Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Under the Glass...Nine: Benefits of Reading

I’ve been reading ‘Wits and Wives’ by Kate Chisholm and was struck by a piece of advice Samuel Johnson gave to Hester Thrale’s oldest daughter, Queeney.

“Those who do not read can have little to think and nothing to say.”

In some ways, I dislike the elitist element of the phrase. I understand that Samuel Johnson was writing to someone who could read, in a time when literacy was in no way universal. Yet in an age like now, when almost everyone can read and so many don’t, I think there is validity to this quote.

The children where I work are often surprised at my reading. There was one that used to come up to me and say with disbelief, “why do you read… books?” I can only ask what I should be doing instead. 

One of the things I have noticed about the children in my care, is that they are getting more boring. Kids have always let trends wash over them, I remember quoting bits of old fanta adverts and TV catchphrases, but everything the children know and do now, comes from the internet. If one kid knows all the words to Big Shaq’s ‘Man’s not hot’ or even the rip off/response ‘Man’s not cold’ - then they all know it. I can increasingly guess pretty much what a child is going to say because they all say the same thing.

Now - there are some children that don’t follow that trend. Those children read.

What’s more, what about those adults who don’t read?

I find that many teachers are astonishing in how little they read. I know they are busy people and some of them have children but many teachers barely read at all. It does mean that it’s hard to talk to some of them about anything other than work. 

I know it makes me sound proud, I’m not declaring myself a fascinating person (one of my over-riding interests is 18th century literature) but I could contribute to all sorts of conversations. I said in one of the previous ‘Under the glass’ segments that it was good enough to be thinking about cucumbers than nothing - but reading does seem a way to extending the range beyond them.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Dick Turpin Review 3: The Champion

This time, Dick Turpin falls into a number of boxing shenanigans - so of course there's a Rocky flavour to this video.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

My Favourite Book of the Year (Part Two)

The Second part of last year’s top ten.

Check out this booklist to see what I’ve read this year in total, and which books would be your favourites. 

With little ado…

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Another famous book I’ve never before gotten around to, and enjoyed very much.

The  best thing about the book ‘Jane Eyre’ is the character Jane Eyre. It helps that we meet her as a child and she is not perfect, she is angry - perhaps righteously so, but also vindictively. As she grows up, she keeps that anger in check but she never properly loses it. I can now sympathise with her as a flawed human being rather than a perfect thing.

I found her always relatable but strong. She is a person of strong feelings, in her love as well as hate, but she unites her heart, her head and her morals to decide what to do next without compromising her own self respect.

I wasn’t so keen on the men in her life. 

I sort of liked grumpy Rochester, when we find his secret, his moods make a lot of sense. Seeing a TV version of the story, I wondered how Rochester gets together with Jane because he is so moody. It turns out, that Jane is comforted by his gruffness as that is what she is used to and anything more polite would confuse her. Also he is not as hot in the book as portrayed elsewhere.

He is, however, a creepy lover. He says such gems as “I like my name pronounced by your lips” and becomes horribly saccharine and possessive. What I loved was that Jane noticed his creepy/sticky attempts at romance and so needles him on purpose to keep him pleasantly spiky. I think she could have handled healthy Rochester but it’s very clear who has control at the end of the book.

As for St John Rivers, I found him fascinating. He’s not a hypocrite, he knows what sort of cold-hearted man he is but he also knows he can plug both his virtues and faults into service to Christ and become something both important and (in his eyes) useful. 

As a modern consumer of texts, I am used to a three act structure, so the part at Morton seemed superfluous, but I found St John so interesting, I forgot. He’d be worth exploring in a book to himself, one where he and Jane have married and are in India living their holy/abusive life. It’d be painful and fascinating.

It’s a book that has made me think about a lot. Especially the idea of admitting to faults. The men in the book think that merely admitting is enough, it is the women in the book who always have to pay for them. I’m not sure things are so different now.

