Dipping into Detection


Yes, I’m afraid there’s been *more* dipping going on at the Ramblings! I think it must be a necessary counterpoint to all the Big Review Books I’m reading at the moment; I’ve obviously felt the need to also read something I can actually *finish* fairly quickly…

“Great Tales of Detection”, an unassuming looking collection (the cover is a bit dull, isn’t it?) from 1936, which was reprinted in 1976, came from a charity shop trawl recently; and I picked it up a) because it was edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and b) because the contents were by lots of lovely favourite crime authors and I think several are stories by them I haven’t read! So it was definitely one to come home with me. From the Oxfam if I recall correctly, and not too pricey (they seem to have had a bit of an overhaul since and the cost of some of their books seems to have suddenly spiked – which is a bit daft, because this has made me put several back on the shelves…)

Anyway, I have dipped, reading a short extract entitled “Was it Murder?” by Robert Louis Stevenson with a very entertaining take on how you actually define murder if the murderer wasn’t present and nothing can be proved! But the other story I found myself glued to was “The Yellow Slugs” a very dark little tale by H.C. Bailey, whom I’ve read before. Bailey’s detective was Reggie Fortune, a doctor with a strong hatred of cruelty, and I first made his acquaintance in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection “Capital Crimes” back in 2015. The stories there impressed me, and I did say how keen I was to read more about Reggie. Now, I know there is an e-book lurking somewhere on my tablet, but I always forget about those, so this was the first story I turned to in this anthology.

“The Yellow Slugs” opens with a tragic-sounding case; a teenage boy apparently going off the rails and accused of trying to drown his younger sister. Is the boy insane or just a nasty piece of work? Reggie is called into the case in his role as a doctor, but he soon sees there is more to things than meets the eye and of course starts to investigate.

It’s not a straightforward crime; all the evidence supports the boy being a bad lot, and the pious and upset parents, as well as their genteel lodger, seem blameless. However, an actual murder is discovered and it takes all Reggie’s persistence and ingenuity to get to the truth of the matter – which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish.

I was just as impressed with Bailey’s storytelling as when I first read his Reggie Fortune stories and I really *can’t* understand why his work is out of fashion. The plotting and characterisation are excellent, the scenario dark and compelling and it’s edge of the seat stuff while you desperately will Reggie on to sort things out. Bring back Reggie Fortune stories, I say!

The rest of the book looks to have plenty of treasures too: there are a number of authors here who have been picked up and celebrated by the British Library Crime Classics imprint, including John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A number of other familiar names are here, too, from my readings of Detection Club composite works, such as Father Ronald Knox and Milward Kennedy. And of course, there are Agatha and Dorothy…

So a positive cornucopia of delights into which to dip as an alternative to Big and Intense Books: you can look forward to hearing more about the stories in this volume when I need a quick crime break! 🙂

Beginning this Beast of a Book…


The poetry shelf has swollen recently (*sigh*) with the arrival of this huge, rather lovely but a little daunting book… I was prompted into buying it after watching an odd little documentary series on Sky Arts, all about French artists of the early 20th century. It was a bit strange (very patronising narration and too much animation) but it did set me off digging in the stacks. I was looking in particular for a book of Apollinaire’s poems which I was sure I had – or at least once had – but I really couldn’t find it, and what’s more discovered that I had very little French poetry at all, apart from Baudelaire and Rimbaud (of course…)

Needless to say, I ended up browsing online. There was an interesting-looking Penguin volume of French poetry but the translations were all prose renderings. I have no issue with poetic prose (I love it, in fact) but this didn’t seem quite what I wanted. However, this particular book came up in the searches and so I sent off for a Reasonably Priced Copy and it turned up this week in surprisingly good condition for the cost.

As you’ll see, it’s edited by Paul Auster who provides a loooong intro which I’ve just glanced at, and where he seems to be justifying his choices – which kind of implies omissions. I haven’t read it all, and I don’t know enough about French poetry to know what he’s left out! However, the poems included are translated by numerous talented people, each one credited after the work, and true to my stated intent, I have *dipped* into this book and so far found some really wonderful gems. I thought I would share a short one here, translated by Lee Harwood. I think this book may be the source of many great treasures…

    – by Tristan Tzara

what is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written at the end of each finger
and the end of the road is a flower which walks with you

“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop…”


Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Michael Henry Heim

It’s ironic, really, that having been faced with so many BIG books on the current TBR, I should have swerved aside and read two very slim volumes one after the other…. I’ve read Hrabal before (“Closely Observed Trains”) and so when I saw this one in the charity shop and read the blurb I really had to pick it up. “Solitude” is an even shorter work than “Death at Intervals”, clocking in at just 98 pages. However, where the latter ended on an emotional yet positive note, “Solitude” is a more sombre book with a much bleaker conclusion and which takes in dark themes on its journey.

