November challenges – where to start….


October was a really good bookish month for me, despite my feeling a little sluggish about reading at the beginning of the month. I suddenly got over that feeling during the 1956 Club and really hit my stride – these are the books I finished during the month, and they were all amazing reads in one way or another. I’m still playing catch up with reviews, and some of these will feature either on Shiny New Books or as part of November challenges – and that’s what I want to think about here!

October’s reading! Quite a good pile – I hadn’t finished the Morley when I took the image, but I will have by tomorrow! 😀

November is a month absolutely bursting with challenges – I can think of five off the top of my head and there are four I would definitely like to try to take part in. Unfortunately, I think Australian Literature Month will not make it into my schedule this year, which is a shame. But you can’t do them all. However, first up is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Now, I love Atwood and I never need an excuse to read her – she’s definitely one of my favourite authors and I’m always delighted to pick up one of her books. I had a rummage round my shelves, and found that there were a couple of works calling to me; oddly enough, not her fictions, but her poetry collection (which I’ve dipped into before) and also a recent arrival in the form of an essay collection.

Well, it looks like I have three choices there, doesn’t it? Ahem. Spot the deliberate mistake…. I gaily sent off for “On Writers and Writing”, and when it arrived realised I already owned it under the title of “Negotiating with the Dead”. D’oh…. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve read it or not (it would definitely be pre-blog if I have, when I wasn’t keeping good records)! Even if I have, I would probably be happy to revisit this one – I’ll see how things go!

Next up is Novella November; this is a challenge which has a bit of a chequered history, but this year is being hosted by Bookish Beck and 746 Books! I love a good novella, although there are only a couple of potential titles knocking about which are these two:

Both are slim volumes I’ve had hanging around for a while and which would be ideal to pick up during this month. And interestingly, one of these feeds into the next appealing book challenge for November: German Literature Month 10, hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

This is a reading event I enjoy very much, and a dig about in the TBR revealed these titles which appeal at the moment:

Yes, there’s the Roth novella again, together with two intriguing works I’ve again had hanging around on the TBR for quite a while (and if my memory serves me correctly, “Dreamers” actually came my way via Lizzy!) Any of these would be wonderful reading. However, there’s one last challenge for the month which has fairly mind-numbing implications because of the choice of works I would have – and that is:

Nonfiction November is an event which is tailor-made for me, because I’m increasingly coming to read more non-fiction; I’ve always loved that kind of writing, and the term embraces such a wide range of books that the choices are endless. At least, they are when it comes to my TBR…. For a start, both Atwoods and two of the German choices count as non-fiction. Then, a casual rummage through Mount TBR revealed to me just how many non-fictions works of all kinds I have unread. I mean, there’s this pile to start with:

Some gorgeous Fitzcarraldos, which take in all kinds of non-fiction writing; a very strange book on Paris; Chateaubriand’s memoirs; and “Night Walking” from Verso (don’t even get me started on the piles of Verso books lurking unread). Happy to pick up any of these right now.

This is what you might loosely call my nature reading pile – mostly fairly chunky, all very appealing and I could easily spend a month or so just on these.

Then there’s the loosely grouped Scottish books, mainly focusing on Edinburgh (yes, I know there’s a Colette in there, but Massie is a Scottish author). I *really* want to pick up the Silent Traveller right now. There are a lot more Scottish books lurking round the house, but that’s a project on which I’m a little scared to embark in case it completely consumes me.

Thing is, this is only scratching the surface. The TBR is *awash* with non-fiction books – I hadn’t quite realised how many till I had a good rummage – and so I’m vaguely overwhelmed and not quite sure where to begin. Knowing me, I shall just fling myself at the piles with wild abandon and grab the first book which comes to hand – wish me luck! There is also a potential distraction looming in the form of a *very* interesting looking documentary coming up on BBC4 soon – look out for more about this on the Ramblings!  And do let me know if you’re taking on any of these November challenges yourself! ;D

“How much more important than a knowledge of geography is the possession of an atlas.” @NottingHillEds #aamilne


Happy Half Hours by A.A. Milne

I’ve often thought how frustrating it must be for an author to have been prolific during their writing career, and yet only ever remembered for one particular work. A.A. Milne is a case in point; most casual readers would only know his Winnie the Pooh tales, which are of course quite marvellous. However, they’re not the end of the story when it comes to Milne; he was a prolific and well-known author of plays, poetry, novels and screenplays before Pooh Bear came along and eclipsed everything else.

