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“A light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve” #mythologies #rolandbarthes

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Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Well – I may not quite have had a Barthes Binge (except in shopping terms…) but I *have* finished “Mythologies”; and what a fascinating and brain-pummeling book it turned out to be. I read it during December, finishing it close to the end of the month (yes, I’m very behind with my reviewing); and I let it sit and settle over the Christmas and New Year period. If I’m truly honest, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to approach this post as so much has been said about the book over the years that I find myself wondering if I’m really qualified to comment (or, indeed, clever enough…) But for what it’s worth I’ll throw my two penn’orth into the discussion…

Barthes on the train…

According to Wikipedia, “Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.” For a non-academic like me, that’s fairly scary to start with; but in fact I’ve owned a Barthes book since 2015 when I picked up “Camera Lucida“; and I considered reading “A Lover’s Discourse” for our 1977 Club reading week, but ran out of time. So Barthes has slipped in and out of my line of sight for some time now, turning up most recently in Richard Clay’s “Viral…” documentary; and frankly he seemed like an author I had to read, so after a bit of thought I decided to start with his most famous work – “Mythologies“.

The book was first published in 1957, and is split into two parts; the first section collects together a series of essays Barthes wrote on modern myths. Covering anything from wrestling to soap powder to toys to the face of Greta Garbo, he discusses the signs and symbols which affect us on a daily basis. This was a time in the 20th century where the mass media was taking hold and bombarding us with all kinds of imagery designed to sell stuff, control us and mould our thinking; imagine how much more powerful that media control is nowadays… Anyway, these essays were fascinating; a glittering series of pieces, full of so many ideas and observations that linger in the mind. The wrestling essay struck a number of bells as I can remember this being on the TV when I was growing up, with its (what seemed to me) ridiculous ritualistic format; and Barthes identified it as a form of theatre, as subject to signs and symbols as is any drama.

Advertising, of course, is one place where semiotics are vital (and this element turned up in the “Viral…” documentary); Barthes deconstructs this wonderfully and I shall try to keep his comments in mind when next being tempted to splurge on something I really don’t need! The essays sparkle with trenchant and often very funny analysis – I hadn’t quite expected to find myself laughing out loud at Barthes! His essay on the differing on-screen representations of historical Romans by French and American cinema was hilarious, with his discussion of Spectacle as a concept perhaps prefiguring the Situationists (“What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees”). “Blind and Dumb Criticism” is quite brilliant, and actually makes me think I should stop implying I don’t know what I’m talking about and have the belief that I’m making some kind of sense.

Part two of the book contains an extended section entitled “Myth Today”, and I have to confess to finding this a little more difficult than the essays. In fact, I wish I’d discovered the graphic below earlier to help clarify signified, signifier etc in my head a bit more clearly… However, it was worth persevering with, because in particular his insights into the effects of bourgeois cultural norms on our everyday lives were utterly fascinating.

Katyabogomol [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Semiology can sound scary, but the more I read and think about this, the more I believe we need to pay attention to the objects around us and what they signify. And interestingly, there seems to me to be a strong relationship between semiotics and iconoclasm; if we study the signs and symbols around us and there is a disjuncture between these and our beliefs, then naturally we’re going to want to tear down those symbols…

“Mythologies” is a book that is still so very relevant, particularly in our modern world where the cultural norms seem to be all over the place at times, and there are multiple media competing for our attention. Commenting on celebrity culture, Barthes bemoans the “regrettably materialistic times, and the glamour status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless)“, a statement that still sounds fresh today. And he’s very clear-eyed about the aspirations fed to the general public to keep them distracted from the real issues, saying of bourgeois culture:

The whole of France is seeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.

Semiotics is not something I’ve really thought about until recent years, but I do feel that it’s such an important element of understanding our world. Part of our inherited survival skills come from our ability to correctly decipher the signs and symbols around us; on the most basic level, “Is that rustle in the bushes over there a ferocious threatening beast or just the wind?” I guess the risk is that you could end up analysing your responses to everything around you so thoroughly that you become paralysed and unable to take any action! However, I do think we need to look morely closely at the signs and symbols we’re being fed, and resist the forms of control society is trying to enforce.

The Barthes pile has increased slightly…

Well – that’s my (hopefully not too dumb) non-academic take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”. Although at times a testing read, it was fascinating and in plenty of places I got those “Yes!” moments you sometimes get when reading a book, realising how we’re often surrounded by cliche and cultural shorthand, really not thinking very deeply about the world. Although it’s over 60 years old, so much of the book seems remarkable relevant; and in this day and age, when the signs and symbols being fed to us daily by our mogul-controlled mass media are becoming hard and harder to decipher and decode, we need Barthes and his “Mythologies” even more than we ever did.

