Books

By Richard Lofthouse 

Off the Shelf July

There are seven titles to rattle through this month, starting with Oxford in Quotations by Bodleian Library Publishing. In truth, I think this small format, £5.99 volume is a tourist sell, but I read it with amusement over a coffee and was reminded of Victorian Samuel Butler’s quip that “The Dons of Oxford are too busy educating the young men to be able to teach them anything.” I also liked the view of Oxford as “a factory where the future is brewed,” (Haruko Ichikawa, 1896-1943) – to my mind a commendably straightforward view of the university.

Next up, Bernard Williams’ Essays and Reviews 1959-2002, a collection published by Princeton to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of one of the great moral philosophers (and critics and essayists and one time Oxford don) of the twentieth century. Everything from abortion to evil is covered here, in work ranging from the 1960s to the recent past. You could sip at this 400 page fountain of wisdom for months. I can only offer up a personal response by way of example, namely my delight in discovering Williams’ review of Maurice Cowling’s Religion and Public Doctrine in England (1980), a book I have on my shelf and which has always confused me, both for its immense hauteur and supposed moral authority, and of course because it was published by Cambridge University Press. Resembling as it does an unending tutorial in which a sneering tutor always has the last word yet never really evinces a clear position beyond sarcasm, the truth is that it should never have been published. The relevance of the example, however, is Williams’ ability to learn from a bad book, to braid some gold where apparently there is none. The world is not as idealists would have it, let alone parochial Cambridge dons, and we must all acknowledge “…that survival needs irony, that values conflict, that most things in the world are determined force and fraud, that political moralism is often self-indulgent, that progressivist utilitarianism is a barren creed. He [Cowling] should be better informed…” This is merely one instance of Williams’ voice, which as another critic puts it, “deeply pleasurable and deeply important.” The book deserves success.


The next two volumes are further tributaries to this year’s great river of Great War publishing. One is selected war prose by Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts; the other, John Stallworthy, War Poet.Stallworthy is a former master of Wolfson College and noted biographer of Wilfred Owen. These are his poems about war, and very fine they are. This slender, 76 page collection published by Carcanet is further proof that we no longer remember the war, so much as discover it, given that the participants of the First World War are now gone – a point recently made by Oxford’s Professor of War, Sir Hew Strachan. Stallworthy’s epigraph is accordingly well received: “What was it for,/ that War to End Wars?/ It was for us./ It was for you and yours.”

The volume of prose by Edmund Blunden reminds us that he wrote more about World War One than most of the war poets, that he outlived most of them (1896-1974), and that he was an English fellow at Merton, 1931-42, and later Oxford Professor of Poetry. I had no idea. I did know that he has been accused of romanticizing the war, but what this volume does, with its very fine introduction by Robyn Marsack (who co-edited Oxford Poets in 2013), is to lay bare in a much more subtle and accommodating way the way that an archaizing tendency functioned and how it can be re-cast as critique. Apart from anything else Blunden writes beautifully, and he was haunted by the memory of men who were killed around him.

Strangers on the Camino is by Sanjiva Wijesinha, a Sri Lankan, Oxonian physician based at an Australian University. He takes time, with his adult son, to walk the 800km long Catholic pilgrim trail in Northern Spain, and Strangers is the diary and account. It grew on me for its utter lack of pretension and because here is a modern physician viewing Catholicism via a residual, inherited Buddhism. By merely recounting the daily dramas and incidental details of the walking, the book acquires a moral authority without trying to, and is quietly compelling while also offering good advice for anyone contemplating the pilgrimage.

From Spain to Scotland, Tandem is the first novel of Oxonian Alex Morgan, published after winning a crowdsourcing competition for publication organised by publisher Hookline in 2013. It’s a dramatic yet homely tale of bereavement involving female protagonist Paula and her twin brother who is killed in a cycling accident — the tandem of the title. There’s escape to Scotland, the recollection and piecing together of memory, and finally a couple of sub-plots, one concerning a gender-confused child and the other a love interest, Andy, a white van man who we much later discover to be an ex-banker and therefore presumably minted. (Unconvincing to my mind as a taxi operator in rural Scotland, but presumably a golden prospect for Paula.)

Finally and on a not unrelated note, our own Oxonian ex-banker Alex Buchanan (Magdalen, 1994) bashes out a new, post-Crash edition of The Game: How the World of Finance Really Works. I’m not entirely sure who the audience is intended to be, with chapters such as ‘Callow Youth’ and ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ and there is too much breathless recitation of the silly games played by the — admittedly silly, implies Buchanan — people in this world that you wouldn’t really want your loved ones to enter. But I’m equally sure that he’s unusually brave to write so frankly about the world that he is supposed to keep secret, and that anyone desperate to work in finance will learn something from this account.

Image by Chris under Creative Commons license.