Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

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By Bruce Chatwin

I initially thought I would dip into this as I was reading other books over a few months but after starting it became my main read and I finished Chatwin’s letters in quick time. It is a cliche but the art that you are exposed to in Chatwins’s books was present in his life: the books and letters and the living seem inseparable. There is much of interest here if you like reading. Chitin liked the same literature I like and had many anecdotes and thoughts on writers, artists and travel. Thoroughly enjoyable either as something to dip into or be immersed in.

 

 

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Songlines

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By Bruce Chatwin.

Having had no interest, ever, in going to Australia. This made me almost consider visiting. There were so many great lines in this book and the characters who did exist were made a little more larger-than life by Chatwin as was his want.

“If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.”

 

“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.”

 

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What Am I Doing Here?

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By Bruce Chatwin.

This was a great collection of articles. I read Utz years back and loved it – so this was a way of getting into Chatwin before starting the ‘novels’. There was much that was illuminating. A passionate traveller who could also write: a very cultured and interested person.

“We shall not lie on our backs at the Red Castle and watch the vultures wheeling over the valley where they killed the grandson of Genghiz. We will not read Babur’s memoirs in his garden at Istalif and see the blind man smelling his way around the rose bushes. Or sit in the Peace of Islam with the beggars of Gazar Gagh. We will not stand on the Buddha’s head at Bamiyan, upright in his niche like a whale in a dry-dock. We will not sleep in the nomad tent, or scale the Minaret of Jam. And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt; and the nuts and dried mulberries we munched for altitude sickness. Nor shall we get back the smell of the beanfields, the sweet, resinous smell of deodar wood burning, or the whiff of a snow leopard at 14,000 feet.”

 

 

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Kolyma Tales

 

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By Varlam Shalamov.

This a powerful collection of stories. Part of the intensity is given by the seemingly objective and non-involved narration. Shalamov did this on purpose – there is no moralising by the writer – he lays everything out. The message that good can come from hardship is not present. There is just hardship.

“Friendship is not born in conditions of need or trouble. Literary fairy tales tell of ‘difficult’ conditions which are an essential element in forming any friendship, but such conditions are simply not difficult enough. If tragedy and need brought people together and gave birth to their friendship, then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great. Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends.”

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The People Speak

 

By Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove.

A fantastic collection of documents and excerpts. It leads to much further reading. Favourites include the piece from John MacLean and the investigation into the Bryant and May Match factory working conditions (and subsequent strike) in Bow. But, really, there is so much information contained.

The book was read over about four months and was perfect to dip into and then do further reading about events and people on the Internet. This really is inspiring stuff and a call to action.

Following is the last Stanza from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy‘:

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'

 

 

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From Solidarity to Sellout

[The Restoration of Capitalism in Poland]

By Tadeusz Kowalik.

I had always wanted to read a detailed account of what happened in Poland circa 1989 and this book certainly does that – right down to specific meetings and conversations had by participants. This was enlightening – and what transpires is that things were and are complex – there is no one party to blame wholly for the economic disaster that occurred in Poland after the fall of communism. Some individuals – such as the idealogogue Balcerowicz can take a large share of the blame as can the right wing hawks in the IMF, and perhaps also the naivety of the Solidarity leadership with governorship suddenly thrust upon them. In Kowalik’s opinion the following happened:

 

“Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki made a “Columbus mistake” when he wanted to go to Bonn for a model (looking for his Ludwig Erhard), but his confidants bought him a ticket to Washington (the Washington Consensus) and Chicago (headquarters of Milton Friedman’s school) instead.”

The quotes I highlighted in this book are numerous. But, here are a few which seem to sum things up – if they can be consolidated in such a way.

“The Polish middle class emerging from the first version of post-communist capitalism did not gain its positions through the market. For a great portion—or at any rate for those who acquired great fortunes—it was not the free market that turned out to be the most important, but pocket diaries. And so if this group is in fact defending anything, it is these pocket diaries—the connections, arrangements, quotas, government orders, limits, customs barriers, monopolies, thanks to which it gained its current position. This is the Polish drama.”

 

“It is remarkable that all indicators, without exception, both economic and social ones, have turned out to be more favorable for countries with a social market economy (cooperative) than for countries based more on a free market and open class conflict. Japan, for example, started an accelerated modernization march by radically reducing income (wages) and property disparities (zaibatsu expropriation, agricultural reform). Sweden by no means paid for its egalitarianism with lower efficiency, as it moved to the lead (next to two countries with a similar system—Denmark and Finland) among the knowledge-based economies in the world. “

 

“To recapitulate, Polish capitalism is characterized on the one side by massive unemployment, a large portion of people living in poverty, and high and constantly rising wage and income disparities. On the other side there is a diverse group of those who hold wealth and power, with strong clientelist or corruption links among its members. Both sides are the result of not so much uncontrolled market processes as deliberate activity (or inactivity, depending on the circumstances) of the state. All this convinces me even more that Poland has created one of the most unjust social and economic systems of the second half of the twentieth century, and with this system, it has entered the European Union.”

And finally:

“Advantage was simply taken of the immense trust that the people had in the first non-communist government.”

 

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