Saturday, 15 September 2018

Reading the 80s - 1987

The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin

Most of this I loved - and I think even the parts I was less keen on while reading to a deadline (where he's arranging or spilling his moleskine notes on nomadic peoples for page after page after page) would have appealed more if I'd been able to take them at a more leisurely pace. A walking pace, as though they were poetry.

I actually started the book thinking it was fiction, and I've a sneaking suspicion that some editing and exaggerating and putting of things in an order that makes them more of a story than they might have been otherwise has probably happened, but I don't have any issues with that. 

I do like a book that makes me think - why is wandering seen as such a strange thing? What assumptions are we making now about the fossils we find or the people who live lives very different from ours? And are they based on their reality or our own? 

But that makes it sound preachy and it's not at all. It's hilarious, and just when it gets a bit too lofty it brings you down to Earth with a bump. I can't believe I've never read it before. 

Landscapes After the Battle -  Juan Goytisolo

Actually this is the English translation of a book originally published a few years earlier. 

To be honest it's the sort of book where you can't forget that you are reading a book (in fact Goytisolo breaks the fourth wall, so clearly you're not meant to forget) and you find yourself trying to work out what the author is trying to do, and unless it's done incredibly well it just becomes a distraction and you switch off. 

In fact, disconcertingly, it felt to me like that was what he was trying to do - to be so objectionable and somehow so dreary I'd stop reading completely, whereas instead I just got bored.  Somehow I could see it should be shocking or funny in parts, but it just.. wasn't. Not for me anyway.  

It centres about a man who lives in Paris, fantasises about little girls, spies on his wife, is possibly a revolutionary or counter revolutionary of some sort, or perhaps a failed revolutionary who now prefers to go to dirty movies. He's an unreliable narrator, he has a white mouse. 

I kind of felt like I wasn't understanding a lot of the references, or that there must be references in there that I wasn't spotting. There are some apocalyptic bits -  a massacre that's not actually happening now but centuries ago but also in some sense happening or un-happening now, or echoed now perhaps by contemporary events. There's a plague of mice. They dig up the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. 

It's unclear how much of this is in the narrator's head or the writer's head or if they're the same person. It flips between first, second and third person. Sometimes it's quite stream of consciousness, sometimes it reverts to dialogue..  

Probably better in the original Spanish. 

And on to 1988..

Sunday, 9 September 2018


Sadly Chesterfields - the second hand book shop in Wimbledon which put out it's Penguin books in a bookcase in the doorway and had the old fashioned habit of putting stock out on the pavement for passers by to consider - is closing down.

I walked past on Friday and picked up three penguins for a pound (The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne, Sober as a Judge and Time of Hope) but restrained myself otherwise. It's too easy to get carried away by bargains when I have so many books unread already on my shelves, to flip from being a reader to a collector, to load myself with the new weariness of more when really I could do with a bit less.

I have got another LRB bagful to bring down the bookswap though (in fact more like a bag and a half full)

That large one on the right is The Mitfords, Letters between Six Sisters. I have a feeling I might get down the bookswap and change my mind about this one. They are very funny as well as being historically fascinating.

The Gunslinger, Stephen King, which I reviewed for my 1982 post. I wasn't planning to read the rest of the Dark Tower series, but having lent this book to my brother he borrowed the remaining six books from a friend at work and we're going through them. I'm going to reserve my review until I've finished the lot (I'm on book five now) but despite the occasional wince - King doesn't pull his punches when he's describing horrible things - I'm still reading. I still care about what happens next.

The Hippopotamus, Stephen Fry. I read about half of this a few years back. I've read elsewhere that Fry might have been channelling or paying homage to Kingsley Amis, and I think I'd agree with that. I find Amis funny up to a point, and then I find him too dark and bitter. That was true here as well. I could hold onto it a few more years in case I feel the urge to pick it up again, but I could just as easily source if from the library. So off it goes.

An Avenue of Stone, Pamela Hansford Johnson - I think I reviewed this one. It's written just after the war and I thoroughly enjoyed it and will probably hunt out others in the series, although I won't read this one again.

Foe, J M Coetzee. I read this as part of my OU course. The course was all about intertextuality, and Foe is the story of Crusoe (or rather a riff on the story of Crusoe) from an alternative viewpoint - what you could call the viewpoint of the marginalized. It's a great little book, but ironically I found the link to Crusoe nothing but a distraction and would have preferred it as a stand alone.