Voices of the disenfranchised @nyrbclassics #julioramonribeyro

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The Word of the Speechless: Selected Stories by Julio Ramon Ribeyro
Translated and Edited by Katherine Silver

Translated books obviously mean a great deal to me – some of my favourite authors are from Russia and France, for example – but there are some countries where I haven’t explored so much. South America, for example, has produced some stunning authors, and its my loss that I’ve only read a handful (Borges, Bioy Casares, Ocampo spring to mind). So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read a collection of short stories by a Peruvian author new to me: “The Word of the Speechless” by Julio Ramon Ribeyro.

Ribeyro (1929 – 1994) was a prolific author; as well as novels, essays and plays, he produced numerous volumes of short stories; he’s a considered a master of the latter genre. This new collection draws from all of his short story volumes, as well as featuring one ‘forgotten’ story; and they really are gems. Aside from his writing career, Ribeyro served as diplomatic ambassador for Peru at UNESCO – a position which it appears occasionally caused conflict with other Peruvians (the political situation in that country seems to have been changeable and problematic). Ribeyro stated once that his work was to speak for “the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice”. That’s an apt summing up of the feeling I got from this excellent collection, and the title of the book is very well chosen.

So – on to more specifics. The stories range far and wide over a number of different settings (and the date and location of writing is often stated). Paris, Capri, Lima (his place of birth), Antwerp – Ribeyro was certainly well travelled, and his characters often share that peripatetic lifestyle. Some of the stories feature fantastic elements, perhaps what might be called ‘magic realism’ (though I’m never entirely sure about that term…) “The Insignia” was a clever tale, involving a man being absorbed accidentally into a secret society about which he knows nothing; “Nothing To Be Done, Monsieur Baruch” narrates the tragicomic end of an abandoned and lonely old man (and manages to insert a lovely in-joke); “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death” looks at the importance of family history and heritage, as well as taking in more slightly surreal elements; “The Solution” is a dark, twisty and quite brilliant short piece looking at the state of a marriage. A particular stand out is “At the Foot of the Cliff” which really does look at the lives of the disenfranchised, their struggle to survive against all odds, and the tragedies life deals out to them. Then there’s “Doubled”, another short, clever and twisty tale of opposites.

The central chamber was topped off by a high square door, always locked, and we never knew what it contained; perhaps those papers and photos that one carries around from one’s youth and doesn’t destroy out of fear of losing part of a life that, in reality, is already lost. (Describing the wardrobe from “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death”)

It’s always hard to review short story collections, as picking out favourites kind of implies that some are better than others; and that’s not the case here. Each story is quite wonderful, albeit often in different ways from others; and some obviously draw from Ribeyro’s life (for example, “For Smokers Only”, a dark look at how a tobacco addiction can take over your whole existence – Ribeyro was himself a hardened smoker, suffering from lung cancer).

The Author (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This lovely collection frmy NYRB Classics has been edited and translated by Katherine Silver (and a wonderful selection I think it is!); and the impressionistic introduction is by Alejandro Zambra, a renowned author in his own right (and is taken from his “Not to Read” collection, which I have TBR in a lovely Fitzcarraldo edition). Despite the downbeat nature of some of the stories, there is also a dry humour, particularly in stories which skewer societal norms and relationships – “A Literary Tea Party” is a wonderful example of that. And Ribeyro writes so beautifully and evocatively throughout the range of his work.

However, there *is* inevitably a thread of melancholy running through these tales. There are usually no happy endings for Ribeyro’s characters, but nevertheless the stories are absorbing, wonderful and unforgettable. He really does speak for the marginalised and disenfranchised, and I’m so happy I made the acquantaince of his writing. There appears to be little else of his work available in English, so I can only hope that the release of this book will herald further translations; I’d really like to read more Ribeyro!

(Review copy kind provided by the publisher – many thanks! :D)

Dispatches from the cold north east @commapress #thebookofnewcastle

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The Book of Newcastle: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner

Comma Press is a publisher based in Manchester which specialises in short story collections, either in anthology form or single author books. A founding member of the Northern Fiction Alliance, their catalogue of publications so far is impressive; and I was blown away by the fabulous collection they issued of M. John Harrison’s stories, “You Should Come With Me Now”, which I reviewed back in December 2017 and which ended up being one of my books of that year.

