Archive for August, 2019

Maps, again

August 28, 2019

51oKC5VfkGL._AC_UY218_  61gjZBNbkqL._AC_UY218_  414ejWraUnL._AC_UY218_  Every now and then I like to look through some of the larger books I’ve collected over the years, particularly atlases, turning the pages and stopping to stare and think wherever I fancy; I jokingly refer to this is as my map porn collection… Recently I took some time to look again at Cartographia, New Worlds (Maps from the Age of Discovery) and this tome which I acquired second-hand about ten years ago.

The Times Atlas of World Exploration is an astonishing tome which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who thinks they have the same bug for explorers and armchair travel that I have: it’s a very detailed and serious work of scholarship, put together by one of the leading writers in the field, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. There are literally dozens of small maps recording the journeys of many travellers, and larger maps which finally helped me to understand how important all the different winds and sea currents were in the days of small sailing ships and primitive navigation, and why travellers sailed at certain times of the year and by particular and not often logical-seeming routes. All this makes the journeys themselves seem even more astonishing.

Recent reading has also shown me just how much exploration was going on way back in the past. I recall the big names from geography lessons at school – Columbus, the Cabots, Magellan, but there were so many others risking all to discover – what? – something to make a fortune from. And I keep having to remind myself that this is almost all from the Western perspective, and that we don’t know what travellers from other regions of the world were up to in those more disconnected times; maybe there are still-undiscovered accounts languishing and decaying in libraries somewhere…

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I am moved by the idea that people would spend ages travelling – years, often – without knowing exactly where they were headed, or what or whom they might meet, and where they would end up. It’s particularly hard to get my mind around some of the adruous journeys along the Amazon, for example. Clearly there was the usual motive of making a fortune, but some travellers went just to see: because it might be there, as it were.


Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria

August 19, 2019

5115JQXvznL._AC_UY218_QL90_  I very rarely read biographies or autobiographies, mainly because I’m busy leading my own life. However, I recently read an article in The Tablet (one of the more interesting weekly magazines at the moment) by Richard Holloway, and was prompted to get a copy of this book, which tells the story of his finding and losing faith, up to the time where he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh.

I was gripped at the outset by his description of life in what I would describe as an Anglican junior seminary, because there were so many reminders of my own Catholic upbringing and schooling. The early part of his life and ministry can only be described as very High Church or Anglo-Catholic: he talks of ‘mass’, and goes to confession and participates in the evening service known as Compline…

The tone is not what one perhaps would expect of a one-time senior clergyman. The genuineness and honesty of a good man, and a real thinker shine through; he’s extremely well-read, as the literary references and notes show. I liked him for his liking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, both of whom speak to his religious condition at different times, and for being a solitary walker, too.

We read of his growing spiritual crises, with belief or lack of it in the Resurrection, and ultimately in God; for him, agnosticism is learning to live without an answer. In our unreligious times he makes a clear case for a place for religion in people’s lives, and certainly reminded me why, though largely rational myself, I cannot go with those who decry all religion as mere mumbo-jumbo and pixie dust. We are formed by our earliest experiences, and if they are shaped by religion, some need of spiritual consolation is, I have come to feel over the years, both inescapable and not something to be ashamed of. For Holloway, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty: where you have certainty, you don’t need faith. This I found comforting!

Ultimately Holloway became ever more political and radical and questioning, until he reached a point where he felt he had lost his faith, and resigned his position. Having come to believe that religion certainly was a human invention, he wondered if perhaps God was, too. This is where he chimed in with where I have reached: out of our spiritual needs as humans, we make God after our own image. I can completely understand Holloway’s still being religious, and wanting religion to be there as a space for people to wonder and listen.

In many ways an unexpected pleasure of a read.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part two

August 17, 2019

The Index of Possibilities

I haven’t looked at this for years: it’s a relic from my hippy days, a British version of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopaedia for those alternative times, with pointers and links to all sorts of esoteric stuff, as well as the very early green movements, different spiritualities and radical therapy. It was a bible and an eye-opener for me back in my younger days.

Road Atlas of the Soviet Union 

Back in the days of the Soviet Union and its other socialist allies, consumer goods were in very short supply; this caused problems if you wanted a present for someone. You might have a really good idea of what you’d like to give, and no chance of buying it. Which is how I ended up with a road atlas of the Soviet Union as a present from a relative at some point in the 1970s. The idea that I’d ever get to drive on any of the roads in that country was a bit of a joke for starters. Then you think of the size of the country and regard the slimness of this volume and you get a better picture of the problem. Vast tracts of the country do not appear at all. Secrecy? No, just no roads at all. In some regions you can see a single road that proceeds for hundreds of miles, before stopping, ending: you make that journey all the way to the back of beyond, before realising that you then have to turn around and return the exact same way… Truly, this is a surreal book in so many ways.