Life At Blandings by P G Wodehouse. This is an omnibus comprising of three of the Blandings books. Wodehouse is a joy, as always, but I don't need to own him. There are about 20 Wodehouse books on the Wimbledon library shelves alone.

A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss. This is a historical novel which did what so many seem to do, which is throw in a lot of historical facts that no-one telling a story at the time would bother with. I don't want to see the bones of historical research unless I'm reading history, sorry. Possibly that says more about me than historical fiction.

A Little Learning, Evelyn Waugh. Autobiography which I enjoyed but won't read again.

The Chimney Sweeper's Son, Barbara Vine. This has been sitting on my shelf too long. I've read a couple of books by Barbara Vine and two or three by Ruth Rendell, who is of course the same person.(I got her muddled with P D James for ages as well, so I'm not sure how many of each I've actually read). I tried a few pages to see if it would grab me and make me want to keep it. It didn't. So out it goes.

A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh. A nice green penguin. I've read this book quite a few times - it's joyously silly and involves someone turning a murder game in a country house into the real thing, a Russian dagger, Bolsheviks, a re-enactment of the crime and various other early murder mystery joys. I may change my mind about getting rid of it when it comes to the point.

Trent's Last Case, E C Bentley. Another green penguin, not in great condition. An absolute period piece - an even earlier example of crime fiction than the last, when women were apparently so horrified that anyone could suspect them of adultery they couldn't even refute the charge. It made me think of Agatha Christie's bright young thing Lady Eileen 'Bundle' Brent telling Anthony Cade in the 20s. 'Women believe these things - or used to - we've come on a lot in the last 10 years.' Apparently Trent took a long time to make a comeback, so I may have to hunt that one up and see what's changed.

The Unseemly Adventure, Ralph Strauss. An orange Penguin this time. I have read this, but forgotten it again. I don't usually forget books so it can't have been at all memorable.

Across the Empty Quarter, Wilfred Thesiger, Into the Heart of the Amazon Forest, Walter Henry Bates, and Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. These were all part of a set of 'journey' books - mostly small sections from longer books. They are nicely short and very attractively packaged, and some were gems and led me to the longer books. Others are a bit samey, written from the point of view of the white explorer in foreign lands: encounters with wild animals, patronising remark about natives, nothing to see here.

Dusklands, J M Coetzee. Again I read this for the OU course. It was hard reading, but eye opening.

The Theory and Practice of Lunch, Keith Waterhouse, and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, both of which I reviewed last time.

Mallowan's Memoirs by Max Mallowan. I think I bought this thinking it would be about archaeology or about Agatha Christie. It's kind of both, but in a superficial way, and goodness is he dry. I suppose being married to a writer is no guarantee of being able to write yourself.

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville, which is witty little murder mystery that I enjoyed more for it's wit than the murder. It gets a little involved in the middle, and I didn't care and couldn't at first remember whodunnit. In fact I had forgotten I'd ever read the book until I found it in my locker at work and started flicking through and thinking 'I remember now...'

Swallow This by Joanna Blythman. This is an excellent book about what has happened to food and food production (for example how there are ingredients that don't have to go on the label because they're part of a processing method that supposedly leaves so little residue it makes no difference).
My food activism goes as far as avoiding meat - a decision made due to inhumane farming practices, although I'm aware dairy is not ideal either - but I do like to go into these things with my eyes open.It was my aunt's book, and she doesn't want it back, so off it goes for someone else to read.

And the last 4 books are Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge, Where I'm Reading From, Tim Parks, Postcards by E Annie Proulx and A Travelling Woman by John Wain. These have all been on my shelves a long time and failed the 'read a bit and consider if I would buy it now' test.

And yet I still have books double shelved. Hence my restraint:

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Reading the 80s - 1986

I’m a day later than I meant to be with this post, for Stephen King related reasons, but better late than never. 

In 1986 I hit 13, and was much more aware of world news than in previous years. The Challenger explosion, the fire at Hampton Court Palace, and the Chernobyl disaster are all stand out events in my mind, although I’m indebted to t’internet for confirming the year for me. 

It was also the year Fergie and Andrew got married, which despite the media saturation seems to have made little to no impression on me at all – just a vague conceptual picture of a parallel world of Sloanes and Filofaxes and Perrier water and expense account lunches, from which Sarah Ferguson had sprung forth. 

