Friday, 29 September 2017

When you stop supporting

Hi everyone,

I just finished writing a difficult letter.  For years I have supported the Royal District Nursing Service as much as my means permitted.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, they have undergone a change of name.

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A recent letter persuaded me that they have also changed their values.  So with regret, I've now sent them this letter -
Mr Stephen Muggleton
Bolton Clarke
Level 3
44 Musk Avenue
29 September 2017
Dear Mr Muggleton,
Cessation of Support
I refer to your letter dated September 2017 soliciting a donation of $970.00.  I was staggered to receive a request for a donation of that magnitude.
I was a longstanding supporter of the Royal District Nursing Service (RDNS) after witnessing the care its nurses gave to my grandmother in the mid-1990s.  The home visits she received, and the relief this gave to my family, was priceless.  I was also very proud to help fund work that provided nursing care to the homeless, isolated and disadvantaged.
The organization now called “Bolton Clarke” is not the service I was proud to support.  Based on its 2016 Annual Report, and on its Facebook activity, and indeed on your letter of September 2017, Bolton Clarke appears to be simply a provider of retirement living options.  Nursing appears to be little more than a fragment of its activity, preferably delivered over the internet.  Personal contact seems to be viewed as a luxury.  Care for the disadvantaged has apparently ceased altogether.
In the circumstances, a request for a donation which represents (for me) nearly two weeks’ wages is astonishing.  With very deep regret I advise that I will not be supporting your organization further.  I have instructed my solicitor to redraw my will to remove the clause making a bequest to the RDNS.  While my values have not changed, it appears that your organization’s have.
Yours faithfully,
Stephen Tuck
Has this happened to you?  Have you ever needed to give up supporting an organization because it stopped being something you could support?

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

[Book Review] Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (2001)

Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (Doubleday: London 2001)

Nobody could accuse Neil Hanson of not writing a gripping story.  This account of the Great Fire of London fairly tears along, from the closing stages of the plague that preceeded it, to the condition of the poorer quarters of the town on the eve of the fire, to the disaster and its aftermath.  His gaze shifts rapidly from the highest levels of the court of King Charles II to the primitive relief camps outside London. 

The Dreadful Judgement
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Hanson takes issue with the traditional death toll of four people, although he seems to accept that these are the only deaths that are known with certainty to hsve occurred.  Knowing what we do after Black Saturday, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that the actual loss of life was hundreds or even thousands that number.  Intriguingly, he leaves open the possibility that the fire may in fact have been started deliberately by French or Dutch saboteurs.

A connecting thread in the story is the experience of the baker, Thomas Farriner, whose shop is traditionally thought to be the cause of the fire.  He shifts between details which seem to have been drawn from contemporary accounts to narrative which seems to be a mix of inference, conjecture and speculation.  This is the unsettling part of the book: it is difficult to tell precisely where the history ends and the imagination begins.  This makes it hard to trust his commentary on (say) the likely cause of the fire.  The situation is not helped by inexcusably poor footnoting. For example, claiming Samuel Pepys' colossal diary as a source is useless when the reference simply refers to "Samuel Pepys, Diary" or "Samuel Pepys, op. cit.".  A first-year Arts student would not be allowed this sort of scholarly sleight of hand, and Hanson's editor should not have permitted it either.

This book is a good yarn, and perhaps a good place to start researching London of the 1660s, but it would be a poor place to stop.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

[Book Review] Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957 (1991)

Antonia White, Diaries 1926-1957 [vol. 1], ed. Susan Chitty (Constable & Co: London, 1991)

I don't read a great deal of fiction, and until I saw this book in an op shop I'd never heard of Antonia White.  However, I love reading diaries or letters by artists (one of my desert island books is the Letters of Bruce Chatwin).

Diaries 1926-1957: Volume I
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White's diaries did not disappoint.  More than anything else, she was a writer's writer.  Clive James' memorable description of Turgenev could equally have applied to her -
The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

In the later stages of the diaries, especially as they stretch into the 1950s, you get a real sense of the life of a professional writer: the difficulty meeting editors' deadlines, self doubt, and becoming bored with one's characters or subject.  You also get a sense of the black hole into which prose stylists can fall, as she writes and rewrites the first chapter of an ultimately unpublished book (one thinks of Joseph Grand in Camus' La Peste, only without the hint of comedy).

Real life keeps breaking through, especially in the years up to 1950, as White chronicles a string of failed marriages and questionable relationships.  Susan Chitty - her daughter and editor - deserves praise here: White frequently writes about her own quite-active sex life and editing this material can't have been fun.

Antonia White was too singular a person for her diaries to be a time capsule of her age, either of the big- or small-picture type.  However, they do have the same crystal-clear quality of George Orwell and Earnest Hemingway without the former's bitterness or the latter's irony.  They may not be everyone's taste, but they should be on the list of every aspiring writer.