Saturday, 17 February 2018

One of my favourite walks.. from Lisson Grove down to Camden via the canal. I used to work up that way and did this walk after work all the time, but it's not an area of London I usually have reason to go to now. 

It's a very diverse area - Marylebone and Baker Street cater for the passing tourist and lunch time grab-a-sandwich worker. Walking up Lisson Grove you find a caff, a pie and mash shop and a chippy. Church St on the left of Lisson Grove has a thriving veg and cheap clothes/make up/jewellery market but also a number of quite posh antique shops, and as you move down the length of it there are fewer and fewer people in western clothes (although the accents tend to be British). 

Higher up the hill is Abbey Rd, where the Beatles recorded, and St John's Wood which is exceptionally posh and exclusive, but if you turn off down to the canal on the right before that (there's quite a slope - it's cut down well below road level here), and walk along, you either pass an estate on one bank, or the moored up narrowboats under the lee of the electric plant on the other. 

They've made a very nice little community there, with chairs and flowers in tubs and mirrors and bits, although sleeping next to that electric plant would give me pause.

You then go under the railway bridge and find on your right some small white city mansions. This is the back view of the buildings. They actually face onto the Regents Park outer circle and must be worth tens of millions for the address alone. 

The canal follows the curve of Regents Park and you walk through the London Zoo grounds, albeit at a lower level and kept out by fences, with a giant aviary on your left and deer and so on on your right on the opposite bank. Graffiti is a recurring feature, increasing in frequency and artistic interest as you get nearer to Camden. 

There is a floating Chinese restaurant which I'm sure lists more than it used to. There is a kids canoe place called something like Pirates' Castle, and back gardens opposite and more and more people about. 

Over to the left, should you want to detour, is Primrose Hill and a fairly famous view. 

And then you're at Camden and the place is rammed because it's Saturday afternoon (not 6pm on a weekday when it was normally quite bearable) and you hop on a bus (the tube being exit only) and go home. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Reading the 80s - 1980

Well, I’ve read three of the books I listed for 1980 and an additional one – A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym.

I’ve never read any Pym before and was surprised at how dated the relationships between men and women seemed. Perhaps it’s because in my head the 80s are ‘now’, which isn’t really the case. Still, the idea of a sister having to come to ‘make a home’ for her vicar brother after his wife died, and his being unable to cook even the most simple meal, was completely alien to me.

Maybe all this was in part to do with it being a village. Pym has her central character Emma speculate:

It was a mistaken and old-fashioned concept, the helplessness of men, the kind that could only flourish in a village years behind the times. Yet she couldn’t help feeling sorry for Tom..

It’s that last line that struck me. She feeds her ex-boyfriend Graham too when he comes to the place, and accepts his criticism of it – as though it’s just in nature for women to provide for men and men to take it for granted.

In fact Emma’s whole relationship with her ex, who takes a cottage to write his book and implies he’s having marital problems but never quite says it, is another example of this strange tolerance of (as opposed to active interest in) the opposite sex. Even when Emma meets the wife (because Graham has sent her to a funeral on his behalf, which Emma again wonders at, but doesn’t draw any conclusions about his selfishness from) and said wife seems quite likable, she still just drifts on and doesn’t wonder about the version of events she’s been given.

It reminded me of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – I wanted to shake that central character too. So passive, and the passivity leading her into behaviour a more active person would realise was selfish or morally dubious.

I was also struck, as I was with Hotel du Lac, that it wasn’t the sort of thing I usually read, and so I’m in danger of not doing it justice because of my irritation with the characters. It is a gentle comedy, and Pym writes well about the village itself, even down to the silly little things donated for jumble. I don’t think I’ll be reading more though.

Graham Greene, Ways of Escape.

I only finished this yesterday. I must have originally begun it in the last few years I think, because when I began reading again from the beginning I kept thinking ‘I remember this really well, this was good, why did I abandon it?’

I also realised I had misremembered it as a series of essays, which it’s not exactly – instead it holds together as a kind of autobiography – albeit one with a weave so loose you could put your fingers through the holes.