Because of this, many of his non-Pooh works were unavailable for years, and in fact one delight has been the reissue of some of his novels and short stories – I’ve read and loved “The Red House Mystery” and “Four Days’ Wonder” for example in recent years. However, Milne really *was* prolific and many of his short pieces haven’t seen the light of day for ages. However, rather wonderfully, Notting Hill Editions have just released a beautiful edition of selected writings, entitled “Happy Half-Hours” – and what a joy it is! 😀

Every now and then doctors slap me about and ask me if I was always as thin as this. ‘As thin as what?’ I say with as much dignity as is possible to a man who has had his shirt taking away from him. ‘As thin as this,’ says the doctor, hooking his stethoscope on to one of my ribs, and then going round the other side to see how I am getting on there. I am slightly better on the other side, but he runs his pencil up and down me and produces that pleasing noise which small boys get by dragging a stick along railings.

Milne wrote many pieces for magazines like Punch; light and witty articles on any subject from love and marriage to the joys of golf. Many of those works are included here, and the book is divided into sections with titles like “Literary Life”, “Home Life”, “Public Life” etc. In fact, the first piece in the book “My Library” will resonate with anyone who ever despairs of getting their collection of books into a sensible order; in the end Milne seems to advocate leaving them just as they are!

Art is not life, but an exaggeration of it; life reinforced by the personality of the artist. A work of art is literally “too good to be true.” That is why we shall never see Turner’s sunsets in this world, nor meet Mr Micawber. We only wish we could.

Milne’s pieces on the literary world are a great joy, and his take on married life a hoot – whether as the eternal wedding guest, or struggling with domestic crises like a bath that refuses to fill and empty in a sensible time, Milne can make you laugh at anything. “Heavy Work” was very funny, with the rueful Milne being told off by his doctor for being so skinny and then attempting to put on weight….And “Geographical Research” dismisses quite wonderfully the need to learn geography at all (which would suit me, as I never could the hang of east and west…) Instead, everyone should simply be provided with an efficient atlas!

International politics is a morass of treachery, theft, broken promises, lies, evasions, bluff, trickiness, bullying, deliberate misunderstanding and shabby attempts to get an opponent into a false position.

However, there is a serious side to Milne on display here, which might be a bit of surprise to some. Having served in World War 1 he became, like many survivors of that conflict, a strong pacifist; and the section of the book entitled “Peaceful Life” contains some powerful pieces arguing against war, with which I couldn’t help but agree. Milne is not an author you’d initially think of turning to for thoughts on war and peace, yet he obviously felt passionately about this; and although I disagreed with some of his later views on the efficacy of the atomic bomb as a deterrent, nevertheless it’s quite clear his beliefs came from the heart.

These Notting Hill Editions books are *so* beautifully produced!

Reading these wonderful writings by A.A. Milne, I couldn’t help sharing some of Christopher Robin’s dismay at the popularity of the Winnie the Pooh books (although for very different reasons…). Milne senior was a really marvellous, punchy and entertaining author – and I’ve loved his adult fictions too – so it’s such a shame that the breadth of his writing hasn’t had appreciation it deserves. Witty, eloquent and profound, these selected writings of A.A. Milne are a sheer delight, and hopefully this is a wonderful release from Notting Hill Editions will bring him to a wider audience – highly recommended!

Penguin Modern Poets 8 – Edwin Brock, Geoffrey Hill and Stevie Smith


As I’m back in the groove of reading the Penguin Modern Poets series, I didn’t want to leave it too long before getting on to the next one, book 8 – and the added draw here was that it contained the first woman poet included in the series, who is also a poet I’ve read! As usual, I didn’t read up about the writers in advance, so all I had as I started reading was fuzzy memories of reading Smith back in my teens and twenties – well, or so I thought…

Edwin Brock (19 October 1927 – 7 September 1997)

Brock was a British poet who published ten volumes of poetry during his lifetime, and his work spoke to me instantly. His verse ranges across the personal political, and explores not only the complexities of personal relationships but also the changing shape of the world in which he was living. The works are drawn from a number of collections and also magazines, and often reflect the 1960s and 1970s; Brock, like a number of other poets I’ve read, was I sense too old to really embrace the swinging era, and so often observes it in a slightly puzzled way.

