Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Review



Millennium is Tom Holland’s panoramic journey through the two centuries either side of the year 1000. It is, in many ways, a rebuke to the stigma surrounding the Dark Ages in popular and academic circles. Rather than regurgitate the accepted narrative of cultural decline commonly attributed to the period, Holland argues that it was, at this crucial juncture in history, that the foundations of the modern West were slid agonisingly into place. 

On a brief side note, if you are more interested in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword, please click this link to be re-directed to my review. 

The Antichrist and The Second Coming

Central to the narrative in Millennium is the notion – located in the apostle John’s writings in the New Testament – of the Antichrist springing up on Earth and ushering in the Second Coming. Christians held that the Antichrist would emerge on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, so the years predating the millennium were fraught with anxiety across Christendom. That the latter half of the 10th century was particularly destabilising, only served to re-enforce the belief that Christ’s adversary could rise up and instigate a wave of destruction at any moment

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead. 

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’

But once again, the year 1033 passed inconspicuously by and nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Christendom took this as evidence that the end was not nigh; imbued with a newfound optimism, popes, monks and bishops set about creating a new religious order, while kings and princes started to stitch together new empires.

The Twin Pillars of Christendom: Church and State

The uneasy relationship between Church and State is a recurring theme in Holland’s account of the years 900 – 1100. On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor of the West, a high point in relations between the two parties. A devout Catholic, the focal-point of the Carolingian Empire set about consolidating Christianity’s presence in his domain. However, in the following centuries, politics and religion would increasingly clash in the West. 

The decline of the western half of the former Carolingian Empire (West Francia) had led to a power vacuum. Dukes, counts and castellans fought to retain, and expand, their regional power bases. Peasants were helpless in the face of armoured men on horses – knights – and even the clergy suffered, especially from land loss. Bishops in Southern France ushered in the Peace of God in 989 at the Council of Charoux, a mass peace movement that threatened feuding nobles with religious sanctions. Ecclesiastical legislation sought to regulate warfare and protect the vulnerable, and was supported by vast crowds in open-space councils. 

In the latter 10thcentury, Holland explains, there emerged a succession of ‘Reforming Popes’ bent on increasing papal authority and stamping out impious behaviour within the Catholic Church, particularly simony and priestly marriage. Gregory VII, formerly Hildebrand, and Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon, were two key figures. 

Gregory VII was hellbent in his conviction that he was God’s vice-regent on Earth, and that the central role of the Catholic Church was to unify the entire world into a single, Christian society. He clashed increasingly with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the appointment of bishops in a stand-off that became known as the investiture controversy. Although lay powers had traditionally invested bishops with their power, Gregory VII believed in papal supremacy over secular might. 

Over the course of his papacy, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV three times for disobeying him, the king famously walking over the Alps to Canossa in an attempt to secure the Bishop of Rome’s forgiveness. Henry IV even appointed an Antipope, Clement III, to try and wrestle away power from the incumbent pope. The events lead to a growing tension between the Church and State, which was only partially resolved in 1095, when Urban II called for the nobility to wrestle back authority over the Holy Land from Muslim infidels. The call was answered, and Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders in 1099.  

The Edge of Christendom 

Millennium adopts a notably Christian-centric perspective of the High Middle Ages; the spread of Christian doctrine across Europe is viewed as fundamentally beneficial – a process that served to prop-up, and enlarge, kingdoms and empires. 

Considerable attention is afforded to the periphery of Christendom in the first half of the book, particularly the pagan forces dwelling to the north and east of Europe. Holland offers detailed accounts of how the Kings of East Francia brought the Wends and Hungarians to submission, the baptism of the Duke of Poland (966), Rollo and Alexander of Kiev’s respective conversions to Christianity (911 & 988), the desolation of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and the spread of Christian belief in Scandinavia. 

Over the roughly 200 years that Millenniumcovers, Christendom succeeded in not only shoring up its outposts, but expanding across vast swathes of land formerly inhabited by non-believers. 

