The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Harvill, 1996, 302 p. Translated from the Russian Белая гвардия, (Belaja gvardija, first published in 1925,) by Michael Glenny.

The White Guard cover

There is a sense in which – like Tolstoy’s happy families – all Russian novels are alike. A blizzard of polysyllabic names potentially confusingly embellished with the corresponding patronymics not to mention the seemingly obligatory diminutives, with always a sense of foreboding in the background, if not the foreground. You certainly don’t turn to them for sweetness and light. Then again, love, sex and death are the wider novel’s perennial preoccupations.

To be sure there isn’t much focus on love in The White Guard, no sex at all, and I can recall only three actual deaths described in the text; but the prospect of death hangs over everything. Here there can be, too, as I also noticed when reading War and Peace, a sudden lurching through time from a particular chapter to the next. One surprising thing I discovered from it is that a Ukrainian clock seems to make the sounds tonk-tank rather than tick-tock.

The novel is set in Ukraine, in “the city” (only once identified as Kiev,) amid the turmoil that followed the 1917 revolution and centres round the affairs of the Turbin family and those who live in the same building. During the novel the city starts out under the rule of the Hetman – in whose army the male Turbins serve as officers – but is threatened by Ukrainian Nationalist forces led by Simon Petlyura; and beyond that, the Bolsheviks. The disorganisation and unpreparedness of the defending forces is well portrayed – a bit like Dad’s Army but without the laughs – and the mist of rumour and counter-rumour accompanying the situation when the city falls to Petlyura conveys the commensurate sense of febrility.

Bulgakov’s first novel and the only one to be published in the USSR in his lifetime, The White Guard is an insight into an all-but forgotten moment in an interregnum of upheaval and change and is worth reading for that alone. But a marker of the futility of it all is the thought that, “Blood is red on those deep fields and no one would redeem it. No one.”

While it has touches of the fantastic, including several dream sequences, The White Guard does not (cannot) touch the heights of the same author’s The Master and Margarita but it is well worth reading on its own terms.

Pedant’s corner:- While at the end of a piece dialogue a full stop, question mark or ellipsis is included inside the quote marks; if the sentence carries on and so requires a comma this, against the accepted practice, is almost – though not quite – invariably set after the quotation. Otherwise; the Ukraine (when first translated this usage was common, but nowadays its inhabitants prefer “Ukraine”.) “As if at by unspoken command” (“As if at”, or “As if by”, not “As if by at”,) Karas’ (Karas’s,) négligé (usually négligée,) Tubirn (Turbin,) hung (hanged, but it was in dialogue,) Toropets’ (Toropets’s.) Exct ed (????) a missing start quote mark, french window (French window,) I thought earlier on I had spotted a waggon but did not note its place (later on there were wagons,) St Nicholas’ church (St Nicholas’s.)

Skara Brae, Orkney (iii)

Just at the beginning of the path from the Visitor Centre to the Skara Brae excavations there is a modern mock up of what the neolithic houses at the site may have looked like.

Entrance to Mock Skara Brae House:-

Entrance to Mock Skara Brae House

Internal Passage:-

Internal Passage Skara Brae Mock Up

I doubt the original houses had the electric light fitting!:-

Skara Brae Mock Up Passage

Mock up bed:-

Skara Brae Mock Up Bed

Mock Up Ceiling:-

Skara Brae Mock Up Ceiling

Mock up, hearth and dresser:-

Skara Brae Mock Up Hearth and Dresser

Dumbarton 0-0 Annan Athletic

Scottish League Cup, The Rock, 25/7/17.

Well I said we don’t do cups.

As if it wasn’t bad enough we were down to the bare bones squad wise Christian Nade has to go and get himself sent off for language. Whatever it was he said he should have said it in French.

I knew we wouldn’t get anything from this game when I heard Craig Charleston was going to be the ref. Apparently four out of the last five Sons players to be sent off have been by him. He may have evened it up a bit later on by sending off one of theirs but that wasn’t early enough to make a difference it would seem.

How many fit subs will we scrape together on Saturday? Two – one of them being Jamie Ewings?

Interzone 271

Interzone 271 cover
The Switch cover

The latest issue of Interzone, number 271, arrived last week.

Along with the usual columns from Jonathan McCalmont, Nina Allan, plus David Langford’s Ansible Link, there are six short stories.

The book review section features an interview with Nina Allan and Emily B Cataneo focusing on their latest books The Rift and Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories respectively, and my review of Justina Robson’s The Switch.

Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Skara Brae (see previous posts) lies beside the Bay of Skaill which has a lovely scenic beach.

