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Eleanor Marx is *Not* Fine…. #eleanormarx #feminism #marxism

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I had a lovely trip to London at the start of the summer break with my BFF J. (and you probably recall the book shopping and the results of that lack of control…); and part of the visit involved dropping in to the British Library to see a little display of Karl and Eleanor Marx items. Karl, of course, I first read decades ago when I picked up The Communist Manifesto, with a little trepidation, and was relieved to find I didn’t feel thick and it made perfect sense. His daughter Eleanor had I think been on my radar long before that; I stumbled across the Russian Revolution when we studied it at school, and around that time there was a BBC drama based around Eleanor’s life which I watched. This obviously focused on the dramatic and romantic side of her life, and it seems to often be the tendency that people remember the scandal and her suicide rather than her achievements.

Anyway, I spent some of my time in London mooching around bookshops (nothing new there…) trying to see what Eleanor Marx books might be available. As I said at the time, there was a massive biography from Verso that was originally published by Virago in two volumes; but it was humongous and I couldn’t really justify it (or, indeed, carry it…) However, a visit to lovely left-wing bookshop Bookmarks (which was shamefully attacked by right-wingers not long after) revealed a small but perfectly formed volume called “A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx” by Siobhan Brown. Part of a short series of guides published by Bookmarks themselves, it seemed the ideal way to find out more about Eleanor. Well, maybe…

The book is 57 pages long and sets out to reclaim Marx’s politics from her personal life. On the plus side, it’s concise, puts her life in context, gives a good outline of her work and acts as an excellent introduction to Eleanor Marx’s achievements. She was living in interesting times: much of the life and work of the Marxes was informed by events in France; the Paris Commune of 1871 had a profound effect on left-wing thinking in Britain, and Eleanor translated a first person account by Propser-Olivier Lissagary, amongst other things.

She was very much ahead of her time with her anti-imperialistic outlook and her recognition of the political division between working-class and middle-class feminists with their differing focus and needs. However, I’m not sure I concur with her assertion that women’s interests were best served by them taking part in a working-class revolution alongside men and not one of their own; if that was the case, I think we wouldn’t have needed the Suffragettes and the various waves of feminism that recurred through the twentieth century. I’m afraid I don’t agree that all men of any class are necessarily going to agree to live, work, earn and revolt on equal terms with women – even in the twenty-first century. But that’s just cynical old me.

By Grace Black (National Portrait Gallery, London) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Rebel’s Guide…” was interesting in many ways, and it gave me a strong sense of the world and events Marx lived through, and occasionally her part in them; but the problem was I got no real sense of the woman herself, and the book was too wide-ranging in its focus, not really pinpointing her achievements enough for my liking. There was a tendency to set the political scene, relate the events of the time (and these were all fascinating) and then mention Marx’s involvement as almost an afterthought. I can understand the need to redress the imbalance of coverage only being of Marx’s personal life, but this went so much in the other direction that she appeared a little ghost-like in her own book, popping up here and there to become involved in the action but not really taking on enough of a presence.

So I enjoyed “The Rebel’s Guide…” for what it told me about the political and social world of Marx’s time and for the outline of her active life that it gave me; but I think I will have to look further to see if I can find something else that will give me a more wide-ranging look at Eleanor Marx’s life and work. This was an interesting little book, but not quite what I expected to read! 😀

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Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 – A woman’s life and a dog’s eye view

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The next two books in my reading of the Penguin Modern boxed set are from very disparate writers; but the books are both intriguing and in some places moving. Both are authors I’m very familiar with and yet it was a delight to spend time with them again – that’s one of the joys of reading my way through the set sequentially!

Penguin Modern 13 – Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys

By G88keeper [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Rhys should need no introduction here; best known for “Wide Sargasso Sea”, her prequel to “Jane Eyre”, she was a fine writer with a focus on the lives, loves and loneliness of women. This Modern contains four pieces: “The Day They Burned the Books” (be still, my beating heart!!!), the title story, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel” and “I Used To Live Here Once”. The stories have been very cleverly chosen (and the more I think about it, the more clever it is) to span the range of a woman’s life, from childhood in the Caribbean in the first story, to the inevitability of the finality of life at the end. All are beautifully written, often with an aching sense of melancholy, and Rhys is just brilliant at capturing atmosphere.