I love it; it’s a very well-worn and well-used companion to travel books about Russia, and I supplemented it with a larger more general and larger scale Soviet atlas a decade or so ago

Sunday Compline

This is the slimmest volume in my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood days – not out of any sense of belief, but for the spiritual feelings they still awaken for me – this is in English. Way back in the mid-1960s, shortly after services were done into the vernacular, a version of compline appeared, a decent translation using the same music, and there was a phase in the Catholic life of England when this service was much performed in churches. Only a couple of years ago I tracked down this copy at a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh, and was happy to pay ninety times the original cover price to own it. It’s a nicely produced and illustrated booklet, the same as the one we used to use all those years ago.

Baedeker’s Northern Germany

In the days when travel was a serious business and involved careful planning, Baedeker’s guidebooks were a must. This one is pre-First World War, and I originally bought it for its marvellous maps, but it’s also a mine of useful information about places that were formerly part of Poland and would become again after the war, as well as places that eventually became part of People’s Poland after 1945. The maps of Danzig (as was) I found very useful when reading Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, following Oscar’s adventures and peregrinations around his home city. There was also a Baedeker’s Russia from 1914, which was never widely distributed or sold because war broke out; it’s now one of the rarest travel guides there is, fetching hundreds of pounds and more. This, and the bizarre Nazi vanity project that was Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement (a tourist guide to the rump state created from the remains of Poland as a dumping-ground for unwanted people and site of extermination camps), are, fortunately, available free on the marvellous Internet Archive website.

Vassily Peskov: Eremites Dans Le Taiga

I was astonished when I originally came across a reference to this story, I think via a link to the Smithsonian website: a small family of Old Believers, a Russian sect, had lived completely apart from the entire world, in the depths of Siberia, for over forty years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, when Soviet surveyors noticed signs of life in a remote area thought to be uninhabited. The story of the family’s existence and survival is almost beyond belief, and yes, I know that Russia is a truly enormous country, but to have vanished for so long in the twentieth century! The account was written by one of those who re-discovered and helped the family, and yes, I found it in French first…

Bonus: English as She is Spoken (A Jest in Sober Earnest)

Many years ago there was a concert interval talk on Radio 3 featuring extracts from this truly crazy book, which is a phrasebook and guide to conversation in English for Portuguese students, written at some point towards the end of the 19th century. The only problem is that the Portuguese author didn’t actually speak English, but somehow complied the book using a French phrasebook and a dictionary: a very high percentage of the English phrases therefore verge on complete drivel, and the book is a hoot. I found a reprint a long while ago and look through it for a laugh every now and then; if you’re interested it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

A tour of my library – concluded

August 14, 2019

There are quite a few ‘oddments’ shelves and sections where the books that don’t fit tidily into a category, or are too large or small to have a space on the appropriate shelf, are ranged.

It’s hard to write about the oddments collectively because they are oddments, objects that have caught my fancy over the years and have been added to my collection. One particular curiosity is Adolf in Blunderland, a satire from the 1930s in the style of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations after the manner of Tenniel, mocking the German leader and his cronies. I bought it donkey’s years ago when still at school, with my hard-earner pocket money, because the concept amused me so much…

I have a number of outsize books that won’t fit on the appropriate shelves. Several of these are atlases, as well as books about maps and the history of maps, a subject which fascinates me. The largest is a colossal tome, an atlas published just after the First World War, with beautiful maps of all the new countries that came into being as a result of that conflict. I got it for a song at a bookfair many years ago. Its size dwarfs even the large Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World… There’s also a reproduction of parts of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior of the 1660s, which is absolutely wonderful, and which I can spend hours staring at, mentally comparing how people saw the world then and how they see it now. Obviously these books tie in with my interests in travel and travel writing, and are often open alongside as I read about other people’s journeys. I like to follow these journeys on a map, which is why I often bemoan poor or absent maps in travel writing.

Our collection of cookery books lives in the hall, which is about as close as they can get to the kitchen. I’m one of those people who hates following recipes, so cookery books serve as inspiration rather than as step-by-step guides, although I do pay more careful attention to bread recipes when I’m trying out something new in that line…

I love my library, although sometimes I do feel a little oppressed by the sheer size of it, and the realisation that I do need to do some serious culling and focus on those books I really treasure and am going to want to re-read. I cannot imagine living in a house without books, and on the very rare occasion I’ve found myself in one, I have felt distinctly uncomfortable…

Voyageurs de la Renaissance

August 14, 2019

81HFTMPlypL._AC_UL436_  This was a rather more academic volume than I’d anticipated from its publication in a standard paperback line – almost Hakluyt Society depth and detail, as well as a number of extracts not being in modern French… they do things differently there!

