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“A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm’d with Terrors…” @i_am_mill_i_am @BacklistedPod #journaloftheplagueyear #defoe

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A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Well, we seem to be spending time in slightly dark territory on the Ramblings at the moment: from the impulse to self-destruct we move on to plague… I blame external forces of course (lovely Fitzcarraldo volumes and flash sales, the Backlisted Podcast); nevertheless, I don’t always want to be reading lighter works, although after these two I think I might need some contrast… 😉

Daniel Defoe is, of course, best known as the author of “Robinson Crusoe”; it’s a book I read some time ago, pre-blog, and of course everyone probably knows the plot. I’ve heard him called the inventor of the novel as we know it, and certainly his characters and works have entered into the collective consciousness. “A Journal of the Plague Year” is a more unusual beast; it’s purportedly just that, a record of the year the Great Plague took hold of London, killing hundreds of thousands of its population, as well as spreading to some other parts of England. Our narrator is only identified at the very end of the book by a pair of initials, H.F., and he stays in London during the plague as our witness.

So we follow H.F. as he watches the Bills of Mortality announcing the number of deaths; as he ranges the oddly deserted streets, noting the marks on the doors of people’s houses indicating infection, with a Watchman stationed outside to let nobody in or out; and as he visits the plague pits, dug to bury the dead as there are so many of them that the traditional methods have gone out of the window. H.F. relates tales tragic and hopeful; of families dying out completely, of the charity of human beings, of the watermen down on the river going into hiding on their vessels, of a group escaping into the country and setting up camp. And over all of this the spectre of the plague looms and rages, killing seemingly indiscriminately, coming and going in ferocity, until the people of London wonder, at the height of its power, if anyone will actually survive.

But alas! This was a Time when every one’s private Safety lay so near them, that they had no Room to pity the Distresses of others; for every one had Death, as it were, at his Door, and many even in their Families, and knew not what to do, or whither to fly.

“Plague” is not a book that’s a quick or easy read, but it *is* incredibly vivid and compelling; Defoe captures the landscape of Mediaeval London and its people quite wonderfully, and it’s obvious that he knew both well. The City comes alive, with its narrow winding streets, dirt and grime, bustling population and wooden buildings. Really, the city itself is the main player in the story; HF, although he reveals a little about himself, is an observer and chronicler, there to be our eyes and ears, giving us a terrifying glimpse into the past.

…there was more of a Tale than of Truth in those Things.

You might wonder whether a book like this is relevant to us in our modern world, but it most certainly is. So many of the elements of life Defoe writes about are incredlby modern: from the quack doctors and those peddling scam cures, to the nascent mass media to the folk devils created by the popular imagination, this is a world very recognisably ours. So many things resonated with me; truly, humans and their quirks and their world might change superficially but underneath we’re still pretty much the same and driven by the same desires and fears.

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see practis’d since.

The writing and the narrative structure are fascinating as well. The book is incredibly atmospheric, with Defoe/H.F. capturing the sense of impending doom that spreads over the city, that feeling of being trapped and unable to escape the coming doom. The concept of the streets of London being empty and deserted is one that nowadays we would always connect with some kind of disaster taking place, and it was no different back in Defoe’s day. In many ways the book set the template for plague literature to come; for example, Camus draws heavily on it, although his book is an allegory. The book is very discursive, too, contrasting H.F. going back and forward between events with laws and regulations, statistics from the Bills and stories of individuals or groups trying to escape the plague. That structure echoes the ebb and flow of the plague as it moves from west to east across London, its virulence rising and falling, until finally the tide turns and its strength diminishes before finally dying away. Interestingly, the forthcoming Great Fire of London is referred to, although oddly H.F.’s narrative implies the plague was gone before the scourging flames of the Great Fire arrived to finish it off. Strangely, I believe modern thinking is that H.F. might be right…

Penguin Classic and Norton Critical Edition – both have a lot going for them!

I found “Plague” an utterly absorbing read, one which opened a window onto an area of the past as well as convincing me that the underlying nature of human beings really doesn’t change. Certain sections were quite chilling, particularly the part when H.F. visited the Plague Pits where people were being flung nightly in an attempt to keep everyone properly buried. These pits are still there under the modern city of London we know, and have been excavated in recent years when works are done in the metropolis; it’s a little scary how the past reaches out into our lives. I was also struck by the fact that, despite the city having been razed by the later fire, so many of the place names H.F. mentions are familiar ones which still exist now. Apparently, the city was rebuilt over the original street plan, but with brick instead of wood and no open sewers – all of which must have been a vast improvement on the narrow, filthy and teeming streets of plague time…

So – is this history masquerading as novel or the novel as history? I don’t actually think that matters for a book as special as this. Defoe himself was five when the plague broke out, so may well have had some memories of the tumult. Additionally, he had an uncle called Henry Foe (H.F.!) who stayed in London during the plague, and it’s probable that he drew on his uncle’s memories or journals. However, he’s known to have consulted any number of reference works on the period, and knowing enough about what had happened coupled with his talents as a writer combines to make the narrative a most convincing one – and as has been said elsewhere, the nearest thing to a gripping contemporary account.