Once I went there with Eddie to borrow The Arabian Nights. That was on a Saturday afternoon, one of those hot, still afternoons when you felt that everything had gone to sleep, even the water in the gutters. But Mrs. Sawyer was not asleep. She put her head in at the door and looked at us, and I knew that she hated the room and hated the books.

The title story is the longest, telling of what might be regarded as a typical Rhys heroine; drifting, unfocused, almost passive most of the time and reacting to the men around her rather than taking control of her life. Petronella is out of place in most settings, as it seems was Rhys herself, and it’s hard not to worry about her and be cross with her in the same breath! “Burned” is an episode from childhood and Rhys conjures the setting and the milieu in which she grew up beautifully. Of course, the subject matter is one guaranteed to reduce me to a quivering jelly; at least one books survives, and the title is significant. “Rapunzel…” is heartbreaking, and the last story, only two pages long, has an incredible emotional punch.

I think I’ve only read Rhys’s novels so far, but on the evidence here her shorter works are just as good. Must dig in the stacks and see if any of the books of hers I have are short stories…

Penguin Modern 14 – Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka

By Atelier Jacobi: Sigismund Jacobi (1860–1935) (http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2008_july_02) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kafka is again an author requiring no introduction, and I read “The Castle”, “The Trial” and “Metamorphosis” back in the day (well, the 1980s…); I’ve also written about some more recent Kafka reads here on the blog, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seriously read a lot of his shorter works (though I do have a big book somewhere!) “Investigations of a Dog” was written in 1922 and published posthumously (as was the bulk of his work) and it’s an intriguing little tale.

The story is narrated by the titular canine, and we see the world entirely from his perspective – and it’s a very different one from ours indeed. The dog’s investigations try to make sense of his world, in particular attempting to work out just where the food comes from. And as you read on, you realise that the dog doesn’t actually seem to have any real awareness of what the humans around him are and that they’re feeding him… So the poor creature attempts to apply rational and pseudo-scientific methods to his investigations but fails to get to grips with anything. It’s an interesting premise and could almost be read as allegorical; I’ve often heard it postulated that human understanding is limited by the range of our perceptions and there could be any number of ‘higher’ beings around us that we just can’t see.

So an intriguing story, although perhaps a little long for the subject matter; the point was made about halfway through so Kafka could maybe have been a bit more concise and still conveyed his meaning. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that I have plenty of Kafka on the shelves which could do with dusting off! 🙂

*****

Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 were an enjoyable pair, and both have had the effect of sending me back to books I already own and haven’t read (of which there are far too many). Maybe I should schedule a regular shelf shuffling exercise just to remind myself of all those volumes waiting to be opened… 😀

“Dusk excites the mad.” #Baudelaire #Paris

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Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Martin Sorrell

I’ve touched briefly on the French author Charles Baudelaire on the Ramblings in the past; but despite having several of his books lurking, it’s decades since I dipped into his poetry. The “Selected Poems” you can see on the pile in the picture has been with me since the 1980s, when I first began to really explore literature, but the rest of the volumes have arrived gradually over the years. I’ve meant to go back to his work many times, but it was reading “Orphic Paris” which gave me an attack of French Poetry (as those who follow me on social media might have seen…) Baudelaire was a constant touchstone in Henri Cole’s Paris and I thought it was about time I got down to actually reading some CB…

Dreams, always dreams! And the more the soul is ambitious and discerning, the greater the distance between dream and the possible.

“Paris Spleen”, a pretty little Hesperus Press volume that I’ve had for quite some time, contains 50 short prose pieces by Baudelaire which are considered just as revolutionary as his poetry was. His best-known work is the poetry book “The Flowers of Evil” (Les Fleurs du Mal), and apparently the pieces in “Spleen” often correspond with the poems in the former volume, almost considered as prose versions of the verse; I can’t really comment on that as yet, as it’s a looong while since I spent any time with “Flowers…” However, I think “Spleen” stands on its own as a marvellous work and could well be a good introduction to Baudelaire for those new to him.

The fifty pieces range in length and subject matter; some are no more than half a page, some stretch to four or more; and they’re anything from fables and allegories to poetic pieces of prose exploring Baudelaire’s thoughts, dreams and beliefs in all their variety. There is a streak of dark melancholy running through the work and a recurring motif of autumn; which is often a particularly bittersweet time of year and indeed time of life. It’s perhaps worth recalling that “Spleen” was published posthumously, and the dating of each piece can range over several years, as if Baudelaire revisited the pieces regularly to refine their final form.