One of the most intriguing strands of their catalogue is the “Reading the City” collections, focusing on a specific city from anywhere around the world – from Tehran to Birmingham, from Cairo to Leeds, the range is wide and fascinating. So when I saw that Comma was issuing a collection of tales themed around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was very keen indeed to read it. Why? you might be asking? What’s your interest in/connection with Newcastle? And that’s a good question!

Newcastle is a city I’ve only visited once, longer ago than I care to acknowledge when my BFF H. was doing her art degree at the university. I visited during a freezing February and stayed for several days; and I can’t remember a lot about it apart from the fact that it snowed, I nearly got frostbite from wearing unsuitable footwear, we visited the Watch House (of Robert Westall fame), saw a performance by a performance artist, existed on a diet of stotties (yum!) and saw Cabaret Voltaire live in a very small club and they were magnificent! So yeah, it was a great visit, and although I’ve never been back I have happy memories of the city. Additionally, I recently discovered the Morden Tower poets who are a real joy; and of course Ellen Wilkinson, who has a strong connection with the area. Since I’m often drawn to the north, I’m obviously going to have to pay the city a visit again at some point, especially as it seems to have had quite a cultural rebirth of late!

Anyways – on to the fiction! “The Book of Newcastle” has its roots in a 2004 chapbook from Comma called “Newcastle Stories” and some of the pieces from the earlier publication have transferred to the new book. The latter collects together ten short stories by a range of writers, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve never read any of them before – because they’re obviously mighty talented! The stories cover all manner of topics – coping with a dreary day job by dropping into fantasy; negotiating a re-encounter with an ex-lover and his pregnant new partner; facing up to a future without a dying parent; the complexities of female friendship and how lives can diverge; and smoking (nor not being able to any more!) plus the decline of libraries. One particularly memorable work was “Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove” by J.A. Mensah, which explores the intersections in the lives of the people living uneasily side by side in that street when heavy rains cause floods and overflowing drains. “Magpies” by Alison Readman is a dark, allegorical look at losing touch with your teenagers when the dangerous outside world is tempting them. And “The Here and Now” by Margaret Wilkinson is a wonderful piece about the blurring of the lines between past and present; in a city like Newcastle, with a long and varied heritage, I guess there are always reminders of what’s gone before.

“The Book of Newcastle” is a stunning collection of writing, and there’s not a dud in here; each story is clever, memorable and moving; each spoke to me strongly. And of course running through all of them is the thread of the city itself; a former industrial centre, it’s had to reinvent itself over and over again, and that’s never without its problems. The Town Moor, the green heart of the city, is a vivid presence, as is the Tyne and its bridge. However, one theme which recurred and resonated was that of the Tyneside Flats, Victorian housing which is still in existence in the city and provides an almost communal living space. A fact which is relevant is that they consist of a row of dwellings with a joint loft space, and this really struck a chord with me; not only did my late mother-in-law live in a terrace with such a loft, but it’s also an important element in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”, and I was obsessed with the Narnia books as a child. “Loftboy”, a darkly humourous entry in the book, relies heavily on this element! The Tyneside Flats almost seem like an additional character in the stories, and I must admit that when I finished the book I felt as if I’d been *living* in Newcastle for the duration, alongside all of the very memorable protagonists.

Tyne Bridge by Bob Castle [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I suppose it’s the measure of a really good book when you get to the end to find you wish there was more and you want to just go on reading and reading; and I felt like that when I finished “The Book of Newcastle”. These are wonderful stories which will stay with me; vivid settings full of real characters dealing with everyday life, the past, the future and hardest of all, the present. I could easily have written a post on each of the stories, which is testament to just how good they are; but instead I’ll just encourage you to seek out this (and any of the other City books) from Comma. On the evidence of “The Book of Newcastle”, they’ll all be very much worth reading! 😀

(The stories are all so good that I feel a roll-call of the authors is necessary! So take a bow – Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook,. J.A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone and Margaret Wilkinson. )

Review book kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks!! 😀

A thoughtful collection of tales from Stanislaw Lem – up @shinynewbooks today! :D

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I’ve been dipping my toes back into sci fi recently (of the classic, translated kind) with another lovely reissue from Penguin in their Modern Classics range of a book by Stanislaw Lem. He’s an author I’ve read a lot of in recent years, and I’ve written about his work both here and on Shiny New Books.

