Monday, June 24, 2013

(No.239) Fortunes of War

"Fortunes of War: the two WWII trilogies of Olivia Manning"

by Alastair Rickard 

The English poet W.H. Auden told a story of the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot at a party: asked whether he was enjoying himself, Eliot replied "Yes, if you see the essential horror of it all".  The English novelist Olivia Manning, dubbed 'Olivia Moaning' by a friend, might well have agreed. But Manning had her reasons for discontent.

Manning, an important novelist, is in an ongoing process of rediscovery advanced this year by the publication of a literary biography that includes concise critical appraisals of her thirteen novels and two volumes of short stories ("Olivia Manning: A Woman at War" by Deirdre David). Certainly Manning deserves attention from today's readers.

Anthony Burgess wrote in the Sunday Times of London, referring to Manning's novels set in World War II: they are "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer. Her gallery of of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized. Guy Pringle certainly is one of the major characters in modern fiction." He was right.

Manning was born in Portsmouth in 1908, had a fairly impoverished and certainly unpleasant childhood made more so by the behaviour of her philandering father and the treatment she received from her mother. In 1930 she made it to London where she supported herself while writing a novel.

In 1938 she  met her husband to be R.D. 'Reggie' Smith, the model for the Guy Pringle character in six of her novels. Smith was cheerful, outgoing, friendly and talkative with people he knew in every pub he visited in London.

Three weeks after they met they married and five days after that they headed by train to Bucharest Romania where Smith had a teaching job working for the British Council. After the war came to Romania in 1940 they left Bucharest for Athens just ahead of the advancing German army, later repeating the experience on a ship that sailed to Alexandria after Greece was overrun in 1941. Like the Pringle characters Manning and Smith spent the remainder of the war in the Middle East returning to Britain in 1946.

Manning's fiction did not win her the public attention received by contemporary male and female English novelists like Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, something she came to resent. However her crowning literary achievement, the one that has kept and will continue to keep her writing in print did not begin to appear until 1960 when she published the first of six novels (the last in 1980, the year of her death).

They featured the wartime lives of Harriet and Guy Pringle, in many respects a close reflection of the years she and Reggie spent together from 1938 to 1945. But the novels are not a disguised memoir; they are a major literary achievment.

It was not long after they married that Manning began to experience the effect of Smith's character on their relationship, an effect that eventually found its way into the depiction of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

In the third novel in the Balkan Trilogy, "Friends and Heroes", while the Pringles were still in Athens Manning has Harriet thinking about Guy: "he had chosen to put other people before her .... Each time he had overridden her feelings to indulge some sense of liability towards strangers, a thread had broken between them."

In 1981 the first three of these novels were republished as "The Balkan Trilogy" which took the story up to their arrival in Egypt. The second three novels appeared in 1982 as "The Levant Trilogy" and carried the story into Egypt, Palestine and Syria. with more than a sidelong glance at the British desert campaign in north Africa. Again, the events in the lives of Manning and Smith during this period provide the framework for much of the story.

Both trilogies, which form a single narrative, were published under the rubric "The Fortunes of War". Manning lived long enough to learn that the trilogies would be made into a BBC television mini-series.

This appeared in 1987 starring the (then) husband and wife team of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh both giving superb performances as Harriet and Guy Pringle. The series was also aired in North America and is one of the best such adaptions of modern literary fiction I have watched.

Of Olivia Manning's two trilogies the first, the Balkan Trilogy, tells a somewhat more interesting and intense story while the Pringles wait in anxiety-ridden Bucharest and then Athens for the next step by the Germans. However the Levant Trilogy, while told in a lower key, may be even more absorbing in terms of the relationships that Harriet and Guy Pringle have with each other and with those around them.

Both trilogies are richly rewarding reading and powerful evocations of the author's experience in the war. The depiction of the memorable relationship of Harriet and Guy is not only the golden literary thread that runs through all six novels but, for readers like me, the guarantee that both trilogies will be reread.


