Posts Tagged T.P. Bragg

Books: Review of Orwell: The Authorised Biography

Orwell Biography

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When I read fiction I tend towards authors or their characters who are outsiders, mavericks, those who do not/did not quite “fit in” . Two of my favourite authors are Franz Kafka and George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair). Both
died of tuberculosis; both had nightmare visions and both have had their names given to such visions: Kafkaesque and Orwellian. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal
Farm as The Trial and The Castle are novels I return to regularly. And thus I came to review the five hundred plus pages of Michael Shelden’s biography:
Orwell being as complicated and interesting a character as I might have hoped, a
man of the Left often most championed by those of the Right, a man who in
Nineteen Eighty-Four – no matter what the objections – portrayed a world closer
to our own than might ever have been expected. And as I began this review I was sent Billy Bragg’s autobiography The Progressive Patriot with a quote from
Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius on Patriotism and Conservatism (opposites).  

Sheldon’s biography is ultimately satisfying and one immediately wishes to read
or re-read as much of Orwell’s work as possible (with clearer insight perhaps) –
but there were times when I felt distant from this tall, pale faced writer. In
many ways this distance stems from Orwell’s character itself. A hard-working,
intellectual – a practical man too (he loved carpentry and the natural world)
who believed in a radical form of socialism, though a particular English
socialism – a quiet, thoughtful, enigmatic man who was also a man of action. Yet
it is difficult to reconcile his seemingly reserved nature with the man who
would tramp and doss down with vagabonds, who would risk his health to live a
life amongst the down and outs in London and Paris; who had been with the
Imperial Police in Burma; a man who had the courage of his convictions and upped
and went and fought in the Spanish Civil War, seeing there the bizarre and
deadly in-fighting of the various leftist groups. 

Displaying valour (not just jottings in a writer’s pad) he was shot through the
throat and then, after a spell in a filthy hospital, had to escape Spain in a
great hurry. It seemed the communists were out to liquidate POUM (the
organisation Orwell fought for) and its members. (There were young, idealistic
men who went to fight in Spain who never returned – imprisoned and executed by
forces they had so recently fought alongside.)  

In many ways a troubled man, Orwell was often dissatisfied with his work and in
constant expectation of rejection and failure (even the name Orwell was taken to
remove the direct sting of rejection). Orwell spent much of his last remaining
years on the island of Jura and – importantly – finished Ninety Eighty-Four
there even typing the final draft despite the fact that he was in severe pain
and dying. He was to be treated in Switzerland and shortly before his expected
travel there he re-married. The ceremony uniting him with Sonia Brownell took
place around his hospital bed. Life must have seemed surprisingly hopeful for he
had planned a new novel and other works and expected to live at least another
ten years.  

Perhaps towards his end he also recognised he had become the writer he had
wanted and strived to be; Animal Farm had brought him commercial success as well as acclaim (and resistance and opposition – the publisher Victor Gollanz does
not come out well in this biography) but Nineteen Eighty-Four established him as
a truly great writer – and whatever the criticisms of Orwell as novelist – his
last two novels are classics.  

Orwell never ceased being a socialist – his warning in Animal Farm is for the
common man (or animal in this case!) to maintain vigilance and not to let
unscrupulous power-hungry beings usurp the true ideals of the revolution. It may
also be that – in Ninety Eighty-Four in particular there is much taken from the
author’s own life – BUT – we ignore the essential message of these novels at our
peril. I have just read a trivial (perhaps) piece of information about Tom and
Jerry cartoons and the careful, methodical, erasure of all scenes depicting
smoking. Banal indeed. Frightening? One immediately thinks of Nineteen
Eighty-Four – this is our cultural reference.  

As the world progresses one can only wonder who will be re-written out of
history – Orwell himself? Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are intolerable
to any totalitarian regime. Nineteen Eighty-Four was originally titled The Last
Man in Europe – while there is one free thought and free-thinking man then
tyranny will be held at bay. Orwell’s writing will continue to support all such
free-thinking souls.  

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

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Books: review of The White Rooms