His “Tales of Pirx the Pilot” is an interesting work which almost acts as a bridge between his collections of shorter, funnier works and more serious books like “Solaris”. It’s a thought-provoking look at questing human beings voyaging out through the stars, and I loved it! You can read my full review here!

“….readability is intelligence.” #somewherebecomingrain #philiplarkin

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Somewhere Becoming Rain by Clive James

My love of the poetry of Philip Larkin is no secret; I’ve written about him numerous times on the Ramblings, and most recently my encounter with his last collection of poetry, “High Windows“. Larkin is a poet I first discovered at Grammar School and his verse obviously had a profound effect on me as I’ve returned to his work over and over again throughout the years. Clive James is also an author I first read a long time ago; back in the 1980s, in fact, when he was a regular television face and his memoirs began to appear. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I only recently came to realise quite what an erudite man he was, and his latest collections of poetry and essays have been a bittersweet joy to read. So when I became aware that a book had been issued containing all of his writings on Larkin (a man he knew and admired), it was basically essential that I should read it – soon! Alas, the Birthday and Christmas Book Fairies didn’t deliver, but I did of course have a book token – and so “Somewhere Becoming Rain”, which turns out to be James’ last published book, was the first one I read in 2020.

The title is drawn from “The Whitsun Weddings”, one of of Larkin’s most brilliant verses, and it’s a motif which obviously resonated with James as it recurs throughout his writings on the poet. The book collects together a wide variety of material, ranging from reviews in the 1970s through poems (in particular, one written about learning of Larkin’s death), letters from the poet to James, coverage of a play performance of Larkin’s life, ending with a piece from 2018 on the poet’s letters and a final coda with a moving memory of an encounter between the two men. It’s a wonderful and stimulating mix of material and absolutely compelling; not only for a Larkin-lover like me, I think, but for anyone who appreciates good writing.

Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. (1974)

As I read these pieces, gathered from all sorts of scattered places and publications, I found myself wishing I’d had access to them before now. The range, as I’ve said, is broad and each piece brings great understanding to Larkin’s work. James always responds to the problematic elements in the poet’s life in a measured way, giving context and constantly reminding you how the poetry is what is important.

Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough. (1974)

And one of the fascinating elements of reading a collection which ranges over such a long period is watching James’ responses reflecting the changing perceptions of Larkin in the world at large. The latter’s public image has been through many changes over the decades, with the publication of biographies and collections of letters exposing his private life in a way he would never have been happy about. Reading James’ take on this clarified for me how impossible it is to really know anyone from a biography, or only certain elements of their life; frankly, even completely knowing the other humans we spend our lives with closely is very difficult. To judge and condemn Larkin’s behaviour so unilaterally seems wrong. All of James’ pieces build up to create an insightful picture of Larkin the poet and Larkin the man; he was a complex human being, like so many artists are.

Humphrey Ocean [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading “Somewhere…” was not only a joy because of the light it shed on Larkin; it was also wonderful to spend time with the mind and writing of Clive James. He was such a witty and intelligent commentator, and I had to laugh out loud in places. Even his asides can be hilarious; for example, when discussing the behaviour of the audience at a one-man presentation of Larkin’s life by the marvellous actor Tom Courtenay, he comments: “Except for one member of the audience who had attended the event in order to die of diphtheria , there was scarcely a cough all evening. (2005)”

Larkin is often regarded as a lugubrious and downbeat poet – of the void, as James says – and yet he’s somehow uplifting and dryly witty. In a letter to James from 1982 he comments that someone once said, “Age is an increasing punishment for a crime we have not committed”, and much of his best work deals with our ageing and mortality. However, as James pointed out in 1973, “Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special.” I couldn’t agree more and Larkin certainly enhances my psyche whenever I read him. One particularly lovely element of the book was James relating his meetings with Larkin and reproducing some letters; this humanised the poet very much, and it’s obvious that James thought very highly of Larkin as a person.

I can’t praise this book highly enough, really, and as I said I wish I’d had access to the pieces collected here before. Certainly, his review of the “Collected Works” volume of Larkin’s poetry was particularly helpful in crystallising my feelings about the book. I’ve had it for decades but have had doubts about the fact that the poems are presented in chronological order, and never felt entirely comfortable with that. James’ review makes it very clear how consciously Larkin placed his poems in relation to each other in his published collections, and that of course is lost in the collected volume. Reading “High Windows” as published recently was a powerful experience and although it’s nice to have everything Larkin ever wrote, I think I will pick up his other collections too and read them as he wanted them to be read. That somehow seems very important to me now.

