Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Do Writers Have to Be Shits?

Ever since Lady Caroline Lamb declared that Lord Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know", poets have had a lot to live down to.

Either by temperament or vocation they must booze, brawl and fornicate to excess, occasionally spouting verses by heart. They must fall in and out of love, break up homes, not care a damn about money or possessions, be vain, touchy and proud. What they must not do is be ordinary or grandly heroic.

Unacknowledged legislators of the world? I've never cared for Shelley's assertion. I would not care to be a citizen of a country ruled by any of the poets I have met or known. And the best ones I have read had no interest in running anything other than guns, a betting book or a gauntlet of disapproving bourgeois types.

The passionate fondness I had for Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Bukowski had nothing to do with bad or inconsiderate behaviour that I wished to emulate - at least not beyond the age of 30. I have never been a drug addict or a violent drunk. There is a passage from Yeats's poem The Circus Animals' Desertion I once had the facility to quote that sums up my literary passion:-

Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of...

I once asked Alan Bennett if all writers, especially famous ones, were shits. Actually, the epithet I probably used was "bastards" as I was interviewing him for a family newspaper in which bastards were occasionally permitted, but shits never. In fact I've just found the article and this is what was reported:-

"Why do so many writers turn out to be four letter words as human beings?"
"It's not true of Chekhov, who was good in his life. Not true to Kafka either. But to put words on paper is a presumptuous thing to do; you are shouldering people aside to do it. To be a writer at all seems to be a defect because it's an immodest act. I suppose if writers were more or less at one with their work it would be less interesting."

In the afterword of James Andrew Taylor's warts and all biography of the late poet, novelist and broadcaster Vernon Scannell, Walking Wounded: The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell, there is another quote from Bennett which stems from Philip Larkin's line, They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Bennett says:-

"If your parents do fuck you up and you're going to write, that's fine because then you've got something to write about. But if they don't fuck you up, then you've got nothing to write about, so then they've fucked you up good and proper."

Taylor says Scannell's parents and the "exquisite miseries of his time in the army" gave Scannell an "inexhaustible wellspring of emotional experience on which his poetry could draw." I'll say. Between 1948, when he was 26, and his death in 2007, he had 51 books of poetry and prose to his adopted name (his real one was John Bain) and countless broadcasts and readings.

From the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s he was a literary star whose appearances at poetry and jazz evenings all over the country sold out venues, including London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. The BBC and various magazines always seemed to be offering him opportunities to broadcast or publish for payment. Lucky four letter word.

Yet there was a side to Scannell's character that I did not know about until this week when I read through Taylor's eye-opening book. In 1992, in a review I wrote of his fourth and final volume of memoirs Drums of Morning I said:-

Behind the mask I sense a man of little or no faith; one who is grateful and sometimes ashamed to have endured.

In one of his last poems Scannell wrote We are betrayed by what is false within, a perceptive line that sums up his own Jekyll and Hyde conflict out of which he made poetry.

I met him at the 1984 Ilkley Literature Festival and over the next six years or so had a periodic acquaintance that included a couple of visits to his small terraced house of Millstone grit in North Street, Otley. He was willing to talk literature with anyone who had a feeling for it and to me at least, for a while, was disposed to be a kindly encourager, though I did not push it. I took an interest in several of his books and reviewed them.

One of them was Argument of Kings, his third volume of memoirs in 1987. In it, apparently for the first time, he admitted to deserting from his regiment in North Africa during the war and being imprisoned in Alexandria, and then doing it again after the Normandy D-Day landings.

He made this public seven or eight years after Mrs Thatcher's Government awarded him a Civil List pension of £700 a year for services to English Literature. Oh what a lucky man he was, you might think.

And yet Vernon Scannell, the man with the refined middle-class, quietly spoken, voice, was a lifelong alcoholic subject to mood swings that turned him from a genial companion into a fist-swinging maniac. In pubs he fought men, at home he punched out women, just as his father had occasionally punched out his young son.  Although he repined his behaviour in his diaries and sometimes in his poems, he didn't make a sustained effort to change it.

