Gratuitous book pictures – sharing my Beverley Nichols collection! :D


When Simon posted a picture of some lovely book finds recently it sparked a little Twitter discussion of the crime books of Beverley Nichols. Both Simon and I share a love of Nichols’ books (my guest appearance on his “Tea or Books?” podcast involved us exchanging views on him!) and I was prompted to post a picture of my editions of the crime novels. And then I thought it was a little while since I’d shared any images of books in my collection – hence this post, and lots of gratuitous shots of Beverley Nichols books! 😀

First up, here they are on the shelf where they normally sit (in front of my Mervyn Peakes):

And here they are all laid out on the spare room bed – it’s only when I actually haul my books off the shelves that I realise quite how many there are… 😦

Starting from the left (but we won’t stay in that order…) these are the gardening books:

Yes, there are two copies of “A Village in the Valley” – as I said when I posted about it here, there was an oddness in the edition my BFF J. presented me with and so I had to get a second one to read the missing bits. And yes, there are two copies of “Merry Hall“; I came across the one in the dustjacket in a charity shop for 99p or something and it came home with me!

What next? Beverley’s fiction, maybe:

Crazy Pavements” was the first book of Beverley’s I read, back in 2012, and I loved his tone. I probably prefer his gardening books to his straight fiction, but anything he writes is usually fine by me! “Self” and “Revue” are still to be read!

Next up let’s have some general non-fiction:

Again, these are at present unread – but I have plenty of Beverley stockpiled for the Zombie Apocalypse, so that has to be good.

And then there’s his autobiographies:

Both of these are titles I’ve read – Simon and I discussed “The Sweet and Twenties” on the podcast, and then I posted my review; “Twenty-five” was a wonderful diversion back in 2013. Beverley on the subject of his own life is always entertaining!

He also wrote children’s books, which I have yet to read – I’m vaguely nervous in case I find them a bit twee, but here are the ones I own:

Plus I have a chunky biog of the man himself:

And there are some oddities:

The Monica Dickens-Beverley Nichols letters should be entertaining; “A Case of Human Bondage” was more problematic and caused me all sorts of mental angst. I’m still not sure where I stand on it!

And last, but definitely not least, here are the crime books – spines first!

And then their pretty covers:

So far, I’ve read “No Man’s Street“, “The Moonflower” and “Death to Slow Music” – and I did love them all. I’m kind of saving the last two as I don’t want to run out…

Phew. So that’s quite a lot of Beverley books. And looking through them I realise that massive thanks need to go to my BFF J. who has actually been the source of so many of these (and a first edition of “Laughter on the Stairs” which is coming my way at some point soon). She’s gifted me these over a number of birthdays or Christmases or just got copies for me, and is responsible for much of my Beverley collection – thank you J!

Well. Now I need to get this little lot back on the shelves; and relax safe in the knowledge that I still have many Beverley books for amusement and entertainment and perhaps a little provocation, when the modern world is just too much…

Crime in the Blackout @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC


Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

If in doubt, cosy crime…. I spent quite a number of hours reading the Owen Hatherley book, which I really enjoyed, but I felt in need of something a bit different. Hence, I suppose, a quick rummage in the pile of British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read and reviewed! I settled for this one because I enjoyed Lorac’s short story in the collection “The Christmas Card Crime” so much; and also I think because Harriet rated it so highly in her review. I wasn’t disappointed!

E.C.R. Lorac was the pen-name used by Edith Caroline Rivett, and she also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac. Astonishingly, despite the fact that she was a prolific writer of Golden Age crime, and a member of the Detection Club, her work has been all but forgotten until its recent revival by the BLCC imprint – so more kudos for them. Her regular detective was Inspector Macdonald, who features in this story, and as the introduction by Martin Edwards makes clear, “Murder by Matchlight” was considered one of her best; it’s received considerable praise in other reviews I’ve read, even by BLCC standards, and it’s not hard to see why…

London was silent, with a silence which had no quality of peacefulness: in its shroud of darkness the place seemed tense, uneasy, as if it were waiting for the first banshee held of sirens which seemed a fitting accompaniment to the listening darkness.

