Tag Archives: british writers

‘Heroes’, by Paul Johnson – review

Heroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de GaulleHeroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de Gaulle by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We live in a paradoxical culture of hero-worshipping and anti-hero admiring. Hence, the idea of heroism seems to belong to an antediluvian ethos of the misty past when heroic mortals became divine immortals enshrined in pantheons of gods and goddesses. In fact, the ancient Greeks regarded a hero as a paragon of Arete, a prized quality in the Homeric hero, a blend of soldiery valor and moral integrity, a perfect union of moral and physical virtues. However, human heroism is constant of every age, universal of every culture and boundless of race and gender, which the public will always find it appealing and compelling because it shows how one can transform the impossible into the possible with a shot of gusto for courageousness in a cloak of confidence. That said, Heroes by Paul Johnson bears the witness to historical heroes and heroines whose dauntless spirits flew over the mountains of obstacles and brings them close to us with their human sides of fallibilities and follies.

From Samson and King David of Israel to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, to Julius Cesar of the Republic of Rome, and to Joan of Arc to Margaret Thatcher of the U.K., what these people have in common is not supernatural feats of magical physical power or omnipotent knowledge, but natural courage winged by the independence of mind arising from the ability to think things by themselves against dominant waves of compromises of their times. In this regard, heroes, as we generally define per se, are anti-establishment, anti-totalitarianism, and anti-supremacy in the sense that they challenge the subjectivity of popular beliefs or received norms to unpick the validity of truths, even if doing so will require their sacrifice and cruelty at the same time. It’s a sacrifice that they should endure the pains of persecution, and cruelty that they should vanquish the signs of human frailties to act upon their resolution without fail. Alas and alack, it sometimes results in pyrrhic victory, not only of the hero but also of those the hero intends to bring the triumph of the collective glory. Being a hero is akin to being  a Hamlet whose mental pendulum vacillates between “To be” or “Not to be.”

This is my fourth reading of Johnson’s books on history elaborately ornamented with his trademark natural wits, deeply saturated with his dazzling erudition of subjects, and deliciously narrated in a common language that always invite all, learned or novices, all of which are the essential key components of being a great writer who can share his knowledge and put people before ideas. In this book of heroes, Johnson is a sage raconteur of the heterodoxic history of mankind whose goal is to educate the public to illuminate the parts of our human history in the context of regarding the universal principles of reason and taste. With his scintillating story-telling skills, Johnson pivots deftly from the unknown interesting truths about his heroes to the cosmic principles of heroes that hold true today. If you are a history buff who always hungers for those unknown truths about famous people in history that are known to a few backstages of history, this book will satiate the appetites of your senses and nourish the mind married with pleasure.

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Strange Tales of the Sea by Jack Strange

Strange Tales of the SeaStrange Tales of the Sea by Jack Strange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sea is a mystery to wonder; one never knows when the placid sea will turn into a tempest of mad waves with gale force wind. The sea also brings with its spectral vessels manned by phantom crew and its uncanny creatures, all of which still exist in folktales, legends, and even some nautical documents. This book by Jack Strange consists of these tales of the sea he has gleaned from exhaustive research on such wondrous topics that are all the more entertaining and stimulating.

As someone who is very keen on the tales of haunted ships and their phantom crew, I was immediately drawn to the chapters of the haunted ghosts and the ill-fated vessels that had been cursed to sail on until the end of the world. Take the case of the American Joshua Slocum, the first man who sailed around the world by himself on Spray in the 19th century. While he was struggling to fight with all his might against the furious tempest and high waves on Spray, he was helped by a spectral crew who introduced himself as a member of Pinta, one of the ships commanded by Christopher Columbus in expedition to the New World. After Spray got back on the track, then the benevolent ghost vanished into the air with a smile.