Reading “Somewhere Becoming Rain” was everything I wanted it to be, and more; my first book of the year is certainly going to be a candidate for my end of year best of! It also helped me come to a decision about my Larkin books. If you have a look at the image above I shared some years ago of my Larkins, you’ll see a certain biography at the bottom. I picked it up in a charity shop but have never actually read it because of its reputation, and for how it presents and interprets Larkin. James’ deals with this head-on and analyses its faults better than I ever can; and this clarified my mind wonderfully. So this is now my pile of Larkins, with no Motion biography – I don’t need to read it and it’s now in the donate box.

More individual Larkin books will be added to the pile as I continue to enjoy and be moved by his work. “Somewhere Becoming Rain” started off my reading year wonderfully; it’s an erudite, funny, profound and wonderful read; and if nothing else, the book has made me connect more deeply with Larkin’s verse and revere him even more as poet. In the end, that’s all that matters.

“When completely dead to the world I expect to see it all perfectly” #alasdairgray

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Ten Tales Tall & True by Alasdair Gray

Back in 2014 I made the acquaintance of Alasdair Gray when I read his great magnum opus “Lanark”. A bit of a behemoth of a book, it kept me company during all sorts of adventures (including a long train and tube trip to Kew Gardens where I was travelling to read “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf!). Reading “Lanark” was an immersive, magnificent experience and I considered myself a convert, picking up his other works when I came across them. However, I never actually got round to reading any of them, perhaps slightly nervous as to whether they’d pale in comparison. But news of his death just after Christmas saddened me, and so I searched the shelves for something of his to read before the end of the year – and “Ten Tales Tall & True” seemed like the perfect choice.

Gray changed the way Scottish writing was perceived with “Lanark”, and his writing style as well as the presentation of his books is particularly unique. He was a polymath, and his works are adorned with his own marvellous illustrations as well as little phrases at the side of each right hand page which kind of sum up what’s happening. Reflecting Gray’s wonderful idiosyncracies, “Ten Tales…” actually contains 14 pieces (if you include the introduction) and the author spells this out at the beginning, reminding us that even his title is a tall tale! The title page illustration also gives a hint at the kind of material inside, stating “Social Realism”, “Sexual Comedy”, “Science Fiction” and “Satire”. Well, you could apply those labels to some of the stories but Gray can never exactly be pinned down and it’s this elusiveness that I often love in his work.

So – on to specifics (always so difficult when reviewing short stories…) Gray’s writing works just as well for me in short form as it did in “Lanark”; his imagination is as wonderful as ever, his tales thought-provoking and their conclusions always unexpected. He’s particularly pithy on the complexities of human relationships, and several of the stories pinpoint the compromises we made to avoid loneliness. “YOU” is particularly harsh on the male/female, English/Scottish divide, and “Loss of the Golden Silence” discreetly dissects the differing perceptions of two protagonists in a relationship. Other stories, like “The Trendelburg Positon” and “Time Travel”, are more oblique, allowing Gray’s characters to muse on the state of the world, the meaning of life and the future. “Near the Driver” was a particular stand-out for me, looking at the consequences of handing too much control over to machines, and I rather felt that a lot of people who put their faith in technology nowadays could do with having a read of this!

An example of the inside layout of Gray’s books – I love this kind of thing! 😀

Gray also plays with the perceptions not only of his characters but of his readers. “A New World”, a very Kafkaesque kind of story, was all about perspectives and made me feel very claustrophobic; and “Fictional Exits” blurs the borders between the real and the imaginary in a very clever way. Lest this sounds a little heavy, all of these stories are immensely readable, often funny, littered with drops of Scots venacular and very, very entertaining.

“Ten Tales…” is a much shorter book than “Lanark”, and I read it in a day and absolutely loved it; but despite that relative slimness, it holds much that lingers in the mind. Looking back over it while I wrote this post, I was reminded what a truly individual voice Gray had and how important a writer he is. I wish I’d returned to Alasdair Gray’s work before now, although I do think it was necessary to have a break between “Lanark” and anything else of his. Fortunately, I have at least one other Gray on the shelves so I can make sure I don’t leave it so long before I read him again!

Grant has done a wonderful post on Gray and “Lanark” here which I do recommend reading.

