Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club: Part 5 (Russia)

G. K. Chesterton’s 1912 novella Manalive is, without question, a bit of an odd one. If you are wondering how it came to be selected for the Russian instalment of the Business School Wives Book Club, then I must say that initially, I shared your confusion. It turns out that in one of those flukes of the international book market, the quirky mysteries of English eccentric G. K. Chesterton have quite a following in Russia.

The setting for the story is however, a long way from Moscow. It is a bleak London guesthouse where a range of long term tenants are collectively miserable and directionless. A man, who is identified as one Innocent Smith appears in the garden, accompanied by a great wind. Within pages of his entry, he has induced declarations of love between other tenants, set up an autonomous High Court to deal with the business of the house and arranged to elope with the young companion of one of the house’s inmates. Happiness appears to explode over the house and the jaded and misanthropic feelings of the past are no more. Needless, to say, the story does not end there. Before long two doctors arrive with accusations against “Innocent” Smith that would make anyone raise an eye. Burglary; Desertion of Wife; Bigamy; Attempted murder: the man’s crimes appear to be legion. Is he mad or is he dangerous or is there a mysterious method in his history?

This was not the easiest of book club books to get into. It is a little heavy going due to the language and it is not always simple to work out who is speaking at any one time. It is however, quite funny and deals surprisingly and with a certain surrealistic sanity with the human need for happiness and contentment. What is even better, it can be read online here.

Although it was not a favourite read, the ruminations of one of its female characters on what makes the ideal man spawned a classic book club discussion. It seemed to us that GKC’s message was that to be happy one ought to choose a man with a hobby (however strange, and goodness me, you will find that Innocent Smith’s are strange) so that he isn’t forever hanging around the house. Encouraging.

I spot of googling has uncovered the exciting additional news that there is a film adaptation in postproduction. The latest is here. From the Business School Wives Book Club, goodbye for now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Life writing on the edge: Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia and other Julian Maclaren-Ross adventures

This week’s reading has been the seediest of double helpings. Having enjoyed the Collective Memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross, I felt that I could not leave the story uncompleted and picked up the wonderful Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: the Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, Soho Raconteur: Julian Maclaren-Ross by Paul Willetts. For those who are strangers to Maclaren-Ross, he was a gifted writer who came to represent the dissolute and chaotic life of London’s Soho in the middle of the last century. The sordid colours of his person and lifestyle evolved to overshadow his versatile and interesting work. He spawned numerous fictional characters of whom the most famous was the dreadful X Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Long before his death in 1964 he had become part of the myth of Fitzrovia – that tiny pub lined area north of Oxford Street and west of the Tottenham Court Road.

Paul Willetts conveys an excellent sense of Maclaren-Ross; sharp suited; Malacca cane carrying; hard drinking; sharp tongued observer; whilst at the same time extracting his subject from a welter of myth and half truth. His biography looks under the carpet of the stories of generations and proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. In his short life Maclaren-Ross was a writer, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, soldier, deserter, prisoner and regular at the Wheatsheaf pub. He was far from being the only deserter who washed up in Fitzrovia. During the course of the Second World War an estimated 80,000 men went “AWOL” from the armed forces and a healthy number drank out the war in a similar style to Maclaren-Ross. Willetts shows however that his desertion was far from stereotypical – he deserted having become frustrated to the point of madness that the army kept him behind a desk with a humdrum occupation rather than use his skills. Not the most self-sacrificing attitude maybe, but far from the plain cowardice suggested by mythology.

As well as looking under the carpet, Willetts has made a great achievement in even finding it. Maclaren-Ross wrote a series of memoirs (for which, read on....) but no biography can be credibly based purely on the words of the subject. His life was a mind-bending chaos of poverty, homelessness, hotel dwelling and psychosis. Women and friends came and went with speed and left little behind for the intrepid biographer. Willetts triumphed over disaster by seemingly following every tiny clue. A biographer who is willing to search telephone directories deserves a bit of credit in my view. This book shows what I have always suspected; that biography at the fringes of fame is by far the most worthwhile.

