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“Another reason for walking is… for contemplation.” @LittleToller #millstonegrit

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Back in August, I spoiled myself by sending off for a couple of books published by Little Toller; they’re one of my favourite indies, issuing wonderful nature-focused works, and I’ve covered a couple on the blog already. The two titled I picked up were “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey and “Millstone Grit” by Glyn Hughes; and typically for me, having drafted my end of November post where I thought I might spend December wallowing in classic crime, I then went and instantly decided that the Hughes would be my next read!!

Little Toller’s nature classics are beautiful works; slightly larger format than usual, with striking covers, illustrations (at least in this case, by Peter Hollings), interesting forewords and French flaps. Glyn Hughes, a new name to me, hailed from Chester and had a varied career, teaching and writing. In 1971 he moved to Mill Bank, Sowerby Bridge, where he died in 2011, and the landscape of West Yorkshire was obviously a huge inspiration. “Millstone Grit” was first published in 1975 and it’s a fascinating look at the north at the time when the region was undergoing significant change.

The book comes with an  introduction from Benjamin Myers, and “Millstone Grit” is hung upon a fifty-mile walk Hughes takes through the West Riding and East Lancashire, exploring the moorlands alongside the industrial towns of the Pennines. The landscape is unforgiving, and the industries in decline, with most of the cotton mills closing down, the villages decaying and people moving away. Hughes, however, has been drawn back to the area after his marriage collapsed, and the location and closeness to nature informs his work.

… I love quiet the more because I live in an age that appreciates it so little; one of sound pollution that is ignored more than other environmental adulterations. I was able to listen to the pleasant sounds of birds, wind, rain, or sporadic human noises: the postman, milkman, or forlorn door-to-door sales people combing their most desperate beat.

Hughes’s writing is indeed beautiful and he draws into his narrative musings on nature, the histories of the areas through which he’s passing, memories of those who lived and worked in the Mills and poetry, both his own and that by others. The result is a lyrical book which explores the millstone grit landscape from a fascinating variety of viewpoints. As I mentioned, at the time when the book was written the cotton industries were in decline, and the many of the villages of the region would not survive this. Those that did were ones which inevitably were being gentrified, and Hughes recognises the issues this created.

As transport improved and initially hippies moved into the area, the changes were not so great. But the villages came to be seen as viable for commuters, and so old cottages were demolished, new buildings put up which were out of keeping with the landscape and a divide created between original residents and incomers. It’s a situation still relevant today, and unavoidable it seems. No-one wants to live somewhere with no plumbing or electricity, in primitive conditions; but not all developers will make changes with sensitivity.

The shaping of stone, whether by masons or by the wear of humans, animals or weather, always stirs me. Here, every paving stone had been worn into a saddle-shaped trough by the passage of horses and men. It is the same shaping that one sees in the stones of mill stairs, and it moves me to think of the working men, women and children whose feet sculpted those shapes, their only memorials to a hundred years of daily labour. Yet when mills and passageways are demolished, they are broken or thrown away.

Hughes ranges far and wide over the landscape of the north, passing by Heptonstall (where he mentions the grave of Sylvia Plath), the notorious Saddleworth Moor, and of course Haworth; even then the latter was being consumed by Bronte tourism and though I’d love to visit I doubt I could cope with the level of commercialism involved nowadays.

“Millstone Grit” is very much a book of its time, although parts of the landscape Hughes explores are timeless; and interestingly, I occasionally picked up hints that the author’s attitudes were of his time, too. The odd description of the land using unusual metaphors of female anatomy; the fact that many of his male friends appear to be on the run from domesticity, leaving the women and children behind; nothing overt, but just a feeling that some of his attitudes might not quite have agreed with mine!

But this is a minor point, because the book is a wonderful and evocative read, exploring landscape, politics, art, poetry, change – life itself. The text is accompanied by the aforementioned excellent photographs by Peter Hollings (I would have liked to have a little more info about him included in the book), and captures the sense of bleak space of the northern moors. A great reissue by Little Toller, and I’m rather keen to continue with a little more nature writing now… ;D

The stage is set…. #finalacts @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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My first book post for December may well be setting a trend for the month; it’s another lovely British Library Crime Classic, and as I hinted in my end of November post, I suspect there might be a number of them making an appearance on the blog before the new year! My love of Golden Age crime should be well known, and so I’m always pleased when a BLCC pops through the door; and they make the perfect palate cleaner when I’m not sure what to read next. Today’s book is another one of their marvellous anthologies and it really is a treat! Entitled “Final Acts”, it collects together a wonderful selection of short stories centred around theatres and it’s definitely one of the most entertaining of their collections I’ve read!

My photo doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a stunner of a cover!!

Edited by Martin Edwards, the book gathers together fourteen stories which are a particularly strong and distinctive selection of mysteries, from more obscure names like  Barry Perowne and Roy Vickers, to the queens of the era like Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Some names have been rescued from neglect by the BLCC releases (Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand), whilst others definitely deserve to be revisited (Marguerite Steen, Brandon Fleming). Somehow, Golden Age crime and theatres seem to work so well together – creepiness, the slight sinister nature of backstage, seedy characters hanging around, disguises and complex alibis and all manner of devious murders and motives; all of these elements fit brilliantly into the mystery genre and there’s plenty of this on show in “Final Acts”.