You might wonder why should you read this book nowadays? Any number of reasons, really. To get a glimpse of human beings under extreme situations, and a look at old London before it was lost in the fire; to see that there really isn’t much in our modern world that hasn’t happened before; and to enjoy the writing of an early master of the novel. “Plague” is dark reading in places, but there are also uplifting moments and an underlying faith in the fact that whatever gets thrown at it, humanity will survive. I don’t know that I would have picked this up if the Backlisted Podcast hadn’t sung its praises so highly; but I’m really glad I did!

*****

As you can see from the image, I have two different editions of “A Journal of the Plague Year” – I suffered raging indecision when trying to decide which edition to buy and ended up with the Penguin Classic (you can’t go wrong with a Penguin Classic) and the Norton Critical Edition. Both are excellent versions to have, being based on the original 1722 edition, but the supporting material is different in each. The Penguin comes with useful notes and chronology, Anthony Burgess’s introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition, as well as glossary and map. The Norton Critical version perhaps looks a little more widely, with excerpts from other plague literature which come up to the contemporary, as well as other material from the time. I read the Penguin because the type was bigger(!), the book easier to hold (Penguins tend to flop open nicely and stay in place), and the extras were just enough for me at the time. However, I’ve been dipping into the Norton supporting material too, and it *is* good. So maybe if you can find both of these versions at a reasonable price, you should consider investing in them both… 🙂

“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

Like Dashiell Hammett on acid! #johnfranklinbardin #classiccrime

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The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

Mr. Kaggsy is developing a bit of a reputation as the Finder of Interesting and Unusual Books; he always seems to come up trumps (sorry to use that word) for Christmas, birthdays and other significant occasions. One of his finds at the end of last year was an intriguing-looking omnibus of three novels by one John Franklin Bardin – an author I’d never heard of, and who was obviously obscure when this Penguin reissue came out in 1978. As far as I can see, he still is despite the efforts of the publisher and Julian Symons (who wrote the foreword) to introduce him to a new generation of readers. Which is a shame, because this book is a bit weird and wacky, but very, very compelling.

Bardin the man was obscure even when alive; the three novels in the omnibus were written in a burst of creativity between 1946 and 1948. As well as these, Bardin wrote other novels under his own name and crime books under a pseudonym, as well as living a conventional sounding life after a difficult start to life. His books seem to be a kind of cult secret amongst crime fiction fans and he never made the crossover to mainstream. Is there a reason in the books for that, you might wonder? Well, the title of my post might give you a little hint… ;D

“The Deadly Percheron” is narrator by Dr. George Matthews, a psychiatrist; as the story opens, he’s received a visit from one Jacob Blunt, a young man who fears he’s going mad. His appearance doesn’t help – wearing a scarlet hibiscus in your hair in 1946 was probably not de rigueur – and the fact that leprechauns are paying him to do so adds to the colourful nature of his story. Matthews is intrigued, and agrees to go along with Blunt to meet the leprechauns who dish out the money and the instructions. However, the first encounter with a little man in a bar is disappointing; they don’t seem to be the creature from legend who perches on your shoulder. Instead, this is simply someone with dwarfism, albeit dressed in a green velvet jacket. Eustace (for that’s his name) insists he *is* a leprechaun, but his instructions for Jacob have changed; instead of wearing a flower in his hair, or giving away quarters (a recent fancy), he now has to give away percherons (which are apparently big horses, in case you’re wondering, which I was). All of this is too much for George, who leaves Jacob to follow his instructions or do whatever he wants – things are obviously getting a little too weird for him…

However, things take a more serious turn when a famous actress is murdered and Jacob is arrested as the suspect. George visits the police station but finds that things are not quite what he expected; and a journey home involving a near miss on the underground causes him to lose control of his identity in a way that disorientates not only the psychiatrist but also the reader. It’s not long before we’re off on a roller-coaster of a journey while George tries to recover his identity and his sanity, as well as filling in some very large gaps in his (and our!) knowledge of events. But is he really who he says he was, or is he the ultimate unreliable narrator?

A percheron – a big horse apparently… (via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Deadly Percheron” turned out to be an unexpectedly dark and gripping read. George’s struggle to regain his identity is often painful; there is a hallucinatory feeling to the narrative, and we’re reminded of the horrors of many medical treatments of the time like ECT. Much of the action takes place in the seedy environs of Coney Island amongst carnival folk, and George has to be as adaptable as he can to survive there. I was often as much in the dark while I was reading as George was, which was obviously Bardin’s intention, and this made for an involving and often unsettling reading experience!

