Kevin Saving on
John Carey, The Essential Paradise Lost
(Faber and Faber, 2017)
Bernard Cornwell, Fools and Mortals
Nigel Mellor, Peace and War
(Dab Hand Press, 2017)
Henry Marsh, Admissions
Whom, amongst its modern readers, has not -if totally honest with themselves- occasionally wanted to 'dock' some of the more tedious passages from Milton's Paradise Lost? This reviewer (who was first constrained to study John Milton as part of his 'A' Level syllabus forty years ago) will admit to an admiration for the breadth of erudition, for the dazzling imaginative leaps and for the sheer 'word music' of which that great writer was capable -but is often driven to distraction by the attendant verbosity. If, like myself, you prefer to take your Milton in manageable doses, then professor John Carey's new abridged edition (around one third of the original's length) might well suit your taste.
Carey's avowed intention is to rescue the masterpiece from its perceived neglect and, given the least justice, he will be successful in this. The Essential Paradise Lost, with its helpful annotations, cries out to be adopted as a set book in the current syllabus -I certainly wish I'd possessed it all those years ago. If we are to fully appreciate the Epic, then we really ought to know that in the mid-seventeenth century 'awful' denoted 'awe-inspiring' and 'amiable', 'desirable'; that 'fatal' meant 'fated' and 'genial', 'related to generation'.
Professor Carey wears his renowned depth of scholarship lightly and seeks only to render his subject both accessible and comprehensible. If Milton is essentially an Old Testament figure -fulminating, discursive and more-than-a-touch forbidding, then Carey is his New Testament counterpart: warm, consoling and able to provide a form of 'justification' that is no longer -if it ever was- in the Miltonic gift.
If forced to confess to one particular 'guilty pleasure', then I might well choose the books of Bernard Cornwell. 'Guilty', because these are historical novels abounding in derring do, skulduggery and, more than occasionally, mayhem. Samuel Johnson wrote somewhere something along the lines of 'every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier' but Cornwell provides us with factually-based, believable characters- who, if they did not exist, at least might well have done so; whose actions (if never wholly impossible) often display a brand of heroic ingenuity we can delude ourselves that we might, in similar circumstances, call upon. The Sharpe, Starbuck and Uhtred series represent the next best in the genre to C.S. Forester's peerless Hornblower books.
In Fools and Mortals Cornwell narrates his tale in the first person and using the persona of Richard Shakespeare -William's younger brother, who is known to have existed but about whom not much else has survived. This is a bit of a departure from Cornwell's usual fare but he carries his story off with his customary immersive scene-setting and imaginative plotting plus an occasional, slightly sly humour not usually associated with him. The elder Shakespeare is given some traits which, though plausible, are not wholly attractive. Cornwell is, above all else, a redoubtable story-teller whose work would have garnered far more literary honours had it not been so damnably readable.
Dr Nigel Mellor -visiting lecturer in psychology at Newcastle and Northumberland universities- has produced a new volume of poetry which displays something of Tolstoy's Olympian cast of mind. In the first section of Peace and War, 'Peace', he looks back -in a series of imagistic tableaux- at the evanescence of things. 'Incident in the fishing grounds' has something of the authority of a twelve line All Quiet on the Western Front -except that it takes the form of a witness statement on the abrupt demise of a trawlerman. 'If you'd just told me' (on the subject of environmentalism) hovers just on the acceptable side of 'preachiness' -redeemed solely by its transparent virtue of being 'Right'. I liked the quirkiness of 'Control Freak'
I did not know
There was a wrong way
To blow dandelion clocks
but is the voice of 'Negativity'
I am really not bothered what you think
And although your words depress me
They will not stop me/ Because all my life
I have seen distant hills
genuinely Mellor's own?