She loves with autumn love, as though approaching winter were lighting a new fire in her heart, and the servility of her tenderness is never a burden.

“Paris Spleen” is not a jolly read, that’s for sure; Baudelaire was not a happy chappie and he has a dark view of humanity which is in places reminiscent of Poe. However, I’m very fond of Poe’s darkness and found myself equally drawn to Baudelaire’s spleen. (The fact that Baudelaire was a pioneering translator of Poe may have some relevance here…) Nevertheless there is great beauty and melancholy in his writing, and these vivid pieces linger in the mind. For example, one section tells of the narrator being brought face to face with an old and redundant circus performer; seeing this surplus member of humanity, Baudelaire predicts a destitute and useless old age for himself – which, for better or worse, he never reached, dying at the age of 46. The language is often heightened and melodramatic; there are tales of meeting with, and losing your soul to, the Devil; and love never goes well for our Charles…

…an exquisite autumn sky, one of those from which hosts of memories and regrets descend..

However, an additional element which needs to be born in mind is the time and place in which Baudelaire was living. The nineteenth century saw Paris being pulled to pieces and rebuilt and the descriptions of the city in these poetic vignettes often reflect this. One of the best-known pieces is “The Eyes of the Poor” (which you can find online easily, and which I’m sure I’ve read before). Although the story shows the impossibility of real communion and understanding between humans, an important element is the changing city. The poor characters are shown as being witness to changes taking place which are not for them, in their poverty, and this resonated strongly with my recent reading of “City of Light” for Shiny New Books, which of course covered the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. Modernity is creeping into the world and that’s reflected in these stories, with so many of the characters appearing to be out of date and unneeded.

… the intoxication of Art dulls the terror of the void better than anything else…”

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Paris Spleen” is translated and introduced by Martin Sorrell (who I believe has translated a number of French authors of this era) and I was interested to compare his rendering of what is possibly Baudelaire’s best known piece from this collection. No. 33 is here rendered as “Be drunk” and advises us to be in a permanent state of intoxication – whether from wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t seem to matter! (Poetry for me, please!) I’ve seen this translated as “Get drunk” and I think on the whole I prefer “Be drunk” as it kind of implies a permanent state, rather than something which has to be constantly refreshed!

… what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?

Somehow, Baudelaire made perfect reading for a wet, dull Bank Holiday Sunday (yes, I’m that behind with my posts…) His writing is intense, beautiful, dark, evocative and melancholy, and his imagery memorable – well, he’s a poet writing prose, so it would be, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t realised he had such a reputation as an essay writer until I did a bit of online research and remembered I had a Penguin Great Ideas volume of his prose knocking about too. So I think I might be spending a bit more time in the company of this melancholy man in weeks to come – pass the absinthe, please!

“Evenings lit up by burning coals” (Baudelaire) @nyrbclassics @colehenri #paris

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Orphic Paris by Henri Cole

That serendipitous book thingy’s been happening to me again. I was browsing the NYRB catalogue, and my eye was caught by the title of this one; and as someone who’s always been captivated by the thought of Paris, a look at the blurb was enough to convince me I should read it. Henri Cole is a poet, and a winner of numerous awards for his writing; he’s also taught widely and has been poetry editor of the New Republic. Yet in my ignorance I’d never heard of him (I’m *not* well-read in modern poetry if I’m honest); and the loss has been mine.

Poetry is a language that doesn’t shut us out; it should give the opposite experience.

“Orphic Paris” is Cole’s love-letter to a city he lived in, its denizens, and any number of poets; but so much more than that. I’ve seen it described as a kind of literary commonplace book, and it certainly combines a number of literary forms to paint its picture. It’s a beautiful collage of a book – photos, memories, stories, musings, poetic fragments, pieces of his own verse – all building up an image of the Paris Cole lived in and loved. The text is not limited to Paris alone, however; Cole explores his family background (his mother was a French Armenian, his father an American, and he was born in Japan) and the parts dealing with his relationship with his family are some of the most touching in the book. He also explores the connection that other authors have had with Paris and poetry, and the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Plath and Rilke, to name just a few, hover beautifully over the narrative. Baudelaire in particular is a regular touchstone, a writer connected to the heart of Paris.

I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder. In short, a poem is like a portrait. It is an artist’s most profound and expressive response to life.

