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A light-hearted and entertaining escapade @BL_Publishing

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Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

I’m gradually making my way through the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics that seem to have amassed at the Ramblings lately; some as gifts and some as review copies from the rather super BL. Other Half presented me with two titles I don’t have over the festive season in the form of John Rowland’s pair of crime adventures, and I posted about “Murder in the Museum” here. The other one is “Calamity in Kent”, published much later than “Museum” in 1950, and it turned out to be an enjoyable, if perhaps a little light, read.

“Calamity” once again features Rowland’s regular detective, Shelley, but like the earlier book is narrated by a character from outside the police force who manages to become involved in the investigation. That person is Jimmy London, a Fleet Street reporter who’s convalescing in the Kent seaside town of Broadgate (a kind of amalgamation of Broadstairs and Margate, it seems). As the book opens, he’s startled to be in on the discovery of a dead body in the cliff-side railway; but the lift was locked from the outside and there is only one set of keys, so Jimmy (and the reader) are instantly faced with a potential locked room mystery. Despite the fact that he’s recovering from a (mysterious and unspecified) illness, London’s reporter instincts kick in and he’s fortunate to find that an old friend, in the form of Inspector Shelley, is down in Broadgate and gets put on the case; doubly fortunate, because the local Inspector takes an instant dislike to him!

Shelley, however, is a more imaginative man and is happy to ally himself to external investigators who can possibly wheedle things out of people which a policeman wouldn’t. Soon, Jimmy and Shelley are hot on the trail, tracking down the murdered man’s fiancée and business associates. However, another murder follows hot on the heels of the first, and the detecting duo are hard pressed to find out the reason for the killings or indeed identify the killer him/herself. It seems that there is a possible angle of black marketeering, but the items being sold on are so varied that it’s hard to work out what’s going on. However, a chance remark by a suspect’s girlfriend gives them a hint as to what might be going on behind the scenes, and it’s then that things get dangerous…

A cliff side railway – hopefully with no dead bodies inside….

“Calamity in Kent” was great fun to read, although not so much a pure crime classic as a criminal caper with thriller elements. Shelley and London are an entertaining pair, and watching London gathering his material and spinning what he could to a Fleet Street editor was very entertaining. The plot was also intriguing, although not entirely unpredictable, and the supporting characters were perhaps a tad 2D. But I liked Jimmy’s enthusiastic narration, and the story was fast-paced with the action never being allowed to flag. In fact, ‘action’ is a good word to apply to the latter half of the book as it ended up going at a bit of a breakneck pace with Jimmy becoming a potential victim, kidnappings, murder threats, gangs and a ringleader who I actually didn’t suspect although that was quite cleverly done and looking back I should have picked up on it!

The setting was rather nicely evoked as well, with the typical British seaside town, full of a variety of hotels and boarding houses, landladies ranging from motherly to grim, and of course the ubiquitous English pub (although one of those does turn out to be not what it seems). And the 1950s era is also fun to see, still suffering from post-War shortages and rationing – it’s timely to be reminded that this latter continued for 9 more years after the end of WW2 and so there was still a burgeoning trade in restricted items.

I’ve found quite a bit of variety in my readings of the British Library Crime Classics; some are books of real substance, playing with the genre, such as Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”; others are definitely lighter, more of a frothy confection if you like, and certainly “Calamity in Kent” falls into that latter category as Martin Edwards acknowledges in his introduction. This is not necessarily a criticism, and I did thoroughly enjoy my reading of it – just right when you need a bit of old-fashioned escapism!

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Dipping into Poetry

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I’ve been realising lately, as you might have noticed, that I do have a bit of a problem with unread books… And digging about has made me realize just how many of them are poetry books. I have a problem with reading this too, in that I find that I set out to read a whole volume in one go and that just isn’t working for me. It may be because the self-imposed discipline of writing about everything I read here means that I think I have to read a book, write about it and then move onto the next one. But that isn’t conducive to reading poetry I’m finding and so I may have to take a more dipping-in kind of approach.

And this is just a few of the titles I have on my shelves which are tempting me at the moment… It’s far from all of the poetry books I own – in fact, if I hauled all of them out of their other categories (Russians, Plath, Hughes, women etc etc) I reckon they’d take up a decent sized bookcase. *Sigh*.

As it’s my books we’re talking about there are of course going to be Russians. This is just a few of them: my lovely huge Mayakovsky book; Akhmatova; an Everyman collection Youngest Child gave me; a fragile early collection OH gave me; a Penguin post-war Russian poetry collection I’ve had since my teens; and the rather splendid Penguin Book of Russian. And yes – all very dippable.

