Wednesday, 18 October 2017


I took this one walking back down the hill to the station, which is now a heritage line running a limited number of trains a day. 

I can recommend the train, but it gave me a false sense of how connected Haworth was to the wider world in the Brontes' time. Although Branwell had ideas of investing in the railway they came to nothing and the line wasn't built until the 1860s. It closed 100 years later. The house itself is well worth a visit, and we did the trip in a day from London - a long day, leaving Kings Cross at 7am and back by 11, but that also allowed us to see Saltaire and a bit of Leeds. 

Apparently there's a beautiful cafe in this town hall but we were just too late for it. Another time.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

17 Library Books.

So, from the top:

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, which so far – I’m up to chapter six - has disappointed me. A book that could have been lyrical or fascinating but which unfortunately feels like it was written with about three reference books and a minute by minute diary of the trip open in front of the writer. So much detail, where glancing references to the Barking Creek barrier, the QE2 bridge, would do. Not great wodges of detail you could skip, but constant small bits like morsels of dry bread, and yet without giving the reader any idea of what the things in front of her actually look like.

Luckily I have already seen the things – the BCB like a giant doorway to nowhere, standing on the North bank and seen from the South, The Tate and Lyle factory looking like it’s made of children’s’ blocks with skinny pipe-cleaner chimneys sticking up and the big blue friendly circle on the side. I can picture them. I assume all this detail must be even more meaningless to anyone who can’t. 

In similar vein, the author tells us how she moves around the boat she’s on – goes up to the cabin to talk to someone for an hour, back again to talk to someone else. She tells us the Arts Council funded the trip and who is on board, but I’m getting no sense of personal relationships, how well she knew the woman she huddled down with when it got stormy and they thought they heard ghosts. I think there’s an artist on board but I’m not sure because again it’s only mentioned in passing. Are they painting? Are they the kind of artist who does paint? I don’t know. Is our writer curious about what they’re painting or why they aren’t or how difficult it might be to paint moving scenery on a moving boat?

Possibly. Who knows. If she is she never mentions it. 

Thirteen Guests - J Jefferson Farjeon. 
Another British Library Classic Crime. I really enjoyed this one, and I felt the characters were more fleshed and differentiated than in the other 2 Farjeons I've read. It's got a lot of the classic elements - country house setting, thoroughly obnoxious corpse, and some clever misdirection. Slight shame about the Chinese cook substituting all his 'rs' with 'ls' - it's not done to poke fun, but as when country folk or cockneys are written 'ow they towk, like' I always wonder if the author really thinks their own social class speaks as clearly and succinctly as they write it on the page. 

Agatha Christie - Poirot Investigates. These are the earlier short stories, very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition - Poirot has rooms in London, Hastings is Watson - you know the drill. 

The Thirteen Problems. Miss Marple's early cases. In these she's almost entirely an armchair detective. I read all these years and years ago, but I'm very much enjoying reading them again.

Miss Marple's Final Cases. Again, I've read all these before. Small, perfect puzzles for Miss Marple to unravel. 

Memoirs of a Novelist. Virginia Woolf. These are short stories that build up into something bigger - small snippets from places in time, each with a woman who writes, each relating to it slightly differently. 

The Rebecca Notebook - Daphne duMaurier. Can I confess I didn't love Rebecca? I didn't warm to Max, I didn't care about Mrs Danvers (who should have been given a months salary and told to hop it, frankly). I didn't understand how two people who are presumably sharing a bed and had chosen to get married could misunderstand each other so completely. However I did enjoy reading duMaurier explaining how she thought of the story and worked it up and set it in a house she'd seen and loved the look of. Later essays in this same book tell us about the house, Menabilly, which she managed to rent and do up, and then how she left again but found somewhere else to love. 

Death on the Riviera - John Bude. Sorry, but I'm going to cut and paste what I wrote on the Guardian TLS: A cadre of French and British police are investigating smuggling and forgery on the French Riviera, but from the reader’s perspective you can see the whole picture, and murder is in the air as well.. Will they make their arrests in time to prevent it? A good, solid, workmanlike book.