The loose structure of the book allows Cole to meditate on all number of subjects; from his deep friendship with author James Lord to his thoughts on the art of writing poetry. The former are moving; the latter illuminating; they did much to enlighten me about the power I often feel poetry has over me and why I’ve responded so strongly to books, and also to people who use words well. The book ranges wide and free, stopping here and there on subjects such as AIDS, the introduction of same-sex marriages in France and the changes to values Cole has seen since he was a young man in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter aspects recur in the section dealing with the symbolism of roses as a flower and also their colour, tied in with sadness at the coming of HIV and its consequence.

Poetry is different from fiction. Poetry is not a lie that tells the truth. A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a small symphony of language, too.

Cole’s musings on Plath I found to be particularly thoughtful, and one section of the book focuses on bees, using their activity as an analogy for the work poets do. Plath, of course, drew heavily on beekeeping imagery, and I found myself pondering on the way some poets burn bright and then burn out. Of the seminal influence of Plath and the personal nature of her work, Cole comments perceptively:

I believed then, and I still do, that a poem is organized violence. Like Baudelaire, Plath extended the boundaries of the lyric, taking the reader deeper into the shadows of her sorrow during the final weeks and months of her life. Even today, in certain quarters, she is trivialized and dishonored because of the confessional nature of her poems.

Needless to say, the language is quite beautiful and evocative throughout; I suppose by definition, the prose of a poet will of course be poetic. The book is eminently readable, full of wisdom and wearing Cole’s love for the city on its sleeve. The small images, some taken by Cole and some from other sources, enhance the narrative – particularly when dealing with the poet’s family. And the Orphic connection? Well, for me Cocteau and his spellbinding film “Orphee” have always been inseparably linked to Paris; and both the classical Orpheus and Cocteau’s character were poets. I couldn’t helping thinking that Cole’s literary flaneuring was carrying on a great tradition…

To look inward and explore the darker corners of the soul is one of the functions of lyric poetry.

“Orphic Paris” is a gem of a book, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. The words are hypnotic; the pictures evocative; and the book invokes the spirit of Paris beautifully. Cole’s narrative builds to a beautiful, lyrical crescendo where he pours out what he loves about Paris and it’s extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the book is actually being released directly in the UK, as the NYRB catalogue states there are no UK rights. Fortunately, however, you can buy it from online sources (as I did!) and so you can get your own copy of this wonderful book, which I really urge you to do!

Photo by Nicolas Vigier, Public Domain

As for Henri Cole’s poetry, I’m going to make a point of going off to explore it; he has a website with some wonderful examples, and if his poetry speaks as strongly to me as this book did, I may have to end up with a dedicated shelf… 😀

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” #KatherineMansfield @almaclassics

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I spent some time over the summer revisiting the work of Katherine Mansfield, which was pure joy and came about because of two unrelated sources! Firstly, my OH rather cleverly presented me with the DVD which you can see in the picture: a wonderful 6-part BBC series on KM from 1973. With Vanessa Redgrave perfectly cast as Mansfield and the gorgeous Jeremy Brett as a very buttoned-up and intense John Middleton Murry, it made for compelling viewing. Now as you might have picked up, I’m not one for TV, especially not modern rubbish (!) – although I adore a decent documentary as I’ve often made plain. But this is TV from when I was growing up, which often looked more like filmed plays and had what I would call Proper Acting, and it was just brilliant and moving. Annette Crosbie was perfect as Mansfield’s BFF, LM, and the series featured episodes from her life interspersed with dramatizations of her work.

The show was a real treat, and made even better by the fact I had a lovely copy of a new selection of her stories which has just been brought out by Alma Classics. “The Garden Party and Selected Short Stories” is a handsome little volume, and contains some classic KM. The title story is possibly her most famous, but it also contains myriad treats from her other collections too. There’s “Je ne parle pas francais”, where Mansfield slips into the voice of a young French roué; “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, a sharp dissection of two maiden sisters who’ve wasted their life looking after their bullying father; and several stories from “In a German Pension”, which cast a cynical eye on the snobbery and pettiness of boarding house life. And that’s just a few of the treats – the Alma book is a really nice collection and a good way to start to explore her work if you’re interested.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mansfield only ever wrote short stories (and poems and letters and journals, of course!) and that format seems so perfectly suited to her. I’ve seen her stories compared to Chekhov (another master of the form) and I don’t think that’s such a wild pairing. Many of the stories in the book draw on Mansfield’s childhood in New Zealand and they’re moving and evocative; she has a particular talent for capturing the child’s eye view, and revisiting her prose reminded me of why Virginia Woolf stated KM’s was the only writing she had even been jealous of.