Beach from Skara Brae:-

Beach at Bay o' Skaill, Orkney,  from Skara Brae

Panorama of bay and beach:-

Bay of Skaill, Orkney, Beach Panorama

There was a colouration difference under the water here:-

Beach at Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Further along the beach we spotted a fairly picturesque ruined building, perhaps once a croft:-

Ruin near Skara Brae

The abandoned agricultural equipment in foreground bolsters that assumption:-

House Ruin, Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Further along still we found this fantastic rock formation, layers on layers of sediment:-

Rock Formation, Bay of Skaill, Orkney

You can see the slabs lying in the foreground. Lots of buildings in Orkney seemed to be made from slabs of stone like this.

Skara Brae, Orkney (ii)

General scene of excavated houses – tourist path in background:-

Excavated Houses, Skara Brae, Orkney

Stone dresser:-

Stone Dresser, Skara Brae, Orkney

Excavated path:-

Skara Brae Excavation

More excavations:-

More Excavation Skara Brae

Neolithic Construction Skara Brae

This has no beds nor dresser and so it is believed to be a neolithic workshop, photo taken from west. The beach at Skaill Bay is visible to left (in Skara Brae’s heyday the sea was much further out) Skaill House in background:-

Neolithic Workshop, Skara Brae, from West

Neolithic Workshop from North, Skaill House in background:-

Neolithic Workshop, Skara Brae, from North

Neolithic workshop from East:-

Neolithic Workshop, Skara Brae, from East

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, it origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

Skara Brae, Orkney (i)

After settling in at Stromness for the night, the neolithic village of Skara Brae, on the shores of Skaill Bay (or Bay o’ Skaill,) was the first place we visited on Orkney. Ever since I heard about it Skara Brae was somewhere I always wanted to visit so I was delighted to be able to.

It was mobbed with people though, only to be expected I suppose.

Early houses:-

Skara Brae Early Houses 1

Skara Brae, Early Houses 2

Passage to a house entrance:-

House Entrance, Skara Brae, Orkney

An excavated house, Skara Brae Visitor Centre in left background, modern day Skaill House in right background:-

Neolithic House at Skara Brae,Orkney

Neolithic house with stone dresser:-

Neolithic House with Stone Dresser, Skara Brae, Orkney

Neolithic house entrance:-

House Entrance, Skara Brae

A passage between houses:-

Passage Between Houses, Skara Brae, Orkney

Clyde 2-1 Dumbarton

Scottish League Cup, Broadwood Stadium, 22/1/17.

Well.

New season, new players – I had only seen two of the starters in a Sons shirt before (there were three from last season on the pitch by the end) – same old story. We don’t do Cups.

We never looked in trouble in the first half, passed it about fairly well but without much penetration. Loan signing Ally Roy had an opportunity to score first-time from a cross but struck it into the ground and it looped over the bar. The goal came from a corner that wasn’t cleared and from the returned ball Craig Barr headed it against the bar. It came down and was scrambled away but thelinesman gave the goal. Chris Johnston on the wing appeared lively but only once got past his man who got back to block the cross. In the end he flattered to deceive.

We didn’t step it up in the second and Clyde came more into it finally forcing Scott Gallacher into a save.

We looked vulnerable at the corners Clyde were getting but the equaliser was a fluke, a poorly cleared corner returned in a cross which looped over everyone into the corner of the net.

Their second was also poor defensively, a cross again following on from a corner not being cut out and a free header put past defender and keeper on the near post.

Christian Nade was brought on and his first touch was a drive which required a good save from the keeper. David Wilson tested their keeper in a similar fashion a minute or so later but that was it.

A bit more urgency throughout the game might have seen us win. Injuries haven’t been kind to us even so early on but this game suggested we don’t have a good depth of squad.

Early days but the league is looking a tougher proposition by the day.

A curiosity. We played in our away top but home shorts:-

Dumbarton FC

Birsay War Memorial

From Marwick Head we travelled on up the west coast of mainland Orkney (though the road is not actually right by the sea) heading for Birsay which lies towards the northwestern tip.

Before we got there I spotted a War Memorial in what turned out to be Birsay Cemetery.

Birsay War Memorial

The inscription reads, “In memory of those natives of Birsay who died for us and truth in the nation’s service in the war 1914-19.”

The lower plaque towards the base reads, “Also those who died in the Second World War,” including Edith Carson, NAAFI.

Birsay War Memorial WW2 inscription

The other sides contain plaques for 1916:-

Birsay War Memorial (1916 names)

1917:-

Birsay War Memorial (1917 names)

and 1918:-

Birsay War Memorial (1918 names)

Two graves in the cemetery commemorate Great War deaths.

George Robertson, CEF, killed in action Oct 1916, aged 35:-

Memorial Stone at Birsay

L/Cpl William A D Flett, 5th Seaforth Highlanders, 51st Division, killed in action Cambrai, France, 21/3/1916, aged 21 years:-

Birsay Commemoration Stone

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