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… in which I (mostly) resist the bookshops of Leicester! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media might have picked up that I’ve been off on my annual tour (ahem!) round the East Midlands, visiting the Aged Parent and the Offspring in their various locations. I *do* look forward to this modest journey because:

a. it’s nice to get away

b. I like to travel on trains…

c. you can read a lot on trains!

(It *is* nice to see family, too!) So I left Mr. Kaggsy holding the fort, and scheduled a lot of posts and set off. I had a bit of a quandary about what chunkster to take along to read en route, and in fact I ended up taking this:

Victor Serge is an author I’ve covered many times on the Ramblings; I love his writing, and his life is as fascinating as his books. His Notebooks have been released by New York Review Books, and the book was the perfect companion to my travels. As you can see, there is a positive *forest* of post-its – sign of a book which is going to make you think and stay with you, which this one definitely is. I am still reading and will share some thoughts eventually…

So, normally on my visits I end up buying *lots* of new books, but I was amazed to return from my travels with only *two* new volumes!! These are they:

Chagall and Berger

The  Chagall caught my eye as I whizzed into Hatchards at St. Pancras whilst on my way to a rail connection; it was about his life in exile and I kind of felt it chimed in with the Serge. Plus it’s a pretty new Penguin Modern Classic – I do like their current colour scheme! The only other book I picked up was from the one second hand shop in the centre of Leicester (nothing from the charity shops!!) It’s an old Pelican edition of some selected essays and articles by John Berger which I’d never come across before, and it was Not Cheap. However, a glance at the contents was enough to persuade me:

Berger contents

I don’t know if you can make it out from my rubbish photo, but there is an essay about Victor Serge! Berger on Serge – oh my! Not to be resisted! I still can’t believe that I only came home with these two new books; as Youngest Child reminded us, Middle Child had to lend me a suitcase on one visit as I had so many finds to transport home. Maybe I’m just becoming more selective…

Whilst in Leicester, we paid a little visit to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. I always like to pop in when I’m in the city, as it has a nice collection of German Expressionists as well as some dinosaurs and Egyptians. The current exhibition turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, as when we arrived we discovered there was a show dedicated to the artists who were behind the wonderful images in Ladybird Books!

The exhibition was a real treat. There were sections dedicated to the main artists involved, with original artwork, Ladybird books and covers, as well as examples of other uses of each artist’s artwork. I grew up reading these books, as did the Offspring (we may still have some in the house…); so it was absolutely fascinating to see the stories of the art behind them. I’m particularly fond of the 1950s and 1960s artwork (I love that mid-century modern feel); and it was wonderful to see some large and lovely artworks from that era.

I took a few snaps of images that particularly caught my eye:

Harlech Castle – we used to holiday in North Wales and have visited the castle!

John Bull magazine from 1951 featuring the Festival of Britain – with which I have a bit of an obsession…

An extra fun element was the fact that as well as a wall display made up of a positive mosaic of Ladybird books, there was a pile in the middle of the exhibition that you could pick up and browse through. In fact, the exhibition was very child-friendly, with places where you could draw as well as reading nooks designed for children (and into which 24-year-old Youngest Child had to crawl… you can’t take them anywhere…)

A beautiful old typewriter on display – I learned to touch-type on one of these!! 😮

It was a really fascinating exhibition, and in fact the whole gallery/museum was a lovely place to wander through. On my way out, I spotted another resonance with my current reading:

John Berger quote

The gallery has a quote from John Berger on one of the walls – so they get a thumbs up from me!

As well as visiting the New Walk Museum, we also popped to the National Space Centre (there’s a family connection – don’t ask….) I’d never actually been inside before, but Eldest Child had visited with my late dad back in the day. It was actually a really interesting place to go, as I do like hearing about space travel, and there was an interesting show in the Planetarium. I also got very silly-excited about seeing this:

Need I say more? No.

Apart from all this gadding about, there was of course the chance to explore new to me purveyors of vegan food, and a favourite was the Prana cafe where we had yummy vegan scones:

Middle Child also played host and made me a lovely vegan Sunday breakfast, so I was very spoiled!