My Mansfield shelf…

I finished both book and TV series in a fairly emotional state. I had quite an obsession with Mansfield in my early 20s but hadn’t read her for ages; and of course her life was such a short and tragic one, dying at an early age from TB. The end of the TV show was desperately moving, although it did send me off to check the facts, as I had forgotten that her husband Murry had been present when she died. I dug out my old Alpers biography and found that the TV show had been remarkably faithful to the truth, which set me off again. I have volumes of Mansfield’s letters and diaries on the shelf and I may have to make some return visits to those, as well as exploring the ones I’ve not read yet. Mansfield was a brilliant writer; both Redgrave and Brett are/were fine actors; and all of this added up to a marvellously emotional experience over the summer break.

However, despite him having bought me the DVD, I did actually have to explain to OH who Katherine Mansfield was…. 😀

Review book kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!

Three Things… #3 – “…the clock is ticking…” #richardclay #armageddon #bbcradio4 @thMnsandthInstr

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I’ve already had a couple of turns at Three Things, the meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. I’ve been pondering a lot over the weekend and so I thought I would share a few thoughts via the meme, though I’m going to be bending one of the categories slightly so you can follow where my thoughts are coming from…

Reading

I’m back to work after the summer break and so of course my reading rate has instantly slowed down…. 😦

However, I’m currently spending some interesting time with this title – “Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar” by Yuri Tynianov, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Tynianov is a Russian modernist author from the early 20th century who’s new to me, and he seems to be rather under-translated. So far, this historical novel is proving to be fascinating. The author appears to be best known for his “Lieutenant Kijé” which inspired the famous Prokofiev suite of the same name. However, this novel hasn’t been translated in full before, and was rendered by Susan Causey before her untimely death. Look Multimedia have rescued the translation from obscurity and I’m very glad they have – I’m picking up shadows of Bely in the writing style, and the story itself (of diplomat and playwright Alexander Griboyedov, friend of Pushkin) is intriguing. Such a shame I have to work for a living, as I’d rather like to spend a day or two exclusively reading this…

Looking/Listening

“Looking” for me is more often than not at art, or the world, or documentaries: the latter have been a bit of a sanity saver in recent years, although we’re in a lean period at the moment suffering from a dearth of documentaries and I am only being sustained by watching repeats of Lachlan Goudie’s “History of Scottish Art”. But! BBC Radio 4 and Professor Richard Clay to the rescue! 😀

Friday saw the broadcast of an excellent and thought-provoking half hour, tucked away in a morning slot and entitled “Two Minutes to Midnight“. In this, the Prof took a look at our ever-changing views on nuclear weapons, from Ban-the-Bomb days through to our current seeming indifference about imminent armageddon. Drawing on a wealth of information, the programme packed much into its half hour slot to ask some uncomfortable questions about why we don’t seem to be bothered any more. Which set me…

Thinking

“Two Minutes to Midnight” was a very timely programme and brought home to me how we need reminding about the dangers we face from a nuclear conflict. Tracing the evolution of our attitude to nuclear war since the testing of the hydrogen bomb, Clay reflected on why we seem to have lost the sense of what these weapons can do. A number of experts pitched in with a variety of viewpoints, from sociologists to RAF Fylingdales’ artist in residence Michael Mulvihill to author Eric Schlosser (I own a book by him. Do I know where it is? No….)** They came up with many interesting discussion points; one that resonated particularly was the desensitizing effect of video games and films which are not as realistic as the programmes and movies produced during the Cold War (“Threads” and “War Games” were referenced, and I can recall their impact). The fall of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War meant a shift away from the focus on the concept of global conflict and there is much less public awareness or discourse surrounding the issue, with CND membership numbers plummeting. We also have much less distrust of technology than we used to; however, it’s worth bearing in mind that we are generally a much more politically disengaged race nowadays, and in fact the greatest risk of nuclear problems nowadays could well be from accidents rather than a war…

But we forget too easily nowadays how long the Cold War went on and how seriously we thought armageddon was possible. I can recall the nuclear warning sirens being tested every Sunday morning, as well as the arrival of the Protect and Survive booklets advising us what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. Both of these were stark reminders of the hopelessness of any attempts to survive the fallout, and as the programme points out, the advice given was absolutely pointless.