Feudal Order

Narrative history is, by nature, less focused on why things happen, and more concerned with capturing historical events in an enticing and exciting manner. Invariably, Millennium suffers from the same fate. However, a chapter in the middle of the book, ‘Yielding Place to New’ is Holland at his analytical-best. 

The chapter zones in on the emergence of a new social order in the late 10thcentury, one that empowered local powers and detrimentally affected the multitude: the peasantry. Holland finds the first roots of what would become feudalism in France. He argues that the fashion for building castles – which, had initially flourished in Italy – made it easier for dukes and princes to harass rural dwellers. 

Indeed, the castle, in Holland’s eyes, was an almost mythological-like structure that began to dominate the French countryside in the Dark Ages: a power symbol that instilled fear into the hitherto free lower classes. As warring lords began to assume control over dotting farmers, the faintest signs of feudalism started to appear. 

Conclusion

Holland’s narrative-driven, ambitious and colourful take on narrative history offers a lot for readers. I learned a considerable amount about Norman efforts in Southern Italy, the formation of East and West Francia and popular religious prophecies in the period. 

Don’t expect 400 pages of systematic analysis and insight, but do expect a sound overview of developments in Europe across the High Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’ Review

I raced through Machines Like Me. The narrative was gripping and enriched by a sense of foreboding. It always felt as though something dark might be around the corner (and their often was), but the novel never quite descended into the dystopian ‘machine gone wrong’ tale that I had expected. Having never read anything by McEwan before, the suspenseful and evolving plot was a real highlight.

Set in a counter-factual London of 1982 – one in which technology is anachronistically advanced, the Falklands War has been lost, and Alan Turing is alive and celebrated as the patriarch of AI – the novel charts a love-triangle between two humans and a humanoid robot named Adam. The narrator, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-something technology enthusiast who avoids full-time employment by making incremental profits on the stock market. Unable to inhibit his curiosity, he spends his inheritance on a cutting-edge robot named Adam. Deeply in love with Miranda, a social history student living above his North Clapham flat, Charlie envisages that co-parenthood of their proto-child will bring the two closer together, but Adam is soon romantically drawn towards Miranda, and vice versa. 

“As Schopenhauer said about free will, you can choose whatever you desire, but you’re not free to choose your desires”.

McEwan tackles a multitude of themes (consciousness, political factionalism, historic recurrence, the complexity of human relationships) but his deliberations on morality are central. Although Adam is meticulously programmed to behave as if human, he struggles to comprehend man’s flawed ethic, and this leads to his demise. Openly in love with Miranda, he is compelled to indict her at the conclusion of the novel, confident that the sense of justice will liberate her. In contrast, human characters repeatedly allow emotions (love, rage, revenge) to overpower ethical considerations. Adam is not alone in suffering from a realisation that humanness equates with imperfection. He is one of thirteen ‘Adams’ and twelve ‘Eves’ who are sold to the public, and we read how a handful of the androids effectively self-implode when they fail to reconcile humanity’s failings. One is compelled to sympathise with the cyborgs. 

The ethical dilemmas don’t stop with Adam. Miranda tells how her childhood best friend, Mariam, was raped by a boy named Gorringe at their school. She pledges Miranda to secrecy and then later commits suicide. In response, Miranda keeps the secret but later orchestrates an elaborate plot to get Gorringe convicted on a false rape charge. Where does this position the novel’s heroine? The tragic story of Mark, a child placed into care who Miranda and Charlie plan on adopting, is another interesting sub-plot, and allows McEwan to take aim at the endless bureaucracy and general inadequacy of social services.

In spite of the sections on AI and some of Adam’s philosophical meanderings, the prose is generally limpid and transparent. Characters are well-constructed and complex. Charlie is a technology whizz and devout lover, but he is also avaricious, self-indulgent and uninspiring; Miranda is compassionate – a dedicated student, daughter and friend, but also harbours a dark secret. Their relationship mutates over the course of the novel, and it is never quite clear if Adam’s love is fully reciprocated.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’