“Murder by Matchlight” was first published in 1945 and is firmly set during the Second World War. We are in a world of ration cards and the black market; the black-out and air raids; and as the story opens a young man called Bruce Mallaig is walking in Regent’s Park in the dark, a place he can now get access to at night because the railings have been taken away to use for munitions. Having been stood up for a date, he’s in a morose mood; however, his mood is about to worsen as he witness an apparently impossible murder. A man on a bridge is killed, apparently by someone whose face materialises briefly in the light of a match. However, someone else was under the bridge and heard no other footsteps; and there are no more footprints.

Fortunately, Chief Inspector Macdonald is on hand to investigate, and a visit to the murdered man’s lodgings reveals a colourful array of potential suspects, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Rameses, a magical act. However, there is another possible connection to the murdered man’s past in Ireland, where he fought for Sinn Fein; and also to the film industry at Denham, where he gained occasional work. It’s a clever, twisty mystery that takes all of Macdonald’s ingenuity to sort out. And I confess to being completely misled (which I do love in a GA Crime Novel!). At times I thought I was a step ahead of Lorac and Macdonald, only to be regularly wrongfooted, and I only really started to get an inkling when the book got close to its big reveal. The end was ingenious and satisfying, leaving me wanting more of both Lorac’s writing and the characters she created. I particularly adored the Rameses’, and her description of Macdonald’s first encounter with the lady of the couple is priceless!

They lived in the flat on the first floor and the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce-coloured, wadded silk dressing up-gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements, for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

However, despite it being an excellent and readable mystery, where “Murder…” really scores is in its setting and atmosphere. The further away we get from the Second World War, the harder it is for us to imagine what it was to live through those days and those events. We’re fairly unused to conflicts taking place on our little island, and it does us good to be reminded, I think. Lorac doesn’t shy away from any of this, and cleverly builds the events happening in London (a dramatic bombing raid, the people involved and how they react) into her story. She also inserts at several points comment on the fact that justice must be seen to be done, whatever else is happening in the world. The murder victim is not a particularly nice person, one the world is probably better without. Yet when Macdonald is taken to task for worrying about who killed him while the world is going to hell in a handcart, he equates allowing a murderer to get away killing to allying oneself to Nazism. It’s a powerful message, even more so as it was written while the conflict was taking place.

(Macdonald) had an uncomfortable feeling that his lungs were still full of smoke: the reek of last night’s fire seem to hang about him. Then he realised that a thick fog brooded over London and he wished for a moment that he was anywhere else in the world – anywhere, away from fog and bombs and barrage and shelters and demolitions and all the rest of it.

So “Murder by Matchlight” is a punchy and powerful addition to the BLCC list (and now I’m keen to read her other titles too!) This book comes with a lovely little extra in the form of a rarely seen short story by Lorac, which is extremely satisfying. I’m so glad I followed my instincts and picked this book up right now; it was the perfect read for a cold and gloomy January, and I find myself wondering quite how we lovers of classic crime got by before the British Library started bringing out these rather wonderful books… 😉

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!

Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks


Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

Penguin Moderns 17 and 18 – Picking up the reins again!


It’s been a while since I read and wrote about any of the lovely little volumes in the Penguin Moderns box set; in fact, I see it was last October, which is fairly alarming!! However, I said in my no-plans-for-2019 post that I *did* want to pick these up again soon – and lo and behold! I have! 😀

Penguin Modern 17 – Create Dangerously by Albert Camus

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a reasonable amount of Camus over the years, but pretty much always his fiction as far as I can recall; so a nudge to read some of his essays was always going to be welcome, and the three featured here are fascinating. The title piece is a speech which Camus delivered shortly after being awarded the Nobel prize, and is the longest; its focus is on the place of the artist in the modern world, the dichotomy of whether to focus on realism or not, and the relevance of art in the twentieth century. These are big topics, and Camus argues the case for art’s importance very strongly.

After all, perhaps the greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of men and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent.

Defence of Intelligence is a sobering discussion of how France must first make friends with itself after the horrors of the Second World War before it can extend friendship to the rest of the world Finally, Bread and Freedom is a stirring defence of liberty and justice.

We are on the high seas. The artist, like everyone else, must bend to his oar, without dying if possible – in other words, go on living and creating.

