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“…asking questions about processes of meaning making…” – A new interview with Professor Richard Clay #c21stmyths @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll know of my love of a good documentary! BBC4 is my channel of choice, and I’ve been known to witter on endlessly about my favourite programmes. I was delighted to have the opportunity last year to interview Professor Richard Clay, the man who’s behind my favourite shows over the last several years; you can visit the two parts here and here. The interview coincided with the transmission of his excellent documentary “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”, and you can read my post about that here.

(c. ClearStory/BBC)

Naturally, therefore, I was thrilled to hear that Richard was making a new film, particularly when I found out the subject; the new show is entitled “21st Century Mythologies”, and it takes a look at the work of Roland Barthes, an author who seems to have been haunting my reading in recent months! The documentary takes a look at his relevance in our modern world and airs on BBC4 next week. Ahead of its transmission, I asked Richard if he’d be kind enough to make a repeat visit to the Ramblings and I’m happy to say that he agreed! 😀

KBR: Richard, welcome back to the Ramblings! You last visited around the time of your excellent documentary “How to Go Viral” last year. Apart from your new programme, which we’ll get onto later, have you been working on any interesting projects since then which you can share with us?

RC: Ah, all kinds of stuff! I particularly enjoyed doing a short film, called ‘Revolution Up North’, about the surprising links between the North East and French revolutions. We filmed at the Bowes Museum; it was founded around the collection of Josephine Bowes and her British husband. She was the daughter of a sans-culottes of the first French Revolution and escaped Paris during the revolutions of 1848.

The Bowes Museum (Alden Chadwick, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Myself, a colleague (Dr Gillian Jein), a PhD student (Lauren Dudley), and an undergraduate fine artist (Lauren Kelly) chatted on camera at the Bowes about its amazing collection and the stash of incredible 1968 revolutionary posters produced by Atelier Populaire artists that are down the road at Brancepeth Castle in County Durham (why is another story).

Our film was basically a pitch for an exhibition that we would love to do, bringing modern Parisian street artists, Lek and Sowat, to County Durham to keep the tradition alive! And that is without getting into the claim that the revolutionary martyr Jean-Paul Marat might have studied medicine in Newcastle (maybe he spoke English with a Geordie accent!) or the survival of copper plates used to print fake revolutionary French money in the North East as an act of 1790s economic warfare! One day, I’m sure we will put the film on YouTube.

You’re currently based at Newcastle University, with the intriguing-sounding job title of Professor of Digital Cultures. Could you expand a little on the kind of thing which that (possibly unique) role entails?

There are other academics out there with a Digital Cultures brief. I’m a bit unusual because I’m a ‘translational prof’ and my role spans across subject areas. I’m a kind of champion of working across academic disciplines and sectors of the economy to do stuff together that has digital dimensions. For example, I’m involved with the Creative Fuse North East project that has been going for more than 5 years and involves all 5 of the region’s universities working in collaboration with creative industries (http://www.creativefusene.org.uk).

For someone who appears on TV you have a relatively low online profile. In these days of constant surveillance, either from external sources or self-inflicted, is this a deliberate decision?

It’s a deliberate decision. I’m aware of how our data is harvested and sold by websites and the risks that poses. Hence, I surf the web with cookies turned off to leave less of a trail and I don’t engage with social media. Social media companies are able to gather a few key points of information about each user and establish surprisingly accurate profiles of the products and services they are likely to buy when targeted with adverts. Users’ clicks and cookie data helps sharpen that picture by telling each site you visit where you’ve been previously. Hence, social media platforms are increasingly replacing print publishing as preferred platforms for advertisers because they can micro target their ads at users.

As the saying goes, ‘If it’s free online, you’re the product’. While many people feel okay with that as being a kind of quid pro quo, I am concerned by the ways in which, for example, such data is being used in often highly targeted political campaigns that are divisive and discourage the kinds of dialogue between citizens that seem ever more crucial. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, the sale of huge social media datasets is being used in pretty shady ways by a range of political and commercial players. Plus, I’m not a big fan of accessing news on platforms whose algorithms are designed to give you more and more of the stuff your clicks suggest that you like. I prefer accessing more diverse bodies of opinion. And that’s without even getting into the ‘clickbait’ culture of much web design….

All of that might make me sound like I’m somehow anti-web, which I most certainly am not! Yeah, I choose to surf in particular ways (cookies turned off, clearing my surfing history periodically, having an email address I only use when I need to give one to purchase something online). But I still surf, getting my news, doing research, being a consumer and so on. As I think I said in our last interview, the web is a truly revolutionary tool that is bringing vast benefits to global society. I don’t want to turn it off, I just don’t want to be manipulated.

