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A Gritty World

A Review of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole

It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.

The Physical Book

This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.

The Setting

The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.

The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.

The Characters

The Book in my hands

In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.

These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.

The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.

The Plot

Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.

The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.

The Writing

I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.

Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.

Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.

Summary

I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.

I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”

For my other book reviews, feel free to browse the book category. My last review was of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Next up, a review of Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower.

And the Winner is…

The last time I did these, I complained about the lack of gay. This time, no, sadly the song isn’t gay either except for a tenuous connection. There appears to be a performance of this song by Lys Assia sung at Pride in Stockholm 2013. That’s it that’s all the gay to this song. Not much, but at least a taste of what’s to come in future decades.

On that note, Lys Assia was very much part of the future of the Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson the Européenne, at least in part due to this song. May I present to you the winner of 1956 Eurovision song contest: Lys Assia with Refrain.

It’s a song that fits exceedingly well in the general field of its chanson-style competitors, maybe too much so. It’s not an uncontroversial winner, not because it was considered a bad song at the time, but because there are rumours about rigging the jury process in its favour. The 1956 Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne, 1956 had a voting procedure that would never again be repeated in Eurovision history and had some weird provision for replacing the jury from Luxembourg that couldn’t be present at the time of voting. The voting itself was secret, and except for the winner, there were no results published, which probably didn’t help to disperse the rumours that the swiss jury had used the votes from Luxembourg to let the Swiss entry win.

These allegations, however, shouldn’t influence an honest judgement of the song. I already mentioned that it fits well into the general field of its competitors and I think that’s the best I can say about this song. To be frank, I’m kinda done with chanson-style songs, but I guess this is the shitty endeavour I chose to go on. And now I have to live with it.

So, let’s get on with it. After a flare-up of the winds, the song starts with harmonising background vocals that set it apart from many other songs of the ESC 1956 and do in fact provide a good intro to the song. Lys Assia’s voice sets in after that and provides tonal contrast. and from there the song meanders in typical chanson-fashion, slowly curving between highs and lows.

Lyrically again this song hits on standard themes of the love songs of this competition. Allusions to nature and the description of a luscious garden lend themselves to metaphors for love and a call to the wasting years reminds the listener of how undying heartache can be. All that, is a pretty standard love song, without much flourish in narration nor much musical deviation from the norm.

Why did it win? Well, it is pleasing enough, but honestly, I can’t really shake the allegations that concern the voting process away. It seems too standard a song to win on its own, but then the competition was a competition amongst artists then more than between songs and indeed Lys Assia does hit her notes quite well and has an outright beautiful voice.

I don’t really have more to say, I’ll leave you with the continuing playlist and hope you have a good start to your year. Farewell!

This is part 9 of my ESC-Reviews. If you want more feel free to check out my last one or check out my book reviews.

A Dance through Minds and London

A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

It’s not common that I get enthralled by a book, especially not these days. Most often this is not about plot, not about story, but about feelings, feelings and descriptions. This book took me on a very different journey than the last one I reviewed, which was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t take me as long to read, and I am willing to extend it a much more favourable review. But I think I need to make some clarifications at first.

Well, you, dear reader, might come to this and ask, why the everloving fuck I’m writing a review of what is commonly considered to be among the canon of the so-called “Classics”. I can almost hear you scream: “Well, of course, it’s good; it’s a classic!”. And on some level, I’d have to agree with that yell of despair, but let me tell you why I chose to write this as a review when there would be so many reasons to make this a discussion:

  • I think it’s funnier this way.
  • I don’t think I possess the necessary qualification, the useful background knowledge on early 20th century English writing.
  • I don’t want to make this a spoiler-heavy discussion of a book, I think is very much worth being read on its own merits.
  • I don’t want to be forced to make this about anything but my own opinion. There’s a many good discussion of this book, citing sources, taking actual discourse into account, but I just want to have fun with this.

It’s weird that I come to read this book only now. My then-girlfriend gave me this little book for Christmas 2017 after all, almost exactly 2 years ago to this day. It was a wonderful gift, but as I am with books it usually takes a while till I get around to one even if I look forward to reading it.

The Physical Book

Hiding under the dust-cover …

Its physical appearance is probably what intrigued me most about this little book when I unwrapped it on that Boxing Day in 2017. It was a small gift, and an impactful one even if its impact was delayed by two years. It’s a beautiful book, even if not a unique one in its styling. The edition I got is the one issued by the Macmillan Collector’s Library: a collection of small, little, truly pocket-sized editions of the classics of literature. Their dust-covers all held in a light pastel-blue and golden colour scheme, they hide even lighter blue thread-bound books, embossed with a floral pattern and Macmillan’s M in a square. The edges of the pages are covered in gold paint and a light blue ribbon cuts through the thin and narrowly printed pages full of text.