Jane Eyre the character makes Jane Eyre the book unmissable.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

My picking up a Penelope Fitzgerald novel compilation in a charity shop was the beginning of this year’s great books. 

This year I read; ’The Bookshop’, ‘The Gate of Angels’, ‘The Blue Flower’, ‘Offshore’, ‘Human Voices’ and ‘The Beginning of Spring’. I love her tight tales that manage to say more in a hundred or so pages then other books manage in four times as many (and I’ve read a few of those types this year). I also love her rug-pulling manner of ending a book.

‘Offshore’ was probably my favourite of her books so far, but I have picked ‘The Bookshop’ because it was the first I read, and indeed I read wrapped in furs, sitting on one of the North Downs, toasting cheese on a bonfire and swigging single malt out of a bottle - all alone but for the book. Possibly the best way to read a great book.

What about the book itself?

This book is like a small, well-cut stone, perfectly formed and of surprising substance, it manages to fit an awful lot in a hundred pages. Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at the age of sixty. Such a meticulous work of miniature seems only to be possible for an older person. That said, it’s never a nice book, there are many prickles and thorns in the writing.

Florence Green has a certain naivety and courage. She makes a bookshop as a way of proving her own agency to herself and everyone else. Everything would have been fine if she had not picked the Old House for her shop,Mrs Gamart has plans for the building and does not wish for those plans to be thwarted. 

The village of Hardborough is well drawn in its cold, damp and salt-rotten stagnancy. The Old House is home of a ‘rapper’ a poltergeist as reluctant to change as the rest of the small town. From the patronising bank manager, to the busybody society matron (with an MP for a nephew) and the genial and useless Milo - Florence has a lot to work against. These people show the insidious benefits of class and power, the same benefits that are denied the precise and clever Christine Gipping after she fails her eleven plus. 

Florence is not alone in her endeavours, aided by the more solid and sensible characters, such as  shut-in Mr Brundish and the odd-job man Raven but resilience and sensibleness are not enough and everything ends in penury, defeat and shame.

There’s a film of it coming soon, I’ll be there.

Small, not sweet but sort of sublime.

Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier

I was unsure at first… the first line is justly famous but the following chapter is vague in the way that irritates me. It’s a tease, nudging and prodding and whispering ‘guess what’s happening’. What’s more, the first chapter is a diversion, a dream that is being had by the narrator after all the events leading to a second chapter which forms a frame that we never return to. This annoyed me greatly - but finishing the book, I find it a stroke of genius because when the book ends, it ends utterly abruptly - the end of the story is actually the second and first chapters. This makes those chapters unsatisfying on initial read but fascinating in reflection.

Also… Daphne Du Maurier uses the word ‘quest’ in strange ways.

I was utterly gripped, biting my nails and flicking the pages feverishly. I was reading the book at an Indian takeaway when I came across the big twist and I audibly gasped. I had to put the book down and look around to remind myself of real life. I was expecting a twist which I guessed, what took my breath away was how much the twist changed everything else. 

I also realised that I had been utterly manipulated… and I have to say that I enjoyed it. 

Having finished the book, I realised that I had been rooting for a very bad man and the spineless, puppy-dog who is prepared to cover for him. The only sources for Rebecca’s supposed ‘evilness’ was from Maxim and the un-named narrator, who has her own agenda. Why was I prepared to take their side? Good writing I suppose.

A gripping novel that leaves the reader complicit.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Another writer I've got very into. I read this book as well as ‘Hangover Square’ and the ‘Twenty-thousand Streets Under the Sky’ trilogy.

‘The Slaves of Solitude’ was my favourite though.

London has been compared to a great monster many times before. Usually it is a voracious eater, plundering the local countryside and resources but this book described it’s main function as respiration. It breathes in people from the surroundings and at the end of the day breathes them out, following bus and train lines like oxygen in the bloodstream. It was striking. It was sombre. It was utterly gripping.