I’ve read a number of BLCC anthologies and I have to say that I think this is one of the best, if not *the* best. I usually struggle with not wanting to pick out favourites, although this is collection where I feel you could actually write about every story individually. However I *will* focus on some standouts…

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A.E.W. Mason reintroduced me to an author who I hadn’t read since my twenties; Mason was very highly regarded in his time, I believe, and I loved his “The House of the Arrow” back in the day. His regular detective was Hanaud, and on the basis of this story I’m really not sure why he’s fallen out of favour nowadays. Anyway, “Semiramis” is a wonderful story, nudging close to novella length, in which Hanaud investigates a strange affair involving jewel theft, drugs, romance, murder and singing. It’s a heady mix which creates an excellent and atmospheric story, and I must confess I’m feeling drawn to seek out some of those Hanaud novels for a revisit.

Another highlight was “In View of the Audience” by Marguerite Steen, which was quite unforgettable. George Brewster catches a train by the skin of his teeth; but it turns out to be the wrong one… As he curses, and waits for the next stop where he can get a connection, he enters into conversation with his fellow passenger, Henry Morpeth, a strange little man who it turns out has just bought a derelict theatre in the sticks. As Brewster becomes drawn into Morpeth’s story, events take a sinister turn, building to a really dark climax. More I will not say, but it’s a brilliant and suspenseful story, cleverly done and very memorable…

Sayers is, of course, a magnificent writer and she’s one of my all-time favourites – I could read the Wimsey books over and over (in fact, I have…) “Blood Sacrifice” doesn’t feature her main detective, but is a standalone story, and another very dark one. As is aways the case with Sayers, there is a depth to the story as she explores the emotions of John Scales, an author whose play has been a huge success but at the cost of his morals, as it has been toned down and smoothed out to make it acceptable to the masses. Scales is tormented by this, knowing his reputation has been made as a playwright, but not on the work he would like to do; and the blame is put down to actor-manager Garrick Drury who caught Scales in a contract which allowed the changes to be made. However, Scales will find his morals tested when met with an event where he could influence events one way or the other – which choice will he make, and does he *really* have the power to influence things that strongly? A wonderfully clever and thought-provoking story by Sayers as always.

Arriving at the Theatre in the 1950s (Terrace, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“After the Event” by Christianna Brand is another clever one. Backstage rivalries are a wonderful motive, and feature in a number of the stories; and here this element features strongly, with a particular acting family being in effect held to ransome by a married-in member. The alibis hinge on a number of things including timings and make-up, and also the loyalty of the various members of the troupe; and the solution is a very interesting one. Also a delight in this story is her series detective, Inspector Cockrill who sees through everything to get to the truth!

Then there’s “I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh, which was another treat. Featuring her regular detective, Roderick Alleyn, this features a very devious murder, and things are complicated by a young friend of the Alleyns turning up backstage and impersonating not only the great detective, but also someone who might cause concern to the company. Luckily Alleyn is on hand to get to the truth of what is a very clever murder, and this was a really satisfying story.

Well, those are a few of the highlights, but I have to say that I found this collection wonderfully varied and not a dud amongst the stories. As I mentioned, the stage setting (of whatever kind – and there is plenty of variety) works so well for GA crime and the range here was excellent. “Final Acts” was a thoroughly enjoyable read from the opening overture to the final curtain; there was an entertainingly diverse selection of plot and characterisation, some cracking mysteries and a marvellous sense of atmosphere. The theatre settings were wonderfully conjured and realistic, and this is the perfect book to lose yourself in if you want some GA Crime escapism during the darker evenings. Loved it!

Looking back at November’s reading events – and forward to the last month of the year! 😊

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Well, November was a month full of events, wasn’t it??? As I mentioned in my end of October post, I hoped to take part in German Lit Month, Novellas in November, Margaret Atwood Reading Month and Non-Fiction November; and I’m happy to say that I did, as well as reading the fourth in the Susan Cooper “The Dark is Rising” sequence – here’s what I read:

Again this was a lovely month of reading with some really marvellous books; of course, I’ve only part read the two Atwoods but that leaves me with more pleasures to come. What was particularly enjoyable about November was the number of books which managed to overlap and ended up ticking the box for multiple reading events! As November is always so busy this did take the pressure off, and also meant that I ended up reading some marvellous books.

Apart from the various events, I also oddly found myself sweeping up a couple of 1929 books which I’d managed to miss when we had our latest club reading week in October; both of them were excellent reads, so I regard that as a very successful month with no duds! 😀

So what’s coming up on the Ramblings in December? Well, first of all, I’m happy to report that I’ll once again be taking part in Cross-Examining Crime’s Classic Crime Reprint of the Year Award and will be nominating two particular favourites of mine – watch this space to hear more about these and how you can vote.

I’ll also be coming to the end of my read of the Cooper books with “Silver in the Tree”, book five – I can’t remember much though I do think I recall one very significant element, so we shall see what I think of it this time round.

