Category Archives: reading

Another op’nin

The 2001 London revival: It was superb. I had already been treated to the production on Broadway. It was already transferring to London, even before 9/11 had devastated New York theatre-attendances. So I paid real money to revisit it at the Victoria Palace

Few musicals beat that opening. But there are only half-a-dozen musicals worthy to start alongside Kiss Me, Kate —and at least one more has Cole Porter’s name over the title.

I can get something of the same thrill opening a new book for the first time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend…

… Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. Thank you, Groucho: don’t call us. We’ll call you.

Buying, on spec, a new book by a  previously-untried, even unknown writer is itself a venture.

I pluck the book from the pile or the shelf — perhaps because the cover or the title means something to me. I flick a few pages. I either return the book whence it came, rejected, or reach for the wallet and the plastic.

I did that last Friday.

iuMy two acquisitions were Ian Sansom’s Westmorland Alone and Tom Blass, The Naked Shore.

There is a tangential connection between those two.

The first in Sansom’s series was The Norfolk Mystery. Obviously a Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred type would be weak in the head not to snap at that. So I did, and found it wholesome — but not really much more — enough to go for the second in the series, Death in Devon.  Which I found harder going: the arch references to Arthur Mee and all those 1930s “cosy” teccies seemed to be wearing, and wearing a bit thin. Still, I went for this third one; and it went down quite nicely. If nothing else, it overcame the imminent reading-block that was sub-symptom of a winter chill.

So that was a re-visit. The “new” one was —

9781408815496Blass

The connexion with the Tom Blass is also Norfolk (which features very slightly) and East Anglia more generally.

Ir reads very well, rather disconnectedly — but this isn’t a straight narrative. Blass shifts, idiosyncratically, from space to place, topic to topic, encounter to encounter. And then will return whence he came, a hundred pages of more later. The book tends, obviously, to the gossipy. I find little wrong or objectionable about that.

Above all, The Naked Shore is delightfully filled with small and informative detail. Here’s a very early one:

In Whitby once, among the stones of the ‘Dracula’ abbey, I was struck by the starkness of the difference between the accents of a visiting family from Newcastle and those of the natives. Geordie’s origins lies with the Teutonic Angles, hence ‘gan’ — as in ‘gan down toon’, from the German gehen for ‘go’, while their Yorkshire hosts’ linguistic ancestry lay further north (arse, bairn, dollop and flit all have Norse heritage). Some fifteen hundred years after their arrival, fifty miles of English coast still reflect ancient ethnic differences, the origins of which lie on the far side of the North Sea.

Blass returns another half-dozen times to Whitby, at one stage as part of the strange  class-divides between seaside resorts, even (as page 108):

Today the middle classes that seek out the evocative beaches of North Norfolk at Holkham and Blakeney studiously avoid not-dissimilar shorelines close by.

I’ll go with that: Wells is neatly sandwiched between those two “evocative beaches” — indeed, I challenge any in-comer to know where Holkham beach ends and Wells begins. I’d put it around where the old Coastguard look-out was. By the time, heading east, one reaches the beach-huts, one definitively is in Wells. And the reason for the “social” difference (consider, too house prices)? Wells had — before blasted Beaching — a train line. And a bit further back, GER/LNER ‘tripper’ specials all the way from London’s Liverpool Street. That, and the whiff of whelks being loaded into the guard’s van lowered the tone.

Note from the above, that although may dot from topic to topic, the book comes with a useful index for playing dot-to-dot.

A comparator

61ieuy24gfl-_uy250_Yes, we’ve been in these parts quite recently.

Only a couple of years ago, Michael Pye did nicely by, and nicely out of The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We AreThat’s an equally subjective account, but organised on more orthodox — even “historical” lines. It’s a “deeper” book, in many respects a “better” book; but one more concerned with — as the title suggests — the anthropology, even sociology, of the North Sea coasts and peoples. So it is more rooted in what we used to be able to term, without apology or explanation, “the Dark Ages”.

I shall be keeping both on my shelves: not as rivals, but as complements.