David Lodge - The British Museum is Falling Down. I wrote about this just a few posts back, so I won't repeat myself.

Barbara Vine - King Solomon's Carpet. Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, and I've read two she wrote under that name so far and found them both interesting and original. I haven't read this one yet. 

The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton - Richard Bradford. Should you be writing an assignment on Paradise Lost and want to be brought up to date on the litcrit of Milton from his day to when this book was published in 2001, this is where to go. You may feel, after having read it, that you've been hit by a small but very powerful bus full of 'does it really matter' and discover that you now have a list of about 40 other books to read on the same subject, but that is hardly Bradford's fault. That is what he sets out to do, and he manages to do it without being dull. 

Sounds and Sweet Airs - Anna Beer. I've had this one for ages without reading it, even though it really appeals to me. It's about the female composers - the 'forgotten women of classical music'. I think it's the size of it that's stopping me. it's not an easy size to carry and certainly not an easy size to juggle with on the tube while also trying to take notes for things to look up on Spotify later. 

And to the right..

The brown hardback is C S Lewis' Preface to John Milton. It's actually a series of lectures Lewis delivered and then wrote up into book form. It kind of goes all round Milton in a way that's fascinating, but not focussed. I would like to read it again at some point when I'm not sifting it for relevant bits for an essay.

Next to that is The Great Divorce by C S Lewis. I got this from Hammersmith Library just today. It’s C S Lewis’ answer to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the other book my next assignment is on. I got it because I thought it might have some relevance. It doesn’t really, although there is something in there about the concept of a hero being all about ego, and ego a bit ridiculous when you talk about heaven in Lewis’ terms. Despite not being what I needed I'm glad I read it. It’s an interesting small book, with something Chestertonian in it, and something about the petty little things people can’t let go of, even to save themselves.

Charlotte Bronte - Selected Letters. I've been dipping into these from time to time. I've just got to one where Charlotte is thinking back and seeing the coughs and seemingly minor illnesses of her sisters and herself afresh in light of the recent deaths. It's amazing, and tragic, to think that such strength of imagination and personality was housed in such flimsy bodies. 

The Frozen Shroud - Martin Edwards. I know Edwards better as the writer of books about the Golden Age of Crime and the man who does the introductions to the British Library Classics (see Bude and Farjeon above). I thought I should get to know him as a crime writer himself. I don't read a lot of modern crime - often it's more gruesome and darker than 'classic' crime - but I'll see how it goes.

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices - Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. I've read this before but I don't remember it in much detail. I think very little happens, but it was a joy to read anyway. It's a Hesperus press book, and beautifully made, so if I still really like it, I may have to bite the bullet and buy it.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Book Reviews - Agatha Christie and David Lodge

David Lodge – The British Museum is Falling Down

Apparently David Lodge wanted to call this book The British Museum Has Lost it's Charm, a line from a song he was listening to while writing it, but his publishers couldn't get permission. Personally I prefer the title he ended up with. The other isn't funny enough, and despite being a little bleak in places, this is a very funny book. 

Unlike his campus novels it's also very clearly a book about being Catholic in the 60s, and in particular the rules about contraception and the lunatic intricacies of the rhythm method, which is still, fifty years later, the only method of birth control the Catholic Church endorse. 

So for people like the young couple in Museum, with three children already and possibly another one on the way which they can’t afford and haven’t space for, there’s a sense that all around them London is swinging, but they’re not invited to play, and a hope that the Church will finish deliberating on the pill and let them use the rotten thing. In the meantime they wait.   

So it’s funny but a bit painful – there a strong sense of not being able to have a proper grip on events because you don’t know what fate will throw at you next, and the single day that this book covers is all that in microcosm.

What really made me laugh though was the reference to the bus. It never occurred to me to question it when I was growing up but now it’s been drawn to my attention I can see that there is something very, very odd about that fixation on the bus that might knock you down tomorrow with your soul less than shiny-bright.

It’s odd to think that presumably other people (my own father in fact) grew up without the bus. Or maybe had a bus that knocked you down: squish, finito, and made you more careful when crossing the road.