This book as a physical object feels like a treasure to me from appearance and feel alone. Its design is beautiful and every time I look at it there’s some little detail of mass.produced craftsmanship I failed to notice before. But what about its content?

The World & The Story Behind It

Mrs Dalloway is not set in an alternate reality, not in a different world. It’s very much grounded in real life. Characters walk and drive and wander through 1923, post-war London as they could have in real life. But London is not the setting as much as it is the backdrop for the real setting. The story of Mrs Dalloway unfolds entirely within the minds of its characters. In a way, it’s a dance through minds and London. London’s cityscape sets the beats of the characters’ minds. Big Ben signals the passing of time. The omnibus takes them through a journey in their mind.

The story of this book unfolds all within a single hot summers day, only interrupted by flashbacks through the memories of its characters. A relentless march of time set with Big Ben’s chimes at the midday mark of this novel.

The CharacterS

Our view on the story unfolding is filtered and enriched through us gliding into the mind of this and that character, seamlessly slipping between them. Under this assumption, it might not surprise you to find, a pretty diverse set of characters for a novel essentially set in London’s upper society of the 1920s. Foremost, Virginia Woolf remains occupied with the fate of women in this society. Our main character Clarissa Dalloway is the knot that keeps all threads of the plot together and lends her name to the book itself.

Our main point of view characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh and to an extent Septimus Warren, a shellshocked veteran and his Italian wife Rezia. Clarissa’s point of view is marked by a ton of wit and nevertheless, her stability seems frail at points, she herself is plagued by emptiness and the dread of her greying years. She reminisces about her youth, love, and her age. Peter Walsh, her former suitor, is himself just back from India as he pays Clarissa a visit. He is reminded of the rejection he had experienced at her hand, while Clarissa had a lesbian love affair with their mutual friend Sally …

To love makes one solitary, she thought.

Mrs Dalloway

I could talk much more about every single character, but I don’t think this would get to an end. The more striking fact is that Virginia Woolf managed to fit so many detailed characters into such a small book. In no small part, this is helped by her stream of consciousness style, that allows us to fly into the inner workings of so many characters.

The Plot

In turn, it’s not easy to summarise the plot of Mrs Dalloway. With its many point-of-view characters and the recurrent shifting between them, it’s definitely not an easy task to find a short description or to even follow its storyline. Even calling it a storyline feels slightly inadequate.

As such this book is almost certainly one that benefits from a re-read. I would bet it is one that grows upon me with every subsequent read through, giving me only more opportunity to get swallowed in its depth and details.

If I had to try to summarise it I would probably flail my arms around and then settle on:

  • On a hot summers day, Clarissa Dalloway is caught up in the preparations of a party she’s hosting that evening, as she gets visited by her former friend and suitor Peter Walsh just back from India and starts to reminisce about her youthful passions.
  • At the same time, Septimus Warren falls deeper and deeper into the pit of his shellshocked mind, and through inadequate (to the point of absurdity) treatment by the renowned Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes, Warren is pushed towards his suicide.

In itself the plot is short, but what this book accomplishes, is less the narration of a riveting story, but an impressionistic view of British society, and especially the life women can lead within it.

The Writing & Style

Virginia Woolf’s writing seems masterful. Her sleight of hand when switching from point of view to point of view, in between so starkly contrasted characters is often almost imperceptible. The wit she imbues Clarissa with and the poignant observation of subtleties she shows, speak of a great writer and mind.

Her stream of consciousness writing reminds of her contemporary James Joyce, but in its dancing lightness I found, this prose way more accessible to my distractible mind, than I ever thought, for example, Ulysses to be.

Woolf’s prose is imbued with lightness and an uncanny ability to convey the passing of time and the emptiness, so many of these characters feel. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the often fitting and sometimes humourous observations this book makes, and it’s very hard to not feel strong emotions with it. Of course, the elaborate style also takes its toll on the reader. At least for me, this book was not at all a quick read despite its size and relatively small length.

The Themes

There’s more than one theme hiding within this dancing prose. I talked about many of them in my revue of characters already, but I don’t think it would be amiss, to point these themes out again. Mrs Dalloway is not an easy book at all. It’s ram-packed with heavy themes, hiding in so beautiful a prose.