However, one poem really smacked me in the face as I read it: “5 Ways to Kill a Man” is a powerful and chilling piece of work which will stay with me. And then I got to the end of the Brock section and that last poem caused a lightbulb moment: it’s called “Song of the Battery Hen” and I’ve known it since my teens (and in fact typed it out in my younger years and had it displayed on my pinboard). I saw it at the time as a cry against battery farming and cruelty to animals; however, I read more into it now, with it suggesting state and political controls, and how adaptable human beings are to inhuman living conditions…

So I guess it isn’t surprising I responded so strongly to Brock’s verse, as I had actually read some before! Interestingly, when I looked him up after finishing the book, Wikipedia reveals that “5 Ways…” and “Song…” have been heavily used in anthologies. I can understand why – they’re stunning pieces of writing and I’m glad to have re-encountered Brock’s work.

Geoffrey Hill (18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016)

Hill is a poet who is *definitely* new to me, and the poor man had the misfortune to appear in this book immediately after a poet who very much affected me. However, that’s not to say his work isn’t good – it just didn’t grab me quite so strongly. His verse was a little more formal, a little more allusive, a little more full of references which needed following up than Brock and so therefore less immediate. It’s probably poetry which requires a bit more work than just a casual read, and I did notice that his work has been described as ‘difficult’. It’s his right, of course, to be as difficult as he likes with his writing, but I feel that there’s a risk of losing the casual reader.

Despite my reservations, I read that Hill was “considered to be among the most distinguished poets of his generation and was called the ‘greatest living poet in the English language‘.” That’s quite a claim, and perhaps I need to bear in mind that I’m seeing a snapshot at a particular point in time of these writers; Hill most probably wrote a lot more *after* this collection was published which might give me a different view. Nevertheless, poetry *is* a personal thing, and I shall continue to like what I like! 😀

Stevie Smith (20 September 1902 – 7 March 1971)

Stevie Smith (Akshay Nagaraju B, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Does the wonderful Stevie Smith need any introduction? She was a remarkable and individual person, writing fiction and poetry, and memorable portrayed by Glenda Jackson on film (though I *did* once know someone who had known Stevie in real life, and he said the film was nothing like her….) Anyway – the selection here includes favourites like “Fafnir and the Knights”, “Night-time in the Cemetery” and, of course, “Not Waving But Drowning”.

Her voice flies away on the midnight wind,
But would she be happier if she were within?
She is happier far where the night-winds fall
And there are no doors and no windows at all.
(from “The Wanderer”)

Smith’s quirky and witty verse is a delight, and she’s not afraid to look at the darker side of things; there are hidden depths in her seemingly simple works and “Not Waving…” is I feel quite profound. I’ve had a go at re-reading Smith’s fiction in recent years, and did stall a little; I think I might have to be in the right mood for it. But her poetry is always a joy to revisit, and her appearance here very welcome!


PMP8 was a really enjoyable collection; one of my favourite so far, though it *did* set me wondering about how the compilers decided which three poets to feature in each collection. In many ways, this seemed an odd choice of poets to put together; and certainly with some of the others there seems to be a kind of cohesion, e.g. with the Beat volume and Mersey Sound volume both having poets coming from a similar angle or location. Brock, Hill and Smith, although all fine poets in their own right, seem a slightly mismatched trio..

Putting that aside, though, I’m happy to have read this particular collection; and the next one features another woman poet plus I think I have read two of the authors before – so that should be interesting! 😀


Classic crime in wartime fog…. @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac


I have to confess that real life has been a little stressful lately. Work (in a school) has been much more complex than usual, and although it does get me out of the house, it’s draining and somewhat weird. Though I mustn’t complain because at least I am working. However, juggling the 1956 Club plus PC woes left me in need of a little comfort reading, and a recent release in the British Library Crime Classics range was the perfect thing!

