So many books, so little time. (Howards End is on the Landing)

I’ve just finished reading Susan Hill’s – “Howards End is on the Landing”. Any readers who have come across the writings of Susan Hill probably best know her for her novels – of which there are many. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading her fiction, but if she writes her stories in the same enthralling manner in which she wrote this book, I am guessing that she will be a delight to read. I will certainly take a book or two of hers out from the local library to see for myself.

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Howards End is on the Landing is a wonderful book that takes us on a search for E.M. Forster’s book, Howards End, among Susan Hills vast and haphazard collection of books – in many rooms, on many bookshelves and in many piles, in corners or on windowsills, or even in stacks on the stairs. The search leads her to discover many books that she has bought or otherwise acquired over the years and never read. As she continues her search for Howards End, she puts a number of these freshly re-discovered books into a “to read” pile….to be joined by other previously read books that she has a burning desire to read again. She decides to compile a list of 40 books from her own shelves to be set aside to read over the next twelve months. As she shares her collection with us we are given the benefit of Susan’s experience – educated as to which books are worth reading, have stood the test of time, are regarded as either “true” classics….or simply also-rans. And as she educates us she also entertains us – regaling us with personal stories about the books, their stories and about authors she admires, has met and/or worked with along the way. And in some instances how her opinion of some writers, she met, changed over the years. Roald Dahl being a prime example. (Read the book to find out what changed her mind about the great Mr Dahl).

Howards End is on the Landing has set me thinking about a number of book related issues such as, compared with Susan Hill, how little I have read of books that are considered to be “the classics”, how many books there are in existence, and how impossible it is to read them all. It also makes me realise that perhaps I shouldn’t waste what time I have left on this earth by reading what she regards as “pulp fiction” …. and also how many books I have collected or amassed over the years, bought on a whim and gathering dust on a shelf unread and, for now, unloved. BUT how does each person know if a book is worth reading or not, simply by reading the notes on the books cover? Even by looking on line and checking the likes of Goodread’s reviews….they are, after all, just other peoples opinions…their tastes may not be mine….the only way to find out for sure is to read each book.

As Susan Hill writes of her journey through her book collection – “What follows is a description of that journey, which has also and inevitably led to my thinking, remembering, ordering, assessing, my entire book-reading life.” And what a full and interesting book reading life that has been. She also mentions the benefits of “Slow Reading” – saying that some books you can rip through as fast as possible, enjoy the thrill of the ride, absorb a simple story-line and then put the book down never to have the urge to read it ever again….comparable to grabbing a quick burger for a snack (fast food – satisfying the immediate urge, but not a long lasting satisfaction), where as other books should be Slow Reading stories – enjoyed in well chewed mouthfuls….savoured over a long period and digested gradually over time. She will read two or three chapters of, for example, Little Dorrit, or To the Lighthouse, or Midnight’s Children – and then go back and slowly chew over each sentence….see how each paragraph has been put together….mull over how each character is developed….what they say, how they say it….she enjoys examining the complexity of language and style. Slow reading, just like slow food is to be enjoyed and absorbed gradually – not gulped down.

In the final chapter of the book she mentions that we owe it to books to bring them to life by reading them rather than letting them sit like decorations on our shelves, simply looking pretty. “…for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.”

With this in mind I am going to take a good look at the books I have amassed/collected over the years, which are currently languishing on bookshelves in the dining room, bookshelves in the spare bedroom – which doubles as my office – piled in dark corners, in boxes under beds, in long forgotten cupboards, in boxes and trunks in storage in the garage. Some no doubt never have been read, others will be old favourites which have been taken down from the shelves and read several times….others have merely been dipped into…nibbled at in snack sized bites when time allows. I owe them all another chance, so I’ll do what Susan did and take a journey across the shelves, back in time, to re-discover and reclaim the books I once held dear…and come up with a “to read” list of my own.

I’ll let you know in a future post how I get along and what I find of interest. Meantime enjoy your reading and give life to a forgotten book if you can.

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I saved the best to last. Cinque Terre. Part 3 – Vernazza. A photographic journey.

Vernazza village – Cinque Terre’s crown
Pastel houses cling to cliff tops
Steep streets take us down
Into the winding narrows
, of Vernazza’s heart
And from this place of beauty
You will never want to part.

Vernazza is a sight to behold. It’s a photographer’s dream and also a photographer’s nightmare. It’s such a lovely place, scenic, colourful – that it’s almost a sin if, as a photographer, you take a bad picture of it. Not even a bad picture….just a picture that doesn’t reflect the full beauty of the place. It’s so difficult to capture…my photos don’t do it justice (in reality the colours are so bright they “ping”)…you must go and visit yourself.