And fortunately, because of my good behaviour, I didn’t have a ton of extra luggage to haul back with me on the train, so I was able to relax on the return journey and enjoy the Serge Notebooks – perfect! 😀

*****

I did, however, return home to some lovely bookish post:

The Hugo Charteris is from Mike Walmer, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Charteris, as I did enjoy the first of his I read. The Hess book is part of a new imprint from HarperCollins called HarperVia, and is set in Germany in the early 1960s. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and will be ideal for Women in Translation month if I get to it in time… But first I need to finish Victor’s Notebooks! 😀

“Wild nature is a hiding place” #johnberger #confabulations

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Confabulations by John Berger

For some reason (bookish obsessiveness, I suppose…) I seem to go through phases of amassing piles of books I want to read by a particular author. Dawkins is a case in point… there is a heap of at least five of his books lurking! And when I featured his pile of works, I mentioned also that I had a number of John Berger’s works also trying to catch my attention.

I’ve read a number of Berger’s books, from fiction to his musings on art, and he’s always such a bracing and interesting writer. For no reason I can discern, I was moved to pick up “Confabulations” recently; if I recall correctly, I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop on a visit to London and it turned out to be a very thought-provoking read.

“Confabulations” was published in 2016, and it collects together Berger’s thoughts and musings, as well as illustrations by the author himself and other artists. The title word is explained online as: “…a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” However, I’ve always thought of it as a term for having a bit of a discussion or a verbal consultation about things and I think that’s more what Berger intends here. As he explains in the first piece, as he writes he allows his words to react with each other, change their meanings, go off and have a chat and then come back to him with a kind of acceptance of what he’s trying to say. It’s an entertaining conceit, and it allows him to mingle all sorts of ideas, blending art, reminiscence, philosophy, politics and commentary on the state of the world, letting the words and concepts bounce off each other.

Songs are like rivers. Each follows its own course – yet all are flowing to reach the sea from which everything came. The waters that flow out of a river’s mouth are on their way to an immense elsewhere. And something similar happens with what comes out of the mouth of a song.

So Berger ranges far and wide; discussing song and storytelling; reminiscing about friends and loved ones; and cutting through the hype to recognise the terrible state of our modern world.

The media offer trivial immediate distraction to fill the silence which, left empty, might otherwise prompt people to ask each other questions concerning the unjust world they are living in. Our leaders and media commentators speak of what we are living through in a gobbledygook, which is not the voice of a turkey but that of High Finance.

Berger always brings a stringent political sensibility to his writing and thinking, and I found myself agreeing with many of his judgements on politics, politicans and capitalism. Yet he always comes back to the arts – drawing and painting and song and stories – as if they are the real essence of life. Whilst drawing flowers, he meditates: “in the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.” The feeling is that what is important is *living* and creating and retaining that sense of individuality in an ever-more depersonalised world.

“Confabulations” is a slim book (143 pages), beautifully produced by Penguin with nice paper and many illustrations within the text, including some lovely colour ones of Berger’s art. It’s one of those volumes which definitely punches above its weight, raising all manner of thoughts which linger in the mind and leave you thinking for days afterwards. John Berger was a fascinating artist, intellectual, writer and commentator; and “Confabulations” was a great joy to read. Which makes me very happy that I have more of his work lurking on Mount TBR! ;D

Books in and out – plus summer plans?? @richarddawkins #johnberger @i_am_mill_i_am

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There has been much coming and going of books recently at the Ramblings HQ; and I’ve been trying to get the remaining stacks a little more organised so that I can be a teeny bit more focused with what I’m reading and writing about. Books have continued to come in but many have gone out, and I’m trying to treat bookish movement in a way that will keep things at least carbon neutral! So if one comes in, at least one must go out… And here’s a little stack I’d like to share some thoughts and possible plans about today!

Large and interesting piles of books always make my heart sing!

The incoming books have included some really fascinating titles – these pretty little editions, for example:

The Red Circle Minis

These are the first three Red Circle Minis in a new publishing venture to bring short works by contemporary Japanese authors into English. They look lovely and the contents are wonderful – more will follow about them!

I have been fairly restrainted with the online buying, but a couple of titles have made it past the barricades!

I can’t for the life of me remember where I read about “Eleven Prague Corpses” but it will no doubt be on some friendly blog or other. It’s been sitting on a wishlist for ages and I finally caved in. The Vita is as a result of Simon’s post here – he really is a bad influence, but it’s a lovely old edition and comes so highly recommended I couldn’t resist.

More books have been going *to* the charity shops than coming from them, but I spotted this yesterday in the Oxfam and had to have it:

I’ve read and loved some of Kapuscinski’s work; and in a strange case of serendipity and synchronicity, I was reading an excellent review of this book recently by the travel author Rosemary Bailey (who sadly passed away this year). The fact that it fell into my path today was obviously significant.