“Checkmate to Murder” is the latest title to be reissued by the BL from E.C.R. Lorac; she’s one of the authors who’s proved to be a particular hit, with many of her books having been republished so far.  I’ve read a number of these, including a recent favourite “Crossed Skis” (published another of her pseudonyms, Carol Carnac) and I love them. Lorac is brilliant at conjuring atmosphere, and a previous release “Murder by Matchlight” brought alive vividly its Second World War setting. “Checkmate…” was first published in 1944 and is also set in wartime, in the depths of the blackout; and a clever and twisty tale it turned out to be!

The book opens with a dramatic setting: in an artists’ studio in Hampstead, artist Bruce Manaton is deeply involved in the portrait he’s painting of his actor friend Andre Delaunier. As the painter continues to portray his model, seated and dressed in striking Cardinal’s robes, two other friends Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon (both highly respectable men) play chess at the other end of the room. Flitting in and out is the painter’s sister Rosanne, who’s preparing dinner; and the local cockney char, Mrs. Tubbs, also pops by. Suddenly there is a commotion at the door, and a local special constable Lewis Verraby bursts in, hauling an injuried soldier with him. He claims that the old miser next door, great uncle to the soldier and landlord of the studio tenants, has been murdered – and that the great nephew is the murderer! However, Verraby himself is not quite what he seems, and neither is this case; and it will take all the ingenuity of Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald, to get to the bottom of things!

Sometimes these past two years I’ve thought human beings were making a bee-line for hell.

I have to confess to simply devouring this book – it was just such a good read! Lorac plots brilliantly, and certainly this story had me guessing right up until the end. There are, of course, a couple of obvious suspects from the start; and I hoped that the eventual solution would be nothing as simplistic as either of them being the murderer. Her cast of characters was by necessity narrow, as because of the setting of the foggy blackout, and the posting of sentries of sorts in the area, there was a limit to who could be around within the relevant time frame. Although I did guess one element in the eventual solution, I had no idea to whom that element applied, nor how the murder was committed – so it was all very clever. The wartime setting is always an evocative one, and Lorac captures it quite brilliantly, with the fog and the blackout and the tensions and the shortages all elements affecting the characters’ behaviours.

It’s hard to discuss more specifics of the plot without giving too much away, so all I’ll say is that there were any number of tangled threads including property development, poverty, greed and artistic temperament. As for Lorac’s characters, well they are a really entertaining bunch; Bruce and Rosanne are engaging siblings, both with strong artistic talents but with Rosanne allowing hers to be subsumed in supporting her brother. The actor Delaunier is a wonderful larger than life figure, Mrs. Tubbs is probably a bit of a Cockney ‘salt-of-the-earth” cliche (but still great fun and also highly appreciated during the War years), and Cavendish and Mackellon are convincing foils for the temperamental artistes. As for the detecting team, they’re always satisfying and as ever with Macdonald it was great to watch his leaps of intuition followed by the actual working out of how his supicions may have actually been carried out; although he does keep his cards close to his chest until the very end!

So another joyful read from the BL, and the perfect distraction just when I wanted it. I don’t know that I’ve ever needed comfort reading quite as much as I have during 2020, and so having the Crime Classics to turn to has been a real boon. The Lorac reissues have been one of the highlights of the series, and this was a particularly strong entry. I could quite easily develop a BLCC addition – if I haven’t already done so…. 😀

Exploring the new Penguin Science Fiction range with some classic Russian authors @ShinyNewBooks


Regular Ramblings readers will know of my love of Russian Science Fiction writing, particularly of the Soviet era; it’s a genre I’ve covered many times before, so I was very excited to see a classic title by the Strugatsky Brothers was included in the new Penguin Classics Science Fiction imprint.

I’m going to be covering a few of the titles from the imprint for Shiny New Books, but as I read this one I realised I’d come across it before, under the title of “Definitely Maybe”! However, that edition is hard to find and expensive, so this is a welcome re-release by Penguin, and the book itself is a wonderful, often moving and very powerful read by a duo of amazing authors. I loved it, and you can read my full review here!

“I turned to books of all kinds….” @sublunaryeds


I’ve been wittering on quite a bit recently about my various book subscriptions; I’ve taken out a few this year, and it does seem a good way to support smaller publishers. In particular, I’ve mentioned Sublunary Editions; and back in July I covered one of their releases, “The Art of the Great Dictators” by Joshua Rothes. It was an absorbing and stimulating read, and I’m particularly fascinated by their idea of releasing short texts in a variety of formats – they describe themselves as “An independent publisher of portable literature”! The first items I received were intriguing to say the least; as well as two slim books (more of which later) the initial mailing contained sheets of experimental texts as well as art cards. This is a wonderfully novel way to provide short bursts of stimulating writing, as well as introducing new authors in bite-sized format!