There are Americans too… All the classic names I should be reading – or at least dipping into. I picked up the Frost and Lowell myself, but oddly had never owned Whitman until OH cleverly gifted me a copy.

Some 20th century greats: my beloved Philip Larkin (and actually I could probably happily sit down and read that one cover to cover); an old fragile Eliot I’ve had since the 1980s; and two Ezra Pounds. I know Pound turned into a reprehensible fascist, but some of his early stuff is amazing.

Some bits and bobs, now. Trakl comes highly recommended; Anne Sexton is essential; and Adrian Mitchell is a favourite British poet. If you’ve never seen the footage of him reading “To Whom it May Concern” aka “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, go and search it out – it’s stunning, powerful stuff.

And finally, Daniil Kharms. Is this poetry? I don’t know, but what I’ve read of it is fragmentary and beautiful and intriguing, so I’ll count it in.

So I’ll be reading poetry, and I might share the odd thought or poem, but I can’t see myself doing regular reviews of fully read poetry collections or anthologies. I think by taking away any restrictions on myself and allowing myself this freedom, I’ll actually get a lot more poetry read and enjoyed. Off to do some dipping! 🙂

Avoiding the rose-tinted glasses…

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The Sweet and Twenties by Beverley Nichols

Well, after all the excitement of recording the ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast, and reading and talking about “The Sweet and Twenties” by Beverley Nichols, I really ought to share some of my thoughts about it here. Simon and I were both very taken with this particular volume of Beverley’s reminiscences, and I was especially interested to see how his views about his life and past had evolved since his first ‘autobiography’, “Twenty-Five”, published in 1926. “Sweet” was published in 1958, during a very different decade and in a very different world to the earlier one and the 1920s in general.

There is, I suppose, a certain image of that decade – the clichéd view of flappers, bobbed hairdos, Oxford bags, Scott Fitzgerald and general having a good time in the post-war period, and damn the future. However, as Simon very astutely pointed out, a period of 10 years is not homogenous and the view we have of the 1920s is not necessarily accurate to that whole period.

So “Sweet” has Beverley looking back 30 years or so to his youth and reflecting on how the world was and how it’s changed. And his viewpoint is fascinating, because reading one of his books you don’t necessarily expect to find yourself unexpectedly under the shadow of the Bomb or the Death Wish, as he eloquently terms it. But I initially detected a certain weariness in the author with the way the world had gone; he took a fairly clear-eyed look at what was a kind of optimism in the twenties and a wish for change, for ensuring that there would never be another war and the anger and determination of young people that the world would be better. However, having seen out two World Wars, Beverley could understandably be expected to reflect a loss of hope and also be angry and disillusioned with the thought of total annihilation.

“Sweet” was actually fascinating on many levels. As I’ve indicated above, it contains an intriguing amalgam of his thoughts on the world now and then; and although I don’t always agree with him (he’s very opinionated!), he’s always entertaining. However, it also takes a wonderfully wide-ranging look at the 1920s in all their complexity; from the General Strike to the Irish Problem to the furore caused by women cutting their hair to the fashions to the colours of the decades (another element which struck Simon strongly) through the hostesses and personalities of the decade… well, you get the picture. And actually, a vivid and memorable picture is what you get through Beverley’s wonderful prose – he’s just so witty that I did find myself giggling away while I was reading the book in advance of recording (much to the chagrin of OH….)

Female hair, throughout the ages, has always excited the fiercest of passions. Even St Paul lost all sense of proportion about it. If one goes back to the epistles with an open mind one is bewildered and indeed somewhat shocked to find so great a spiritual leader working himself up into such a frenzy of indignation about women who do not wear a hat to church… for that is really all it amounted to. This must surely be one of the strangest passages in the Bible, or indeed in any of the great spiritual treasuries of mankind.

Although Nichols takes a strong view on the negatives of the period (he has surprisingly liberal views on race and class) he does have something of a split nature and he’s obviously seduced by the charm and glamour of high society, writing wittily and extensively on the great hostesses of the era, as well as notable figures such as Beaton, Novello and Coward. He’s happy to give his views on who he thinks will survive into posterity and whose successes will fall by the wayside; and although he’s not always right it’s fascinating to read what he thinks. His writing about the Sitwells is lovely (and reminds me I must read more Sitwells – I have plenty lurking…), and when discussing the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books his description of Rye is just a scream:

Rye is an almost hysterically picturesque town in Sussex. When you walk down its narrow streets you feel that at any moment a horde of Morris dancers may burst through the doors of one of the oldy-worldy cafes. Sometimes, to your alarm, they do.