 

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Filed under Britain, Detective fiction, East Anglia, fiction, History, Norfolk, reading, Wells-next-the-Sea

Books and Bokes of the year

Boke? Or do you prefer Boak? Look it up!

One of the many aspects of the “festive season” (Bah! Humbug!) that I sincerely, utterly, quiveringly loath is the lists of “best books of the year”.

The New York Times one is up already, so I know what will puff out the “Culture” pages of the weekend papers and magazines.

My reasons for this dyspepsia are:

  • the lists prove what an illiterate, narrow-minded swine I am;
  • are usually full of stuff I see as detritus;
  • induce guilt that I didn’t read the one or two worthy items on the list;
  • and I’ve not caught up with the last century, let alone the last twelve months.

Taking the NYT as an example, I see just the one there that I intend to read: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway.

My own list?

Well, it would have to include:

  • Ian Rankin’s latest, and 21st, Rebus: published on 3rd November, arrived, courtesy of Amazon Prime, a day early, read and shelved within a couple of days. One of the very few “newly-published” novels I’ve bought this year, along with the latest Donna Leon and Philip Kerr.
  • Under “military history”, Trevor Royle’s Culloden. Royle did a synopsis for The Scotsman, and that sold it to me.
  • A weekend in Belfast coincided with the Linen Hall Library pop-up second-hand shop, filled with cart-loads of rubbish. Still, I rescued a (apparently unopened) biography of Joseph Walshe and a couple of other items. Nolan on Walshe is a decent effort, not without faults, but it helps to join the dots. Across Fountain Street, a couple of doors down from the Linen Hall itself, is Waterstones. Any large “provincial” Waterstones is always worth a rummage, to see what the locals are keeping to themselves: there, three years late, I found Roger Courtney’s Dissenting Voices.
  • My expensive habit of buying exhibition catalogues means I now own You Say You Want a Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966-1970 from the Victoria and Albert. The whole exhibition seems to spring from the record collection of the late John Peel, padded out with ephemera. If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there, of course. I was, and I do. Nice to meet old friends (and sing along with Country Joe).
  • Theatre: as age affects the hearing (and the Siemens earpieces help only a little) I tend to buy play-scripts. Confession time: I had never tackled Fletcher and Bill Shagsper’s Two Noble Kinsmen until a weekend in Stratford. Yeah, but nowhere near the exuberance and sheer fun of Aphra Benn’s The Rover in the afternoon matinee (my copy of that script goes back to the RSC production of 1986).
  • Oh, and two real goodies, thieved from one of those pubs which decorate with aged and crumbling books. Also always worth a rummage: there are treasures among the Farmers’ Handbooks for 1922 and the discarded law manuals. One was Anthony Hope’s wry, charming The Dolly Dialogues (a first edition, “reprinted from the Westminster Gazette“, 1896) and RLS’s St Ives.

Eccentric. Eclectic. Pompous. Guilty as charged (even of those last two slight volumes).

Only then do I start to wonder what I’ve missed.

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Filed under History, Literature, New York Times, Northern Ireland, reading, Uncategorized

Unfinished stories

No: not in this case Vice-Admiral John Poo Beresford. I’m still working up to that one.

This is more personal.

I spent an extended weekend in the cold of Prague. Hadn’t been there since 1994; and — wow! — how things have changed. Mostly for the better. Little changed —praise be! — is one of the most effective, efficient and cost-friendly public transport systems anywhere.

The first “problem” was leaving behind my teccie.

Reading logette:

baroque1

After some weeks and some thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson, I needed light refreshment.

A chance encounter with a first edition (well, “reprinted from the Westminster Gazette“, 1896) of Anthony Hope’s The Dolly Dialogues was just what was needed. Yes: that is Anthony Prisoner of Zenda Hope. And, no: this was not something I had read previously. But above all, light, tight and wickedly amusing.

Then The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest in his Rivers of London sequence. Nice one; but I’m out-Granted by Pert Young Piece who has the graphic novel, Body Workand I need to catch up with the significance of a particular car. Still, I have the experts at York’s Travelling Man working on it.