Olivia Manning, "The Balkan Trilogy", first published as such in 1980. Available currently in soft cover as a republication by New York Review Books, New York

Olivia Manning, "The Levant Trilogy", first published as such in 1981. Available as a Phoenix imprint softcover edition of Orion Books, London

Deirdre David, "Olivia Manning: A Woman at War", (Oxford, 2013)

BBC dvd, "Fortunes of War", 407 minutes (1987), still available from online sources




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Monday, June 17, 2013

(No.238) Manulife & Turkey: interesting numbers

"Manulife and Turkey: some interesting numbers"

by Alastair Rickard

I have written several columns in recent years for about the near disaster which threatened to take down Manulife, the Toronto-headquartered Canadian life insurance company, the senior management of which for years chased hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of new variable insurance contracts the from which it guaranteed [sic].

In order to increase company profits and senior management compensation to even higher levels Manulife in 2004 stopped hedging the unwise risk it was assuming (Sun Life did not stop its hedging). Remember: the core financial challenge was not in issuing variable policies; it was the fatuous assumption that the company could get away over the longer term (30+ years) with guaranteeing unrealistic rates of return on contracts designed and priced for a variable return.

What happened to Manulife when the Wall Street-generated meltdown occurred in 2007-8 was inevitable. As Manulife's net exposure to guaranteed variable policies hit $72 billion [sic] by Sept. 2008, the company proceeded toward the financial ditch.

At the very least the majority of Manulife's board of directors must have been asleep both before and even as the Manulife financial bus, at the wheel of which was the company CEO Dominic D'Alessandro, headed toward the ditch. How else to explain the multi-million dollar farewell 'bonus' the board subsequently decided to award to him, apparently in order to reward -- what? His driving skills?

The Canadian journalist who has written most often and informatively about the Manu episode, indeed better than any other, is Theresa Tedesco, the chief business correspondent for the Financial Post (Toronto).

It was she virtually alone in the financial media who recently did real reporting (Financial Post, June 4, 2012) about the court hearing scheduled for early June in Ontario Superior Court involving a class action against Manulife seeking the required court certification (stay tuned).

Shareholders of Manulife launched a lawsuit in 2009 claiming $500 million from Manulife, D'Alessandro and its former CFO Peter Rubenovitch over the company's risk management policies and practices.

Meanwhile the 'groupie' treatment that Manulife and D'Alessandro received for years from the financial services paparazzi may once again be on the rise.

For example: Globe and Mail Report on Business columnist Martin Mittelstaedt wrote a piece (ROB, May 13, 2013) in which he outlined how "Manulife's prospects are clearly on the mend and invstors should take notice...." In support of this cheerleading for Manulife he called upon the views of "analysts who follow the company, 12 of them rate it as a 'buy' while only one has a 'sell' ,,,,"

I would have found this sort of warm and fuzzy attitude to Manulife's past, present and future rather more convincing if the Globe columnist had, for example, been able to point to even one of the 12 firms involved having employed an analyst in 2004 who had waved just a small red flag for investors when Manulife stopped hedging the billions it was risking as it rolled the dice on the guaranteeing of variable return policies.


In the last few weeks the mainstream news media have been filled with stories about Turkey and the popular demonstrations for and against its increasingly authoritarian and openly Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party.

Coverage has tended to focus on the pro-secularist stance of the prime minister's popular opposition contrasted with his own and his supporters' leaning to religious values.

Here are a few numbers I have not noticed in the current media scrum involving the unrest in this important nation of 80 million, the territory of which is in both Europe and Asia and a country whose application for full admission to the European Union is of very long standing:

--- 5 of the current 27 member states of the European Union were part of the Ottoman Empire from the remains of which modern Turkey led by Kemal Attaturk arose in 1923.

--- 97% of Turkey's land mass is south and east of the Bosphorus

--- Turkey is 99% Moslem (mostly Sunni) but it recognized Israel as a state the year after it was created.

As a country Turkey looks toward Europe:

--- 1 in 6 of its population live in Istanbul, the vital sections of which are physically located in Europe

--- 9 million Turks live in European countries, particularly Germany and France

--- 16 million Turks are of European origin (mostly Balkan)

--- only 11-15% of Turkish women wear a hijab or head covering

Further reading:  Andrew Finkel's recent book published by the Oxford University Press: "Turkey: What Everyone Needs To know".




