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An amble around London – plus, of course, books…! @Foyles @PersephoneBooks @Glagoslav

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I often like to pop up to London near Christmas for a bit of shopping and browsing, so when the lovely Ali from HeavenAli suggested a meet up and a trip to the Persephone Shop, how could I resist? We settled on 1st December as that avoided hideous engineering work issues on the train for me (I’m still recovering from September’s issues) and another lovely friend, Claire from the LibraryThing Virago group, joined us too.

I do enjoy a train journey with a coffee and a book!

I got up to London ridiculously early thanks to having to get a train at silly o’clock to get a cheap fare. So it would have been rude not to pop over to the kikki.k shop in Covent Garden and indulge in a little sale stationery – I do love stationery, and their ridiculously cheap traveller’s notebook refills will fit beautifully in my Webster’s Pages organiser! 😁

Before meeting the others I popped into Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes on the Charing Cross Road (they seem to be the last bastions of second-hand bookselling there) and might have come away with these…

The Flora Tristan Virago was essential as I have her London Journals but not this one; and the Leopardi intrigued me, although I know little about him.

And then it was onwards to Foyles and meeting up with the lovely ladies! There was a lot of browsing and temptation, but in the end I came away with only three slim volumes (one of which I cannot show here as it’s a Christmas gift!) The Lem was irresistible as was the small poetry collection – I have no willpower…

We lunched in a nearby Nero (which catered for all our dietary needs including my vegan requirements!) and here I developed a bag crisis, when the zip on my new backpack completely died. Memo to self – never trust a Primark backpack… 😡 Fortunately, I had the trusty KBR tote with me, but it’s not so huge, and although I had a paper kikki.k bag I didn’t trust it to last the day out. So it was back to Foyles to follow Ali’s example and purchase one of their lovely and very sturdy tote bags – as you can see it’s substantial and attractive so was the perfect solution!

After the bag drama, we headed off to the Persephone shop (with a dangerous detour to the Bloomsbury Oxfam – I escaped unscathed, although Ali and Claire didn’t!) The Persephone Shop is, of course, always a delight and Lambs Conduit Street looked lovely and festive as we arrived. Ali and Claire had both come with lists; I was being restrained however as I’d put the Persephones I want on Christmas lists, so I didn’t dare buy any books there (which was very difficult!) So I restricted myself to an art card and some endpapers from the books to use in crafty ways!

After shopping, we repaired to a local cafe for coffees and cakes (vegan) and a good old book gossip, which was just lovely, before wending our various ways home.

Very weird-looking vegan pastry that actually tasted yummy!

So a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, with a little shopping, bookishness and good company – the perfect start to December, and thanks for your company, ladies! 😁

*****

Inevitably, however, there have been other bookish arrivals this week….

First up, a couple of images I shared on social media of some absolutely lovely volumes received from Glagoslav, an independent publisher specialising in Russian and Eastern European translated literature – so kind of the perfect publisher for me! I was so happy they reached out to me, and I can’t wait to get reading some of these books!

Additionally, I bagged this one from an online auction site because it sounded absolutely fascinating. I read about it on a page of recommendations on an AHRC site, of all places, and as I come from the North-East originally it was very appealing. It’s actually calling to me from the TBR right now.

And finally, this little lovely arrived as an unexpected treat from Annabel (she’s also one of the editors of the wonderful Shiny New Books). I love to share books around myself, and it’s such a nice treat to also be on the receiving end!

So – more books trickling into the house, but I *have* been getting rid of some! I sent four off to Liz this week, took two up to Ali and will be posting one off to Claire. Plus there’s a big box of donations building up in the hall. Is the ratio going in the right direction? Maybe….  But I still have an awful lot of books that are unread! 😀

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A spirited polemic

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The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

One of the joys of a trip to London is a visit to the very lovely Persephone shop; however, that visit always creates its own problem in the form of making the decision as to which Persephone title(s) to buy! I last dropped in there in November, when I met up with some lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago Group and before travelling I spent a little time going through the books on their site to come up with a shortlist. And a book which intrigued me, and which I ended up getting, was “The Sack of Bath” by Adam Fergusson.

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On the surface of it, you might ask why a publisher which specialises in 20th century women’s fiction would bring out a book which looks at the wholesale destruction of a particular kind of architecture in that city. However, the city of Bath is a special one, and if for nothing else literary is remembered for its connection with Jane Austen. But as Fergusson’s book makes clear, the city had a rich cultural heritage, as well as an architectural one, and this short book is a passionate polemic aimed at those who were trying to destroy its individual character.