The luminous begins from the small and everday, the particular and peculiar.

As for the the two books, the first I read was “A Luminous History of the Palm” by Jessica Sequiera. The latter has already published in novel, short story and essay format; and “Luminous…” is a fascinating work featuring capsule portraits or stories ranging over the centuries – and all at some point touch upon the palm. It’s a beautiful collection with some lovely writing, and really seems to me to celebrate the power of storytelling. The use of the palm as a touchstone, reappearing throughout history in tales from the past, is ingenious, and it often appears in unexpected ways.

As honey bees we visit the flowers of palms, carrying pollen from one anecdote to another, seeking out nectar and translating it.

Some tales featured characters or situations I recognised, and some were new to me but no less fascinating. Interspersed with the fictions are sections where the author muses on her adoption of the palm as a symbol and the concept of luminosity. It’s a clever conceit and a memorable work which certainly lingers in the mind. The stories are brilliantly constructed, jewels of short form writing – a particular favourite was “Chef, Lebanon” which told its dramatic story in two and a half pages, with a stunning end.

          I have received two or three reports throughout the years of the stir of
small and noiseless packs of words stalking dark acuity in the thickets

The second volume was a dual language poetry edition, “The Wreck of the Large Glass” by Monica Belevan. The author is another name new to me, and the book is particularly unusual, as generally with a dual language edition you get the original language on the left page with the translation on the right. However, these are two completely different texts: the one in English mentioned above and the other (starting from the opposite end, when you flip the book over) is “Paleodromo” in Spanish (so alas, I can’t read that one!) Interestingly, Belevan is described as a “writer and design theorist” and the visual certainly seems to inform her work. The title poem, in particular, uses the visual as a crucial element of the writing, inserting symbols into the verse; and this is also present in the Spanish part of the book where passages of musical notation appear. In his introduction, Rothes notes influences such as Pound, Whitman and even Joyce – but I felt that Belevan had a distinctive and fascinating voice of her own.

So my first subscription arrivals of Sublunary texts have made for a really fascinating and rewarding reading experience. I love the fact that the publisher takes risks, bringing out texts which might be unlikely to make it into the mainstream. And reading these ‘objects’ (as they’re sometimes described by Sublunary) has reminded my how easily I get seduced by the beautiful *sound* of words, without always having to grasp the meaning. I can see that I am going to have a very happy reading relationship with Sublunary Editions!


As I started to put this post together, more arrivals popped through the door from Sublunary, including this lost work from an author I know and love, as well as a separate envelope with two more text sheets! It’s all very exciting, and I can’t wait to read the Schulz…. ;D

Penguin Moderns 31 and 32 – gigolos and conmen…


Having got back into my stride with the reading of the Penguin Moderns books, I think I will try to at least read one pair every month – if I can stick to that, I will eventually get to the end! 😀 The most recent duo of bookettes comes from two very different authors: one new to me and one I’ve read before, and both turned out to be most enjoyable.

Penguin Modern 31 – the Gigolo by Francois Sagan

Sagan is the author I’ve read before, and I confess to having had mixed experiences with her writing. I loved getting lost in the atmosphere of “Bonjour Tristesse“; I enjoyed “A Certain Smile” though perhaps warmed to it less; and I found “The Heart-Keeper” very odd indeed… However, the short stories collected here were excellent reading and I have had my faith in Sagan restored!

The four stories are the title one, “The Unknown Visitor“, “The Lake of Loneliness” and “In Extremis“. All, in one way or another, deal with matters of the heart; whether looking at the complexities of the relationship between an older woman and a much younger man, or the discovery that your husband is not what you thought he was, or when dealing with feelings of suicide or incipient death. The title story was particularly powerful, with echoes of Colette’s older protagonists creeping in. And “The Unknown Visitor” was very, very clever at showing how a whole life can be built on a lie which is only revealed in a pivotal moment when the scales fall from someone’s eyes.

