Saturday, 10 June 2017

10 books

At the beginning of the month Simon at StuckinaBook suggested a meme where 10 books were randomly plucked off the shelf and used to say something about ourselves. I'm a little late, but thought I'd give it a go.

A Woman Surgeon. L Martindale. It’s not surprising this was to hand given that I fairly recently wrote on it here for the 1951 Club.
Martindale is not a great story teller, but she is a great imparter of facts. The other thing that's stuck with me from this book is how politics and old-fashioned sensibilities could get in the way of informing the public and helping them to protect themselves from disease.  Mostly though this is the story of improvements in education as well as medicine. 

Penguin 'Great Ideas'. I actually pulled out two of these at once so I’m counting them as one book. I have a number of these attractive, slim, blue-spined books, which I think I must have bought in a wodge (perhaps a 3 for 2 in Waterstones?) and most of which I haven’t yet read. These two are Baldesar Castiglione's How to Achieve True Greatness, and Where I Lived and What I Lived For by Thoreau. I think I've read the Castiglione, but it hasn't stuck.

History Today. History or ancient history was ‘my’ subject at A level and degree level. Apart from finding the subject really interesting I also felt a resistance to doing literature as I felt that what I thought of as ‘pulling books apart’ would affect my ability to read them for pleasure, and also that writers don’t write books in the way essay questions seem to imply.
However I've recently started an English Lit MA with the Open University and have changed my mind about both those things – although I do still feel that the way in which literature is taught implies more deliberation on the part of the writer than is really there. To put it another way, I think a lot of what we analyse as conscious intent on the part of the author is either unconscious, or perhaps not even there. That's part of the interest of the subject, of course.

Moon Over Soho. This is either the second or the middle book in the Rivers of London Series. I’ve read all these except the latest, which I recently borrowed in hardback from the library. I also follow Aaronovitch’s blog and liked his work on Dr Who back in the 80s (or possibly I mean the 90s).  There’s a mash up of crime procedural and fantasy with a dash of a very dry, slightly dark, Sweeney-ish humour in these books. The covers are great too.

Notebook – specifically this is a large moleskine notebook. These don’t get filled up very fast because they’re not as portable as the smaller books. I’ve a number of lined, and blank moleskines as well as reporters’ notebooks, exercise books (there are really nice exercise books available in Italy for some reason), sketchbooks and so on. I’ve supposedly banned myself from buying notebooks until I’ve filled a few more up, but I did pick up another Seawhite in Oxford just because. Moleskines, even the ones with thicker paper, don't take watercolour as well as the Seawhites do.

The Avignon Quintet - Lawrence Durrell. I haven't read this doorstop yet and to be honest I'd forgotten I had it. I did read the Alexandria Quartet about two years ago, and Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Reflections of a Marine Venus and The Black Book, the last of which I reviewed for the 1938 club here.  I'm actually going to Avignon for the first time in September, so perhaps I'll take it along then.

Casting the Runes and Other Stories - M R James. I'm not sure why I've still got this. I usually read ghost stories at Christmas, if at all, and although these are nice and chilling I'm unlikely to want to to read them again. One for the bookswap.

Saint Overboard - I went through a whole slew of Saint books in my early 20s, mostly yellow covered paperbacks with blue edges which were on their last legs when I got them (purchased from a bookshop in Merton Abbey Mills, now sadly closed, which sold old postcards and punch magazines as well). Most have been weeded out or fell to bits over the years and I couldn't tell you one story from the next, but they're still fun in a daft lantern-jawed-hero sort of way.

Enquire Within - this is the old-fashioned book of general household knowledge, interesting to me from a historical perspective. This one is from 1894.

Buried for Pleasure - Edmund Crispin. I've read all of Crispin's detective stories I think. Gervase Fen stands for Parliament. It all goes wrong, and deservedly so. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ox and Elephant

I was in Oxford for 3 days this week, for no other reason than wanting a break from the norm. I left with three library books, only one of which I actually read. 