Moving on to your new documentary, it’s based around the seminal figure of Roland Barthes (who’s made many an appearance on the Ramblings) and is called “21st Century Mythologies”. Can you tell us a little about the show and what sparked the idea of making it?

Well, I was talking to BBC staff about how to do semiotics on television and Cassian Harrison (BBC4 Channel Editor) said, ‘Why not do a C20th take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ Then I had to actually read the book which was first published in 1957 and written before Barthes really engaged with semiotics! I loved it. It’s a collection of short essays that Barthes wrote for a magazine about a series of modern myths and then some heavier weight pieces that unpack what he means by a myth – something that is endlessly repeated as if it’s true to the point that we don’t question it. For example, he pointed to strip tease and asked whether it’s actually sexy to sit with strangers watching someone disrobe for money, and to professional wrestling which we know is closer to theatre than competitive sport. So, I selected a bunch of C21st myths and we set about unpicking them through interviews in the U.K., USA, and Italy. Oh, and we snook in some semiotics en route!

When did you first encounter the work of Barthes?

That was at UCL as a Masters student. I read his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and it blew my mind. I read it every year for 7 years before I realised that the one point that he made that I couldn’t comprehend was about something he later changed his mind about. I love the serious attention he devoted to popular culture. He didn’t see ‘fine art’ as inherently more interesting or worthy of consideration than advertising. It was liberating. Plus, he helped me got my head around semiotics…

“Mythologies” deals, of course, with semiotics and that subject might not appear on first glance to be related your specialism of iconoclasm. However, you’ve discussed the latter in terms of material sign transformation; could you expand on what connections you see between the two disciplines?

Well, I’d say that semiotics is the name given to the study of sign systems and it offers a range of concepts that can be used in such efforts. For example, a statue can be regarded as being a sign that has two components: the signifier (i.e. a statue of, say, a Confederate officer) and the signifieds that it points to (i.e. the meanings that ‘Confederate officer’ has for any given viewer). The signier + signifieds = statue as sign. Thinking about a statue in this way helps us to describe how and why iconoclasm (image breaking) comes about. For many people who know about the Confederacy’s defence of slavery, a statue of a Confederate officer connotes on-going acceptance and, indeed, heroicisation of that cause in a public space. To other people, the same statue’s ‘signifieds’ (its meanings) are more or less acceptable representations of events that took place generations ago. So, the same statue has multiple meanings to different people at any given time.

Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As discourse around the Confederacy and its legacies mutates, people have new knowledge to apply in making sense of the statue’s meanings; when another innocent African American is murdered in the street by police officers, those people can come to use material alteration of contested signifiers (statues) to make the object point legibly and publicly to new meanings in public. Hence, the Black Lives Matter graffiti appearing all over Confederate statues in the USA that was then photographed and shared globally online and across the media publicising that the legacies of historic racism are rejected by many people. As protests around such signifiers grew, eventually, activists came to take matters into their own hands and pulled the statues down, often breaking them up, transforming them physically so that what was left (usually just an empty plinth) aligned with their opinions of acceptable meanings (signifiers) in public space and of acceptable behaviour. Hence, I’ve written about the material transformation of signs; but I also write about how those acts are always preceded, accompanied, and followed by transformations of signifiers at the level of discourse which make new meanings available for them and render material transformation imaginable and desirable to some people.

So yeah, I’ve found semiotics useful in terms of thinking about how signs are used to mediate conflicts within societies. But semiotics could equally be used to talk through why some people turn their nose up when they see the signifier that is a jar of Marmite (i.e. it connotes negative meanings for them). We really do live in a republic of signs (a res publica, a public thing) that occupies the material world through which we move and the world of ideas that shapes the sense that we make of that which we see (or hear, or taste, or touch!).

A casual viewer might think that these are abstract ideas which aren’t particularly relevant to them. Why do you think they’re important to our everyday life?

I just think that some of the basic concepts of semiotics are useful tools for thinking with: signifier + signifieds = sign; a symbol as a kind of sign that points to meanings if the viewer knows a rule (i.e. a no entry sign doesn’t look like not entering somewhere; connotation; polysemicity [multiple meanings]; polyvalency [multiple values].) These kinds of notions allow us to deconstruct what is going on when, say, a website tries to get us to make sense of the news it is presenting in a particular way using the signifiers of words, images, film, and/or sound. Thinking semiotically involves asking questions about processes of meaning making and the impact that they have on all aspects of our lives.