The book is narrated by a man called Hant’a; for thirty-five years he has worked compacting waste paper and books into pulp, bailing them up and sending them off to be processed. Within the repressive regime in which he lives, it isn’t clear if this is censorship or just a way of dealing with the amount of old paper and detritus which hangs around in the city; however, Hant’a has rescued myriad books over the years, works of literature and philosophy, and these have made their way home to his little flat where they threaten to take over completely. Hmmmm – familiar scenario, that….

…because when I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing. I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been to the very heart of truth. Ten times a day, every day, I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books, the books I found that day and am carrying home in my briefcase.

Hant’a’s boss calls him a beer-soaked idiot, and he certainly does drink – it’s his coping mechanism, but despite this he’s absorbed much from his readings and applies his philosophical leanings to his life as much as he can. As we follow him through the daily round of life he thinks back to the past, to his youth, the love of his life (a strange, nameless Gypsy girl) and the mysteries and meanings of life. However, as the narrative progresses it soon becomes clear that Hant’a is an anachronism; his ancient, one-man compressor is out of synch with modernity, and the coming of the shiny new world and leading-edge machinery is too much for him.

Hant’a is the ultimate unreliable narrator and this is compounded by lack of clarity about what is his original thought and what comes from the books he’s read, piecemeal. The narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed as the book goes on, blurring the lines between reality and drunken fantasy. There are repeated and recurring phrases, and also recurring themes; shit turning up in inappropriate places and times, for one, presumably signifying the general crappiness of human life and how, no matter how we try to dress things up, it all turns to waste. The sewers feature regularly, with two sets of rats undertaking a subterranean war beneath the city. Then there is the disjuncture between Hant’a’s love of books and his destruction of them, which he treats as an art form (perhaps as a way of coping with that destruction). And it was interesting how the dealing with waste paper was very different in the new plant than with the way Hant’a was required to deal with the stuff. He would be processing anything from old classic libraries to blood soaked butchers’ paper. However, the shiny new factory was a modern sanitised place which no doubt represented the modern restrictive regime, as whole runs of books were being pulped, presumably for subversive content of some sort.

… they just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean, no thought that somebody had to write the book, somebody had to edit it, somebody had to design it, somebody had to set it, somebody had to proofread it, somebody had to make the corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, and somebody had to check the page proofs, print the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped, and somebody had to put all the books in storage, and somebody had to load them onto the truck, and somebody had to drive the truck here, where workers wearing orange and baby-blue gloves tore out the books’ innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt…..

The city the book is set in is presumably Prague (I don’t think this is ever stated) and I guess that the regime is the Soviet one. Certainly, the modern workers in the new paper processing plant, drinking milk and planning their state funded holidays, certainly sound like Soviet shock workers. But the context and setting is never explicit, rather implicit, spreading over a long period of time (that oft-repeated thirty-five years) and covering one particularly shocking incident during what is presumably WW2: the point where Hant’a’s love is carted off to a concentration camp by the authorities in a heartbreaking paragraph. He revenges himself on Nazi literature, pulping it with abandon and commenting “The heavens are not humane, but I’d forgotten compassion and love.”

The book is strung with quotes from and references to the literature Hant’a has absorbed randomly from the books he’s saved. There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending. This is a book that’s as moving in its way as “Death..” was, yet it’s one I can’t love in the same way because of its incredible sadness. Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them. Hrabal is a powerful author, a master of economy, and yet capable of some beautifully flowing prose sentences. Quite how he manages to say so much in such a short book is hard to really appreciate, which may be a measure of just how good a writer Hrabal is. Highly recommended, if you can cope with the darkness and the awful treatment of beautiful books…

“One cannot be too careful with words, they change their minds just as people do.”


Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Some books have a way of shaking and moving you to the core which sets them apart from others. This is one of those books, and quite how I’m going to be able to write about it meaningfully in this post is a bit beyond me at the moment – but I shall try my best…

Jose Saramago was a Portuguese Nobel laureate, but I have to confess that I’d not come across his work until recently. His name’s turned up on blogs I follow, and so I’ve taken the chance to pick up the occasional book of his when I stumbled on them. However, I read a review of this one recently, and I was so grabbed by the sound of it that I sent off for a copy. It arrived, and after a glance at the first page I had to stop what I was reading and carry on with “Death…”

This slim novel tells the story of a small unnamed country in which death decides to stop paying her regular calls on the populace. Starting one New Year’s Day, nobody dies – not at all, not in any circumstances, even if they were on their deathbeds. Mortality is suspended, and for a while there is rejoicing. However, it soon becomes clear that this situation is not as good as it seems, as there are implications for the funeral industry, the medical industry, care homes and of course the government and the financial systems. Radical solutions are needed (and in fact some citizens do come up with ingenious ways to resolve the issue of a lingering relative) but the long-term prospects for the country are not good.

And here I hit my first issue. I don’t want to reveal much of what happens in the rest of the book because I don’t want to ruin the impact; even what appears in the blurb on the back of my copy tells me too much! Suffice to say that things take a number of dramatic turns for the country and then the story switches from the general to the very specific as we follow the twists and turns of the narrator’s story of the adventures of death. I’m not saying more if I can help it about the plot because I *really* want you all to rush out and read this yourself.

By the way, we feel we must mention that death, by herself and alone, with no external help, has always killed far less than mankind has.

But I can perhaps talk about the themes and also Saramago’s writing, which is experimental and rather wonderful. From what I’ve seen online, the style here is typical of his books, with long sinuous sentences, often a page long. He eschews most traditional forms of punctuation and speech between characters tak s place within one long sentence, the speakers being differentiated usually by a capital letter beginning their part of the conversation. It sounds more complicated than it is to read, and I found myself drawn into the rather poetic rhythms of the prose. It reminded me a little of “Malacqua” although there is even less traditional structure here; but both authors produce some very beautiful prose.

Rudely deprived of their raw material, the owners began by making the classic gesture of putting their hands to their heads and wailing in mournful chorus, Now what’s going to become of us, but then, faced by the prospect of a catastrophic collapse from which no one in the funeral trade would escape, they called a general meeting, at the end of which, after heated discussions, all of them unproductive because all of them, without exception, ran up against the indestructible wall of death’s refusal to collaborate, the same death to which they had become accustomed, from parents down to children, as something which was their natural due, they finally approved a document to be submitted to the government for their consideration, which document adopted the only constructive proposals, well, constructive, but also hilarious, that had been presented at the debate, They’ll laugh at us, warned the chairman, but I recognise that we have no other way out, it’s either this or the ruin of the undertaking business.

“Death…” sounds I suppose potentially a bit grim, because of the subject matter; however, it’s actually remarkably funny in places and I found myself laughing out loud in places at the dry humour. However, this is balanced by the more serious moral and ethical questions the book raises; for example, if you find a loophole which allows you to help your suffering relatives to escape into death, are you actually guilty of murder?

I found “Death…” a completely absorbing and stimulating read, and one underlying element is the use of language, its complexities and failings which are constantly referenced. In a telling paragraph, Saramago rather self-mockingly alludes to the actual style of writing he’s using to narrate his story…

And then, he said, there’s the calligraphy, which is strangely irregular, it’s as if it combined all the known ways, both possible and aberrant, of forming the letters of the latin alphabet, as if each had been written by a different person, but that could be forgiven, one could even consider it a minor defect given the chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter, which, can you imagine, is even omitted from the actual signature of the letter and replaced by a lower-case d.

Even when describing a particular character’s appearance, he can’t help returning to the use of words with a wry nod to the limitations of writing to communicate:

… pretty in a very particular, indefinable way that couldn’t be put into words, like a line of poetry whose ultimate meaning, if such a thing exists in a line of poetry, continually escapes the translator.

These continual arch in-jokes allow our very knowing narrator to take the meta element even further, leaving the reader wrong-footed and wondering where the story will go next.

