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April plans, high excitement at the Ramblings, new arrivals – and 1977! #iconoclasm

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Reading plans? Ha! Not a thing I’ve been doing over the recent year or so, which has worked well for my reading psyche; but I think I might have to be a tiny bit more organised during April, particularly as this is imminent:

Yes, it’s only a couple of weeks until Simon and I co-host the 1977 Club; and as I’m still afloat (just!) in a sea of review books, I obviously need to get focused so that I can have some 1977 reading in place too. Mind you, complications have set in because of the unexpected arrival of some lovely volumes at the Ramblings – I think the place is definitely turning into some kind of book magnet…

First up, OH surprised me with an unexpected Easter present, which was very lovely of him and it’s a lovely thing:

It’s a very gorgeous, illustrated edition of “Ulysses”, as you can see – the ‘Dublin Illustrated Edition’, no less and the pen and ink drawings inside are very striking indeed; here’s one:

“Ulysses” is on my reading bucket list, and I think OH was prompted by my watching of a documentary on Joyce recently (yes, documentaries again!). This particular edition is a lovely hardback with a decent sized type and so I think this will be readable and handleable. So maybe 2018 will finally be the year of “Ulysses”…

Next up, yesterday also saw the belated arrival of my Mothers’ Day gift from the three Offspring. They asked what I wanted and instead of listing lots of little bits and bobs, I said can I have this please?

Lo and behold! Here it is – the Penguin Moderns boxed set! Such joy! 50 little volumes of wonderfulness in a gorgeous box – I am *so* lucky (and I do have very well-trained children…)

The trouble is, I feel a Project Lurking – that of reading them from 1 to 50 and posting on each volume. Knowing my record with reading projects (Penguin Modern Poets, anyone? yes, I know I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit there) I suspect I would get distracted half way through. But it’s sooooooo tempting…

But yesterday also brought the Most Exciting Arrival in the form of this – “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris” by Prof Richard Clay:

Those of you who are concentrating (pay attention at the back there, please!) may recall me rabbitting on about this book after Christmas, as it’s been impossible to get hold of a copy and I had to resort to getting one of my Offspring to borrow a copy from the university in which they work. I’ve still been fairly desperate to own a copy (as a rapid read over Christmas was *really* not doing it justice), and so I went into overdrive when one of the many alerts I’d set up with online booksellers pinged into my inbox saying it was available at a More Reasonable Price than hitherto – followed by more and more alerts! A quick search revealed that the book appears to have been reprinted because there are lots more out there – and as the last copy I saw online was almost £1,500 (and a used annotated one at that), the price I had to pay for this was payable. And it arrived yesterday and I was unreasonably excited all day. Here it is, on some piles with which it might possibly have connections:

And here it is again, standing smartly on the shelf where it will eventually sit for good, with some related publications of interest:

I have had to make a new space on what you might call the Pending Shelves for some of the incomings and here are the newbies all together:

And do you know what? I’m actually going to take a little bit of credit for the republication of this, because I *did* actually send several nagging emails to the publishers pointing out that it’d be sensible to do a reprint, bearing in mind the vast amounts being charged online for old tatty copies. Looks like they listened! I said in my previous post “I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…” – I guess everything comes to she who waits! 🙂

However, I’m afraid those aren’t the only books which have arrived recently at the Ramblings. I might have got carried away with some online offers:

I’ve been really enjoying the “Civilisations” series on BBC2 recently, so when I saw Mary Beard’s tie in book on offer I snapped it up – and I added “Utopia” on to get free shipping. I had a copy of “Utopia” once back in the day, but I either haven’t got it still or just can’t find it – either scenario is plausible given my record of mislaying books. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” and I’m equally intrigued by the idea of “The 7th Function of Language”. I’ve resisted up until now but too many recent reviews made me give in. And the John Muir book has been on my wishlist for *ages* and it was payday and I thought “WTF life is too short” and clicked. “Utopia” is potentially causing me brain strain, as I have a sort of “Utopian Reading List” put together by “The Happy Reader” and the thought of a Utopian reading project is doing my head in. Book addict? Moi? Ahem…

Fortunately I’ve been able to exercise more restraint in the charity shops and only these have come home with me recently (as well as the GAD collection I posted about recently):

The Camus, of course, had to come home – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. And the Penguin Story is just lovely, an old history of one of my favourite publishers with gorgeous old-fashioned illustrations. The Marina Warner was essential too (did you notice another one of hers lurking in an earlier picture in this post?) I read a lot of Warner back in my 20s and I’m keen to read more.