Sure it’s a little shabby in places. Some of the buildings have paint peeling from their facades but it’s a kind of shabby beauty….beauty with age maybe. I loved it here. I spent so long wandering the streets, in and out of alleys and buildings, that I missed out on the final 2 of the Cinque Terre’s villages. But it was worth it.

From the train station you can either wander straight down to the little harbour – the heart and soul of Vernazza – from which everything else radiates, OR do as we did and climb upwards instead. Up the steep stone stairways and narrow paths that bring you out on the hilltop above the village, with spectacular views over the church steeple and down to the harbour of this gorgeous little fishing village. It was exhausting but well worth the climb to the top. Only after drinking in the beauty of the place from this vantage point did we venture down into Vernazza proper.

When in a catholic country like Italy you can’t help but notice the churches and religious icons – especially in these small villages – dotted here and there in quiet corners. A chance to pass on your thanks to the powers that be…..if that’s what your beliefs are….or just enjoy the moments solitude away from the tourist throngs.

Of all 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Vernazza is the only one with a natural port. It has no car traffic either which, if you can get there early and beat the other eager tourists, adds a special tranquility to the place.

Cinque Terre part 2 – Riomaggiore village – a photographic journey.

Riomaggiore is the first of the villages you’ll meet if you approach Cinque Terre from La Spezia. It isn’t, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the villages but is still very pretty and very much worth visiting.

From the railway station you can either, follow the coastal path around a headland to get to the village, or take a short cut through a pedestrian tunnel that takes you directly into the heart of the village. Although the coastal path is picturesque and rugged, on a hot day like it was when we visited, the cool of the tunnel is the preferred route.

The villages of Cinque Terra. Part 1. Manarola – A photographic journey.

Since my last post – a black and white photographic journey through Paris – was so well supported I thought I’d try you all with some colour photos of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. The villages are such a riot of colour that it would not do justice to their beauty if I presented photos in black and white.

The villages of Cinque Terre cling to the rocky cliff face along the north west coast of Italy. The can be accessed either by rail – from the nearby city of La Spezia – just 10 minutes by train to the south, or by following the pathway cut into the cliff face. The railway and the pathway link all five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. I thought that I’d be able to get some spectacular photos from the train as we made our way along the rugged coastline…..BUT – there’s always a BUT – because of the physical limitations of the geography here, the railway cuts through many, many tunnels so glimpses of the ocean are few and far between. However, the villages, as we discovered on departing the train, more than made up for the disappointment of the journey.

The buildings are close together due to the physical limits of the geography of the area and are painted in beautiful pastel colours. We spent a day exploring just 3 of the 5 villages. Here is a look in pictures at the second smallest of the five villages – Manarola.

Home – a place of warm memories.

No matter where I live in the world – no matter where, or how widely, I travel – I look back with the fond, warm memories of times spent at home.
But where is home? Everyone’s is different, unique. My home – the place I know in my heart as home – is a village on a hill, to the north of the once world renown “Steel City” Sheffield. Grenoside – the village – was where I was born and brought up as a child, went to school, played in the woods, had my teenage years, matured into manhood (some would say badly…), married and started a family. It was my home, is my home and always will be – even though it’s 30 years since I left there to live in New Zealand.

There are endless quotes concerning the subject of “Home” and what a home is. Here are a few.

“Home is where love resides, memories are created, friends always belong, and laughter never ends.”
“A house is made of bricks and beams. A home is made of hopes and dreams.”
“Home is not a place…it’s a feeling.”
And of course….. “There’s no place like home.”


There are however two more quotes that ring most true to me personally. They both say how I feel about my village, my home, my Grenoside.
Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”
That last one is very true. When I first left home in 1986 , backpack on my back to travel the world for a year, I couldn’t wait to get away. Now approaching 60 years of age I only have to think of my childhood – carefree days happily spent in the woods – and warm tears of gratitude slip down my cheeks.

I returned to my home in 2016 for a visit only and to return my parents, who had died in New Zealand, to their home….to scatter their ashes in the woodland – where we all used to walk together. A place of happy memories, of quiet reflection…birdsong and bluebells….leaves gently rustling in the breeze, and dappled light on sandy footpaths. I scattered their ashes in the woods, just as my father had with his parents ashes decades earlier. My wish is for my sons to do the same for me. I’ll be home again, once more, with my family and my ancestors – at peace.

Noam Chomsky and the “War on Terror” – a look at 2 books of interviews with the great man.

I recently read 2 books of interviews about Noam Chomsky’s take on 9/11 and the events that followed. Here is a brief summary.

Most people will know of Chomsky. He is a well known political activist/commentator, writer and professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT, where he started teaching in 1955. He has written and lectured on many subjects including linguistics, philosophy and politics. He’s not a man who skirts around the issue and has been quite scathing of his countries role in world wide terrorism.