In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, there has been a renewed focus on the social obligation we all share to educate ourselves of the ills of systemic racism. Books tackling race relations and racial inequality have dominated best-seller lists across the globe in recent weeks, and information about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality have spread across social media like wildfire. The bold front cover page of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has become instantly recognisable – ‘marketing gold’ in the current climate, according to one literary reviewer from The Times. It was in the spirit of educating myself – with a particular interest in Britain’s problematic racial history – that I began reading. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is, in essence, an expose of structural racism in Britain. It contains seven essays – both self-contained and inter-connected – that tackle topics from white privilege, fear of immigrants and the intersectionality between race, gender and class. The first essay – ‘Histories’ – functions as an illuminating synopsis of the struggle faced by black people in Britain over the last half a millennium. It is a tale of slavery, lynchings and police brutality. Eddo-Lodge writes in an angry, passionate and stark manner, from the perspective of an individual who has both experienced and intensely studied her topic. 

As a white, anti-racist reader, I found the book particularly challenging in that it asked me to come to terms with my complicity in a racially unequal social structure. Eddo-Lodge’s argument is that maintaining anti-racist sentiment is not enough, and that white people should first come to terms with their unrealised biases and prejudices, using this moment of realisation as a launching-point for enacting future change. It is uneasy to read something that plainly accuses you (as reader) of wrong, but the bold and accusatory nature of the text is one of its main strengths. 

The author’s explanation of ‘white privilege’ really stood out to me. She describes it as an ‘absence’ – not something to be gained, but something that white people are fortunate to live without.

“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.” 

After all, there are millions of disadvantaged, working-class people in Britain who face poverty and deal with social inequality. But they can be confident that their race will not negatively affect them in the same way. The figures are startling and shocking: ‘According to the Department of Education, a black schoolboy in England is three times more likely to be excluded than the rest of the population’; ‘between 2012 and 2013, the highest proportion of UK students to receive the lowest degree-ranking… was among black students, with the lowest proportion being white students; research shows that individuals with white British-sounding names are more likely to be called back for interviews than those with African or Asian-sounding names, despite having similar skill-sets, education and work histories.

Eddo-Lodge’s diatribe against structural racism concludes by suggesting that the burden should not be carried by black people in purging racism from our institutions, but that the white British population should take up the mantle and spread anti-racist ideology, whether in the workplace, the streets or in the home. She contends that rage is more powerful than guilt, and so her final message to readers is: ‘get angry’. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Micheal Atherton, ‘Atherton’s Ashes: How England Won the 2009 Ashes’


In the last few days I have been reliving the 2009 Ashes through the perspective of Micheal Atherton. Spurred on by the seemingly never-ending highlights of cricket nostalgia on Sky Sports Cricket, I drew out Atherton’s Ashes: How England Won the 2009 Ashes from my bookshelf. 

The 2009 Ashes – in which, England recapture the urn, recovering from a 5-0 drubbing two years earlier – has always held a special place in my cricketing memory. My earliest recollection of televised cricket is Day 5 of the First Test in Cardiff. James Anderson and Monty Panesar, two quintessential tailenders, were tasked with holding out 11.3 overs in order to save the match. I watched on as the fated pair blocked ball after ball, the crowd cheering every dot, and Ricky Ponting’s captaincy becoming increasingly erratic. To the surprise of many, they were able to hold on – Monty even carving an elegant cut shot through point’s legs for four. It was a remarkable result, and one that in the grand scheme of things, could easily have saved the series; from 1-0 up Australia would have been immensely difficult to beat. 

Reading through the book I was transported to a different cricketing world: Allen Stanford, the Stanford Super Series and the embarrassment of the ECB; the rise of IPL and the inevitable conflict with international commitments; the birth of the celebrity cricketer (Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen). These are the talking points and anxieties that crop up again and again. Although only eleven years ago, it feels like a distant era, testament to the game’s evolution in the last decade. 

Australia are in the midst of the post-Warne era, still two years before gifted off-spinner Nathan Lyon will make his test bow (although, he didn’t exactly solve their spin issue straight away) and unable to find a successor. Ponting is captaining the side and entering the twilight of his career – not the insightful commentator and well-respected batting coach that we see today. Peter Siddle, a youthful and angry quick hailing from Victoria, is looking to make a mark. It is vaguely satisfying to consider how their respective careers have panned out. More so to check Atherton’s prophecies and predictions against reality (he seems reluctant for the selectors to give a certain Jonathan Trott – 4,000 odd Test runs at 44 – a go, for example). 