Ok. Phew. I think that’s it. I’ve just finished reading a review book which I’ll cover in the next few days and which was just marvellous; plus I have some Shiny New Books reviews coming up too, which I will link to. What I actually pick up to read next is another matter. OH suggested I should perhaps pace myself with “Ulysses”, just reading a section each day alongside something else, and I may well try that. Who knows – watch this space… 🙂

Meanwhile, Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate – make use of the lovely break from work, if you have one, by doing plenty of reading! 🙂

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Amongst the Russians

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I had a lovely little jaunt to London at the weekend, mainly to catch an exhibition I desperately wanted to see before it shut; but I also managed to take in some minor shopping and a nice bit of socialising with family, which was a pleasant bonus! 🙂

One nice thing about the train journey is the chance to read, and I made my way through this slim volume whilst travelling; it’s absolutely marvellous, and I’ll get round to writing about it eventually, but it’s definitely another winner from Pushkin Press.

This was the exhibition in question, and as you can see from the dates I was running out of time to get to it. I’d hoped to see the show in December when I was up for the Tove show with my friend J. but we ran out of time – and to be honest, Russian art isn’t necessarily her thing so although she puts up with my obsession very patiently, I decided it was best for me to see this one alone.

And it probably was, actually, because it was a powerful show which I got quite emotional about in places (one particular photo of Mayakovsky on his deathbed, which I won’t share here for fear of triggers, reduced me to a jelly). The exhibition is drawn from the magnificent collection of David King, which the Tate acquired in 2016, and there are some stunning posters, photographs, artworks and mementos.

Particularly effective was the room “Ordinary People” which looked at the impact of Soviet ideology on individual human beings. The Mayakovsky picture was here, as well as one of him with the director Meyerhold (about whose fate, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can’t think about without wanting to scream). The centrepiece of the room was a glass covered table containing mug shots of those who were victims of the terror and the secret police. Pull out drawers contained a guide to who they were, ranging from ordinary students to former colleagues of Lenin to the poet Mandelstam. It was a chilling and moving memorial.

Evidence of my current topic of interest – iconoclasm!!

So I came out of the exhibition impressed, stunned and thoughtful, and it was probably a good thing I had a bit of a walk along the South Bank to clear my head before meeting up with Middle Child and her Partner for lunch! They were up in London for the weekend as a pre-birthday celebration for her, so we ended up in a lovely veggie/vegan place in Soho called Titbits (as they are both vegan too).

The idea is you choose what you like from the buffet style selection and then pay by the weight of your plate. The food was gorgeous – I’m not used to having so much vegan choice – and I had a bit of an appetite after the amount of walking I’d done (I do enjoy flaneusing around London).

Middle child refuses to be photographed…

After lunch and a wander round the local Wholefoods store, I hit Foyles while the other two went to drop off shopping. I was in search of some of the new little Penguin Moderns which were due out last week, and had come armed with a list. Alas, Foyles hadn’t had them in yet, which was a bit of a blow… I did, however, pick up one book (which I thought was reasonable – as Marina Sofia phrased it so nicely recently, it’s unlikely that I would get out of a bookshop unscathed…)

I’ve read about this pioneering work of speculative fiction a couple of times recently, and so figured I would give it a try. Apparently a precursor to “Nineteen Eight Four”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and just about everything, it deals with a future world based on a Nazi victory and the total subservience of women. As the (female) author wrote this in 1937 she must have been remarkably clear-eyed about the way the world could turn. So I’m intrigued…

The afternoon was a little damp, so basically the rest of the day was spent in the pub with Middle Child, Partner and my Little Brother, who is now back in the country in the bosom of his family after working in Spain for a year. We had a lovely catch-up, and he had even brought me a gift from a Spanish market:

Isn’t it gorgeous???