A Brief History of Capitalism according to the Jubilee line, is the last and not the worst but certainly not the best of the series (Penguin Lines) I've read. As a work of fiction it's way too ambitious for the 100-odd pages. Political debate, a life and death situation, historical characters popping up and everything made that much harder because he's done it as a dream sequence. I've never read a dream sequence yet that was convincing. 

I mean, it didn't even have limestone elephants in it. 

Instead of my library books I bought and read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and Respectable by Lynsey Hanley (both are very good and have made my 'books I enjoyed' sidebar), and bought but haven't yet read Robinson Crusoe (which I need for my next essay), Cathedrals and Castles by Henry James, which is a slim English Journeys paperback, and Vita Sackville West's Garden Book.  

I also went to Rousham Gardens, which are lovely.

You can apparently get the bus from near the war memorial but I took the train because I wanted to go back to Heyford, which I've walked through before when 'doing' the Oxford canal. I even had some thoughts of going into Banbury or strolling down into Tackley to check if it's as pretty as I remember it, but in the end I preferred to sit in the cafe by the canal for an hour drinking tea until it was time to take the train back to Oxford again.

Insert caption about 'Dreaming Spires' here. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


I don't often go into Croydon, despite the ease of access on the tram. I find its street layout confusing and (lets be honest) it's architecture pretty hideous. From the top of the shopping centre car park you can see how the taller buildings seem to have just been plonked down or built up, without any consideration given to how they fit the landscape or the roads around them, and at ground level the older buildings - many of which were clearly attractive once - have been chopped about mercilessly. 

Then both, of course, have been left to get tired and grubby. 

That said, there are some interesting murals and stained glass windows if you look for them, and the museum (which is free) is well worth a visit if you're in the area. I had it to myself on Friday, although the library and cafe in the same building are very well used (and it's an attractive well-lit space that doubles as a gallery too). It's also one of the few places which still has some independent shops hidden away - clothes stores, electricians, drapers. Although that does mean there are sometimes rather odd things for sale. 

 Like this coffee table, for example. 

But that too is at least interesting. 

So fingers crossed the regeneration being planned now is done with a bit more care than some of the previous attempts.  


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Books on Shelves – and elsewhere

I don’t remember what bookcases I had as a child. I must have had them, because books must live somewhere and we were in a rented property where we weren’t supposed to drill, but they don’t seem to have stuck. I remember the wooden pelmet over the window when we first moved to Cobham, wide enough for a small pile of books and easy to reach from my upper bunk (I had to take the upper, my brother used to fall out of bed), and the row of Jane Austens and the big green book of the Bronte sisters that lived on the sideboard for years (Do people still have sideboards with drop leaf drinks cabinets and shallow shelves for ornaments? They seemed so sophisticated when I was a child, and so dated now.).

I don’t remember any other books in that first flat. Paperbacks, old Fontana Agatha Christies with wasps and apples and dripping blood on the covers, were kept in the cupboard under the stairs, along with the meter and a pile of 50ps to feed it, but that was a little later and I had my own bedroom with woodchip walls and a lampshade and curtains in the same shiny pink material, and an unused metal fireplace which had my radio cassette on. 

But where were my books? I had them – four of the fairy books, although I remember the pink best, an anthology of poems (It had the one which begins hurt no living thing, ladybird nor butterfly), all the Narnia books, most of the flower fairy ones including an wall alphabet which concertinaed, the Wizard of Oz, a big green book of the hobbit I think my brother borrowed, again with illustrations. There must have been thirty Enid Blytons, acquired one by one, some second hand and some new, the famous five and the secret seven and one with a character called fatty whose real name was Frederick, and a dog who closed doors behind him.

Mr Pink-Whistle and The Last of the Dragons and some others, Mrs Pepperpot and The Phoenix and the Carpet. The Last Legionary Quartet, Grinny, Star Wars, the Stainless steel rat, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Elidor and the girl guide annuals one of the other kids in the street kindly brought in for me when I got knocked down and couldn’t go out.