The theme is of course Ways of Escape – which for Greene means mostly travel and writing, of course. But there’s a great deal more in here than that. There are the people Greene has met and his own slantwise view of the world – possibly more accurate, and possibly less accurate, than other people's. There are his inspirations for his writing and why he writes. There are the brave and stupid and pointless things he did, in the Blitz or Jerusalem or the opium dens of Saigon. There is correspondence with Kim Philby (after his defection) and Evelyn Waugh (on being labelled a ‘Catholic’ writer). There is..

A lot of stuff, actually, for a book of 237 pages. An incredible amount, and written with such a lightness of touch that it doesn’t feel dense.

So why didn’t I finish it the first time then?  

I really can’t remember. It is a book with a lot of stopping places – which is probably why I thought it was written in essay form. At some point I simply didn’t restart, and I’ve no idea why. 

The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris

If Jan Morris has a fault its romanticising Empires. It happens quite a few times in this one, despite her having made it clear that in some of the places conquered the islanders were shockingly badly treated, even betrayed and left to the invading Turks as the Venetians negotiated their own withdrawal. 

And then there are the following sentences about Dubrovnik, which really did stand out:

‘Slave trading was outlawed very early. Torture was forbidden. A civic home for old people was founded in 1347 and there was a high standard of education.’

In 1347! If you could pick a place to live yourself in that era wouldn’t this be the place? And yet Morris goes on a few paragraphs later.. 

one misses the winged lion on the walls of this determined little city, and with it that warmth of the Venetian genius, which with all its faults..’

Sorry no. Just no. It’s bedazzlement that’s speaking, not reality.  Empires may be great if you are at the top of the heap (unless they depose you and dismember you of course) but not if you are anywhere near the bottom. 

Perhaps this is nothing more than the usual tension in history as a subject – is it a narrative to take lessons from, or is it a treasure trove of facts and artefacts where it doesn’t matter if you get all nostalgic about the magnificence and beauty of the fleet and the wonderful things they brought back to glorify their city, and focus a little less on their monstrous politics?

This book is, largely, the second. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, and I always enjoy reading Morris because of the way she tells history as a wonderful story. People and places come alive, and she teaches the origins of famous statues and monuments without ever becoming dry.

I found out how the Acropolis was semi-destroyed, where the columns in the Piazza San Marco came from, and the whole point of the imperial ambitions of Venice, the usefulness of the empire to them, their identity as a trading nation.

Smaller social groups are also included, and followed through almost to the present day. The tragedy of the fate of the Jewish ghetto in Corfu, and the current status of that first, ideal town above.

And despite what I said about not focussing on the brutality it is still in there. It may not be the point of the book, but it’s not ignored.

So how does it date? I think (and I found this in the Graham Greene above too) that writers are generally far less inclined to make generalisations about casts of mind or temperaments now than they were in 1980. I think there’s more awareness that a term like ‘Latin’ or ‘Oriental’ is not as precise as we probably thought then.

Most noticeably though – and it doesn’t make the book dated but it does date it - was the description of what was then Yugoslavia, which erupted in civil war in the 90s, a subject that couldn’t possibly be avoided if you were writing in passing about the area now.  

Metroland – Julian Barnes

I’ve put this review at the end because it contains spoilers. This was another inconsequential sort of book (see A Few Green Leaves above) and I couldn’t write it without.  

The reader starts with the first person narrator Christopher and his friend at secondary school age, going into shops uptown and irritating the staff for the sake of it, winding up the football team by cheering them on in a way that looks supportive but was clearly not.

At this point I became quite distracted trying to work out social class – although written in 1980 it begins with the schooldays in the 60s and it seemed to me a more natural working class boy would be trespassing on building sites or hanging off the pole on the back of a bus and less obsessed with shop assistants calling him ‘sir’.  Clearly this is a public school boy.

OK, so rebellious public school boy thinks he’s being rebellious by behaving in the entitled fashion of his class.

Still he’s just a kid at this point, so we can let him off. He’ll grow out of it.

And he does. He becomes a student, has an interlude in Paris, and finally gets married and a proper job. Meanwhile his old friend is still kind of the same as he ever was.

Which of them is right? Has Christopher ‘sold out’?

Well maybe, but I came out of the book feeling that his compromises were largely a good thing, possibly because I never felt the character was actually going to do anything monumental anyway – write some fantastic book or produce some groundbreaking body of artwork. So why not just relax into a ‘normal’ life in Metroland?