9200000051259436A passing encounter with RLS’s (no relation, different spelling) unfinished St Ives. Another one of which I was only “aware”
Finally, and the “problem”: Lindsey Davis’s The Graveyard of the Hesperides. I used to follow the Falco series assiduously, and then moved on. I haven’t been plugged into this Albia spin-off in the same way, so this is something of a return for me. The problem being this is a mystery novel. And I left it behind on page 367 (of 4o3).

Another unfinished story

This is not fiction; but it is a mystery.

We came out of Prague on the 2130 Easyjet flight into Gatwick.

Yeah. Yeah. EasyJet, punctuality, end of the day.

So the incoming flight didn’t arrive on time. The crew did a heroic turn-around in half-an-hour. There was a delay for some theatrical de-icing. Arrival at Gatwick just before 2300.

Then an unaccountable hold-up at the arrival pad before disembarking. We were held on board for a long 15-20 minutes. At first the captain was announcing that the reception wasn’t ready. The steps arrived at the rear; but the air-bridge at the front seemed to be the hold-up. Eventually a name was called: could Mr X (and the name escapes me) make his way to the front of the cabin and make himself known?

Now: imagine. As if. A full load of walk-on freight. Cabin bags out of overhead lockers. A couple of hundred passengers either out of seats, and getting that way.

This arcane utterance was immediately followed by another: would all male passengers have their passports and identification ready for checking by the police on the airbridge?

And we were then released.

Sure enough: immediately past the cabin door, a posse of police, including the dog handler.

Since I was to the rear of the aircraft, I was one of the last off.

Whoever was the target, he apparently hadn’t emerged. But with one eye-flick the police officer was able to pass me on my way, and addressed me by my first name.

Odd, huh?

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Filed under air travel., Ben Aaronovitch, fiction, leisure travel, Lindsey Davis, policing, reading, Robert Louis Stevenson

Ooh, You Are Awful … But I Like You!

I’ll defend the Oxford English Dictionary to my last breath as one the highest achievements of British learning and literature.

It would be my Desert Island Discs book. (If that was forbidden, it’d have to be Howard Spring’s Fame Is The Spur.)

Even so, the OED has its irritations. Here’s what I found when I looked up tenterhooks:

the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held

Wasn’t that helpful?

As for the rest:

tenter, noun:

A wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking. Also †a pair of tenters (Obs. rare) and in pl. form tentersFormerly tenters of the length of a web of cloth stood in rows in the open air in  tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts; but the process of drying and stretching is now generally done much more rapidly in  tenter-houses by tenter- or tentering-machines.

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Tiffy

Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):

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Filed under folk music, History, Johnny Cash, Literature, Music, Oxford English Dictionary, railways, reading, United States

Back in the saddle again

Blogging is a chore. So much more fun to spit out pithy pensées @mredfellow on Twitter. Or mano-a-mano on politics.ie.

Just once in a while, though, I need a more meditative context.

For example, I found myself musing on a new politics.ie thread:

“The rough draft of history”: what are others’ choices for classics of journalism?

Hat tip to IvoShandor (who provoked this train of thought for a grey Sunday afternoon).

The oldest version is supposedly an editorial in The State of Columbia, South Carolina, 5th December 1905:

The Educational Value of “News”

What is news today will be history tomorrow. No one would be bold enough to deny that history is one of the most essential branches of modern education, yet the proposition that the study of the news of the day is of equal value, is, indeed, but a part of the study of history, would be challenged nay many. Those who value history as a study cannot consistently, however, deny to the study of news an equal value, for it is plainly apparent that the happenings of today are but the progress of history. […]

The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history. Later, the historian will come, take down the old files, and transform the crude but sincere and accurate annals of editors and reporters into history, into literature

Perhaps better known — and more romantically-expressed — than that is George H Fitch: better known because he was syndicated by the George Matthew Adams news service across the American Mid West, and was a regular for the Saturday Evening Post. So we have:

A reporter is a young man who blocks out the first draft of history each day on a rheumatic typewriter.

That first appeared (and probably elsewhere) in the Lincoln, Nebraska, Daily Star, for 3rd July 1914.

