Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Bonne Année de Londres

Well that was the year that was. Some are much of a muchness and others you know will stick in the memory. 
2018, with it's mix of brilliant sunshine and stormy politics, will be one that sticks, so fingers crossed that we've all landed safely and know where we are by this time next year. It's the moving of goalposts that seems so unfair.

But I'm here to talk about books. 
I'll get onto favourites later but here is the more or less complete alphabetical list of all the books I read in 2018 (feel free to scroll past, I mostly put this here so I can erase all the titles in my sidebar): 

A is for Alibi - Sue Grafton
A Blunt Instrument - Georgette Heyer
A Few Green Leaves - Barbara Pym
A Life Less Throwaway - Tara Button
A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle
Absolutely On Music - Murakami and Ozawa
Affluenza - Oliver James
An Education - Lynn Barber
Ariel - A Literary Life of Jan Morris - Derek Johns
Artists in Crime - Ngaio Marsh
B is For Burglar - Sue Grafton
Bats in the Belfry - E C R Lorac
Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer
Bliss - Peter Carey
Bond Street Story - Norman Collins
Browse. The World in Bookshops - edited by Henry Hitchings
Calamity in Kent - John Rowland
Coast to Coast - Jan Morris
Confabulations - John Berger
Confessions of a Ghostwriter - Andrew Crofts
Death at the Dolphin - Ngaio Marsh
Death in a White Tie - Ngaio Marsh
Death Makes a Prophet - John Bude
Death of a Busybody - George Bellairs
Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
Death of a Gossip - M C Beaton
Death of Anton - Alan Melville
Death-Watch - John Dickson Carr
Don Among the Dead Men - C E Vuillamy
Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer
Eva Trout - Elizabeth Bowen
Every Eye - Isobel English
Fruit in Season - Anthony Thorne
Grave Mistake - Ngaio Marsh
Green for Danger - Christianna Brand
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino
Inside the Nudge Unit - David Halpern
Lament for Leto - Gladys Mitchell
Landscapes After the Battle - Juan Goytisolo
Life, the Universe, and Everything - Douglas Adams
London, A Traveller's Reader - Thomas Wright & Peter Ackroyd
Maigret in New York - Georges Simenon
Man vs Money - Stewart Cowley
Messy - Tim Harford
Metroland - Julian Barnes
Municipal Dreams - John Boughton
Murder at the Vicarage - Agatha Christie
Murder in the Museum - John Rowland
Murder on Christmas Eve - Ellis Peters, Julian Symonds, et al
Mysogynies - Joan Smith
Nest of Vipers - Gladys Mitchell
On Photography - Susan Sontag
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence - Agatha Christie
Patrick Butler for the Defence - John Dickson Carr
Plan Now, Retire Happy - Alvin Hall
Poirot and Me - David Suchet
Put on by Cunning - Ruth Rendell
Quick Curtain - Alan Melville
Rain - Four Walks in English Weather - Melissa Harrison
Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
Sick Heart River - John Buchan
Singing in the Shrouds - Ngaio Marsh
Slade House - David Mitchell
Sober as a Judge - Henry Cecil
Stuffocation - James Wallman
Summer at Gaglow - Esther Freud
The Beckoning Lady - Gladys Mitchell
The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins
The Bridge - Geert Mak
The Camomile Lawn - Mary Wesley
The Dark Tower I - IV Stephen King
The Disinformer - Peter Ustinov
The Division Bell Mystery - Ellen Wilkinson
The Flaneur - Edmund White
The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett
The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance - Brett Scott
The Inevitable Gift Shop - Will Eaves
The Last Station - Ben Aaronovitch
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C S Lewis
The Lost Continent - Bill Bryson
The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters - Charlotte Mosley
The Notting Hill Mystery - Charles Felix
The Secret Lives of Colour - Kassia St Clair
The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin
The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst
The Theory and Practice of Lunch - Keith Waterhouse
The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris
The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
Things - Georges Perec
Trent's Last Case - E C Bentley
Utz - Bruce Chatwin
Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate
Ways of Escape - Graham Greene
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami
Who Moved my Cheese? - Dr Spencer Johnson
Working with Structuralism - David Lodge

