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“….I’ve been running all my life…” #thepassenger #GermanLitMonth @PushkinPress

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As part of German Lit Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, there has been a readalaong of a book which has made quite a splash in the media. The work in question is “The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, and it has a fascinating history. An early version of the book was first published in England shortly after the author and his mother escaped their after war broke out in 1939. However, Boschwitz was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ and eventually sent to Australia; after Pearl Harbour he was rebranded as a ‘friendly alien”; but the ship upon which he was being sent back to the UK was torpedoed and Boschwitz was lost along with 361 fellow travellers. The author had indicated to his mother, shortly before his death, that he wished to revise “The Passenger”, and that job was taken on recently by German publisher and editor Peter Graf, with the help of Boschwitz’s family and what could be gleaned of his intentions. So “The Passenger” comes with a very interesting genesis – but what is the story actually about?

“The Passenger” is set in Germany, 1938; it’s not a happy place for anyone of Jewish origin to be, as synagogues are being burned, Jews arrested and taken away, and their businesses seized or destroyed. Our protagonist is one Otto Silbermann; a middle class businessman, with a gentile wife, he’s so far avoided the horrors creeping up on his fellows. However, as the book opens he’s struggling through some business deals, attempting to liquidate property, and it’s clear that Otto has become aware that time is limited. His son has already escaped from Germany but is struggling to get exit papers for his father; his wife is of course relatively safe, apart from the fact that she’s married to a Jew; and the main thing Otto has in his favour is that he doesn’t look Jewish. Being able to ‘pass’ will be a significant advantage in the days to come…

The arrival of stormtroopers at his apartment shocks Otto into running, and he takes off into the streets of Berlin. However, there doesn’t appear to be safety here either; those who know him and know he’s Jewish avoid him, hoteliers and restauranteurs who formerly happily served him turn their backs; and Otto starts to realise that what status he had has been stripped away by the Nazi decrees and treatment of his people. What follows is a tense series of flights as Otto shuttles from place to place on a sequence of train journeys, trying to get out of Germany, find out if his wife is safe, contact his son and hold onto what money he has left. His encounters on the way are chilling – will Otto’s constant movement be enough to keep him ahead of the Nazis and safe from capture?

We were always just one of many, part of a group. And now we’re alone. There’s no longer someone giving commands, there’s no order you can stick to. You have to run and there’s no one telling you where to.

It’s fair to say that “The Passenger” is a nail-biting read; with the benefit of hindsight, we know what it was like when the Nazis came to power and how ghastly their regime was. However, Boschwitz takes the reader right into the heart of that time, and we experience the horrors alongside Otto as he attempts to come to terms with his world falling apart. It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, fearing for Otto at each encounter and willing him to behave calmly and sensibly when of course that really isn’t possible.

What I found particularly interesting is that Otto is not necessarily a particularly likeable character; he’s quite pompous, very much the middle-class, well-to-do businessman, and part of the power of the story is watching all of this fall apart as the strain of running gradually wears him down. His meetings with those he knows are often chilling as they either turn their back, or try to help, or keep their distance; one memorable encounter is with an acquaintance who realises that by his very appearance he’s potentially putting Otto in danger of being identified as a Jew. Otto initially has contempt for those who reject him, but as his situation gets worse he finds that his own survival becomes the only thing which matters, and that he’s no better than those who refuse to help him.

He angrily tossed away the cigarette he’d just lit. Whatever I’ve done in the past, he thought, looks different today than it did back then, because now my humanity is called into question, because I am a Jew.

As well as being a gripping read, “The Passenger” is also a really powerful portrait of a man unravelling under pressure. It’s hard to accept that your normal, ordinary, everyday world is suddenly gone and that your country is being ruled by sadistic madmen. In similar situations, I’m sure we’d find this equally difficult to accept, and it’s only when the truth is incontrovertably presented to Otto in the form of jackboots beating down the door that he realises his life is gone and he needs to flee. He’s not a man of action, however, and the strain of the flight is too much.