And on Midsummer’s Day, a book came my way in the form of a gift from Mr. Kaggsy, as it was our anniversary. Yet again, he managed to find a book I haven’t read and haven’t got and really *should* read – “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the new bluey green Penguin Modern Classics livery!

He did apologise for the fact that it has half of a naked woman on the cover – no, I don’t know if she’s significant yet. No doubt all will be revealed….

Going forward, I’ve started to tentatively think about summer reading plans (although I generally tend not to make plans…) I work in the education sector, so there is the long summer break when I can hopefully tackle larger books or books of more substance (as well as continuing to make a dent in the pile of review books). And my mind is going in a few directions at the moment, though I don’t know where it will actually settle – although these are some of the options.

I have in recent weeks amassed a *lot* of Richard Dawkins books – all but one from the charity shops. I’ve read the beginning of each and love the writing as well as his bracing and opinionated take on things. I might consider a Summer of Dawkins – could be very mind expanding. However there are also these:

I’ve been gathering John Berger books when I come across them; and also there is the lovely review book from Notting Hill Editions. So a Summer of Berger could be another option! 😀

And then there’s poetry and Newcastle…

You may wonder what I’m wittering about, but basically this stems from Andy Miller mentioning Basil Bunting on Twitter and sending me off down a wormhole reading about Morden Tower in Newcastle and the poets associated with it. This could become very involving…

In case  you’re a tad worried about these heaps of books, here’s an image of the charity boxes before they were collected last week:

There were three boxes of books, to which I added a dozen more before the men with a van arrived. And I took another into the shop yesterday which had been missed; it did feel rather weird seeing my books all over their shelves instead of mine, but I did feel a bit virtuous.

Other summer reading plans will no doubt involve some Persephones or Viragos during August, and also some translated women for WIT month. Apart from that, what am I reading at the moment, you might wonder? Well, I’ve been attempting a little bit of polyreading, and it was going fairly well until I got so absorbed in the fiction (the new Mishima) that I put the others aside for a bit. These are they:

The Tim Parks is a lovely essay collection from Alma which is fascinating so far and great for dipping if you need a quick reading fix. “At the Existentialist Cafe” is also turning out to be rather wonderful, and I’m grasping a lot of concepts I hadn’t before. It *does* need a little more concentration than I usually have last thing at night, so may end up being a holiday read.

So there you have it. The state of books chez Ramblings and some tentative ideas going forward. How are your TBRs at the moment? And do you have any summer reading plans??

 

RIP John Berger

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I was saddened to learn yesterday of the death of the author, painter, broadcaster and critic John Berger. It was only recently I was watching an excellent film on him on the BBC and thinking what a wonderfully trenchant thinker he was, and so this is another blow to the world of the arts.

bergerI’ve been aware of Berger for a long time, through his seminal TV programme “Ways of Seeing”, but it’s only recently that I’ve started reading his books.

berger

I thought very highly of his first novel, “A Painter of Our Time”, a wonderful book which gave much insight into the art world of the 1950s as well as making me consider how little we actually know about each other. I also have “Ways of Seeing” lurking and I really *should* bump it up the TBR pile.

bento

I also read and loved “Bento’s Sketchbook”, a beautiful fusion of images and words, featuring Berger’s sketches, reminiscences, thoughts and musings. I said at the end of my review that “I came to the end of Berger’s book intrigued, interested, thoughtful and oddly reassured – while there are minds like his in the world there is still hope.” Alas, we have lost another good mind and the world is a lesser place because of it.

Finding books in Pound shops…

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Since stumbling upon books by Doris Lessing and about Rebecca West in the local pound shops, I’ve been keeping an eye on stocks locally in case anything else interesting turned up. I certainly felt the need of some (cheap!) retail therapy yesterday, after Friday’s news, and so I did the full round of the three Poundlands and one Poundworld we have locally – if nothing else I could pick up some nice stationery and craft items to distract me. However, in the Poundworld I found a single solitary copy of this:

vermes

I read Vermes wonderful and troubling book in a library copy, so to find a hardback edition for £1 was not to be sneezed at – though with all the xenophobia floating around at the moment, I don’t think I can face a re-read for a while. However, the find *did* set me thinking about whether it would be possible to read only books from Pound shops… I think it would be possible, though difficult, and only if the stock changed frequently enough. There have been books I’ve considered picking up over recent weeks but haven’t, because I’m trying to clear books from the house not amass too many more. But should things continue to go financially awry in the country, I could at least make do with cheap books and the library…