I wasn't aware of this when I talked to him because he didn't let on. Neither did I know until I read Taylor's book that he was a bigamist, a jailbird and a serial deserter from situations he didn't like or found onerous. He walked away from his family just like he walked away from the Army, although in the end his various lovers appear to have forgiven him - because he was a poet, a man of letters.

Had he been a humble brickie or a milkman it might have been different. Andrew Taylor's researches allowed him to chroncile the discrepancies between Scannell's version of events in his fiction and autobiography and recorded fact. From a fairly early age Scannell had persuaded himself that imagination was every bit as valid as authentic experience or the memory of it.

"The poet's only allegiance is to the truth, not to a formal dogma, but the truth as he sees and feels it. To speak the truth is style," he wrote.

Speaking the truth in his poetry but living a lie in his life became a sub-text in his stories. He reacted to the insecurity of his self-doubts and shame by getting pissed and lashing out, and later blacking out all memory of it. I don't know if he struggled to reconcile his principled attitude to poetry and the unprincipled opportunism of his life; it gave him something to write about, if nothing else.

Vernon Scannell was the sum of his own contradictions. He hated sentimentality in literature, yet his diaries are full of it; he is forever lamenting his minor literary status or seeking to assure himself of love for his latest flame, even into his sixties. In the way he talked about literature he did his best to embody generosity and largeness of spirt - which is why so many women seem to have fallen for him - yet he could be jealous and petulant about his peers if he felt over-shadowed by their fame or good fortune.

In spite of all the negatives, though, Scannell's life could be seen as the triumph of hope over experience. He had a goal - to be a poet - and, as Alan Bennett put it, shouldered people aside to achieve it. In his own terms he made something of his life. Towards the end, in 2007, propped up in bed at home in North Street, sustained by Schubert and chilled Guinness, he defied cancer to write by hand his last poems.

I once wrote of shouldering people aside because I thought that was probably necessary; but, as the song goes, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. I don't think it's a necessary part of the job description to be a four letter word to write something worthwhile. Especially not in this age.

Friday, 11 October 2013

I Just Don't Have the Energy...Again

Hoping for the Government to do something about the price hikes in the cost of energy is like a man in jail hoping that those who banged him up will do something to get him out.

Bad as those hikes are, worse is yet to come...and is set to keep on coming for many years, as good old Britain borrows more billions to comply with the European Union's carbon capture directives.

Ed Miliband signed up to these in 2008 when, as Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, he put through Parliament the Climate Change Act. According to Christopher Booker and Richard North, who know their EU from their elbow, this piece of folly commits this country to forking out £18 billion a year for 37 years until 2050 on measures to reduce carbon emissions in the belief that this will prevent polar bears from wandering down the high street in Great Yarmouth.

Gentle skimmer, 37 times £18 billion comes to, er, £666 billion, a devilishly large number of billions for a country more than a trillion quid in debt.

Why hasn't David Cameron challenged the Labour leader to own up to his role in this nightmare in the House of Commons? For there is a direct correlation between the cost of climate change policies and the escalating costs of gas and electricity. The eight major energy suppliers are simply passing on their costs to the consumer to boost profitability.

More to the point, why hasn't any politician made this point? The reason isn't hard to fathom. All the major political parties signed up to the Climate Change Act. Until a few years ago they were vying with one another to be greener than green lest the righteous brothers and sisters of the eco movement, biting their nails over the future of the planet - Prince Charles famously declared humanity had but seven years to do it - won the support of voters.

Happily all that has gone grey about the gills in spite of the best endeavours of the Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change and its network of fervant believers in academia and the media. Climate change has been a fact of nature since the world began, millennia before the ancestors of Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg built bonfires to roast a leg of raptor for supper.

In happier times, before the Conservatives thought up the wheeze of flogging off public assets, you could bob along to a properly designated shop and pay your gas or electricity bill. More, you could talk to somebody face to face if you had a problem. Energy prices, like the rates, used to fluctuate. Not any more.