They all fell apart under the pressure of my hot little hands I expect, read in the bath, in the cloakroom at school while the rest of my year were watching Smokey and the Bandit in the main hall for the umpteenth time, read in bed and on car journeys. Many I outgrew and weeded out. There’s no mystery about where they went, only where they were housed when I had them.

I remember the second bedroom I had to myself had white curtains with blue flowers, and between the windows was the doll’s house I broke over the years – climbing on it (or keeping, now I think back, books in it, but surely I had shelves as well?) I remember having a clock radio with green glowing digits, and a pink electric blanket, and a chest of drawers with doors beneath, formerly white and now painted grey.

And now I do remember a bookcase that I tried to decorate with varnish and cut out bits of wrapping paper, a technique I later learnt was called decoupage. It must have looked awful..

I’ve no idea what happened to it. Perhaps it ended up in the shed when we moved again and I put up my own shelves - two pink ones on brackets and then three or four long boring brown ones on bronze coloured wallbars, the top row high to reach unless I stood on the bed, accidentally dusted with mauve and duck egg dots, like everything else in the room, after I stencilled dragonflies up the walls and onto the ceiling and chased them with a waterspray bottle of the same paint.

I don’t remember if I owned any books I didn’t read. I don’t think so - but since I recently tested how many of the books I own now that I’ve actually read (by the simple method of moving all the unread books on my current bookcases to the right of the shelves) - and found that I have only read ‘most’ of them if by ‘most’ I mean ‘slightly more than half’, I’m not as confident about this as I was.

Current bookcases are 4 narrow ‘Billy’ bookcases, one wide one, a stepped cream coloured case from Laura Ashley, and a largish bookcase with wire legs, so this really is quite a lot of unread books. And that, now I’m aware of them, seems a shame. If I’m not going to read them I should probably pass them along to someone who will.  

I’ve had this thought before - there is a pile of penguin travels stacked up at the moment as the plan (about 2 years ago) was to read them one by one and decide whether to keep them or give them away. I did start – and that put me on to The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain, so it wasn’t entirely wasted - but I completely forgot the original plan. 

There is also a pile of books waiting to go to the bookswap which I’ve mentioned already, with the addition, now, of The Flight from the Enchanter, by Iris Murdoch, which I gave up on after 100 pages.

It’s a start.    

One bookcase,
 with unread books sorted to the right.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Libraries I Have Known

According to Google this is my hundredth post, and I've decided it's going to be about libraries.

I’m a great fan of libraries, and often surprised by other people's low expectations. My youngest aunt, for example, was surprised that I managed to borrow a great fat hardback copy of A Brief History of Seven Killings from Wimbledon Library while it was still shortlisted for the Booker.

They're also a great way to feed current obsessions, the latest being the Penguin Line books, borrowed one by one from Kensington and Wimbledon and shelved under 820 and 828 respectively.

Kensington, thankfully, labels all it's books. Merton, including Wimbledon, only bothers labelling non fiction, and if an author is better known for crime than sci-fi then their sci-fi will be mis-shelved; but this is a minor annoyance, and mostly due to the Dewey decimal lumping all English fiction in one classification (823).

Fiction, of course, is organised alphabetically by author's surname, but as in book shops, science fiction and crime tend to be separated out. Lately, with the Agatha Christie re-read, I've mostly been raiding the Crime section. I estimate it would have cost somewhere in the region of £400 already if it weren’t for libraries.

At the moment I don't have any Christies though. What I do have are these:

The large duck egg coloured book at the bottom is Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. I actually borrowed this for an essay on Coriolanus, as it's generally agreed to be the main source Shakespeare used to write his play.

North translated from the French translation, not the original Greek, and given he was writing in the mid 1500s, he wasn't as difficult to follow as I expected. Largely because although the sentence construction is sometimes odd, the spelling is more or less as we would spell the same words now.