The final paragraph from 'The tin plate from the Victorian mine' has an arresting urgency:
The recovery team found
Besides the bodies
Scratched on a tin plate
"I don't want to die in the dark".
but I've subsequently come to doubt the authenticity of that apostrophe. Similarly, I'm sceptical as to whether Dr Mellor genuinely had a sister called 'Tasneem' who died in a Turkish earthquake in 1999. If I'm wrong I hope that he will accept my sincerest apologies but, if I'm correct, then I'm caused to doubt what 'August 1999 -an earthquake in Turkey' is doing in a volume which apparently seeks to establish its author as some kind of moral arbiter or 'guru'.
I take further issue with Dr Mellor when he writes in 'Iraq Libya Syria Brexit...':
Bring up, bring up the guilty men
Who fooled us all along
Without a plan if things went right
Or a plan if things went wrong.
I believe he is incorrect, here, to conflate the decisions taken by a cabal of 'insider' politicians -bereft of much in the way of logical forward thinking, certainly- with the democratically endorsed, bloodlessly arrived upon recommendations of a plebiscite. On the other hand I can heartily concur when he cautions (in 'Austerity'):
There will come a day
When you will work
Not for wages
But the bread to fill your belly
And on that day
Banks will, as usual,
And ask you to eat less bread.
In 'Private Health Providers' (which echoes Martin Niemoller's 'First they came for the Jews') he writes, with neo-Brechtian irony:
First they came for the glasses
And I said nothing because I could afford glasses
Then they came for the teeth
And I said nothing because I could afford teeth
Then they came for the heart surgery.
The second section of Peace and War is, unsurprisingly, about 'war' but (aside from his pacifism) it's unclear what Dr Mellor brings to his subject. He frequently elects to write his monologues using the 'voices' of female protagonists and this, for obvious reasons, is only partially successful. Poets have always felt the need to ventriloquize yet tend to work more authentically if they are able to bring a depth of knowledge to their subject. For instance, Sylvia Plath knew far more -and wrote better- about bees than she did apropos the Holocaust. Dr Mellor has a definite gift for the weighty aphorism and demonstrates exemplary concision.
There is, however, a distinct didacticism here which -no matter how worthy its aim- is occasionally undermined by a slight contrivance in its delivery. Pace Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message: the 'message' is the message and if it comes delivered by someone wearing an obviously false wig and moustache it will not be believed -regardless of any of its other qualities. Sometimes one finds oneself both inverting, and then watering-down, Voltaire to bleat 'though I agree with almost everything you say, I'm profoundly dubious about the way you choose to say it'.
Admissions is the thought-provoking and highly articulate follow-up to Henry Marsh's outstanding previous medical memoir, Do No Harm.
Marsh, though not entirely without the personal vanity incumbent upon the lifestyle of a consultant neurosurgeon, (previously one of the cosseted 'Big Beasts' of the ever-hierarchical NHS) is self-reflective enough to acknowledge that his place in the peckingvorder has been usurped by the ever-expanding cadres of micromanagocracy who have burrowed, termite-like, into its infrastructure. Whilst this process has emphatically not worked to his own advantage, he highlights how the greater impact has fallen, cosh-like, upon his patients. He candidly describes medicine, in Britain, as a
game of musical chairs... the music (...being...) constantly changed, but not the number of chairs, and yet there are more and more of us running around (...) The wealthy will grab all the chairs and the poor will have to doss out on the floor.
As in Do No Harm, his reflections on a lifetime spent cutting into other peoples' brains are scrupulous, compassionate and wise -especially in the way he applies them to his own, ageing somatic and cognitive abilities- and they clinically dissect the specious solace to be found in religion. He has 'thought through' the impact of his own numerous surgical interventions and has the honesty to admit (the 'admissions' of the title) that -in the words of another surgeon- he carries a 'cemetery' within himself: the cemetery of his own fallibilities; the 'risk/rewards' poorly assessed; the catastrophic failures (some still 'alive').
Marsh's tale is an exceptionally humane take on the human condition. The humanity is, ultimately, in the humility.
Kevin Saving © 2017