… because, sir, in case you don’t know it, words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be, soap bubbles, shells in which one can barely hear a whisper…

The book has a wonderfully satirical edge, particularly in the first half which is sharply observant of how people and politicians behave in extreme circumstances. The various organisations, from the church through to the maphia (spelled that way to differentiate them from the ‘mafia’) all have their own take on the crisis, dealing with it in their own way and trying to turn it to their advantage. One particularly wonderful section had some marvellously funny dialogue between an apprentice philosopher and a spirit hovering over the aquarium where he’s feeding his goldfish which questions the very nature and concept of depth, contemplating whether death itself is different for every species. Although this again sounds potentially heavy, Saramago has such a light touch that you find yourself thinking deep thoughts without even noticing it; and the humour he builds into the narrative balances any hint of ponderousness.

The second part of the book, the more personal part if you will, was actually remarkably moving, taking in human frailties, love and death, the power of music and the trust between humans and animals. I was on the edge of my reading chair as I got close to the end, and the finale was powerful, perhaps revealing exactly what it is that makes us human. I’ve gone back to re-read the last few pages a couple of times and the emotional heft has not diminished…

So my first reading of a Saramago book, picked up on a whim, turned out to be a powerful experience and this has got to be one of my books of the year (and we’re only in March!) I’ve no idea if this is typical of his work, but if my experience is anything to go by “Death at Intervals” is definitely a good way to get to know this wonderful author. I’m left not only wanting to read more of his works, but also quite sure I will want to revisit this book over the years.

Recoding the Patriarchy @wmarybeard


Women and Power by Mary Beard

Those of you who happen to follow me on Twitter might have noticed my recent excitement at stumbling over a bit of a bargain in a charity shop; namely a lovely pristine copy of Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” for 50p… As I commented at the time, truly some charity shop staff don’t quite know what they’re doing! However, I was happy with my bargain as I’ve been keen to read this since gifting Middle Child a copy at Christmas time, and as I wasn’t feeling like launching into one of the big fat fiction books I’m facing right now, it was the right book at the right time.

Beard is a well-known academic who makes regular appearances on TV as well as holding down an impressive teaching commitment; she’s also attracted a disproportionate amount of negative online comment, which serves to highlight just how far we still have to come with regards to gender stereotypes and expectations, and also how unpleasant certain online areas can be. Nevertheless, she continues to be erudite, outspoken and inspirational, and this book reflects both strands of her experience.

The book has its genesis in two lectures she gave, one in 2014 and one in 2017, for the London Review of Books, and it’s a powerful polemical read which draws not only on Beard’s knowledge of classical antiquity but also her personal experiences of making her way as an educated, intelligent woman in a man’s world. In simple terms, Beard is looking at the struggles women have in taking positions of power, how ingrained the attitudes of men are towards this, and how it is pretty much impossible with the current set-up to attain any kind of equality. The traditional power systems of the modern world are a male construct and Beard’s basic point is that the only way a women can get ahead in the power structure of our world (and indeed in the worlds of the past) is by aping a man; that’s what the system demands and that’s the only kind of behaviour the men in power recognise. So to change the balance, and in fact change the world, we completely need to remake it.

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

In presenting her arguments, Beard quotes some mind-numbingly awful behaviour from the classics (who knew Homer featured such hideously mysogynistic stories???) and then brings the representations of behaviour towards independent women starkly up to date with examples of how the imagery used has been hijacked by modern politicians – the image of Trump as Perseus and Clinton as Medusa is one I hadn’t seen and it’s truly shocking. Beard also takes a look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland”, which despite its pioneering viewpoint has drawbacks in taking on the traditional male power structure. Here, even a successful female utopia has to be made in isolation; its creators regard themselves as failures and once contact is made with the (male) outside world, it isn’t long before this oasis of female good sense unravels.

