On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!


After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

Five out, two in – and a small collection begins…


I’ve often learned to my cost that if I don’t grab a bargain in a charity shop when I see it, the book will most likely be gone if I return a week later, kicking myself for hesitating.

And last week I hesitated – despite buying the lovely Trollopes with the retro covers, and contemplating the collectability of the designs, I *didn’t* bring home a copy of “Persuasion” from the same series. And yes, I kicked myself. And yes I went back to the Oxfam yesterday. And yes (thank goodness!) it was still there so it came home with me!


“Persuasion” is my favourite Austen – so I’m glad I finally got it. I don’t suppose four books really count as a collection, and I’m not going to scour the Internet for copies. But if I see any interesting titles in this series, they really will come home with me….

I did think I was doing quite well this weekend, as I took in five (large) volumes to donate, so the ratio of in/out books was a good one. However, on the way to my bus, I spotted that one of the local building societies was having a charity book sale. And since every blogger I know raves about Shirley Jackson, it would have been impolite not to bring this home:


So the ratio is still good and having actually given away some books I feel empowered to clear out even more!


Meanwhile, I thought I would point you to another couple of reviews I provided for the recent edition of Shiny News Books! The first is a non-fiction title, “Nairn’s London” by Ian Nairn. I’ve reviewed one of his other books here, but this is considered his best and it didn’t let me down.

nairnNairn’s a wonderfully opinionated author, with a real passion for what he writes about – you can read more here.

dear readerThe other book I covered turned out to be a real treat. “Dear Reader” by Paul Fournel is published by Pushkin Press in a lovely little edition, and it takes on the subject of e-reader vs paper in a very entertaining way. However, I was very excited to find out that Fournel is an Oulipan, and the book is sprinkled with references to Calvino, Perec and the like. Find out more here.

Shiny New Books is of course stuffed full of reviews, recommendations and bookish stuff – you’ll most definitely come out of it with an expanded wish list! 🙂

Return of an Architectural Maverick


Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn

Ian Nairn was a vague TV presence when I was growing up; he faded out of view after his death but recent reappraisals plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. He was most definitely something of a maverick and Wikipedia says: “Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 – 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer. In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called “Outrage” (later as a book in 1956), in which he coined the term “Subtopia” for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place.In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn’s North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn’s Journeys in 1978. He died on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing.”


Most of his books are long out of print, but fortunately Notting Hill Editions saw fit to reprint his classic “Britain’s Changing Towns” under the title “Nairn’s Towns” with foreword and updates by Owen Hatherley – so it was kind of a no brainer that I would be picking up a copy. Like all NHE books, it’s a gorgeous little clothbound hardback, with lovely thick creamy pages and also a number of photographic illustrations within the text – so, a thing of great beauty, then, before you even start to read. The original book evolved from a series of articles Nairn produced for the “Listener” magazine in 1960-1 and 1964. When they were gathered together in book form in 1967, Nairn provided updates to his earlier thoughts. This lovely version is introduced by Owen Hatherley, one of my favourite architectural writers, who also provides 2013 Postscripts which are fascinating in themselves.

The original version

The original version

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to shows how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised.

The big Perpendicular churches of England are a fascinating and utterly neglected psychological study. Then as now, some designers must have felt at odds with their society while some revelled in it. Chipping Campden, in particular, must have been built by a man unhappy to the edge of hysteria.

“Nairn’s Towns” takes us on a journey round the country to a variety of locations, some predictable and some rather unusual! He finds Newcastle-upon-Tyne superlative; that Sheffield has many possibilities, poised as it is on the brink of some dramatic modernist development which has since, alas, become much decried in certain quarters. Norwich, Liverpool, Derry, Brighton and many more get the Nairn treatment. Llandiloes in Wales, perhaps an unexpected choice, gets much praise from Nairn.

… there are plenty of people who would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either.

The essays are little time capsules; views of a country still breaking away from the ways of the past, struggling to rebuild after the Second World War and trying to decide the best way to do it. And the process is erratic, piecemeal and down to the local planners, with little guidance from elsewhere. Owen Hatherley’s 2013 updates highlight the successes and failures and add the perfect coda to each piece.


Ian Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in a place and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he puts it, ready to judge a place and its buildings by their merits. If only everyone could approach things like this! And you have to love someone who can describe a building as “the longest boardroom speech in the world made visible.”

This was such a delightful, stirring and satisfying read. In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the maniac whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, very excitingly Penguin have now republished the classic work “Nairn’s London” – it looks absolutely lovely and I’m so pleased to have this to look forward to. How about “Nairn’s Paris” as well, please, Penguin! 🙂

… in which I *do* buy a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists!


I have been doing quite well recently in controlling the book buying – in fact, since coming back from Leicester with a relatively small haul, I have been doing the rounds of the charity shops and rejecting many books that I *could* take hom with me, simply because of space and time. So I am feeling a little pleased with myself.

However, a few have trickled through the net, including the aforementioned Ragged Trousered peeps – shown here with a sparkly new copy of Nairn’s London which I couldn’t resist picking up new (I’ll be reviewing another of his books on here soon).

I grabbed the Tressell book the minute I saw it in the Oxfam, because I hesitated about buying a copy some months back and it had disappeared the next time I visited the shop. I’m not sure when I’ll read it, but at least I have it hanging about for when the mood takes me!

The final find was an unexpected one in a charity shop I don’t usually visit – it’s by Robert Gibbings, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, and it was the spine that attracted me:

and then the cover design:

(as well, of course, as the title – “Trumpets from Montparnasse”.

The book is full of lovely plates like this:

and also black and white illustrations like this:

Gibbings is obviously an artist and the first few pages sound intriguing – so I’m looking forward to finding out more. It for this kind of random find that I *love* second-hand bookshops of any sort!

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