Wednesday 27 December 2017

My Favourite Book of the Year (Part One)

It’s been a strange reading year.

Round about July, I was beginning to think that I’d somehow lost the ability to enjoy my reading. Much of what I read was relatively enjoyable but nothing was really taking to heart. Then, in the second half of the year, I started loving almost everything, finding books I now love and writers I adore.

If you wish to see the full list of this year’s reading, I have a link to a booklist here.

Now…here are the countdown on 10-6 of the best books I have read this year…

Death’s Jest Book by Thomas Lovell-Beddoes.

A play that was never performed (though it would make a great creepy stop motion) and a plot involving mistaken necromancy, suicide practise kits and a host of sudden but inevitable betrayals, Death’s Jest Book does not score high in realism. However, as an amped up Jacobean tragedy seen through the eyes of a late-romantic depressive, it’s surprisingly good fun.

The version I read was the ‘fool’s tragedy’ version of 1829 (which incidentally didn’t include the poem ‘dream pedlary, which was the main reason I wanted to read it). This version tones down the poetry and songs, making the plot a fairly tight and followable affair, at least when comparing to other Jacobean tragedies - it’s no less plausible then ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.

Aside from the wonderful whiplashes of betrayal; the changes of Isbrand from fool, to revolutionary leader, to dictator, to fool, to dead person, and the subplot where Mandrake believes he has died:- the most remembered parts of this play are the sombre poetry in it. Whether it’s a man describing himself as a ‘murder-charged thunder cloud’, death’s scythe punctuating lives with a ‘?’, having revolutionaries described as, ‘holding the latch string of the new world’s wicket’ or a duck’s feet as having, ‘webby mud-patted toes’ - the writing is often surprising. 

I particularly like the discussion of how we may love a soul, but we love the soul through their body and however much we might be pleased about the soul’s ascension into heaven (if we blow that way) we can’t separate soul and body utterly.

Macabre pleasure at it’s dark/bitter chocolatey-est.

The Troublesome Priest: Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey by Jonathan Tucker

Strange that a man’s life should feel that it inexorably leads to being savaged by a lion live on stage, in Skegness.

This book is a clear, reasoned (and it feels to me) very fair look at Davidson’s life. It doesn’t shy away from his faults; that he was an incorrigible egomaniac, made no efforts to follow rules of propriety or punctuality and with no thought to the consequences of his actions. He is a complete idiot; visiting a nudist camp the day after being convicted of immorality, allowing himself to be photographed with semi-nude women the day before that trial… But at the same time, I don’t believe he was exactly what he was accused of being. 

The big problem seems to be that he had a taste of theatre and theatrical life and took it into his clerical life, with all his kissing and hugging and suchlike. Did he revel in his infamy? I’m not sure, but it seems only right and just for his end to be as strange as it was (and for his actual end to probably be caused by a mistaken insulin injection).

As for the writing, it is very sober and clear with an officious use of footnotes and many quotes from letters, trial transcripts and later reflections. The book allows the reader to think and decide for themselves what Davidson’s faults were and weren’t.

A fascinating man and book to match.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I find that many books are  full of build-up and consequence to end in an entirely inconsequential manner - this book felt like it was doing little but entertain until the ending hit like a sledgehammer.

Fanny is our narrator, Fanny is boring. Let’s have no more about Fanny.

But her monstrous, whimsical, passionate Uncle Matthew is a brilliant character (and like most of the people in the book, based on people Nancy Mitford knew, in this case, her Father). A man who hunts children with dogs, is deeply xenophobic and utterly prejudiced should not be as endearing as he is. He is one of many fascinating characters and there is a real feeling of family at the heart of the book, as odd as it may sometimes be.

I loved Davey, with his faddy food but genuinely good heart. I love Lord Merlin (basically Lord Berners) who creates elaborate practical jokes and wears sunglasses abroad because his ‘kind eyes’ are too alluring to beggars. 

Then there are the jokes. The one about finding a book on duck rearing more useful on sex then the sex textbook made me laugh. The joke about Moira, a not particularly loved child, being so dull that she doesn’t even imagine air raids, made me wince. 

This book is packed with entertaining characters, good jokes and semblance enough of a plot to keep it going. I wasn’t particularly enthralled to the loves and bolts of Linda. She was an interesting enough character and I liked the way her three loves were different to each other and was invested enough to see her find love in the end.

Then the war comes, the jokes still play out and the family tighten together to tough it all out. And Linda is killed in childbirth in one sentence. A paragraph later and the book is over.