The first thing that jumps out at me is the amount of titles starting with 'Death' - of 102 books read fully 38 were crime. Many were authors new to me, which I'm quite pleased about. Some I loved (Verdict of Twelve, Green for Danger, Death of a Ghost) some I found distinctly odd (A Blunt Instrument, Lament for Leto) and some slipped down like ice cream and left no impression at all. 

Some stats: At 102 books (I'm counting the 4 Stephen King's separately, but only put them once in the list as it's all the same story) I'm up almost a quarter on last year's total - but again my non-fiction reading has barely altered - 34 this year, as against 32 last. 
That leaves 64 fiction works (counting SK as one this time). Men well ahead of women this year - 59 books by men and 38 by women, and one by a mixed group. 

5 books in translation, which I'm cautiously pleased about. Usually it's none. 

Five Favourites

1) Bond Street Story by Norman Collins, which was delightful, although there was a slight subtext of  'stay with us so as you'll be looked after' which made me uneasy. My brother lost his job when Arding and Hobbs went under - hard enough for him as a junior manager, but for those who'd had a lifetime of loyalty to the company and whose pensions and social life were all wrapped up in it (as they are in Rammell's Department Store in this tale), it was absolutely catastrophic.  You could see, in Bond Street Story, how people in the 50s - especially working men - thought they had a job for life, a social contract, that has largely been reneged on. Small wonder some are angry. 

*coffs* but, as I said, I'm here to talk about books. 

2) A close second favourite is The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters. They really did know everyone didn't they? In a way it was a bit of a curse - if they hadn't been who they were they wouldn't have been right at the epicentre when the second world war broke out. That they did mostly manage to keep in touch was a marvel of sisterly solidarity.

3) Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham. I did review this briefly here, so I won't repeat myself.

4) The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin. Which I also reviewed as part of my 'Reading the 80s' project at this link here.

5) The Flaneur - Edmund White. Again, there's a link here

And What will I read in 2019

I should be resuming my OU course this Spring, so I suspect my reading will dip again. I hope to finish the Dark Tower series - although King can be a bit grim, so I really do have to be in the mood to enjoy them - and I'd definitely like to read more Bruce Chatwin, who I basically discovered this year. 
Sadly there isn't that much more to read because he died in his 40s, and so I'm torn between reading the lot or holding off and eking it out.  

What I don't think I'll be doing is diving much further into the British Library Crime Classics (and if my reading is going to drop that seems the sensible thing to drop) but I would like to read more Christianna Brand. 

I'd quite like to read Trent's Own Case - the sequel written over 20 years after Trent's Last Case by E C Bentley. 

I was tempted to do 'reading the 80s' for a second year, but I don't think taking on even a nice easy project like that is going to fit well with work and the OU, so perhaps I'll come back to it 2020.

And I'll leave you with this lovely thing from the library in Liverpool, where I went for the punk exhibition and then the Bonfire Night fireworks (a short holiday that also took in Chester, Flint Castle and Port Sunlight), and with my best wishes for 2019 and beyond.


Thursday, 15 November 2018

Reading the 80s - 1989

Peter Mayle - A Year in Provence

I've said elsewhere that I get why this caught the imagination in late 80s Britain. The proper field to plate, hand reared, hand killed food, the buildings built to last, the wine bought straight from the vineyard, must have seemed a welcome contrast to all the synthetic colours and tastes - shell suits, funny face lollies, food pinged in the microwave, dayglo socks - that the 80s made mainstream.

That said there's really not much to the book. It's just a light, entertaining, well but not brilliantly written journal. Mayle does have a knack for focussing in on the things that make people interesting, and if I were a gourmet I think the food descriptions would be getting the juices flowing, but it's written very simply, a chapter a month, and there's nothing too deep, nothing too analytical.

It's a read once and pass on book, and there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed it.

The Disinformer - Peter Ustinov

This is actually a book with two short stories in it.

In the first a retired ex-spy who never cared much about his job while he was in it but is now bored and perhaps quite bitter invents a fake terrorist cell in order to entrap another cell, all at arm's length until it goes wrong..

In the second a young woman rebels against the intellectual and traditional life her parents are bringing her up in.

Both stories left me a bit cold. The spy playing God, wanting to watch the finale without considering that people might die, the young woman understandably rebellious but also quite unpleasantly ruthless in her pursuit of being who she wants to be - and yet I didn't dislike these people actively enough to want things to go wrong for them either.

Also in the second one I could see the 'twist' coming a mile off. Maybe I was meant to?

Bill Bryson - The Lost Continent

This is the one I've read before - not that long after it came out. Not as young as 16 I don't think, but not a great deal older. 

One thing that dates it enormously - that really struck me and didn't last time - is his sporadic comments about fat women, or nubile young women. It's the most old-fashioned thing in the book, this assumption that just because he's a man (who, to be fair to him admits he's no Adonis himself) his opinion on women's looks has some sort of authority or validity.

I wondered as well that Bryson never seems to consciously connect it with something else he notices about many of the places he goes to on his drive around America. That there are so many drive-thru and drive to places, none of which you can travel between on foot, and that often the downtown is dying or dead. 

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and that lightbulb didn't go off for me either - and yet it seems so obvious now (nearly 30 years on) that the reason Bill is noticing how large women in America are getting in '89 is because they have constant access to fast food, and often nowhere pleasant to walk. You can talk about personal responsibility until you're blue in the face, but the dice have already been loaded.

Moving on from those issues -  as a travel book Bryson does a nice job of taking in the various States, describing the places he visited and giving you small snippets of history, neither sugarcoating or judging too harshly. If I used to find him funnier than I do now - well times change and I've changed, that's all. I probably will hang onto this one, and I will probably read it again in a decade or three.

So.. a bit of a fizzle out for 1989 to be honest. Maybe I should have given Booker winning Ishiguro a go.
This has nothing to do with the above, but I was in Liverpool recently
and this rather attractive plaque is in the library.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Green for Danger - Christianna Brand (for the 1944 club)

This is rather a tragic little story.

On the night of an air raid Higgins, a former postman (now in the rescue squad) is brought into hospital, badly injured after being dug out of a bombed building. The next day, when he's in a state to be operated on, he dies under the anaesthetic.

Inspector Cockrill in comes as a favour, mostly to lay rumours to rest - no-one really thinks Higgins has been murdered (in fact going over the apparatus it looks impossible that he could have been) but one of the medical staff has been accused of making an error before and Mrs Higgins is upset and talking a bit wildly perhaps.

Yet, another night - and another air-raid keeping Cockrill there - and someone else is also dead.

One of the things that struck me about the story - one of it's odd strengths in fact - was that all of the six people who knew Higgins was in the hospital and might have been in a position to harm him are, to a greater or lesser extent, friends. The three women share quarters and help each other out and make sure the others have things like the comfort of a hot water bottle when they come back from a shift. Two of the three men worked together long before the war.
The last, who is strangely (and to his own bafflement and faint disgust) attractive to women, was the one person I wouldn't have minded being the murderer.

They, however, don't want it to be any one of them, and when Inspector Cockrill starts a kind of war of attrition, stationing police officers to follow their every move and restricting them to hospital grounds, it drives them together as a group, not apart.

(The Inspector does not cover himself with glory in this one, frankly. Not only does he have to do all that to smoke out the murderer, but he very nearly gets another patient killed before he works out the how. His re-enactment at the end goes right off the skids too.)