Camus is an invigorating commentator, and the essays provided me with much food for thought. Post-War France must have been an unsettled place in which to live, and as the world moved into the 1950s the general state of the world seemed no calmer. Camus was obviously someone who thought deeply about art’s place and relevance in that world, and reading these essays has made me keen to dig out more. I know I have some longer non-fiction pieces, and there is also this which I stumbled upon a while back in the Oxfam; so no excuse not to read Camus!

Penguin Modern 18 – The Vigilante by John Steinbeck

The second PM I read in this batch is quite different from the Camus, although it still deals with the harsher side of life. John Steinbeck is again someone I’ve read a reasonable amount of, although I have a considerably larger number of his books on the shelves which are unread as opposed to read… Most of the ones I *have* spent time with were pre-blog, and I was particularly taken with “Cannery Row”, “Travels With Charley” and “A Russian Journal” – more non-fiction than fiction, actually. I’ve never read his shorter works, though, so was interested to see what the Penguin Modern would bring.

McFadden Publications, Inc.; no photographer credited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, what I encountered were three very different stories: all hard-hitting tales in their own way, and all very memorable. The title story is a dark one, getting inside the mindset of a member of a lynch mob. It’s painful and uncomfortable reading; Steinbeck doesn’t seem to be setting out to judge, simply to present the horrible thought processes of Mike, the protagonist, and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. The Snake is equally dark, and I found this particularly hard to handle, dealing as it does (partly) with vivisection. A cold fish of a doctor experiments on the animals in his Cannery Row rooms; however, an encounter with a tall, dark woman who wants to buy a snake unsettles him and her motives are unclear. The final story, The Chrysanthemums, appears initially gentle, dealing with a farming couple and the wife’s encounter with a travelling pedlar. However, the whole meeting unsettles her very existence and the story is just as devastating as the others. These are powerful works and evidence of Steinbeck’s great talents as an author.


Both of these Penguin Moderns were deeply stimulating, and left me wanting to read more of each author’s work – which has to be a good thing. Hopefully, reading these little volumes will continue to send me sailing into uncharted waters, as I do love to discover new and wonderful writing from all over the world!

A fledgling work of genius #sylviaplath #maryventura @FaberBooks


Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

There’s been quite a flutter of excitement around the planned releases to celebrate the esteemed publisher Faber and Faber’s 90th birthday. Known for their marvellous poetry publishing (and former employer of T.S. Eliot), Faber have issued works by everyone from Beckett, Betjeman and Hughes to Eliot himself; and very importantly, one of my favourite authors, Sylvia Plath! Central to the celebrations was the release of a number of little volumes of individual short stories; and the major excitement came from the fact that one of these was a short work by Plath which had never been published before. It was a given that I had to have this, and a copy duly arrived on release date, 3rd January. Trouble was, I was almost scared to read it in case it didn’t live up to the hype…

Well, reader, it did! “Mary Ventura…” was written in 1952, when Plath was a student at Smith College. The title character takes her name from one of Sylvia’s high school friends, and had featured in an earlier unrelated tale; this story, described by Plath as a ‘vague symbolic tale’, was submitted to Mademoiselle magazine in December 1952. Sylvia had recently won their writing prize, but they magazine rejected this new work; their loss, I’m afraid, because I think it’s excellent and I’m so glad it’s finally seen the light of day!

And I here I hit my first problem. “Mary Ventura..” is 40 pages long and to give away too many plot details would really spoil your reading experience (and you ARE going to go out and get a copy of this, aren’t you??) Let’s just say the story opens with Mary being seen off on a long train journey by her parents; they’re oddly distanced and distracted, and Mary seems unsure if she wants to make the long journey north, stating that she isn’t ready to leave. Nevertheless, the train departs with Mary on it; yet nothing seems quite normal. Mary is unsure of where she’s actually going; a woman keeping her company seems to know more about what’s happening than her young fellow traveller; and a vague air of foreboding hangs over the whole enterprise. The ending is symbolic and perhaps unexpected.