Interestingly, reading this book straight after the Priestley essays brought me back to consideration of Eros and Logos, the feminine and masculine principles (although in our gender fluid modern world, that’s perhaps a simplistic and naive viewpoint). Just as JBP seemed to be advocating a world with more focus on the feminine way of thinking, Beard seems to be suggesting a complete dismantling of the current system and a recoding of what we expect our power structure to be. There’s a disjuncture between the lip service we pay to equality in our modern world, and the reality of what women still experience. Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, Beard was featuring in the fascinating BBC2 documentary series “Civilisations” (yes, I’m risking dropping into a documentary rabbit hole again…), and was once again being met with ridiculously sexist commentary, in many cases from other women. Have we not yet moved on, people, past the point where we have to have such a rude and judgemental attitude to women that would never be meted out to men?? Plus Ça Change…. 😦

Beard’s argument is a persuasive one, and despite semi-humorous (but very irritating) assertions from members of my family that if the development of the world had been left to women we wouldn’t have any progress (Ada Lovelace, anyone???), I do find myself wondering what it would take to make a radical change in our society so that women can be accepted in positions of power, high up in the working world and generally everywhere they want to go – certainly the dismantling of the political Old Boy Network would need to happen. I should say here that I work in a pretty much all female environment, with intelligent, strong women in charge and it’s actually a wonderful place to be. And it’s interesting to watch the varying reactions of the men who come into that environment which range from admiration, curiosity and recognition to condescension, hostility and outright dismissal. Until we’re all on the same side things will not change.

So I ended this fascinating little book with a lot of questions buzzing around in my head, and also a new way of looking at the world. Unless we dismantle the patriarchy and build something new, will be ever change things for the better? And how will we do that and what will the new structure be? And in this unstable world of conflict how will it be possible to take on a way of thinking that’s ingrained and has been for centuries? All of this is a big ask – but if we want a fairer, better, more peaceful and equal world it seems to be the only way to go. Frankly, though, I just don’t know where we start. 😦

Anyway – that was the most stimulating and thought-provoking 50p I’ve spent in a long time…

Pacing myself….


Of late (or pretty much since I started blogging) I have been a single-book-at-a-time reader. I wasn’t like this back in the pre-blogging days, often having several books on the go simultaneously. However, I was starting to feel that that wasn’t working for me, and often books would end up unfinished and abandoned. Immersing myself in one title has been working recently, and I pretty much always finish what I started (except for the rare occasions I actually hate a book). However, with the amount of Big Books on the must-read pile, I’m thinking I might have to make some changes…

These are the aforementioned Big Books – and they *are* rather huge, aren’t they?? (Although very lovely!) All are review copies, two for the blog and two for Shiny New Books and tbh the prospect is perhaps a little daunting. I’ve been dithering away about which one to read first, whether to plunge into one and try to finish it, whether to read a bit of each and switch between them or what.

So far, I’ve read all the introductions, plus a reasonable chunk of the Chateaubriand and the Saltykov-Shchedrin (both of which are marvellous) and it could well be that I end up reading one of these first (even though the other two are calling to me strongly). I can’t help feeling that it might be worth taking a week’s sicky from work to get through some of them… Or alternatively, if I get *too* bogged down, I can always go for something short and pithy!!!!

I’ve been keen to read Hume and I have quite a few of the Penguin Great Ideas lurking in the house. So maybe alternating a slim-but-pithy with a big-and-absorbing is the way ahead…. 🙂

Curmudgeonly Cogitations


Grumbling at Large: Selected Essays of J.B. Priestley
Introduced by Valerie Grove

You might be forgiven for thinking that the art of essay writing is either dead or in decline; after all, the format of mainstream periodicals, read by large swathes of the population, simply doesn’t exist any more. Essays can still be found in smaller, niche magazines; and of course it could be argued that online platforms and blogs have superseded the essay. But a quick look at the catalogue of Notting Hill Books should dispel that notion quite quickly, as not only do they produce beautiful collections of classic essays, they also publish some intriguing new titles covering a wide range of subjects. They also produce some gorgeous little notebooks, but that’s another story for when I’m having a bit of a rant about my stationery obsession…

However! I’ve just been reading one of the volumes in their Classic Collection, the fabulously titled “Grumbling at Large” by J.B. Priestley, and a real joy it is too! I’m not quite sure where Priestley stands in the current scheme of things: his plays are still performed but are his novels read nowadays? And his essays and non-fiction works seem to be quite highly regarded, but have they dated? Whatever – this is a treasure of a collection and makes me keen to at least pick up one of the two copies of his “English Journey” which I have lurking on the shelves…

Priestley (1894-1984) was a Yorkshireman from an ordinary background; after fighting in the First World War, he went on to study at Cambridge and thereafter made his living from his pen. Wikipedia notes him as “novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, social commentator and broadcaster”, which oddly enough ignores the essays; and he certainly was very prolific. The selection featured in this pretty little book span a long period from “On Beginning” in 1925 to “On Happiness” in 1977, ranging far and wide in subject matter.

