Recent Reads: A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain by A.C. Ward


This little gem of a book came my way quite by chance, thanks to the kind offer of a fellow Virago-ite on LibraryThing (thanks, Peggy!) It’s a lovely little hardcover with a hessian style cover, and I was slightly surprised that such a quality book should be published in wartime – until I realised that it had been put out by the OUP in New York!

lit jrn
Published in 1943, LJ is a paean to the literature and architecture of the British Isles. Wren takes a look at the historical sites in the land which have an artistic significance, and sees how they have survived (or not) the strictures of WW2. Starting in London, which comprises quite a large chunk of the book, he then casts his gaze on the various regions of England, Scotland and Wales, covering the breadth of the country’s literature, from Chaucer, through Burns, right up to the Bloomsberries.

It’s a fascinating volume, with some heartbreaking images of damaged buildings and monuments, as well as some sweet little drawings by Frederick T. Chapman. Naturally, because of the time it was published, it’s difficult to see the book as anything other than a propaganda exercise; but this doesn’t make it any the less interesting, and also valuable as a record of the changes taking place in Britain that would continue after the war. One particularly relevant paragraph covers the move of the Covent Garden flower market from its site, and the possible future of the area, in a very prescient way.

St. Pauls in the Blitz

St. Paul’s in the Blitz

Reading something written during the war years always brings home the effect of conflict in a very immediate way, and I found the book rewarding because of this. However, I have to say that my thoughts strayed a little to other victims of the conflict, as I watched recently the first part of a fascinating series on BBC4, “In Their Own Words – 20th Century Composers”. The show featured one of my favourite composers, Shostakovich, and obviously focused very much on his Leningrad Symphony, used as a propaganda item during the siege, and broadcast live during the fighting.  But it also covered the composition of his String Quartet No. 8, which he was inspired to write in part by a visit to post-war Dresden (which suffered mightily from bombing) and which he dedicated to all victims of fascism and war.

Dresden, after bombing

Dresden, after bombing

So much as I enjoyed this slim volume, and found inspirational commentary on British literature and landscape, it’s made me think more widely about the effects of conflict. We need to nurture intelligence, art and creativity and realise that War Is Not a Good Thing – for anyone.

Bookish Thoughts: Progress Publishers of Moscow


My recently displayed love of all things Russian is nothing new – I first began reading Slavic authors in my teens when I discovered Solzhenitsyn’s work, and started exploring the intriguing-looking old hardback volumes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in my school library. In my twenties I cast my net a little wider, exploring the politics and history of  Russia, and during my regular visits to London to meet friends and trawl the bookstores, I would always call into Collets International Bookshop in the Charing Cross Road.

Collets was fun – a kind of propaganda exercise for the Eastern Bloc, really, selling Russian books in the home language and also English, plus music, badges, pamphlets and all sorts of interesting things. I always used to feel very subversive shopping in there, and I did pick up some marvellous items – particularly editions of works by my favourite Russian author of the time, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

A particular joy at Collets was being able to find lovely little books put out by Progress Publishers of Moscow. Progress were a Russian enterprise, putting out English language volumes of interest to Russophiles like me – political works by Lenin and his ilk, memoirs by Gorky, biographical and critical studies, plus a lot of fiction. These were, like Collets, obviously meant to convert us decadent Westerners to the ways of Communism, and there were some fascinating little volumes. Many of the books were hardbacks with illustrations and nice dust jackets, and all had a little message at the back inviting you to write to the publishers in Moscow with any opinions or suggestions!

Both Collets and Progress fell by the wayside post-Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall but when I had a little audit recently of my Russian books to see if there were any gaps needing filling (!) I was surprised and pleased to see quite how many Progress books I have on my shelves. And checking online, it is still possible to pick up some little gems – a good example being this hardback of Dostoevsky’s “The Humiliated and Despised” which just arrived today. With my fixation on finding the right translation, I would have gone for a Hugh Aplin version if there was one, but there isn’t – only a Pevear/ Volokhonsky version and I’m afraid I really don’t trust their rendering. So maybe a nice translation by some nameless person who wanted to render Dostoevsky readable to the Western world will be a good one!

I miss many of the independent book shops that used to exist in Charing Cross Road. There are still many left, but a lot of the smaller, more interesting ones are no longer with us. Collets was a particular favourite, coming from a past time, when East and West were divided by ideology but could be united by great literature, and I must admit feeling a great amount of nostalgia for it!

(There is an interesting little article about the final closure of the shop here)


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“…you are strong only as long as you don’t deprive people of everything. For a person you’ve taken everything from is no longer in your power. He’s free all over again.”

― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle

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