I have always considered Atherton an adroit commentator – a source of reason in the commentary box, a kind of calming influence offsetting the likes of David Lloyd or Nasser Hussain. Yet in the book he comes across as somewhat critical: apart from Ponting and perhaps Andrew Strauss, every player in the series drifts unknowingly into the firing line. Even Shane Watson, a makeshift opener who averaged 48 and scored three fifties in the series, does not escape criticism. The book, it has to be mentioned, is a piecing together of Atherton’s daily articles for The Times during the course of the Ashes. Sports journalism demands strong opinions and controversy for the sake of interest, and so I think Atherton’s occasionally excessive statements can be excused. Aside from that, he is a joy to read – his witty similes a real highlight: “It is almost as if, like Prufrock, Flintoff saw the moment of his greatness flicker and was afraid”. It is also clear that he is a great thinker, one who values the integrity of the game and its traditions. 

Atherton’s Ashes casts an eye back on the hotly contested England-Australia Test Series of 2009. For both teams, most of the icons of 2005 (Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Simon Jones, Michael Vaughan – I could go on) had reached the end of their Test careers, and so the cricket was not of the highest calibre. But the excitement lay in the thrilling finale at Cardiff, the drama and the frequent shifts in the balance of power from Test-to-Test.

Below I have noted down a few interesting statistics from the series:

  • Cardiff was the 100th Test match venue, and the 9th to be used in the UK.
  • England’s victory at Lords was their first since 1934; Andrew Flintoff’s five for 92 was only his fourth five-wicket haul in first-class cricket.
  • Jonathan Trott became the 18th English player to score a century on Debut at The Oval.
  • 4 of the 5 top run scorers were Australian; Andrew Strauss topped the run scoring charts with 474 at 52.67.
  • The top 3 leading wicket takers were Australian (Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’


Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Any article on the internet listing the most influential novels of the 20th century is sure to include Henry Miller’s 1934 work Tropic of Cancer. At the centre of a high-profile obscenity trial, the book challenged the literary status quo and revolutionised the canon, toppling regulations surrounding literature deemed ‘acceptable’ to print. In this way, Miller helped expand the breadth of authorial voice, allowing authors to write about, amongst other subjects, the sexual realm, with a newfound confidence and transparency. 

I found the opening few pages of the text to be engaging but quite overwhelming. The narrator (who we later found out is Miller himself) flitters from one thought to another: the essence of the book he is writing, his love interest, Tania, the Villa Borghese and animal genitalia are each considered within a few pages. In the first paragraph, the reader is introduced to the kind of ‘honest’ carnality that features throughout. Miller writes candidly about happenings with his roommate: ‘Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits … . We might never have known each so intimately.. had it not been for the lice’. Unfiltered and unashamed. But the opening section is integral in other ways. The essential philosophy of the text is expressed in another frank admission: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive’. Celebrated here is the now clichéd motto of ‘living in the moment’. ‘Hope’ is imagined as a destabilising instinct that rejects the present in favour of an unforeseen, incalculable future. Rather than being fettered by expectation, one should ‘seize the day’. The quote also captures the anti-materialist spirit that runs throughout the book. For Miller, the trappings of bourgeoise life are heavy and repressive; he experiences the most profound sense of freedom when he is destitute. 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy”.

As aforementioned, the style of writing is raw and the subject matter is often brazen. Miller roams through seedy Parisian side-streets, meeting drunkards, prostitutes and down-and-outs, but also spends time with wealthy and morally reprehensible expats. He records his encounters in a visceral and graphic manner that echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Nonetheless, there is also a clear poeticism to the prose – a graceful and imaginative quality that is almost incongruous with the carnal themes. Take these two sentences, for example:

‘In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dôme looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone’. 

A notable structural feature is the abrupt – and often confusing – diatribes that crop up during the text. These enraged, philosophical passages on the human condition break out suddenly during episodes, emphasising the need to find freedom from overbearing power structures. 