Priestley’s style is amusing, easily digested, loquacious and deceptively simple, as he often has very strong points to make. He puts on a wonderfully lugubrious front, presenting himself as a bit of a pipe-smoking, Northern grumbler; and yet under that surface he’s wonderfully droll and pithy, often waxing lyrical about the countryside, the landscape, the simple things in life. Again and again he hits the nail on the head; his wonderful essay “First Snow”, which I read while the country was being hit by ‘the beast from the east’ is spot on, capturing exactly how we feel about the magical first arrival of snow, the waking up in the morning and seeing the world white and changed, and then the fact of how quickly we become fed up with it.

The first essay in the book, the aforementioned “On Beginning”, actually deals with the process of the writing of that essay itself and is a glorious start to the book. Priestley reveals that he struggles to concentrate, “for I am of a discursive habit of mind, with strong but eccentric powers of association” – a statement that rather resonates with me! I also strongly identified with his comments on the ideas that occur to us in bed, the sentences we construct in our mind, the important points we want to make that have, of course, all disappeared by the time we get up the next morning. I’ve written many a review in my head while dropping off and woken to find that all of my thoughts on the matter have flown into thin air overnight…

Curmudgeonly Northerner…

Priestley has trenchant views on many subjects, and I didn’t always agree with his points. As he aged his opinions of course changed and he had a certain lack of sympathy with progress and the modern world. This is crystallised in a couple of essays where he deals with what he calls the yin and yang of Logos and Eros, which he defines as the masculine and feminine principles. Priestley connects the progress he abhors in the modern world with an excess of what he sees as masculine values, instead wishing for more of a balance and more of a simple world defined by what he sees as feminine values, a love of home, family and the like. This is perhaps a restrictive viewpoint to our modern eyes, but it’s certainly interesting to watch him argue it and it’s obviously something he felt strongly about as he returns to the subject again and again. I wonder whether this is something that affected men of a certain age who were after two world wars under the shadow of the atomic bomb, as I sensed a similar reaction in recent readings of Beverley Nichols. However, in other essays he seems remarkably prescient, particularly in “Another Revolution” where he predicts how the importance of the visual will overtake all other media forms; and looking at the modern populace, glued to screens of various sorts, it’s hard not to think he was right.

I’ve read that Priestley’s “Postscripts” war broadcasts are regarded as more influential than Churchill’s; two extracts are included here, and they’re powerful stuff. I actually listened to a recording of one whilst reading the book, and ever afterwards heard Priestley’s wonderful Yorkshire accent in my head (I do *love* a Northern accent!) He had such a wonderfully comforting, matter of fact voice that I can well understand how popular and essential the broadcasts were.

I’ll end with a few favourite quotes from some of the essays to give you a flavour of the treats in store in this lovely collection. Needless to see, it’s as gorgeous a book as is every Notting Hill hardback – cloth cover, bookmark, thick creamy paper, red page numbers – all these little things give you a sense of weight and quality which goes so well with the contents. If you haven’t read any Priestley, “Grumbling at Large” is a wonderful way to get to know him – it’s most definitely left me wanting to read more! 🙂

from “Coincidences”:

Even the smallest things, so trifling that we do not consider them worth mentioning to our friends, are not without their effect. The old wondering, peering, superstitious creature that crouches at the back of all our minds sees them as light straws born along the wind of fortune. Even the most trifling of all will yet induce a mood, a mood that may lead to a quarrel or a reconciliation, to the revocation of a will or the beginning of a masterpiece. It is very foolish and even dangerous to imagine that we are reasonable beings; such notions, in view of what we think we know of the history of our species, are themselves highly unreasonable.

from “Having Covered the Card Table”:

I spend my days poring over the records of men’s thoughts and dreams, wondering at their courage and timidity and impudence and vanity, praising here and blaming there, losing myself in the shadowy Walpurgis Night that we call literature.

from “Carless at Last”:

I was never at ease in that world. True, the first car I had was an unusually incompetent, if not downright malicious, vehicle. It was a very good argument for mass production, for it was of a make so rare that I never found anybody who had ever heard of it, and most people seemed to imagine that I had invented the name – and probably made the car.