The LibraryThing Virago group comes to the end of this year’s themed monthly reads and there is no theme, except to read a book you might not have managed to fit into another one of the categories. I shall see how I feel about that, as it’s a busy month and it will depend on my reading mojo.

And of course there are all the other books eyeing me from Mount TBR and just waiting to be read! There are so many different options, but I have to confess that I have been considering spending the bulk of December wallowing in classic crime; it’s always such a busy month and to relax with GA mysteries might be the perfect option. I’ve gathered a few from the TBR, and as you can see there are a few Christmas themed ones so it would be great fun…

Some potential crime reads for December (plus a BL Women Writers anthology!)

I’ve also snuck into the pile the British Library Women Writers short story collection because that will be a must for December. But we shall see what I read, and that *will* depend on my mood – I can be fickle and change my mind halfway through a reading plan! 🤣 I can’t quite believe we’re heading into the last month of 2022 – where *does* the time go?? Here’s hoping for a good month of reading and also a nice run up to Christmas – when there’s usually some bookish arrivals…. ;D

Darkness over the Welsh mountains… #TDiRS22 #TheGreyKing

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November’s book in the readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence is the fourth in the series, and the title is “The Grey King”. I approached this particular title with interest; and it does seem to me that as I move on through the sequence, I’m actually remembering less and less about the books! “Grey…” is set in Wales, which is pretty much all I could recall as I started the book, though as I read on I began to remember more about the story…

“Grey…” is very much Will Stanton’s adventure; although he was the focus of the second book, “The Dark is Rising“, and a part of book three, “Greenwitch“, here we find him on a solo quest of his own, and at the start of the story he’s very vulnerable. Recovering from a serious illness (which we later find out is hepatitis), he’s weak and convalescent; but most crucially, he’s forgotten his quest and the rhyme which sets out how the Light must fight the Dark. Sent off to Wales to stay with family, there is no sign of his usual ally, Merriman Lyon, and Will cannot recall the power he has or what he can do.

Will is billeted in the hills of North Wales, around Tywyn, staying with the Evans family in their farmhouse, and of course farming is crucial to the people of this area. He soon encounters a strange albino boy, Bran Davies, who lives with his father and roams the local hills in the company of his beloved dog, Cafall. Before long, Will has been prompted to recall everything – his quest, who he is and why he has been sent to Wales. However, he is up against a deadly foe in the form of the titular Grey King, one of the oldest Lords of the Dark, although he has limitations; he cannot break the laws of High Magic, and may be restricted to his stronghold on Cader Idris. The Dark Lord is aided by the Milgwn, huge grey foxes who are threatening enough in their own right but who can also bring sorrow to the forces of the Light. And another opposing force is the twisted local man, Caradog Prichard, who spews bile and evil at every turn.

Will is not without allies, though; the Evans family and local man John Rowlands are on his side; and Bran, despite his strangeness and potential hostility, provides support. But the road Will takes to complete his quest is not an easy one, and it will involve loss, madness and all the bravery he and Bran can muster.

Needless to say, this was just as powerful a read as the other books in the sequence which I’ve revisited so far; and in fact it’s one of those works which transports you. The books, as we know, draw on the Arthurian legends and here the connection and influence is particularly strong; but in addition there is the source of Welsh folklore and the location itself, and this added an extra element for me. You see, when I first read these books, I think I’d only visited Wales once or twice and very briefly; but since that time, I’ve spent regular holidays in North Wales, and so the landscape, the language and the whole feel of the area was so much more familiar to me on reading “The Grey King”. In fact, I had to laugh ruefully at one section when Bran tries to teach Will the proper pronunciation of some Welsh names, as I’ve had that experience myself.

Once again Cooper creates a wonderful book which not only is an absorbing, exciting and often very moving book, but also manages to incorporate some very adult themes. Bran’s parentage is complex, with his mother who appeared, left him with Owen Davies, and then vanished, the subject of unwanted attention from Prichard. Prichard himself is portrayed descending into madness, demonstrating that negative human emotions can let the dark in to anyone’s mind. And Will has some very mature discussions with Rowlands regarding the battle between Light and Dark, and how the effect on humans is not necessarily of any concern to those involved in that fight. It’s frankly not the kind of material you’d expect to find in something billed as a children’s book, and it’s all the more powerful for it!

Really, there are so many layers to the book that I could talk about it forever! The character of Bran is a particularly memorable one, with his complex backstory, his loyalty to his father and his dog, and his friendship with Will. That relationship is not always easy for either, but it’s wonderful to see that his loneliness may be assuaged towards the end of the book. And those more compex issues are powerfully presented: from the effects on humanity of the actions of the light through Caradog’s madness, Owen Davies’ powerful passion, Bran’s solitary life and the effect on the farming humans plus the destruction caused by the Grey King and his servants, these are difficult topics and all add to the richness of the narrative.

The more I read my way through this sequence, the more I become convinced of the stellar literary talents of Susan Cooper. Her language and description is as ever stunning, conjuring the landscapes whether real or imagined, and her characters struggle with real human emotions and issues. As always with these books, there is real peril and moments of tension where you fear that the Light will lose, despite your knowledge that they must prevail. And there are moments of sadness and poignancy, as well as startling revelations at times when you suddenly realise important things about Bran’s parentage, or the reason his dog is named as it is.

