Friday, December 27, 2013

Book-lover's Christmas

Some of my new books were really for my birthday, but one way and another I've got a good haul this year. Not many suuprises as most of the books were on my wish-list. They include a couple of books that have been highly praised this year: John Williams's Stoner and James Salter's Collected Stories, and I expect I'll write about them in a future blog. I hardly ever buy hardbacks for myself, and it's lovely to have these two very attractive volumes. I have almost finished Stoner, and, yes, it is very good. Of course there are always plenty of crime novels on my wish-list, and I'm looking forward to reading Snow White Must Die by German writer, Nele Neuhaus (her novels were originally self-published and this one has sold over three million) and Andrea Camilleri's The Dance of the Seagull, so one writer new to me and one old favourite. I've also been given The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White, who lived in the City for sixteen years: I've have a little virtual holiday as I read it. And finally, a couple of surprise gifts. One of them is Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I've had a flick through and I've read the first few pages: I'm going to enjoy it. It's always nice to get something you might not otherwise have read and that also applies to Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines, a collection of essays on our relationship to the natural world. I've read good reviews of her work.
I love getting books as presents, and often give them too. The gift of an ebook just wouldn't be the same.

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Monday, December 23, 2013


It was my birthday on the 18th December - and also that of my Italian friend, Daniella, who informed that we share a birthday with Brad Pitt. Apparently it is his 50th and that is hot news in the Italian media. Brad Pitt? Fifty? It seems just the other day that he was the young stud in Thelma and Louise. I mentioned Paul Klee, also born on the 18th December, and Daniella countered with Keith Richards. Mmm . . . couldn't we do better than that? I went on line to see who could be added to the list. Plenty of minor composers, but no really famous writers, sadly. But Steven Spielburg: that was more like it. Also Willy Brandt, Franz Ferdinand, Charles Wesley, Celia Johnson, Grimaldi and - oh no - Stalin. I wouldn't have had Stalin pegged for a Sagittarius. I'll try to forget that I share a birthday with one of the greatest mass murderers in history.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Low Spirits

It's that time of year. It's dark when I wake up and dark again by the time my daughter gets home. A succession of grey days when it never seems to get properly light sends my spirits plummeting. My friend Sue has been been feeling low, too: no secret as she has been blogging about it and I sent her something a friend once wrote out and sent to me: Sydney Smith's letter to Lady Georgiana Morpeth.

Dear Lady Georgiana,– Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,
Very truly yours,
Sydney Smith

It was written on Feb. 16, 1820 so maybe the weather was getting her down, too. And very good advice it is, too.

I fell in love with Sydney Smith after reading The Smith of Smiths by Hesketh Pearson. Smith was not only a great wit, but a truly charming man, devoted to his wife and family, and a loyal friend and a good clergyman. I felt a certain fellow-feeling with him, too, as he found it hard to be appointed a country parson in Yorkshire so far from London, but it was his nature to make the best things. He loved children and wrote that if he had been a rich man he would have liked to have twenty: 'There is more happiness in a multitude of children than safety in a multitude of counsellors' and 'the haunts of Happiness are varied and rather unaccountable; but I have most often see her among little children, and home firesides, and in country houses, than anywhere else . . .' Pearson's biography is good, but it was written in the thirties. Time perhaps for someone to write a new one?

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lost in a Book

I had a day in London yesterday and travelling on the tube between Piccadilly and King's Cross I sat opposite a young man who was totally engrossed in his SF novel, Frank Herbert's Heretics of Dune. He was far away, on another planet. One of the consequences of people reading so much electronically is that you can't see what it is that they are reading. Fifty Shades of Grey or War and Peace? There's no way of knowing. And it's not just young people: I noticed an elderly couple on the train reading on their ipads. I regret this, as I do like to see what I can spot people reading when I travel to and around London. This time I only bagged Frank Herbert and a young woman reading Terry Prachett on the train back to Chesterfield. I particularly like it when I see young people reading the classics. I once saw a young woman reading a Graham Greene novel in a waiting room at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
Sadly I have never spotted anyone reading one of my novels. I guess that must sometimes happen to people who write best-sellers. However I did once see someone buying a copy of my edition of William Morris's writing on art and design in the V and A and that was a thrill.

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Friday, December 13, 2013


I've just read Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller. It won the CWA John Creasey Dagger for best debut novel this year and it was a worthy winner. Sheldon Horowitz, elderly watch-repairer and Korean veteran, suffering from dementia, is living in Oslo with his grandaughter when he witnesses the murder of a young woman and flees the scene with her young son. Like all the best crime novel it is about far more than a crime: it's about loss and grief and redemption. I thought it was excellent, though I did feel it ended a little bit abruptly. But then, endings are very, very difficult to do well. By that I don't mean the climax of the story, but those last few lines that ideally will linger in the imagination of the reader. If the first lines matter because they must hook your reader and draw her in, the last lines should make her want to read the writer's next novel.
I've often struggled with how to end a novel. Short stories tend to be easier in that respect, perhaps because they tend to be all of a piece, just one idea, and the last line can be the pay-off. I like Truffaut's idea that his films should end on a rising note and the last moments should say 'happy.' it is hard to write about endings without giving too much away, but this is how Vasily Grossman concludes Life and Fate. A wounded soldier has returned to his wife and daughter and walks with his wife in the still snow-bound forest. It's April:
'It was still cold and dark, but soon the doors and shutters would be flung open. Soon the house would be filled with the tears and laughter of children, with the hurried steps of a loved woman, and the measured gait of the master of the house.
'They stood there, holding their bags, in silence.'