Three Act Tragedy – Agatha Christie.

Reading this was part of the sporadic Christie reread I’m doing. I didn’t really remember the plot, but I knew I definitely had read it before because as soon as the murderer came onstage I remembered he was the murderer, and because I thought the first time round (as I think now), that the girl called ‘Egg’ might have wandered in from an earlier book - except Christie’s women don’t usually have such a deep and unpleasant streak of jealousy as Egg seems to have.  

Beyond Egg – who is one of our four sleuths, but apparently more interested in attracting Charles the Actor (whose surname I have already forgotten) than catching a murderer – we have Mr Satterthwaite, whose prosaic self is normally seen in conjunction with (and offset by) the otherworldly Mr Quin, Hercule Poirot, who we see very little of until about half way (when a chance meeting with Satterthwaite brings him back to England) and Charles the Actor himself, who does a lot of whizzing about and sleuthing in precisely the way Poirot insists is most pointless but which impresses the impressionable Egg. 

I have to add at this point that it’s quite hard to see someone called Egg as a romantic heroine, especially if you’ve read a lot of P G Wodehouse. Her real name is Hermione, which doesn’t help much.  Hermione is the name even J K Rowling couldn’t bring back into fashion.

The book is well worth reading, although the use of multiple detectives doesn’t work quite as well for me as it does in Cards on the Table, and so Christie suffers unfairly by being compared with another Christie. 

I also found myself out of sympathy with the romance between Egg and Charles, and with the young man of her own age who’s in love with her.

Less of these people, I wanted to say, and more Poirot please.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Some Lions

The Winged Lion of Venice

and a smaller, gilded version

Heraldic Lion, Bologna

Stone Lion, Oxford

and mate..

Lion with remarkable manual dexterity 
outside the Houses of Parliament

Nelson's Memorial, St Paul's

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Wrapping up London.

If anyone is in London this week you might be interested that the last Summer Late opening of St Paul's Cathedral is the 31st August (this Thursday). Access is a little more restricted (the galleries, meaning the interior and exterior of the dome, are closed) but it is cheaper, quieter and I think more evocative in the evening hours.

My brother and I also joined the Royal Palaces for a year, which for a joint ticket is not excessive. Especially since we're both in fairly easy reach of most of them. We've already been to Hampton Court - mostly the gardens, the Tower of London, and Kew Palace.

As usual though, I've mostly just been walking about and snapping whatever interests me. 

Monday, 14 August 2017

I think the Google Wizard is getting smarter...

It created a Panorama from the snaps I took from the top of the Sheldonian Theatre on Saturday. 

As is the way of August the streets of Oxford were absolutely heaving with tourists - whole coach loads of people crowded into what is really quite a small city, until pavements were overrun and I had to step off into the road get past - but many of the museums surprisingly quiet. I assume they're all there for tours of the colleges.

The Raphael exhibition at the Ashmolean was one of the busier things. You get up close to properly inspect the drawings, and that's a clear invitation to linger. They really are beautiful, and you can see how he was thinking with the pencil in his hand, shaping the limbs, making adjustments, cross-hatching to suggest shade.

The Jane Austen exhibition at the Weston library was also well worth seeing - much quieter than the Raphael, and smaller, but completely free, so you could drift about in a pleasantly idle way and try to read her writing.

Those were the specific things I went to Oxford for, but the bookshops and a wander down the river were also (as always) a draw.

I returned with:

Ghosts of London by H V Morton.
I've read Morton's other London books - the ones written earlier and the one written after, but this was first published, and in part written, shortly after war was declared in 1939, and although H V insists that 'Wars come to an end, but London will go on' there is still an underlying feeling that he is hurriedly chronicling old customs before the chance is lost forever. There are real ghosts here.

The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie, which is a collection of short stories with a slightly more occult and creepy slant than you find in her book length stories.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which I recently saw mentioned in P D James' book about crime writing, but haven't yet read.

The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith, which is one of those interesting looking Pelicans.

And I've done lots of London stuff, including wet walks along the Embankment and Summer Lates at St Paul's, but those can wait for another post.