Author photograph via Pushkin Press website

As I mentioned at the start of my post, “The Passenger” was lost for decades until it was rediscovered and edited by Peter Graf; and I have to applaud him and the various publishers and translators involved in bringing this work back into print. The English version is translated by Philip Boehm with a preface by Andre Aciman, and is published by the ever-reliable Pushkin Press. As well as being an unforgettable and gripping read, it’s also a timely re-issue. At a period in the planet’s history when extreme regimes are threatening people all over the world, we need to be reminded of how easily those in charge can get out of control and how vile intolerance of others is. “The Passenger” carries a vital message from the past, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” @Alex_Niven @RepeaterBooks #NonFicNov

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As I’ve probably said before many a time, one of my favourite things as a reader is when you randomly stumble across something really wonderful which takes you off on a reading tangent and down a wormhole of exploration. That happened with me recently, when I came across mention of “Newcastle, Endless” on Twitter, which I promptly sent off for, loved and reviewed here. Needless to say, I felt the need to explore more of author Alex Niven‘s work and a quick check online revealed his recent book“New Model Island” (which was mentioned in “Newcastle…”). Lovely Blackwells obliged and it was another book I felt needed to bypass the TBR mountain; I seem to be doing a lot of that lately…

“New Model Island” was published by Repeater Books in 2019, so is writing about a pre-pandemic world; and its subtitle, “How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England”, reveals just what an interesting work it is. Taking a dramatic starting point of the opinion that England and Englishness don’t actually exist, Niven sets out to explore the void at the centre of the mythologies and stereotypes perpetrated by the mass media. The 20th century cliche of tea, crumpets and cricket is most definitely a construct, and a dig deeper into the past of the humans living on what Niven calls our archipelago of islands reveals a past built out of many different peoples from different backgrounds and with radically different living experiences than the patriotic rhetoric would suggest.

To be English is to feel hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants, or even just the normative working class) rather than the real source of one’s actual imagined impoverishment: so often the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.

The structure of the book is fascinating; Niven mixes his theories with personal memoir and experience, focusing strongly on his friendship with the writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher Mark Fisher, one of the founders of Zero Books, who took his own life in 2017. That loss has a dramatic effect on Niven, and as well as drawing on Fisher’s theories, he explores the whole history of Zero books. That history took another turn recently, as Repeater have apparently bought back Zero Books so as to be wholly independent again. Interestingly, I have a number of Zero titles on my shelves and was prompted to dig them out again…

My original Zero books from many moons ago – the Hatherley was the first I obtained…

But I digress. The author, therefore, has a strong political lean to the left (with which I empathise…) and is happy to take on any number of sacred cows (Orwell and Billy Bragg included!) Niven’s historical knowledge of the history of our archipelago is impressive, and he ranges widely, drawing into his discussion anything from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” to Alton Towers, where he identifies the void at the heart of England. The chapter on this is perhaps unexpected, but fascinating…

If England really exists, it does so in a highly limited sense that can only be clearly glimpsed at ostentatiously hidden sites like Alton Towers, sites that would probably rather be forgotten by advocates of both the convervative-pastoral myth of Englishness, and the modern liberal fantasy that England is a sophisticated multicultural democracy with just a couple of minor problems.

Having explored that void, he then advances his radical idea of how to restructure our lands, by splitting it into two large and equally resourced administrative areas, with a divide running diagonally from the north east down to Wales, thereby creating a north and west triangle to balance the south and east, where power lies at the moment. It’s a revolutionary concept, but one that certainly makes more sense that the current so-called government’s mealy-mouthed talk of ‘levelling-up” which is basically meaningless.

Towards the end of the book, Niven explores the then current political situation, seeing hope in the coming of Corbyn to Labour, and a possible end to Tory monopoly in sight. Alas, that was not to be, and the last few pages of the book reminded me of a time when I’d dared to hope this country was moving towards a fairer society, instead of what Niven describes as “a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.”

Although superficially about a very different topic to “Newcastle, Endless”, it’s clear that Niven’s ideas and beliefs suffuse both works and I found his narrative gripping. No, there aren’t sheaves of post-its sticking out of my copy – there was so much which stimulated my brain that I had to keep jotting down things in a notebook! As a Scot, and therefore an outsider, I perhaps found the arguments easier to appreciate than someone born in e.g. the south east of the country would; but it’s worth approaching the book with an open mind as this will really bring rewards. “New Model Island” is an invigorating and thought-provoking work which buzzes with ideas; and its wonderful blend of the personal and the political means that the book is never a dry, academic work. Instead, it makes compelling reading and puts forward a really fascinating blueprint for a new structure on our islands which would ensure a fairer distribution of control and therefore wealth for everyone. A utopian concept, maybe, but one that really should be considered seriously…