It is narrated by Miss Roach (nearly all the people in this are Mr, Mrs and Miss). She is a spinster, approaching forty with a failed teaching career and a minor job in publishing. It’s 1943 and she’s been bombed out of the city and lives in a dreary converted tearooms in a lightly fictionalised version of Henley on Thames. These lodgings are ruled over by the odious Mr Thwaites so she escapes for coffee visits with her friend Vicki, a german ex-pat who wants to live in the same building; and Lieutenant Lummis, an American who is taking advantage of being away from home.

It seems strange that this is the third novel (of the four I have read) narrated by a woman. Especially strange considering a lot of his work seems to have a deeply ambivalent attitude to women and he is so good at creating female monsters. Roach, for all her quiet unexcitingness, is a character who is easy to warm to. Part of this is due to the reader siding with her against the nasty characters.

Mr Thwaites is a total bully. His main abuse is against the English language. He often lapses into a jokey 'olde-English' manner of talking when he is in a good mood. The protagonist describes this as 'trothing' and she (and we) find it excruciatingly embarrassing and irritating. For example, he describes a pretty woman by saying “The damsel doth not offend the organs of optical vision.” He constantly torments Roach in subtle ways and makes life at the house about him. He was the very best depiction of an over-opinionated bore I have ever read.

The main plot of the book concerns Roach and Lummis and their strange kind of relationship. He once asked her to marry him but has never brought it up since. Mainly he spends his time away somewhere or drunk. The other is about Vicki, a German who seemed very nice at first but becomes Roach’s archenemy/ arch-frenemy, especially in her attempts to muscle in on Lummis. Roach has to realise she doesn’t really care for Lummis, isn’t threatened by Vicki and can overcome Thwaites in order to relinquish her slavery, go back to London and start to live again.

That said, it’s not really about plot, it’s about mood and tone. There’s a dry dinginess to the whole thing that is really resonating with the time of year. I frequently laughed at this book, especially when Thwaites was at his most awful and I was liberated and delighted by the ending. 

I also happened to see a play of the book at the Hampstead Theatre. I was disappointed, there was too much sympathy given to Vicki and Mr Thwaites so that, rather than liberating herself from bullies, she seems more of a bully herself. I didn’t like it at all.

A warm, and ultimately triumphant, slice of small life.

Finally, at Number One, no surprise here….

Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth

Again, I have a bigger review here.

What can I say that I haven’t? I love this book.

Next year promises more of the same but will inevitably have more surprises.. we shall see.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

My Favourite Book of the Year (Part One)

It’s been a strange reading year.

Round about July, I was beginning to think that I’d somehow lost the ability to enjoy my reading. Much of what I was reading was relatively enjoyable but nothing I was really taking to heart. Then, in the second half of the year, I started loving almost everything, finding writers I now love and writers I adore.

If you wish to see the full list of this year’s reading, I have a link to a booklist here.

Now…here are the countdown on 10-6 of the best books I have read this year…

Death’s Jest Book by Thomas Lovell-Beddoes.

A play that was never performed (though it would make a great creepy stop motion) and a plot involving mistaken necromancy, suicide practise kits and a host of sudden but inevitable betrayals Death’s Jest Book does not score high in realism. However, as an amped up Jacobean tragedy seen through the eyes of a late-romantic depressive, it’s surprisingly good fun.

The version I read was the ‘fool’s tragedy’ version of 1829 (which incidentally didn’t include the poem ‘dream pedlary, which was the main reason I wanted to read it). This version tones down the poetry and songs, making the plot a fairly tight and followable affair, at least when comparing to other Jacobean tragedies - it’s no less plausible then ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.

Aside from the wonderful whiplashes of betrayal; the changes of Isbrand from fool, to revolutionary leader, to dictator, to fool, to dead person, and the subplot where Mandrake believes he has died:- the most remembered part of this play are the sombre poetry of it. Whether it’s a man describing himself as a ‘murder-charged thunder cloud’, death’s scythe punctuating lives with a ‘?’, having revolutionaries described as, ‘holding the latch string of the new world’s wicket’ or a duck’s feet as having, ‘webby mud-patted toes’ - the writing is often surprising. 