Maclaren-Ross’s own Collected Memoirs surprised me in their tone. I knew the myth of the man and was expecting his narrative voice to be far more abrasive and harsh than I found it to be. In fact, his memoirs are a series of keenly observed and sparely composed period pieces that display a grasp of character and a detachment from stereotype, which I found most impressive. Probably the most interesting are his Memoirs of the Forties in which he rubs shoulders with Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas (and of course many others) in hilarious circumstances. The stories are witty and revealing and far more self-deprecating than I suspected.

Julian Maclaren-Ross had an almost pathological dislike of being photographed and so there are limited images of him available. I have included what I can find together with a still of Sean Baker as one of his fictional alter egos X Trapnel in the 1997 adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The objects of our disbelief: Are they funny, are they dead? by Marjorie Ann Watts

I know that one should not judge a book by its cover, or its title, but when I first read about Marjorie Ann Watts’ collection of short stories Are they funny, are they dead? I was immediately reminded of the title of my favourite Barbara Comyns novel Who was changed and who was dead. I suppose that there are sillier reasons to pick up a book, so I shall not feel too guilty, and anyway, it did turn out to be worth it.

Are the funny, are they dead? Is a collection of short stories from the pen of a lady who originally trained as an artist and there is a strong visual element and a sense of landscape in many of these tales – which range in period and setting. They take in the wilds of the English coast and the grey paving of Harley Street among many other places. The stories in general deal with the anatomy of unsatisfactory relationships between people, the far reaching legacies of past family deceptions and lack of understanding that so often keeps one generation from being close to another. Watts frequently focuses on an object as a means of teasing out a long story and a set of characters. This is a most successful strategy – although I suspect that in a further volume of stories, it would come to feel formulaic. In this volume however, characters are well and quickly drawn and each story moves fast, taking in action and analysis with ease.

There is a clear-sighted surrealism and a willingness to ask questions at the heart of this collection. It contains shrewd observations about everyday life, and much humour as well. My favourite story is A Vivid Imagination in which Dr Ryle, a curmudgeonly and cynical old psychiatrist finds himself with a most unusual new patient. Milly Banks is a children’s novelist who claims to be tormented by the characters that she herself has created. Her tale is the kind that is always dismissed by others; and yet, before long, Dr Ryle will be careering down Harley Street amongst a plague of pigs and questioning his own sanity. This story is a wonderful piece of whimsy and an exploration of incredulity and imagination. Watts satirises the pompous and celebrates the freethinking – although part of her message seems to be that things would be better if people worked together.

In my view, the best stories of the collection are towards the end rather than the beginning of the book, so the reader who is short on time, might wish to start at the back. I am most grateful to Charles Boyle at CB Editions for sending me this book. If you are interested in CB Editions, their blog is here. This weekend has been a glorious one in France, and I have included some more garden photographs to commemorate it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club – Part Four (India)

When it comes to the great Anglo-Indian novel, I have to put my hand up and say that I am a fan. I love A Passage to India and all four books of the Raj Quartet. In fact, I even own the complete DVD box set of the 1980s classic TV serial The Jewel in the Crown. But then I am British, so maybe it is only natural that I should buy into a romantic idea of India – a literary notion of a country that is hopelessly outdated and was never quite true in the first place.

India’s representative in the Business School Wives Book Club must have faced quite a dilemma. Does she choose a book that conforms to the pattern set by the sweeping, cinematic novels of the past? Does she choose something that represents India today? And if she chooses the latter – which India should be represented for there are many Indias and not all of them can be distilled within the covers of a single book. Quite rightly she chose to introduce a book which is extremely popular in the India of today and which represents accurately an iconic corner of modern Indian life. So it was that we came to be reading Five Point Somebody by Chetan Bhagat.

Five Point Somebody is a short and easy read which accompanies three hapless mechanical engineering students at the Institute of Information Technology in Delhi – an institution so famous in India that in the book it is invariably referred to simply as IIT. IIT is shorthand for the iconic universities in India which are effectively regarded as gateways for their students into the economy. A good degree from IIT basically assures the holder of a job in a fiercely competitive market. The heroes of Five Point Somebody however, are not ideal students. Our narrator Hari and his two friends Ryan and Alok are pretty near the bottom of the class. Their natural lack of genius is compounded by lack of application, personal distractions and downright stupidity. This book tells the tale of their IIT years – and the myriad scrapes that they get themselves into before finally getting out. If you want to know whether they get out with degrees, you will have to have a read yourself.

