Archive for July, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts

July 31, 2015

9780719566950I’ve been aware of his trilogy for a number of years and have finally got round to reading it: he walked from England to Constantinople in the 1930s and tells of his journey and encountered along the way…and yet the account itself was not written until more than forty years after the journey he describes.

He kept a detailed journal as he went, but the early stages of his account felt rather vague in terms of detail (later we learn that his possessions, including his first journal, were stolen from a hostel in Munich, which might go some way to explaining this) and his descriptions of places along the Meuse and the Rhine somewhat romanticised; but then we know that memory is kind to us, and tends to erase less pleasant events.

He writes very well, though, fluently and in the upbeat way that one would expect of someone not yet nineteen years old – optimistic, and the flow of his prose carries one along impressionistically, though at times feeling just a little overdone.

Walking, he meets all sorts of people, normally friendly, helpful, sociable and often offering rest and repose in their homes (it reminds me of my hitch-hiking experiences as a student); in this first volume he reaches Hungary. We learn of his background: clearly from a very comfortable social background, he nevertheless had a rebellious and unsuccessful school career and made a spontaneous decision to throw everything to the winds and set out on his travels. It’s a very interesting, ominous time in Europe: he crosses Germany at the end of 1933, so towards the end of Hitler’s first year in power…

At times I yearned for a bit more reflection on what he was seeing and experiencing and the people he was encountering, feeling him rather superficial – then realised I was being most unreasonable; I’m sixty and I would not have offered such analysis in my teens! A range of adventures is recounted, particularly from his stays in Vienna and Prague. He is clearly a well-educated person; he tries to describe the wonderful buildings and architecture he sees, but the prose becomes purple, overblown in places; it reminded me of Robert Byron’s descriptions at times, but Byron, though lyrical, seemed to have his feet much more firmly on the ground than Leigh Fermor

In the end I enjoyed this wander through times and places that have vanished forever; I shall move on to the second and third volumes in due course.

Stamford Public Library and the joys of reading

July 30, 2015

libraryRe-living my early memories of Stamford Public Library, with its grand classical frontage, which overawed this small child… it was a veritable treasure-trove to which I was introduced at age seven by my mother, who realised I needed to read, and that the library was the only way of satisfying my thirst for books.

It was frustrating that I only got one ticket, which meant only one book at a time, though the library was open five or six days a week, and when my sisters were of an age to join too, they could sometimes be persuaded to choose books that I could read as well. During holidays I did go pretty nearly everyday, and would start reading my book as I walked home…

There were more books in the children’s section than I could imagine, and the great thing was the series: all the Biggles books (Capt W E Johns), all the William books (Richmal Crompton), all the Jennings books (Anthony Buckeridge), the entire Young Traveller series, the Secret Planet books which introduced me to the world of SF. And I could try out new things, too!

The library was a curious place. The first room was the Reading Room, where the daily newspapers were fixed to the wall by metal rods, and there were exotic periodicals such as The Christian Science Monitor and India News and the Jewish Chronicle – where I first came across the idea that other nations had different calendars from us – and the Daily Worker (shock horror!). This room was inhabited by various down & outs and disreputable types – or so it seemed to me at the time – who offed and blinded as they read the papers. Not sure my mother would have approved of my going in there.

You had to be silent everywhere in the library, which also contained the town museum, with all sorts of curious discoveries and artefacts. The assistants were friendly enough behind the barrier of their counter, with their array of filing trays, tickets and date stamping machines.

Why was the place so magnetic in its attraction? What else did the world have to offer children in those days? Physical sports I have always loathed, so they were out. Television – we didn’t have one, and anyway there was only an hour or children’s programming in those days. I did listen to the wireless quite a lot. That seemed to leave reading, and I was quite happy with that, and seem to have been ever since.

