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 ' 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, maƱana, 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.

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 it 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 a 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: