Showing posts from April, 2016

J.B. Priestley well seen...almost...

The jovial, hail well met image of a bluff, direct but kindly Yorkshireman that emanates from this, and other, photographs of J. B. Priestley was not anywhere near the truth. A useful persona but like any mask also a limitation, one in which you can only too quickly become trapped.

Priestley, as his biographer Judith Cook wants to show, was significantly more complex than this. This in large measure she does with one unfortunate failing, redeemed at the very end of her well written, engaging text.

One of his complexities was his family life. He was married three times and at one point as his first wife is dying, he is conducting an affair with the woman who is to become his second. Jane, his second wife, was herself untangling herself from a failing marriage and was to have a daughter, born of Priestley, but a fact only revealed to the unfortunate girl, Mary, at a much later, too late, stage. As one of Priestley's six children remarks many of the aspects of their lives would have…

Specializing in being ungenerous

The poet, Edwin Muir, had to make money in diverse ways (as poets tend to) - writing a biography, say, of John Knox, ironically the man that came closest to inspiring loathing in Muir's gentle soul or writing reviews. But even if hard up (as he and his wife, Willa, often were), he had one cast iron rule which was never to review anything about which one could not be generous. This is a rule I wish sundry reviewers in 'The Tablet' (the intellectual Catholic weekly) could aspire to.

Today it is the turn of Michael McGregor's excellent biography of Robert Lax to be lauded by one hand and damned with another. I cannot imagine how we get from 'detailed, respectful and responsible telling' that is 'at times a sympathetic and extraordinarily sensitive reading of a life' to one that is a 'somewhat tedious reading experience' that better be left behind in favour of Lax's words themselves but Carlene Bauer manages this feat. Which is it to be a sensi…

Aldous Huxley's Hands

We like typologies (as an outbreak of MBTI 'lite' testing in the office this week reminded me). Can we find a pattern that gathers up a phenomena and helps us better navigate some aspect of the world? Virtually anything can probably be put to use: what about hands?
This is the unlikely, and fascinating, starting point of Allene Symons' 'Aldous Huxley's Hands: His Quest for Perception and the Origin and Return of Psychedelic Science'. Her father, an aircraft design engineer (and alternative healer), during the Second World War, had to design a screening mechanism for quality draughtsmen to assist the war effort. This he did successfully and in the process began asking himself was there anything in a person's hand that indicated their characteristics. This led him to develop an unique photographic process that allowed him to beautifully reproduce all the unique detail of a person's hand, that then, comparatively, allowed him to seek patterns of commonali…

Warring against Sleep

I was reminded by reading J.B. Priestley's 'The Magicians' to read Colin Wilson's small book. 'G. I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep' geographically appropriately on a day trip to and from the Paris that was, for so long, his home. To do so is to be reminded what a good writer Wilson is - fluid, intelligent, concise and clear - handling complex subject matter with judicious care.

Wilson's Gurdjieff is a highly gifted experimental psychologist who came to a penetrating understanding of how our minds might work towards their full potential but not a guru whose system was closed, perfected and infallible (nor simply a charlatan though a man equipped with the characteristics of a trickster).

Indeed Wilson, rightly, shows that in spite of its remarkable results it was all too human, deserving correction and development. Wilson's sees it as a system that was both too pessimistic (about the robotic nature of our usual human round) and, as a result, too empha…

The Magicians

If Aldous Huxley can connect the search for a evening suit with 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' (in Time Must Have a Stop ), J.B. Priestley can be allowed to connect a boardroom coup with an encounter with the Fourth Way.

Charles Ravenstreet is the managing director of an electrical equipment manufacturer until shareholders, some considered to be his friends, depose him for a 'bean counter'. At a loose end and quickly exhausting the casual pleasures of his new leisure, he finds himself dispirited, afloat in an unsympathetic world. Perhaps a new business venture will revive his engagement?

Enter the sinister Lord Mervil and associates who seek him out to help them manufacture a drug purported to quell all anxiety with no apparent side effects. This provides the opportunity of both great profit and the quiescent society that can be guided by the 'elite' that Lord Mervil favours.

But here the fates inter…

Fire on the Mountain

Nanda Kaul has never developed an expressive liking for people. Freed of the demands of being a Vice Chancellor's wife and mother, obligations she has met in exemplary if forbidding style, she has taken refuge in aloneness in a hill top house, in the direction of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Obligation stalks, however, and one summer her great granddaughter, Raka, comes to stay. Raka is from a broken home - her father, a diplomat is alcoholic and abusive, her mother, as a result, is wrecked, retreating into illness. Flying to Geneva and a new posting, the parents make a failed attempt to get on and Raka is left behind, imposed on her great grandmother.

Nanda and Raka are alike in their protective isolation and it is a similarity that sparks a complex relationship of recognition and mutual withdrawal that flips in Nanda to a determination to try and win Raka over, not for her love, that would be too much, but in order to spin a web around her, to bind her for something…