The laughs, the fun and the very inconsequential nature of the book then take on a certain dismal quality and in one short sentence the whole book becomes retroactively like an old photo or a fading dream - something lovely that is now lost.

I also read ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ but I didn’t find that book as charming or ultimately as moving.

A book with more than meets the eye.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Fun, daft and silly, the reader is reminded before the book begins that of course the events in this book are fiction, they are too unlikely, even in Oxford. I was charmed even by the chapter titles, which are described as ‘The Case of….’ followed by something in the chapter.

It starts off with a poet going for a trip to Oxford to get some adventure and within twenty-four hours includes a murder, a toyshop in the wrong place, a weird will where everyone is given a monicker from Edward Lear, an army of drunk undergraduates and a shootout on an out of control carousel - all of which was served up with clever, snarky and literary jokes.

The characters were all eccentrics, I particularly liked Wilkes, who turned up and tagged along for no real reason but to drink all the whisky. I liked Fen’s coldness beneath the jolly facade and I liked the ludicrousness of the mystery.

There are also a number of fun literary games, brazen fourth-wall jokes, some Jane Eyre bashing and little bit of Samuel Johnson fandom. 

I also read ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ which was fun but not as sparkling as this book.

A whodunnit with a wit and class.

The Virtue of this Jest by James S Montgomery

I’ve already talked about this book at length here. For almost half the year this book was top of my list. Needless to say I recommend it if you can find a copy... Also, I should have guessed there would be a Jacobite element to the book - the S in James S Montgomery stands for Stuart.

A fun romp as fun romps should be.

Next week I shall reveal the top five books I’ve read this year. Looking at the book-list, can you guess what it might be? Which books would you choose as the best?

Wednesday 20 December 2017

What About.... Rookwood?

A little short video about the amazing Rookwood opera that doesn't exist.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Jacqueline Riding's 'Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion' at the Dr Johnson Book Club

Two days (and a couple of hundred years) after the Jacobite army of 1745 reached Derby, the Dr Johnson Book Group reached the 2nd floor of Gough Square. We were there to discuss ‘Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion’, a dense 600-odd pages about 18 months that failed to change the world. Even better, we were joined by the author, Jacqueline Riding.

The best thing about having a book group with the author, is the ability to sound out the author on their aim for the book and how they did it. This is especially good as there is an astonishingly large amount of material marshalled and organised within ‘Jacobites’.

The aim was to write ‘to the moment’ (as Richardson’s phrase has it). Riding spent hours going through the Stuart papers, including those included in Cumberland’s records. These papers include many letters, each bringing little parts of the fragmented story, my particular favourites being the letters from Old to Young Pretenders which are full of love and hope. We also learnt that rooting through these papers in Windsor Castle, Jacqueline Riding was mistaken for the Queen by various groups of people who cheered whenever she passed the library window.

Another aim of the book was to let the characters ‘hang themselves by their own words’. Orders from the Jacobite army to give no quarter, letters from poor Highlanders having their lives threatened and homes burned by either Jacobite or British armies and spies passing on information, misinformation and other such stuff. The people get to talk for themselves and they are all more real, conflicted and nuanced than our usual myths. 

Another point was to emphasise that Cumberland’s troops were British army and not Government army. Indeed, the Jacobites seem to be have been regarded as an invasion by most of the towns that received them. Even supposedly Jacobite towns like Manchester seem to have accepted the army out of surprise and lack of planning then any real loyalty to the cause.

Finally, there is the shock of realising that pretty much everyone involved in the ’45 rebellion were 25 years old. Riding described herself was delighted when she found the portrait that graces the cover of the book. Instead of the baby-faced, bonnet-clad, bonnie laddy, the cover shows an actual man. of great surprise was that Charles Stuart was actually older than Cumberland, who had his 25th birthday during the campaign.

Other things we talked about were how the British Army was used to marching around flat Flanders and had a great deal of difficulty with the damp of hills of Britain - and parading straight into the unknown, alien world of Scotland. We also discussed the importance of shoes. An army may march on its stomach but it still needs shoes and the Jacobite army frequently abandoned whatever they were doing to load up on decent footwear.  

Then there was the dressing up. In an age when the King of France went to a party dressed as a yew tree, dressing up was a way of life. Charles wore many disguises; from a priest, to a maidservant as well as his frequent adopting of Highland and Lowland guises. At the end of his ‘adventures’, with his hair growing long and ginger, wrapped in some genuine plaid - it was almost as if he was no longer pretending.