Sagan’s writing is excellent and atmospheric, and she captures much in the compressed form of the short story. It’s not a form I was aware she wrote in, and on the strength of these examples I reckon I could be searching out more! 😀

Penguin Modern 32 – Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi

The second Modern is an author and a setting (1960s Lagos) new to me, and I was very keen to explore both! Ekwensi was a Nigerian author and as far as I can see, he wrote in English. The author of novels, short stories and children’s books, he had a long and distinguished career; and this Penguin Modern contains just one story; at 51 pages of small type, it’s actually nudging close to novella territory.

Glittering City” tells the story of Fussy Joe, a musician and wide boy of the highest order. A womaniser, a con man and a completely untrustworthy charmer, he blags his way through life with a deal here, a trick there and women to take care of him in several boltholes. As the story opens, he’s hitting on Essi, a young woman just arrived in the big city; she’ll bookend his tale, appearing at the end of the adventure when we find out what happens to Joe. And plenty does, much of which he deserves…

It’s a fascinating story, if problematic at times for me. Joe is not a character you can like – at least, I didn’t from the very start. He exploits and takes from the women in his life with no regard for their feelings; he’s completely amoral; and to be frank it’s hard to find a single redeeming factor, so that there were many times during the story I was wanting some kind of retribution to catch up with him. And the author presents his story as is, so I didn’t get a sense of whether Joe was someone we were meant to be admiring or despising – I guess I know which side of the line I come down on!

Despite this, the book is an interesting and atmospheric read, and once I got into the second, more action-filled half, I did really enjoy reading it. Ekwensi captured his time and place beautifully, and the story built nicely to an exciting ending. So a satisfying read, and one I most likely wouldn’t have come across if it wasn’t for the Penguin Moderns!


PMs 31 and 32 really were very disparate – almost opposing, in some ways, with women preying on men in one and the reverse in the other! But both made fascinating reading, and I’m definitely inspired to keep going with the Penguin Moderns – after all, I’m nearly two thirds of the way through!! ;D

Coming up in six months time – the #1936Club! :D


Thanks so much for all of your suggestions for dates for the next Club Reading Week – there were some fascinating ideas, and the date range Simon and I prefer of 1920-1980 really does reveal some riches of writing.  Anyway, we had a good chat and although there were interesting suggestions of the 1970s, both Simon and I were drawn to Marina’s proposal of 1936 – so that’s what the next club will be!

Simon has designed this lovely badge for the club – isn’t that image fab? And as you can see, the club will take place between 12th-18th April 2021 (assuming, as Simon pointed out, that some kind of civilisation is still in place….) – which gives lots of time for you to be prepared!

So get reading and planning! 1936 was a great year for books and we can’t wait to hear what you all choose to read and write about! 😀

“…whatever it is that makes a man follow a beckoning star.” @VersoBooks #FrédéricGros


Walking is such a basic human function that it’s something we never think about as a rule, completely taking it for granted. Yet a strong case can be made for walking being much more than just a case of putting one foot in front of another until we get to our destination; and a recent purchase from Verso Books, which I’ve been lauding online, does just that. The book is “A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe; as I’ve previously mentioned, I picked up a copy when Verso were having one of their regular sales (this time a 50% off one) – and it was definitely money well spent!

The little biog on the Verso site states: “Frédéric Gros is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris. He was the editor of the last lectures of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France. He has written books on psychiatry, law, and war as well as the best-selling Philosophy of Walking.” I can see why this book *would* be a best-seller, as it combines some beautiful writing with some accessible exploration of philosophy as well as some very moving tales of famous walkers. It’s also enhanced with some lovely illustrations at the start of each chapter by Clifford Harper. For me, it was compelling reading and a real winner!

An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition.

Starting with a chapter entitled “Walking Is Not A Sport”, Gros goes on to explore why we walk, what we get out of it, its effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as touching upon a number of intriguing and tragic lives. Of course, in the past walking was the only option for most people; until we took possession of horses or other animals, learned to build wheeled structures to be pulled and then eventually invented methods of travel independent of organic creatures. But as Gros reflects, that speedy mode of transport not only removes much of the pleasure of travel, it also disconnects us from the world around us – we can’t truly appreciate a place unless we move through it at a natural pace.