The White Rooms

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The White Rooms is a work of science fiction/horror, or dark science fiction, by Tim Bragg which portrays the results of the transformation of human society in the future under the pressure of a plague of disease-carrying spiders of enhanced intelligence and malevolence – which have arisen out of some kind of genetic engineering disaster. So this could be seen as a so-called “post-apocalyptic” or “post-catastrophe” story. Two of the best known examples of this sub-genre in pop-culture can be seen in the second and third Mad Max movies.
The White Rooms portrays human society in a very “stressed” situation. Indeed, the “world” portrayed in the novel is quite gruesome, as well as having elements of the sub-genre of “steampunk” or “dark steampunk” – where much of the technology has regressed to an approximately early industrial age level.
In that part of the Earth where the protagonist lives, human society has bifurcated into a zone inhabited by “Uppers” – those humans who have access to the anti-plague serum – and a zone inhabited by “subs” – who are mostly kept out of the Upper zone, and mostly left to the ravages of the plague.
Life is nevertheless none too happy for the “Uppers” – as even in their supposed safe zone, they have to constantly be on the lookout for encroaching spiders – who are kept at bay with the assistance of “helpers” – i.e., healthy subs who are permitted to live as slaves among the Uppers.
The Uppers have a shrinking birthrate, and they bring healthy sub children to the so-called “White Rooms.” The term has various, more sinister meanings in that world as well.
Apart from being an interesting exploration of what the impact of a catastrophic plague might be on human society, the book also offers an exciting action-adventure story.
There are probably two main attractions to the book. One is the careful working out of the various implications of a “post-apocalyptic” future of a genetic engineering/medical disaster, which will appeal to those with a taste for the baroque, gothic, or bizarre. It is somewhat similar to some of the writings of the well-acclaimed author of the fantastic, China Mieville.

Secondly, there is the sprightly action-adventure tale, which is set in motion by the limitlessly self-sacrificing love of a young woman from the sub zone for her infant son, whom she wishes to somehow place among an Upper family, to give him the prospect of a better life. The woman has through arduous struggle managed to keep herself free of the disease.
Working as a helper in his household, she draws in the protagonist of the story, an Upper whose own wife is pregnant. The use of the first-person narrative (apart from a few select chapters in the third-person) is an excellent idea for the book, which really catches the attention of the reader.
During one of his trips to the sub zone, the protagonist is unluckily bitten by a spider, and, becoming infected, he must take ever more extreme measures to extricate himself from a situation which is perilous not only because he has the disease, but because of how the Upper society handles those who are infected with that plague.
As the protagonist is faced with ever greater problems and challenges, he moves ever further away from the values of the Uppers.
In the reviewer’s opinion, there are at least three main weaknesses to the book.
First of all – at least as far as the reviewer has been able to determine — there are not enough clues given in the story as to where on the Earth it is taking place. It is not set far enough in the future that there have been huge geological changes, so the reader should be able to eventually figure out whether this story is set, for example, in what was formerly France and Spain, in what was formerly America, or maybe entirely in the former Great Britain.
Secondly, there was the lack of originality in the naming of characters – where more specific names might have more easily engaged the reader and avoided such dreadful clichés  — as calling the protagonist “Adam X” for example, and another major adult character, “Johnny”.
Thirdly, the presence of the disease-free land to the south-west, may seem too contrived. Would the spiders have necessarily been effectively blocked just by a quick-running river, as the author implies? Much of the author’s effort put into the construction of a grim but coherent background was thrown away by this “sanctuary” trope.
It should be pointed out that, because human society is shown as so enormously “stressed” by the surrounding environment in the author’s scenario, the possible political import of the story as far as specific, current-day social and cultural situations is rather small. For example, the names of countries known today have apparently been entirely forgotten, along with all current-day religions (except for some vestigial cultural residues).
The broader messages of the book, however, would appear to be — better freedom in material discomfort than subjection in material comfort — as well as — true freedom is well worth winning —  and the emphasis on the need for active courage in the face of evil — which, while not new ideas, are things which it is helpful to repeat today.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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Book Review: The White Rooms by Tim Bragg

The White Rooms book cover

Click on image to buy book

The White Rooms is a work of science fiction/horror, or dark science fiction, which portrays the results of the transformation of human society in the future under the pressure of a plague of disease-carrying spiders of enhanced intelligence and malevolence – which have arisen out of some kind of genetic engineering disaster. So this could be seen as a so-called “post-apocalyptic” or “post-catastrophe” story. Two of the best known examples of this sub-genre in pop-culture can be seen in the second and third Mad Max movies.
The White Rooms portrays human society in a very “stressed” situation. Indeed, the “world” portrayed in the novel is quite gruesome, as well as having elements of the sub-genre of “steampunk” or “dark steampunk” – where much of the technology has regressed to an approximately early industrial age level.
In that part of the Earth where the protagonist lives, human society has bifurcated into a zone inhabited by “Uppers” – those humans who have access to the anti-plague serum – and a zone inhabited by “subs” – who are mostly kept out of the Upper zone, and mostly left to the ravages of the plague.
Life is nevertheless none too happy for the “Uppers” – as even in their supposed safe zone, they have to constantly be on the lookout for encroaching spiders – who are kept at bay with the assistance of “helpers” – i.e., healthy subs who are permitted to live as slaves among the Uppers.
The Uppers have a shrinking birthrate, and they bring healthy sub children to the so-called “White Rooms.” The term has various, more sinister meanings in that world as well.
Apart from being an interesting exploration of what the impact of a catastrophic plague might be on human society, the book also offers an exciting action-adventure story.
There are probably two main attractions to the book. One is the careful working out of the various implications of a “post-apocalyptic” future of a genetic engineering/medical disaster, which will appeal to those with a taste for the baroque, gothic, or bizarre. It is somewhat similar to some of the writings of the well-acclaimed author of the fantastic, China Mieville.