On public libraries

July 30, 2015

I wondered why I’d stopped using the public library: given that Stamford Public Library was my introduction to the vast and varied world of reading as a child, it seems rather odd…

As I thought about it, I realised first, that as I’d grown up and come to have disposable income of my own, I could begin to build my own, personal library, and that it was nice to have my own copies of my favourite books. As a student of literature, I was introduced to a wide range of reading, and gradually began to realise that no public library was going to have everything I wanted to read on loan; at that point I would have to buy books if I wanted to read them. In pre-internet days, requesting anything on an inter-library loan was a major performance, and one that I avoided.

Also, in those days, there were many more second-hand bookshops around, and their prices were rather more reasonable than they are today, so I bought even more books. Before one was able to go online and track down any book in a matter of seconds, combing second-hand bookshops was often the only way of (eventually) tracking down rarities. My personal library grew through hundreds into thousands of volumes.

So it seems to have been a question of habit, really, that took me away from the library. Over the years, too, libraries have become less about books per se, and more about providing access to information for all, particularly those unable to afford books or computers; budgetary cuts have also meant that there was less money to spend on books…too many times, I remember going into a library to look for a book and not finding it.

Now that I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by the number of books in the house, and am trying to gradually reduce their number, I have taken to calling into our local library more frequently – I’ve realised that I don’t actually have to own a copy of everything I want to read, and if what I want to read was published relatively recently, there’s a decent chance they may have a copy of it.

On a political note, I’m angered by the way that in a wealthy country like England, local authorities have been put in the position of having to cut services like libraries, relying more and more on volunteers to keep the system going. I feel that everyone is entitled to the kind of access I had to the world of litereature and culture, via the library system, as a child, when my parents certainly could not have provided all the books I wanted to read. What’s happening now is incredibly mean-spirited and short-sighted, and does not serve the future of the country well.

Peter Simple: The Stretchford Chronicles

July 27, 2015

I think Peter Simple is an acquired taste; I think the Way of the World column may finally have disappeared from the pages of the Daily Telegraph. I’m not a committed reader of the paper, I just like to keep up with what the emery is thinking…

The column was intended as satire (I think…but I’m not sure!) written from the political perspective of someone a little to the right of Attila the Hun or Genghiz Khan, poking fun at the ways of the modern world, modern music (epitomised by Mahler) left-wing local authorities, and trendy lefties espousing any kind of vaguely liberal cause. It was populated by invented characters with names madder than those of Dickens, who would pontificate randomly on the wrongs of the world. My favourite was the mad psychologist Dr Heinz Kiosk, who managed to blame everything on society, and excuse any kind of outrageous behaviour.

This little book had selections from 25 years of the column and its invented experts; I enjoyed it but ended up feeling that the column had been better in small doses three times a week; it got a bit much when it was a whole book: often the case with such things, I have found.

The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (Librivox)

July 25, 2015

This was, in its own way, an astonishing book. It’s by a Spanish nobleman who took several years, in the 1520s and 30s to make his way from Florida to the West Coast of America.

You need to stop and think about what that actually means. The shape and size of the Americas, and the coastline was not known to Europeans. They did not know where they were heading or who or what they might come across. They did not know where there might be food, or water, or hostile tribes, or dangerous animals. They had no maps, for there were none. They set off, not knowing where they were going, or whether they would arrive…

I find it hard to get my mind around this; and yet these men went, and some of them lived to tell the tale. They were obviously casing the joint, as it were – the New World was divided up by the Pope into two parts, one for Spain and the other for Portugal, so they needed to know who and what was in their new territorial acquisitions, and of course, being good Catholics, they were keen to convert any natives they met to Christianity. So they go, through jungle, forest, swamp, baptising and proselytising as they go, spending a year or two here and there on their way, as and when the locals detain or entertain them or not. And, in the case of our author, they record every detail in an official report for the king of Spain.