When you really walk, farewell follows farewell all day long. You can never be quite sure of ever setting foot in a place again. This condition of departure adds intensity to the gaze. That backward look when you cross a ridge, just before the landscape tilts. Or the final glance at last night’s lodging as you leave in the morning (its grey mass, the trees behind). You turn round again, one more time … but that restless gaze doesn’t aim to grasp, possess or keep: rather it aims to give, to leave a little of its light in the stubborn presence of the rocks and flowers.

Lest you get the impression this is simply a book wanting us to reconnect with nature, let me assure you it’s much more! Gros considers famous walkers and thinkers from Nietzsche to Gandhi: their place in the world, their individual beliefs and philosophies, and the way they used the process of walking. Many authors and thinkers have claimed to get their greatest ideas in motion; and although I’m not one of them, I do find that all sorts of ideas pop into my head when I’m walking!

Nerval’s is a landscape of castles and battlemented towers, red swaying masses of thicket on the green of valleys, orange gilding of sunsets. Trees, and more trees. Landscapes flat as slumber. Bluish morning mists making ghosts rise everywhere. October evenings made of old gold. You walk there as if in a dream, slowly, without effort (little steep or broken terrain). The rustle of dead leaves.

Then there are those whose constant walking is more of a flight; often from what they don’t actually know, but his pen portrait of Rimbaud, always on the go as if trying to escape from the world, is evocative and moving. And the chapter on the dark and troubled Gerard de Nerval, stalking Paris in a state of melancholy until he could finally take no more, is still haunting me (and sending me off in search of the lost streets and alleys of the city). Rousseau and Thoreau also stride through these pages, both contemplating the world in their own ways. There are chapters on pilgrimage, strolling, the flaneur; psychogeographers and the situationists pass through, and Wordsworth popularises walking for pleasure – really, it’s a wonderfully varied and involving book. The part on Ghandi was something of an eye-opener too: I had little knowledge of him beforehand and was stunned to read of the cruelty of the Imperialist British (though I guess I shouldn’t have been). The story of the salt tax was just awful, and Gandhi’s marches inspirational. And we still do march in search of change or peace or to save the world; but I doubt in this modern world we will ever be as successful as he was.

Well, this was a marvellous read; it reminded me that walking is a pure kind of travel, when you can really appreciate the world around you rather than whizzing through in a vehicle of some kind; and it also drew me back towards authors I’ve not read for a while or who I’ve intended to explore more fully. In fact, this is one of those very dangerous books which creates its own list of further reading – there *is* a section with that title in the back, and any number of enticing mentions in the text. I’ve already sent away for one book, dragged another load off the shelves and created a list – gulp…

A Gros-inspired pile…

Anyway, this was another case of a particular book shouting loudly from the shelves to get my attention and turning out to be the perfect read for now; and as the only walking I’m doing at the moment is the ten minutes to work and back, escaping in the company of Frédéric Gros was a joyous, often moving, and thought-provoking experience. And rather dangerously, Verso also publish another couple of his books…. ;D

“There is more, but the handwriting is difficult to interpret.” @mjohnharrison @commapress


Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison should need no introduction here, as he’s an author I’ve regularly lauded on the Ramblings. I first read his work back in my early twenties, when I was looking for something else which would feed my addiction for anything like Mervyn Peake. A random review sent me in the direction of the Viriconium books (which I don’t think are anything like Peake, to be honest – nothing is like Peake…), and I was an instant Harrison obsessive, gathering everything I could by him – which was not so easy at the time. As you’ll be able to see from a picture further down this post, I have any number of old crumbly editions of his work, picked up with great excitement in second hand shops in those pre-Internet days, plus quite a few sci fi anthologies featuring his stories. I’ve been reading him ever since, and took great joy in reconnecting with his work on the blog back at the start of 2016. A number of his works have appeared here since, most recently his latest novel “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”, which I covered for Shiny New Books.

I was naturally very excited, therefore, when I heard that Comma Press were issuing a selection of his short stories (particularly as I rate his work in this form very highly indeed). They’ve previously released a marvellous collection called “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017, gathering recent stories; however, the new book is a ‘selected’ volume entitled “Settling the World”. Crucially, this is a career-spanning anthology, and I was delighted when the publishers kindly provided a copy for review!