There’s the theme of a troubled state of mental health. Almost certainly something Virginia Woolf felt very acutely herself. After all, she herself had a long history with depression. Mixed in is the trauma World War I left behind, most obviously manifest in the character of Septimus Warren. And at last, there’s Woolf’s unique perspective on women in early 20th-century society, with their lives and success, their relationship to their husbands, age, and not to forget outside of heterosexual love.

Summary

This book is, without question, worth reading. However, I do think it’s appropriate to warn any potential reader. First, on a mostly practical point, this book talks about mental health and suicide, not everyone will be able to stomach such topics. Second, I do think to enjoy this book, you have to like or at least be fine with stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a masterful example, but nevertheless, it takes some getting used to stream-of-consciousness writing, and this book is definitely not an easy read.

I love the impressions this book has left behind and I loved the experience of bouncing from mind to mind from character to character. Its perspective gives a very unique look into British society. It’s definitely a book on my “Read-this-again!”-list.

My last book review was about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Next up: The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. You can check out my reviews of 1956 Eurovision here or read my serial fiction: Touching a Tree

Eurovision: Another Window into 1956

And again we meet in the Netherlands. Wait. Why again? Didn’t we already talk about the 1956 entry for the Netherlands? Well yes, we did, but the 1956 Grandprix de la Eurovision had a special mode of operations. In fact, every country competed with two entries only one of which could win the competition. So again after De Vogels van Holland we are here to hear an entry from the Netherlands: Voorgoed voorbij by Corry Brokken, a slow-paced love song, about a bygone love affair.

This song fits in very well with the rest of the field of 1956. Its slow pace and gentle chanson-style melody, don’t really make it stand out. It’s not a bad song at all, it’s just not an outstanding experience, and one I’ll probably forget as soon as this review is published.

Lyrically, this song continues the themes of windows, and spring as a stand-in for love from the last entry Aprite le Finestre. Unlike in the Italian song, however, this song laments the closure of such window. The singer standing outside a closed window wanting in, back to their bygone love, aware that this love is gone forever.

In fact, the window has closed. And the narrator stands outside. Sad over a lost relationship. Sad, because it meant more to them than to him. Of course, in 1950s lyrics we don’t need to pretend anything other than a straight relationship was read into these lyrics by the audience, and a straight relationship was probably intended by the authors as well. After all, this song was performed by a woman in front of orchestral instrumentation. I, however, decided to use a woman for the picture accompanying this review because I can and because I needed a bit more gay in this very straight year and probably decade of Eurovision.

Fret not, there’s more gay coming in future decades of Eurovision, but at least in 1956 Eurovision was a very tame piece of entertainment, designed to please the masses, and not yet the flamboyant celebration it has become in the decades to follow. I’m definitely looking forward to that. For now, I have to be content with the somewhat bland chansons of yore though.

One interesting aspect of the song remains though. It is less about the song but more about its singer. Corry Brokken will turn up soon in Eurovision history, and she’ll win a contest, host a final and announce the points for the Netherlands in another one. All before becoming a lawyer and the judge of law.

As always, I’ll leave you with a playlist of all 1956 Eurovision songs. Thank you for your attention, and see you the next time, when I go through Eurovision history…

This is part of an ongoing series to review Eurovision History.

I Want Spring

Today, I present to you the first Italian song in Eurovision history. Of course, following the language traditions of old Eurovision, it is in Italian. A rule to impose languages was only introduced in 1965. The song appears to be a straight forward hymn of spring and love.

Sometimes it seems hard to ascribe meaning to something beyond the surface level. This song is one I can’t find any deeper meaning to at all. The writing behind this song is a surface recantation of tropes about spring and love that have been culturally present in Europe for centuries. But hey, before I get too much into the weeds, how about you try and take a listen?

To my eyes, the lyrics are very inoffensive. And I think it’s supposed to be that way. It certainly isn’t the only shamelessly inoffensive song of the competition. It more so fits into a pattern of inoffensive post-war texts. Designed to please an audience only too well accustomed to the trouble, life in tumultuous times can breed. In this sense, not the inoffensive songs are the exception of early Eurovision, no the ones that have a deeper message are a meaningful exception. I don’t want to praise some of the songs I’ve reviewed and found meaningful too much, but for an interesting take on post-war beauty, I would recommend you to take a look at what I already wrote about Luxembourg’s first entry.