For many, whose idea of the ’45 begins and ends with the Skye Boat Song (incidentally written by an Englishman) this book is a good exploder of fanciful myths, dealt as even-handedly as such a topic could be. For those who wanted to retain a bit of the romance, we ended the session with a glass of Drambuie and a toast to the King over the sea.

The book was full, complex and fascinating and so was the discussion. Jacqueline Riding is working on another complicated issue, the massacre of Peterloo, if that is as nuanced as this one, it should be another great read.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Under the Glass...Eight: Worms in the Rain

Many of these ‘Under the Glass’ sections have included various phrases I use to perk myself up in times of need - but sometimes a phrase is needed to celebrate the good times, those little golden moments when everything is just right.

Again I turn to my old pal Christopher Smart and my old favourite, ‘Jubilate Agno’ for the following; 

For I rejoice like a worm in the rain

Okay, they could be smiling more in the picture but my mental picture isa lovely image of happy, dancing worms. Sometimes life is like that, you feel the right kind of creature in the right kind of place. It’s probably not a shower of rain that does it for you but you may be dancing around your kitchen chopping onions and singing Captan Beefheart… or you may be doing something else.

So, whatever hard road you walk on, whatever shadowy places you wander through, I hope there are some times in your life when you can rejoice like a worm in the rain.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Review: The Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith by Katherine Balderston

One day a really good Goldsmith biography will come out that doesn’t cast him as genius or buffoon. Norma Clark’s ‘Brothers of the Quill’ came closest but wasn’t a biography as such, more a recontextualising of his life within the parameters of an Irish immigrant writer. Until then, collections like Balderston’s one of Goldsmith letters are essential.

It doesn’t matter that most of the interesting letters are copied word for word into those dodgy biographies, nor that the lesser known ones are mainly thank-you or begging notes, it’s important that they stand alone for the reader to pour over and make decisions about Goldsmith’s character.

The main conclusion seems to be that he wasn’t quite as letter happy as the rest of his contemporaries. Johnson’s fill shelves, Walpole’s fill bookcases - Goldsmith’s barely fill a slim volume. A volume that is bulked out with a brief biography and appendices featuring forged letters and a retrospective of him by his sister. 

To make any judgements on Goldsmith based on these paltry works is difficult, but even in his letters he has a habit of making juicy little nuggets. My favourite quote ‘ I shall laugh at the absurdities of the world - and at myself, the most ridiculous one in it’ comes from a letter. His awareness (and playfulness) around his ugly face is one his most pleasing characteristics.

To the author of the Goldsmith biography that pictures him as unfeeling, it’s clear that he does have warmth to some members of his family but a distinct coldness to others. It’s not that he couldn’t feel strong feelings for people, more that he didn’t often. And when he did…he didn’t write many letters. It is clear from things Reynolds have written, that theirs was an extraordinarily strong, yet very quiet relationship that was conducted in person rather then in letter. These letters show how warm and yet how exclusive those relationships were - he’ll be mates with everyone, but only few people will reach that special level.

I have to say that I feel, as I often do, a certain sympathy with Goldsmith. Were I to become a great writer and were historians to ransack my emails and texts, I’m sure they’d discover little that shows the warmth of my relationships or the variety of my connections and communications. Someone reading my texts would find me a very cold person indeed, this is because my awkward fingers aren’t happy manipulating a phone and my messages are terse. I’d need a Boswell available to capture how I really am with my friends - Goldsmith had a Boswell around, but a Boswell who didn’t understand him at all. Poor Goldsmith, he has so little to recommend or explain him but his works, including those few letters, so we have to be thankful for them.

As to the copy of the letters, it seems vigorous in its scholarship, but it did come out in 1924 - has anyone found a cache of useful Goldsmith letters since? Could someone? Please…

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: A Trip to Canonbury House

"I bless God for my retreat at CANBURY, as it was the place of the nativity of my children.”
Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

I had long wanted to go and visit Islington’s oldest building, Canonbury Tower. It’s not an easy thing to do. Owned by the 7th Marquis of Northampton, who mainly uses it as a storage space for various masonic tat and only opens once a month. Even Susan Hahn, our very knowledgeable guide, wasn’t allowed a key. 

The Tower today

I had mainly wanted to go because of the Newbery link. John Newbery is now famous for his children’s literature (and the literature medal now named for him) but he was a publisher who Johnson described as ‘Jack Twirler', a constantly moving go-getter who can’t sit still for two minutes and helped ‘raise the worth of literature’. He owned the nearby Canonbury House, a modern Georgian mansion which also gave him access to the tower. He would house writers in the tower, including Goldsmith and Christopher Smart. Goldsmith describes himself wandering the fields of Islington trying to be funny ("I have been strolling around the hedges studying jests with a most sorrowful countenance"). Smart even raised his children in the house with his wife, Anna Maria Carnan, Newbery’s stepdaughter. 