I have to confess to an almost pathological dislike of Morris dancers, so this rather resonated with me… 😉

But the feeling I came away with was of having read the words of someone who was basically a very humane person, despite his foibles and sarcasm and snarkiness (which I confess I find appealing…). For example, he discusses the furore around Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” with some sympathy, commenting “The ‘Well of Loneliness’ scandal was one of those deplorable examples of mob hysteria which periodically make the British people so ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world.” He goes on to consider censorship and hypocrisy in the theatre and how works which were published and performed abroad were still banned in our rather prudish country.

One of the most striking chapters in “Twenty Five” was Beverley’s recollection of the notorious Thompson-Bywaters case (the basis for F. Tennyson Jesse’s magisterial “A Pin to see the Peepshow”, amongst other works of fiction). Nichols is strongly against capital punishment, and he revisits the case here. At the time of the trial and subsequent execution of Edith Thompson, Nichols was working as a reporter and he ended up gaining access to the family to tell their story in his newspaper. Frankly, he seems to have been haunted by the episode all his life and his feelings haven’t change by the time of “The Sweet and Twenties”.

But through it all, Beverley compares and contrasts the present and the past, wondering how the doomed youth of the 1950s (as he sees them) will survive the trials of the current world, and how indeed civilisation will progress. All this is delivered in a relatively light tone (it isn’t all doom and gloom) and although Nichols laments the changes that have taken place in the world, he can’t quench that well of optimism that springs up in him and ends up with hopes for a better future. You and I might be able to judge better than him whether those hopes were borne out.

As you might be able to tell, I really did love this book (but then I tend to like anything Beverley wrote, so I’m not going to be an objective reviewer here). It’s entertaining, opinionated, sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes laugh out loud funny and never, ever dull. Fortunately, Beverley was nothing if not prolific and I by no means own or have read all of his books. So at least I have more treasures by Beverley Nichols still to read, and since I can’t ever sit down and have tea and a gossip with him, that will have to be the next best thing…

(If you want to listen to our podcast on Beverley, pop over to Simon’s site here where you can find it!)

Guesting on ‘Tea or Books?’ with @stuck_inabook !!

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The alert amongst you who are also on Twitter might have picked up the fact that I agreed to co-host an episode of Simon at Stuck in a Book’s podcast ‘Tea or Books?’ (and I’m sure you all listen to it as well). This is a one-off while his usual co-host Rachel is unavailable, and I was a weeny bit nervous (but quite pleased to be asked, really, because it’s always lovely to natter about books!)

We chose subjects where our tastes intersect; so in the first half we talk about detective fiction vs crime fiction, getting into the knotty subject of genre. The second half is Beverley Nichols based – “The Sweet and Twenties” vs “Merry Hall” – and so you’ll have to listen to see what we make of these two Beverley books and which is our favourite! 🙂

One thing I intended to mention in the podcast, but forgot in all the excitement, was the source of my copy of “The Sweet and Twenties”. I have a beautiful signed edition which was so kindly gifted to me by the lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working from home – such generosity, and I do treasure it so it was about time I had an excuse to actually read it – here it is:

My nice signed copy from Liz with the signature inset…

So do go over and have a listen to Simon and I having a good chatter about books (and yes, I was drinking tea while we recorded….) Hopefully if nothing else we’ll convince you to give Beverley Nichols a try! 🙂

 

A little more library love…

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That heading is a bit of a giveaway, I suppose – yes, it’s time for more pictures of books…. 🙂 Not that I suppose anybody who drops in at the Ramblings will mind, and I like to keep singing the loud praises of libraries – what would we do without them, I often ask myself.

I picked up a few titles recently, all of which have Very Good Reasons for me borrowing them.

I was bemoaning on a recent post the fact that there was so little available by Bruno Schulz. Then, whilst browsing the library catalogue, I discovered there was a Collected Works, so I of course had to have a look to see if it contained anything I hadn’t read. Well, it weighs a ton and I had to haul it round town with me… However, it has letters and artwork as well as the stories so I shall have a bit of an explore.

As for the Russians – well, Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” is kind of essential for me and Steiner has been getting a lot of love on Melissa and Anthony‘s blogs, so I really needed to have a look. The Tsvetaeva is just so I could see whether any of her Mayakovsky poems have been translated into English. I suspect not, although there *is* a fragment in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry …

Now for some Golden Age crime, courtesy of my BFF J. She’s taken to sending me books (not that I’m complaining – ta muchly!) and these three have arrived so far this year. So kind, and ones I haven’t yet read!

Aren’t they enticing?