I haven't returned it yet because I want to read the whole thing. It's a Kensington Central Library book, part of their extensive collection of biographies, which sit like an iceberg 9/10ths beneath the surface in the stacks.

Kensington Central Library has a number of other features I like as well - the large octagonal clock in the middle of the rows of shelves, the wooden alcoves in the windows with built in benches, the reference library upstairs with it's divided desks, and the regularly refreshed 'interest' shelves near the entrance. I also like The Library Time Machine, their blog on local history. Best of all it's very near where I'm working. In fact I haven't worked this close to a library for 15 years.

That was a much smaller library, run by Camden almost under the Archway tower. I remember it as windowless, and involving a walk past a similarly low, dark pub with cardboard in the windows, which I never had the courage to go into but fondly imagined was frequented by vampires. (The discovery of Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice around that time may have fuelled my imaginings.  It was more likely frequented by carers and cleaners coming off shift at the Whittington hospital, or possibly a brothel.) 

Archway is on the Northern line, which had an asylum near the other end at Tooting (now flats) and the public receivership office, child and family court and for a while the benefits office at Archway. it's grimly unsurprising that it’s the line with the heaviest rate of suicide - and probably no coincidence that the Penguin Tube Line book for the Northern line is the bleakest I've read so far.

For myself, I had grandparents living on that line, and as Camden is on it, and Waterloo, and it was my route home for ages, and is still in easy distance, I think of it as familiar and reliable. Unlike the Jubilee line, for example, about which I think nothing at all.

The second book up in the pile is Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley. I've read a number of Allinghams, all of them with Albert Campion, but this is the first she wrote, and she writes him from the outside all through. The 'hero' of the story, the man with the love interest and through who's eyes we mostly experience the story, is Dr Abbershaw. The story is silly, and has perhaps some rather daft stereotypes, but it's also very well done and I lapped it up.

The third, slim book is A Good Parcel of English Soil by Richard Mabey, It's the Metropolitan Line in the aforementioned Penguin Tube Line series. Mabey talks about Metroland and his own childhood, throws in some history. These books are exactly the right length for people to be slightly self indulgent without becoming irritating, and Mabey manages it here.

Next is Music by Andrew Gant, which I've commented on elsewhere but can summarise as: not quite an introduction to the subject as there is some terminology and some written music, but great if you're an amateur like me.

Then we have Resorting to Murder, one of the British Library's crime reprints. I'm actually a member of the British Library now, but so far I've mostly been there for exhibitions, in the evenings.

To be honest I got a little fed up with Resorting to Murder. The anthology has never been my favourite format. I feel like I'm just getting into each story when I'm hustled on to the next. I enjoyed Silent Nights though, maybe because the Christmas theme held together better, maybe because I knew some of the authors and detectives from the first book. As you can see I've also recently taken out Capital Crimes and Crimson Snow too, but I've only read the first so far. At least one of the stories made me wince. Conan Doyle at his coldest. Another, with a lethal box of chocolates, two deadly snakes and five major coincidences all in about 20 pages, I had to grit my teeth to get through.

Of course that's part of the appeal of libraries - I don’t have to own the books. I don't even have to read the books. Whereas once a book has been bought there's a vague sense of obligation to read it (especially if you like it). Library books are much more easy going. 

There may be a class element in that. I wasn’t raised with the idea of a 'canon' set of books everyone should read, or that books are inherently improving as and of themselves – actually a relatively modern attitude anyway - witness the antipathy towards novel reading in Northanger Abbey, which parallels modern concerns about computer games (Wimbledon Library have, or had, a book with a good defence of this, exploring what the attitude might be towards books had computers and games machines been invented first, but annoyingly I can't remember the author), or the moral panic about Jazz in that era (Humphrey Lyttelton's bio is good for information on this, and of course you’ll find that in Kensington Central Library stacks).