I did of course treat myself at the Tate – the exhibition book was just lovely and I have a bit of a passion for picking up art postcards wherever I find them..

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is one of my favourite images ever.

So a lovely day out, mixing art, shopping, reading and family – I don’t think I could better that combination! 🙂

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

Time for some bookish confessions…

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Yes. Good intentions. Not to buy more books, to read from the stacks and to try to downsize the amount of volumes in the house. Unfortunately, as OH observed a little fretfully recently, even more seem to be arriving on a regular basis (and he hasn’t actually seen all of those that have made their way in…) I seem to be destined to acquire books, however hard I try, so I though I would share the latest fruits of my addiction with you… 🙂

First up, some titles have arrived courtesy of Very Kind Fellow Bloggers:

The very lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working at home kindly passed on to me the Alexei Sayle autobiographies when she’d read them. I’m looking forward to them very much, as he’s so funny and of course staunchly left-wing, so they should be a fab read.

“Rupture” arrived from Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and I’m also really looking forward to that one, as I haven’t read any Icelandic crime for a while and this one comes highly recommended. So kind!

So I can’t take the blame, can I, when lovely people send me books? Or, indeed, when lovely publishers send me books like these!

The top two titles are ones I’m covering for Shiny New Books and probably should be read next. Then there are a couple of lovely titles from the British Library, which are very exciting – particularly the collection of translated crime shorts. Below them are two titles from the excellent Michael Walmer that sound marvellous; and finally at the bottom an intriguing book from OUP on scent in Victorian literature…

And then – ahem – there are the books I’ve been buying, and here they are:

I should say that this has been over a period of several weeks but even so, it’s not good for the rafters… To be specific:

I bought these two online – “The Cornish Trilogy” because of Kat’s excellent review and because I felt I really should read Robertson Davies; and “Grand Hotel Abyss” because it sounded marvellous and Verso sent one of those rotten emails with substantial discounts (they do this regularly and it’s Very Bad for the TBR!!)

These three are from charity shops. The two on the outside were £1 each so there was no question about picking them up. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a must, and Saramago is an author I want to read. The Orwell was more expensive (thanks, Oxfam) but, hey – it’s Orwell so no contest.

This, of course, was inevitable… Although I picked up a copy of Stevenson’s poems in Edinburgh I wanted more. I’ve been rummaging through bookshelves all week to try to find my copy of “Jekyll” and having failed, I picked up a copy for £1 in a charity shop last weekend. The other two came from an online source, and in particular I was keen to get “New Arabian Nights” after Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git waxed so lyrical about it recently.

And finally – with all my reading around the French Revolution and (shhhh!) iconoclasm recently, I came across recommendations for these two books. Well, they were cheap – although to be honest, it’s not the cost that is ever the issue with book buying, as I tend to go for the bargains. It’s whether I can shoe-horn any more into the house… Ah well – carpe librum, as they say!!

In mitigation, I should direct your attention to the heap waiting to be removed from the house in one way or another (not the Dickens books, I hasten to add – they’re on my Dickens shelf and they’re staying there….):

Home is the weary traveller…

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…though I suspect that not all of me made it back – I think I’ve left my heart in Edinburgh…

I think the trip can be regarded as a success as far as its original intent, in that I got mum to all the available remaining memory points (and more than originally planned!) She was so happy to have revisited places like the house we lived in and the church she was married in, and so that was a job well done! I hope she created new memories, because I certainly did…

Edinburgh skyline from The Mound – the weather was amazing all week…

The trip was not without its problems and conflicts, mostly arising out of her physical restrictions at 83, her general stubbornness and intransigence (which always brings out in me the baggage I have with her) and the fact that she had to be reminded occasionally that the trip was not all about her and what she wanted to do but that I had needs too..

Mum enjoying a cuppa in a posh place called The Dome which was once a Bank head office she worked in.