I particularly like the discussion of how we may love a soul, but we love the soul through their body and however we should be pleased about the soul’s ascension into heaven (if we blow that way) we can’t separate soul and body utterly.

Macabre pleasure at it’s dark/bitter chocolatey-est.

The Troublesome Priest: Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey by Jonathan Tucker

Strange that a man’s life should feel that it inexorably leads to being savaged by a lion live on stage, in Skegness.

This book is a clear, reasoned (and it feels to me) very fair look at Davidson’s life. It doesn’t shy away from his faults; that he was an incorrigible egomaniac, made no efforts to follow rules of propriety or punctuality and with no thought to the consequences of his actions. He is a complete idiot; visiting a nudist camp the day after being convicted of immorality, allowing himself to be photographed with semi-nude women the day before that trial… But at the same time, I don’t believe he was exactly what he was accused of being. 

The big problem seems to be that he had a taste of theatre and theatrical life and took it into his clerical life, with all his kissing and hugging and suchlike. Did he revel in his infamy? I’m not sure, but it seems only right and just for his end to be as strange as it was (and for his actual end to probably be caused by a mistaken insulin injection).

As for the writing, it is very sober and clear with an officious use of footnotes and many quotes from letters, trial transcripts and later reflections. The book allows the reader to think and decide for themselves what Davidson’s faults were and weren’t.

A fascinating man and book to match.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I find that many books are  full of build-up and consequence to end in an entirely inconsequential manner - this book felt like it was doing little but entertain until the ending hit like a sledgehammer.

Fanny is our narrator, Fanny is boring. Let’s have no more about Fanny.

But her monstrous, whimsical, passionate Uncle Matthew is a brilliant character (and like most of the people in the book, based on people Nancy Mitford knew, in this case, her Father). A man who hunts children with dogs, is deeply xenophobic and utterly prejudiced should not be as endearing as he is. He is one of many fascinating characters and there is a real feeling of family at the heart of the book, as odd as it may sometimes be.

I loved Davey, with his faddy food but genuinely good heart. I love Lord Merlin (basically Lord Berners) who creates elaborate practical jokes and wears sunglasses abroad because his ‘kind eyes’ are too alluring to beggars. 

Then there are the jokes. The one about finding a book on duck rearing more useful on sex then the sex textbook made me laugh. The joke about Moira, a not particularly loved child, being so dull that she doesn’t even imagine air raids, made me wince. 

This book is packed with entertaining characters, good jokes and semblance enough of a plot to keep it going. I wasn’t particularly enthralled to the loves and bolts of Linda. She was an interesting enough character and I liked the way her three loves were different to each other and was invested enough to see her find love in the end.

Then the war comes, the jokes still play out and the family tighten together to tough it all out. And Linda is killed in childbirth in one sentence. A paragraph later and the book is over.

The laughs, the fun and the very inconsequential nature of the book then take on a certain dismal quality and in one short sentence the whole book becomes retroactively like an old photo or a fading dream - something lovely that is now lost.

I also read ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ but I didn’t find that book as charming or ultimately as moving.

A book with more than meets the eye.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Fun, daft and silly, the reader is reminded before the book begins that of course the events in this book are fiction, they are too unlikely, even in Oxford. I was charmed even by the chapter titles, which are described as ‘The Case of….’ followed by something in the chapter.

It starts off with a poet going for a trip to Oxford to get some adventure and within twenty-four hours includes a murder, a toyshop in the wrong place, a weird will where everyone is given a monicker from Edward Lear, an army of drunk undergraduates and a shootout on an out of control carousel - all of which was served up with clever, snarky and literary jokes.

The characters were all eccentrics in a very literary way, I particularly liked Wilkes, who turned up and tagged along for no real reason but to drink all the whisky. I liked Fen’s coldness beneath the jolly facade and I liked the ludicrousness of the mystery.