Franca Raimondi’s take on the tropes of love and spring is definitely flatter than Michèle Arnaud‘s. After all, it is lacking any pretence of societal criticism, but there will be many inoffensive and strikingly uninventive songs to come in Eurovision history. We’ve already heard inoffensive songs, like De Vogels van Holland and I don’t think every textually inoffensive song is a bad one or not worth the time of a listen. There’s more to songs than their apparent meaning, and often it is we the listeners that can ascribe more meaning to a song than any line of text. After all, the author is dead is in the case of 1956 Eurovision almost certainly a literal truth and not just a paradigm of criticism.

And if only to spite me and my rant about the blandness of its lyrics, the songs melody actually makes me happy. I can’t really fault this song for its lack of meaningful lyrics. The melody, actually, hits a nice groove for me. It is light, reminiscent of a blue band fluttering through a spring breeze. And the Italian lyrics, I don’t understand without translation anyhow, just add to, my desire to feel the breeze of spring on my skin, to feel the sun and see its light hit the fresh flowers in a way that produces an incredible glow of colour.

Anyhow before, I fall in love with spring to much, here’s the playlist of all Eurovision songs from 1956 I’ve reviewed so far:

I would gladly hear your opinion on this song and review, and well if you want more of my reviews, why don’t check out my last book review or one of my favourite reviews from ESC 1956 Speaking Like a German Melancholist?

Incidental History

A Review of Micheal Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a special book for me. It’s a book that accompanied me for some troubled months of hardship, turmoil, and uncertainty. It’s a record holder. It is the book that took me the longest to finish. I have laboured longer on certain books. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen comes to my mind, but I’ve never laboured this long on a book and not put it away unfinished. Putting a book away is not a failure, but there’s a difference to having to put a book back in its place with the knowledge that I won’t come back to it for a long time or potentially even forever. This book was different.

It never managed to excite me enough to finish it quickly, but it also never bored me enough to not want to read further along. In a way that was torturous, but in a meta way it was also a very interesting experience. Of course, that experience was contingent on my shaken up mental health, but we don’t need to get too far into that right now.

Life's Library Book Club

I got to this book through John Green‘s internet bookclub Life’s Library. It was read and talked about there throughout June and July 2019 and it was at a point where I could jump in after Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost had made me miss two reading periods. (Maybe that too is a book I could talk about in future.) Anyhow, I started reading it about 10 days into the reading period, and it took me on a now 5-month ride, I want to tell you about.

The Physical Book

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Gallows Pole

To my shame, I have never been a paying member of Life’s Library but had always worked to find the book in question through other means, sometimes in a German translation. To my further shame, my lingering depression made it seem the easiest to ignore my intentions to patronise the local bookstores and to order it on Amazon.

The copy I ordered, is the UK paperback edition of the book published by 4th Estate, London in 2010. And its cover struck me with its noirish tones and imagery. Two detectives facing each other, cigarettes stuck in each face, framed by a fedora and an opened collar. I quite enjoy that kind of punchy design, though I don’t think it’s my favourite book cover I could find in my collection of mismatched books.

The Story & The World Behind IT

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange book that in its own way defies categorisation. It is a mystery thriller, maybe with a dollop of the political set in a world that deviated from our current political world sometime around 1948. It hits on everpresent Jewish themes like life in the diaspora, blatant antisemitism, but also on finding and building a new home and personal trauma.

The plot unfolds in cyclic circles, expanding into the world, gaining greater reach, and then folding in on themselves hitting closer to home again. Though for the first part the book reads to me like a frankly crawling and cliched police procedural just with the odd flair thrown in here and there. The world-building gains more importance in the second part where the plot picks up on speed and twists. Frankly, that is where my reading speed picked up considerably too.

The Characters & The Writing

The Protagonist Meyer Landsmann is fleshed out to be a broken man. He’s the divorced and alcoholic police detective who doesn’t care for the rules too much. Through unfortunate circumstances, he came to work with his ex-wife as his boss and she very much enjoys the rules Landsmann doesn’t care for. But here the biggest problem of Chabon’s writing looms. He doesn’t write female characters that well. Throughout this book. Female characters even more so than male ones fall onto trodden tropes, become at times even just golden calves to drive the action, but they don’t feel lifelike. Their decisions feel at times unmotivated or ill-conceived.

I don’t think Chabon’s male characters in this book are amazing, but they are considerably more well-rounded than the women that surround them. There’s some room for a favourable interpretation of some of the flaws around female characters. Certainly, the story’s point of view character Landsmann doesn’t have favourable views of women. In a sense, the narrator’s bias against women fits in with the noirish tropes of a brooding and hurting detective. A question remains: are Chabon’s female characters in other books any better?