Until such time as Britain has the sense to begin divorce proceedings against the EU and find a way out of the sinking ship, the price of power is going to keep on rising annually. We are being covertly coerced into using less electricity by people whose index-linked incomes paid from the public purse mean they will never have to choose between heating and eating.

Meanwhile, forget about switching power suppliers, they're all part of a cabal playing follow-my-leader. Instead, think of ways of generating your own power. Nikola Tesla, the man who popularised Alternating Current against Edison's more expensive and limited Direct Current, maintained that electricity could be provided free of charge by tapping into the energy generated by nature. Evidently, his idea was not well received.

Hence that devilish sum of £666 billion.

A less charitable spark might conclude that the current media fright about the darkness that awaits when the power runs out is just another media scare - like salmonella, mad cow disease, manmade global warming. If it has an ulterior purpose can it be to make us pay the inflated price hikes coming with a feeling of almost gratitude for having power at all?

I wouldn't be surprised if we were being worked on in this way. It's like boxing: make your opponent worry about your jab, then hit him with an unxpected uppercut.

In the words of T S Eliot...

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury...

So begins East Coker (hah!), the third section of Eliot's Four Quartets. When I was a boy coke was something that only arty people snorted. For everybody else it was an alternative domestic fuel to coal. In those days you could be poor but warm in winter. Now you can be relatively well off and cold, as the statesmen and rulers, chairmen of many committees and distinguished civil servants, burn your money.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Burqa Way of Life...

If like me you think the wearers of niqabs, hijabs and burqas make the Lone Ranger look modestly under-dressed, you'll be gritting your teeth in irritation as the nation once again goes through yet another bout of soul-searching over Islamic religious/cultural issues.

Islamophobia generated by the boogeymen of the English Defence League had nothing to do with this one. It was the veiled Muslim woman in the London court, on trial for embezzlement, who made it a point of issue by declaring that she would not remove her veil for religious reasons.

Coincidentally young Muslim female students at a Birmingham college set their (veiled) faces against a decree that face coverings would not be allowed on campus. They got the college authorities to take a step back on that by resorting to social media protests and a threatened demonstration.

The prevalence of this mode of dress on the streets of Bradford has antagonised me. I've long suspected it was supposed to do just that. I daresay others have too though they are reluctant to say so publicly for obvious reasons in this increasingly PC country in which police officers are liable to get arsey with anyone who describes a criminal suspect as Asian-looking or Muslim.

The last novel of my friend David Tipton, the publisher and writer who died last November, was called Black Ghosts. I only ever saw a hand-written manuscript first draft. Tipton said the title was inspired by the sight of Muslim women swathed in black burqas in and around the area of inner-city Bradford where he lived.

Tipton, a well-travelled libertarian who seemed to get on well with his immediate Muslim neighbours, objected to the message embodied in the veil and other obsidian habilments: that as a man he was a potential violator of women of the book and must not be tempted by their physical attributes - hair, eyes, lips and all the rest. When we came to Bradford, separately, in the Seventies Muslim women who wanted to look Asian tended to wear colourful saris.

As far as I am aware there is no prescription in Koranic law for women to wear any of the above-mentioned items, merely an injunction to dress modestly and appropriately according to the climate of the country where they live. The passing of the sari for the tent-like burqa has been retrograde.

As it happens I prefer people - not just women - to dress modestly rather than garishly or sluttishly. I'm not talking about the stage costumes of Rock stars, actors or performance artists. The line between personal expressiveness and flagrant exhibitionism is drawn by taste or the lack of it. Inherent human qualities should not be reduced to the external fads of transient fashion.

Some Muslim women in Bradford go about in hijabs, elaborate scarves wound about their hair and neck. These arrangements are curious - the women seem to have big hats or bonnets over their hair. I rather like them.