from “Different Inside”:

Are other people, I wonder, as plagued by their faces as I am by mine, which thus monstrously exaggerates and distorts every feeling it is called upon to express; or do I suffer alone – a man with a calm philosophic mind but with a face that long ago decided to go on stage, and the melodramatic stage at that, a man with his heart in the right place but with his features in Hollywood?

from “Postscripts, 9th June 1940″:

It’s as if this English landscape said: ‘Look at me, as I am now in my beauty and fullness of joy, and do not forget.’ And when I feel this, I feel too a sudden and very sharp anger; for I remember then how this island is threatened and menaced; how perhaps at this very moment, thin-lipped and cold-eyed Nazi staff officers are planning, with that mixture of method and lunacy which is all their own, how to project onto this countryside of ours those half-doped crazy lads they call parachute troops.

(Review copy kindly provided by Notting Hill Editions, for which many thanks!)

“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” (Shelby Foote) @BodPublishing


A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It probably wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that some of the most popular books amongst book bloggers are actually books about books! And to take that a bit further, who would argue that the next best thing to a book about books must surely be a book about libraries? 🙂 Authors like Alberto Manguel and Borges have of course written extensively and lyrically about libraries (real and imagined), and so this small and unassuming, but very pretty, volume might seem to be a more modest addition to the canon of works about libraries. However, what’s that old saying about never judging a book by its cover….?

“A Library Miscellany” has just been issued by Bodleian Library Publishing (who were kind enough to provide a review copy), and this unpretentious book is actually filled with riches on the stories of the libraries we love. “Miscellany” is an apt word here, as the book is arranged in bite-sized chunks covering such fascinating topics as “Lighting a Library” (hint: avoid naked flames…). “Some Fictional Libraries of Note”, Library Philanthropists, cataloguing methods, classification methods, statistics on type of books borrowed, number of books borrowed, largest libraries, oldest libraries, busiest libraries – the list is seemingly endless, and it’s all captivating for anyone who loves books and where they live…

Trinity Library, Dublin

For someone who loves the institutions and thought she knew quite a lot about them, I actually learned a lot from the book! For example, did you know that there was a specific type of handwriting librarians had to learn called ‘Library hand’? And that loose leaf card catalogues were invented in France in the aftermath of the Revolution? Or that the Vatican had a secret library? I could go on and on, as the book is full of wonderful nuggets as well as paragraphs on particular library treasures or library philanthropists or famous librarians (yes, my beloved Larkin gets a mention).

“A Short History of Public Libraries” was revealing; and the fact that philosopher David Hume was once a librarian was news to me too. I was also stunned to read about UNESCO’s World Digital Library, which I have somehow managed to miss and which has turned into a bit of a rabbit-hole I’m struggling to get out of at the moment, as it’s eminently browsable. The book also brought back happy memories of my early library-visiting days; I’m old enough to remember card indexes and cardboard library cards – you were limited when taking books out to the amount of cards you had. Yes, digital systems are so much more convenient, but I can’t help a certain nostalgia for the old analogue ones…

British Museum Reading Room

One of the most striking things the “Miscellany” did for me, however, was to highlight the role of universities in the evolution of libraries and the almost symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. It seems that so many libraries grew out of the university connection and yet the latter cannot function without a very well-stocked version of the former… The quote in the heading of this post is most apposite and I don’t imagine we could have libraries without universities or vice versa.

I’m not backward about coming forward and singing the praises of libraries and how important they still are, and in fact I’ve being made good use of my local one recently and gone on about it a lot here on the Ramblings. The press release for “Miscellany” calls it an “extended love letter to the library” and goes on to say “Their existence means our cultural knowledge, history and literary output is protected, organised and, above all, available to anyone.” I can’t argue with that, and Claire Cock-Starkey has produced an excellent collection of fascinating facts, stories, information, statistics and histories to celebrate one of our favourite institutions.

If I had any gripes, I would say that I would have liked the book to be bigger and longer (!) and perhaps have included some illustrations too. However, that’s a very minor quibble, and “A Library Miscellany” as it is would make the perfect gift for any book-and-library-lover you know (or even for yourself…) If you ever needed to be reminded what a thing of great wonder and beauty a library is, this lovely little book will do just that.

Review copy provided by Bodleian Library Publishing via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

So – can I wax lyrical about The Passage, please??