A journey into the past… #Labels #EvelynWaugh

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Superficial thing that I am, I have to confess that I was attracted to this book when I saw it on Twitter by two things – the beautiful cover image and the fact that it was a Mediterranean travelogue from 1929. However, I’m not being totally trivial as I *have* read and loved Waugh before, and I adore good travel writing. So I wasn’t taking too much of a risk when I sent for a copy via Waterstones Click and Collect using some of my birthday book token… 😀

Waugh is, of course, best known for “Brideshead Revisited” (which I have to confess I’ve never read…); however, most of my reading of his work was pre-blog, apart from “The Loved One” (which was a real scream!) Satire is the word which usually springs to mind when Waugh is mentioned; “Labels” doesn’t exactly fit into that genre, although there is plenty of snidey snarkery, which is a real delight!

In February 1929, Waugh sets off on his travels round the Mediterrean, which a view to keeping himself afloat financially by producing a book. His stated aim was to visit Russia, but alas he never got there (which is a shame, as I’d like to have seem that). Instead, he cruises his way around the south of France, Italy, Egypt, any number of islands and bits of Greece, Spain, and even makes it to Constantinople. As he travels, he shares not only his impressions of the places he visits but also his travelling companions, art, architecture, antiquities and the whole concept of tourism. It’s a singular, often funny, provoking and entertaining mix and I laughted out loud in many places!

… I left the Crillon for cheaper accommodation. My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 18 francs a night.

This is certainly no saccharine account of a trip round pretty places; if Waugh dislikes a place, he says so in no uncertain terms; and he’s clear-eyed about the squalid aspects of the trip, from the constant harrassment by locals exploiting the tourists, to the red-light entertainment mostly laid on just for the monied visitors. He’s often critical about tourism as a concept, seeing it as a kind of descendant of the Grand Tour, which he disses beautifully. It’s a little bit shocking to realise that this is getting on for a century ago, and yet Waugh is already meditating on the evils of mass tourism, commenting that “…places like Venice and Constantinople swallow up this influx without undue indigestion, but the spectacle, which I once saw on a previous visit, of five hundred tourists arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains is painful and ludicrous.

There is much discussion of art and architecture, which of course Waugh encounters in quantities wherever the cruise ship lands him, and even then many antiquities had been insensitively wrenched from their original locations. Much leaves him cold, and he’s not afraid to say so; however, when he’s moved by something his commentary goes into raptures about it, and the pages about his reactions to Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona are fascinating and lyrical. However, he’s always ready to subvert the reader’s expectations and puncture pretentiousness:

I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.

As I read, I was reminded that the book was written at an intriguing time; Waugh is situated at the end of the Roaring Twenties as the world was about to hit depression and the rise of fascism. A frank discussion of drugs is balanced with reflections on Mussolini, who was already on the rise, and the fate of various countries which had been parcelled up and handed over to various rulers at the end of the First World War. Despite the wit and frivolity and name-dropping, there is an underlying seriousness in Waugh which I’ve sensed before in his writing.

Waugh in later years by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) [Public domain]

And his writing is *excellent*! Occasionally, he launches into a wonderful tirade against something, which is what I would call a “‘Watney’s Red Barrel’ moment (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you’ll know what I mean!) It’s quite glorious and here’s an example where he rails against the bucolic and twee countryside of his home country:

The detestation of ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque bits’ which is felt by every decently constituted Englishman, is, after all, a very insular prejudice. It has developed naturally in self-defence against arts and crafts, and the preservation of rural England, and the preservation of ancient monuments, and the transplantation of Tudor cottages, and the collection of pewter and old oak, and the reformed public house, and Ye Olde Inne and the Kynde Dragone and Ye Cheshire Cheese, Broadway, Stratford-on-Avon, folk-dancing, Nativity plays, reformed dress, free love in a cottage, glee singing, the Lyric, Hammersmith, Belloc, Ditchling, Wessex-worship, village signs, local customs, heraldry, madrigals, wassail, regional cookery, Devonshire teas, letters to the Times about saving timbered alms-houses from destruction, the preservation of the Welsh language, etc. It is inevitable that English taste, confronted with all these frightful menaces to its integrity, should have adopted an uncompromising attitude to anything the least tainted with ye oldness.

“Labels” turned out to be a delight; funny, thought-provoking, lyrical and entertaining, it was the perfect post-Christmas read. There were a couple of points where I was reminded that I was reading a book by somebody upper-class from the 1920s; the terminology is often not what we would use today, and I found his dismissal of much Oriental art baffling (although that *may* just come down to personal taste, as he didn’t dislike it all). Nevertheless, this was a wonderfully enjoyable and relaxing book; and as I believe he’s written more travel works, I’m going to have to do some careful consideration of what I’ll be spending the remainder of the book token on… ;D

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