Historically, of course, my generation and others further back grew up with head-scarves. Little films made in northern cities in the early years of the 20th century show men in caps, ladies in hats and factory girls in shawls and scarves. The latter covered the top of the head and were loosely tied under the chin; or they were tucked up round the top of the head like a pie crust.

In public the tradition has always been for the face to be visible, for we believe the face defines the lineaments of character. Instinctively we distrust those who obscure their face in public with a hood, a mask, a helmet or a scarf. It is a tradition that should be respected rather than eroded.

The top and bottom of the whole business about veils, for me, is that I'm fed up with the attempts by an alien culture since the 1980s to impose its values on this country. So it's okay if they don't speak English or if some of their young men drive without tax and insurance, or if they marry their first cousins and expect society to pick up the social and medical costs of special treatment for the idiocy these marriages frequently breed. Burning Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was okay in 1989, sharia courts are okay too in the twenty-first century.

If I've become intolerant in my old age it's not because Right-wing racists have won my support. I attribute it to the changes this country has gone through demographically especially over the last seven or eight years. Everything changes otherwise it dies, atrophies, I know that; but these changes were imposed from above, by the European Union and by the last Labour Government; they did not come about from generational evolution. So now, often, I feel a stranger in my own country. Worse, I think I am being made to feel like that.

Xenophobia? Perhaps. Prejudice? Yes and no. At the best of times, as my family and friends would testify, I dislike the encroachment of prattling humanity on my little bit of breathing space. I like to listen to sound of my own thoughts - not the incessant jabbering of somebody else on a mobile phone in a bus or a train. I can't walk through central Bradford without some invasive chugger standing in my path ostensibly for the good of a cause.The increasing propensity of public figures to misuse words such as "iconic", "vibrant", "diversity" fratches my fellow feeling. The Old Adam in me flares up and, like the exasperated television journalist played by Peter Finch in the film Network, the desire to shout "I'm not going to take this any more!" swells my soul like a sail.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

George Sanders - Biography (SD)

I stumbled upon this poinant tribute to George Sanders late last night after looking at some 1960s films of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton scoring marvellous goals for Manchester United.

I found it deeply touching, bound up with the past and its passing. The mood created by the soundtrack, a song called I Remember, and the black and white imagery, makes this a memorable ten minutes.

I didn't know George Sanders killed himself in Barcelona in 1972. Nor did I know that he was born in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution, went to college in Manchester and later worked in Buenos Aires. I only knew he starred in (at least) two great films: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and All About Eve (1950).

Thank you to whoever put this out.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Battle For Afghanistan

If the art of diplomacy consists of persuading today’s enemies to become tomorrow’s friends, turning today’s allies into tomorrow’s enemies can only be an act of hubris.

Britain’s blundering in what we know as Afghanistan in 1839, alienating a potential ally who asked for our help, in support of a weaker rival, is a cautionary tale of how clever men, blinded by conceit, made enemies where they might so easily have made friends and in doing so caused the loss of much blood and treasure.

In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G R Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors. It was, he wrote, ‘a war begun for no wise purpose,carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated

Reading William Dalrymple’s vivid chronicle of the First Afghan War, Return of a King, was almost like reading Con Coughlin’s analysis of current American foreign policy in Afghanistan in today’s Daily Telegraph.

But any chance we had of defeating them on the battlefield, and forcing them to submit to our terms, vanished the moment Mr Obama, with David Cameron’s active encouragement, opted for a policy of cut and run, thereby handing the advantage to the Taliban. Consequently, any deal made over the future of Afghanistan will be one that suits the Taliban’s interests, rather than those of the millions of Afghan civilians we have been fighting to protect.

Alexander Burnes, who travelled extensively in the region in the 1830s and wrote a best-selling book of his adventures, Travels in Bukhara, wrote: The Afghans cannot control their feelings of jealousy towards men in power: for the last thirty years, who has died a natural death? To be happy under government they must either be ruled by a vigorous despot, or formed into many small republics. Burnes, whose warnings were ignored by both the British Government and the East India Company bureaucracy, was butchered in Kabul during the 1841 uprising.