However, Edinburgh seemed to win out over all obstacles, and some of the highlights were:

  • The train journey itself, though fraught with Seat Wars, went through some amazingly beautiful scenery. We travelled the East Coast Line and particularly after Newcastle (a city I haven’t visited in decades but should really revisit) the views out to the North Sea were stunning!
  • repeated visits to Princes Street and the gardens (a strong memory from my childhood) where I found myself constantly looking up unbelievingly and thinking “Fuck! That’s Edinburgh Castle!!”
  • seeing the house I used to visit my granny in when I was small, which was a few yards away from the lovely basement flat we’d rented
  • finding out that it was very much possible to be a vegan in Edinburgh!

    Inside the wonderful Henderson’s Salad Table

  • leading on from that, the discovery of the very lovely Henderson’s Salad Table on Hanover Road. I ended up taking myself out into the Edinburgh night on a couple of occasions as mum refused to go out in the evening and I hadn’t come all the way to my home city to sit indoors while she watched Eastenders. Edinburgh felt an incredibly safe city to wander around at night and I ended up eating at Henderson’s a couple of times. It was cosy, beautifully welcoming and the food and staff were perfect. The kind of place you can relax in and feel unpressured about eating out on your own while scribbling up notes in your journal on the day and drinking gin…
  • The National Gallery on The Mound – I visited on a Thursday where they have a late night opening and spent some happy hours with the paintings – particularly four wonderful portraits by one of my favourite painters, Allan Ramsay .

    The Writers’ Museum

  • the discovery of the Writers’ Museum. I came to Edinburgh hoping for traces of Robert Louis Stevenson, but struggled initially – even the large and lovely Waterstones only had the usual two books of his that most shops stock. But as we were ambling down the Royal Mile on the second day, I spotted a little sign pointing down an alley, and tucked away in a funny little tower-like building was the Writers’ Museum. Joy! A whole room devoted to RLS (as well as rooms on others like Burns, of course) and I was able to come away with my only book purchase of the trip – a selection of his poems.
  • I peeked into the National Library of Scotland too which looked rather lovely, and couldn’t resist an RLS tote bag (amongst other things).
  • Monuments! Edinburgh is stuffed to the gills with them and mainly of Dead White (often English!) Men! After all the cogitating I’ve done recently about iconoclasm I tended to find myself looking at them in a very different way: questioning why they were there, what they were intended to say and what they actually said nowadays, and muttering to several of them that they really ought to be torn down… 🤣🤣

But of course the highlight of the trip was the beautiful city of Edinburgh itself. It was slightly weird how instantly at home I felt there, and though I haven’t visited since 1972 it felt oddly as if I hadn’t ever left. Maybe that’s what’s meant by homecoming – certainly I don’t want to leave it so long before I visit again…

A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)

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A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…

 

From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))

****

In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)

 

Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

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Petrograd 1917
Compiled, edited and annotated by John Pinfold

There has been such a slew of Russian Revolution anniversary related books released this year that it’s been a bit of a job deciding which ones I wanted to read. However, when I discovered that the Bodleian Library were issuing a kind of anthology of eye-witness accounts of the conflict, that one had to be a must. Actually, calling it an anthology isn’t really doing it justice, and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, if unsettling, books I’ve read this year.

John Pinfold has accessed a vast range of eye-witness accounts of foreigners (English, Australian, even Hungarian) who were living in Petrograd at the time of the 1917 revolutions. Russia was one of the allies in the war against Germany, but the country was struggling. The combined strain of the war, which no-one seemed to want to fight, together with hunger, lack of discipline and a feeble leadership from a weak Tsar, left the country in a prime condition for revolution. The people had suffered centuries of an autocratic ruling system, with little liberty, and had had enough. It took very little to ignite the powder keg, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, leaving an uncertain Provisional Government in charge.

This body, held rather shakily together by Kerensky, clung onto power until the second revolution of the year took place in October and the Bolsheviks seized control. And reading this book, skilfully woven together by Pinfold from all the accounts left behind, you can live through events as if you were there – and a very uncomfortable place it is. The correspondents are varied bunch, ranging from nurses and nannies to businessmen and diplomats; and though their bias is usually inevitably against the revolution, Pinfold very fairly includes extracts from those with opposing views. So there are substantial comments by Maxim Litvinov and Trotsky, as well as some left-wingers who travelled from England to witness and be involved in the changes.