I got to the end of the story thinking “Blimey! That’s brilliant!” and then wondering why on earth it hasn’t been published before. Yes, perhaps it’s a little unpolished in places – Plath was, after all, still a fledgling author – but the concept is clever, the atmosphere effectively conjured and the allegory isn’t heavy-handed. In fact, it’s pretty impressive how Plath uses the ‘less is more’ approach, creating tension and uncertainty by implication rather than stating things out-and-out. Motivations and settings are often left cloudy and unresolved, and this makes the story’s unsettling impact even stronger.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Approaching “Mary Ventura…” with knowledge of Plath’s sometimes complex family history and her own struggles does perhaps colour your reading of it. However, even without that background, I think the story stands in its own right, as a look at the complexities of striking out on your own, being ready to leave family life and take on independence, and the importance of a supportive family network around you. For a short piece, it certainly raises a number of issues.

The Faber Stories collection consists of 20 short works which are listed on the flap of this one, and the list of authors is impressive, taking in for example Brian Aldiss, Djuna Barnes, Edna O’Brien, P.D. James and Sally Rooney, to name just a few. Yet I can’t help feeling that Sylvia Plath’s story is the jewel in the crown here; it lingers in the mind and the topics it raises are thought-provoking ones. Aside from that, it’s simply a readable, fascinating, often unsettling tale with can be read in one burst (because you’re desperate to get to the end and find out what happens!) but which then has you wanting to revisit it to look for clues. Very clever, and evidence of just what a great writer Sylvia Plath was, and what a loss she was at such a young age. And it’s set me wondering about what other unpublished gems of hers might be in existence; I do hope that, if there are any out there, they surface in my lifetime…

“….all that you are cannot be avoided.” #mandelstam


I got myself in a bit of a tizz recently because I couldn’t find my copy of Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and I love it to bits and wanted to reread the end yet again. This irked me for several weeks, and so much so over Christmas that I finally resolved to take a stepladder and examine closely the bookshelf I thought it should be on (which is quite high up) Needles to say it was there, but had just fallen down the back of double shelved stacks with other books piled up on top… So I’m pleased to report it’s found!

Hurrah! It’s rediscovered! 😀

However, while I was rummaging, my eye fell upon  a slim volume from Glas publishers which I picked up some time back in my quest for everything Bulgakov. It’s a book which focuses on that wonderful author as well as poet Osip Mandelstam, and it was a timely find as the latter has been much on my mind recently. I own a number of works by this great Russian poet, and have been deeply moved by his fate; yet I’ve read little of what I own and have been vaguely nervous owing to his reputation as a possibly difficult poet with work full of allusion I might not get. I have dipped into his work via a number of anthologies, but I have poems, essays and travel writing lurking. Nevertheless, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, “The greatness of Mandelstam was recognized even by Vladimir Nabokov, who despised practically everyone.” So I wondered if this might be a useful introduction the poet and to his work…

And I’m happy to report that it is! The book is “Glas New Russian Writing 5” and the translations are given as copyright 1993, although the publication date given on Amazon is 2000. Certainly, it would have been before the more recent slew of publications about Bulgakov, and it’s split into two halves which each focus on one of the two named authors. There are photographs, memoirs and examples of the author’s writing, and these build up to give a picture of their life and work.

Mandelstam’s life, or certainly the part of it after his marriage, is extensively covered in his wife Nadezdha’s two volumes of autobiography (which I intend to read when I’ve found a copy of the first…) However, the biographical interest in the Glas volume comes from a long section by Osip’s younger brother, Evgeny. He relates some family history, their Jewish heritage, stories of their early life and schooling, and reveals the problems between their parents which affected family life. As well as giving us insights into Osip’s personality and young life, Evgeny’s memories cover something of his own life. These reminiscences are fascinating in their own right, with tales of encounters with famous poets and the background of the drama of the revolution. An afterword reveals that the younger brother had an illustrious life of his own, working in medicine, but also with a literary side to his career, becoming involved in film scripts.

However, returning to Osip, the content is moving, beautiful and often so sad. Mandelstam, like Bulgakov, was inspired by, and reliant upon, a wife who supported his work, helped its survival and continued to promote it after his tragic death in exile. The poet was reckless enough to compose a critical poem about Stalin (reproduced in this volume) at the height of the dictator’s popularity. An NKVD mug-shot tells you all you need to know; he was exiled (along with his wife), returned to Moscow, was re-arrested and sent to a camp near Vladivostok where cold and starvation killed him.

Any other poet compared to Osip Mandelstam was like a spider weaving its web compared to a silkworm.