Rather than focus on humankind’s goodness, Miller takes base desires and instincts as his loci. In a self-reflexive passage that foreshadows the novel’s publishing difficulties, he writes: ‘If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what really is his experience, what truly is his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens’. Throughout the narrative he depicts his friends and acquaintances in a stark light, exposing their faults and selfish inclinations; Fillmore, for example, leaves his pregnant (and physically abusive) wife Ginette in Paris and escapes to America; Van Norden demonstrates a rampant, destructive sexuality. Rather than impose narratorial judgment, Miller merely paints them for what they are and recedes. There is no moralising or sermonising, but instead an admission that human nature contains an inherently dark streak, an ignobility that George Orwell recognised when he wrote of Miller: ‘“He knows all about me” you feel’. 

The novel is also controversial in that it espouses a patriarchal world-view, one in which women are sexually objectified and frequently referred to as ‘cunts’. Even the female characters afforded greater character development fit a range of derogatory stereotypes: seductress (Tania), abusive wife (Ginette), femme fatale (Yvette). Anti-semitism is similarly rife in the text; Jews are repeatedly insulted and singled out for their unethical behaviour. The representation of the hostile Rabbi, who turns away Miller and his associate when they are destitute, encapsulates this xenophobic spirit. Consequently, a key tension when reading the novel is how to reconcile Miller’s brave attack on social – particularly sexual – mores with his more regressive and troubling views. 


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit Techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound – best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the study by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit Techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’s formidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ was a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the offer further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in opera. For Kraftwerk, music is only part of the sum that is their unified artistic project: 3D visuals, album artwork, choreography and a painstakingly constructed group image are other components. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a musical novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography’


Sourcing my ‘fix’ of sport has been a largely unrewarding and mutating process during lockdown. From re-watching English domestic cricket finals, to playing badminton in the garden and mulling over downloading Football Manager, I’ve sought a number of outlets. Last week I was pleased to stumble across Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, hidden away at the back of my shelves. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, but the book promised, at the very least, a temporary respite during these sport-barren times. 

A highlight was the focus on the signings Sir Alex made during his tenure as Manchester United manager. A range of vague names from the past crop up: Kleberson, Male Biram Diouf and Alexander Büttner to name but a few. Sir Alex explains his reasons for signing each player, citing their strengths and weaknesses, and commenting on how they could improve his current squad. He emphasises the importance of both rebuilding and forward planning in maintaining a team that could continually challenge for the Premier League title; we are told, for example, that centre backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were viewed well in advance as the natural successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. 

Some of the most intimate details are also linked to transfers. United’s troubled dealings with Daniel Levy and Tottenham when signing Micheal Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov defer them from pursuing Luka Modric at a later date: a real shame for a Manchester United fan. Whole chapters are dedicated to Sir Alex’s relationship with high-profile players during his reign: Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand. Beckham is painted as a precociously talented and dedicated academy prospect who, influenced by fame and other external factors, fails to live up to expectation and become a club great. Much like Beckham, Van Nistelrooy becomes a destabilising force in the dressing room and is expelled for challenging Sir Alex’s authority. The recurring message is: no player is bigger than the club. 

‘The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did Ruud van Nistelrooy score”

Intimate details are however at a premium. Reading the autobiography, I had the sense that Sir Alex was barely scratching the surface. Much of the information and events alluded to are already in the public domain. The structure also compromised the flow of the narrative. Within each chapter, Sir Alex would repeatedly go off topic for a few pages, and then sharply return to his original point or story. In fairness, blame surely falls to the editor here. This is an easy read and the content is digestible, but it’s not so much an exposé as a recap, and rarely reaches a level of complexity or insight that makes it a worthwhile venture. 

Yesterday I ordered two new books: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (another on the bucket list) and Uwe Schutte’s Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. The reviews I’ve read indicate that Schutte analyses Kraftwerk as a phenomenon permeating and influencing various forms of cultural representation (music, graphic design, cinematography), and so I’m particularly excited to get stuck in.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head.