anything to read into it, other than as an example of lazy thinking, editing, and proofreading.

The villain, Brady Hartsfield, is not actually autistic but just your common-or-garden psychopath. King knows his subject well enough and the portrait of a psychopath is adequate but there is nothing really memorable or distinctive or that you haven’t seen before. Likewise, the plot is serviceable but every single thing is predictable and there is nothing after the first 30 pages that will stay with you. The promotional material for the book and some of the reviews I’ve seen try to big up the drama of Hartsfield’s planned crimes, but like I say, there’s nothing new or interesting here.

King knows how to write a novel (he’s had enough practice) and the pacing of the book is enough to keep you reading. The structure and everything is entirely competent. But the story and characters are dire. Kind mentions by name the family members who read the book for him at the end, and you’d think one of them (or his editor) could point that out for him. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth I suppose. The prospect of more of these books is depressing, and somehow this novel got enough plaudits and sold enough copies that King is now turning it into the first part of a trilogy. Frankly, that’s a travesty.