*****

I’ll claim this title for Non-Fiction November, and highly recommend it and “Newcastle, Endless” if you want to have your thoughts provoked! Needless to say, I’ve felt the need to track down two more Niven titles (published by Zero Books back in the day – thank you again, wonderful Blackwells). These sound just as interesting as the two Nivens I’ve read! 😀

“And sad came the moan of the sea.” #northusshetlandclassics @spikenard65

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Any regular reader of the Ramblings will know that I’ve covered many an interesting title by Michael Walmer; he republishes some fascinating books, from classic short works to forgotten fiction, belles lettres, poetry and classics – I do encourage you to check out his titles here. However, Mike relocated relatively recently from Australia to the Shetland Islands (now there’s a dramatic change of landscape!); and since his move he’s initiated a new range of releases, the Northus Shetland Classics. So far, there are three titles in the series and these are they – fiction, poetry and memoir.

Now, of course, I’m an exiled Scot (though not from so far north as these islands!) so I was very keen to read some of the titles, and Mike has kindly provided copies for me to explore. I was particularly interested in the release of the poetry of Basil Ramsay Anderson, as he’s a name new to me, and “Broken Lights” turned out to be a fascinating read.

Anderson had a short, yet productive life. Born in 1861 on Unst, the nothernmost inhabited point of the British Isles, his early years were tough; his father was drowned while fishing off the island, and the family were left to cope alone. As there were 6 children in the family, this can’t have been easy for his mother, to whom he was very attached. The family moved to Edinburgh when Anderson was in his teens, and here he fell in with the local group of exiled Shetlanders, who were very involved in the church and in radical politics. During his short life he published little, but after dying tragically young at the age of 26, his work became well known, mainly it seems thanks to the efforts of the Shetland novelist and poet, Jessie Saxby. She was asked by Anderson’s family to edit his work for publication, and the result was “Broken Lights”.

As well as collecting Anderson’s poetry, the book also gathered extracts from his letters, reminisences and tributes, and even included a useful glossary of Shetland terminology. A ground-breaking work, then, and one which is reproduced in full here, along with a new introduction by Robert Alan Jamieson, himself a Shetland poet.

I sigh for the Isles that are over the sea,
I sigh for the hearts of the North;
For I know that a welcome is waiting for me,
And I know what that welcome is worth.

The poetry itself is divided into two section: Poems in English and Scots, and Poems in the Shetland Dialect. They make fascinating, often moving, reading, with the English verses perhaps being more traditional. The ones using Scots were a little bit of a revelation for me; we moved down south when I was six, and so my exposure to Scots was limited and when I was quite young. Yet I found myself very much in tune with the Scots verse, with my understanding of Scots words coming back and this was a real joy. The Shetland poems dig deep too, drawing on the history of island life; the central poem of these is “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which is apparently Anderson’s best known work, and it’s striking and memorable.

The additional material, in the form of introductions by both Jamieson and Saxby, extracts from letters and the memories of those who knew Anderson, add to the poems and build up a picture of a fascinating and talented poet who died far too young. Interestingly, Jamieson’s introduction reveals that Anderson’s neice was Willa Muir, the esteemed novelist, essayist and translator – so there was obviously talent flowing in the family line.

When fall the shadows of the night,
    And quiet musings fill the breast,
We’ll think of one who, like the light,
    Has passed into the far, far west.

Shetland literature obviously has much to offer, and so the bringing of such an important work back into print is to be lauded. I confess to often feeling drawn north to my homeland, and islands themselves are very appealing. So to be able to read these wonderful works from Shetland writers is a huge treat, and I loved discovering the writings of Basil Ramsay Anderson. Kudos to Mike Walmer for starting up this particular imprint – I shall really look forward to reading more of the works in the series!

“I felt a warm rasping at my throat..” @RenardPress #DraculasGuest

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I’m slipping this post in out of order – I usually like to cover books in order of reading them! – as I wanted to flag up this lovely little book which recently arrived from Renard Press. It’s appropriate reading for the increasingly darker nights, and makes a wonderful adjuct to a much-loved classic. The book is “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker, and it has an interesting history!

This short work was first published in 1914 after Stoker’s death in 1912. His widow, Florence, collected together a number of short works which she published as “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories”, stating in her preface that the title work was a “hitherto unpublished episode from Dracula … originally excised owing to the length of the book”. Here, the story is presented as a standalone work, with the usual excellent supporting material from Renard, and it makes fascinating reading.