And of course the charity shops. A nip into the Oxfam turned up these two lovelies this weekend:

mandel berger

Berger is a fairly recent discovery for me, and he’s not an author whose work I’ve come across in the charity shops before – and G. was only £1 so it would have been churlish to ignore it. As for “Hope Abandoned”, I’ve had Mandelstam’s two books on my wishlist for absolutely donkey’s years; so even though it’s the second one of the two, I wasn’t going to pass it up. Of course, now I’ll just have to look for the first one online somewhere…. 🙂

A pair of Verso Volumes

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Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
America by Jean Baudrillard

It’s becoming quite obvious that I’m spending much too much time hanging about the Verso Books site lately… Trouble is, they keep having wonderful flash sales and offers, and I confess to being something of a sucker for these. I went a little mad when their e-books were all on sale with 90% off (!) but these two titles are hard copies I picked up recently, and both rather thought-provoking volumes.

bento

John Berger is, of course, an author I’ve been reading recently, and I loved his novel “A Painter of our Time”. “Bento’s Sketchbook”, however, is something completely different; it’s a lovely, large format paperback filled with Berger’s sketches and musings, as well as extracts from the philosopher Spinoza – the Bento of the title. Spinoza was rumoured to have always carried a sketchbook during his short life, which was lost after his death. Berger had often wondered what the sketchbook would hold and when a friend presented him with a brand new sketchbook of his own, he decided this would be Bento’s Sketchbook, and went on to fill it accordingly.

It’s a fascinating work, full of random thoughts and musings; autobiographical tales; quotes from Spinoza; and some wonderful sketches by Berger. He recalls visits to Dresden after the bombing; a recent visit to sketch in the National Gallery when a jobsworth guard behaves like a moron (I’m still cross about that bit); an encounter with an exiled Cambodian artist; and each of these pieces is shot through with Berger’s humanity and intelligence. Much of the writing is concerned with the process of drawing, and as a total amateur who’s always wanted to draw but never been able to, I found these pieces fascinating. Berger observes the world around him with a clear eye, seeing and recognising the inequalities, and I ended up feeling that nothing he writes could ever be dull. The scope is wide-ranging too – in a long life, full of experience, Berger has encountered many people and events, all of which inform his philosophy.

What’s distinct about today’s global tyranny is that it’s faceless. There’s no Führer, no Stalin, no Cortes. Its workings vary according to each continent and its modes are modified by local history, but its overall pattern is the same…

I came to the end of Berger’s book intrigued, interested, thoughtful and oddly reassured – while there are minds like his in the world there is still hope.

amereica

“America” however is quite another kettle of fish. Baudrillard is a highly regarded French postmodern thinker, and the book is a collection of his meditations on the USA. Framed by thoughts on the desert landscapes (which haunt the book), Baudrillard muses on the differences between American and French culture, the attitudes of both countries and how geography shapes personality. It’s a complex work which I confess often lost me (I’m not that knowledgeable when it comes to philosophical terminology) and yet there are parts that jumped out at me; places where he nailed the essence of things and also some wry humour at the expense of both countries.

The book was written in the 1980s and much of his analysis still seems relevant. However, once place where I think he was off-centre was in his thoughts on race; he almost seemed to be implying that though there were racial tensions in Europe, in the USA these did not really exist any more and all peoples were getting alone fine in the country’s melting pot. Recent world events show that that’s not the case on either side of the Atlantic and in some ways Baudrillard’s analysis seems a little simplistic.

Nevertheless, this was an intriguing book, if difficult in places, and I might be tempted to try another of his books one day… 🙂

Portrait of the Artist as Political Animal

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A Painter of our Time by John Berger

I confess to being partial to a number of independent publishers, and a recent discovery has been the left-wing imprint, Verso. They product a lot of very interesting-looking non-fiction (I am currently trying to resist the call of “NIghtwalking), but I was intrigued to discovery recently when they had a flash sale that they also publish fiction. A title which caught my eye was this one, by an author who’s probably best know for being behind the TV series (and book) “Ways of Seeing” – John Berger.

a painter

Berger has a long history in the arts, but the section on this novel on Wikipedia deserved picking out and reproducing here:

In 1958, Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, which tells the story of the disappearance of Janos Lavin, a fictional exiled Hungarian painter, and his diary’s discovery by an art critic friend called John. The book’s political currency and detailed description of an artist’s working process led to some readers mistaking it for a true story. After being available for a month, the work was withdrawn by the publisher, under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.The novels immediately succeeding A Painter of Our Time were The Foot of Clive and Corker’s Freedom; both presented an urban English life of alienation and melancholy. In 1962 Berger’s distaste for life in Britain drove him into voluntary exile in France.