On humour

July 25, 2015

I love anything that will make me smile or laugh; that means I’ve read a good deal of humorous writing in my time, and I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do well, and also how what people find funny has changed and developed over time. It’s hard to describe and classify humour, and it’s also clear that to be humorous can, at times, be dangerous for the humorist. Increasingly I’ve also noticed that there are considerable differences between what women and men find funny. This post is inevitably written from a male perspective.

I studied Francois Rabelais at university: in Gargantua and Pantagruel he satirised the religious and intellectual abuses of his time and was inevitably obscenely humorous while he was about it; you realise that scatology has always been part of humour as you read of the experiments to find what is the best thing to wipe your backside with, how the prostitutes of Paris defended their city, or the astonishing lists of books in various (imaginary) libraries. The far-fetched and the absurd are important aspects of the humorous. Whatever people laugh at today has been used before…

I’ve loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the longest shaggy dog story in the world – ever since I had to read it, again as a student. It’s full of funny characters, humorous incidents, witty observations.

I’ve laughed loud and long at what must be the relatively mild Victorian humour of writers like Jerome K JeromeThree Men in a Boat – and George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

Some of my former students will be aware of my love of Jaroslav Hasek, anarchist author of The Good Soldier Svejk (and his adventures in the Great War). Satire again, on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian army through the adventures of a congenital idiot and the chaos he causes as he strives to do his duty: none of this can possibly be as insane or absurd as the war itself… and the illustrations are marvellous, too.

The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich managed a similar kind of satire in rather more dangerous times with The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, with his eponymous hero’s adventures taking place during the Great Patriotic War, and causing just as much amusement and anarchy among the Soviets.

For sheer rolling around on the floor laughter, it’s hard to better John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, uproarious and obscene in equal measure. Much milder is Garrison Keillor’s laconic Lake Wobegon Days and other related titles (and the accompanying radio series The Prairie Home Companion). And then there’s the total bonkers-ness of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, some of which have been wonderfully televised.

As a child I loved funny books, too, and probably my most treasured memories are of the Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter: at sleepovers we would drive each other into hysterics as we tried to read these stories aloud to each other…

I’m aware that I haven’t, despite racking my brains, mentioned a single female writer or character above, and would dearly like a nudge, prompt or hint if anyone can offer any. And when it comes to trying to explain what makes me laugh, or what exactly is funny about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, I’m hard-pressed. Absurdity makes me laugh, taking the normal and ordinary over the edge into the realms of the ridiculous, anything which brings chaos to what should be a tidy and boring and ordered world. I have also found myself wondering how much humour is a trait of our younger days, and whether, as I grow inevitably older, I laugh less and find less to laugh at or about….

John Muir: Steep Trails (Librivox)

July 24, 2015

John Muir was a Scotsman who moved to the United States and spent the rest of his life there; he was a naturalist and an explorer, when there were still unexplored parts of the US, particularly in the west. Here he writes about California, Washington state, Nevada, Oregon and Utah (with the apparently obligatory disquisition, for a ninteenth-century writer, on the Mormons and their habits – and he is quite balanced and fair), about their wildernesses and their landscapes and their astonishing natural beauty.

He was often a solitary traveller and explorer, and to us appears to take some astonishing risks, setting off into unexplored mountainous areas with little food or equipment, and often in wintry seasons. However, it’s clear he possessed a great deal of commonsense, as well as the ability to read the signs wherever he was, and so managed not to come to any mischief, although there were clearly some tricky moments…

It’s always evident how much he loved the natural world, and to be surrounded by it, alone in its beauty; he was one of the prime movers in the setting up of the US National Parks system, so that so much that is spectacular was preserved for the nation’s posterity. He wrote a number of books about different parts of the US, all of which are worth a read.

On not reading a certain book…

July 24, 2015

97800995494829781785150289It has occurred to me that some of my former students may be a little surprised that I do not seem to have rushed to read and write about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book.