So, in conclusion, what have I learnt about 1980? Largely, I think, that it’s further away than I feel it is, and attitudes have changed more than I care to remember they have.  In particular I had forgotten how even seemingly unprejudiced people were still more ‘us and them’ – whether the ‘them’ was the opposite sex, or the ancient Turks, or the bourgeoisie – than would be the case now.

Next up is of course 1981, and I will report back on March 15. Again if anyone wants to join in you’d be very welcome to link your review for ’80 or plans for ‘81 in the comments below.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Not getting to the Roman Mithraeum..

Saturday I fully intended to go to the Roman ruins at Walbrook. Entry is timed, and you have to book in advance, which I dutifully did, and despite going out the night before, and having a cold that has been depriving me of sleep and therefore brains, I was out of the house in good time to get there.

Then it turned out Bank station, where I had meant to change, was closed, and somehow (this is because I have a cold and, as I said, no brains) when I looked at the map to reassess I headed for Chancery Lane rather than Cannon St, and by the time I noticed my mistake I was already 10 minutes late and heading back the other way didn't seem worth it (it's free, so I didn't imagine they'd have any scruples about turning me away if I missed my slot).

So I got out at Chancery Lane and got a coffee and walked through Hatton Garden instead.

I have to say I expected more from the place. I knew it was where they sold diamonds, so somehow I thought it would be quite Bond St and glam.

Actually it's oddly 1960s looking and a bit down at heel. Being 10am on a Saturday they were just putting the displays out, and the jewellery was impressive but a bit.. samey. Boring. Mostly rings and mostly diamond rings as that. Monochrome and glitter and not much else.

Anyway I did a nice arc exploring the area and jumped back on the tube at Barbican and headed to Great Portland St for Regent's Park (squeezing out through genial Spurs' fans on their way to Wembley).

That's the sheltered end of the park, with the fountains. They always make an effort with the bedding.

Heading towards the lake it was all a bit bleak and waterlogged and started to rain though, so I headed for Baker St and came home. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Book Review - The Flâneur

The Flâneur – Edmund White

In a sense this is a history of Paris. Not an official history of the city and buildings and politics and arrondisements of Paris, or that search for the true, essential, very soul of Paris that Americans sometimes get a little hung up on. I almost want to call it a personal history, but that would make White sound egocentric, and that’s not the sense I get from this book at all.

I suppose I would define it as a history of the Paris Edmund White lived in when he lived there, and the things that interested him about the places he walked, and the history of those places and the people, including his compatriots – White is American – who came to Paris before and after he did; and the personal relationships they had with the cafes and Parisians and culture of their time.   

White is a social commentator as well as a literary one, and the book takes in racism and politics, but smoothly, readily, neither blinking nor labouring over the more uncomfortable points. He delivers facts like nuggets, like a curator showing you the things he likes best in his collection, fired by your own enthusiasm. They may not be the ‘best’ things from an objective standpoint, they may not be the things the public crowds to see, but they are the things he has found that he would like to share with you.     

It made me think about Paris in the way Hemingway does – in the way I think about Trieste when I read Jan Morris, or London, when I walk through it sometimes. As a place which moves through your mind as you move through it. Where every individual’s relationship with the city can be unique, and every resident’s personal. 

Highly recommended. In fact, my favourite book so far this year.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Evening Walks

Physical Energy, Royal Academy

St Martin's in the Field

MI6, Vauxhall

Monday, 22 January 2018

Reading the 80s..

Over at Stuck in a Book last year I sort of set myself the challenge to 'read the 80s'. The background to this is the club Simon and Karen host. Every six months or so a particular year in a decade is voted on and then anyone who'd like to reads and reviews a book (any book) from that year, and Simon and Karen link all the reviews on their own blogs so we can find them easily and get a broad overview of the year chosen.

However after 1977 (which will probably be in April) they intend to loop back to the 20s again as the 1980s seem too recent.

To be honest I'm inclined to agree with that. I don't think we're far enough from the 80s for it to be viewed in the same sort of way the other decades could be. In a little while maybe we'll be able to look at the decade from a historical perspective, and judge if (for example) Ben Elton's Stark was really an accurate reflection of the way the world was going, or be surprised at how forward (or backward) thinking some writers in the early 80s were. Right now I don't think we're there.