I suspect that’s a post title that will have most regular visitors to the Ramblings scratching their heads a little, and I *am* going slightly off piste here. Mostly I post about books and bookish things, with the occasion bit of travel thrown in (!) but I have been known to lapse into music, and that’s where we’re going here.

Back in the deep mists of time (well, the 1980s…) I went through a huge obsession with the Manchester band The Passage. I guess they would loosely be categorised as post-Punk, although I don’t really like labels, and they covered quite a lot of musical territory in their short life (1978-1983). The brainchild of polymath Richard ‘Dick’ Witts, they grew out of his involvement with the Manchester Musicians Collective, and the band released four albums as well as a number of eps and singles (all of which, I am proud to say, I own in vinyl and cd versions….)

The core of The Passage – Witts, Wilson and McKechnie

Witts has a classical background, having spent time as a percussionist in the Halle Orchestra, and he brought his classical sensibilities to the band; their songs had a complexity that perhaps stopped them becoming more mainstream, despite later efforts moving towards commercial territory. The first two albums, “Pindrop” and “For All or None”, were often dense, with the vocals down in the mix; apparently none of the male members of the band (Joe McKechnie and Andrew Wilson being the other two long-serving participants) considered themselves particularly great vocalists (I’d dispute that) and at times a female vocalist would be drafted in. The two later albums, “Degenerates” and “Enflame”, moved into more percussive, dance-based territory, though still spiked with those sharp and wonderful lyrics; and I for one was pretty hacked off when they stopped making music…

What was common across all their recordings was the lyrical content; Witts had a kind of triple helix of subjects which informed his writing, “Fear”, “Power” and “Love”, and the songs tackled politics both in the civic sense and also the complexities of sexual politics. The subject matter could be controversial (the British presence in Northern Ireland; English right-wing politics; love versus sex) but always treated with Witts’ trademark – well, wit! Personally, I feel that “The Passage” were just too individual and offbeat and damn intelligent to cross over into the charts, despite the commerciality of the sound of the later songs; but in some ways I’m not too sad as they ploughed their own furrow and left behind some music that I loved and still love today.

The Book…

All of this ruminating has, inevitably been caused by a book… Last year, Eyewear Publishing issued a collection of Witt’s lyrics for the band. As I said, Witts is a polymath; he’s already published volumes on Nico, the history of the Arts Council, plus the Velvet Underground, and can nowadays be found in academia at Edge Hill University. Back in the day, he used to do wonderful little arts presentations on the “Oxford Road Show” programme (a music and culture show on the BBC) – in fact, it’s one of his pieces which is responsible for my dreadful and enduring obsession with Mayakovsky (but that’s another story…) His lyrics, unlike so many rock and pop compositions, stand up brilliantly as poetry in my view (though I have the problem of hearing the songs in my head as I read them). The book itself is a lovely little hardback limited edition, nicely illustrated with Passage memorabilia and images, as well as boasting an afterword by Witts himself.

Alas, I’m not aware of there being any live footage of The Passage out there – though I am extremely happy that I did see them live back in the day. If my dreadful memory serves me correctly, it was at The Venue in London, November, 1982 and they were just epic – one of my best gigs ever! (I also saw The Raincoats that same year and they were equally amazing). But here is a link to one of my favourite Passage songs, “Love Is As” – just wonderful…

Literally everything by The Passage was released on a series of CDs by LTM Records and you can still get hold of these, including a disc of BBC sessions. Interestingly, I’ve seen reference to a broadcast of part of a concert on the BBC John Peel show in 1982 which isn’t on the CDs which *supposedly* no longer existed; so I’m rather happy that I still have my off-air cassette recording of that somewhere in the house (and in any case, it can be sourced online…)

If any of this interests you at all, you can check out several of their songs on YouTube, and there is an excellent Passage site here:


Witts has his own site, too, which is here and covers The Passage plus the rest of his career:


I find it eternally fascinating how some of the stuff (music, art, literature) you love at a younger age can stay with you, and some falls by the wayside. Certainly, I could list any number of books, authors or music that I couldn’t read or listen to again. But I always loved the music of The Passage and I’m pretty sure I always will – even when I’m a crabby old lady berating the younger generation for their dullness and conventionality…. 🙂

%d bloggers like this: