Short and deeply unsettling…. @mjohnharrison @nightjarpress #doelea


It seems like today is a good day to post a few thoughts about a little limited edition chapbook I picked up recently (and got a bit excited about) – “Doe Lea” by M. John Harrison, from Nightjar Press. I’ve rambled on about MJH on the blog before; I’ve been reading his books for decades, and I love his writing. Very distinctive, very individual, often unsettling and defying categorisation – the sort of thing I love, really!

Anyway, I follow his website, and when he mentioned “Doe Lea” would be coming out in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies I was standing by to do that internet shopping magic as soon as it appeared on the Nightjar site. Which I duly did, and my copy arrived a couple of days later to much excitement at the Ramblings (and slight puzzlement from Mr. Kaggsy who, despite being supportive of my bookishness, doesn’t quite get why I get so worked up about literature….) However – back to “Doe Lea”.

I reviewed MJH’s collection “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017; a collection of shorter works of varying length, it really proved that the author is a master of whatever form of writing he takes on. “Doe Lea” would actually have fitted into the collection very well; 15 pages long, it’s a haunting and somewhat disconcerting story, taking a snapshot from the life of one man. As the tale begins, the narrator is leaving the hospital where his father has just died; he takes the train south from London towards the coast on his journey home, musing on memories of his father and how the latter had been affected by his final illness. The train develops some kind of fault and stops at a small place called “Doe Lea”, which oddly enough the narrator doesn’t seem to have noticed before.

As there’s like to be a delay before the train is fixed, the man wanders around Doe Lea; the place is small, oddly quiet, and there is a weird geographical feature. The people he encounters are unsettling; an air of stasis seems to hover over the town, having an almost hypnotic effect. The train will no doubt be fixed and will leave, but there are real doubts about whether man will get on it, who he actually is, and the slippery nature of the reality we are apparently reading about…

I shan’t say much more about “Doe Lea”, except to say that it was a really fascinating, beautifully written and disturbing piece of writing. Although nothing directly *scary* happens, there is an underlying sense of unease running through the whole story; MJH is quite brilliant about conveying that kind of thing in his work. Much is left unexplained and to the imagination, which is always a much more effective way of unsettling the reader. and there’s a blurring of identity which is quite unnerving. I have to say that if my train ever stopped at Doe Lea I don’t think I’d want to get out – and I’m glad I read this in the daytime, because I’m still wondering about the strange geographical feature…

So “Doe Lea” was a fitting read for Halloween; although I’m sad to say that I can’t encourage you madly to go off and buy a copy because it seems (unsurprisingly) to be sold out. MJH has a new book out next year (exciting!) and maybe “Doe Lea” will turn up in another collection some time – I certainly hope so, because it deserves a really wide audience! 😀

“Dogs are better than cats” (Miranda Hart) @NottingHillEds #ondogs


On Dogs: An Anthology

It’s blindingly obvious from my Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of Notting Hill Editions; their beautifully presented and always engrossing editions are starting to find a regular place on my shelves…. ;D What you may not have realised is that I’m also a huge fan of dogs! When it comes to our four-legged friends I definitely come down on the side of the canines (sorry, cat-lovers – although I love them a bit too…) I guess the fact that I grew up in a family which always had a dog in the house has got something to do with it. The first resident was Buster, a Collie/Cocker Spaniel cross my mum and dad had when they got married. He was a lovely, even tempered dog and my mum was heartbroken when we lost him. She kind of swore she would never have another dog, until we stumbled across West Highland Terriers. Some friends visited from Scotland with their Westie called Hamish. My brother and I were entranced, and when a Westie puppy appeared in a local pet shop we plagued my mother until she brought it home with us. He was Hamish too and he lived until he was 17; he was followed by Duncan, Angus and Jamie until my dad passed away and my mum decided a dog was too much for her. Which is a roundabout way of saying I am a Dog Person; so the latest release from Notting Hill Editions, a wonderful anthology entitled “On Dogs” is most definitely my kind of book! 😀

“On Dogs” is edited by Rosie Heys, and comes with an entertaining introduction by Tracey Ullman. It’s illustrated by photographs by Gruffpawtraits, and the contents range far and wide through a marvellous array of authors writing about dogs in all shapes and forms. There really are some excellent selections, and not only fictional dogs, but extracts from people like Barbara Woodhouse and her thoughts on how to train dogs; academic discussions on the gradual development of the dog species and the morals of breeding, and indeed having a pet at all; and thoughts about the differences between dogs and wolves.

There’s poetry, including verse from Lord Byron and the Empress of China; Virginia Woolf introduces Flush to Elizabeth Barrett; Jack London shows us dogs in the wild; and we even get to encounter Bulgakov’s mongrel Sharik, who takes centre stage in his very wonderful “Heart of a Dog”. Elsewhere, A.A. Gill and Will Self tussle with the fact that they have been seduced into becoming dog owners by a pair of pleading canine eyes; we learn about the role of dogs in expeditions to the North Pole; Mrs. Gaskell shows us a surprising harshness from the Brontes towards their dogs; and John Steinbeck travels through the southern states of America with his dog Charley.

And that’s just some of the riches “On Dogs” contains; it really is a superb collection, full of funny, profound, moving and entertaining pieces about dogs (and of course their owners). I never like to pick favourites, because I enjoyed all of these pieces, but I must mention two authors in particular. Brigitte Bardot, known for her love of animals and running sanctuaries for them in France, provides a powerful ‘Open Letter’ where she condemns the wanton breeding of dogs which has led to such an overpopulation of the animals that her sanctuaries are full of unwanted canines. I couldn’t agree more, and if I ever get round to having a dog of my own it will be a rescue one. *

Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedaile bit. The list finally contained forty or more names. Nobody could understand why we didn’t get rid of the dog. I didn’t understand it very well myself, but we didn’t get rid of him.

Then there’s James Thurber… He contributes a piece entitled “The Dog That Bit People”, which is taken from his “My Life and Hard Times”. It tells the story of an Airedale called Muggs who does indeed seem to bite everyone, including the family – so much so, that you actually do really wonder why they kept it! It’s a screamingly funny piece of writing which had me laughing so much I almost couldn’t breathe! I’ve read and reviewed Thurber before, and this reminded me how much I loved his writing – priceless!

So “On Dogs” is another winner from NHE as far as I’m concerned. It’s as beautifully produced as all of their hardback essay collections, and will entertain you from start to finish. Plus if you’re Christmas shopping for a dog lover it may well solve all your problems… (there, I said the C-word – sorry!) Me? I’m still laughing about Muggs…. ;D

*In case anyone’s wondering, I crave a Wire Hair Fox Terrier….

Coming in six month’s time – a very special reading club! :D


Time for a drumroll, please! After the success of the #1930Club (and what a fab week of reading it was!), Simon suggested we ask for nominations for the next Club reading week, which will be in six months’ time. Despite some proposals of early or late dates, we both feel comfy sticking within the 1920-1980 range, and the actual year of 1920 came up several times in comments on our blogs.

Now, that’s quite an interesting suggestion, because of course next year will be 100 years on from that year. So as it’s an era that appeals to both of us, has an interesting anniversary and was a popular choice, we’ve decided that the next club will be the #1920Club! 😀

Simon has designed this nifty graphic for us all to use when we’re reading and posting about books from 1920, and as you can see the dates will be 13-19 April 2020. I noticed, too, that this will be our tenth Club Week, so it’s a bit of a milestone as well!

So – you can’t say you haven’t been warned. You have six months to source, research, read, enjoy and get ready to post about books from 1920. I’ve already got one title lined up which I’m *very* happy about! So what are you waiting for? Ready, steady – off you go! Here’s to the #1920Club! 😀

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!


After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀


#1930Club – what a week and what a year! :D


Aaaaannnnnnndddd breath! We reach the end of another Club Reading Week, and what fun it’s been again! I’ve often said at the end of one of our Clubs that I could have happily read on for a second week; however, with 1930 – a bumper year in publishing, if there ever was one – I think I could easly have managed a month! 😀

However, I *am* pleased with the books I read, and I think there was quite a lot of variety in there (and not just a reliance on Golden Age Crime, however tempting that was!) Here are the books in question:

And I’m happy to say I enjoyed all of them (even if some of the poetry lost me occasionally…) Not going to pick out favourites – both classic crimes were amazing, and discovering Dos Passos was a real joy.

There were several I intended (or hoped!) to read which unfortunately slipped through the net; although I had a pretty large pile of possibles, these are the ones I most regret…

I could, of course, have read tons of Christie – “The Murder at the Vicarage” is an old favourite, and “Black Coffee” is a novelisation of her 1930 play (cheating, perhaps, but it would have been fun). I’m sad I didn’t get to the Sayers, but I shouldn’t need an excuse to read her. And alas, I read no Russians this week, which is most unusual for me. In fact, I’m feeling a bit of Russian Reading Deficiency at the moment (is that a condition?) so may have to embark on something soon. So, after I’ve had a lie down, what’s coming up next on the Ramblings? Well, dogs will make an appearance this week; I imagine more classic crime is on the horizon; and I hope to get onto lighthouses too (not literally).

And in case you were wondering about the next club (just so you could get planning in advance), Simon suggested we ask for nominations from our readers again; so if you have any ideas for a good year to read from in 6 months’ time, please do leave them on our blogs! Thanks to everyone who’s joined in, shared the love of 1930 and come up with a wonderful array of reading suggestions! I’ve loved reading from 1930, and thanks to Simon for being such a great co-host – watch our blogs to see where the next Club Reading Week will go!

#1930Club – “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”


My final read for the #1930Club is perhaps a bit of a contrast to the others, but tends to reflects some of the trends in literature at the time. Author John Dos Passos is remembered as a modernist writer, and with the first part of his ‘USA’ trilogy, “42nd Parallel”, which was first published in 1930, he was certainly experimenting with style.

I’ve had this book for a looooong time, and why I’ve never read it before is unclear to me… It’s certainly a Big Book (the three works collected together here run to over 1000 pages) but the first part is 340 pages which you would think is manageable. I started it early for our club week, but have only just managed to finish in time – for reasons I’ll talk about later!

“42nd” is set in America in the early part of the 20th century and the structure is a little unusual. Parts of the narrative follow the life stories of the main characters, but these are interspersed with sections called “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye”. The main narrative is relatively straightforward; the other sections fragmented and impressionistic, building up a composite picture of the developing modern world of America at the time. “Newsreel” has fragments from newspapers and song lyrics, capturing specific historical events and grounds the narrative in a time period; “Camera Eye” is particularly stream of consciousness, capturing the thinking of contemporary characters; and interspersed with these varied narratives are potted biographies of notable and relevant people of the age.

The four main characters are themselves a varied and interesting bunch; initially we encounter ‘Mac’ McCreary, firstly as a young boy known as Fainy (from Fenian – his Irish heritage and his left-wing family have led to him being named after the Irish Republican movement) and thereafter as he grows up, makes his way in the world and becomes heavily involved in a variety of working class revolutionary movements. Then there is J. Ward Moorhouse, who again comes from a poor background but takes a different trajectory through life, following his ambitions to become rich and successful. Janey Williams is a young stenographer whose aspirations are independence and to earn her own living – a relatively new ambition for women of the time. And finally, Eleanor Stoddard is a social climber; a cold woman, again from a poor background, she’s determined to make her way into society.

He hated the newspaper office and the inclines and the overcast skies and the breakneck wooden stairs he was always scrambling up and down, and the smell of poverty and cabbage and children and washing in the rattletrap tenements where he was always seeking out Mrs Piretti whose husband had been killed in a rumpus in a saloon on Locust Street or Sam Burkovich who’d been elected president of the Ukrainian singing society, or some woman with sudsy hands whose child had been slashed by a degenerate.

In the sections bearing each character’s name, we watch their lives unfolding; the affairs, the marriages, the ups and down of business and finance, the struggle to make ends meet and the relentless mobility. The men, in particular, move from city to city; and in some cases, other countries. Mac, most notably, spends time in Mexico where he witnesses part of Zapata’s revolution; and other characters travel to Europe as well as all over the United States. They inhabit a world which is changing, where the certainties and stabilities of America’s 19th century are falling away. Each has their own aspirations and their own views of where the country should go, but the impact of the First World War begins to encroach. Towards the end of the book America enters that War and a new character makes his entrance, in the form of Charley Anderson. Charley is another character who starts out with nothing, from a poor and restricedly religious home. Although only the first part of his journey appears in “42nd”, with him enlisting to go and fight, I can see he’ll reappear in later sections of the book.

The only man that gets anything out of capitalism is a crook, an’ he gets to be a millionaire in short order…

“42nd Parallel” turned out to be an absolutely fascinating book; and for all its modernist tropes, very readable! There can be something intimidating about approaching a large work with a reputation, but once I got embedded in the story, I couldn’t put it down. When I approached reading Dos Passos I anticipated something stylistically interesting and perhaps challenging; what I hadn’t expected was such a refreshingly socialist novel! The author certainly nails his colours to the mast and you might regard the book as the novel as social history. The story demonstrates what Dos Passos sees as the pernicious effect of the American Dream; the quest for modernity, possessions and money corrupts some characters and grinds others down.There is a stark contrast between Mac’s viewpoint and that of his wife and her family with their aspirational American dream, which is built on the bones and the work of others. Even the responses to the coming of war vary, from those who see it as a money-making opportunity to those who want to fight for their country. It’s a fascinating reflection of different types of humanity, and that divide between moral viewpoints seems very modern…

As you can see, it’s a chunky volume which I’ve only read part of….