Revisiting “The Grey King” was an absorbing and compelling experience, and I had to resist the temptation to continue reading the sequence; part of me wanted to rush on to the final book, but another part of me doesn’t want to finish this wonderful readalong. Re-reading “The Dark is Rising” series is turning out to be a highlight of my reading year, and I will be sad to see it coming to an end!

*****

As I side-note, I couldn’t help notice that this book is dedicated to J.B. and Jacquetta – i.e. Priestley and Hawkes! I didn’t know that Cooper was friendly with this illustrious pair, and it does remind me I should get on with reading the books of theirs I have lurking on Mount TBR…

“Writers are human beings” – exploring Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction writings #MARM

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One of my favourite of November’s many reading events is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, which is run by the lovely blogger Buried in Print. I always try to take part in this – my love of Atwood and her writing knows no bounds! – and I was determined to read something of her work this year. Interestingly, having read most of her fiction, I often nowadays find myself drawn to her non-fiction or poetry, and having had a scour of the shelves, one volume I owned appealed very much, and another had to be sent off for! So here’s some thoughts on the Atwood books into which I’ve been dipping this November! 😀

Writing with Intent – Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005

I have several non-fiction works by Atwood, but not a collection like this, and when I was scouting around for reading ideas I stumbled across it online. I believe it’s an American edition, published by Basic Books in 2006, and it gathers all manner of interesting pieces… The book is split into sections, and I’ve so far read the first, which covers writings from 1983-89. There’s an interesting mixture; for example, book reviews of “The Witches of Eastwick” by John Updike, Italo Calvino’s “Difficult Loves”, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, and “The Warrior Queens” by Antonia Fraser. These made fascinating reading and I was particularly interested to hear what Atwood had to say about Calvino!

The collection also gathers introductions, forewords and afterwords. These relate to “A Jest of the Gods” by Margaret Laurence, “Reading Blind: The Best of American Short Stories 1989” and “Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews”. Atwood is always full of insights when it comes to her views on her fellow authors!

The other pieces in this section were more general prose writings which were all absolutely fascinating. “Laughter vs. Death” takes a long, hard and scary look at the growing effects of extreme porn (and I imagine things are even worse now…); “That Certain Thing Called the Girlfriend” explores the changing role of female friendships in fiction; “True North” is a fascinating autobiographical piece about Canada and changes it had been going through since Atwood was young; “Great Aunts” looked at the importance of female relations in the author’s young life when she was starting out as a writer; and in “Writing Utopia” she reveals her views on utopias/dystopias and her thoughts behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

Each of these pieces is a gem in its own right; even if you’ve never read the books she’s writing about, or the collections she’s introducing, I’ve never known Atwood produce a dull piece. And the autobiographical works are a particular treat; I’ve read some of her writings on her life before and loved them, so was delighted there were more here.

However, the piece which really knocked me out, and unexpectedly so, was her introduction to the American Short Stories. She read these blind, with no knowledge of the name or sex of the author, and that in itself was fascinating. But what really hit me were the paragraphs where she articulated what I feel about the whole modern trend to ‘teach’ people how to write. I am deeply suspicious of this approach (call me old fashioned if you will), and so it appears is Atwood. I make no excuse for quoting two longer sections which really resonated with me:

Whenever I’m asked to talk about what constitutes a ‘good’ story, or what makes one well-written story ‘better’ than another, I begin to feel very uncomfortable. Once you start making lists or devising rules for stories, or for any other kind of writing, some writer will be sure to happen along and casually break every abstract rule you or anyone else have ever thought up, and take your breath away in the process. The word should is a dangerous one to use when speaking of writing. It’s a kind of challenge to the deviousness and inventiveness and audacity and perversity of the creative spirit. Sooner or later, anyone who has been too free with it will be liable to end up wearing it like a dunce’s cap. We don’t judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair. We judge them by the way they strike us. And that will depend on a great many subjective imponderables, which we lump together under the general heading of taste.

and:

I’ve recently heard it argued that writers should tell stories only from a point of view that is their own, or that of a group to which they themselves belong. Writing from the point of view of someone “other” is a form of poaching, the appropriation of material you haven’t earned and to which you have no right. Men, for instance, should not write as women, although it’s less frequently said that women should not write as men. This view is understandable but, in the end, self-defeating. Not only does it condemn as thieves and imposters such writers as George Eliot, James Joyce, Emily Bronte and William Falkner … it is also inhibiting to the imagination in a fundamental way. It’s only a short step from saying we can’t write from the point of view of an “other” to saying we can’t read that way either…

My goodness, I’m so glad I picked up a copy of this book. I absolutely adore what I’ve read so far, and shall continue to make my way through it, pacing myself to savour its treats. I’m so glad that Buried in Print continues this annual event; always happy to be prompted to read Atwood! (In addition, I’ll claim this one for Non-Fiction November!!)

Dearly

The other Atwood book I’m dipping into at the moment is her most recent book of poetry, “Dearly”. I was fortunate enough to pick up a signed copy when it came out, and have been hoarding it ever since – and now seemed the best time to pick it up and take a look!