I read the first chapter while away on my travels, because it was published in The Guardian; I was intrigued, and though that at some time I would probably read the book. Since then I have read a number of articles about, and reviews of, the book, with people reflecting on Atticus Finch the crusty old racist, and the disappearance of Jem…

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more times than any other book, through having taught it so many times as an English teacher, and if I taught you it, you will recall that we read every word of the novel aloud in class: I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most students came to like, if not to love the book, and I have a soft spot for it; it is a very good book. It’s very carefully structured and well-written; it makes readers think, quite deeply, about a whole range of different and, I think, important things, and that is the hallmark of a good book for me.

So, I’m more than a little wary of having my impressions of the characters disturbed or altered. Yes, I hear you saying, as I said to you often enough, it’s a novel, they are characters, they don’t really exist! Harper Lee can do what she likes with them… I’m aware that there’s been no little controversy about the elderly author’s control of her writings, and uncertainty about the provenance of this new volume. The picture I have in my mind at present is that Go Set A Watchman can be seen as the precursor or To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel that she wrote first, that didn’t quite come up to the mark in the eyes of her editor, who sent her away with some feedback and ideas, that Lee went away and worked on until she gave birth to To Kill A Mockingbird, the book we all know and love.

Atticus as a racist, and apologist for segregation, seems to be the big shock. Perhaps this says more about Americans, or Southerners, than about anyone or anything else. Because if TKAM is a retro-fit of GSAW, then Lee went away and had her Scout in her twenties retell her childhood through the eyes of an innocent – an absolute masterstroke – and she refocused an ageing ex-liberal lawyer into a younger man who was forced to walk his talk and who challenged a town to confront – briefly – its racism. But even here, I think Lee is clear that no magic occurs in Maycomb: the novel is about Scout’s growing up, about her realisation that the world is not a nice place and that your father cannot sustain the idyll of childhood for you…

I shan’t say any more until I’ve read it, which I do intend to do.

The Prairie Traveler (Librivox)

July 22, 2015

If you were an American settler, heading out West in the mid-nineteenth century, you’d have been incredibly grateful for a book like this – it’s like a road atlas and travel guide rolled into one, full of details to ensure that the perilous journey across thousands of miles was as safe as it could be. It was written by Randolph B Marcy, and experienced traveller of such routes, in 1849.

There are detailed instructions about necessary equipment and supplies, how to deal with problems, dangers and unexpected situations, and how to avoid these in the first place. Then there are a number of routes outlined with distances, stopping off points, towns, places to find water… a bit like nineteenth century satnav, really, or a Lonely Planet guide. A fascinating piece of history, and a very good addition to travel literature generally, in terms of giving us, for whom travel is so straightforward, a glimpse of what it was like then.

The First Book of Adam and Eve (Librivox)

July 22, 2015

Most people are familiar with the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis; it’s fairly brief. And there is more: if you read Milton‘s Paradise Lost, for instance, there is a lot more detail to their story both before and after the Fall, bringing the characters to life, developing their motives and arguments, as well as those of God and Satan.

The First Book of Adam and Eve dates from the fifth or sixth century, and comes from the Egyptian or Coptic tradition; it was translated some eighty or ninety years ago and appears in the Librivox collection. What happened to Adam and Eve once they were expelled from the Garden of Eden?

They moan and complain an incredible amount to God about the harshness of their situation. He listens and replies. They have to learn to cope with a much more difficult existence, coming to understand such things as darkness, rain, the need to eat and drink. Satan continues to visit and confuse and waylay them even further, even though this is strictly unnecessary, as he has already achieved his primary purpose. Through various accidents, they die several times, but as their time is not yet accomplished, God brings them back to life again; similarly, when they despair and contemplate suicide, they are not allowed to succeed.

The promise of future redemption is, of course, heavily underlined and further explained to them. And we learn of the birth of their children – not just Cain and Abel but also twin daughters, which is how the entire human race was meant to develop…

It’s an interesting text, and I can see its origins in people wanting more detail than the bald account in the Bible: more information, which doesn’t contradict the Bible, more information which elaborates on God’s future plans, which reassures believers…

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