The structure of the book itself is fascinating; the individual stories exist in isolation for a good part of the book until they begin to intersect, and it’s fascinating to see one particular character from another character’s viewpoint as the different strands begin to dovetail beautifully. Although some sections are grounded in fact, the separation seems a little nebulous in places, and in fact one biography has a section which is directly attributed elsewhere. The Newsreel and Camera Eye segments act as anchors and signposts, giving the narrative context and background; and the composite structure of the book weaves a rich tapestry, building up a vivid picture of the America of the time.

Initially, I was a little uncertain as to the attitudes displayed towards the female characters, particularly the harshness in the “Mac” sequences which make up the early parts of the book. However, as the narrative developed and Dos Passos introduced female stories, I found his writing of the women reflected the difficulties they faced, the struggle to make a living and the complex negotiations with the demands of the men around them. His women are not ciphers, each an individual coping with different situations in their own way, and I’m going to be interested to see how they move through the rest of the sequence of books.

Because, of course, this is only the first book in a set of three; the whole promises to be an immensely impressive undertaking and I finished “42nd Parallel” very keen to see how events play out over later volumes! This was perhaps an ambitious read for me to launch into during a busy time at work and with a deadline of the end of the #1930Club week looming; particularly as the type is quite small and the pages quite dense, so there’s a *lot* in the book’s 340 pages. Nevertheless, I’m really glad I *finally* picked up my first Dos Passos as it was an absorbing and rewarding read, and a fitting end to a wonderful week of reading books from a really rich year in publishing! 😀

#1930Club – The Poetry Edition…


When I was digging around in the stacks for 1930 books, I started wondering whether I’d ever read any poetry for our Club Weeks – and I don’t think I have (I could check, but my computer is very slow so I’m relying on my rubbish memory). This set me checking to see what verse had been published during that year, and I discovered an important volume had come out in 1930 – “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot. I own several collections of his verse so I went searching and discovered that of course I do own this volume. However, an online search revealed another intriguing fact; Basil Bunting, who I’ve discovered recently and written about on the blog here, published his first collection in 1930, an obscure privately printed book entitled “Redimiculum Matellarum” which is pretty much impossible to get hold of. However, some research revealed that all the poems included were available in his “Complete Poems”. I had been contemplating getting a copy of this for a while, and I’m afraid this discovery tipped me over the edge. Damn you Bloodaxe Books and your wonderful poetry editions!!

So I’ve been spending some time with Eliot and Bunting and am left facing the actually very difficult task of writing about these works. Many and much greater writers than I have pondered these poets, and frankly I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer much. So I’ll just share a few thoughts here – forgive me if I talk rubbish!

First up, Eliot. “Ash Wednesday” was written in 1927, after the poet had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and as you might gather from the title is a work concerning religion. Wikipedia describes it as “richly but ambiguously allusive and (it) deals with the move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation”; I suspect it’s the religious references which cause me to struggle with it. Yes, I’ve read “Ash Wednesday” but I’d be lying if I said I understood it. It’s a dense, evocative text, laden with imagery; and though I don’t always get the sense of it, I often love the sound of the words. More about the latter later in this post…

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying

On to Basil. Bunting was associated with the Modernist poets of the early 20th century, and was highly regarded by the likes of Ezra Pound. The poems in “Redimiculum Matellarum” (which apparently translates literally as ‘A necklace of chamberpots’ ) are scattered around the Collected volume and I made a list and read them in order. The first verse is “Villon”, included in a section entitled ‘Sonatas’, and the man of the title was a 15th century poet-villain. The poem reads as a prison ballad, with the modern poet merging at times with the historical one and aligning himself and his experiences with the life of the earlier man. The other verses vary in length and range over love and sex, the poetic muse and the beauty of the world. Bunting’s verse is intriguing, often contrasting beauty with harsh realities; and I ended up keen to read more of his work.

… drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting

So – poetry. I like reading poetry very much; but with the more complex stuff I sometimes feel I’m struggling to understand it and I end up feeling cross with myself that I don’t get it. However, one part of Virginia Woolf’s essay, which I reviewed earlier this week, struck home and made me feel better about it. She talks about reading poetry when one is ill, stating:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond the surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause – which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain.

Although I can’t always put into words what I get from poetry, I think it’s exactly what Woolf is hinting at above. The music of the words speaks to me in a way I can’t define and puts me in a particular state of mind. So I shall stop worrying about it, and if I take nothing more from poetry than a love of the sound of the words and a deep emotional feeling, I’ll be happy. 1930 certainly produced some interesting poetry, Modernist or not – and I’ll definitely be dipping into Bunting again as the years go on! 😀

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