“Dearly” is Atwood’s first collection of poetry for over a decade and as she reveals in her introdiuction, it brings togethere work from 2008 and 2019, a period in which, as she says “things got darker in the world”. By necessity, much of the writing is elegiac and often introspective, dealing with the losses she’s had over recent years. However, there are some beautiful reflections on nature, thoughts on ageing and indeed it does seem as if death is very much on her mind.

As with my previous read of her 1968 collection, “The Animals in That Country”, I found Atwood’s verse immediate and emotionally affecting. I’m continuing to make my way through it, alongside my other current read, and I can tell it will be a welcome addition to my Atwood shelf!

*****

So those are my reads for Margaret Atwood Reading Month, and both have been wonderful books to spend time with – she’s an author who never lets me down. Have you been joining in with #MARM, and if so which books have you read??

“… the boundless capacity and influence of the human mind.”@neglectedbooks @bhousepress #getrevelyan

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Regular Ramblings readers will have seen me praising a new indie imprint which began publishing recently; Recovered Books from Boiler House Press launched at the end of last year with the wonderful “Gentleman Overboard“, which I loved. The imprint was inspired by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books blog, who provides afterwords for the books, and they’ve gone from strength to strength. I covered their release of Tess Slesinger’s “Time: The Present – Selected Stories” in July, which was an equally impressive title, and so I was really happy to receive a proof of a recent release by a most unjustly neglected author. The book is “Two Thousand Million Man-Power” by Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan and it’s a wonderfullly experimental and fascinating read.

Trevelyan was born in 1903, the child of parents of private means. After her education, a small allowance permitted her to take a ‘room of her own’ and write, which is what she did; details of her private and social life are scant, and although her books were well-regarded when published, she left behind little information about herself. Trevelyan published eight novels during her lifetime, and was tragically injured when her London flat was bombed on 8th October 1940; she died not long after, and her name slipped away into obscurity, only starting to reappear when her first novel “Appius and Virginia” was reissued by Scott Pack’s Abandoned Bookshop imprint (and yes, I *do* have a copy lurking in the stacks…) So what is her work like?

Well, Trevelyan was obviously keen to experiment with her writing techniques, and here she really achieved a memorable effect. Her book tells the the story of Robert and Katherine, from 1919 to the funeral of King George V in 1936, as they live through the often difficult inter-war years. It’s a period when the world was changing rapidly, with technological progress dominating, and political turmoil following in its wake. Robert has a scientific bent, and despite having vague ideas of working out the formula of Time, he ends up using his chemistry skills working in a lab for a cosmetics company, out in the sticks at the edge of London.

Katherine, who had never done any, believed passionately in research. She believed, with impartial fervour, in the value of arctic exploration and philological reconstruction and experiments with white mice and the conquest of the air.

Katherine is a teacher, working for an LCC school; she has strong left-wing tendencies, is a feminist and has a fierce belief in progress. They encounter each other at a League of Nations debate and are gradually drawn together; and Trevelyan follows them as they fumble towards a closer relationship, eventually scrape together enough to marry, enjoy a brief time of comfort and prosperity, and are then met with the horrors of the financial downturn and depression.

On Sunday he got out his notes and sat over them for a long time, dreaming vaguely about the source of world energy and whether it were inexhaustible: electricity used up and the world slowing down, dropping back into a torpid ice-age, life frozen out, a dead mass, like the moon.

A straightforward enough tale, then, you might think; however in Trevelyan’s capable hands, the story of Robert and Katherine turns into something very different. Their everday life is woven into a narrative which filters their experiences through the lens of world events; so as the pair struggle with meetings and marches and discussion of their beliefs, the narrative switches to conferences, conflicts, disasters and progress. This makes for a fascinating way to view the story of two individuals, because the issues they face are mirrored by, or often caused by, the wider world events.

He had read somewhere that the universe was slowing down. That life on the earth flared up, as it were, in belts of a few million years between the ice ages. Protozoa, like jelly-fishes, and swamps; and then the protozoa froze frozen out, only a few holding on, adapting to conditions: the world getting warm again and reptiles where the protozoa had been. A few thousand centuries of basking reptiles. Then ice again, and only a few intelligent reptiles compromising with the new conditions, lumbering out on legs from the freezing swamps. Mammoths.

However, Trevelyan is careful that we never lose sight of the humans involved in this bigger picture; Robert and Katherine are never swamped by the world story, and we watch them grow together, develop, change and fracture as the world becomes a difficult place in which to live. We are reminded that this was a time when married women could not teach in Local Authority schools (as is also a feature in a recent release from the British Library Women Writer’s series, “War Among Ladies”); there was little in the way of a welfare state; and a couple like the Thomases, who fell between the stools of lower and upper class, had nothing to fall back on, particularly as their families were impoverished or far away. They have no other resources to draw upon, and this ends up by turning them against each other.