Ghost vessels always pique people’s curiosity, such as Griffon & Edmund Fitzgerald haunting the Great Lakes between Canada and the U.S, not to mention the infamous “Flying Dutchman” and “Lady Lovibond ,” born of the death of jilted lovers. One might say that all these phantom ships are result of optical illusion, which is a reasonable speculation. However, the case of U-65, the Imperial German Navy submarine of the First World War is based on official naval documents in which a ghost of German officer on the deck of the submarine standing with his arms folded was frequently recorded both by the British and the U.S. naval forces during the war. I wonder if it was this optical illusion that made all of those soldiers, including the officers of high intellectual capacities and excellent health, spot the ghost German officer.

The book also has a whole chapter devoted to “The Crimp,” a kind of boarding house where unscrupulous masters or mistresses supplied seamen to ships without their pay. Also, there are chapters about mermaids and various sea monsters reported by seamen. Mr. Strange also lets us know that in Scotland, Thursdays were regarded as a lucky day for launching a new ship.

This book by Mr. Strange perks up the reader’s imaginations further to the realm of terra incognita on uncharted seas where mermaids are swimming merrily and the Octavious, the ghost ship with her frozen icy crew is adrift off the Western coast of Greenland. It bestows pleasure of being familiar with the peculiarities of the sea without scaring the reader with mind-boggling horrors or preposterous hyperbole of the absurdities. Hence, a heartfelt kudos to Mr. Strange’s extensive research of the maritime tales made possible by his passion for all things unique and strange -as it is by his name and nature.

Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays (Before Orwell)Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eric Arthur Blair, better preferably known as George Orwell, wrote a series of essays that dealt with the subject matters close to the human life in the manner of a journalist with heart. This book is a definitive anthology of Orwell’s essays contributed to various magazines and newspaper that will invite the readers to the Orwellian world of reality as he saw and he liked.

Orwell was capable of perceiving the absurdities of reality and truths masqueraded by ornamented political euphemism to obfuscate the masses for unscrupulous intentions. Of all his essays, “Why I write” is a paragon of his fineness as a great essayist. In the essay, Orwell provides the readers with sage guidelines for a writer, one of which is a choice of the subject matter that should be determined by the age a writer lives in. Such advice links with Leo Tolstoy’s view on great work of art to be closely related to the ethos of the time it is made. That is, a writer is unavoidably influenced by the ethos of the time he lives against his willful struggle to escape from solid reality.

Orwell asserts that a writer should discipline his temperament lest he should be stuck at immature stage or depressive mood. A writer should think straight so that he can write clearly. This shows Orwell’s belief in writing not as a platform for babbling about his egoistically driven existential dilemma of daily life, for consuming his energy into such self-induced woes and pains will kill the creative spirit in him, the very impulse to express himself as he truly is. To my delight, Orwell further expounds 4 motives for writing as follows:

(1) Sheer egoism: desire to be regarded as clever and much to be talked about. Writers are vain in the fact that they do want to be individuals, not compromising with the social conditions of reality. Writers can be egotistical and vain because of their elitist attitude toward the opinions of others and general opinions of the public, but are less interested in monetary reward.

(2) Aesthetic enthusiasm: desire to beautify arrangements of words in pleasing manner by using a plethora of flowery words and rhythmical rhymes.

(3) Historical impulse : desire to record historical facts of the time to pass the written records for the use of posterity.

(4) Political purpose: desire to direct the world in a specific direction in order to influence people’s views on society in such direction as it should be

The readers may find Orwell’s credo in writing rather anachronistic and dogmatic in consideration of the time the essay was written (1946). However, what rings the bell is the recognition of impulse to write as a sublime human act of expressing himself in connection with the time and society he lives in because as Aristotle put, “Man is a political animal.” This collection of Orwell’s poignant, honest, and witty essays will guide the readers into the mind garden of Orwell where moral obligation and the psychological facts are differentiated as pointed out in “Such, Such Were the Joys” and  where there is a pleasant, family-friendly pub called “The Moon Under the Water” with a privilege to appreciate Orwell’s brilliant display of language facility and power of facing unpleasant facts in his own words.