Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

#17 Pages from a Scullion’s Diary

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 21/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#17 Pages from a Scullion's Diary.JPGThis great little book, taken from the more expansive Down and Out in London and Paris, sees George Orwell in autobiographical mode. As his journalism and essays prove, Orwell likes to seek out stories; rather than wait for stories to come to him. The experiences he writes about here are presented in clear and concise English. In many ways, Orwell is the antidote to those lacking clarity and to those lacking meaning in their writing. Although Orwell is more famous for his dystopian fiction, his factual writing sets the bar for anyone interested in non-fiction and travel writing with a political edge.


45: Youth by J.M. Coetzee

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 04/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

youth-by-j-m-coetzeeHe is an undergraduate at Cape Town University studying mathematics and sleeping with an older woman. This will be the first in a series of unhappy sexual relationships. His wish is to be a poet and he studies the work of Ezra Pound. Unhappy with the state of South Africa, he emigrates to London and finds a computer programming job with IBM. For pleasure, he goes to the Everyman to watch foreign films. He hopes that living in a big European city will make him a better poet.

The voice of this fictional memoir is the he voice used above and preferred by J.M. Coetzee in much of his best work. By not using the more convention voice, Coetzee allows himself to be distanced from his memories. This makes it easier for him to comment negatively on his own life; the he voice being unattached from the autobiographical content. It is a novel way to write and should be recommended to writers as an experiment.

I enjoyed this book and would purchase it for a friend. It is about a young person’s search for love and fulfilling work. This is something which most people can relate to. This hardback was borrowed from Keats’ Community Library, near where much of the novel is set. Youth is preceded by Boyhood, and is followed by Summertime.

All worth reading.

38: Byron by Elizabeth Longford

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 16/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

byron-by-elizabeth-longfordIn his own lifetime, Lord Byron was almost as famous as Napoleon, after bursting into the literary limelight in 1812 with an epic poem about a self-outcast romantic hero. The poem in question Childe Harold would cement Byron’s reputation for creating dark, dangerous and devilishly exciting central characters — the original Byronic heroes of the literary world. Byron traveled the world in style, forged many promiscuous relationships with both sexes along the way, and fostered a controversial public image within the newspapers. Poet’s were the pop stars of their day, and Byron was to become one of the first international celebrities of the modern era. It would be right to compare his popularity to Micheal Jackson’s, another controversial figure living within a celebrity bubble. But the fact that Byron’s poetry is still appreciated by English Literature scholars has nothing to do with this fame. The poems themselves are brightly lit with clever rhyming and encompass an expansive range of subjects, precariously balancing between the biographically personal and the satirically political.

Published in 1976, this highly readable biography is well known amongst Byron scholars. Elizabeth Longford does a very good job of gathering together the various letters, corespondents and previous biographies surrounding the Byron myth. In chronological order, Longford occasionally dips into the poetry itself to add to her biography of the famous romantic poet — which will please English students. Over the years, however, Longford has been criticized for inaccuracies concerning the number of books Byron’s publishers actually sold during his lifetime; many unlicensed editions were created and circulated illegally, through pirated copies which breached the relatively recent laws concerning copyright. As this illegal copying highlights, the question of author ownership was being challenged long before the internet came along.

I like Byron’s poetry: it has grown on me over the years. Reading up on Byron for my essay is helping me to place Don Juan within the cultural milieu of late Georgian society. Yes, Byron is bitterly against almost all factions of the establishment, but at least he is consistent with his animosity. It is suggested by Longford that this might have had something to do with his clubbed foot, a disability which perhaps led to an overstatement of his masculinity; the need for sporting magnificence and his desire for many passionate but essentially unfulfilling sexual conquests. This is one argument which seeks to give meaning to the complex identity of this good looking and brilliantly witty poet: combined with an absent aristocratic father who died whilst Byron was still a boy, leaving the young future poet much land, a title, but not much money; an overbearing mother, with many uncomplimentary nicknames, who arguably allowed an incestuous relationship to develop between Byron and his sister; and any number of sexual adventures in foreign lands. The whole tale creates a saucy biographical picture which perhaps augments our reading of the poetry. Whether the more sensational stories surrounding Byron (of which I have not the space to cover) are strictly true or not is debatable, particularly seeing as the poet’s memoirs were burnt soon after he died.

Does it really matter? — if the poetry is good and worth reading.

29: John Milton: A Biography by Neil Forsyth

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 15/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

John Milton A Biography by Neil ForsythJohn Milton was given an expensive education paid for by his father who was a scrivener (expert in financial matters). Milton was an expert in both classical and biblical traditions, particularly because he was able to read ancient texts in their original languages. This led him to become a poet in his younger years, despite the wishes of his father it is supposed. Eventually, he would start to aim his pen at a number of political issues surrounding, in particular, religion and divorce. Milton’s political involvement would lead to his appointment as Latin Secretary during the revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell. This was a position he held even after he went blind.