Of course, words are signs too. The signifiers that are the written words ‘nation state’ point to meanings in our heads that that vary from person to person, sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly. Yet, whole tranches of public debate assume that participants are using the words in the same way. In Barthes’s terms, ‘nation state’ is a myth – a notion that is widely used and rarely queried. Yet, armies are mobilised and sent to war in defence of nation states (most of which were not even claimed to exist until after the second half of the nineteenth-century).

Without revealing too much, “21st Century Mythologies” builds to some very powerful concluding sections; it’s perhaps your most impactful programme so far. Did you envisage this when initially planning it?

Yep. I really wanted to end with the myth of ‘race’; a pseudo-scientific myth but probably the most pernicious social reality. I’m always amazed that people speak so readily of, for example, African Americans, as being members of a different ‘race’ to non-African Americans. Yet, Europeans only started to describe people of differing skin tones (varying shades of brown) as belonging to different races at a point in history when ‘white’ people began to enslave other ‘races’ for slavers’ commercial gain? I think that all citizens need to reflect on the world around them as Barthes did and be alert to the fact that there are interest groups out there who do not wish us to unpack and challenge myths like ‘race’ and ask how can they still persist.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian Institution with Richard (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Barthes has a long cultural reach, influencing works as diverse as “The 7th Function of Language” by Laurent Binet and “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs. Why do you think he still inspires such interest?

Well, he was properly clever!

It’s hard at the moment to ignore current world circumstances. How has this impacted on your working and teaching – and, indeed, the making of the documentary?

Well, filming was complete before the first lockdown and the finished edit was sent to the BBC during the first month of that lockdown. But contemporary affairs other than the current pandemic had impacted on the film during its development and production. I don’t claim to make objective films any more than I’d claim to write objective history; objectivity is a laudable but unattainable goal. I’ve always thought that history is more or less consciously written in the present, about the past, with an eye on the future and the same applies to documentary film making.

As for the impact of the global pandemic on teaching, most of mine is in one-to-one supervisions with undergraduate and postgraduate students writing a dissertation or thesis. It isn’t quite the same having our discussions over Zoom or Teams, but it’s not as problematic as it is for many other forms of teaching. I really feel for my colleagues and our students, but they are all doing their very best to make the most of deeply challenging circumstances.

You’ve talked in the past about the challenge of condensing your work into a relatively short television format, as well as the difficulty of getting semiotics on camera. Do you think that sometimes TV companies underestimate the interest of their audiences in engaging with more complex ideas?

I think that independent TV companies who make films don’t underestimate audiences’ interests in engaging with challenging ideas, but I’m not sure that the same is the case for all broadcasters. I’ve been lucky because BBC4 took a liking to the kinds of films I’m interested in making. But whether that will last is another matter.

In our previous interview you described yourself as a synthesist, and you’ve explored this path widely with initiatives such as the C.A.K.E. (Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange) events. “21st Century Mythologies”, as with your earlier programmes, draws on a wide range of contributors from different disciplines. Do you regard this cross-curricular approach as crucial?

It is for me! I just like being challenged to think in new ways that help me to look at the world afresh, to ask new questions, to reach new conclusions, to query my own assumptions. But then I’m the kind of person who’d start a conversation at a bus stop; you just never know what you might learn.

You’ve been quite vocal in the past about the focus on STEM in education, championing instead the STEAM model, integrating arts into the mix along with sciences. Do you believe in the continued need for the arts to help us make sense of our world?

I do! Many moons ago I heard the then Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) telling a story about his predecessor listening to his equivalent at the Medical Research Council saying, quite rightly, that their work saved lives. The AHRC head said, ‘Yes, but our Council makes people’s lives worth living’.

David’s masterly image

We covered your early career and training as an art historian in our first interview. Popping your art historian hat back on for a moment, do you have a favourite artist and/or painting?

Jacques-Louis David, ‘Marat at his last breath’, oil on canvas, 1793 (Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels).

Finally, having gone from strength to strength with your series of wonderful documentaries, do you have any plans for future programmes?

Ah, thanks! The challenge is finding an idea that appeals to commissioning editors; otherwise, it just remains an idea. I’ve been pondering Henri Lefebvre’s argument that all space is coded and how my take on his thinking could shape some good films. But maybe there won’t be more TV commissions for me, and I’ll need to think about whether to make and share films in different ways. Broadcast is being revolutionised by YouTube and streaming. Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to that technology that has stood the test of time for sharing complex ideas – the book!