Very interesting, though, to read a wide range of extracts from Spanish, Portuguese and French travellers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as Westerners were beginning to get to know (and occupy) far-flung regions. What strikes is the fascination and curiosity about those who are so different from ourselves, and also the determination, the sense of our duty and right, to forcibly convert all these peoples to Christianity for their own good. There is a common sense of Western superiority to foreigners, because we are Christian and have a higher level of development, and higher moral standards. One of the extracts showed Francis Xavier (a saint in the Catholic Church) trying to make sense of and explain Buddhism, and find connections between it and Christianity: his theological contortions and errors are astonishing and amusing.

Travellers to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire dwell on the harems and Turkish baths, often with many fascinating details, and also on apparent lesbian practices in the baths: there is a disapproving, prurient, News of the World-style to their descriptions.

There are also many short extracts about travels in Jerusalem and other holy places (for Christians). The accounts of French travellers to Florida and associated regions are rather tedious, but the first accounts of Cortez and other Spaniards of encounters with the Aztecs are very interesting: the days before they set out to conquer and destroy their civilisation, but already from the accounts of the quantities of gold and other precious metals, you can almost smell the cupidity. The accounts of human sacrifices are suitably gory, and the travellers are appalled. Similarly, in travels among native Americans, there is great fascination with cannibal rituals which are described in minute detail…

What I learned from the anthology was just how much travel and exploration there was going on so early; I’d heard of the well-known names and vaguely slotted them into the end 15th / early 16th time-frame, but there were so many people from so many countries out there, all hoping to make a fortune… the Portuguese were particularly numerous and widespread in the earliest days. Though it is interesting to see these first glimpses of how the West saw others, it’s also very depressing seeing how they treated them as simple folk, savages, to be fobbed off with trash and forcibly Christianised; the moral blindness in the travellers’ horror at human sacrifices and cannibal rites when they themselves will be complicit in genocide within a few years is truly shocking.

The overall concept of the book is an interesting one, but better than the execution, as ultimately it does come across as rather a mishmash. It’s scrupulously well-annotated, and there are many reproductions of original woodcut illustrations, but no useful maps, sadly.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.


I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

A tour of my library…

August 8, 2019

In previous summers, I’ve done something different in a series of posts; this year I have decided to take those of you who are interested on a tour of my library. This has been growing since I first acquired copies of The Wind in The Willows and Winnie the Pooh (which I still possess) when I was about six years old. It’s gone through a couple of incarnations, swelling enormously when I was an undergraduate and then shrinking again when I divested myself of an awful lot of books, and doing that again when I did my postgrad research. Since then it has grown gradually, reaching a peak of about two and a half thousand books; in recent years I have been trying to get to down to manageable size (!) and it’s now below the two-thousand mark…

The idea for these posts was sparked by a recent visit to Belsay Hall, a stately home in Northumberland, which has a Brideshead kind of history, as, after being commandeered for use during the Second World War and fairly comprehensively wrecked, it was given to English Heritage on condition that it wasn’t restored to its former glory, but that the shell be preserved to showcase its inner and outer architecture and design. So the library is a vast, empty room, with ranks of empty bookshelves lining its walls, and I found myself thinking, “My library could fill these shelves…”

Given that we live in a modest semi, my library is distributed around the house. There are books in the sitting room, in the hall, and in my study, as well as in crates and boxes in the loft. And there is also my other half’s library, and the books we share.

I do possess an (imperfect and incomplete) catalogue of my library. Some forty-five years ago I acquired a large bound daybook – the kind of thing financial transactions used to be logged in, in pre-computer days – and decided to use this to list all my books. Every one has an accession number, and I log the author, title, date I acquired the book, and whether it is new or second-hand. I’m approaching number 4000 in terms of accessions, so there have clearly been a lot of deletions, too; these are denoted by a pencil line through the details of any book I’ve disposed of, so there is actually a record of all the books I have ever owned, pretty much.

At some point in my early days of computer ownership I tried to teach myself how to use databases and failed abysmally, instead setting up a quite detailed and searchable spreadsheet of my library, from which titles are actually deleted when they leave my possession. A slimmed-down version of this is now on my phone with the aim of stopping me buying books twice over when I’m browsing second-hand bookshops… which does happen with increasing regularity.

The daybook which contains my hard copy also contains my reading log, which dates back to 1973, when I became an undergraduate. I log the author and title of every book I read, and the date on which I finish reading it; I also log the date in pencil on the final blank page of the actual book. So I do have some track of what I’ve read and when; a friend pointed out to me that if the reading log were put on a spreadsheet, all sorts of interesting information might be sorted and extracted: I can’t face the effort…

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