Next up in the pile is George Orwell, A Life in Letters, which I can heartily recommend, and then another translation of Plutarch, less interesting and memorable than North, but perhaps more comprehensible to a modern reader, and lastly we have Kinsey and Me by Sue Grafton, which is from Victoria Library, where I used to go a lot when I worked at the Passport Office. Victoria Library has a very good sheet music section upstairs, but feels a bit squashed for space downstairs. There's rather a nice balcony running around though, where they keep the foreign language books.

I think I've mentioned before how I used to sit in Chertsey library and read Grafton in my teens. Chertsey was a pre-fab, a supposedly temporary structure that's still there, like a lot of our old classrooms. We had a canteen made out of corrugated iron too. It must have been there years, but it seemed solid enough to us.

The school libraries (we had two ends to the school, so two libraries) had some good books (H V Morton and Gerald Durrell, almost everything Judy Blume had written to that point), but opened completely randomly, which made borrowing books difficult and returning them worse.

Middle school was quite different. I seem to remember it as wood panelled, although in retrospect that's incredibly unlikely, and I used to go in sometimes at lunch time and read Baba Yaga and other disturbing fairy stories.

There are others, too many to do justice to really: The library in the Cobham old school building which never seemed to get any new books in and opened late one night a week when I was coming back from work. At that time the staff outnumbered the customer 2 to 1, but I expect it was livelier during the day when children were about. The mobile library we had before that, which used to park in the same place as the fish van.

Streatham Vale library, strangely well stocked with socio-political books for such a small branch.

Church Street, where I discovered Dorothy L Sayers, was another prefab, larger and more battered, hidden under an arch and a small passage from Church Street Market – another discovery that may have been cleaned up and gentrified now.

Colliers Wood, which had flooded last time I saw it, sandbags piled up outside the doors. Brixton, which was founded, or at least funded, by Henry Tate. Charing Cross, squeezed in near the statue of Edith Cavell. Marylebone, which was under Council House, where confetti and occasionally champagne flutes would be left on the steps outside. 

British Library building 
(St Pancras behind)

I’m sure there are more I could think of (I see I've left University libraries out completely)  .. and of course I don’t rely entirely on libraries. I also have a number of fairly full bookcases. But that’s another story. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

A Woman Surgeon – L Martindale (for the 1951 club).

I didn’t immediately warm to A Woman Surgeon, perhaps because (as Dr Martindale explains in her Apologia at the beginning of the book) she really isn’t a writer.

Her descriptions are separate sentences, series of facts and potted histories of someone or somewhere. You never forget they are just descriptions. Her writing is clear and concise, but there is no real ability to transport the reader to the places and times she describes. 

Within quite a short time though I started to see the advantages of this - there is nothing here to cloud our vision of what things were actually like in the early 1900s when she began working as a doctor (as I write this I’m thinking particularly of Laurie Lee, who faithfully describes hungry children, unfeeling authority, and successful murder, but writes them so beautifully and so strongly tinted with his own pleasure in his 1910s childhood that the preface to my edition of Cider with Rosie talks about ‘the world we have lost’.)

In contrast, by the second chapter of A Woman Surgeon we have a clear eyed recollection of the progress that has been made in medicine and women’s education in the 50 years Martindale has been working, of the good and bad in the missionaries who accommodated the family in India, and how variable or useful the education they provided to children was.

By the time she is on to writing about her work I was completely hooked.

Martindale wasn’t one of the very first women doctors, but she was early enough to be able to write about it; as well as about women’s suffrage, the early days of x-ray therapy, the hospital she helped out in at Royaumont Abbey in WW1, the book she published about venereal disease and how to prevent it (and the ridiculous, and she believed manufactured, outrage it caused).

Also really striking is how differently skilled a practice doctor had to be, with ‘minor’ operations, tooth extractions, x-ray work, home visits (riding around on a bicycle at night for these), always leaving the details of where you were in case of emergency. This is still very much the sort of doctor Conan Doyle was writing about when he invented Watson.