Secondly, there is the sprightly action-adventure tale, which is set in motion by the limitlessly self-sacrificing love of a young woman from the sub zone for her infant son, whom she wishes to somehow place among an Upper family, to give him the prospect of a better life. The woman has through arduous struggle managed to keep herself free of the disease.
Working as a helper in his household, she draws in the protagonist of the story, an Upper whose own wife is pregnant. The use of the first-person narrative (apart from a few select chapters in the third-person) is an excellent idea for the book, which really catches the attention of the reader.
During one of his trips to the sub zone, the protagonist is unluckily bitten by a spider, and, becoming infected, he must take ever more extreme measures to extricate himself from a situation which is perilous not only because he has the disease, but because of how the Upper society handles those who are infected with that plague.
As the protagonist is faced with ever greater problems and challenges, he moves ever further away from the values of the Uppers.
In the reviewer’s opinion, there are at least three main weaknesses to the book.
First of all – at least as far as the reviewer has been able to determine — there are not enough clues given in the story as to where on the Earth it is taking place. It is not set far enough in the future that there have been huge geological changes, so the reader should be able to eventually figure out whether this story is set, for example, in what was formerly France and Spain, in what was formerly America, or maybe entirely in the former Great Britain.
Secondly, there was the lack of originality in the naming of characters – where more specific names might have more easily engaged the reader and avoided such dreadful clichés  — as calling the protagonist “Adam X” for example, and another major adult character, “Johnny”.
Thirdly, the presence of the disease-free land to the south-west, may seem too contrived. Would the spiders have necessarily been effectively blocked just by a quick-running river, as the author implies? Much of the author’s effort put into the construction of a grim but coherent background was thrown away by this “sanctuary” trope.
It should be pointed out that, because human society is shown as so enormously “stressed” by the surrounding environment in the author’s scenario, the possible political import of the story as far as specific, current-day social and cultural situations is rather small. For example, the names of countries known today have apparently been entirely forgotten, along with all current-day religions (except for some vestigial cultural residues).
The broader messages of the book, however, would appear to be – better freedom in material discomfort than subjection in material comfort – as well as – true freedom is well worth winning —  and the emphasis on the need for active courage in the face of evil – which, while not new ideas, are things which it is helpful to repeat today.


Reviewed by Mark Wegierski, a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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CD Review: Heaven on Earth by Tim Bragg

Heaven on Earth CoverNo, not Billy Bragg! Tim Bragg is not the defanged socialist turned New Labour mouthpiece once known as the Bard of Barking. He’s much more insightful than his clapped out namesake.

Heaven on Earth reminds me of Van Morrison in his Avalon Sunset phase. He has the same haunting melodies; the same cry in the voice as Van the Man. I don’t know if Tim Bragg is consciously imitating the big lad from Orangefield. I rather doubt it, but the connection is clear. Add the backing clarinets, acoustic rhythm and electric guitars and keyboards and you have a varied but consistent whole.

Some outstanding tracks on this fine album do deserve to be singled out. My favourites are Kick out the Fancy Stuff, Soul-searching and Of Doubts and God. These songs are Bragg’s religious and spiritual musings. He is soul-searching. He is looking for a meaning to life. Perhaps the Man from Galilee has the answer to his questions but just like Doubting Thomas he has to see. He’s not one for leaps in the dark. This is thoughtful stuff: it is more about doubt than faith, more about the search for truth rather than the claim to have found it. The production values on Heaven on Earth are very high. It’s just such a shame that the publisher didn’t see the need to provide the song lyrics with the sleeve notes. Perhaps this oversight will be remedied when the second pressing comes out. Check out cd baby for some sample tracks.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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Book Review: Biting Tongues

Book Cover for Biting Tongues

TP Bragg’s novel Biting Tongues is thrilling though it is not a (conventional) “thriller”. On the contrary, to a reader the novel might at times seem rather slow. But it cannot be otherwise as where time neither exists, nor passes, there cannot be velocity. I have spoken with prisoners: time was their biggest enemy. They were not lords of their time but time took hold of them – was more powerful, was making them sink into boredom, nothingness, and meaninglessness. And Biting Tongues is about a man who has been imprisoned for seven years and seven months – in solitary confinement. Biting Tongues is indeed full of prisoners, Jack Parsons (the hero) whose life is cut short by his terrible imprisonment. Too much time. Then the Hargreaves (who imprisoned him) – who also become prisoners – in a strange fashion of Jack himself – before being given actual jail sentences. The Hargreaves become enclosed in their own world losing touch with reality existing beyond their house and garden. And this world of theirs also becomes a prison for their daughter Jane- it is she who must break free.