As much as the female characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are flawed, that doesn’t detract much from the story, Chabon tries to tell, largely through the regrettable fact that the women in this story, for the most part, play a role on the sidelines of the action. They are witnesses, judges hovering above the action but they aren’t directly and emotionally involved until the book hits its finale.

There’s a fool of a devil in him that wants to feel the thrum of current, there’s a current in him that wants to feel the devil in the wire.

Page 293

What fascinated me most about Chabon’s writing is his command of similes and rhythm. His descriptions of the world enthralled me at times, they showed his research and they showed an inventiveness that was very enjoyable to me. Though this talent of style doesn’t necessarily extend to talent in crafting suspenseful arcs. Especially the first half of the book felt like a slow drag. Like an investment needed to get to the faster-paced and tighter written second part, when the circles widen from a pure provincial crime procedural to a wider and wider conspiracy.

Another uniqueness of this book is its slang. Chabon took it upon him to at least develop a rudimentary form of local slang for the colony of Jews in Alaska. It is heavily influenced by Yiddish as the title would suggest. Switching languages, especially between English and Yiddish, remains a constant occurrence in relationships to the outside world. The reader doesn’t have to follow these switches, they are fleshed out only in the dropping of certain slang words, the reader can either pick up on or look up in the glossary some editions provide. To me, the allusions to Yiddish didn’t assume the role of a big obstacle, as Yiddish is more closely related to my native German than to many other languages, but it certainly makes reading a bit harder. Especially in interaction with a full list of names and their variants, it can at times get confusing.

Summary

I am conflicted about this book. On the one hand, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union casts its feathers and becomes a suspenseful read somewhere around the midpoint; on the other hand, the first half is a bit of a drag. On one side, the book offers a rich world and an interesting conundrum, on the other side, the writing and characters are hard to get through at times. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t super interested in alt-history and crime, but then I don’t think this is the best these genres have to offer.

Mrs Dalloway and The Gallows Pole

On to other books, my next projects in this department are Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. The first of which has been waiting in my to-be-read-pile for about 2 years now. It was a Christmas present made by my then-girlfriend. And The Gallows Pole has been started and unfinished since a trip to London in the summer of 2018. Buried behind work and more exciting or pressing books to read. Maybe I can finally make a dent in it.

This is my first book review on this site, many more might follow, but they aren’t here yet. If you enjoy my reviews, I’d like to direct you to my reviews of 1956’s Eurovision Song Contest entries: for example: Speaking like a German Melancholist.

Speedy through Luxembourg

Don’t believe it, but this is another first in Eurovision history. I mean, of course, it is Luxembourg’s first entry into the competition, but no, that’s not what I had in mind. This is actually the first up-tempo song in the competition. It is, however, a trade-off between speedy delivery and length of the song. It is with regret that I have to inform you that this short break from drawn-out chansons is not even two minutes long. Listen to it for yourself:

This, of course, is Michèle Arnaud with her rendition of Ne Crois Pas. For once it delivers a break from all the slow chansons the competition offered so far. Wikipedia makes me hopeful it will at least not remain the only up-tempo entry, but I don’t know yet if, “In contrast to most of the other entries of this Contest, the song is an up-tempo number […].”, is just the authors hedging their bets.

The song’s fast tempo might be fitting with its general message of the vanity inherent in beauty. The song is a plea to a lover to disregard their beauty because it would be meaningless in the long run. In a way, this topic reminds me of German baroque poetry. Vanitas and evanescence, beauty as a temporary good, are all things that crop up in German poetry of the 17th century. Germany as a state didn’t exist by then, but the general area of what would once become Germany was thrashed by the turmoils of the Thirty Years War then. There’s a parallel to Luxembourg only 11 years after the end of World War II.

Similar to the Thirty Years War, the Second World War was a pointer to the evanescence of life, beauty and safety and showed the depths humanity could descend to. Ne Crois Pas in itself isn’t a reference to said turmoil but it’s a mirror towards society’s ingrained believes about evanescence. A young lover could have very well been drafted into a war and have lost his beauty within months of fighting, perhaps, through injury, perhaps, just through the ceaseless trauma of war laying its creases on their face.

But there is a twist to the baroque motifs. While the poets of the 17th century put their fingers up and warned of the fleetingness of beauty and in the same breath extolled a veritable form of nihilism, Michèle Arnaud’s song gives more practical and less philosophical advice: Use it while it lasts!