In the background to the murder as well, rumbling on and never quite flaring into drama, are the war time conditions and the reactions to them - disturbingly matter of fact decisions made about whether to go down to the shelter after an exhausting shift in the middle of an air raid, or risk being chased out of bed in your night things and made to go, whether to carry your gas mask when going for a run in the car. Whether to admit to the Inspector that you all keep a grain of morphia on you at all times, just in case you're crushed under a building and need something for the pain.

Yet it's all so undramatic. Brand is recording these facts in the same way she's detailing  how the hospital runs, all the routines and medications and men and nurses, the table down the middle of the ward with it's mismatched vases of flowers, the green paint of the operating theatre, the prunes and rice pudding without syrup or cream. There's a vivid sense of place here, and of six mismatched but well formed characters, and - going back to the actual plot of the thing - I have to admit Brand completely diddled me about the murderer, I hadn't expected it to be that person at all, and yet it made so much sense when it was explained.

As always, with thanks to Simon and Karen for the club and the logo. You can find more 1944 (and other years) books on their blogs.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Another walk through London

This time through Victoria Embankment Gardens and over Waterloo Bridge last Sunday after my British Library tour. Really this post is just an excuse to post some pics. The one below is from the memorial to Henry Fawcett, with the inscription 'from his grateful countrywomen' beneath it. Intrigued by this I looked him up. Henry Fawcett was a campaigner for Women's Suffrage, an MP, and a famous economist. He was also blind from the age of 25. 

And this on Waterloo Bridge. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Reading the 80s - 1988

Utz - Bruce Chatwin

After enjoying The Songlines so much I was pleased to find something else by Chatwin for 1988. This one is fiction, although I still don't think Chatwin draws a particularly hard line between fiction and non fiction.

Utz - possibly Baron Von Utz, although our narrator isn't entirely sure Utz is entitled to call himself a Baron - lives in Prague beyond the Iron Curtain, and a central theme that makes it a book of it's time is the cold war and the difficulty getting from east to west and back, although Utz manages it (possibly not purely for his health as he claims) every year.

He is also an obsessive collector with a fine collection of porcelain figurines all on shelves in his living room which he's been collecting since he was a boy. As long as he has agreed to leave them to the nation he is allowed to keep them, and as long as he has them he will always return to Prague.

But it's the humour in the story, and Chatwin's ability to share large amounts of information in a narrative - all the discussions about porcelain - without making it seem forced, that really shine out.

The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst

This one is why I'm three days late. I expected it to be a much quicker read. Instead what started as a story of promiscuity and privilege turned out to be far more layered.

Will, our narrator, is a young man leading a charmed and largely decorative life on family money. He has a younger less well off black boyfriend, a nice flat in London, and a pretty face. In addition almost every bloke he makes a pass at says yes, and being young and confident and somewhat spoilt, he's not at all shy of making passes.

He also has a fantastically detailed eye, not just for other pretty boys and their anatomical perfections but for the different nuances of London districts, places, pictures. He is also strangely likable and often empathetic, even slightly Woosterish in his willingness to be pulled into other people's troubles, although in other ways jaded, selfish and sometimes unthinkingly cruel.

When Will gives the kiss of life to an older man who collapses in the gents in Kensington Gardens, and then meets him again in the swimming pool of his gymnasium, the old man asks him to write his biography. He knows Will can write, because he's read something by him before - Will has dabbled with work, although more to please other people that because he needs or wants to, but is currently unemployed.

I have to say although I 'believed' in Will - far more than Utz - and would be curious to read about what happened to him next I didn't really enjoy the book all that much. Perhaps if I had read it when it was first published the historical background and the comparison between that and Will's life would have hit me harder and made more of a story. Most of the information would have been new to me at that time, and the effect would be more striking.

Something of that contrast has been lost now we've moved on again. As a gay man in the 80s Will is undoubtedly better off than Charles was in the 50s, but from a modern perspective he's nowhere near parity. It occurred to me for example that the nice long term couple he meets from time to time in clubs could get married now if they wanted to, and expect the family to come along and throw confetti, and that the narrative is still heavy in places with the things Will can't admit to other people.