Which leads me – sort of – to my first book:
The Theory and Practice of Lunch – Keith Waterhouse

I’ve had this book on my shelves a little while now, with no memory of how I picked it up or why, although of course I knew I recognised Waterhouse’s name from somewhere. There seemed to be a lot of this in the media when I was a teenager – white middle aged chaps that you knew were probably genuinely famous for something, but who were at the comfy expense account stage by the 80s and mostly fronting bland documentaries about unusual buildings or writing semi-amusing newspaper articles about wine or the South of France.

To the teenage me they were all completely interchangeable, but sometimes I would bother to ask Dad what such and such a one was famous for, and usually he seemed to know. 

So if I had asked about Keith Waterhouse I am pretty certain that Dad would have told me he wrote Billy Liar. And these days, again thanks to Wikipedia, I can see that he also wrote That Was The Week That Was and the film of Whistle Down The Wind.

So perhaps I’m missing something, because The Theory and Practice of Lunch seems popular online, but to me his other cultural credits only strengthen my suspicion that Mr Waterhouse dialled this one in.

I admit there’s a certain nostalgia value - a lost world of three hour lunches, cigars and brandy and cheese board, comments on steak and black forest gateau, amusing asides about one’s lunch companion and other diners, but in the end it all adds up to not very much at all. 

A stocking filler of a book.

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins

This, on the other hand, is one of the books everyone should read – whether you agree with it, or part of it, or not, it is important to know what the argument is for evolution (or more specifically for Natural Selection) and you’re not likely to find a better written and more accessible version.

It does have its clunkier moments though, and sometimes my attention wandered and I had to go back a few pages to make sure I’d really absorbed what Dawkins is saying - in particular he lost me somewhere in the bit about crystals, and I suspect that’s when I gave up on the book the first time I tried to read it (or more likely put it down and didn’t pick it up again.) All I can say if that happens to anyone else is persist – it is relevant, honest. He does loop back and show you how. 

It would also be a good idea to pick up a more recent, revised copy. I am certain we know more about DNA now than we did in 1986, or even in 1991 when mine was published. 

As a book of ’86 – there are hints. References to RAM and floppy discs, but even more than that there is something else that I'd forgotten about the recent past, something less tangible: 

First let's note that Richard Dawkins was 45 when he wrote this book, which means he was a very young man indeed in the 60s - and yet he writes about 'pop' music with apostrophes round the word pop, and the Top 20 and Space Invaders almost as though these are artefacts from an alien culture - and the really strange thing is that thinking back, this this was quite normal for university fellows (and wine buffs and art critics in fact). They tended to write as if they were sitting in a bubble apart from mainstream culture rather than a subset within it. 

Funny how I'd forgotten that. 

On a completely unrelated note this is the view towards London 
from the top of the pagoda at Kew, which has now reopened. 
In theory you can also see Windsor through the window almost opposite - 
and maybe we did, but too far away to recognise

Saturday, 4 August 2018

I'm not hating it.

I'm conscious that some people - even those who were enjoying it at first - are loathing the weather we're having in the UK at the moment. People are saying they can't sleep and the tube is sweltering and the buses are sweltering (which they absolutely are) and everyone's starting to look a bit frazzled around the edges from how long it's gone on for and summer dresses and sandals are being worn to work by people who probably don't normally even own summer dresses. I have also heard more late night rows at the bus stop outside my flat in the last month than I did the rest of the year.

Also - more distressingly, my cousin has had to have a melanoma removed. I'm fully aware the sun is dangerous.

However, I'm not hating it. I'm not at 'ooh, sunshine, make the most of it' anymore, and I admit that drop of rain we had was light and refreshing, but the heat did not bother me in '76 when I was a tot, and it does not bother me now.

It has been, for me, a good summer. It started with my trip to Spain in May, where the oranges and roses were already out. I then had a very civilised early morning visit to Kew and the newly opened greenhouse with my brother, who is a 'friend' of Kew and can get in the grounds early.

Shortly after that we went to Southsea - and found an interesting maritime church and walked along the sea wall, stumbling across a micro brewery and some kind of fair which was happening (with giant Belgian horses) and found a model village. We used to go to the model village every year at Ramsgate on holiday, so that was a trip down memory lane. 

Shortly after that was a walk through the Surrey hills to an attractively ruined monastery (we found another microbrewery on the way. They seem to be everywhere.)