“Dracula” itself opens with entries from Jonathan Harker’s journal as he makes his way to meet the mysterious Count. However, “Dracula’s Guest” is posited as a possible pre-opening, and features an unnamed narrator (presumably Harker) making an unexpected stop in a graveyard on Walpurgis Night and having some rather unnerving encounters… More than this I cannot say, but the story ends with a hint as to what will follow…

“Guest…” itself is quite a chilling little work which definitely captures the spooky and menacing surrounds in which Harker finds himself. It would have made an interesting opening to the main work and might perhaps have changed a reader’s perception as to what was to come. The Renard edition also reproduces the published opening of “Dracula” so that you can compare the two and consider the effect that “Guest” would have had on your reading of the book had it been inserted.

As usual with Renard, there’s supporting material in the form of information about Stoker himself, and all of this adds up to a nice little volume which certainly enhances a reading of “Dracula” and also makes a shivery short work in its own right. I’m a huge fan of Stoker’s masterpiece, and I do believe that the various films etc which have come after it really don’t do it justice. “Dracula’s Guest” is a fascinating addition to that work and definitely worth tracking down if you’re a fan too. Now I just have to decide whether I’m going to shelve it with my Renard collection or next to my edition of Dracula… 🙄🙄

 

A Dark Tale of Vengeance #durrenmattday #GermanLitMonth

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As part of November’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, today has been declared “Durrenmatt Day”! The plan, I believe, is to focus on writings by the author Friedrich Durrenmatt who’s known for his dark thrillers. I have an omnibus collection of his works but alas have run out of reading this month; so I thought instead I would share my thoughts on one of his titles which I read back in 2017 for our 1951 ClubThe Quarry.

As I said at the time, the book “is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in a previous Durrenmatt title), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in Zürich.

It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.

…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.

“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.

I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated.”

*****

I obviously thought highly of the book at the time, and I’ve read other titles by the author pre-blog; so this is a useful reminder that some of my omnibus edition is still unread! As I said at the time, the book doesn’t credit the translator, which is very frustrating… Nevertheless, a memorable read from a powerful author, and deserving of his day during this German Literature Reading Month!

“Without doubt, cats are intellectuals… @NottingHillEds #margaretatwood #MARM

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Back in 2019, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a lovely anthology of writings about dogs from Notting Hill Editions. It was a real treat to read, particularly as I am a huge animal lover; so I was really delighted to find out that they were issuing a sister volume to that one in the form of “On Cats”, which was released earlier this month. The book, which is edited by Suzy Robinson, comes with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and contains photographic illustrations of lovely moggies by Elliot Ross; and as it’s one of NHE’s lovely clothbound hardback editions, it’s a thing of great beauty in its own right.

Atwood’s introduction, exploring her own relationship with the cats of her life, is lovely enough to start with; and the range of authors featured is wide and impressive. There’s Tove Jansson turning up again (she was in the Ghosts anthology I wrote about recently); this time with as piece from “The Summer Book”, rather than anything Moomin. Ernest Hemingway appears with a letter to his ex-wife, updating her on the amount of cats he owns; Ring Lardner worries about the tendency of cats to produce so many kittens; Edward Gorey explores the topic of writers and their cats; and Bohumil Hrabal goes down the same route as Lardner. It’s worth pointing out that the life of a cat is not always easy, and the many kittens they produce are not always destined to make it through to a happy adulthood. The book doesn’t shy away from these darker aspects, so be aware of this if you’re sensitive about cat fates…

The roll-call of amazing authors continues, however! The extract from Rebecca West‘s “Why My Mother was Frightened of Cats” was a particular stand-out for me, relating her long experience alongside her cat Pounce; a piece from Muriel Spark‘s “Robinson” (which I wrote about here) reminded me just what a wonderful author she was; Ursula Le Guin takes a different angle on things, exploring life from the point of view of the cat Pard, relating his ‘life so far’, which is very entertaining; and Caitlin Moran tackles the passing of a family pet, how devastating that can be, and just how attached we get to the animals who share our lives.