I wasn’t expecting those stories to be some of the smaller ones.

The tower in countryside Islington

The tower is the main physical remnant of Canonbury Court, a  medieval manor house owned by the canons of Smithfield. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the tower was given to Thomas Cromwell, who used it as a comfortable country retreat. He didn’t have it for very long before his downfall where the house, along with his other properties, were used as part of the divorce settlement for Anne of Cleves. She rented it to John Dudley, the Earl of Northampton who was decapitated for trying to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen instead of Mary I…the house doesn’t seem the luckiest of places.

Another rentee was Francis Bacon, a source of many stories in the house. There are bullet holes in one of the tower rooms that are attributed to an argument between him and Walter Raleigh. I’ve also read a novel (A Dead Man In Deptford) where Bacon and Marlowe are doing secretive alchemy-esque things in the tower. If you are one of those people who believe Bacon wrote Shakespeare (I don’t), it is in Canonbury Tower where the original manuscripts are supposed to have been hidden.

The house was later sold to an ex Lord Mayor of London, whose daughter was reportedly locked in the tower to keep her away from the amorous intentions of an improvident Lord. This Lord, being well bred, reputedly disguised himself as a baker’s boy and snuck her out where they had a Fleet wedding. This Lord being a Northampton, the tower passed to that family and has been ever since. The family lived there when they were trying to be quiet during Cromwell’s protectorate but haven’t lived there since.

Irving and Goldsmith's room.

At one point, rooms were rented out and Washington Irving moved in to write his Goldsmith biography and feel close to him but was driven to distraction by the landlady charging people to peek through the keyhole at him. 

The place smells funny, there are some intricately carved walls and the ever-present notion of damp but the view is wonderful, the history fascinating and the atmosphere palpable. I loved it and I recommend it is an unusual and special trip for anyone near Islington.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Dick Turpin Review 2: The Capture

Dick Turpin gets captured so Swiftnick comes up with a plan with the help of Kevin McCallister.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

'Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair' An Exhibition

Dr Johnson’s House is always worth going to but they are always finding new ways to lure me back. This new reason is the current exhibition, ‘Johnson & Garrick: A Friendship in Constant Repair’, which is part of the entry ticket and is displayed throughout the house.

The Garricks lived in Lichfield not far from the Johnsons and had enrolled their sons George and David in Johnson’s school in Edial Hall. This was not a hugely successful venture, numbers vary but it seems that Johnson had up to seven pupils, and not at the same time. Johnson and David Garrick set off to London together, sharing a horse and taking turns to ride it. They both had theatrical intentions, Johnson to get his play Irene produced and David to become an actor. David was rather more successful.

Where Johnson took twenty years to really gain success, David Garrick worked in a wine business for four years before finding overnight recognition in a production of Richard III. Audiences were delighted with his emotional and more naturalistic acting style and many artists, including Hogarth, rushed to paint him. 

Six years later, Garrick took over the license of Drury Lane, getting Johnson to write a grand prologue and proceeding to reform how the theatre worked; stopping people being able to come in halfway through to watch the third act and the afterpiece, he took the audience off the stage and other measures to increase theatre’s respectability.

He married a German dancer, where they settled together in a mansion in Twickenham. In 1769 he created a celebration in Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s two hundred (and sixth) anniversary. The event was a total washout but was still one of the great set-piece events of the eighteenth century.

His relationship with Johnson was interesting - Johnson had an almost fatherly relationship with him and all Johnson’s circle knew that as much as Johnson dismissed his acting successes, he wouldn’t let anyway else criticise Garrick. It was one of the many faux-pas that Boswell made when he first met Johnson.

I like their teasing relationship. Garrick did impressions of Johnson and told stories of Edial Hall, whereas Johnson laughed at Garrick’s overused and wrinkled face. When Garrick died at sixty-two, outlived by Johnson who said that his death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure’. A lovely way to be remembered, certainly.

Now - for the exhibition. Johnson’s House has mainly got together with The Garrick Club and Lichfield’s Johnson Birthplace Museum to assemble a collection of pictures and objects that tell the story of the friendship, room by room.

My particular favourite objects include receipts signed by Hogarth for prints that Garrick bought, including the Richard III one and his Four Stages of Cruelty. There was the original advertisement placed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for the Edial Hall School, which I loved for its positivity and (misplaced) optimism.