He states that as far as the government of the USA is concerned, terrorism is what is done by others to the united states….not something that the USA actively participates in. He then goes on to name many of the terror events that America has wrought upon other nations around the world in the name of “Freedom & Democracy”…. and what hypocrites the government have been over the years.

The USA have ignored World Court ruling on several occasions. Have gone against United Nations resolutions designed to bring peace to troubled parts of the world and have instead chosen to act unilaterally rather than side with its traditional allies. They refused to sign the Kyoto climate change agreement and more recently pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. They have violated many treaties to further their own global dominance. They have overthrown foreign governments that were opposed to the USA and installed puppet governments in their place….often these puppets becoming dictators who violate the human rights of their citizens…..get too big for their own boots and are in turn kicked out/replaced by the USA again. Thus is their revolving door foreign policy.

It was the Clinton administration back in 1993 that informed the U.N. that the U.S. “will – as before – act multilaterally when possible but unilaterally when necessary” and they have been choosing to ignore their friends and allies ever since in order to pursue their own ends. Bush continued this stance. The USA has become the playground bully. They took over the mantel from Britain, who’s empire crumbled after becoming almost bankrupt as a result of the 6 years of fighting in World War 2.

Since becoming “Top Dog”, the USA has been a quite ruthless bully. It takes war to other countries quite happily, but then becomes shocked and outraged when someone attacks them. September 11 2001 was the first time since the war of 1812 that America’s national territory had been under attack….by which I mean mainland USA, so not taking into consideration the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour back in 1941. Having said that, Hawaii did not become an official US State until 1959.

So, the attack on the Twin Towers was a shock to the system for the USA. They over-reacted, a knee jerk reaction – and committed themselves to the “war on terror” and the needless attack on Iraq….who had nothing to do with the attack in the first place.

A war usually takes place between two or more nations. What happened on September 11 was a crime….not an act of war. It should have been treat as a crime – an act of terrorism perhaps, but a crime all the same. A thorough, non-biased investigation would have helped rather than leaping to the conclusion that somehow Osama Bin Laden from a cave somewhere in Afghanistan had done this horrendous deed and that some how the Iraqi’s were also implicated.

With the majority of the “terrorists” linked to the attack being of Saudi nationality, if a war was going to be declared and retribution taken it should therefore have been against Saudi Arabia…..so why attack Iraq and the Libya? The answer was to overthrow the government of the day – neither of which were friends of the USA, although both at points in the past had been recipients of military aid from the USA…when it had suited the USA to befriend and prop up these dictatorships. So, the “War on Terror” was declared as a smokescreen to mask US foreign policy decisions. Bush, incidentally, originally called it a “Crusade” but on advice corrected this to the war on terror, as crusade brings to mind religious ideals and ethnic cleansing.

But it was not a War on Terrorism – it was a politically motivated means of gaining control of the middle east and its oil supplies. By attacking Muslim targets, the USA fell straight into Bin Laden’s trap. Their actions, in attacking the Muslim world, enraged even the most peaceful followers of the Islamic faith…..creating no end of would be terrorists.

It’s not only in the war on terror that the USA is culpable in the deaths of innocents. Their economic foreign policies – sanctions – against countries who fail to comply with the USA’s “requests” have been responsible for ending trade between allies of the USA and a number of “victimised” nations. For example they stop aid and trade with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya bringing about death by starvation of millions of civillians – half of which are children. When asked if it was worth these deaths in order for the USA to maintain its political dominance the reply from the Whitehouse…..yes it is.

Such is US foreign policy. In reality the world is full of “grey areas” and yet to the USA policy makers it’s black or white – “you’re either with us or agin’ us” – as they used to say in those old B movie westerns – ….and we retain the right to change our policies, and our friends, as we choose, when we see fit to.

Getting back to Chomsky’s books….In the September 11 book, he was asked if he thought that Bush’s “War on Terrorism” was winnable. His response – I’d love to copy straight from the book, but don’t want to infringe copyright laws so I’ll paraphrase.