Images c. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

It’s shocking really to realise how we simply accept that emerging nations, which may not have the necessary safety controls in place, are developing nuclear capability. And we live in a busy world, with endless trivial diversions to distract us from reality. Back in the Cold War days, popular culture was much more engaged with issues generally, understanding what the consequences of nuclear war were. It’s no coincidence that the subject made it into pop songs – Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” springs to mind, and of course the “Two Tribes” of Frankie Goes to Hollywood featured voice-overs with examples of the “Protect and Survive” advice. Nowadays, we’re so distracted by who’s in the jungle, or the high-profile high jinks of preposterous politicians which ooze all over our broken media, that we forget the real issues and threats. Yes, climate change is menacing the planet and has to be taken seriously, but it’s not so instant and brutal as a nuclear event would be. It’s almost as if we’ve become resigned to the inevitably of MAD…

As for the title of the programme; well, that refers to the Doomsday Clock. As Wikipedia says, this is “a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, the clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war”. The nearer to midnight, the higher the danger of destruction. In December 2017, the clock was placed at two minutes to midnight, which is the first time disaster has seemed so close since 1953 when the US was first testing its H-bomb. So here we are on the edge of a precipice, and no-one seems to be taking any notice – which is pretty scary in itself….

I could go on a lot more about how good “Two Minutes…” was, and the different cultural strands on which it drew (Clay wears his erudition lightly); but instead I recommend you all go off and listen to the programme here while it’s still on the iPlayer, and reconnect with the real world and real issues. This quietly subversive programme makes sobering listening and really packs a punch; it definitely deserves to be widely heard, and in fact could have been twice as long. Hats off to Richard Clay for producing another stimulating piece of programming; he has another documentary in the pipeline, so watch this space as I’ll no doubt be rambling on about that too!

(As a coda, I thought I’d share another song from the 1980s about annihilation – by a long-lost band I used to love, Young Marble Giants. Their “Final Day” is short, but unbelievably chilling…)

** After writing and scheduling this post, I decided I would go and have a proper look for my Eric Schlosser book, and lo and behold I found it! It was actually where I logically thought it should be – alongside my copies of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other related literature:

I picked it up in 2015 with a special reissued edition of “Hiroshima”. Yes, I know I have three copies of Hersey’s book, and I don’t care. It’s such an important book that everyone should have at least one copy, and reading it alongside “Black Rain” is a salutary experience. Perhaps the introduction of Hersey’s seminal work on school syllabuses all over the world would be a useful exercise…

A murder in the House of Commons! @BL_Publishing #BLCC #EllenWilkinson

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Well, I guess that’s the first time in a while that I’ve read the complete fiction works of an author in such a short period… As far as I can tell, Wilkinson only wrote the two fiction books I’ve now covered on the Ramblings, and that’s a real shame. “Clash” was a stirring tale of love, politics and ideology; “The Division Bell Mystery” is a perhaps more conventional story, focusing on a murder which takes place in the House of Commons. However, Wilkinson the author shines through here too, in what is a very satisfying read.

The book is set in the House of Commons, and our main protagonist is Robert West, a good-looking young (Conservative) parliamentary private secretary, attached to the Home Secretary. It’s worth noting that the book was published in 1932, a time of financial instability in the UK (and indeed the world); and this instability is reflected in the book, as negotiations are taking place for the Government to get a loan of foreign money. Reclusive American financier Georges Oissel, an old friend of the Home Secretary, has agreed to have dinner with the latter in the House – an unusual occurrence in itself, and one that goes horribly wrong when Oissel is found dead just after the Division Bell* is rung for a vote.

Through the double clamour of Big Ben and the shrill sound of the bell rang a revolver shot.