Bardin’s writing is clever, if occasionally a little stiff, and he’s a very singular author. I did find he reminded me a little of Dashiell Hammett (hence the post title!) as there is a high body count and a fair amount of violence. Bardin shares that sense of dark strangeness that often creeps into Hammett’s narrative, but there is a very individual extra element of weirdness in Bardin which is perhaps why he’s never made it to the mainstream. The solution and ending of the book came perhaps a little more rapidly than I would have liked, and was actually remarkably complex (and impossible to guess). Frankly, I was a little addled and breathless, and although the book is only a couple of hundred pages long, it’s quite a trip…

So Mr. Kaggsy does it again! Goodness knows where he came across mention of Bardin’s books (since he doesn’t read – he’s a film man!); but certainly this was one of his best finds. I’ll have to brace myself before I read the next book in the omnibus – goodness knows where the narrative will take me! 😀

Exploring my Library: George Eliot

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Perhaps it’s a little arrogant of me to regard my collection of books as a library; nevertheless, I do have quite a lot and I don’t spend enough time with those I already own, instead getting distracted by shiny new tomes that appear. However, there was some talk of George Eliot on the LibraryThing Virago group recently, and she’s also turned up on some blogs I follow. This set me thinking about the Eliot books I own, which I’ve mainly had for decades, and I was inspired to dig them out.

eliots

As you can see, I do own quite a few by this classic British author, but as I browsed I found myself wondering how many I’d actually read…

silas

Perhaps the oddest looking one is this rather strange American edition of “Silas Marner”. I had a few of these cheap classics which I picked up in the early 1980s, but I’ve replaced most of them over the years because they’re not particularly easy to read and they don’t look that nice. Obviously this one slipped through the net…

penguins

Penguins, however, are usually much nicer! These three are part of the Penguin English Library and date from around the same time. A bit bedraggled but more easily read than the American one.

pans

I also have a number of Pan classics from the time (definitely some Brontes) – they’re quite attractive, although the paper (like the Penguins) doesn’t age particularly well.

amos barton

This is a more recent acquisition – a slim Hesperus Press volume I obviously picked up at some point and then just slipped onto the shelves with the rest of the Eliots without reading…

eliot viragos

And finally, two slim Viragos. “The Lifted Veil” gets some real stick on the LibraryThing group – not a popular title!

So – which of these *have* I read? The answer is that I’m not really sure. I think I might have read “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” – but this would have been back in the early 1980s and I kept no kind of record of what I was reading at the time. I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never read “Middlemarch” which is a failing on my part, as it’s so highly recommended by so many people (including Virginia Woolf).

Digging about on the shelves to find these was fun – I reconnected with books I tend to take for granted as they’ve been around for so long. I’m trying to read from the stacks more (and I think all of the books I’ll be tackling for The 1947 Club and the Jean Rhys Reading Week are ones I already own) – so it’s a useful exercise to go back to shelves and go through what you actually own. I may well share more of the collections in my library here soon  (if you’d care to see pictures of my books…) – and I really should read more George Eliot!

When does a collection *become* a collection?

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A vexing subject for booklovers, I fear! I’m currently skirting round the issue because of having picked up a Penguin poetry anthology or two recently, and I’m a little worried that I might be in danger of starting to collect them. And the problem’s exacerbated by the fact that I already own a few…

When I dug about in my stacks I found I already had three Penguin Poetry anthologies:

older collections
The Russian one and the Sick Verse have been with me for decades, but the Imagist Poetry is a more recent one. I *do* love old Penguins and these are very stylish!

russian

sick

 

imagist

But as I reported recently, I found the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse in the charity shop:

socialist

And “Poetry of the Thirties”, a more recent anthology, came through the post last month.

thirties

So there are five books in all! Does that constitute a collection? Is there a danger I shall start sniffing out other Penguin poetry compilations? And where does that leave *this* particular volume, which has connections to these anthologies, but also to another set of Penguin poets, which will become clearer in forthcoming days…. 🙂

new poetry

Recent Reads: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

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And so I follow up a couple of short works with another short one – “A Month in the Country” by J.L. Carr, which clocks in at just 93 pages! I picked this up at the local Oxfam bookshop a while back, after hearing it highly recommended by Alex – and she wasn’t wrong!

