Animal Farm

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1945) by George Orwell

Rating: ★★★★★

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”                                                   

George Orwell (1903- 1950) was keenly aware of the injustices and poverty in Britain during the 1930’s. He knew that the class system meant many of the upper and middle class viewed the working class in terms not unlike animals.  In The Road to Wigan Pier he observed:  “The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside, and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her- her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was near enough to catch her eye. She had a round, pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘it isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her- understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum back-yard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The book Animal Farm’ is subtitled:  ‘A fairy story’ and George Orwell uses the fable in extended form to create a world at once unreal yet recognizable as an allegorical warning to contemporaries. Orwell draws a pessimistic picture of a Stalinist dictatorship sustained by an apathetic, ignorant, or a frightened populace with little choice but to support the rebellion. The satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-four , published in 1949, likewise painted a picture of dehumanized society under totalitarian rule..

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Nina Simone 1933- 2003

I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), better known by her stage name Nina Simone, but also known as ‘The High Priestess of Soul’ was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist widely associated with jazz music. She composed over 500 songs and recorded over 40 albums. Simone aspired to become a classical pianist while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, soul, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.

Born the sixth child of a preacher’s family in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina’s prodigious musical talent prompted her ambition to become the first black concert pianist, but the realities of poverty and racial prejudice forced her to redirect her ambitions. Her musical path changed direction after she was turned down for full scholarship at a prestigious music institute, the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia. She then began playing in The Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City to fund her continuing musical education, after realising a pupil was earning more than she was by teaching piano, but the bar required her to sing as well. She was approached for a recording by Bethlehem Records, and her rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” became a smash hit in the United States in 1958. Over the length of her career, Simone recorded more than forty albums, mostly between 1958, when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue, and 1974…

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Les Misérables

Tickets to the London west-end show available from Amazon local: click here

Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables is a novel of towering stature, a dazzling illustration of early nineteenth century France, firmly in the ‘must read before I die’ category of world literature.

Les Miserables (Penguin Classics)by Victor Hugo

It has a depth of vision, underlying truth, moments of moving compassion, almost to the point of melodrama, but with a morality and a social conscience ahead of its time. If there is a problem, it is one of scale. How do you find the time to read, and absorb, over 1200 pages? In addition, Victor Hugo was anxious to put into the novel everything he researched about the entire period, and can digress at will. There is little doubt that it was his intention the book was more than a historical novel, and a knowledge of French history helps the reader follow the motives and intentions of Hugo’s fictional characters…

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Penguin, 2000) by James Thurber

You can fool too many of the people too much of the time”… 

The most famous of Thurber’s stories, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty first appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, 72 years ago, and was first anthologized in his book My World and Welcome to it. It has since been reprinted in James Thurber: Writings and Drawings, and is one of the most popular American short stories. It is considered one of Thurber’s “acknowledged masterpieces”. Thurber is known as a cartoonist and ‘humorist’ (‘Is there such a word? I wonder how anyone can apply for the position’?). The best introduction to Thurber is his own work. “James Thurber left his own monument. He created it . .  in the pages of the New Yorker.” (The Economist, Feb. 17, 1996.)  ‘Walter Mitty Syndrome‘ is a phrase occasionally used by psychiatrists and others in describing a person who prefers a fantasy world to reality, particularly if others consider him a failure, or the potential for real harm results from his behaviour. One example of such a man was Frank Abagnale, immortalised in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film  Catch Me If You Can. Another would be Arthur Orton, The Tichborne Claimant. Ironically, Thurber loved to send up the psychiatrists and others of whom he thought,  “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time”..   He was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes (Mame) Fisher Thurber on December 8, 1894. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father, a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor, is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber described his mother as a “born comedienne” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known.” She was a practical joker, on one occasion pretending to be crippled and attending a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed. She sometimes told startled visitors her husband locked her in the attic to prevent her running away with the postman! James Thurber died November 2 1961.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” . . .

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An appreciation of artists

What an artist creates and how he goes about it , in what choice of subject or medium, is not only his own business but his alone to judge.