Personal objects of Garrick’s included his favourite snuff box, which included a portrait of his beloved brother George in the lid. From the position of a former snuff-taker, I did think it was a rather big box, probably for table use or something similar. There was also the horn Garrick used to powder his wigs before a performance, an item which made every viewer smile when they saw it (and I watched).

There were also a number of brilliant pictures, some I knew and some I didn’t, including a Zoffany which I thought looked strange due to Garrick’s placement in the frame. The information cards also told the story of their friendship well.

Dr Johnson’s House is a must to visit as it is, but it is now crammed with even more interesting things to see and will host a number of events and talks… so, even more worth a visit.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Review: Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant

I need to step outside of the eighteenth century for a moment to wade into the swamp that is the nineteenth. 

In one of my habitual jaunts around the remaining desiccated bookshops in Charing Cross, I had to collect five books in order to pay four pounds for them. One of these books was an interesting looking novel called ‘Piccadilly’. It was published in 1870 and my copy was reprinted in 1927. I chose it because it had an interesting and perky first page about a mansion in Piccadilly overlooking Green Park that was chopped up into flats. 

It turned out to be one of the strangest books I have ever read; the tone, the message and the plot are all off-kilter with each other.

The tone is light and fluffy with frequent asides to the reader. The narrating character, Sir Frederick Vanecourt is a rich, idle MP who one day wakes up and decides to write a history of civilisation. Deciding this is too hard, he decides to write an account of his life in Piccadilly and assumes that he will find suitably important things to say within that.

Vanecourt is wealthy, vain and convinced that he was an exceptional personality that gives him special access to the truth. He says things like, “something is upside down; perhaps it is my head, but I rather think it is the world generally.” He hangs around with people with names like Spiffington Goldtip and Lord Larkington. It would seem then, that the humour and satire in the book are to be gained from watching an utterly useless young man and his utterly useless friends, sort of like a Wodehouse book.

However, the theme is that the world is sick because it professes rather than practises religion and that a stripped down, honest look at the life that Christ recommends is the cure of all society’s ills. The agent of these revelations is also Vanecourt. This means that when he is not twitting about, he’s declaiming long and passionate on the fake religion of the ‘worldly-holies’ and expounding the true faith of Jesus.

His actions do not back this up though. Apart from being vacuous and endlessly self-celebrating, he is cruel, deceitful and frequently underhand, brushing those traits off as his eccentricities. 
“As my readers will have perceived, though my intentions are always excellent, my course is occasionally, under any unusual strain, erratic.”

This means that it’s impossible to know how to take the character’s utterances. Are we supposed to be on his side the whole time (because I certainly wasn’t) or are we only supposed to take some of what he says seriously?

The plot, which is supposed to hold all this together, consists of Vanecourt falling in love with Ursula Broadhem, finding out she loves his best friend but will be married to an Indian called Chundango. His job is then to sort out the Broadhem finances and use that stranglehold over Lady Broadhelm, Ursula’s mother, to engineer a marriage between Ursula and his best friend. There are added complications with gossip, electioneering and playing the stock-markets. He then goes to America with a mystic he met on a street for two pages.

This is a perfectly fine plot for the character of Vanecourt to be involved in but it doesn’t leave much room for the religious theme, so various scenes are squeezed in to give rise to those thoughts.

This is not to mention the racism and sexism. Chundango comes from “a heathen land where a pocket handkerchief is sufficient for clothing” and Mrs Broadhem has to learn to stop trying to sort her own finances out and to let a man do it.

The most attractive thing about the novel are the run of the chapter titles, namely;

The World
The Flesh
The “_____”

I think a better novel could be written with them.

Being a little old fashioned with my criticism, I do like to know a little about an author and previous criticism when considering the work. Laurence Oliphant was the son of minor gentry who led an adventure filled, action packed youth as part of the civil service abroad. One particular moment was in Japan where he fought an irate samurai with nothing but a bullwhip. 

Rather like Vanecourt, he became a half-hearted MP living in Piccadilly where he became disenchanted with established religion and it’s deadening effect on real faith. Shortly after publishing ‘Piccadilly’, Oliphant ran off to America with the mystic Thomas Lake Harris, much as Vanecourt does at the end of the book.

Oliphant then tried to form a utopian society, was a journalist in the Franco-German war and became one of the early leaders of the zionist movement. After his wife died, he wrote a book with her ghost, moved to Twickenham and died himself. 

This confusing life doesn’t make much sense of the confused book - but at least I can understand the source of the confusion.

I’m not recommending the book though.