Underlying this all, really, is Trevelyan’s contempt for the machine of progress which is rushing on and destroying people on its way. Robert in particular suffers a kind of breakdown during the phase of unemployment, and in many ways never recovers, though he does seem to see life more starkly afterwards, recognising the modern world for what it really is. Both characters start out with ideals and belief in the world to come but are simply ground down by the system, and many of Robert’s views are ones we would recognise as still relating to the human condition in 2022 – which is really rather alarming.

Because the resources of the Earth were being used up: coal, oil, and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sewing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital.

Reading “Two Thousand Million Man-Power” was a really powerful experience; whether Trevelyan was aware of the experiments of John Dos Passos in his “U.S.A” trilogy is, I think, irrelevant because he brought the real world into his work by interspersing chunks of newsreel and the like in the books. Trevelyan, however, with her narrative of world events woven together with personal events, in the same paragraph, creates a very different effect and it’s really memorable. This is a profound and important book (you’ll notice a theme running through some of the quotes I’ve pulled out), and why it’s been out of print for so long is quite beyond me…

So another winner from Recovered Books and a most marvellous find; they really are to be applauded for their series of reissues, and in particular for championing an author like Trevelyan. Brad’s afterword indicates that they hope to get more of her work back into print sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news! In the meantime, my copy of “Appius and Virginia” definitely needs to move closer to the top of Mount TBR… ;D

“the unforeseen adventures of the eyes…” #FranzHessel #1929Club #WalkinginBerlin #WalterBenjamin

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For some reason, I don’t seem to be able to get 1929 out of my head! We had such a successful reading week with the #1929Club, but there were so many books I didn’t get to, including a couple which were on the immediate TBR. One of those was “Hill”, which I’ve since read and loved and wrote about here; and another was “Walking in Berlin” by Franz Hessel. I’d actually had the book on my radar for sometime, before stumbling across it serendipitously in the local Oxfam; needless to say, it had sat on my TBR ever since, and if I’d realised it was from 1929 I might well have grabbed it for the club. However, as it happened to fit for German Lit Month AND Non Fiction month, it seemed the ideal title to pick up just now; and an unexpected connection nudged me even more strongly to start reading, as I’ll explain!

My particular edition of “Walking in Berlin” is translated by Amanda DeMarco and published by Scribe Publications; however, when I was noodling about online, I discovered that the same translation had been issued in the US by MIT Press with an additional essay from a friend of Kessel – a certain Walter Benjamin… Although my copy doesn’t have the essay, I was fortunately able to source it online, and it did enhance my reading of the book!

Franz Hessel (1880-1941) was a German author and translator, responsible for bringing three volumes of Proust’s epic work into the German language alongside his friend Benjamin. As far as I can see, “Walking in Berlin” (described as a collection of essays exploring the concept of flanerie) is the only one of his works which has been translated into English. Hessel was of Jewish heritage, fleeing Germany for France in 1940. Unfortunately things were no safer for his family there, and Hessel died in 1941 after a session in a concentration camp.

“Walking in Berlin” records Hessel’s impressions of, and feelings about, his native city; and in a chatty, conversational style he guides the readers around the sight of Berlin, the historical monuments and parks, the outlying areas, the cabarets and night clubs and boulevards. He observes his fellow citizens, reflects on the architecture of the city, the changing landscape and the march of progress. This is a city (and a country) at a mid-point between the two world wars, and although Hessel didn’t know what was to come, there is oddly little reflection of the political landscape (a point picked up in the notes and foreword, and it does seem that Hessel had his head in the sand just a little…)

Although Hessel’s book title contains the word ‘walking’, he does not always go by foot; and in fact in one extended entertaining chapter entitled “A Tour” he is transported around the city with a group of tourists, experiencing Berlin as they would see it, although with sly little mentions of places and attractions he would know about as a resident. But however he goes, he is a flaneur and a wanderer with the randomness that those terms imply; and that drift through the city allows us some wonderful perspectives on the place.

Tauentzienestrasse and Kurfurstendamm have the important cultural task of teaching the Berliner to be a flaneur, unless this urban pastime should at some point become unfashionable. But maybe it’s not too late. The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, café terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield the words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new. To correctly play the flaneur, you can’t have anything too particular in mind.

Lest you think that Hessel is only mingling with the rich and famous, I can assure you that’s not the case. We are, after all, in Weimar Berlin, and there are all manner of clubs, cabarets and seedy bars where he encounters a wide variety of residents. And although he often expresses a hankering after lost parts of the city and a perhaps more genteel past, he is quick to condemn what he feels is ugly statuary or architecture. He contrasts the rich and poor, noting the shabby conditions in some part of the city. And despite his obvious love of Berlin, I did feel that he was doing his best to look at it as an observer would.

All in all, “Walking…” was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read; Hessel’s writing is excellent, often lyrical, always entertaining, with an informal and intimate tone which makes him an excellent companion whilst ambling round the city; I found myself thinking what fun it would have been to roam the streets of Berlin beside him. The book is beautifully translated by DeMarco, and comes with useful footnotes which, alas, were often ruefully pointing out the loss of some landmark. I can see why Benjamin rated this book so highly and I’m so glad it was finally translated; a marvellous writer, a life sadly cut short and I do wish there was more available in English by him.