There are also a number of fun literary games, brazen fourth-wall jokes, some Jane Eyre bashing and little bit of Samuel Johnson fandom. 

I also read ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ which was fun but not as sparkling as this book.

A whodunnit with a wit and class.

The Virtue of this Jest by James S Montgomery

I’ve already talked about this book at length here. For almost half the year this book was top of my list. Needless to say I recommend it if you can find a copy... Also, I should have guessed there would be a Jacobite element to the book - the S in James S Montgomery stands for Stuart.

A fun romp as fun romps should be.

Next week I shall reveal the top five books I’ve read this year. Looking at the book-list, can you guess what it might be? Which books would you choose as the best?

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

What About.... Rookwood?

A little short video about the amazing Rookwood opera that doesn't exist.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Jacqueline Riding's 'Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion' at the Dr Johnson Book Club

Two days (and a couple of hundred years) after the Jacobite army of 1745 reached Derby, the Dr Johnson Book Group reached the 2nd floor of Gough Square. We were there to discuss ‘Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion’, a dense 600-odd pages about 18 months that failed to change the world. Even better, we were joined by the author, Jacqueline Riding.

The best thing about having a book group with the author, is the ability to sound out the author on their aim for the book and how they did it. This is especially good as there is an astonishingly large amount of material marshalled and organised within ‘Jacobites’.

The aim was to write ‘to the moment’ (as Richardson’s phrase has it). Riding spent hours going through the Stuart papers, including those included in Cumberland’s records. These papers include many letters, each bringing little parts of the fragmented story, my particular favourites being the letters from Old to Young Pretenders which are full of love and hope. We also learnt that rooting through these papers in Windsor Castle, Jacqueline Riding was mistaken for the Queen by various groups of people who cheered whenever she passed the library window.

Another aim of the book was to let the characters ‘hang themselves by their own words’. Orders from the Jacobite army to give no quarter, letters from poor Highlanders having their lives threatened and homes burned by either Jacobite or British armies and spies passing on information, misinformation and other such stuff. The people get to talk for themselves and they are all more real, conflicted and nuanced than our usual myths. 

Another point was to emphasise that Cumberland’s troops were British army and not Government army. Indeed, the Jacobites seem to be have regarded as an invasion by most of the towns that received them. Even supposedly Jacobite towns like Manchester seem to have accepted the army out of surprise and lack of planning then any real loyalty to the cause.

Finally, there is the shock of realising that pretty much everyone involved in the ’45 rebellion were 25 years old. Riding described herself as delighted when she found the portrait that graces the cover of the book. Instead of the baby-faced, bonnet-clad, bonnie laddy, the cover shows an actual man. of great surprise was that Charles Stuart was actually older than Cumberland, who had his birthday during the campaign.

Other things we talked about were how the British Army was used to marching around flat Flanders and had a great deal of difficulty with the damp of hills of Britain - and parading straight into the unknown, alien world of Scotland. We also discussed the importance of shoes. An army may march on its stomach but it still needs shoes and the Jacobite army frequently abandoned whatever they were doing to load up on decent footwear.  

Then there was the dressing up. In an age when the King of France went to a party dressed as a yew tree, dressing up was a way of life. Charles wore many disguises; from a priest, to a maidservant as well as his frequent adopting of Highland and Lowland guises. At the end of his ‘adventures’, with his hair growing long and ginger, wrapped in some genuine plaid - it was almost as if he was no longer pretending.

For many, whose idea of the ’45 begins and ends with the Skye Boat Song (incidentally written by an Englishman) this book is a good exploder of fanciful myths, dealt as even-handedly as such a topic could be. For those who wanted to retain a bit of the romance, we ended the session with a glass of Drambuie and a toast to the King over the sea.

The book was full, complex and fascinating and so was the discussion. Jacqueline Riding is working on another complicated issue, the massacre of Peterloo, if that is as nuanced as this one, it should be another great read.