This is not a brilliant book in a literary sense. It is written in an extremely straightforward way but it is not spare or particularly moving. In many respects its resolution is a little trite and unbelievable. However, it is short, fast moving and it can be funny. What is more, despite its shortcomings – it was a perfect choice for the Business School Wives Book Club for two main reasons.

Firstly it is an authentic view of modern middle class India. You know how people say of Jane Austen that her novels are like “six inches of ivory” – that is they show a tiny section of a society at a certain point in time, but show it in its true colour as it was? Well, I think that Chetan Bhagat does something similar here. In his jokey way he criticises an education system that crushes creativity, he shows the colossal pressure that economic desperation can bring to young and old shoulders. The society that he represents is deeply stratified, desperate for success and in many respects lacking in compassion.

Secondly, given that all of our husbands are at Business School, Five Point Somebody has been a much welcome window onto the world of “GPAs” (Grade Point Averages – the marking system) and the relentless competition that accompanies international business of any flavour. This is a world where a few marks here and there could change a person’s income for the rest of their life. It is a little scary, but on the other hand, it is also a realistic representation of a lot of lives, so thank you Business School Wives Book Club for yet another eye opener.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What ever were we thinking? The mass observation of Britain in wartime.

Of all the fields of historical enquiry, there seems to me to be nothing more challenging and nothing more rewarding that trying to understand how ordinary people lived their lives and what they were thinking. When I was an undergraduate I cheerfully wrote essays extrapolating the values of everyday ancient Athenians from religious carvings and the plays of Aristophanes. Now, in my old age (well, shall we say the approach to middle age), I realise how ridiculous this was. Social history is the narrative that hides behind political history, but which in many respects is more key to understanding human events. How can I have neglected it for so long?

It was these feelings that so excited me when I first discovered Mass Observation. Mass Observation is a social research project which aims to gage the thoughts, feelings and values of the nation. It was founded in 1937 in the wake of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. In the final months of 1936 Edward VIII, the youthful and popular King had been forced by the giants of his family, his Government and the Church to abdicate the throne sooner than make a Queen of the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The affair between Edward and Wallis had been kept out of the newspapers and so when the story went public in the run up to Christmas 1936, it was a massive shock to almost the whole of Britain. Some people agreed with the then Archbishop of Canterbury that Edward represented some kind of moral rot. Many idealised Edward and saw him as a victim of the unpopular Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. The secretary of the Communist Party probably spoke for many when he declared “there is no crisis in all this for the working class, let the King marry whom he likes”.

The complexity and downright confusion of what the nation thought about the abdication crisis led to the foundation of the Mass Observation project. The organisers appealed for volunteer observers and asked that they contribute their own diaries and answers to open ended questionnaires on an ongoing basis. Data was collected on all areas of life – food, sex, work, growing up, giving birth, the list is endless. The enormous archive of information collected is now stored at the University of Sussex and anyone can read it (I have consulted some of the archive for research but if you are interested, please remember that you have to make an appointment).

A good taster is the excellent book that I have just finished Wartime Women: A Mass Observation Anthology 1937 – 1945 edited by Dorothy Sheridan. This is a collection of diaries and responses from women all over Britain during the Second World War. The book is well organised into different themes and periods but it feels far more intimate than your average social history. It is not a dry discussion of possibilities, but an introduction to a range of larger than life characters such as Nella Last, a Barrow-in-Furness housewife, the plucky young Norfolk sisters Muriel and Jenny Green and the Leeds based nurse Amy Briggs. By setting out individual voices, the editor Dorothy Sheridan shows the strange interplay of continuity and disruption of life during wartime. The pattern of domesticity is radically changed, but much remains. We learn through poor Amy Briggs that a bad marriage in peacetime is a bad marriage in wartime too.

So it is a good read, and it is ground breaking stuff, in its way. Mass Observation was not a perfect answer to the problem of gathering social history data of course. It will be obvious that it appealed far more to women than to men and so it is rather one sided for that reason. Much effort was made to get working class women to contribute, but inevitably it was easier for middle class women to do so. Nevertheless, it is a marvellous archive of material and lets hope that there may be a few more anthologies in the pipeline somewhere.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mirror to a million teenagers: Monica Dickens’ Mariana

Oh no! I am feeling like a book blogger who has slept through her alarm, turned her face down into the warm pillow and lazily allowed for the languishing of good books. I have many excuses, but I won’t bore you with them: I am just late in posting. As many of you know Persephone Reading Week is a lovely event co-hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files. Despite the fact that it technically ended yesterday, this review of the Persephone Classic Mariana by Monica Dickens is my contribution.