At first, it seems like suicide; but why would such a rich man with no need to die do such a thing? Oissel’s beautiful granddaughter, Annette, is convinced that it’s murder, and soon the police, led by Inspector Blackitt, are of the same opinion. West is encouraged to investigate, assisted by his old friend Dan Shaw, a friendly reporter Sancroft, fiery Labour politician Gracie Richards, Lord Dalbeattie, and a whole host of other characters. What appears to be a locked-room mystery is complicated by a burglary on Oissel’s flat taking place at the same time as the murder, and the fact that the Government must fight off questions and challenges from the opposition whilst trying to deal with what is a very delicate situation. Will Robert solve the crime (or will, indeed, somebody else?) Will Robert stop swooning over Annette? Does Kinnaird, a close friend of Annette’s who could be in financial difficulties, know more than he’s letting on? Is the Home Secretary without guilt? And how will the Prime Minister handle the hostility from the opposing party?

“The Division Bell Mystery” is a twisty and entertaining book with an engrossing puzzle, likeable characters and plenty of red herrings. On their own, these elements alone would make it worth reading. However, where it actually excels is in the picture it gives of what it was like to be in Parliament in the 1930s. We’re so much more familiar with the whole procedure nowadays thanks to the televising of Parliament, but one character comments rather presciently:

“We ought to film this place,” chuckled West. “Would any of us ever make a speech again if we could see how funny we looked when we are doing it?”

And I can’t help thinking that the televising of the bear garden that passes for politics might actually have had a more damaging effect than anything else in our faith in politicians…

Ellen Wilkinson by National Photo Company Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I digress. Wilkinson writes beautifully, bringing alive her setting with all its atmosphere. And as in “Clash” she’s not afraid to deal with issues, albeit in perhaps a more subtle way than her earlier book. Gracie Richards is surely a self-portrait, and I warmed to her; and although she gets to voice her opinions, there is also discussion of a world that was changing dramatically, with the young people having a very different attitude to life than the old Colonels who still believed in the Empire and the old ways. In many ways, West is stuck between the two extremes, which makes for a nuanced portrayal and a thoughtful look at the state of the UK in the early 1930s.

The House with its lighted windows seemed the quiet centre of the whirlpool that was London. A harassed Cabinet Minister negotiated with an American financier inside, and outside the raw material of their transactions, the people who elected the Minister and would have to pay interest on the loan, surged and demonstrated. They wanted bread. It wasn’t like England – Stuart-Orford was right about that. But it was the new England, and what was to be done about it?

But I need to get back to the puzzle! To be honest, as a murder mystery the book has small flaws: it *is* a little unlikely that the police wouldn’t have found the truth out sooner; there are perhaps a few too many characters in the story, meaning that Wilkinson isn’t able to give them the attention they deserve; and the doe-eyed devotion of West to Annette is as irritating to me as it obviously was to Gracie Fisher… And although the ending was quietly dramatic, I would have liked a little more of the aftermath, and to find out what happened later to the various participants. It’s a shame Wilkinson didn’t write any more mysteries, as I did love many of her characters and would have liked to follow their future adventures; although I suppose there are only so many murders you can set in the House of Commons without getting into Midsomer-Murders-silliness territory…

Nevertheless, “The Division Bell Mystery” is a worthy and important addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s always entertaining, surprisingly thought-provoking and like “Clash” quite ahead of its time in places. Wilkinson obviously relished being part of the Parliamentary system and believed that it was a system that worked; although she’s refreshingly cynical at time, indicating that it’s the Civil Servants who run the country and not the actually politicians. I wonder if that still holds true? The book comes with a preface by Rachel Reeves, a Labour MP, and is introduced as always by Martin Edwards, who considers politics in Golden Age crime novels. Reading about Parliament from the point of view of one of the earliest women M.P.s is very special, and she can’t resist the occasional nice little barb:

Women M.P.s might try to abolish this absurdity, but the House, which in the past years has swallowed whole strings of new camels, would die in the last ditch in defence of some antiquated gnat of a custom.

Discovering the books of Ellen Wilkinson has been a real treat; “Division Bell…” was as absorbing as “Clash”, albeit with a different focus, and I really do wish she’d gone on to write more books; but bearing in mind her Parliamentary record, literature’s loss was politics’ gain…

(Review copy kindly provided by British Library Crime Classics, for which many thanks!)

*For those who don’t know, Wikipedia informs us that a Division Bell is one used in the immediate neighbourhood of the Palace of Westminster (which houses Parliament) to signal that a division is occurring and that members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords have eight minutes to get to their chosen Division lobby to vote for or against the resolution. The division bells are also sounded at the point when the house sits (at the start of its day); at the end of the two-minute prayers that start each day and when the house rises. There are approximately five hundred bells in and around the Palace of Westminster.

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