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald

I am well into Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and I am riveted. I'll be blogging about it when I have finished it. It is particularly fascinating to read a biography when the subject is someone you've known.I first met Penelope when I was curator at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith at the end of the 1980s. When I'd moved on from my job as curator to lecture at Homerton College, I stayed on the committee, and in due course became vice-chair and then chair. It was in that capacity that I spoke on behalf of the Society at Penelope Fitzgerald's memorial service. This is some of what I said.

'Penelope joined in [The William Morris Society] in 1973 and over the years she was a loyal friend of the Society - and of Morris and Burne-Jones. She reviewed books for our Journal, gave lectures, chaired meetings. My own memories of her include standing with her on a bitterly cold day near the site of Burne-Jones's house, the Grange, in Kensington on the day that it was given a blue plaque. In 1982 she edited - most appropriately - Morris's only novel, the unfinished Novel on Blue Paper.

Of course the greatest and most lasting contribution in this area is her biography of Burne-Jones. This marvellous book is frank, yet tactful, non-judgmental, but very shrewd. Above all it is a wonderful read, as compulsively readable as one of her novels. No-one has got closer to the psychological roots of Burne-Jones's art. Penelope combined a scholarly concern for exactitude with a novelist's sensibility to produce what is as much the portrait of a marriage and of a remarkable woman, Georgiana Burne-Jones, as a biography of an artist. I think Penelope felt a special sympathy for Georgiana, who had been her husband's first biographer. The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones is one of the really great Victorian biographies and Penelope's book was a worthy successor.

When Georgiana Burne-Jones died in 1920, J. W. Mackail, her son-in-law and also Morris's biographer, wrote a tribute. Much of it might equally have been written for Penelope and I want to end by reading a little of it:

"She was a personality of extraordinary distinction and charm. No one, man or woman, who made her acquaintance failed to come under the spell of a nature that radiated beauty. Her intellectual powers were great . . . She had large clear eyes for art, books and human beings. Unaffected and touching humility was combined in her with quiet dignity. Few, if any, were more alive to follies and absurdities . . . her heart did not harden or her eager receptiveness lessen with the years. She burned to end with a clear, steady flame, leaving to those who love her a memory which is a continuing presence."'

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Friday, December 06, 2013

The Seven per Cent Solution

Or to give its full title, The Seven Per Cent Solution Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., as edited by Nicholas Meyer (published 1975). It is of course a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and a clever and enjoyable one. Given recent news headlines, this is a somewhat timely blog for the seven per cent solution refers to the cocaine that Holmes inject. The novel begins with Watson's realisation that Holmes has become hopelessly addicted and has descended into paranoid delusions in which he takes his old maths tutor, Professor Moriaty, to be a degenerate criminal mastermind. In collusion with Holmes's brother, Mycroft, Watson tricks Holmes into going to Vienna, believing that he is on the track of Moriaty, and delivers him into the care of the foremost alienist of the day, no other than the young Sigmund Freud. What a brilliant idea this was, to build on Holmes's tendency in the real Conan Doyle stories to resort to cocaine when bored and depressed between cases and to introduce a real historical character in the person of Freud, a detective of a very different kind, one devoted to solving the mysteries of the human mind. And Meyer does pretty much strike the authentic note. Freud invites Holmes to deduce his identity: 'Holmes eyed him coldly."Beyond the fact that you are a brilliant Jewish physician who was born in Hungary and studied for a time in Paris and that some radical theories of yours have so alienated the medical community . . . that you have ceased to practice medicine as a result, I can deduce little. You are married, possess a sense of honour . . .' and so on. Despite their differences they are both acute observers of human behaviour and once Freud has cured Holmes of his addiction, they go on to solve a mystery together. The mystery itself is nothing special, but still the novel is a lot of fun and the end, in which Freud also uncovers the reason for Holmes's hatred of Moriaty, is ingenious. I like a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche and this is among the better ones.

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Monday, December 02, 2013

A Moral Issue

I don't usually read a Sunday paper, but yesterday a friend who was here for the week-end bought The Observer. There was a superb article by journalist Carole Cadwalladr who spent a week working undercover for Amazon at their Swansea warehouse. It made sobering reading. Long hours, poor pay, employment rights avoided by hiring through agencies, workers walking up to fifteen hours per shift. BBC Panorama recently showed a programme filmed undercover, which showed the same thing. What century are we living in? To add insult to injury The Observer claims that Amazon paid £2.4 million in corporate tax in 2012 and got back £2.5 million in grants.
There's no two ways about, I have got to start buying less from Amazon.It's really mostly books. I don't really like buying electronic goods from them. My laptop came from John Lewis (where I was able to talk to a nice young man about which model was most suited to my needs) and my printer came from Printerland.
As for books, well, there are always bookshops (though not for much long if Amazon have their way). Buying on-line is harder - at least, not really much harder, but more expensive. To test this out, I looked up the recent winner of the CWA gold dagger, Dead Lions by Mick Heron, on Amazon where it costs £12.72 for a hardback and on Abebooks where it was £13.83, postage included for both. That's not actually a huge difference. The winner of the Creasey dagger for the best first novel, Derek.B. Miller's Norwegian by Night, was £3.85 on Amazon and £5.48 on Abebooks (in fact I'd already bought that at Waterstones). Really should one be paying much less than a fiver for a new book, something that it has probably taken someone at least a year to write?
My new year's resolution will be to buy fewer books from Amazon and more from other sources. Actual books, that is, ebooks are another, more difficult matter, but at least no-one has to pack them up and post them.

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