First published in 1973, “The Sack of Bath” was an attempt to bring the attention of the wider public (and indeed the world) to the fact that the authorities in Bath were undertaking a large-scale, wide-ranging demolition programme, bringing down buildings that although not Grade 1 listed, had immense historical significance. Much of the city itself had been built and developed in the Georgian style, and although the well-known and well-to-do streets were being preserved, the artisan dwellings and less prominent areas were being declared unfit and flattened to make way for large, incongruous Brutalist developments. The 1970s saw much of this kind of redevelopment, but in a city like Bath the new buildings sat very uncomfortably next to the old.

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

More to the point, the blind demolition of whole areas was altering the whole character of the city, which was losing its homogenous Georgian whole; and as Fergusson makes plain, much of this was development for development’s sake as it would have been just as cost-effective to upgrade the existing dwellings, therefore providing plenty of housing which was in the same style as the rest of Bath.

Fergusson is a strong and fierce champion of those who sprang up and formed local groups, trying to stop the destruction. And he makes a special case for the city being retained in its original form, pointing out that nothing is really irreparable, and that if you live in somewhere as special as Bath you have to take the consequences…

The point is that a damp house may have a damp course inserted; that an unfit house may be made fit; that those who live in and enjoy the beauties of an eighteenth-century town should not expect the amenities of Harlow New Town or Hemel Hempstead; and that if they want them that is where they must go and live.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the local authorities at the time having no real expertise or overview, and relying on a series of experts who really didn’t know what they were doing. And I have to say that Bath was not alone in having such changes made to it; I can recall the small town I lived in having its centre torn out and turned into a modern shopping centre, and the pictures of before and after are striking. However, this needs to be put in context; the post-WW2 years had seen a Britain that had been heavily bombarded with large areas destroyed or made difficult to live in. The country was striding into a brave new modern future, and the new kinds of architecture were part of that. I should declare here that I actually had something of a fondness for Brutalist structures and it’s ironic that so many of them are now being wiped out and replaced with modern buildings that look to me even more faceless and ugly.

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But that’s by the by; “The Sack of Bath” set out to do a specific job, and it certainly did that, bringing the fight for Bath’s heritage to national attention (and as an unexpected result making other parts of the country more aware of what was happening and inclined to take action to save buildings and areas). Bath itself was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, though that in itself is not without problems and a quick look at the city’s Wikipedia page reveals that controversy about developments is still rumbling on.

The book itself is a short and fascinating read, capturing a moment in time when a call to action was made. It’s liberally illustrated with a large number of photographs, most notably several by Lord Snowdon, and these are an essential and integral part of the book, speaking just as eloquently as Fergusson’s prose. Although the book is slim and can be read in one sitting, it does make you think deeply about the bureaucracy and red tape in the country, the people we put in charge of making decisions and plans on our behalf, and also the constant trends in building and architecture. I do feel that there is a place for Brutalist architecture and but what’s quite certain is that Bath was not it!

Bookish post from the lovely Persephone Books!

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I’ve been trying to resist new book, I really have, and particularly the lovely Persephones as if I gave in, I’d want to purchase them all….

However, they came up with an offer I couldn’t refuse this week: to celebrate the birthday of author Mollie Panter-Downes, for one day only you could have one of her books free if you bought two other grey books! I gave in – and because I don’t have any MPD Persephones, I sent off for all three, and they arrived today:

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Aren’t they gorgeous??? I’m very excited about the London War Diaries as I *really* want to read this one. Now all I have to do is resist the temptation to put down the big books and start on one of these…. !

AV/AA – An Exemplary Short Story Collection from Persephone

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The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner

The wonderful Persephone Books have issued a number of short story collections, but this was one that I had a particular interest in getting hold of. You see, many, many years ago (well, ok – in the 1980s) I was involved in running the Mervyn Peake Society, and early on in my tenure I was lucky enough to meet his widow Maeve Gilmore, shortly before her death. Myself and a group of friends were later invited to Maeve’s memorial service in London (an emotional affair that involved the four of us with one tissue between us…) and there we met Diana Gardner, who’d been a pupil of Mervyn’s and was a friend of the family.

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop - here's the haul! :)

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop – here’s the haul! 🙂

After the service, we trotted off to the nearby Royal Academy for some picture therapy, and bumped into Diana again. She recognised us from the memorial and we had a lovely chat. She was an inspiring woman, just off to spend the day painting, and so when I discovered there was a collection of her stories available I had to have it.