And a walk along the river round Fulham way, the strong light picking out details I'd normally miss

I was also invited (by my aunt) to The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and the exhibition about the exhibition, and later that month I had a visit to the British Library (where I am a member) to see the Cook's voyages exhibition and the one on Windrush voices, and a walk through the Inns of Court

Coffee in the courtyard near St Pauls. This is a lovely space, and we even found a bit of shade. 

The Festival in Hyde Park with Dad. This was in the evening, but there was loads going on all afternoon.

More local walks on Mitcham Common and Morden Hall Park - my cousin's dog there, who is very sensible and flops down in the shade from time to time and guzzles some water. She's a cross breed - part Papillon and I can never remember the other bit. Something with a lot of energy, anyway.

I also went (sans dog) to Southwark Park and had a good wander up to Canada Water. Visited Hyde Park and the small art galleries either side of the Serpentine,queued for the arena on the first night of the Proms; and lastly saw Witness for the Prosecution in the fantastic surroundings of City Hall (with, you can see, a gin and tonic or two.)

Somewhere in all this my aunt was sworn in as a Local Councillor, I've read the next two of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, visited the new Japan cultural centre on Kensington High St, been to the Voice and Vote exhibition at Westminster Palace and resumed the London Loop today. 

So, with all sympathy to anyone suffering, I can't really pretend I'm hating it. I'm patently not. 

Pett's Wood.
The Latin roughly translates as 'I only count the summer hours'.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Reading the 80s - 1985

Well I had every intention to read Eve's Story by Penelope Farmer, but that went west. In fact I'm collecting a tidy pile of books that I intended to read for this challenge and didn't, and am considering some sort of amnesty period at the end of the year.

In the meantime here are the two books I did read:

Death of a Gossip - M C Beaton

This was Beaton's first book and it's a cosy little murder mystery starring her original series detective Hamish Macbeth, the local constable in the small fictional town of Lochdubh, where a couple of the English run fishing holidays. Unfortunately one of their guests first makes herself thoroughly obnoxious to all and sundry, and then gets herself killed.

As I say, it's cosy. The victim is so horrible there's no distress about her death, the setting is idyllic, and the resolution improbable. It also has a scene at the end where Macbeth (who is not even supposed to be on the case but leaving it to the more senior lot who've been drafted in) gets all the possible murderers in the same room and.. well you know the drill, surely?

There's also a kind of unromantic romance bubbling away which reminded me of other books I've read in this experiment, specifically the way one of the younger female characters whose point of view we spend a lot of time with is defining herself by her relationships with men, more focused on pleasing or impressing them, or what everyone else will think if she makes a good match, than figuring out what she wants.

Beaton even says at one point something like: 'Women's lib has a long way to go before it gets into the heads of girls like X' well yes, clearly it did. Macbeth as well, although a gentle and lazy charmer, has his moments of M C Piggery.

But despite being reminded (again) that the 80s are further away than we sometimes think, I did thoroughly enjoy the book and would seek out the next. It's a gentle comedy as well as a murder mystery, and the setting of Lochdubh is beautifully described.

B is for Burglar - Sue Grafton

More crime, of a different pace. I'm not sure what age I was when I started reading Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series but would make a guess at 13 or 14. At that time they were new and it was easy to read them in order.

In B is for Burglar Kinsey is hired to try to track down a missing sister. Not because her family care or are worried, but because they need her to sign a legal document and she's not answering calls. Kinsey ferrets in a tidy sort of way - contacts the apartment building, checks that out, contacts the other apartment the woman had, checks through bills, talks to neighbours.. and finally turns up a very nasty crime indeed.

The main thing that held my attention though - both when I first read it and again now - are the details. She describes clothes and hair and houses and restaurants and she goes jogging and does her laundry and keeps a gun alternately in her glove compartment and filing cabinet (which doesn't seem sufficiently secure to me, to be honest) and listens to other people's marital insanities (squabbles is not a strong enough word for at least two of the couples in this book) and shrugs and concludes she's better off alone in the tiny apartment she likes exactly because it is tiny. The unravelling of what happens is what keeps the book moving, but the real interest is Kinsey herself, just walking round noticing things.

Anyway - on to 1986. I have no clear plans for '86, so will have to think.

The ones that got away.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Reading the 80s - 1984

I've only read one book for this self-imposed challenge this time:

The Camomile Lawn - Mary Wesley

Although I didn't watch it, I remember the TV series of this book coming out - in the early 90s I think. There seemed to be a lot of noise about it at the time and 2 very different things stick in my head.