She visits the Mayo clinic, India, Australia, Germany where some interesting x-ray therapy work is being done. She is able to work in Hull for fairly low wages and gain the valuable experience that qualified her to practice. She encounters prejudice but also a lot of encouragement, particularly from other doctors (men as well as women). 

She was also fortunate in being well off and having a mother who encouraged her. In fact, there were moments I wondered whether her mother was being just a bit pushy and controlling, but given that this is the same period Vera Brittain was being chaperoned, I think she would probably be thought remarkably hands-off for the time! 

Martindale ends up specialising in gynaecology. It’s not clear if it’s a particular interest or if her patients are coming to her because they would prefer a woman doctor for this, but to be honest, and I think this is the key to her character throughout the book, it’s really not relevant. She just gets on with it. When they need hospital beds, she petitions, when no-one will sell her a practice she builds one up from scratch. She doesn’t dramatise or go on about it. She states the fact and moves on.

In fact, much of the book is not about her at all. It’s about her experiences, comparisons of different treatments and methods, her patients, her mentors, her family and friends, and the period she lived through.  Fascinating, and really worth a read.  

So thanks to Simon and Karen, who are hosting the 1951 club, without which I would probably never have discovered this book. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Lost Children - Edith Pargeter (read for the 1951 club)

As you can see from the book cover above Edith Pargeter also wrote as Ellis Peters, creator of Cadfael and one of my favourite families in crime, the Felses. 

Which is probably one reason I read the first few chapters of Lost Children thinking that a nice murder would liven things up enormously.

The other reason was the flowery descriptions. Pargeter builds the atmosphere of the folly, the dead and gone Rose family, the weight of history and stagnation, far beyond what can be needed. Rosalba, the orphaned, isolated and half-frozen niece, whose aunt will never forgive her for having a more common mother, is clearly Rapunzel or some other captive princess. Her aunt, despite the many paragraphs showing why she is like she is, is still clearly a wicked witch.

Unfortunately, while the wicked witch becomes more real as a person when we can see why she is as she is, Rosalba’s youth and beauty – which we hear about again and again – make it harder and harder to empathise. Not precisely because she is beautiful, but because the reader is constantly reminded of it, like it’s an alien quality, like Mr Spock’s brain. Although she acts, thinks, feels, she can never quite be a living human being while she’s being endlessly compared to a flower. 

Luckily the reader isn't dependent on Rosalba and her delicate and innocent romance with a soldier of her own age to enjoy the book. Just as the fairy tale gets too much we switch tracks to something a bit more earthy in the downright Flo, who lives crowded in with her sister and brother and Dad, waiting for the council to replace the homes the German bombers knocked down, and then again to an American soldier who apparently thinks in clichés.

‘Gee, the breaks I get..’ He says, when a frightened 14 year old camp follower (Flo’s younger sister) trips over him in the dark, fleeing because she got out of her depth with one of his compatriots. And so he tells her to be a good girl and sends her home on the bus, and meets Rosalba and her young man in the process.

This is where the book starts to breathe and we have Pargeter doing what she does best, taking these different worlds and plausibly weaving them together. We have the locals, simultaneously resentful and patriotically welcoming of the American army, worried about their daughters hanging about outside the camp, we have Flo trying to run her father’s home and watching out for Rosalba because she can see her aunt won’t do anything more useful than condemn, and then we have the throwing of everyone into even closer proximity as.. well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that a lot of the conversation, and internal dialogue, is about the madness of splitting men from their families and training them to kill when everyone wants peace, and the stupidity of authority that insists on asserting itself even if that means acting in a way that makes no sense. 

Sometimes this feels – even if you agree with it – like every important character is saying exactly the same thing in different ways, but perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps it’s a true indication of how many people were feeling by 1951. Not proud and patriotic but simply weary, with no appetite left for another fight, and no feeling of unity with the people in charge who were still hedging their bets it might happen.