…a dream within a dream… #NovNov22 #germanlitmonth #baronbagge

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I’m continuing my run of shorter works today with a book which not only fits into Novellas in November, but also works for German Lit Month (I love it when I can hit two events with one book!!) This is another book which only arrived recently; I somehow stumbled across it (I think on Twitter) and it had several things going for it. The book is “Baron Bagge” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia; the author’s appeared on the Ramblings before when I covered his “I Was Jack Mortimer“, which I did enjoy. However, “Baron Bagge” had much to immediately commend itself: it comes with an introduction by Patti Smith, and also letters between the author and Stefan Zweig! Needless to say, as soon as I found out about the book, I ordered a copy from Blackwells pronto!!

Lernet-Holenia was, as I said in my review of “Jack Mortimer…”, “Viennese, fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and going on to become a protegé of the poet Rilke. He was quite a prolific author, taking in novels, poetry and plays (writing one of the latter with Stefan Zweig)…” “BB…” was first published in 1955, and the lovely Penguin Classics edition here was translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. Set during the First World War, the book follows the story of the titular Baron, a Cavalry Officer fighting in the Carpathian Mountains. Nerves are frayed, his commanding office is on a short fuse and behaving erratically, and Bagge has his doubts when the man in charge orders his forces to ride into battle with Russian artillery. However, as the cavalry charge over a bridge, it appears that they have swept to victory, with the Russians completely routed and Bagge’s comrades unscathed. But as they pass on through the suddenly calm land, it becomes clear that all cannot be as it seems…

Forgive me — I’m growing forgetful. That’s what happens to us when we grow old; we become forgetful and confuse everything, times and women. Luckily, by the time old age overtakes us, we no longer have wives; otherwise, they would be angry with us all the time. For truth to tell, we are no longer sure who is still alive and who is already dead; we’re no longer even sure about ourselves.

For a start, Bagge’s comrades in arms are behaving uncharacteristically; there is no sign of opposing troops anywhere; and when the group arrive at the small town of Nagy Mihaly they are astonished to find it packed with merrymakers, all acting as if there is no conflict. Sentries are set up, but see no hostile forces; and then Bagge discovers that old family friends are still living nearby, including the daughter of the house, Charlotte, a young woman to whom Bagge’s mother had often wished he would get married. The attraction between the pair is instant, and it’s clear that they are completely in love. However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and the cryptic remarks of his fellow officers combined with the lack of any enemy troops creates tensions and confusion – how will the lovers fare in such an uncertain world?

Perhaps I would even have conceived of you in dreams if you had never been. Isn’t it said that we always dream only of beings who do not exist? So I might have been disappointed when I saw you at last. But true feeling cannot be disappointed by anything, for it is self-engendered and has little to do with the object. You have simply become for me the person of whom I dreamed. You have become that by chance, if there is such a thing as chance.

I have to say that I found “Baron Bagge” to be a dream of a novella in more ways than one! For a start it really is beautifully written; having fought in the First World War himself, it’s to be imagined that Lernet-Holenia knew what he was talking about when it came to the action and military aspects of the story. However, the nature of the story he was telling required more than accuracy, and it’s the wonderful capturing of atmosphere and conjuring of setting which really stood out for me here. As the Baron and his troops stumble through the misty mountainous landscape, the narrative becomes remarkably unsettling, and the haunting dreamlike quality of the prose has the reader wondering with the Baron whether they are still in the real world or some strange other realm between worlds. The end can perhaps be guessed by the astute reader, but it’s no less heartbreaking for that; and despite the final conclusion, there is definitely the sense that love conquers all and will endure.

As I mentioned, appended to the novella is a letter from Stefan Zweig to Lernet-Holenia, and two from the latter back to Zweig. It’s clear that Zweig thought very highly of “Baron Bagge”, and I can see why. It’s a hypnotic tale of a strange and impossible love, one that’s impossible for different reasons to the last novella I read; yet despite that, those loves seem stronger than the things which defeat them. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable story, the landscapes of which are quite haunting; and this is another novella which is going to stay with me.

Again, “Baron Bagge” could easily be read in one sitting, and I pretty much did that with it, only pausing for a while because I wanted what I’d read to sink in a bit. And while I was reading it, I had a real panic because I thought I’d donated “Jack Mortimer…” during a recent purge… Well, I had put it in a box to go, but fortunately it hadn’t gone yet, so the book is rescued. “Baron Bagge” is a brilliant and memorable novella, and I may have to go off and explore more Lertnet-Holenia… 😉🙄

“…an agreeable promenade…” #onthepottlecombecornice #howardsturgis @spikenard65

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I don’t know if it’s a reaction to reading the chunkster that was “Wolf Solent“, but I have been very much enjoying plunging into shorter works this month! Of course, it *is* Novellas in November time, so that’s even better, and today’s book is a recent arrival I was very keen to read (and in fact picked up as soon as it arrived) – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice” by Howard Sturgis.