Max Beckmann (1884- 1950) rejected abstract or non-representational painting, unlike so many of his contemporaries, and instead, he took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting. ‘I hardly need to abstract things, for each object is unreal enough already, so unreal that I can only make it real by means of painting.’

Max Beckmann greatly admired Cézanne, but also Van Gogh, Blake, Rembrandt, Rubens and the Northern European artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance such as Bosch, or Bruegel. His style and method of composition are also rooted in the imagery of medieval stained glass.

Encompassing portraiture, landscape, still life, mythology and the fantastic, his work created a very personal, authentic version of modernism. Beckmann re-invented the triptych, and utilized this compositional form of medieval painting as a looking glass of contemporary humanity.

“Carnival” by Max Beckmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From his beginnings as an artist until after World War II, Beckmann’s work reflects an era of radical change in both art and history. Many of Max Beckmann‘s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamour of the Weimar Republic’s cabaret culture, but from the 1930s on, his works often contain mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Persecuted by the Nazis, he was forced to flee his homeland and work in relative isolation while the war turned Europe upside down. Beyond these immediate concerns, his subjects and symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.

Beckmann said “Height, width and depth are the three phenomena which I must transfer into one plane to form the abstract surface of the picture, and thus to protect myself from the infinity of space.. If the canvas is filled only with a two-dimensional conception of space we shall have applied art, or ornament. Certainly this may give us pleasure, though I myself find it boring as it does not give me enough visual sensation. To transform three into two dimensions is for me an experience full of magic, in which I glimpse for a moment that fourth dimension which my whole being is seeking.”

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The Lost Gold of Rome

The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric’s Treasure ( 2007) by Daniel Costa

Rating: ★★★★☆

In AD 410, Rome suffered a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions when a foreign army led by the Visigoth king Alaric sacked the city and carried off its most valuable treasures.The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric's Treasure

This was the first time in 800 years, during which time Rome itself had accumulated the wealth of Empire. Alaric played a significant role in the dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the west, but he died before he could leave the Italian peninsula. His followers buried him in a secret tomb allegedly laden with the plunder of Rome that may have included the Jerusalem Temple treasures of the Jews, deposited in the so-called ‘Temple of Peace’. Daniel Costa’s account traces the life and death of Alaric and explores the modern quests to discover his grave, including the efforts of the Nazi Heinrich Himmler. Despite the likelihood that the grave has now finally been found, no definitive excavation has taken place..

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The Rosette motif in ancient art

THE PHAISTOS DISK, CRETE- note the four appearances of the eight-petalled rosette, described as a star anemone

Eight-petaled rosettes similar to those on the Phaistos Disk and on various ancient game-boards, such as discovered at Ur in Mesopotamia, and the example shown here from Knossos, Crete, appeared also on many other objects, over a wide geographical area and span of time. They appear to be solar symbols, or more precisely represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so indicated the passages from one state of existence into another.

Silver and Lapis lazuli gameboard from Knossos, with a border of 72 sixteen petalled rosettes

In Mesopotamia, the eight-leaf rosette was also the emblem of the fertility goddess Ishtar and her associated planet Venus. However, this apparent broadening of the symbol only confirms the basic meaning of birth, death and rebirth.

In a well-known myth, Ishtar descended into the underworld and was held there as if dead, before she returned to life, just as Venus the evening star disappears from the sky for some time and then heralds as the morning star the return of the life-giving light.  The symbolism is the same as that derived from the cycles of the sun.

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The Long Walk

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (1956) by Slavomir Rawicz

 

Rating: ★★★★★

The Long Walk, first published in 1956, is a gripping account of a Polish officer’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag in 1940, his escape and then a trek of 4,000 miles (6,437km) from Siberia to India, surviving unimaginable hardships along the way, testing the seven men and their companion, a seventeen year old girl they came across on the way, to the limits. Its dramatic passages tell of extremes of exhaustion, starvation and thirst as they survived snowdrifts and storms and even the pitiless Gobi Desert.

In the shadow of death we grew closer together than ever before. No man would admit to despair. No man spoke of fear. The only thought spoken out again and again was that there must be water soon. All our hope was in this.”