I found in fascinating that the book should have been considered so subversive in 1958 that it had to be withdrawn; but then I remembered that the world was still in the grip of the Cold War, and that 1956 had seen the abortive Hungarian uprising. So it was a given that I had to pick up a copy to see what it was all about.

As the Wiki entry states, the book is narrated by art critic John, whose commentary frames the diary kept by Janos Lavin, the Hungarian painter of the title. Lavin, a Communist by belief, has washed up in London with his second wife Diana after a life spent moving around the continent: from Hungary, through Berlin then to France and finally on to Britain. His political beliefs and activities have been at the root of his constant movement, as each country becomes too hot to hold him, and he’s retreated from active politics, instead spending his time scraping an existence teaching, painting and being supported by Diana (who comes from a monied family and has a personal income, supplemented by work in a library). But although Janos seems to have cut himself off from the past, it is never as clear-cut as it seems; and as John reads through the diary, much of Janos’s past (previously unknown to John) is revealed. But where has Janos gone, and what prompted his disappearance?

“A Painter of our Time” was an absolutely fascinating read. One one level, there is a mystery, the solution of which gradually becomes clear as we make our way through the diary. However, the book is in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of art; why we create, whether it’s relevant, whether political action is a better choice and so on. Janos, having abandoned political activism, puts everything into his work: his beliefs, his wish for the world to change, the accumulation of all his life’s experiences. And as his story is gradually revealed, like someone scraping away layers of old paint, it seems that he has indeed had a very active life; his memories of torture, betrayal and all the nastiness existing in the early part of the 20th century are powerful. All is not dark, though – there are hints of happiness with his first wife in the early days of their marriage, and of his powerful, comradely friendship with Laszlo.

As Communists we believe that we understand how, on a far more urgent and immediate level, we can make life better, richer, juster, truer with a speed that has never been possible before. I believe this despite the harshness, the treachery, the deaths. I believe it with Asia and Africa, for whom such an improvement is life and death for their own and the next generation. The point from which politics starts for me is hunger. Nothing less.

In fact, without giving too much away, Laszlo is a critical element of Janos’ tale; the events in Hungary during the 1950s inform Janos and Laszlo’s eventual destinies, and trigger pivotal decisions. I don’t want to say any more as it would risk spoiling the development of the book – but a basic knowledge of the Hungarian situation in the 1950s would help…

john berger

There is also a little light relief, to be found in the form of Len, a ‘Sunday painter’; a butcher by trade, he’s fascinated by the clichéd image of a tortured Parisian in a loft with a beret (rather reminiscent of Tony Hancock in “The Rebel”) and longs to paint his wife Vee in the nude, much to her bourgeois embarrassment. Len regards Janos as the real deal, and despite the man’s limitations, Berger is surprisingly kind to him and his artistic ambitions, almost as if he regards his naive aspirations as more honest than some of the posing of the so-called professional artists. The book also captures brilliantly the atmosphere of foggy, post-War London and Berger’s writing is quite evocative in places:

I can see the moon through the skylight, and somewhere there is an owl. It is surprising how many owls there are in London.Writing as I have done makes me nostalgic. Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me, whilst the recollection of sailing under it, lying on my back on the bottom of a dinghy, leaves me only incredulous about the way I lived then? Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me? The bridge has been destroyed, anyway.

Janos is very much an outsider, and you get the sense he has been all through his life. It’s only towards the end of the book, ironically, that his work gets an exhibition of its own and it seems as if his paintings might become fashionable and start to sell. However, unexpected events take over and choices have to be made.

“A Painter of Our Time” was an absorbing read, giving a fascinating snapshot of political and artistic life in the 1950s. I felt that Berger had really captured the dilemmas that must have been faced by intellectuals at the time. Janos is a man drawn in two conflicting directions, torn between politics and art – can they ever be reconciled? The book also hints at just how little we humans really know each other; John is chastened to find out how little he really knows about Janos, and if it hadn’t been for the diary he would have had no idea what was going on beneath the painter’s surface level daily life. I’ve definitely had my thoughts provoked by “A Painter of Our Time” and I think I might well nudge “Ways of Seeing” closer to the top of Mount TBR…

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