Despite the judgement of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was critical of Milton’s fastidious reading, Milton actually lived an interesting and varied life outside of his books. He was married three times, spent a significant period travelling around Europe — in those days it took about two weeks to get from Paris to Nice — and formed his own private school where he set out a thoroughly classical but surprisingly dynamic curriculum. Most interestingly, on his European travels, Milton once met the genius astronomer Galileo at his home residence. The great scientist was being held imprisoned there by the Spanish Inquisition — oh to be a fly on the wall when that meeting occurred!

In conclusion, I would say that the biographer Neil Forsyth is the perfect guide to take you on an introductory journey through the life of John Milton. Forsyth’s writing is backed up by a consummate knowledge of his subject material and he is skilfully able to weave a story together in an original way. In a relatively short number of pages, with many insightful poetic analyses along the way, Neil Forsyth has pulled off an excellent biography for anyone interest in the poems or life of a great poet. It will also appeal to readers with a more general interest in the English Civil War and the revolutionary politics of the period.

A fascinating window into the past.


26: Blake by Peter Ackroyd

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 24/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

Blake by Peter AckroydEighteenth century London is the setting for this excellent biography. It traces the steps of the visionary poet and engraver William Blake. We see Blake walking across the pavements of Lambeth, sketching tombs in Westminster Abbey, and composing poetry in the notebook of his tragically departed brother. In the midst of great political change, with the French Revolution and the American Civil War looming behind him, Blake elevates his vision of London to mythological status; late in his career, giving us the lyrics for what has become a second British national anthem: And did those feet in ancient time.

But despite being famous today, Blake was relatively unknown during his own lifetime. This was partly due to his fiery temperament, which made him difficult to work with. He could also become lost in his own creative visions. As Peter Ackroyd points out, on one occasion he agreed to a September deadline for a piece of engraving work for a book front-cover, but did not hand it until April — the book having already been published by that date. He also self-published most of his poetical works by demand, making it difficult for him to sell them on any large scale; and as if to make matters worse, each beautifully drawn design, on each separate book, was separately and painstakingly created next to the printed words. Such complicated production methods were essentially bad for business.

Peter Ackroyd wrote this biography in 1995 and it has since been at the top of many reading lists (his name beginning with has helped). The writing is steeped in detail: retracing the footsteps of Blake and his circle with a secure knowledge of London history. We are given an insight into the dissenting religious beliefs of Georgian England; tutored on the precise techniques of copper engraving; and asked to rethink the poetry and artworks from a biographical perspective. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in William Blake or the inner workings of the creative mind.


14: Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Literature, Non-Fiction on 01/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

Something of Myself by Rudyrad KiplingRudyard Kipling lived an interesting life. He traveled to many places, met many historical figures and wrote some world famous stories. This book, written late in his life, is his autobiography, and gives you an impression of the public face behind the great words.

Very little is revealed about Kipling’s private life, but the book does reveal a fair amount about his worldview. When Kipling encountered people, he viewed them in racial terms and drew on racial stereotypes when forming opinions. To put it plainly, he was a racist.

But he was also a man of his age, a period when men like himself ruled the British Empire. And in his life as a writer and journalist, he was at the forefront of history, reporting on events and influencing public opinion. Although his blatant imperialism may jar one hundred years later, it was a valid part of a free press.

Well written by a great writer, but not very revealing for an autobiography.

12: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

In Biography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 18/03/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Noise of Time by Julian BarnesThis book is about the famous Russian composer Stravinsky. Writing in fragmented paragraphs that capture the thoughts of the protagonist, Julian Barnes uses the concentrated style of a great essayist to analyse both the private concerns and public life of a troubled individual. With his impeccably clear prose, Barnes sets out to explore how life, art and politics interweave inside the heart and mind of a complex character.

Privately, Stravinsky lives in fear of a dark and sinister force named Power. He remembers how, when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned by the party, he narrowly escaped execution for its supposedly anti-Soviet content. Power would prefer him to compose Soviet music, embracing the folk songs and patriotic tunes of old. And so he conforms by producing scores for propaganda films, of which he both dislikes and disapproves of.

In public life, fearing for his safety, he monotonously orates the speeches written for him by the authorities as propaganda messages. On a Cold War peace mission to America, he resents himself for towing the line in fear of party reprisal. The character that Barnes creates sees himself as a coward, and admits to considering suicide on a number occasions. But in an arguably heroic way, his music continues to express the complexities of his soul. In this enjoyable combination of historical biography and prose fiction, we are given a new insight into the life of a great artist.

An elegantly crafted argument in favour of artistic expression.

08: Coriolanus by Plutarch

In Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 19/02/2016 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by PlutarchFulltime postgraduate education has stopped me reading for enjoyment. Now I study books, reference journals and visit research libraries. When I do read for pleasure, it has become harder to sustain interest. A chapter of Conrad before bed maybe, or perhaps a book review in the paper. There was a time when I could get through a whole Dostoyevsky in a week (as long term readers of this blog will have followed).