I’ve not read enough of Mandelstam’s poetry yet to decide whether the verses here are representative, but they’re certainly beautiful and memorable and not so scarily complex as I imagined. Add in the memoirs and images and you have what is a perfect little primer on Osip Mandelstam (and indeed on Bulgakov, if you’ve yet to make his acquaintance). You can still find this little book online, and if you want to explore these wonderful 20th century Russian authors’ life and work, this might well be a good place to start!

(NB – I’m normally keen to credit the translator, but although this volume is edited by Natasha Perova, the names of translators are spread out throughout the book. Here they are, and I hope I haven’t missed any: Kate Cook, James Escomb, Sonja Franeta, David Gillespie and Eric Guth.)

“Silently we unlatch the door….” (Thoreau) @NottingHillEds @MinshullDuncan


Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking
Introduced and edited by Duncan Minshull

I’m not sure if this is setting the tone for 2019, but I seem to be starting off the year with non-fiction; mind you, I’m always happy to have an excuse to read one of the lovely volumes produced by Notting Hill Editions. I’ve covered a number of their books on the Ramblings as well as for Shiny New Books, and they’re always a delight. What’s not to love about a beautiful little cloth-bound edition on quality paper with inspiring content? And when I saw that this volume was coming out I was particularly keen to read it; “Beneath My Feet” is an anthology of pieces by famous writers on the subject of walking, and as an inveterate walker I may well be the ideal reader!

Walking, as is well-known, does tend to stimulate the brain and so you would expect authors to want to walk whenever possible (and I confess that though I’m no author, I’ve certainly composed plenty of sentences for the blog while striding on my way to work – which does cause havoc when I have to stop halfway to write them down…) Many of the writers here are well-known for their peregrinations, particularly Thoreau, Dickens and Will Self. Others, like de Quincey and Rousseau, are perhaps not such obvious candidates for inclusion in this kind of book. Yet all are stimulating, thought-provoking and make fascinating reading.

Health and salvation can only be found in motion… (Kierkegaard)

Editor Minshull has chosen some really interesting writers and selections of their work on which to focus, and it was a pleasure for me to be introduced to ones new to me. John Muir’s descriptions of the heat of California were compelling, and reminded me that I have a chunky volume of his work on the shelves;  James Boswell‘s encounter with odoriferous Edinburgh was very funny; and William Hazlitt‘s desire for solitude very refreshing. Thoreau inevitably makes an appearance in his own right, but is also a recurring touchstone for many of the other writers. I empathised with George Sand and her need to move anonymously through the crowd, and cheered her choice of men’s clothing to enable this. The brilliance of Virginia Woolf goes without saying, and the extract from her “Street Haunting” reminded me that I have a number of VERY BIG volumes of her essays that I really should get round to…

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking! (William Hazlitt)

I was particularly taken, too, with the piece by Will Self; he takes a walk back to a hotel in night-time Glasgow and pins all manner of ponderings onto it, and it’s fascinating and thought-provoking. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Self’s non-fiction works; I have both of his “Psychogeography” collections and they’re endlessly entertaining. And the final extract, a beautiful piece of writing by Kafka, was most unexpected.

Interestingly, the book’s blurb reminded me that Duncan Minshull had previously edited an anthology of walking scenes from classic fiction, entitled “The Burning Leg”; and indeed I have a copy of this which I read pre-blog. I recall it as being just as interesting as this collection, and they’d make ideal companions.

It’s easy to take the act of perambulating and turn it into something mystical and significant – as Minshull says:

The thing is, you can take something simple like walking and imbue it with lots of conceits and rituals. Then it becomes an imaginative act, like questing for a pencil.

Nevertheless, we are a species which for much of our existence relied on our feet to get us around our world; it’s only in relatively modern times that we’ve had the means to speed around the world at a rate of knots, and up until the invention of mechanical aids we moved at whatever pace we could manage. There’s most definitely a number of arguments to be made in favour of going back to walking as much as we can: it’s better for our health, it’s infinitely better for our poor, battered planet, and by slowing our pace to a walk we’ll see that world properly again instead of speeding past it and losing our connection with nature. The writers featured here, old and new, were very much aware of the benefits and rewards of walking; and this wonderful anthology will go a long way towards reminding its readers just how important it is to get out-of-doors and use Shanks’s pony! 😀

Many thanks to Notting Hill Editions for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

“Pillars of fire floated in the air…” #nikolaigumilev @Glagoslav


Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski, Michael M. Naydan and Maria Badanova

I was very happy to be contacted towards the end of 2018 by Glagoslav Publications; an independent publisher dedicated to widening knowledge, understanding of and access to writing from the Slavic regions, they issue a fascinating array of books and I’ve been intending to read some of their works for a while now. They were kind enough to offer me review copies, and I was particularly keen to explore “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa”, especially as he’s a poet I’ve only circled around up to this point.

