Reflections on Ian McEwan's novel, Lessons
Way back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I chanced upon a book that affected me profoundly. Here at last, I thought, is a writer who lives in my world, with all its weirdness and complexity, and can convey it beautifully in prose.
The book was First Love, Last Rites, a collection of short stories by a guy called Ian McEwan, and I became an instant fan. Since then, I’ve read most, though not all, of his work – most recently his longest novel of all, Lessons.
Lessons is basically a biography of Roland Baines, who has much in common with McEwan – same age, same upbringing, same boarding school education – though presumably McEwan was never tutored at the piano as is Roland, with a complete sex education thrown in.
The wonder of Roland, a ‘serial monogamist’, is that he’s not a superhero, just an average guy who muddles his way through life, reacting to situations such as being abandoned by his wife and left with their tiny baby while she goes off to become a famous writer. In a way, Roland is summed up by his part-time professions – tennis coach for the elderly, greeting-card writer and piano player of ‘munch music’ in fancy London hotels; a jack of all trades but master of none.
Yet Roland’s a likeable guy, and we tend to root for him as he tries to lose his virginity at the age of 14 before the Cuban missile crisis destroys the world because he doesn’t want to die a virgin. He also smuggles books and records into East Germany before the Wall comes down, avoids using the London Underground after terrorist bombs go off and sits out several lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic.
It’s a strange feeling when you’re reading about a fictional character and suddenly think “The author’s writing about me!” So it was as I read about Roland near the end of Lessons: “He was plausible within the digital age, like a man in a cunning disguise, but he remained a citizen of the analogue world.”
The epic scale of this novel brings to mind the marvellous Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which follows the life of a writer against a similar backdrop of world events during the 20th century. These references to shared problems of the past help us as readers to sympathize with the protagonist’s inability to steer a comfortable course through his existence.
As for the ‘Lessons’ of the title, like the rest of us Roland doesn’t seem to learn from his experiences, whether they be joyful or painful, though he does revisit the most powerful emotional connections from his past, namely the piano tutor and his estranged wife, for poignant end-of-life reunions.
On another level, I wonder whether McEwan is hinting that we humans should learn lessons from the tragic world events that chart the course of this book. Towards the end, his concerns are with the unchecked future of Artificial Intelligence and the fact that we are now beyond preventing a 1.5-degree temperature rise that many say will signal the end of our species.
I can’t help but think that McEwan wanted to publish this work before it is too late and we are expelled from Planet Earth for not learning our lessons.
If you're interested in Southeast Asian history, I hope you'll check out my brief reviews of five of my favourite books that explore colonialism in Southeast Asia, which is posted on a newish website for book lovers called shepherd.com. The website seems to be making a big effort to put titles that readers will relish in front of their eyes. One small warning; the bookshop.org links don't actually link to most books!
A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
A few weeks ago I made a trip to Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard (the area between Bangkok and Cambodia) to update that chapter of the Rough Guide to Thailand. I relished the opportunity to spend some time on Thai beaches, and to visit some islands that I hadn’t been to before, such as Ko Mak and Ko Kood. As a result, I’ve put together a small gallery of images, which I’ll post here along with a few words about each island.
This tiny, hilly island is little more than an hour’s journey from Bangkok, but it’s rarely visited, perhaps because it doesn’t have any stand-out beaches. However, it’s got a great, laid-back vibe, some comfy lodgings, super-friendly locals and several low-key attractions which you can visit in a ‘skylab’ (a glorified tuk-tuk).
‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, referring to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. This name was probably appropriate when it was a small tin-mining settlement in the 1850s, but it doesn’t quite capture the vibrant mood of the gleaming city that stands there today. Now you’d be hard pushed to find the confluence of those rivers, hidden somewhere between overpasses, underpasses and soaring skyscrapers; in fact, ‘cement city’ would be a more accurate, if unflattering, title. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kuala Lumpurians want to disown their muddy heritage, or perhaps because acronyms are currently fashionable, but these days the city’s inhabitants prefer to be called KL-ites, and their city simply KL.
I’ve been to KL several times before, but never got nearer to the city than Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is over 50km away, to the joy of taxi drivers. Now I find myself based in the city for a few days researching a story on Malaysian starfruit, and find time to check out a few sights.
Y'all know Wikipedia, dontcha? That wonderful bastion of philanthropy, the so-called ‘free’ encyclopaedia staffed by selfless sharers of essential information—one of the world’s ten most popular websites, written by the people, for the people?
Well, I got news for you—Wikipedia is wicked, and I don’t mean that in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way. I mean wicked, as in nasty, calculating and, worst of all, corrupt.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
I read an intriguing book recently--Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s a kind of ‘1984’ for the 21st century, a post-apocalyptic novel (date unspecified) that mentions various factors, such as rising sea levels flooding major cities, holes in the ozone layer and a pandemic along the lines of the Ebola virus (which has just re-appeared in Guinea in the last few days), which have wiped out virtually all life on the planet. All that remains are a few human survivors and genetically-modified life forms gone wild, like wolvogs, pigoons, and rakunks.
Last week the TV news channels like BBC and CNN droned on for hours about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but this week they gave a single minute to the passing of Richie Havens—a gifted singer and songwriter who helped to forge the consciousness of the hippie generation. Since there are unlikely to be any eulogies of Richie on TV, I feel duty bound to rattle on for ten minutes about this heroic person.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.