Oh this country, it out nightmares anything that was ever dreamt by the maddest of madmen after a hot supper on the cheesiest of cheese. (Arthur Marshall)

There’s a vibrancy and an immediacy that comes from reading these contemporary reactions to the changes, from witnesses who had no knowledge of what was going to happen. Pinfold presents these chronologically, providing excellent supporting material which gives the background to, and context for, the accounts. So the book opens with the start of WW1 and shows the fragile state of the nation and its monarchy, taking in such important elements as the influence of Rasputin, and goes on to take us through the whole range of revolutionary events with diary entries, letters home and newspaper reports written by the witnesses. The chapters are bookended with two pieces giving a workman’s view of Petrograd in 1914 and one in 1918, and the contrast is a stark one. The population has shrunk drastically, the people are on the point of starvation and the city is falling apart – frankly it often seems a miracle that Russia survived the Revolution and the Civil War which followed it.

Petrograd in 1917

Much of the material is by necessity quite dark; revolution is not pretty and although some elements of the revolting parties conducted themselves well, others did not and there was much violence. Much as I deplore violence of any sort, it’s hard not to understand why the Russian people felt the need to take control of their country and their lives, particularly when you bear in mind how much political repression there had been and how even something like the liberation of the serfs (who were basically slaves) had taken so long to achieve. One commentator, Mabel King, states:

Lenin, the sworn enemy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, with his promises of bread and land, was fast becoming the demi-god of the proletariat, that inarticulate mass of the peasantry held so long in bondage, but now breaking free from all control, and capable of deeds of inexpressible horror.

Having been imprisoned and impoverished for so long, it’s hardly surprising they were feeling a bit violent… So the buildings are destroyed, statues and Romanov emblems torn down, and the necessary acts of iconoclasm allow the revolutionaries to make their mark on a city where access to much has been denied them.

The final days of the Romanovs are covered in detail, including the behind the scenes shenanigans that mean that the UK’s King George V refused to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas a safe haven, condemning the whole of the Russian royal family to a hideous fate. Interesting, however, that the British royals were happy to accept Russian royal jewels – the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara was smuggled out of the country and sold to them by its then aristocratic owner and has been regularly worn by the current queen…

However, not all is totally grim, and some commentators manage some gallows humour, with Julius West reflecting the chaos of the action by quipping “That is the worse of revolutions – they never do keep to the timetable” and later drily commenting “It’s a rummy business. Revolutions are by no means all that they are cracked up to be.”

Pinfold’s narrative is always lucid and even-handed, plus his choices of extract excellent. One in particular stood out, a lengthy entry by V.K. Vitrine, reporter of “The Clarion”, whose analysis of the problems facing those who would rule Russia was very clear-eyed – at one point, during the short rule of the Provisional Government, he states:

The people have had education denied them. Every effort in the direction of political advancement was immediately quenched in a fortress cell or Siberian exile. These very people, continuously denied every vestige of citizenship, are now called upon to rule themselves. They have neither tradition, nor administrative experience, nor cohesion, nor, for the matter of that, any quality for the purpose.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bolsheviks were able to sweep away all resistance and seize power…

“Petrograd 1917” is a beautifully presented book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photos and artwork, as well as containing short biographies of the main commentators. Pinfold has done a wonderful job here, as many of the papers are only available in scholarly institutes and so his book brings much material to the general reader which wouldn’t otherwise be available. This volume is a vital additional to studies of the period as well as being a gripping and fascinating read, and definitely is one of the highlights of a year which is seeing much material published about the cataclysmic upheavals in Russia a century ago.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

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As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, the subject of iconoclasm (the destruction of symbols or beliefs from previous regimes, usually religious or political) kept turning up; in a rediscovering of one of my favourite songs from a politically aware band from the 1980s, and as an element in an excellent set of documentaries on BBC4 on Utopia, presented by Dr. Richard Clay. The documentaries are probably still up on the iPlayer and I can recommend you tracking them down before they disappear. Clay has a particular interest in iconoclasm and his documentary on this aspect of the French Revolution is floating about and well worth watching too. As for The Redskins, well they obviously understood the importance in tearing down the statues of past leaders…

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