*****

Well, let’s hope that last sentence comes to pass, because it would be wonderful to see Richard share some new writings! I’d very much like to thank Richard for being prepared to make a revisit to the Ramblings and providing such an utterly fascinating and thought-provoking interview, as brim full of ideas as his documentaries and writings always are. “21st Century Mythologies” premieres on BBC4 on Monday 9th November at 9 a.m. – don’t miss it! 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

“No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony…” #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Tanya Leslie

My second read for Non-Fiction November is (whispers) actually a book I read in October, but as I’m still playing catch-up with reviews and as this one fits into the category nicely, I think we’ll turn a blind eye…. ;D

The book is “A Man’s Place” by Annie Ernaux; the most recent release of her work by the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, it’s translated by Tanya Leslie, and was originally published in 1983. Ernaux is a recent discovery for me; I read and was knocked out by “A Girl’s Story” back in August, so was very keen to read the new book, particularly as it springs from the same kind of place as my first read. In “Girl…” Ernaux looked back at dark and defining events from her formative years; here she stays in similar territory, travelling back to convey the life of her father in prose which is apparently simple yet is very revealing.

Ernaux’s father died at the age of 67, two months after his daughter had qualified as a teacher. The family came from peasant stock, with her father having started life as a lowly cowherd. Surviving the First World War, he began working in a factory where he met Ernaux’s mother. Together they managed to move into working class circles, setting themself up as shopkeepers and running a grocery store/cafe in rural France, struggling to make a living. However, the store managed to sustain them, despite the introduction of supermarkets encroaching on their territory, and also provided enough income for them to send their daughter to a good school – a move which would change her life irrevocably.

Maybe I am writing because we no longer had anything to say to each other.

Interestingly, “A Man’s Place” is as much about Annie Ernaux herself as it is about her father. Both parents came from a simple, rural background and inevitably Ernaux grew away from them as she attended school then university, mixing with contemporaries from very different settings. As well as the class issues which arose as Ernaux moved away physically and emotionally from her background, the intellectual gulf was huge and probably unbridgable. In the later parts of the book, when Ernaux visits her aging parents with her small son, it’s as if she’s travelling into the past, to a completely different world.

Ernaux is aware of much of what formed her father and his outlook; and she is also clear-eyed about her paternal grandfather and the influence he must have had, stating:

He was a hard man, nobody dared pick a quarrel with him. Life was not all roses for his wife. His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house.

She also resists adding any kind of gloss to her father’s story, understanding that his life on the land was no kind of idyll. The realities of a rural style of life are not swept under the carpet…

It would be easy to write something along those lines. The relentless passing of the seasons, the simple joys and quiet of the countryside. The land my father worked belonged to others. He saw no beauty in it, the magnificence of Mother Earth and other such myths were lost on him.

As with “A Girl’s Story”, Ernaux’s writing is of course superb. Her narrative is always detached, seemingly unemotional – for example, she relates the death of an earlier sibling in remote terms as if it was someone with no connection to her. Yet underneath the emotions are strong and it’s as if she has to tell her tale as if it was *not* hers, rather than autobiography, to be able to convey her story. Despite the vast differences between Ernaux and her father, there is the feeling that she appreciates his resilience and his simpler approach to life; and in return, despite his lack of understanding of what Ernaux is actually doing with her life, he *is* proud of her.

“A Man’s Place” is a short work – 76 pages to be exact – and yet packs in so much. Ernaux explores not only her father’s place in an ever-changing society, but also his place in her life. She’s quite brilliant at unpicking the nuances of the relationships within her family, while her narrative reflects the radical changes in French society which took place during her lifetime. At the start of the book, the world feels positively mediaeval; by the end of it, we’re in a very familiar landscape of modern trappings and shops and all of the changes the 1960s and 1970s would bring. To have captured all that in so short a book is just genius, I think.

So my second Ernaux book was just as good, and just as haunting and memorable, as my first. She really is a remarkable writer and commentator, able to distance herself from her own experiences and so bring to them a really intriguing perspective. Her books are not always the easiest of reads, in that she looks life and reality straight in the eye; but they’re always enriching, and here Ernaux paints a striking picture of her father and his life which acts as a powerful memorial to the man he was. A remarkable book!