The practice of democratic politics, described pragmatically as the "art of the possible", must also allow for the law of unforeseen consequences. Yet what people do as protective reflex in their indivdual lives seems to vanish the moment they become a party, a bureaucracy or a government; or Governor General of India, in this case Lord Auckland, who ignored the advice of Burnes and authorised the 1839 invasion. His sister Emily drily observed: Poor, dear peaceful George has gone to war. Rather an inconsistency in his character.     

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Challenger...revisited

"Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love." These words, or words very much like them, are attributed to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, subject of the recent BBC2 film The Challenger starring William Hurt in probably his best-ever character part. I watched it twice.

There was a profile on BBC4 recently. The man who died in Los Angeles in 1988 is reportedly returning to acclaim and popularity; a little film on YouTube, in which he talks about the beauty of understanding how something works, in this case a flower, has been receiving thousands of hits.

I have seen it and have also read chunks of the book he did with Ralph Leighton, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, including the section on his experiences at Los Alamos during World War II, helping the US military to invent, on behalf of the Allies, the atomic bomb before the Nazis got there first.

Feynman said in the TV profile how much he enjoyed the intensity of the work and how he had watched through a vehicle windscreen the first test explosion in Nevada - "it's only Ultra Violet light that blinds you and Ultra Violet light cannot penetrate glass". He didn't, however, enjoy the consequences when the Little Boy bomb was exploded above Hiroshima in August, 1945.

Perhaps it was that which prompted the thought that there was more to life than the power of death encaspulated in scientific equations. Like the British philosopher Alan Watts, like the American poet John Berryman, Richard Feynman was a serious man unafraid to to strike out on his own against current orthodoxies. William Hurt conveyed this brilliantly in The Challenger.

Until this film I had never heard of Feynman; consequently I had no idea of the part he played in determining and exposing the technical fault that caused hot gases to leak from defective seals on the one of the two liquid hydrogen towers rocketing the Challenger shuttle spacecraft away from earth on the cold morning of January 28, 1986. The subsequent explosion 75 seconds after lift-off killed all seven astronauts on board.

The man from the California Institute of Technology only agreed to take part in the investigation in Washington because he allowed himself to be convinced that there was a problem that only he could resolve. Solving technical problems was one of his lifelong joys. As a kid he gained a reputation for mending faulty radios by thinking - asking himself practical questions and arriving at the probable answer.

So why would a prize-winning man of science say: "Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love."?  It sounds so Haight Ashbury, so Summer of Love. Little of the very little I know about Richard Feynman, however, suggests that he was an adherent of the flower power politics of San Francisco, or any particular philosophy. In fact he seems to have have been mistrustful of the value of philosophy.

In Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! there is a section called Is Electricity Fire in which Feynman recounts his experience of trying to understand the language of a possee of professors, invited to meet and discuss the ethics of equality. A stenotypist asked him if he was a professor. Feynman told him he was a professor of physics. "Oh! That must be the reason," he replied. Asked to explain further, the stenotypist said he didn't understand a word when the "other fellas talk. But every time you stand up to say something, I understand exactly what you mean - what the question is, and what you're saying - so I thought you can't be a professor!"

So I'm inclined to think that Richard Feynman believed that you could only truly teach anything, only truly learn anything, if you loved it.

A few years ago in a moment of serendipity I wrote a short poem the third and final verse of which goes:-
I cannot share
what I do not have.
I cannot teach
what I do not love.

That's a proposition I'd stand by.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that," Feynman said.  This sums up, I think, what he was as a scientist and tried to be as a man.

The finale of Richard Feynman's short appendix to the official Challenger Report in 1986 reads:-
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. 

They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. 

Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. 

I quote this to remind myself once again that the human capacity to learn from mistakes is only outstripped by its readiness to repeat those mistakes with greater expertise. This is especially so of large organisations in which money, power and prestige outweigh any other consideration.