However I do quite like the idea of reading the 80s myself. It was the decade I went from 7 to 17, so obviously I spent it mostly reading children's books. Kipling, Enid Blyton, Nesbit, Judy Blume, Nina Bawden, Douglas Hill, and so on.

And since then I seem to have read a lot of books from well before I was born, and quite a lot published since I became an adult, but in the middle there's a largish gap with very little but Kinsey Millhone, Punch magazines and the occasional David Lodge in it.

However (again) Since the whole point of me taking a year off my Open University MA was to give myself some breathing space I'm not looking to commit to anything that's going to eat up a lot of time. So these are my rules:

1) Ideally I want to read a few books from each year, including rereads, so I'll split the year up and read in order. So 1980, which I'm starting today, will take me to February. I've decided to make Valentines Day (inclusive) the cut off for no reason at all except I'll remember it, and that is the day I will review.

2) Each month should contain at least one book I haven't read before. This should be relatively easy.

3) All books read for this challenge must be reviewed. At least a paragraph per book. This is the bit I will struggle with.

4) Go through my own shelves first.

5) This isn't really a rule, but if anyone wants to read along or link their own reviews for the appropriate year when my post goes up you're very welcome to. Just leave it as a comment. Similarly if you want to do the whole challenge drop me a line and I'll maybe do a wrap up at the end of the year.

In preparation I've already been through my shelves and thrown up the following

For 1980:

The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris. This appeals to me most at the moment but I'm sure I've read it, so it will have to wait until I've read Barnes below.

Metroland - Julian Barnes. I definitely haven't read this one so will start it tonight.

Ways of Escape - Graham Greene. From memory these are small pieces of travel writing.  I'd like to reread if I have time

David Attenborough's Life on Earth - I'm sure I meant to read it. I may have read it, but I suspect I didn't actually.

Sadly 1981 is a gaping great hole, and so is 1982. There are a couple of rereads I wouldn't mind doing - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, A is for Alibi, Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh, The Demon Headmaster (all 1982 I think) and a few I definitely don't want to reread (Pet Sematary, The House of the Spirits). Of the books I can see on Wikipedia and Goodreads nothing is screaming 'read me'. Maybe Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark. Or Midnight's Children, which I once read the first page of and put straight back on the shelf.


If On a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino. I actually really loved this book but because the narrative doesn't have an arc as such it's very easy not to come back to once you put it down. I will have to read from the beginning if I pick it up again, because it's been ages.

Third Helpings - Calvin Trillin. Trillin and Jay Rayner are the two writers who can somehow communicate their excitement about food to me, even though I'd happily live off chips, tea, and marmite sandwiches myself (assuming that were a healthy thing to do).

The fact both above are rereads means I need a book I haven't read from 1983. I've been meaning to read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill for ages, so it will probably be that.

1984 - another gaping hole. Not The Wasp Factory, anyway.


Last Letters from Hav - Jan Morris. Hav is Morris' fictional city, used as a microcosm to tell the European story and showcase the variety and interest of it. I have read this recently, so probably won't again, but it's a great book.

Eve, Her Story - Penelope Farmer. I've never read this one, and have just realised that it's by the author of Charlotte Sometimes, so am very pleased about that.


The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins. Another one I may or may not have finished. can't remember. It's a wodge of a book, and I seem to remember it being a little humourless, so I'll have to be in the mood for it I think.

I need to find another I definitely haven't read.


The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin. I haven't read this and it looks good.


Thornyhold - Mary Stewart. Read and reread many times. It's a charming book, but I'm not sure it would have appealed to me so much if it hadn't had a little magic in it, and a description of someone cleaning up an old house, and I hadn't been about 15 when I got hold of it. Not that it's badly written just - well, lightish? A great comfort read.

Keith Waterhouse - The Theory and Practice of Lunch. Hmm. I can see this being either very interesting or very, very annoying. Anyway I haven't read it and by that late in the year I may be glad it's slim.

Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap. This was all about circadian rhythms, and one of the first popular science books I really enjoyed. I think I've had it since I was about 19, which would explain why it's been highlighted to distraction in red ink.