Gumilev is probably remember more nowadays for having been the husband of the great Anna Akhmatova, and yet his achievements and importance in his own right shouldn’t be ignored. As well as co-founding the Acmeist movement, which sought for clarity and compactness in poetry, he was an influential literary critic and traveller. And it’s his travels which are the focus in this fascinating book; Gumilev journeyed to, wrote about and photographed extensively the Africa of the early 20th century, and all of those materials are gathered in this exemplary collection.

The bulk of this material comes from a 1913 trip to Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called at the time) which Gumilev made on behalf of the St. Petersburg Imperial Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. He collected folk tales and objects, transcribed folk songs and took numerous photos – more of which later. The volume seems to have been the brainchild of the late Slava Yastremski, and it draws together initially all of Gumilev’s poetry from his various collections which focus on Africa. The lyrics are beautiful and haunting, drawing on mythology and magic, as well as some of the terrors of the jungle. Reading the verse works has made me very keen to explore Gumilev’s poetry further…

…a door opened in my heart,
And when the heart whispers to us,
We don’t struggle, we don’t wait.

The prose pieces which follow are a mixture of short fictions, essays and diaries of his journeys through the various countries. The writing is beautifully descriptive, bringing the landscape and its peoples vividly to life and creating haunting imagery. The diaries in particular are fascinating reading, as the conditions which these early explorers had to endure were harsh and all without our modern conveniences and aids. This makes it even more remarkable that Gumilev and his assistant (his nephew Nikolai Sverchkov) managed to take and develop more than 200 photographs of the places and peoples they encountered on the way, and a number of these feature at the end of the book.

The various elements combine to build up a quite captivating picture of the country at the time; and it was fascinating to learn of the multitude of cultures living in the country at the time. Gumilev mentions all manner of indigenous peoples encountered in the area he travelled through, including Egyptians, Abyssinians, Somalis, Greeks, French, English… You name it, they seemed to be present in the area at the time. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of the area to do more than guess that there were a number of colonial influences involved, but it’s fascinating to see photographs of Emperor Haile Selassie before he bore that name; I’m old enough to remember his presence in the world, and I felt a weird kind of link back to Gumilev’s journey because of that.

The pages in the book of destinies have been tangled long ago, and no one knows in what remarkable way he will come to his ruin.

Gumilev’s life was tragically cut short in 1921 when he was shot by the Russian Cheka after being falsely accused of involvement in a monarchist conspiracy; he was only rehabilitated in 1992, and it’s been said that his execution negatively affected the life of Akhmatova and their son, despite the two poets having divorced in 1918. However, bearing in mind his views and his lack of sympathies with the Soviet regime, I suspect it’s unlikely he would have survived the Great Purge of the 1930s.

Gumilev by Karl Bulla [Public domain] – via Wikipedia Commons

“Africa…” is a really fascinating piece of work, despite the fact that the kind of cultural anthropology undertaken by this kind of expedition would most likely not be considered appropriate nowadays. There is, inevitably, some unfortunate terminology and as Michael Naydan explains in his short note to the book, the decision was taken to translate words and phrases into the equivalent English of the time. Nowadays we would hopefully approach different cultures in a more sensitive way than explorers of the past did. Putting this aside, however, this is a valuable, absorbing and intriguing volume. It comes with useful notes, an introduction and fascinating essay on Gumilev’s photographs by Yastremski, and the aforementioned note by Naydan. From the latter it would appear that Yastremski sadly passed away before the work on the book could be finished, and this was completed by Naydan alongside Badanova; I can’t imagine a greater tribute to a colleague. “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa” is not only an excellent introduction to Gumilev’s work, but also a little time machine which will take you travelling back to the Ethiopia of the early 20th century – highly recommended!

Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!


The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!

I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…


2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

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