Gardner had a fascinating life, mixing painting and writing, as well as working in publishing. And according to the Persephone blurb, she also knew Leonard and Virginia Woolf. “The Woman Novelist” collects a number of her stories, all of which were in an earlier volume apart from the title story.

Short stories are often a difficult art to master, but Gardner certainly has, as this is a quite wonderful collection where each tale stands out distinctly in its own right. “The Land Girl” is possibly the best known, and it was her first story to be accepted for publication. It’s a clever, slightly acid tale, from the point of view of the girl of the title ( a city type sent to work on the farm) revealing the disruption she causes there. She’s a brilliantly unreliable narrator, and Gardner cleverly gives us the insight into a very selfish mind and a strong clash of cultures.

Then there’s “Miss Carmichael’s Bed”, which has a mystery to it with an unexpected solution; “The Summer Holiday “, a tale that shows how some people just bury their heads in the sand (not literally….); “In the Boathouse”, an evocative tale of love and war; “Crossing the Atlantic”, a story of mismatched sailors; and many more, all fabulous.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

The title story is absolutely brilliant; narrated by the Woman Novelist, it takes us through the tasks of her day as she tries to juggle the needs of an extended family who not only depend on her financially, but also physically and emotionally. The main bond she has is with a loyal maid who understands her problems and supports her as much as she can so she can write. The tale articulates brilliantly the problem women artists of all types have had in balancing the needs of their art with the often selfish demands of those around them – a situation a male artist would never be expected to tolerate.

Gardner’s prose is excellent and I loved the way she played with the reader’s preconceptions. She’s brilliant at building up tension in a story only to twist the ending in a way you least expected. I’ve read many short story collections where the stories blur into one, but that doesn’t happen here – each tale is a distinct gem in its own right and there’s not a dud amongst them.

I loved “The Woman Novelist” much more than I expected to: Gardner’s writing is impressive, her stories fresh and original and memorable, and the twists marvellous. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read (which is saying something!) and I only wish there was more of Gardner’s work available. Another winner from Persephone! 🙂

Persephone Pleasures: The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

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It’s been a little while since I indulged in one of the Persephone Books volumes on Mount TBR, but I recently felt drawn to this one, and picked it up after finishing “Merry Hall” because I really didn’t quite know what to read yet – and I wanted to try to stop myself sending off for every Beverley Nichols book I could find!

220px-R._C._Sherriff

“The Hopkins Manuscript” is one of the few books published by Persephone which is written by a man, and Wikipedia says: Robert Cedric Sherriff (6 June 1896 – 13 November 1975) was an English writer best known for his play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He wrote several plays, novels, and screenplays, and was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards.

His works seem quite varied (his other Persephone, “The Fortnight in September”, sounds much gentler than THM!) and the Persephone site describes the book thus: The author of Journey’s End, the iconic play about WWI, was also a novelist and in 1939 he imagined what might happen if the moon crashed into the earth: the events leading up to the cataclysm are seen through the eyes of a retired schoolmaster who lives in a small Hampshire village.

So, sounds intriguing, no? In fact, I think this book will end up being one of my reads of the year because I should state up front that I absolutely loved it! The story opens with a Foreword by the Imperial Research Press of Addis Ababa, describing what follows as the only surviving document by an ordinary man about what turns out to be the fall of Western civilization. Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged former schoolmaster, who lives in the little village of Beadle in Hampshire. He is a somewhat reclusive, slightly private man, a bit pernickity and obsessed with raising and showing chickens at a variety of local shows – his prize hen being called Broodie! Hopkins has a side interest in amateur astronomy and becomes an associate member of the British Lunar Society. He enjoys his regular trips up to London to attend meetings, and it is this interest that lets him become privy to a devastating secret – it has been discovered that the moon is gradually travelling closer to the Earth and in the following May it will collide with our planet.

The news is initially kept secret to allow the governments of the world to make plans – under the guise of anticipating a future war, dugouts are built and local committees set up to make preparations. In the meantime, poor Hopkins tries to carry on as normal, all the time carrying his secret knowledge with him. As the moon becomes so large in the sky that the truth can no longer be hidden, the Beadle villagers are marshalled by Sapper Evans, a Welsh soldier assigned to co-ordinate the survival plans. Meanwhile, Hopkins has befriended Colonel Parker who lives nearby, and his nephew and niece Robin and Pat; the young people bring a breath of new life to the repressed schoolteacher and the characters all try to clutch at some happiness before the cataclysm. As the fateful day approaches, the characters (and the reader!) are on tenterhooks – what will happen?