Australian director Peter Weir, celebrated for contemporary classics such as ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Truman Show’, decided the account deserved filming. “As a feat of endurance and courage and the tenacity of human beings to survive, I thought it was superb. I asked, ‘Does it stay with you enough to want to pursue it as a film?’ And this was the case.” The film, inspired by the book, but not a straight re-telling, was released December 2010 as ‘The Way Back’.

The subtitle of the book is ‘The true story of a trek to freedom’ but there is a controversy over this. There was evidence that suggested that Rawicz had not told the truth about his past, and that although he had been a prisoner in the gulag, he never escaped, but was released under an amnesty in 1942, and the documents, discovered by an American researcher, Linda Willis, in Polish and Russian archives, also show that rather than being imprisoned on a charge of espionage as he claimed, Rawicz was actually sent to the gulag for killing an officer with the NKVD, the forerunner of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. This could of course, be a fabrication.

Peter Weir researched the controversy. “It was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that’s how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film.”

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Shadowplay

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2006) by Clare Asquith

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is a revelatory new look at how Shakespeare secretly addressed the most profound political issues of his day, and how his plays embody a hidden history of England.  In Elizabethan England many loyal subjects to the crown were asked to make a near impossible choice: to follow the dictates of the State, or their conscience. Four hundred years removed from the English Reformation, it is nearly impossible for us to know what it must have been like for the country to have been ripped asunder and subjects actively persecuted, or even tortured and killed, for their religious beliefs. The era was one of unprecedented authoritarianism: England, it seemed, had become a state dependent on espionage, fearful of threats from abroad and plotters at home. This age of terror was also the era we know as an artistic ‘golden age’ with the greatest creative genius the world had ever known, William Shakespeare. How, then, could such a remarkable man born into such volatile times apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work? He did. But it was hidden. Why? There were sound reasons for not addressing political events directly. Two of his most gifted contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe did not fare as well. Kyd died after undergoing torture, and Marlowe was almost certainly murdered at the instigation of government.

Revealing Shakespeare’s sophisticated version of a forgotten code developed by 16th-century Catholic dissidents, Clare Asquith shows how Shakespeare was both a genius for all time and utterly a man of his own era, a writer who was supported by dissident Catholic aristocrats, who agonized about the fate of England’s spiritual and political life and who used the popular playhouses to attack and expose a regime which they believed had seized control of the country they loved. Shakespeare’s plays offer an acute insight into the politics and personalities of his era, as well as reflecting the feelings and beliefs of ordinary people. For example Hamlet, interpreted here as a drama of the hesitancy and indecision of the Catholic party in the country, is modelled on Sir Philip Sidney, who was outwardly Protestant but secretly a Catholic sympathiser. Of course there are many candidates for the model of Hamlet; such boldness in identification here simply underlines her own belief in this theory..

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The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Abridged from “The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction”
UNIVERSITY of PENNSYLVANIA LAW REVIEW (v.140: no. 4, April 1992)
by Justice John Paul Stevens @ www.shakespearefellowship.org

The Oxfordian position on the Shakespeare authorship question is that Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare. This abridged essay focuses on examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting, whether the author was noble, and, in the context of authorship, does it matter? Edward de Vere’s relationship with Elizabeth I, Lord Burghley and the character of Polonius, the education of Edward de Vere and legal reasoning in the plays are all considered here.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was quoted as saying in 1987: “‘I have lingering concerns…. You can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else…. I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman”. Stevens was conditional in his view of the matter, saying, “And I would say, also–perhaps departing from my colleagues–that I am persuaded that, if the author was not the man from Stratford, then there is a high probability that it was Edward de Vere.”

The plays and poems of William Shakespeare, sometimes collectively described as the “Shakespeare Canon,” are perhaps the most stimulating and exciting works in the English language. Canons of statutory construction, in contrast, are probably the dullest materials that law students have to study. For these reasons, this essay includes a mixture of comment on two apparently unrelated subjects: first, the unorthodox view that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is the true author of the Shakespeare Canon and, second, the utility of certain canons of statutory construction in the search for truth and justice..

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