Red Dwarf - Grant Naylor (Rob Grant and Doug Naylor in fact). Like Thornyhold, this is what I was actually reading at the time. And it's good fun, which is why I still have it. Darker than the program but not too dark. (Some of the later ones got pretty grim - as if it's not already depressing enough being the last human being alive, you have to have horrible androids with a whole room full of instruments of torture and heroes getting their heads squished in for good measure).

Misogynies -Joan Smith. I only bought this on Saturday and read it already, so I've missed a trick not holding it back. I'm glad I read it though, it's fascinating, and reading it in 2018 does demonstrate a) how far we've come and b) how far we still have to go.

Which still leaves me with another unread book to find of course..

In closing, I also have the Complete Yes Minister and Complete Yes Prime Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay, which I might include either as extras in the relevant years or perhaps read all at once at the end of the year if time allows.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

No more champagne, and the fireworks are through...

Although I didn't notice myself it looks like doing an MA in English Literature has actually led, a little ironically, to my reading slightly less than last year. Here is the list:

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford
A life in Letters – George Orwell.
A Month in the Country – J L Carr
A Preface to Paradise Lost - C S Lewis
A Woman Surgeon – L Martindale
Aliens – edited by Jim Al Khalili
Apple of my Eye – Helene Hanff
Ask a Policeman - Members of the Detection Club circa '33
Breakfast at Sothebys – Philip Hook
Chronicles on Our Troubled Times - Thomas Piketty
Coriolanus - Livy
Coriolanus -  William Shakespeare
Death at the Opera - Gladys Mitchell
Death on the Riviera - John Bude
Doreen - Barbara Noble
Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie
Estuary - Rachel Lichtenstein
Foe - Coetzee
Good Parcel of English Soil - Richard Mabey
Goodbye to all Cats - PG Wodehouse
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day - Arnold Bennett
Jacob's Room is full of Books - Susan Hill
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Kim - Rudyard Kipling
Kinsey and Me – Sue Grafton
Letter From New York - Helene Hanff
Lives in Writing – David Lodge
London Belongs to Me - Norman Collins
Lost Children - Edith Pargeter
Making it Up as I go Along - Marian Keyes
Memoirs of a Novelist - Virginia Woolf
Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
Music – Andrew Gant
Mystery in White – J Jefferson Farjeon
Paradise Lost - John Milton
Pax Britannica - Jan Morris
Resorting to Murder - Detection Club Members
Respectable – Lynsey Hanley
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Silent Nights - Detection Club Members
Silent Witness - Agatha Christie
Smile - Oliver Burkeman
Something Fresh - P G Wodehouse
Sounds and Sweet Airs - Anna Beer
Summer Lightning - P G Wodehouse
Talking About Detective Fiction - P D James
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The British Museum is Falling Down - David Lodge
The Cat Inside - William S Burroughs
The Cornish Coast Murder - John Bude
The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
The Devil at Saxon Wall - Gladys Mitchell
The Devils Elbow – Gladys Mitchell
The Ghost Network - Catie Disabato
The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying - Marie Kondo
The Persuaders - The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change your Mind - James Garvey
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
The Plague and I - Betty MacDonald
The Rebecca Notebook and other Memories - Daphne duMaurier
The Santa Klaus Murder - Mavis Doriel Hay
The Scoop and Behind the Screen - Dorothy L Sayers, Christie, Berkeley and others
The Secret House of Death - Ruth Rendell
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 books - Martin Edwards
The Waxworks Murder - John Dickson Carr
The World in the Evening - Christopher Isherwood
The Year of the Ladybird - Graham Joyce
Thirteen Guests - J Jefferson Farjeon
Three Act Tragedy - Agatha Christie
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere - Jan Morris
Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Ways of Seeing – John Berger
When Last I died – Gladys Mitchell
Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can afford to pay John Lanchester
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Which is 76 books in comparison to last years 110. I think part of the explanation is that a) I haven't included text books because I don't read them in full and b) last year I reread a lot of Agatha Christie, which tends to go down quick.

The Agatha Christie effect probably also accounts for the men catching up the women this year. In fact they overtook. 37 books by men to 34 by women, with 5 by a joint team or group.

32 on the list were non fiction and 44 fiction, which means that my non fiction reading has dropped very little compared to my fiction reading. It's also the year - thanks to reading Sounds and Sweet Airs, that I discovered Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and Barbara Strozzi.  

Favourite book of 2017?  London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins.

Happy New Year Everyone.