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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

(No.237) Precious & Predictable: theatre, critics & the Shaw Festival

"(No.237) Precious and predictable: theatre, cultural critics and the Shaw festival --
Examples involving Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, 
Somerset Maugham and Hannah Arendt"

by Alastair Rickard

At the end of May one of the New York Times' movie critics, A.O. Scott, favourably reviewed a new German movie about the political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt who lived much of her adult life in the United States and died in 1975. She was highly regarded in certain circles.

Within a few days the Times reported that on its website readers had ranked the movie (one of a minority of dissenters termed it "political science fiction") first among then currently favoured movies.

Given the subject of the movie and the self-selecting audience who recorded their love of it on New York Times' .com, the movie's premier ranking in that particular forum is predictable and, of course, politically precious.

Also precious and predictable is much of the theatre criticism that readers of Toronto's four daily newspapers see from (currently) Robert Cushman in The National Post, Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star, John Coulbourn of The Toronto Sun and Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail.

Cushman is by a wide margin the best qualified of the group to be a theatre critic and offers in the main sophisticated and nuanced comments. Also in his favour is the fact that he eschews the sophmoric assigning of 'star' ratings to the plays he reviews -- unlike the Globe and Star critics.

From time to time reading some of these critics' comments I wonder if they have actually attended the same play as I have -- or indeed as have their fellow critics. The divergence of opinion can be amusing (see, for example, my column "Did the critics see the same 'What The Butler Saw'?", No. 111 posted Sept.1, 2010).

I am occasionally reminded of Woody Allen's comment about the movie critic Pauline Kael: she has, said Allen, " all of the qualities of a great critic except judgment".`

I often disagree with some or all of the Toronto dailies' theatre critics. I include in that comment some of their views of the recently opened plays at this season's Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the lake: "Major Barbara" and "Our Betters". Supportive sentiments for an important Canadian cultural institution like the Shaw Festival don't make up for myopic reviews of some of its productions.

Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), the English novelist and playwright, once remarked that he would rather be bored by Marcel Proust than amused by any other writer. I don't feel that way about Maugham or his play "Our Betters" which runs at the Shaw Festival this season.

However, of this season's three Shaw Festival productions of plays set in late 19th and early 20th century England (Shaw's "Major Barbara", Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and Maugham's "Our Betters") the Maugham play is the most entertaining and well done.

"Our Betters", first staged in New York in 1915, has a focus on rich American heiresses in London seeking aristocratic husbands in need of cash. The crispness and humour of the play's dialogue holds up well. Indeed some of Maugham's lines stand comparison with Oscar Wilde's (from plays before Maugham's) and Noel Coward's (after).

Some critics argue that "Major Barbara", written and premiered in 1905, is George Bernard Shaw's   (1856-1950) greatest play if only because they think it has withstood best the test of society's changing values. I don't agree. I think it is a dated and preachy paen to values to which Shaw had an attachment long before his dotage when he became a defender of Joseph Stalin and the USSR's system.

I am one among many students whose early love of English literature might well have been blighted by this old Fabian socialist chestnut. "Major Barbara" was once a choice from the syllabus available to Ontario high school literature teachers and was made required study for countless students. It was as tedious then as is the final preachy third of the current Shaw Festival production of the play.

Much critical attention paid to this production seems to have been relatively favourable. There has been some pointing to the supposed continuing relevance of the social issues about which Major Barbara and her arms dealer father declaim endlessly. In 2013 there are more entertaining ways to present and absorb liberal verities.

Plays from Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) small canon are usually a pleasure to watch performed. "The Importance of Being Earnest" has been a particular favourite of mine down the years and I treasure the memory of seeing Maggie Smith play Lady Bracknell in  a London West End production.

The Shaw Festival production of Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan", first performed in 1892, works reasonably well except for a bit too much effort for my taste to appear trendy and precious in staging, design and music. Indeed a couple of songs played are about as appropriate to a play set in Victorian London as would be, say, the insertion of "Jailhouse Rock" in a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives". Apart from these irritations, the Shaw Festival's production is worth seeing.

About the plays mentioned in this column:

1. "Our Betters", directed by Morris Panych, runs at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 27, 2013

2. "Major Barbara", directed by Jackie Maxwell, is at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 19, 2013

3. "Lady Windermere's Fan", directed by Peter Hinton, is staged at the Festival Theatre until Oct.19, 2013

For ticket details and other information about the 10 plays presented this season at the Shaw Festival, go to




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