He says that in much of the world, the USA is seen as THE leading terrorist state and with good reason. In 1986 they were condemned by the World Court for “unlawful use of force” (international terrorism) – and they were told to adhere to international law. They ignored the World Court on that occasion, as they have done on other matters since. The USA are a rule to themselves and damn anyone who disagrees with them. When terrorist events occur, we should try to reduce any further threat rather than escalate it by knee jerk reactions such as bombing sovereign nations without evidence. When the IRA bombs went off in London and other places in the UK, there was no call by the British government to bomb west Belfast….or to attack the financial backers of this terrorism in Boston – an Irish stronghold. Rather, steps were taken to gather evidence and to take the criminals responsible into custody…..and efforts were also made to remedy the reasons behind the attacks. When the Oklahoma bombings occurred, calls were made immediately to bomb the middle east. It was only when it became clear that the terrorist was domestic…a white US citizen….with links to white nationalism that it didn’t go ahead. BUT there were no calls to bomb Montana or any other state with strong links to the perpetrator. Go back to the 1980’s and the USA “involvement” in Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of civilians died in Nicaragua as a result of violent assault by US forces. This terrorist attack by the USA also brought about the start of an economic war in which a small country like Nicaragua could not compete – it devastated the country and it’s never really recovered. The World Court ordered the USA to stop its actions immediately and to pay reparations to make up for their crime. As usual, the USA ignored the judgement, dismissing it with contempt, upping its destructive actions in Nicaragua. Did Nicaragua respond by sending terrorists to Washington? No…the went to the UN security council and asked them to intervene. The security council put forward a resolution calling on all states to observe international law. The U.S. alone vetoed it. They then went to the General Assembly where this time Israel, USA’s puppy state also opposed a similar resolution to obey international law. These are just a few of many many examples where the USA has dismissed international law and opinion and gone its own “lone wolf” way. It makes it’s own rules because no one else is big enough or powerful enough to make them act responsibly. If that doesn’t define what a Bully is, nothing does.

In his other book “Power and Terror”, Chomsky, as he has done many times in the past, places the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the context of American foreign intervention throughout the postwar decades – in Vietnam, Central America, the middle east and elsewhere. Beginning with the fundamental principle that the exercise of violence against civilian populations is terror, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a well organized band of Muslim extremists or the most powerful state in the world. Chomsky, in uncompromising terms, challenges the United States to apply to its own actions the moral standards it demands of others.

In the book, Chomsky compares US policy with that of Nazi Germany – as an indicator of the current moral and intellectual culture in which we live. He says that it’s something that we should be very concerned about and continues…. The acts of terror that the USA have brought to Central America, the Middle East and certain parts of Africa – they don’t count as Terror. The USA and the west as a whole see these actions as a “just war” or as “counter-terror”. But the same thing gets carried out by foreign parties against the USA or its allies, and it is “most certainly an act of terrorism”. This idea is not something new. It has been the standard line throughout the whole history of European imperialism. The USA are simply carrying on this tradition. So, they do it to us and it’s an act of terror….we do it to them and it’s a just war, it’s counter-terrorism, it’s a civilizing mission, it’s democracy in action, it’s bringing “freedom” to the oppressed. It’s bullshit… but it’s true with even the worst killers in history. If you read Nazi literature, in occupied Europe, they claimed to be quote -defending the population and the legitimate governments against the terror of the partisans (freedom fighters) who were controlled from abroad – close quote. The USA does the same things in modern times by propping up dysfunctional (but friendly to the USA) dictatorships to prevent rebels/freedom fighters/political opponents – call them what you will – from changing the government. It’s happened with El Salvador, Turkey, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Syria (where we have changed sides too many times to be credible)….the list goes on. But lets just take Columbia as an example.

In the 1990’s Colombia’s human rights record was the worst in the hemisphere and yet the USA gave more aid, including military aid, to the Colombian government than to the rest of the nations in the hemisphere combined. Mass murders were committed by government forces (including an incident where chainsaws were used to kill civilians) as evidenced by mass graves. Colombia also had, at that time and beyond, the world record in killing trade unionists and journalists – political murders ran between 10 and 20 per day and thousands of people went “missing” every month. Over 2 million fled the country while other civilians were pushed out of their homes to find refuge in slums without proper sanitation, schools or even the most basic of health care……and yet the USA financed this government, because it suited their short/mid term political and strategic goals. This is the moral decay that Chomsky fears has taken over modern political life.

He doesn’t only condemn the USA in “Power and Terror” – he also has a go at other world powers who, over the years have committed politically motivated atrocities (Britain included). Notable mentions were the German government of Nazi Germany before and during world war 2 – particularly the genocide of the Jews and Romanies – and also the actions of the Chinese government which brought about the deaths – through starvation, due to politically motivated decisions – of 25 million of its citizens.

Both books make interesting and compelling reading….depressing as they are. This is politics as it really is….dirty, low and evil – anything goes as long as we maintain the upper hand.

We owe a debt of thanks to professor Chomsky for being courageous enough to criticize his own and other rogue governments in this manner and to help us see beyond the smoke and mirrors of modern politics usually brought to us by the “bought and paid for” media.

I read things such as these two books from reliable sources like Noam Chomsky and realize that some of the “far fetched conspiracy theories” circulating on line or in publications such as the magazine “Uncensored” are maybe not so wide of the mark after all. It’s a strange and scary world in which to live and yet Chomsky remains upbeat and optimistic that the world is a more “civilized” place than it used to be. Perhaps as the end note of Power and Terror says – “his optimism sustains his life long mission: to bring the facts to the public, in the faith that, armed with knowledge, they will not fail to act”.