The first is The Mary Whitehouse Experience drawing attention to all the sex in it and asking who could sit through all that, and Hugh Dennis in his character of dodgy overcoat and sour milk loving man Mr Strange saying it was his favourite show.

The other was a gardening program (possibly Gardeners' World, but I wouldn't want to take bets) explaining the (im)practicalities of trying to grow a Camomile Lawn, which the series had clearly made people want to do.

Having now read the book I'm not sure how it translated onto the screen. It works very much because the situation that all the cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and other protagonists are in, from their first definite knowledge that war is coming on that hot summer night out on the Camomile Lawn, is slowly explained, through people's thoughts, and the frank but slightly oblique conversations the family all have - believable conversations, where often things aren't so much spelt out as acknowledged between people who have known each other all their lives and grown up together, and which make less sense without having the thoughts as well.

There are reasons behind the sex - none of which is explicit or detailed (which again the show must have struggled with) - that is so large a part of this book, but the book is not about sex. If anything I think it's more about relationships, and how they shift and restructure, and how family units expand
and hold together and members trust and interpret one another when under attack from outside.

Wesley also, after the first few pages, has a wonderful knack of making you care about the characters, and keeping them all distinct. Even moving back and forth between the past and the present, using the device of a funeral to explain these stirred up memories and why the family is converging again, the same people are the same - or still enough the same - that you don't get muddled.

(Although I did stop trying to work out who had slept with who after a bit).

Onwards to 1985..

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Some Small Crime Fiction Reviews..

First is The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett.
It’s tempting to describe this as a very funny and original book at the beginning and end, but a disappointingly predictable thriller in the middle. I’m conscious that’s probably not fair, because it’s predictable only from my having read Leslie Charteris and been exposed to various books and films along ‘Perils of Pamela’ lines, all of which came later. Bennett’s plucky young heroine and the things she gets herself into were undoubtedly more original when he was writing in 1902, but a modern reader of thrillers is going to be able to see the next thing coming, and very possibly much of the ending, a long, long way off. 

Nest of Vipers – Gladys Mitchell.
I don’t know if it’s just coincidence but this is about the third or fourth book I’ve read* where it’s implied that Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley intends to let a murderer off. It’s also the first one where I wholeheartedly agree with her. 

Mitchell is never a scrupulously fair author – there’s a definite lack of omnipotence in her narration, and new elements can suddenly be introduced two thirds of the way into the narrative in the most frustrating way. It’s also not unknown for Dame Beatrice to take leaps in her logic which don’t seem to be anything to do with what she’s learned, and her attitudes can be controversial and extraordinary. But these aren’t meant to be Ellery-Queenesque puzzles, and when she pulls it off as a story – as she does here – none of that matters.

* (full disclosure – I’ve read about 8 of Mitchell’s books, in no particular order, all reprinted by Vintage and all borrowed from various libraries)

Singing in the Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh
I’ve read this one before and don’t think I cared for it much. Not as much as Artists in Crime or Death in a White Tie or A Surfeit of Lampreys or Death at the Dolphin (I had a serious Marsh binge in the early to mid 90s, and read almost all her books, getting them on order from a specialist crime fiction shop in Central London run by a man with no concept of customer service or basic admin or any of the other things you need to, you know, run an actual shop. Which meant that I stopped, ridiculously, with about 4 unread books left.)

Having decided to give Shrouds another go I found a competent story, not at all undermined by the fact I’d read it before. It's set on a sea going ship and Marsh does a good job of making many of her passengers a little odd and repressed in different ways - ways that wouldn't matter, really, if it weren't for the fact that there's a serial killer on board the boat, and so those quirks and oddities take on a much more sinister aspect.

I don't feel that Alleyn covers himself with glory in this one, and the decision of the captain not to tell 'the ladies' what is going on, even though they're the ones in danger, is frankly ludicrous. He should have been arrested at the end of the book alongside the murderer.

Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham
With some authors you know what you’re getting before you open a book. But apart from Albert Campion, that amiable cipher, and probably (although not always) some perfectly competent police officers, Allingham likes to ring the changes each time.

If follows, therefore, that some of her books I really enjoy and some of them leave me cold.
This was one I really enjoyed. I liked the small family of mostly unrelated people who had carried on in the same unfashionable house after the death of the painter Lafcadio (the thing that had brought them together in the first place), and who celebrated his legacy every year with the unveiling and sale of one of the pictures he had left for the purpose. 

I even liked the murderer – although the second murder is a real tragedy. A small, pathetic tragedy but all the sadder for that.