If you have, or have had, small children in your life, you may well have spent time reading the Mog books to your offspring; mine were particularly fond of them, although less than happy with the final book in which Mog crosses the rainbow bridge to that great cattery in the sky… A piece by Naomi Fry examining the Mog books is particularly interesting, and I did love this little aside:

As any feline lover knows, all happy cats are alike, but each unhappy cat is unhappy in its own way…

Other authors include Keats, Guy de Maupassant and even Nikola Tesla – this really is a book full of riches. As I may have mentioned before, Mr. Kaggsy and I briefly had a cat pass through our lives in our early days together; we called him Pushkin and regarded him as a real free spirit. Although dogs are pretty much domesticated, I always feel that cats have an independence, only really tolerating being with us much of the time. This beautiful anthology is a wonderful exploration of the feline race, their relationship to humans and how they affect our lives; and it’s a lovely, occasionally sad, read from start to finish. Highly recommended for the cat lover in your life! 😀

*****

November is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Buried in Print, and despite my best intentions, I don’t think I will get to one of her novels. But as this book has a lovely introduction by her, I think I will count this! 😀

Celebrating #RLSDay2021 with a little poetry from the great man!

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Robert Louis Stevenson Day is celebrated annually on the great author’s birthday, 13th November, and I always try to remember to take part in this. For 2021, I had intended to read a recent acquisition about RLS and his relationship with his cousin, Katharine de Mattos (thanks to the influence of Lizzy!)

However, time has been against me, and I’ve failed to get to the book; so instead I though I would share a poem that RLS wrote to his cousin. It’s a moving verse, and from what I’ve picked up to far, the two were close during their lives until Stevenson’s wife caused an estrangement and literary theft got in the way. Such a shame…

Lovely RLS things brought back from Edinburgh…

Here is the verse, anyway, which I read from my lovely “Selected Poems”, picked up in Edinburgh four years ago, Happy RLS Day! 😀

To Katharine de Mattos

With a copy of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’

Bells upon the city are ringing in the night;
High above the gardens are the houses full of light;
On the heathy Pentlands is the curlew flying free,
And the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie.

It’s ill to break the bonds that God decreed to bind,
Still we’ll be the children of the heather and the wind.
Far away from home, O, it’s still for you and me
That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie!

…love, that high, romantic thing…” @BL_Publishing #WomenWriters #FarMoreThanFiction

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Today on the Ramblings, I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of the new releases in the British Library Woman Writers series – the book in question is “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse and it actually plays a part in my embarking upon my blogging life! You see, back in the early 2010s I rediscovered Virago Modern Classics at the same time as I started reading book blogs. I had been a huge fan in the early years, but bringing up the three Offspring had kind of got in the way of books at times. However, as they flew the nest, I really got back into reading, and the Viragos led me to LibraryThing’s wonderful VMC group. It was here I finally got the impetus to start up my own blog, and nearly 10 years later am still here.

One of the VMCs I read pre-blog was, of course, “Pin…” and it was probably the most important title in drawing me back to the books and exploring much of the back catalogue I’d missed. Since then I believe the book has slipped out of print, despite its high profile in the 1970s particularly (when it was the subject of a BBC adaptation). But I’m giving this personal history here so you’ll understand how happy I am that “Pin” has been reissued by British Library Publishing; I think it’s a wonderful and enormously important book and thoroughly deserves to be widely read, and I’ll try to explain why; although inevitably there is the risk here of me giving away some plot details.

“Pin…”, originally published in 1934, draws its core material from the notorious Thompson/Bywaters case of the 1920s, a case Jesse would no doubt have been familiar with as she covered a number of high-profile trials during her writing career for “Notable British Crimes”. She was so fascinated by the subject that she also wrote a book analysing the motivations behind crimes; so when it came to writing “Pin..” she already had a proven track record in dealing with crime and murder.

The lovely new BL cover

Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist is a young woman, Julia Almond, whose inflated sense of her own worth will lead to tragedy. Born into a dull suburban setting, she dreams of a more passionate, exciting life and her work in a fashionable clothes shop in London’s West End gives her an outlet for her fantasies. Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere at her parents’ home she makes an ill-advised marriage to the older, tragically dull and recently widowed Herbert Starling. However, a chance meeting with the much younger Leonard Carr, whom she knew at school, will eventually lead to an affair, murder and a trial – as well as damning misogynistic judgements about her behaviour and way of life. As anyone who knows the story of the Thompson/Bywaters case will realise, things will not end well for Julia…

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance.