And yet *more* GA Crime has arrived in the form of review copies from the lovely British Library in their Crime Classics range. This is another author new to me and I can’t decide which one I want to try first…

Last but not least, I confess I *did* actually pick  up a couple of books (yes, actually bought them though I’m trying not to…) The little Swiss travel book came from The Works and just sounded fun. The Pasolini was from a charity shop for £1 so it would have been rude not to. So yes, I’m definitely going to have to abandon sleeping very soon…. =:0

Reclaiming the Streets

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Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

As an inveterate walker (I don’t drive…) I was naturally going to be attracted to a book that covered women and walking; especially one that promised a psychogeographical look, rather than marching around in trainers to get fit! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Lauren Elkin’s book takes the concept of a flaneur (defined as “a man who saunters around observing society”) and applies a specifically female experience to this, creating the idea of a flaneuse – and the idea is fascinating.

Elkin is an American abroad in the world, self-exiled from her country of birth, and her concept of flaneuserie is filtered through her own experience. Using a mixture of memoir, herstory and social commentary, Elkin presents an intriguing look about the limitations placed on women’s lives and how transgressive it is (and still can be) for women to simply wander the streets.

Most of the chapters focus on a specific city (Paris more than once, obviously) taking a look at individual women who’ve made the landscape their own. So of course Virginia Woolf stalks the streets of London; George Sand haunts Paris in the grip of revolution; and Sophie Calle pursues her prey through Venice. The books also references cultural media such as the film “Lost in Translation” which features a very specific situation of a woman left to her own devices in Tokyo, a situation mirrored in Elkin’s own life.

The world is less scary when you have some control over where you go in it.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting read; Elkin wears her erudition lightly but references everything from Marina Warner’s “Monuments and Maidens” through any number of novelists to the situationists and surrealists. She makes important points about the marginalisation of women’s experiences and it’s frightening to be reminded how recently women’s lives were constrained (even by something as essential to them as the clothing they wore).

Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution; at the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public. This law is still in effect today, though of course ignored; but even in 1969 an attempt to overturn it failed…A culture struggling to redefine itself against the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution fixated on the female body as a tool for instilling certain values in the heart of the new Republic.

I was reminded when reading Elkin’s book of the “Reclaim the Night” campaign which came into existence in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism and when I was just discovering the movement; and which is still in existence today. To a certain extent Elkin’s book doesn’t engage with the real issues of violence which can come a woman’s way if she’s out and about in the city; and ignores the streetwalking aspect of women’s lives when women are out there not just for the pleasure of ambling through the streets but as sex workers. It’s perhaps a middle-class conceit to wander the city streets to get to know a location when some of us would like just to be out there safely allowed to get from place to place without being hassled (or worse).

So, much as I enjoyed reading “Flaneuse”, I did have a few issues with it. There is a slight sense of the narrative flagging towards the end of the book and if I’m honest, although I loved the chapter on Martha Gellhorn (because she fascinates me) I felt that it did sit slightly anachronistically alongside the rest of the book. It read more as a case of someone flaneusing the world rather than a city, and the lack of focus tended to dilute the effect of Elkin’s story. Additionally, there were occasions when I would have found an index useful as the book has so many cultural references that there were times I wanted to go back and check them.

What do we see of a revolution after it’s gone? A better, world perhaps. Some changes in the structure of society. But not always – sometimes there’s no change at all.

However, parts of the book were fascinating; particularly the sections on Paris, one of which focused on the various revolutions which have shaken its streets over the centuries. That city is Elkin’s adopted home nowadays and her love for it certainly shone through in her narrative. It was also instructive to be reminded just how radical it can actually be to walk in some cities (mainly American), which seem to have been constructed solely for the use of the car.

…. it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting book which makes interesting points about women’s presence on the streets. I think it ultimately fails to go far enough in its discussion of the issues they’ve faced in the past and still face now, and whether this was a deliberate decision by the author or not I can’t tell. It’s certainly set me thinking about our relationship to our environment and also appreciate certain freedoms modern women have, compared with Sand and her ilk. However, the more I considered it and let it settle in my brain after I’d read it, the more I ended up feeling that it falls short of its intended aim. With more structure, more historical narrative and more focus on the very real issues women can face while out on the streets attempting to flaneuse, and perhaps a little less personal memoir, the book would have been much stronger. I’ve ended up sounding a bit more negative than I expected here, but I did enjoy reading “Flaneuse”; and if your local library stocks it that might be the best way to check it out and see how it works for you

The “lost book” authors

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Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?
WHY HAVE I GOT SO MANY BOOKS????

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.

schulz

Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… 😉

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