Harrison’s work first began appearing in print in the 1960s, initially in magazines and anthologies; the first published collection was “The Machine in Shaft Ten” in 1975 (which I reviewed here). Harrison is a prolific writer of short works, and actually keeping track can be complicated as there are so many, and published in many different places. I have a sort of checklist but it’s by no means complete. Add in that the stories have often changed over the years depending on where they appear, and you can see that reading M. John Harrison is always an interesting experience!

Anyway! Enough waffle and on to the book. “Settling the World” contains seventeen stories; the earliest is “The Causeway” from 1971, and the most recent are from our current very troubled year of 2020. The book helpfully gives at the start the original publication date and location, and it fascinates me to see how during a career of over 50 years of writing, Harrison has produced work of such quality which never fails to intrigue and unnerve.

Every day, as we ingest our untailored paste of environmental microplastics, hormones and other transformative pollutants, we move a little further in, losing a little more of what it used to mean to be human and gaining a little more of what it means now.

I was, of course, particularly pleased to see some stories from “Machine…” resurface, as I rate that collection very highly. However, the collection “The Ice Monkey” from 1983 is well represented too, and these stories are particularly stunning. The title story is especially memorable, mixing elements of the unexplained and climbing, two strands of interest in Harrison’s work which often converge. To be honest, he rarely writes what would be called a conventional narrative (which is one of the things I love about his work); and even when something starts out like that (“The Course of the Heart”, perhaps) it doesn’t stay like that. I was also really pleased about the inclusion of the excellent and rather spooky “Doe Lea” which I read and reviewed in chapbook form last year; it’s a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work and deserves a wider audience.

The stories here, like all Harrison’s work, defy classification; there are sci fi influenced stories like the title one, where God has been rediscovered and towed back to Earth, but is not what you might originally think; or “The Crisis” from 2017, which features a kind of jelly-like alien entity focusing its visits to our world on the financial centres. Then there are tales like “The Incalling” from 1978 with strange occult undertones and unexplained rituals; or “The East” from 1996, a story centred on a refugee – but from *what* ‘East’? Then, of course, there is “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, a story which has appeared in numerous MJH anthologies or collections, and even been subject to a change in title and focus which might be considered startling…

The rest of my MJH collection (apart from a Viriconium anthology currently loaned to Eldest Child…)

Well, you get the picture. The joy of reading M. John Harrison is that nothing is ever what it seems, and even those stories which could notionally be called sci fi are never that straightforward. Interestingly, reading this wonderful mixture of old and new I sensed resonances between a number of the stories and other works by MJH. “The Incalling”, for example, hints at events in “The Course of the Heart” and seemed to me to have echoes in “The Sunken Land…

Much of the crescent was untenanted. In company with the surrounding streets it had been built as a genteel transit camp and matured as a ghetto. Now it was a long declining dream. I stood at the door of Mrs Sprake’s house, staring at the cracked flags, the forgotten net curtains bunched and sagging like dirty ectoplasm, the tilted first-floor balconies with their strange repetitive wrought-iron figures, and wondering if it might not be better to leave now before anyone had time to answer the bell. All the other doors were boarded up. Old paint hung like shredded wallpaper from the inner curve of an arched window. Across the road one whole building was missing from the terrace – fireplaces and outlines of extinct rooms clung to the walls of the flanking houses.

And one element I picked up on whilst reading this stories was the sheer skill of Harrison’s writing. His prose is excellent, often stopping you short at some marvellous juxtapositions; but I particularly noticed his sense of place and the landscapes he uses in his stories. His characters often occupy marginal spaces, parts of cities or places which are often in a state of complete entropy. Harrison lived in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when areas of it were still being rebuilt (and the pre-gentifrication areas are conjured brilliantly). In fact, as someone who can remember the 1970s well and the 1960s a bit, I recognised these outlands; the edges of towns and cities where the old tenements were being demolished and replaced by tower blocks; and those almost primitive, decaying areas are vivid settings for his stories.

In truth, this exemplary collection could more accurately be titled “Unsettling the World”; Harrison’s stories disturb our everyday placidity, and his characters, existing in liminal areas which seem to straddle our world and another stranger one, often experience unexplained events which are the stuff of nightmares. “Settling the World” is a marvellous collection in every sense of the word; it’s an excellent introduction to the range of M. John Harrison’s writing over the length of his career; and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kind provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks! You can get a copy of the book direct from the publisher here)

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