Friday 20 June 2014

Harry's Last Stand, The Last Boat Home and Doomed Love.


Three rather different books here. Doomed Love is the first book in the Penguin Great Loves series that I am currently working my way through. Doomed Love is the first four books of Virgil's Aeneid, for those who are not aware the first section focuses on the flight from Troy of Aeneas and his fellow survivors. Having been attacked by the jealous gods they seek refuge in the kingdom of Dido. Dido falls in love with Aeneas and tries to beguile him into remaining with him, but he is compelled to fulfil his destiny of founding the Roman republic and rejects her. This translation is a nuanced and well conceived retelling of a well known story, I would suggest that some familiarity with the story of the fall of Troy would make this an easier read as characters and events are mentioned briefly so a little foreknowledge would go a long way. This is a nice little introduction though and enough to whet your appetite for the Aeneid proper. 

Moving on to Dea Brovig's Last Boat Home, this is a highly atmospheric Norwegian novel. This is a beautiful and very moving book that conjures up the harshness of mid twentieth century rural Norwegian life with a beauty of language and depth of feeling that is quite wonderful. The novel reminded me of Burial Rites in many ways both in the writing style and simply the harsh and restricted life described. The Last Boat is split into two sections one set during the mid 1970's and the other in 2009. It was both fascinating and slightly terrible to read about the restricted, misogynistic and brutal life of a period as recent as the 1970's. With life and family ruled with a rod of iron by the strictures of the church and paternal society. The story focuses on relationships between mothers and their daughters, relationships that are presented as being deeply flawed here. If we were to take our understanding of Scandinavia only from the literature that is translated into English then we would think that the qhole place is populated by delinquent geriatrics and women hating brutes. This book would only add weight to that understanding of the region. Much of the abuse that Else suffers in this novel is reminiscent of storylines from Larsson's Millennium trilogy and from novels like Tom Rob Smith's The Farm. The Scandinavia presented here is brutal, unforgiving and a million miles away from the idea presented of the region being so much a perfect society. 

Finally, Harry's Last Stand. This is an autobiography and political tract from 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith. Harry Smith made the news in 2013 when he declared that he would no longer wear a remembrance day poppy, as he was disgusted with seeing it debased on the lapels of our politicians. In Harry's Last Stand he uses his own experiences of life during the Great Depression to draw parallels between the depravation he experienced and the return to these pre welfare state values that he sees now under austerity. Following the gains by UKIP it is quite magnificent to have the message brought home that not all OAP's are far right loons. I recently listened to an item on BBC radio 4 that discussed how contemporary 18-25 year olds are turning more to the right politically, this is something that scares the bejeezus out of me. Harry Smith tries his hardest to provide a wake-up call about the road austerity measures are taking us down. This reads like Jilted Generation but from the other side of the baby-boom generation, the message is largely the same. 

' We had hoped that our children would keep the torch of civilisation burning while we moved into our senior years, but something happened and their resolve wasn't as strong as ours.'

The basic premise of the book is that the pre war generation fought long and hard in order to build a welfare state that was designed to protect and support the lowest of society. Benefits, a free health service and economic support were supposed to create a better society, and were to replace the Victorian values of reliance on charity, stigmatisation and shame of poor relief. These Victorian values are what Harry see's being returned to the UK. Today more and more working families are reliant of food banks in order to feed their families. Society has returned to a situation where renting is the norm, with the dream of owning your own property fading into the distance for most people. Not only that, but the quality of the property available is being pushed lower and lower as landlords feel able to push the boundaries of legality once again due to the desperation of those needing homes. Once again people on benefits are seen as at fault, the ideas of the 'deserving' and 'un-deserving poor' are once again taking over. This is driven largely by the popular media and it is these myths that Harry Smith is trying to debunk. I hope, I seriously hope that people read this book and take on board the emotional and heartfelt message that this elderly gentleman is trying to get across. To my mind this is a very important message that needs to be heard.

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