My take on this song is probably deeper than the author of the song ever intended, but I am of the strong opinion that for every medium there’s one important adage: “The author is dead.” I don’t mean that literally, though at least for this piece it’s probably the truth. At least Arnaud died in 1998 already and I don’t think the composer Christian Guitreau is still alive.

If we come back to the surface. I can, but agree, that this song could also just be a story about vanity and jealousy. Vanity not in the sense of baroque vanitas but strictly speaking as a negative personality trait. Though a look at both words alone should hint you at a deep etymological link between the two.

I don’t enjoy this song enough to put it in any of my personal playlists, but I very much enjoyed the variety it brings to the 1956 lineup of songs. I hope up-tempo songs get a second chance for this first Eurovision year. I’ll leave you with the current playlist of reviewed ESC 1956 songs:

If you want more Eurovision Reviews, you can find them here. If you want something different and would like to see more of my art, how about my reflexions on this year’s Inktober? And maybe you’d enjoy Part III of my ongoing story about trees.

Schmaltz for the Glockenspiel

Hello, there. You thought I had lost my mind? I don’t fault you for it. After all, my last two Eurovision pieces, about both the first Belgian entry and the first German entry, were strikingly positive. If you thought this would start a streak of generally more positive reviews, I have to disappoint you. The song in question today strikes me as a technical achievement, that I absolutely detest. I detest it so much this review took me way longer than it should have and so long that I’m now in the midst of the creative endurance test of Inktober. But alas here it is, Le Temps Perdu or in English Lost Time by Parisian born singer Mathé Altéry.

I’m not up for much purple prose with this song. I could try to describe the heights Mathé Altéry reaches with her surely magnificent vocal cords, but to be honest, even if it might be a feat of technical prowess, I can’t enjoy it. It sounds to my untrained ear less like an artistic choice but more like an attempt at showing off.

Actually, after now listening to it for what is a month since my last review of a Eurovision song. It actually has grown on me. Don’t get me wrong. I still don’t like it and I still think the song’s long-drawn-out searches for the highest note could have been scrapped for the benefit of the audience. I, however, have to admit I don’t mind the song as much as when I wrote the introduction to this review.


As much as I’m not an expert in music, I’m not an expert in French either. I took a year of French courses in my ill-fated attempts at a university education. And while I have a certified level of A1 in the CEFR that is as of now, hardly enough to easily understand the depths of the lyrics Mathé Altéry sings. My way out of this is to rely on translations. I went to the length of double-checking if they are at least plausible, but as with every translation, translation is always a game of interpretation. The following analysis won’t withstand academic rigour, but then again no entry of this series claims to be academic at all. This is just my opinion.

The Glockenspiel or Carillon near Leicester Square in London, UK

The song is reminiscent of a long lost lover. Contrary to what Wikipedia states, Altéry is not, in fact, hoping her own song will distract herself from the pain of lost love, but she’s beseeching the carillon to take her pain away with its beautiful song. But what in the world even is a carillon? Well, it’s a Glockenspiel.

Well actually, it’s more complicated than that. Wikipedia’s article about Carillons opens up an interesting linguistic rabbit hole. There is a loop of cultural differences in action between French, the origin of carillon, German, the origin of Glockenspiel, and of course English, as ever multiple languages in a trenchcoat passing as one, going on. carillon in French translates to Glockenspiel in German, Glockenspiel in English translates to Metallophon in German and carillon in English translates to Glockenspiel in English.

The word “carillon” is said to originate from the French quadrillon, meaning four bells. In German, a carillon is also called a Glockenspiel; while the percussion instrument called a “glockenspiel” by English speakers is often called a carillon in French.

Wikipedia: Carillon

But back from these linguistic anomalies to the song at hand. The lyrics of Le Temps Perdu are quite rich in metaphors and optimistic sweetness. They are soft in tone and don’t fit well with the screeching that the vocals elicit in my mind. Reading the song, surprisingly enough, makes me hopeful. I like its images of moving rivers, and evenings and nights full of longing and languor. Even if in total it might be a bit too heavy on the schmaltz.

Sing, carillon, sing for my happiness

Mathé Altéry, Le temps perdu

As introduced in the last review, I made a Spotify playlist, now including Le Temps Perdu. If you really want to torture yourself, and maybe even find a liking to a few of the songs, feel free to give it a listen.

Other than that, I think, I’ll leave you with an encouragement to read into the other projects on this blog, namely Inktober and Touching a Tree, or if you want to you could start with the first Eurovision Review about De Vogels Van Holland. Thanks for reading, and have a good day. Oh and feel free to comment and share.