“Something in me responds to dereliction, to ruins…” #adamthorpe @LittleToller

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On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe

Amongst other things, 2020 really does seem to have been the year of the independent publisher for me. I’ve discovered some wonderful imprints and read some amazing books from some fascinating indies, and one lovely recent discovery was Little Toller. As I mentioned in my review of my first book from their range, “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton, they’re based in Dorset and focus on work based in nature and the landscape. I picked up two works in my first purchase from LT, the Skelton book and “On Silbury Hill” by Adam Thorpe. Both works are in LT’s ‘monographs’ range, and although very different books both are wonderful and fascinating.

Thorpe may be best known as a novelist; certainly, his debut “Ulverton” I recall being very lauded when it came out. And I think I may have read it, although as this was when the offspring were small and so I was in the midst of the mania of child rearing, I can’t be sure… Anyway, I was very much drawn to “On Silbury Hill” because of the subject matter and location. Although I was born in Edinburgh, we moved south when I was six, and so I grew up in Hampshire, close to the border with Wiltshire. Additionally, I worked in Salisbury for some years so the area is familiar to me; and I have happy memories of visits to Stonehenge and the surrounding areas. I can’t recall going to Silbury – but frankly, with my rubbish memory, who knows…

Adam Thorpe also knows the region well, and has a long and powerful relationship with Silbury Hill. Although born abroad, he spent much time in the area nearby when he attented Marlborough College; and indeed those were pivotal teenage years when the personality develops and takes on forms which will stay throughout a person’s life. A strong bond grew between Thorpe and the hill, and he uses his monograph to explore not only the history of Silbury, the discoveries and theories about it over the years, and the possible reasons for it having been built; but also to look back at the periods of his life in relation to the hill, as well as links to other parts of his life which might initially seem to have no connection to a strange prehistoric man-made structure….

Silbury Hill itself is something of a mystery; the largest artificial mound in Europe, its size compares to Egyptian pyramids of the same era. Yet nobody actually knows what it’s there for. It’s not any kind of burial chamber or tomb – excavations (with near catastrophic results) have revealed that – and as obviously there are no records from prehistoric times, any theory about Silbury’s purpose is pretty much pure guesswork. So Thorpe explores the various attempts to explain and explore the place over the centuries; the damage done to it (and other ancient monuments in the area) by greedy, land-grabbing farmers; and finds himself in sympathy with Wiccans and others who see some kind of religious or pagan importance in the area. His narrative reflects a growing concern (which I share) about the pollution of the modern landscape with chemicals and unrestricted building, and the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to connect properly with the natural world.

So a life builds up in layers, piecemeal, a kind of haphazard engineering that has elements of skill and cunning – the previous layers mostly hidden, as are the small mounds within, the clumps of different-coloured earth, the burnt offerings, the nodules of pain and the delight. The hard graft of the chopped off antlers, picking and stabbing and scraping. The embers of old fires, old flames, in mute fragments of charcoal.

Thorpe’s book is a very personal take on the area, as you would expect I suppose from a monograph. This is *his* Silbury Hill, a meditation on what the area has meant to him over the decades and, indeed, continues to mean. Places *do* have an emotional resonance with us, even if we don’t physically visit them often (Edinburgh has had that effect on me); and it’s clear that a place like Silbury, encountered at a young and impressionable age, left a lasting mark on Thorpe. The book is laced with quotations, illustrations and photographs and builds up a wonderfully vivid picture not only of Silbury and its history, but also of Thorpe’s experiences with the place.

Silbury Hill (via Wikimedia Commons)

In truth, “On Silbury Hill” is a hard book to categorise. A beautiful and evocative mix of memoir, history, archaeology, I found it absolutely compelling reading and impossible to put down. The intertwining of mythologies, stories of Neolithic peoples, discussions of the shadows of the past and meditations on his own life and experiences created a wonderfully unique narrative, which I loved. Thorpe’s theories on the possible use of the chalkland areas were just as convincing as any others I’d heard, and he introduced an interesting angle on the monuments of the past about which I’d never thought.

So “On Silbury Hill” turned out to be a second winner from Little Toller. My familiarity with the area, and the fact that I was growing up in the vicinity at a similar time to Thorpe, gave even more resonance to my reading of the book. I like writing that steps outside boundaries and genres; both of the the publisher’s books have done this, featuring beautiful, evocative writing and wonderful ideas. There’s definitely a risk I could be wanting to start a Little Toller collection….

(My first read of the month qualifies for Non-Fiction November – so yay! That’s a good start!)

November challenges – where to start….

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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…

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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

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