In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entering earth's atmosphere. Part of the spacecraft had been damaged by a chunk of protective foam that had ripped away from the underbelly of the fuel tank during flight. Like Challenger, all seven astronauts aboard were killed.

In subsequent years other shuttle flights were damaged by flaws in either design or engineering. Richard Feynman's report and his final adjuration were forgotten.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Upon Finishing Lincoln: Team of Rivals...

This morning being Easter Monday I read the final pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln. The President was shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died the following morning in a hotel across the street from Ford's Theatre in Washington.

I had no idea that Booth was one of a trio of would-be assassins who planned to kill Secretary of State William Seward, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, all on the same night, at 10.15pm. One of the three dropped out. The other, a man named Powell, gained entry to Seward's Washington residence and with pistol and Bowie knife attacked and attempted to kill five people.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard lived with the compiling and composition of this historical biography - 754 pages of text, two-and-a-half pages of acknowledgements, 121 pages of notes plus an index - for ten years. If like me, you had only the sketchiest notion of Lincoln's life and times, this book will give you the opportunity of widening your knowledge and deepening your understanding. It will also whet your appetite to know more the course of the Civil War, which began and ended in the month of April, 1861 to 1865, and the birth of the Republican Party in 1855 - the party of abolition. If you had fondly imagined that Republicans were nasty Tories and Democrats freedom-loving liberals, you really should read this book. Hopefully the surprise won't be too unpleasant. Also, how much more difficult was reconciliation between North and South made by Lincoln's murder? He was but a month or so into his second term when John Wilkes Booth shot him dead. 

Steven Spielberg's excellent film centres on the last five months of Lincoln's life and brings together in fiction two strands of hiostorical reality that were separate: the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress and the Confederacy's peace initiative. In the film Lincoln has knowledge of the arrival of the three peace commissioners in the North but doesn't meet them. In reality he met and talked with them for a couple of days, insisting that peace was only possible if the South accepted the Union and all that that would mean for those 13 rebel states fighting to defend slave ownership. In the film dramatic tension is built up brilliantly by confronting Lincoln with a dilemma: if the peace intiative succeeds and the war is concluded before the passage of the 13th Amendment, some state legislatures will fight shy of abolishing slavery. Abolition was a tricky constititional issue, capable of dividing men and parties as well as bringing them together. I was disappointed that Spielberg's central drama, played out in the House of Representatives on March 4, 1865, takes only a few pages in the book.

Fifty pages short of the end, I found an historical reconstruction of the Battle of Gettysburg on Youtube. This three day running fight, July 1-3, 1863, came close to being the end of the Union Army. Military strategy, tactics and weaponry are incidentals in the book because Doris Kearns Goodwin's book is not a military history, chronicling the details of battlefield events; it is the effect of such events on her quartet of Cabinet rivals - Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates, and their friends, associates and familes, that is her main concern. So it was the film that explained the terrible physical  repercussions inflicted by the 'miniball' musket bullet, a hollow-ended, partly rifled projectile that splintered bone like a wrecking ball and caused wounds to turn gangrenous. Lincoln rode through the sites of battlefields and often visited hospitals to talk to maimed and injured soldiers. He went south to visit Ulysses S Grant after the siege of Petersburg and the abandonment of the Confederate capital of Richmond. In short, Lincoln was a brave man who gazed upon the physical consequences of policy and did not turn his sad eyes away.

Lincoln and other members of his Cabinet took both pleasure and solace from poetry. For them it was not an affectation of culture but something as central to their lives as scripture. The idea that Lincoln knew and talked with Walt Whitman, who worked in military hospitals in Washington, was exciting to contemplate, to me anyway, because it is a natural reflex for me to make connections between disparate events and draw them together. So Whitman's Mississippi of a poem, Leaves of Grass, Robert Lowell's 20th century poem For the Union Dead and Allen Ginsberg's splendid poem about Walt Whitman, A Supermarket in California, came to mind as I read about the battlefield horrors of the Civil War. Though I have finished the book, I suspect that the book has not yet finished with me. That is how it should be.