Flag of Germany

Speaking like a German Melancholist

Today we’re again diving deep into an entry to the 1956 Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne. Last time we talked about Fud Leclerc and his drowned men, today we’re talking about Walter Andreas Schwarz. This is the first German entry on our journey and I’m sure I’m biased in its favour just because I’m German too. Who even chose this title image? Blergh… I feel way too patriotic.

Before we talk about the song though, let’s first talk about the musician behind it: Walter Andreas Schwarz. Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück was Schwarz’s only big musical success, and even if it was good enough for participation in the final, it wasn’t enough for commercial success. His main line of work throughout his life remained voice acting. His passion definitely shows in his work as a singer and songwriter. His entry for the competition is mostly spoken and only interspersed with intermittent attempts at melodious singing. Schwarz died in 1992, and his sparse musical work remained deeply rooted in a tradition of straightforward storytelling, that to my ears is concurrent or even precedent to the tradition of German Liedermacher like Reinhard Mey et Altera.

Surprisingly, this song is rumoured to have been ranked second in the 1956 contest. Why I find that surprising? Because at least to my ears it doesn’t fit into the classic Chanson that is so defining for all other entries we’ve listened to so far. This is also a point where we could get into the controversies around the voting procedures in 1956, but I think, as it doesn’t actually matter to this song, I’m keeping that for a discussion of the actual winner, so stay tuned! Let’s better move on and discuss the song.

The song itself is around 4 minutes long and starts with flutes that would be worthy of any German feel-good television show intro from the 1960s and 70s, but the flutes get interrupted by a way less cheery accordion only seconds into the song, and with that, we’re into the lyrics.

The song title, that roughly translates to In the Waiting Room to Good Fortune, gives away the main point and image the song conveys. Everyone seems to be waiting and dreaming of their happiness, but in a way, this strikes the author as a Waiting for Godot. As Godot, luck will never appear (on its own). Positing that only those who seize the day will capture their luck while those, who wait for their dreams to happen, remain waiting forever, the writer strikes a chord of thinking that has been present in our cultural consciousness at least since Horace‘s famous aphorism carpe diem. Schwarz, however, moves further along this line of thinking, and his dreamers don’t even notice the luck they could attain. After all, they are waiting for their own special luck.

Und man baute am Kai der Vergangenheit
Einen Saal mit Blick auf das Meer
Und mit Wänden aus Träumen gegen die Wirklichkeit
Denn die liebte man nicht sehr
Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück
Da warten viele, viele Leute
Die warten seit gestern auf das Glück von morgen
Und leben mit Wünschen von übermorgen
Und vergessen, es ist ja noch heute
Ach, die armen, armen Leute

Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück, Walter Andreas Schwarz

And they built at the quay of the past / a hall with a view of the sea / and with walls made from dreams against reality / because they didn’t love [reality] much. / In the waiting room to good fortune / there were many, many people waiting / They waited for the good luck of tomorrow / and lived with the wishes of the day after tomorrow / and forget it is still today / Oh, the poor, poor people.

This song has gained a special place in my heart, not because its instrumentation would be amazing or the metaphor would be groundbreaking, but because its mood translates so well for me. I can feel the weird melancholy. I can feel myself live within my own dreams. I can feel both the pain of never seeing my dreams fulfilled, but I can also see the despair of me not moving forward through time and life, as if I had a third-person view of myself. I don’t agree with the song, that there is any magically glowing freight, that could bring light into my life. I don’t believe that there’s someone who could make my sunrise right now, but still, it feels weirdly descriptive of my life right now. And who knows? Maybe I can take this melancholic look into the world and make it my own, move on and take a step out of the waiting room.

But is it truly that easy? I might be getting too caught up in this fantasy … Where’s my cynicism? This song isn’t a straight forward carpe diem. There’s a problem. Sure you can say it’s just a beautiful image, but apparently, in the song’s world there’s an infinite amount of good to distribute, and people are at fault for not finding it when all they would have to do is to step out of their dreams, when in fact stepping out of your dreams can take some serious effort. Not everyone is in a place where they can afford to work for their own happiness, not everyone is in the right mental place to even step out and find their luck. I don’t feel ready to capture my luck. I know I should, but my brain is great at telling me what I should do and then being too fearful to do it. Reality can be scary. Dreams are an escape for those who fall out of our systems. And maybe there’s still a way to live your dream and not follow the idea of what a German voice actor would deem lucky or successful.