The book also made me feel uncomfortably prurient in spots -  I don't know if my 15 year old self would have been shocked or would have gobbled it down much more easily in the same way she did The Stud and the Victorian erotica I discovered at the time, but my 45 year old self kept thinking  'come on Will, you don't even fancy this guy all that much and you've got a nice bloke at home..'

I did wonder as well if there was a nostalgia in all the bonking. Although published in 1988 the book is set in '83, and there is one bit right at the start where Will says '..it was my time, my belle epoque - but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye'.

Hollinghurst dedicated the book to Nicholas Blake, an early AIDS victim, and - a completely unintentional coincidence between the two books chosen for this year - Bruce Chatwin was to die of the same thing in 1989.

We come then to the darker side of the '80s in these two books. The ongoing standoff between East and West, and the AIDS epidemic, and a reminder to me that nostalgia aside, things actually have got better.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

A Ship of Knowledge

A domani, mañana, we will be looking at 1988, but for today lets talk about the BL.

I was a reader at the British Library for a year last year while I was doing my half-an-MA and made very little use of it for a number of reasons - some sensible (Kensington Central Library could be practically fallen into after work, getting to Bloomsbury was a slight palaver at the weekend) and some really quite ridiculous (not being sure of the rules around what I could take into reading rooms, how to use the lockers, and so on).

Currently I'm a 'friend' of the BL, which means I should be able to get a 3 year ticket next year.
Hopefully I'll make much better use of it in my second half-of-an-MA, and then perhaps some research on the archaeology of Pompeii, a subject I find utterly fascinating.

My BA dissertation was on Pompeii, but I was more enthralled by the politics and archaeology and rivalry around the process of digging it up than the place itself.

Don't get me wrong, Pompeii and Herculaneum are also fascinating, but they've been pored over already. I was sparked off by some of the very critical commentary about earlier archaeologists, and there's a great story to be told about the evolution of archaeology, the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, taking in Napoleon and Emma Hamilton and Spanish monarchs and Mussolini, that I'd like to let simmer and pull into something coherent one day.  

But that's an aside. Being a friend of the BL I get free entry to exhibitions, and four free tickets to events a year.

So today I went on the tour. And it was great.

Besides being taken behind the scenes I learnt, in rapid succession:  that the current site was chosen because it meant that books could be walked from their old accommodation at the British Museum, since they're basically so valuable it was too risky to ship them any distance. That Prince Charles had hated the building plans, and in particular criticised the new library for being shaped like a ship, since the architect was not asked for a monument (in this he had my sympathy, the current building being more functional and less show offy, although apparently Charles still hates it, which I don't agree with).

That the Queen loved it and donated a largish wodge of cash towards it.

That the lost river of the Fleet runs through the site, and since they could not build up (as this would obscure important views) they built down and have the second lowest basement after the Bank of England, and a pump to get the water out to the canal.

That the site is lower than the tube in parts (and we heard the tube again and again while going round the archives).

That the book rests are made from rejects from a medical pillow maker.

That the chairs are made from american oak and £400 a pop (and very comfortable).

That the man who invented the enigma machine was shot so he couldn't sell his secret on.

We also took in: Alan Turing and the apple and Steve Jobs naming his company after him, Jane Austen and the possibility she was deliberately poisoned (people in the US are genuinely CSI-ing her desk to find this out. As a popular female author, she had enemies. Other explanations for her early death are Parkinson’s, or accidental poisoning with arsenic.) King James, that Magna Carta exhibition, early printing, stamps, the bible in Ancient Greek, how long it takes to catalogue a book, the shortage of people who can do this in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, the East India company, wills, opium sales, a celestial globe provided to Isaac Newton which had been pulled up for the Harry Potter exhibition and not yet returned to storage, card catalogues, the Gutenberg bible, Henry VIII..

And these are just the bits I can remember from a tour of not more than an hour and a half.

Highly recommended.