It’s a little difficult to say a lot more about the plot without giving away too much, and in fact if you can go into this book knowing little about the case which inspired it I think the effect of reading it would be even stronger. Jesse writes quite brilliantly, for one thing, conjuring her heroine and the setting vividly. Julia is living in a world where things are changing for some and the old social mores are being thrown off; although as she will find, class is still a major issue and what the monied can get away with, she can’t. Trapped desperately in her affair, craving her lover yet afraid to leave her husband because of the security he offers, she has no real way out; in that era, women’s choices and opportunities were very limited. Then Leo takes dramatic action; yet Julia appears to be the one on trial. And here we get to another of the strongest strands of the book.

There is, inevitably, a horrible legal case. And although Julia would today be considered not culpable, she’s judged very much by the morals of the time and those morals have different standards for women, and particularly women of a lower class. Julia does not help herself – in many ways she’s not an especially likeable character, yet despite this, Jesse creates anger and sorrow on her behalf for her eventual fate. Julia Starling is, in the end, realistic in that she is human and fallible – and she certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to her.

My original Virago edition

“A Pin to see the Peepshow” is a memorable and sometimes chilling work which gets under the skin; and it’s also a brilliantly written and constructed novel, which is compelling reading. Jesse was obviously intent on making several points about society’s expectations of women and the double standards employed, and she makes those points well, though never to the detriment of her narrative which builds to a devastating (but not unexpected) climax. Her method is very much “show” rather than “tell”, which makes the book all the more effective. I was so engrossed in the story that even though I knew what was coming, I was willing the end to be different… By presenting the conclusion in the way that she does, Jesse conveys the reality of the consequences of murder at the time in a way that had me even more convinced than ever that the death penalty is not the solution – particularly in a case where the evidence and attitudes are so tainted…

So as far as I’m concerned, this is an essential re-issue from British Library Publishing in their Women Writer’s series, and a book I think should permanently be in print. As a piece of literature it’s compelling; as a portrait of the social mores of the time and the judgements meted out to women it’s outstanding; and as an argument against the death penalty it’s powerful and unforgettable. If you only ever pick up one book from this excellent series (and that would be your loss, because there are so many treasures!), I would urge you to read “A Pin to See the Peepshow”.

*****

As with all of the British Library Women Writers series, “Pin” comes with excellent supporting material. There is a list of notable events of the 1930s, a short bio of Jesse and a foreword by Lucy Evans, Curator at the Printed Heritage Collections, British Library. The afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas gives an excellent overview of both the original case and its similarities to (or differences from!) “Pin”. Altogether, an essential release!

“On it went, moaning and rushing past the house…” @NottingHillEds @BehemothMusic

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As the nights grow longer and the days get colder, it’s traditionally the time of year to hunker down with a good book; and often during October and November, thoughts turn to spookier reads! Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not good with horror, and I have to be selective about ghost stories; however, I couldn’t resist when Notting Hill Editions sent a copy of their newest anthology! The book is “The Wrong Turning: Encounters with Ghosts”, introduced and edited by Stephen Johnson, and it’s a real treat from start to finish!

Stephen Johnson is a writer, composer and musician, amongst other things, and I’ve previously covered another NHE for which he’s responsible, the wonderful “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind”; so I knew I was in good hands with this anthology! The choice of authors featured is interesting, an excellent range, and the book also has an intriguing structure. Johnson provides linking commentary between each piece, teasing out connections and putting the stories in context, which really adds to the pleasure of reading as well as making you think a little differently about stories which might be familiar – an excellent way to construct an anthology.

So let’s take a little look at the contents… The book is pretty much bookended by extracts from “Wuthering Heights“, Emily Bronte’s scary gothic masterpiece, and both are chilling. In between, there are extracts and short stories which could well be familiar to the reader – “The Turn of the Screw“, “The Yellow Wallpaper“, “The Monkey’s Paw” – but are no less chilling because of that familiarity. In particular, “Wallpaper…” seems to get more and more frightening with re-reading and the ending is quite unforgettable.

However, the book also has some perhaps unexpected entries which were really rather wonderful. An extract from Tove Jansson’s “Moominpappa at Sea” features the terrifying Groke, a recurring character in the books; I came to the Moomins as an adult but I think I would have been quaking in my books if I’d read this as a child. Interestingly, this particular piece is one which seems to be telling us to face our fears – often good advice. Then there are short pieces which subvert the idea of ghostly presences, by Lang Ying and Flann o’Brien and these do lighten the mood nicely.