But these are not the only prisoners of the novel: there is Jenny Peters, the nurse. Her family is a sort of prison for her too – as well as those banged up in jails, she has also lost her social life and her freedom. Doctor Amitt is prisoner both of his profession and fame. Not sure anymore if his work brings him real satisfaction. Rich, but unable to enjoy his money, unable to use it in a satisfactory, “creative” way: “The garage doors open automatically. You see there is a point to his long hours. He can afford garage doors that open just in time for the new car to roll in; (…) The car door shuts softly behind – his job brings the softest shutting car doors.” Time is money – but which is worth more? Too much of either of them (especially if connected with complete lack of the other) destroys. And the doctor if not quite imprisoned is enslaved by his desire for Nurse Peters. Jane is in a kind of prison – we do not know much of her life “after Jack” but when we finally get to her, she makes us understand that she has always felt guilty for what happened to the “father of her child”. Maybe we do not know if it’s her feelings of guilt or her being tied to the past that prevents her living a successful personal/family life. And then there is Malcolm – whose family has fled from Czechoslovakia, the only one who from the very beginning of the novel is free. (Here the author should have been more careful about using foreign surnames – it’s a confusion of Czech-Russian, male-female forms!). And – of course – there are the inmates of the asylum trapped by their own particular misfortunes. The main characters do manage to approach their various freedoms as we approach the end of the story: Jack Parsons who leaves the hospital and begins living on his own in the “real” world and Jane who after so many years manages to open up herself and verbalise her feelings of guilt. But we never discover if Doctor Amitt has bought the yacht he dreams of or if Nurse Peters ever finds real fulfillment. The Hargreaves might leave prison but will they ever be able to step out of their narrow-minded world, or see their guilt?

Another question raised by Biting Tongues is the question of normality and insanity. Who/what is or is not normal? Where is the borderline? Jack does not feel himself a crazy man and even Doctor Amitt eventually realises this. But he is in an asylum. Besides, Jack is smart enough to understand some of the psychiatrist’s methods and amuses himself by “underpinning” them (talks purposely about birds although clearly understanding that this is not what the doctor wants to talk about etc.); smart enough to see that he is different from most of the other patients (who are able to see this difference too). Tom and Jack share a pain in common – a lost child – helping them to find a way to each other’s heart and showing clearly that even people whom the “normal” outside world considers different are also human beings with deep feelings..

In most books dealing with psychiatric themes we get to know how “crazy” people are seen but here we have the opposite point of view: how a presumably crazy person sees the presumably normal doctor.
Although a psychologist/psychiatrist might find a few details that do not quite fit, it is clear that TP Bragg (we cannot pretend his knowledge to be as perfect as a psychiatrist’s!) has made a concerted effort to get deeper into the world of asylums, their patients, nurses and doctors with their therapies. Maybe the doctor’s projection of his lost son onto Jack was too tempting – it’s obvious this would happen the very first time you read he has a son and therefore comes as no surprise. As for Malcolm’s supplies of books to Jack (is this escape through literature more thorough and effective than the doctor’s “talking therapies”?), these probably reflect the author’s preferences and are all clearly connected with the main theme of the novel – freedom. TP Bragg’s first published work is a political/cultural novel (The English Dragon), however, in Biting Tongues some of his comments on politics do not quite fit within the context of the narrative although they do serve to highlight the passing of time. It’s not very likely that a person like Jack, cut off for nearly eight years, would think of North Sea oil, Concorde and the EEC (and therefore an empathetic psychiatrist would not use them with reference to Jack). And though a prisoner may well think about politics Mr. Hargreaves certainly did not seem too concerned about anything further than the hedges of his own garden before being put in jail. As for Jack’s passion for chess we can only guess whether this element is a product of the author’s passion for the royal game or whether there is some inspiration by S.Zweig’s Schachnovelle.

I also appreciate the author’s resistance to the seduction of a happy-ending story – the kind of happy-ending suitable for US movies: Jack, Jane and their “son” happily living together at the final credits. The novel does have a kind of happy (and optimistic) end as at least some of the characters discover freedom from their particular prisons. However the novel still respects their deep wounds and the changes these have brought about and does not presume everything will turn back as if nothing has happened in all that time. As if time did not exist.

  • Reviewed by Michaela Laudicina. Michaela Laudicina (nee Vejvodova) was born in 1980 in Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) and now lives in Italy. She has an M.A. in International Relations (University of Prague) and is currently doing a B.A. in Psychology (The Catholic University of Milan). Michaela is married to a Sicilian.

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