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.