Book Reviews: A Gentleman, A Stranger and Dancing With War

March 9, 2015



Civil War (Volume 3 of The History of England) by Peter Ackroyd              8

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry                                              8

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke                                                         8

Dance With Suitcase by Dawn Garisch                                                             4


Peter Ackroyd is a superb writer of fiction and also a superb historian. Does that sound a little suspect? This is a beautifully written history of the English Civil War, indeed of the period stretching from the death of Elizabeth I to the accession of William of Orange. It is a highly readable account, lucid at all times, making the complex intelligible, but never over-simplifying. The unfolding of the highly dramatic events, the politics and the battles, the personalities and the beliefs are as fascinating as any page-turning novel. But this is not fiction. It is history and the real stuff. There is no doubt about the scholarship that underlies this book. It is an impressive work in which we have a very convincing interpretation of the events leading up the the Civil War. Ackroyd sees the fanatical fear of “Popery” and the Spanish influence as predominant in the English mind throughout the period.

Cromwell is a well-researched figure, never endearing, but somehow more explicable when seen in the context of the whole period which this volume covers. Charles I and the artifices of his court, the unreality of his mind-set, are again well-described and interpreted. Ackroyd writes the best histories I have yet come across of the hapless, self-indulgent and foolish brothers, Charles II and James II. The account of the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne, as James I, is illuminating: it shows a king from a tribally-based monarchy at odds with the very different dispensation in England, with parliament an established part of government. James’s inability to comprehend the limitations imposed on him is of universal and local relevance.

In the course of that century England underwent a revolution, and by 1688 nothing would ever be the same again. Outward forms might remain, but the reality was a shift in power of huge significance in the history of democracy. Important individuals enjoy special treatment in short chapters and each of these is well worth reading. John Milton the pamphleteer (and poet) wrote a magnificent defence of the freedom of the press. Lady Hutchinson, a political force in herself, was prepared to muster troops in support of Parliament. Thomas Hobbes wrote his great work Leviathan in response to the civic turmoil. Samuel Pepys wrote his diaries, pursued the pleasures of London and rebuilt the British fleet. And those of just some of the personalities of the age. Anyone remotely interested in the history of the church in this era will find the book equally fascinating. Archbishop Laud of course dominates and is then cut short. Ackroyd has produced two earlier volumes on the history of England and is working on the next. Well worth pursuing.

The Temporary Gentleman is a heart-rending novel, of extraordinary beauty and compassion. It is Irish. The prose is almost poetry; the humour is gentle and self-deprecating; the sorrow and the joy draw the reader into a world of love, anguish, broken relationships, loyalty and renewal. Jack McNulty is a working-class lad who makes his way through university, seeking to improve himself by becoming an engineer. He falls in love with a vivacious and beautiful girl, Mai Kirwan, beyond his reach, and she marries him. This is the story of their life together, of a rich experience as a young couple in a remote British colony; of pregnancy and a return to Ireland, and the birth of their first child, and depression and alcoholism. This against the turmoil of Irish politics, divided families and a desperate attempt to hold together the tatters of their marriage.

Jack sees service in the British forces, is torpedoed off the West Coast of Africa, survives to become an expert at bomb-disposal and a major, always an “honorary gentleman” by virtue of his rank and profession. He lives out the latter part of his life in Accra, in the former colony he knew well. Here an extraordinary friendship grows between himself and Tom, a former batman. Through Tom and his love and loyalty for McNulty, we enter another world. This simply story creates opportunities for beautiful characterisation, for the exploration of human relationships, for setting out our hopes and our tragedies.

James Lee Burke is an established novelist and it’s well worth looking up some of his other novels, because if this is your first introduction to his work, you’ll want more. The story begins in 1934 in the Depression. Weldon Holland is 16 years old when he confronts Bonnie and Clyde, camping out on his grandfather’s farm. He puts a bullet through the rear window of their automobile. Ten years later, a Second Lieutenant in the US Army, he lives through the Battle of the Bulge, rescues Sergeant Hershel Pine and stumbles on the horrors of an extermination camp. Here he finds a living corpse, Rosita Lowenstein.

Pot-War America is drilling for oil and here Weldon and Hershel join forces, raising capital and establishing a small company to lay pipelines. Hershel brings design and techniques learned from the Germans which make them leaders in the field. This is a story of an enduring marriage between Weldon and Rosita, and a tempestuous marriage between Hershel and a beautiful girl who makes her way to Hollywood.  It is also the story of the Great American Dream, where know-how and hard work open up enormous possibilities and where success brings enmity and violence. The two young entrepreneurs discover the horrendous infrastructures of money and politics which undergird the oil industry.

This is a brilliantly told tale, with characters of depth and conviction, thoroughly credible, living in a milieu in which we can breathe, hear and see. Weldon is a remarkable human being, conscious of his weakness, thinking the thoughts of a man of his era, exulting in success and wealth and observing the cost to the environment of what he is achieving without conscience. Rosita, the wise, wounded Jewish refugee, is an equally compelling personality.

Dawn Garisch presents a series of very personal, indeed intimate, recollections and then seeks to develop from each some new insight or understanding. The autobiographical material is written in prose of extraordinary precision, but the episodes are or the most part commonplace: early childhood, early awareness of sexuality, boarding school life, passionate affairs, attempts at performing in dance, relationships, and searches for therapy. If the intention is to write significant autobiography, Garisch fails.

The discourse that follows is seldom as clear or well-written. There is no balance in terms of the quality and I found the “conclusions” often highly idiosyncratic. Given the excellence of some other contemporary books on dance, I wonder at someone writing in the field with no reference to other work. Would a medical researcher or a serious thinker in any field pay no attention to what others are writing?

Intriguing is the range of schools of therapeutic dance or movement which Garisch explores. Each is for a short while important. Perhaps the sum total of those experiences is of help. Obviously this is a book for those within a charmed circle. I exclude myself.