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

“A Month in the Country” is probably J.L. Carr’s most famous work and it is set just after the First World War. Tom Birkin is a survivor – shell-shocked, with a twitchy face, but still alive. His marriage has collapsed and the book opens with his arriving in the northern town of Oxgodby by train in the pouring rain to work for a month restoring a church wall reputed to have hidden piece of religious art. Also working locally is another veteran, Moon, who is digging for a lost excommunicated ancestor of the same local dignitary who has left instructions in her Will for both of these searches to take place. After initial strangeness, Tom starts to fit in with the locals, working at his restoration, attending chapel meetings and falling in love. As the book goes on, the English summer and the countryside have a healing effect on him – but how will the archaeology end?

For a short book, this is amazingly packed and just proves that you don’t have to write an epic the length of “War and Peace” to tell a memorable tale and make a few points while you’re doing so! It’s an odd book, in a way. The writing begins prosaically enough, and some of the sections verge on the educational, when Birkin/Carr is telling  us about some ecclesiastical aspect. Yet as the book progresses, and Tom begins to settle and heal, the writing becomes more beautiful and evocative, conjuring up visions of long, hot days in the English countryside.

“Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But there are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strong, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills. Well, I was young…”

And the writing is remarkably clever too. Despite this being such a compressed book, it never feels short or as if anything is missing. We learn about Tom’s wife, her unfaithfulness, the War, Moon’s real nature, and many other things all in very short paragraphs and phrases, but this is so skilfully done that we feel we know the whole story. Instead of a blow-by-blow account, we get what you might call the bullet points, but so beautifully presented that it doesn’t feel like it. There is a delicacy in the storytelling, as if it is enough to just hint about things and we will know all we need to. This is particularly effective when Tom is thinking of the War – less is more, as they say.

The romance, such as it is, is subtly suggested and we discreetly consider the state of Alice Keach’s married life – as cold and strange and empty as the house she inhabits with her vicar husband. There is a sense of the long-gone past in the researches of Birkin and Moon, and also a real sense of the horror through which they’ve lived. And Birkin’s relationship with the unknown artist who created the lost work is intriguingly suggested, and has something to do with his healing process.

sittingcarr

They say comparisons are odious, but I could help but constantly thinking back to my re-read of “Hotel du Lac” and thinking how much more depth there was in this book of much the same length. “A Month in the Country” is an elegiac masterpiece, with characters who are masterfully sketched and jump off the page, a location and landscape which is fully alive, and a tale told which gives away much more than appears at first sight. This was a remarkable, moving and lovely book and I’m glad Alex’s review pointed me in its direction!

A Slight Loss of Control in the Samaritans Book Cave

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Which is probably a slightly strange heading I should explain!

The short version is that it’s been a bit of a week as OH had to be taken into hospital as an emergency (all is fine now and he is home and healing), plus I was attending two concerts at the local Regent in the Big Town (OMD/John Foxx on Thursday, Simple Minds last night – both of which were excellent) and there was a major amount of running around to hospitals, chemists and concert halls! So when Youngest Child and I dashed into town yesterday it was mainly to collect meds and get last-minute birthday gifts for Eldest Child.

However…

The Samaritans Charity Shop have now christened their book basement as a Book Cave and as I haven’t been in for a couple of weeks this was too good to resist – I felt the need of some book therapy after the last few days. And the four rather lovely Viragos I found were certainly worth it:

viragos

I was particularly pleased with another Bawden, and also with the Macaulay as I have this in vintage Penguin but not Virago. The Fugard is not a VMC but sounded interesting nevertheless.

However, things did not stop here. On a little display in the middle of the Cave they always place interesting volumes, and there was a hardback NYRB called “Alone! Alone!”:

alone

For £1.75 how could I refuse? It seems to consist of short pieces on outsider women (from Stevie Smith to Katherine Mansfield plus a number of very interesting diversions in between. It certainly came in handy whilst hanging around Boots waiting for prescriptions….

The last two finds here were a little self-indulgent and I confess I mainly bought them because the covers were so pretty:

book clubs

Well, they were only £1.25 each and the “Mr. Fairweather” book has this wonderful illustration inside:

peggy

These three old Pan paperbacks came from a bin outside one of the charity shops that is always filled with odd things for 15p each. I confess I’m not quite sure why I bought them, apart from the fact that my mother used to read these when I was a teenager, I’m sure I probably borrowed them from her and read them too and I loved the 1960s/1970s style covers! What I’ll actually do with them remains to be seen…..

plaidy

Final find of the day was a vintage Penguin I’ve been looking at online for a long time – this didn’t come from the Samaritans but from a charity shop on the outskirts I don’t usually look at, and was in a basket of “vintage” books individually priced. The lady volunteer was astonished when she saw it was priced at £2.50 as she thought it was from the 10p basket. I paid up the proper price and she was still bemused when I left.

provincial

So a slightly self-indulgent day – but I did feel the need after the week I’d had!!

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