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Of course, I’m being a little disingenuous here – because the book opens with Edgar in Notting Hill, living in wretched circumstances and trying to survive long enough to tell his tale, it is obvious that the Earth won’t be destroyed – some humans will survive, and our interest is in how, who and also what will happen in the post-cataclysm world.

Well, yes – humans do survive, and those remaining start to rebuild life in England. The world after the moon’s arrival is perhaps a little unexpected, and people pull together and make plans and start to regain a little normality. Alas, this does not last for a long time – we know it will not from the foreword – and the peril comes from within and without…

“The approaching moon had been so remotely beyond human control that it drew humanity together in a bond of ennobling courage. But what thrill was there in the menace that stalked us now? – the menace of human greed and suspicion? The thin, brittle crust of prosperity that we had built over the ruins of the cataclysm would never stand the weight of human strife. Under the strain of war it must collapse in unspeakable chaos and misery. I feared my fellow creatures far more than I ever feared the moon.”

This really is a remarkable book on a number of levels – the quality of its writing, clarity of its vision and the fact it isn’t better known – which is quite shocking and plaudits must go to Persephone for bringing it back into print. It would be too easy and simplistic to label THM as just a piece of Wellsian sci-fi, because it’s not – it’s much more than that; a deep, thought-provoking work about human beings and how they will behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s also a gripping story, full of characters you come to know, love and care about. The settings and events are vivid and memorable, and I found myself unable to put the book down. I hadn’t actually noticed I was reading a chunkster – the book is 400 pages long! – but the length and pace is necessary for the gradual unfolding of the story. We are given time to watch the relationships develop, the progress of the moon to become public knowledge, the different characters reacting in their own way. The book would not have the same impact if it was rushed – as it is, I became completely absorbed, living the last poignant days of earth alongside the characters.

And absorbed is the right word – I found myself reading long into the night to find out what happened next. Sherriff is remarkably perceptive in his understanding and portrayal of people – from Robin and Pat, young people with their lives still ahead of them, bravely confronting the tragedies they meet; the drunken landlord of the local pub going into decline when the news breaks; the simpler villagers who either don’t understand or don’t believe; and the unpleasant survivors who start to come to the fore once regeneration has begun. Edgar Hopkins himself is a wonderfully engaging character. All too human, with his frailties and vanities, his preoccupation with his chicken breeding and local status, we can identify with him completely and empathise with his horror at the approaching catastrophe. He epitomizes the human spirit, finding the resolve to survive despite not being a natural hero; and we cheer him on in his small triumphs and share in his joys at finding moments of peace and companionship, even though we might laugh at his foibles.

“I thought of this wonderful year that was drawing to its close: this year of striding progress – the peace and gathering prosperity of Europe. All the bitterness and hostility, all the suspicions and racial hatreds that had threatened and darkened the closing years of the old world had gone forever. The nations of Europe had arisen from the ruins of the cataclysm, cleansed of greed, drawn into harmony by a common disaster; determined to build a new world in friendship and mutual respect. The cataclysm had almost destroyed us, but from the ashes had arisen the United States of Europe.”

Sci fi falls into a number of categories and this is the type I like – what might be more accurately titled visionary fiction – fantastic events happening in a familiar, believable landscape; Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard’s fiction often falls into this genre. What is excellent about this kind of writing is the freedom it gives the author to make a point. The word “allegory” becomes inevitable because of the context of THM. Written in the late 1930s and published in 1939, it is hard not to see the impending cataclysm of the moon as representing the storm clouds of war which were gathering over Britain. And the resourcefulness of the Beadle villagers and their indomitable survival and attempts at recovery eerily foreshadows the spirit of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction. The book focuses at points on the state of the British Empire and its redundancy is clear – Hopkins rejoices in the new egalitarian state that develops among humans, where class divides disappear and all mix happily together, working alongside one another for the common good. The afterword of the book discusses whether what Sherriff wrote would be possible, but to be honest I thought that whether the science is accurate or not is in some ways an irrelevancy; it is the human side of things the book is about. However, Hopkins/Sherriff is quite vocal about humanity’s greed and the lack of care we take of our planet in a way that anticipates ecological concerns.

This is a deep, rich, rewarding and eminently readable book which I can’t recommended enough – I have a serious book hangover now!

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