I have a reputation among the fortnightly recycling collectors for these parts, when they are humping half-a-hundredweight of discarded newsprint each cycle. I am an addict.

But what are the truly memorable “first drafts”?

This one might qualify:

newyorktimes-headline-tophalf-rms-titanic-sinking-16april1912

And, infamously, so might this:

Victorious presidential candidate Pres. Harry Truman jubilantly displaying erroneous CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE w. headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN which overconfident Republican editors had rushed to print on election night, standing on his campaign train platform. (Photo by W. Eugene Smith//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

A personal favourite, if more of a “second thoughts” (it was the New Yorker for 31st August, 1946), would be John Hershey’s Hiroshima, which I remember (and probably still have) in a Penguin reprint:

b10a69f6b0ff0a94588e5225ab28442b

 

Today we get our “first drafts” from television, or even from Twitter. So, before the dead-tree media is laid to rest, I’m wondering:

What are the classics of the genre?

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Filed under History, Literature, politics.ie, reading

Dahn ter da Smoke and a Sicilian Vesper

Country-people when going to the Metropolis say they are on their way to the Smoke. [JC Hotten, 186o]

Tomorrow it’s hit the A64 for the A1. It’ll be the first time in quite a while that we’ve done it by road. Since our point of interest in Norf Lunnun is right beside the 91 bus route, and there are excellent trains (Virgin Rail permitting) from York to Kings Cross, that’s been the norm.

360_d21cd0280364a3b5cd55ce2f4a5ea346This time, though, we’re bringing back a Habitat chair and sofa, and it’s the rational way.

The real reason for doing so is this was the first major purchase we made, when we first married. That means the things are almost through their fifth decade — which counts as half-way to official antique status. When — perhaps that should be “if” — we get them home here, some restoration is needed.

Note I said “first major purchase”. The very first acquisition was a revolving bookcase, and that cost (as I recall) all of about six pounds. The Pert Young Piece has that.

On the trip I want to catch the revival of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Lyttelton. This will be my first viewing since one in Dublin. The reviews suggest the National Theatre production might, just might be a bit more polished than last time.

Then there are two promising exhibitions at the British Museum.

One is based on the discoveries of two drowned cities — Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus — at the mouth of the River Nile. For the last twenty years an underwater team, led by Franck Goddio, have been exploring these sites. What adds interest (at least for me) is one of the cities, Thonis-Heracleion, was a trading port, while the other, Canopus, was more of a religious site. As I understand, the main focus isn’t the Egypt of the ancient Pharoahs: it’s much more getting towards the “Hellenistic period”. In terms of Egyptian history that means it runs from the conquests of Alexander the Great into the Ptolomaic dynasty. For any passing ignoramus, after Alexander’s death, one of his generals (Ptolomy) declared himself Pharaoh; and his descendants ruled until the Romans took over in 30BC — the last of that lot was Cleopatra. Got that? Cleo was a Greek, not Shakespeare’s gipsy or Antony’s serpent of old Nile.

There’s another exhibition at the BM on Sicily, due to close in a week or so time, which I like to catch. What I know of Sicilian history comes essentially from John Julius Norwich.

iuPause there for a moment.

There’s a nicety about how that book is differentially sold. In the American market the sub-title is An Island at the Crossroads of History. That reflects the layer upon layer of different cultures over the millennia: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire, Arabs from North Africa, and the Normans of Robert Guiscard (that cognomen being a distortion of the Latin for weasel). So there’s layer upon layer of different cultures. Meanwhile, for the British book-trade, John Julius is subtitled A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

One needs to read John Julius with close attention. For example (page 77 of my paperback):

King Roger II of Sicily — there was no King Roger I — was duly crowned on Christmas Day, in Palermo Cathedral.

Absolutely correct. Roger I was merely the Great Count of Sicily, brother and understrapper of the Weasel, and the subject of John Julius’s preceding half-dozen pages.

Let joy be unconfined

Beyond all that, the chief delight of a few days in London is access to a wide choice of book-sellers.

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Filed under History, London, reading, Theatre