Because, tbh, there are times when you need to be lightened a little when reading ghost stories. I made the mistake of reading M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in bed at night which was not a good move. I know the story, of course, having seen the old BBC TV adaptation which is creepy enough. However, as always, the story was better and by exercising the reader’s imagination and ramping up the tension, this reduced me to a bit of a jelly!!! So after that I read the book in daylight….

Other authors featured are Pushkin, Ambrose Bierce and Penelope Lively; and the latter was via a particularly impressive and memorable story called “Black Dog“. I’ve long been a fan of Lively’s writing, although I’ve read mostly her children’s books; and I don’t think I’ve read any of her short stories. However, on the strength of this one I’ve been missing out. “Black Dog” is a wonderful modern counterpart to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, dealing as it does with men’s misunderstandings of women; and the prosaic everyday setting just makes the protagonist’s experiences and behaviour even more unsettling.

“The Wrong Turn” is a really cleverly put together anthology, in the usual stunning livery from NHE. Johnson’s choices are obviously thoughtfully made, intriguingly linked, and explore all kinds of unsettling experiences – just going to show, I suppose, how easy it is to take the wrong turning and end up in a situation you really didn’t want. Whether it’s ghosts, curses, disordered states of mind or monsters, all of the scary happenings in these stories are guaranteed to send shivers down the spine – just don’t read them in the dark….. 😀

“…I was celestially kissed…” @Alex_Niven @CanalsidePress #newcastleendless

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today, as I share my thoughts on a lovely little indie publication which straddles several genres! “Newcastle, Endless” by Alex Niven was a title I stumbled across on Twitter (such a bad influence for books), and I was intrigued. I reviewed “The Book of Newcastle” back at the beginning of 2020, and related in that post my connection with the city via a visit many moons ago. Being an exiled Scot, I’m always drawn north anyway, and I’ve explored the work of the Morden Tower poets too. I thought Niven’s book sounded like it might be an essential adjuct to these readings, and I wasn’t wrong.

“Newcastle, Endless” is published by Canalside Press, and is a beautiful little edition which as well as containing Niven’s verses, also features colour images of the city by Euan Lynn, a prologue from Adam Sharr, and an afterword by Patrick Lynch, Editor and Publisher at Canalside. The poems explore the architecture and landscape of the city, an every-changing one, with the supporting texts focusing on the effects on the city structure of T. Dan Smith. The latter was an idealistic leader of the Labour Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, and although he was brought down by scandal it’s clear that his intentions for the city were sound ones. So the verse is divided into sections, interspersed with extracts from Smith’s autobiography, and the resulting book is a fascinating mixture of poetry, architecture, politics and history.

Niven is a lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University, as well as a regular contributor to a variety of publications and author of another very interesting sounding book I may have to track down. His verse is a variation on the sonnet form, but lacking punctuation, which makes it beautiful and hypnotic to read. There’s also one poem which takes a more tradition ballad form and it’s very moving – this is the opening verse:

Once I was a man of light
The day was early in my head
But now my heart is with the night
And all my dreams are of the dead

Other verses explore city locations such as the Civic Centre, Fenwick’s department store, Grainger Town and the Tyne Bridge. As one of the pithy quotes from Smith points out, we love water and mountains and things which appear to exist ‘naturally’ but are often offended by built landscapes – why is that, he wonders, and are we capable of integrating our constructions into a landscape so that they belong there? I think that’s probably something town planners are still trying to work out (if they actually think about what they’re doing nowadays, instead of just allowing anything interesting to be torn down and any old thing to be thrown up…)

I found “Newcastle, Endless” to be one of those unexpected, serendipitous discoveries, where you find a book purely by chance and it turns out to be quite brilliant. As a meditation on the changes in Niven’s city, it’s moving; the poems are lyrically engaging and lovely; and historical elements intriguing. And as well as being fascinating to read, it’s a beautiful object in its own right, with the images complementing the text and the extra material enhancing the whole experience of reading – I shall have to take a look at the rest of Canalside’s books. Anyway, this turned out to be a wonderful and evocative read which really made me think about the landscapes in which we live. Highly recommended and I’m off to see what Niven’s other book is about… ;D

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