Well, we should probably not be too harsh on this song. After all, Germany after the war, was very much yearning for easy entertainment, light comedy and simple solutions. There had been enough pain and misery in the recent past, that at least some writers and many producers for television, radio and cinema, didn’t feel comfortable about hitting people over their head with deep and thoughtful works or about showing people the bleak reality. They felt people wanted to dream of a humble but gleeful future or past. And maybe, just maybe, this song is a subtle protest against this overly produced and glossy dream-scape.

I’m not as subtle. I’m, without a doubt, hitting you over the head with the weirdness that is early-day Eurovision. To make it easier for you to keep track of all the songs, I made a Spotify playlist of all the songs, we’ve talked about so far. Sometimes, there might be a sneak preview in there, but probably not regularly.

If you want to read the first entry, it’s about De Vogels Van Holland or if you want to get a full picture, feel free to check out the whole 1956 category. Or if you have enough of weird old songs, make sure to check out my latest fiction piece: On the Importance of Touching a Tree.

Fud Leclerc

The Seine and its Bodies

Trigger Warning: This post discusses mental health issues and suicide.

I actually like this entry. That’s a boring first, but maybe a good opportunity to flex my positivity muscles … about a thoroughly depressing song.

Well then, this took me way longer than it should have. I, honestly, thought that I would struggle more with the horrible songs of this contest, but apparently writing about something I enjoy is the harder exercise for me. This isn’t helped by my general propensity to abandon projects in the face of adverse circumstance or to start way too many projects at once all the time. Though, this probably shouldn’t become a testament to my mental health, even if the song potentially warrants a discussion about mental health in general.

But let’s get started with Eurovisions third final entry: The song in question is Messieurs les noyés de la Seine by Belgian Artist Fud Leclerc. Again Fud Leclerc is a name worth keeping in mind as he represented Belgium four times on the stage of the Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne and would go on to be invited as a guest star for the Eurovision Song Contest 2005.

Messieurs les noyés de la Seine translates to the Drowned Men of the River Seine and that should be the first warning to those who were expecting a happy feel-good melody to hum on their way to work. While if your French is as lacking as my own would probably not understand what is going on within the lyrics, the musical accompaniment doesn’t exude happiness either nor should it. Not every song has to be happy, but this one packs a particular punch of melancholy for me. The six repetitions of the title within the verses of the song, make them into a melancholic mantra that is only accentuated by my inability to notice the subtle changes between the stanzas.

Wikipedia posits that the persona of the singer is caught up in “a loveless marriage” and wants to drown himself in the Seine. While I can find supporting textual evidence for the first claim easily, I’m not so sure about the second claim. First of all, Wikipedia mixes up what Fud Leclerc himself and what the persona in his song wants to do, but secondly while the persona is obviously weighed down by the troubles of love and considers quitting the game I don’t think that necessarily points to a clear intention to commit suicide, there are other ways to quit the game. Also at this time, I feel it necessary to point to the fact that Messieurs les noyés de la Seine is definitely plural in French. That much I know.

Pourquoi, si tout le monde triche, jouer encore le jeu?

Fud Leclerc: Messieurs les noyés de la Seine

But there is a point to be made about the Persona’s suicidal ideation. After all, the song ends with the words “Paris me doit bien un berceau / Je m’endormirai sans amour ni haine / Entre ses bras de sable et d’eau”: Paris owes me a cradle / I will fall asleep with neither love nor hate / in its arms of sand and water

Paris me doit bien un berceau
Je m’endormirai sans amour ni haine
Entre ses bras de sable et d’eau

Fud Leclerc: Messieurs les noyés de la Seine
Skyline of Paris
View of Paris for the terrace of Les Galeries Lafayette

Even though not Belgian, Paris is a fitting choice for this song. As a city, Paris is commonly associated with love and beauty and while Paris is a beautiful city and there are many romantic and scenic spots to be found within its boundaries, Paris still comes with all the dirt, grime, rats, and annoyances of big cities. This disconnect between anticipation and reality even lead to what’s somewhat jokingly called Paris-Syndrome. This is usually more accurately described as an extreme form of culture shock. The disconnect between the imagined City of Love and the pain love can cause us in reality, can certainly make our own loneliness feel more intense.

What still is surprising to me, is that I actually enjoy the calm melancholy of this song. It’s so far the only song that has managed to find its way into my vast collection of meticulously sorted Spotify playlists.

If you enjoyed this weird look into obscure music you can read the last post in this series or can take a look at the entire series so far, in the appropriate category. Or look at the next entry: Germany 12 points.

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