Mariana is an enchanting read. It is a between-the-wars coming-of-age tale that has been rightly compared to I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Mary Shannon is first introduced to the reader as a young married woman tucked away in a remote cottage in the Second World War. The weather outside is dreadful, the telephone lines are down and she does not know whether her husband, who is serving in the war, is alive or dead. At night, tossing and turning, and hopeless of sleep she begins to remember the events of her life from childhood through adolescence and into marriage. This act of remembrance is the subject of the book – it is a recollection story, much like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We learn swiftly that the young woman who fears that her husband may have been lost in the second world war, lost the father whom she never really knew in the first. Her character and her life seem poised between two great tragedies but her mind is preoccupied with concerns that we all share – love; marriage; family; home.

Mary is a middle class English girl with a good eye for observation and no exceptional talents. She grows up in London with her vivacious and enterprising mother Lily and her louche and charming Uncle Geoff. Her late father’s side of the family are rather more upper class and live on the income from a chain of expensive restaurants. Their country home, the pastoral Charbury is the scene of Mary’s summers, her first brushes with romance, her early adventures and the source of her not inconsiderable sense of social superiority. The dominant love of her early years is her cousin Denys. Denys is handsome, arrogant, bullying and most undeserving of his cousin’s adoration. Like many girls of her class and period, Mary did not quite know what to do with herself in that uncomfortable interlude between school and marriage. As a result of this the reader is treated to her account of her hilariously unsuccessful spell in a drama school, followed by a year of dress making and romancing in Paris, and the events which ultimately lead to her marriage.

The first part of Mariana is far more successful than the second. Mary as a child and young teenager is a character so familiar and so real as to be almost settled on the sofa and reading the book alongside one. Every teenage girl, or woman who has been a teenage girl will recognise her unholy combination of certainty and ignorance, her desperation to be loved by some and her offhandedness with the love granted to her. The unintended humour in her story telling is a tick of growing up that all of us can recognise. Her adventures with her cousin Denys which run the gambit of worship, partnership, conspiracy and disillusion were, for me, the most successful part of the book. It is in developing Mary’s awareness of Denys, that Monica Dickens comes closest to the kind of magic that Dodi Smith achieved in I Capture the Castle. This is rather in contrast to the second half of the book, which I found rather disappointing. I felt that Mary’s later adventures did not ring true and in particular, the ending is hurried and underdeveloped. The “perfect man” when he arrives, moves so fast that one might be tempted to think that he had a train to catch. Many readers have found Mary an unsympathetic girl to share a book with. She is a little snobby, rather insensitive sometimes and displays the casual anti Semitism and class based contempt that was common in the period. However, for me, the imperfections of the girl rather added to the book. Monica Dickens is by no means uncritical of her heroine – part of the message of the book is that she is ordinary, she is of her age, she is not heroic and that is one of Mariana’s great charms.

Although burdened with a dodgy second half, I can well understand why Persephone re-printed this novel and why it has become rather a classic. The fact is that Mariana is a wonderful period piece, full of the sounds and smells and sights of an era. When the rackety Uncle Geoff takes young Mary for dinner at the Cafe Royale at some point in the early 1930s, she provides one of the best descriptions that I have read of this, the most famous of London’s “Bohemian” hang-outs. Similarly, the description of Mary’s ill-fated attendance at Denys’ Oxford College Ball, is quite lovely and reminded me of the description of Eights Week in Brideshead Revisited – it somehow manages to almost burst with unobtrusive period detail.

I am certainly not the only blogger who has enjoyed reading Mariana. I have enjoyed reading reviews by Claire at The Captive Reader, Becky Holmes at A Book A Week, Uncertain Principles at Another Cookie Crumbles, Katherine at A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore, Nicola at Vintage Reads, Carolyn at A Few Of My Favourite Books and Miranda at A Skirmish of Wit.