The book is part of Michael Walmer’s Zephyr Books imprint, a series which brings classic short works back into print (although intriguingly, this title has never been released in book form before). I’ve read most of the titles he’s released so far and they really are a treat – handsome slim hardback editions, and some really interesting authors like Elizabeth Berridge, John Cowper Powys and Henry Handel Richardson, to name just a few. Sturgis is an author new to me, and apparently his masterpiece is “Belchamber” from 1904. On the basis of “Pottlecombe…” I may have to search it out…

This novella tells the story of Major Mark Hankisson who’s retired to Pottlecombe, a tiny village on the Devon coast. Here he lodges, and regularly goes for a daily promenade in the locality, including some recently developed streets. One of these is “the Cornice”, named by a celebrated local lady poetess. And during his daily walks, Major Mark (as he is known locally) gradually becomes aware of a local lady who also takes walks, although not with the regularity that he does. The times being what they are, however (the turn of the 20th century), the two do not speak and barely acknowledge each other. However, the Major finds his thoughts increasingly drawn towards the grey lady, as he thinks of her…

Eventually, he discovers that the lady’s name is Miss Agnes Lamb, who cares for a bedridden sister. Agnes seems a little frail, sometimes struggling to deal with the vagaries of the weather; and when the ladies go away for the winter, Major Mark realises how much he is affected by the grey lady. He is delighted when she returns from her absence and he manages to make tentative moves towards acquaintance – but, alas, all is not as it seems as he will sadly find out…

This is a short work (at 55 pages it straddles the line between short story and novella, really) but it’s so beautifully written and such a poignantly told tale. Despite its length, Sturgis conjures vivdly a small village and its gradual move into modernisation, the lonely lives of some of the inhabitants, and the slow recognition by Major Mark of his attraction to Miss Agnes. The end is genuinely affecting, and quite haunting – I hadn’t expected such a slim work to have such impact!

“On the Pottlecombe Cornice” can be read in one sitting, and I would probably recommend that; but it’s a book whose flavour and setting will linger; the story of Major Mark’s passion is a very moving one. A very worthy and welcome release from Mike Walmer, and one which definitely makes me want to read more of Sturgis’s work!

Review copy from the publisher, for which many thanks – you can find more details of Mike’s books here.

Advice for prospective parents from some of the greats! #RLSDay2022 @NottingHillEds #TinyFeet

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Today’s post is a slightly different one on the Ramblings for a couple of reasons; firstly, I don’t often post on a Sunday; secondly, I don’t often cover books about child rearing! However, I chose to post about this particular volume today because it is Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday and therefore #RLSDay2022; and the great man features in the anthology I want to cover. And it’s a fascinating collection from one of my favourite publishers, Notting Hill Editions, entitled “Tiny Feet: A Treasury for Parents”, which really did make fascinating reading!

NHE have produced a number of wonderful anthologies on all manner of topics, from dogs or cats to walking; however, this one has perhaps more to it than you might think from the very pretty exterior. Their clothbound editions are always lovely, and this one comes in a nice shade of blue, illustrated with a drawing of a pair of bootees. The book comes with an interesting introduction by author Lauren Child, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the anthology would gather together stories of childhood – but in fact it’s much more interesting than that…

“Tiny Feet” instead looks at written advice give over the centuries on the subject of the best way to rear your child; so the first entry comes from a 1690 work called “Advice to Parents and Children” by Daniel Burgess. We move through writers such as Rousseau, Isabella Beeton, Charles Darwin and of course RLS, before reaching more modern practitioners like Maria Montessori, Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Spock, coming right up to date with Toni Morrison and Bernardine Evaristo. The wide spectrum of authors makes for a fascinating read, and is also very illuminating…

I should state here that I have three grown up Offpsring, who’ve all actually made guest posts on the Ramblings at one time or another; and even in my lifetime I’ve seen how the advice doled out to parents has changed (put the baby to sleep on its back, no, on its front, no, on its side), so much so that a poor mum or dad has no idea what to do for the best. So these extracts were so interesting, allowing the reader to watch the evolution of child-rearing advice – and also to shake their head in horror at realising what exactly wrapping a babe in swaddling involved!!!

Of course, some of the authors espouse views and give instruction that we really wouldn’t approve of nowadays; and I was intrigued by the inclusion of Margaret Mead and some of her observations of Samoan child rearing. However, many of the extracts did seem to have some good sensible advice, and I was interested in the way the earlier authors were encouraging parents to let their children have freedom to develop and not mollycoddle them. Certainly, in my experience it’s a difficult balance to get right – do you overdiscipline and risk out and out rebellion, or do you allow them too much freedom and risk injury or indeed your children eventually going off the rails?

In the child’s world of dim sensation, play is all in all. ‘Making believe’ is the gist of his whole life, and he cannot so much as take a walk except in character. (RLS)

In the end, I think as a parent you have to find your own way, and most probably do. However, there’s plenty of good advice, as well as much entertainment, to be found in this little book, which really was a wonderful read! As for the entry from RLS, this draws from essays he wrote called ‘Child’s Play’ (1878) and it seems he was ahead of his time in recognising the need for youngsters to engage in play drawn from their imagination – and good on him!

I do love a good anthology, and Notting Hill certain bring plenty of expertise to theirs! “Tiny Feet” was a joy to read from start to finish and like all of their books, I highly recommend it!

Happy RLS day! 😀

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