The main reason is that time is precious. If you have a busy rota of guitar students and assignment deadlines (which I now do), these must take priority.

Studying serious literature at a higher level takes away some its enjoyment. Instead of being fuel for a healthy imagination, these courses teach us that books are discourses on British imperialism or assertions of an entire peoples’ individual human rights. No longer is it possible to simply enjoy where a story takes you, everything must be thought about on an analytical level. The book reviewer part of me, who used to write what he actually thought about books, is currently being educated to become a serious book critic.

So understandably, I don’t have as much inclination to read for pleasure outside of my coursework. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

Now I have a tutor who reads my essays in some considerable depth, marking them so that I can improve my work as I progress. In our tutorials, our course books have opened up intelligent conversations on a whole variety of topics. We are no longer floundering about where to go with our writing, now our work has a clear and assessable direction to travel towards. To the delight of this guitar teacher from Primrose Hill in north London, the English masters course at the Open University has focussed my reading so that every hour of every day can be potentially filled with something either educational, creative or enjoyable.

Such as my regular Friday morning writing on here, followed by a trip in search of a Plutarch translation from the 1570s by Thomas North.

05: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 29/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill SchoolThe post office in Primrose Hill has been closed for refurbishment. I now walk along Chalcot Road to buy my mother’s daily newspaper. On Thursdays I pick up three papers, and on Sundays I get two, but on most days it’s just the one.

The man who runs the corner shop on Princess Road has been there for decades. He has good manners and always calls me Sir. My old primary school is opposite his shop. When I was a child, there were three places where you could buy sweets on the way home from school. One was the corner shop, which always stocked the small 1p cola bottles and the large 10p cola bottles. A cola bottle is a sweet shaped and coloured like a miniature 330ml bottled coke, tasting vaguely like the fizzy drink we all recognize. In those days, if your mother gave you 30p to spend, that would either get you a real can of coke, thirty 1p cola bottles or three 10p cola bottles. All of which was good for your arithmetic, but bad for your teeth.

Since going back to the corner shop, I have been seeing my neighbours. Like my mother and I, decades ago, when a Mars Bar was still under 30p, my neighbours are walking to school each weekday. My old school was built by the Victorians. Like many buildings of this period, it has very high ceilings. In many ways it looks like a prison: huge black metal railings tower above the children trapped inside its looming walls; there are disused signs, etched into eroded stone arches, to segregate boys from girls and infants from juniors. There is a pervading sense of history, seeping from the very bricks and mortar.

During my residency at Primrose Hill Primary School, I was taught that Victorian children were forced into child labour at the age of eight. According to our teacher Sally, minors were enslaved into sweeping up inside dirty chimneys because of their shortness. As she expressed her imagination, using Gothic imagery wherever possible, Sally taught to us to fear the Victorian age. The overall impression was one of abject poverty, cruel injustice and total misery. According to the book of Sally, the Victorians were the villains of history, whereas the Elizabethans were glamorous.

Those were the post-Thatcher days, Britain was about to be ruled by a man in a grey suit. Teachers could be called by their first name. Our school had no uniform. Milk would never be taken away from our children ever again.

Maybe Sally was right to frighten us with stories of child slavery. Perhaps we were lucky to be at school in 1991, where our worst fear was being shouted at by one of the dinner ladies.

This morning, the corner shop was open as usual, and my neighbours took their children to school on time. These days, I get the sense that life has always gone on like this, and always will.

There is a human tendency to rate one historical moment above another one, but we perceive the universe only through our senses and our imaginations.

18: I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne

In Art, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction on 02/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

I Was Vermeer by Frank WynneBefore he became an art forger, Han van Meegeren was an excellent painter of original realistic works with a fantastic technique and a number of successful projects to his own name. He had won a prestigious award, held profitable exhibitions, and had even sketched what was to become the most reproduced image in twentieth century Holland. But whilst Han van Meegeren was still a young man, still creating naturalistic paintings, the art world had dramatically changed, turning first towards impressionism and later to cubism. By the 1920’s, Han was incensed and embittered against these changes, enraged by the movement away from the rules of academic painting. Han had harvested a great sneering contempt for art critics and several bad habits – alcohol, morphine and prostitutes. And yet, despite Han’s personal troubles, he was extremely meticulous in his approach to forgery. Han van Meegeren fooled his enemies, swindled the Nazis, and painted with a vengeful passion.

In this biography, Frank Wynne brings this exciting story to light with a cultured intelligence. Employing engaging headings and quotations, each chapter invites the reader to discover more. The story explores in some detail the hows and whys of the forger’s life. How he used Bakelite (the first commercially made plastic) to resemble antic varnish. Why he had initially become an artist as a revolt against his father.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to a friend. In particular, I admired the writer for appropriately balancing just enough attention to detail with the right amount of psychological insight. Indeed, as I appreciated this gripping life story, I had to remind myself that I was reading non-fiction. That is because the facts of the story have been crafted in a novelistic way, both to inform and to delight.

Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.