I have included a picture of the beautiful Persephone cover, as well as a few pictures of Monica Dickens herself.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Election – Shmelection: This is a dove-grey end-papered paradise and a politician-free zone

I am back in the UK very briefly and have found some real treats in my post-bag.

Firstly I was thrilled to receive both Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood from the lovely Bloomsbury Bell, and Marjorie Ann Watts’ collection of short stories Are they funny, are they dead? which was very kindly sent to me by Charles Boyle at CB Editions (see his excellent blog here). Looking forward to both of those.

Secondly, as well all know it is Persephone Reading week and so it seems especially fitting to finally get hold of my copy of The Persephone Biannually, stuffed as it is with interesting articles and vignettes. I was pleased to see so many of my favourite bloggers getting honourable mentions including The B Files, Dovegreyreader, Savidge Reads, Paperback Reader, Desperate Reader, My Porch, The Literary Stew, A Girl Walks into a Bookstore and I Prefer Reading. There were also a couple of other blogs mentioned that were new to me so I am off to investigate those now...

Sad to read that the Persephone shop in Kensington Church Street is closing.

Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files host Persephone Reading week. I am reading Mariana by Monica Dickens. One book is a measly effort I know, but I hope to write a fairly full review of it to make up for my tardiness. I have also fished around and found a lovely picture of Monica Dickens in preparation.

So, today is shaping up to be something of a Persephone-fest – that is after I have popped out to fulfil my civic duty at the polling station – oh well, better get it over with...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Buried Treasure: the life and visions of Rupert Lee

If you are an art loving treasure seeker in or around London this week and in need of a bit of an election antidote, you could do a lot worse than to visit the Rupert Lee Retrospective exhibition which is currently on at Gallery 27 in Cork Street. This is where I spent most of my bank holiday Monday and it was a pleasure.

Rupert Lee was one of the “golden generation” of pre-first world war Slade artists that included Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and Richard Nevinson. He was an extraordinary talent and a truly versatile man who turned his hand to painting, sculpting, printmaking and music. As a young artist he formed an especially close friendship with the artist Paul Nash and was also employed by the legendary theatre director, Edward Gordon Craig. For 10 years Lee served as the President of the London Group of Artists – an avant-garde collective and exhibiting society which in the first half of the twentieth century was responsible for showcasing some of the most interesting and innovative of British artists. As the London Group president, Lee was able to promote such names as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. In 1936 he was chairman of the International Surrealist exhibition at the Burlington Galleries – a properly bizarre event which featured Dylan Thomas offering visitors cups of boiled string with the query “weak or strong?” and Salvador Dali wandering around in a deep sea diving suit.

In short, Rupert Lee was at the forefront of the artistic community of his day. In addition to this, his own work was powerful and versatile. He exhibited many of the hallmarks of those who directly influenced him such as Roger Fry and Paul Nash – but he also bought to the table his own vision. In particular his series of First World War pictures, drawn in and very soon after leaving the trenches are a real discovery and enrich the artistic legacy of the war. As the book which accompanies the exhibition points out, where Paul Nash focussed on the landscapes of war, and Nevinson on the mechanisation of battle, Lee’s vision homes-in on the fighting man; cowering; shooting; dying; seemingly tumbling into an alien landscape. I have included pictures of a few of the most notable pieces – but there are plenty more at the exhibition. Lee experimented with many styles and many mediums during the course of his life; he was not a slave to any particular school.

This rich artistic legacy is made still more vivid by the personal story behind the pictures. The book that accompanies the exhibition is Rupert Lee: Painter, Sculptor and Printmaker by Denys J. Wilcox and it is available from the exhibition itself and from Amazon. Together with wonderful illustrations, the book tells a remarkable personal history. I will not spoil it for those who wish to dig deeper, but Denys Wilcox has bought to life a previously lost narrative of love, vision, resentment and complexity that would be quite at home in the annals of Bloomsbury. Behind Lee’s artistic output sits his profound friendship with Paul Nash, torn asunder by personal dramas; his bizarre and disastrous marriage to a woman who appeared to be consumed by hatred for him; and his long term relationship with another woman – whose sure-footed intelligence, kindliness and tolerance make her seem so very out of step with her own times. For those who like a bit of biography with their art, there is plenty to be getting on with here.

The exhibition has also been featured in the Independent and runs until 8 May.