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2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Three Things #6 …… difficult reading, documentaries (again!) and dancing

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The “Three Things” meme was created by Paula at Book Jotter, and I haven’t done one for literally months! However, as I was crashing out of the “Berlin Alexanderplatz” readalong, I thought it might be time to revive the meme! So, time to share thoughts on things I’ve been reading, looking at and thinking… ;D

Reading

As you might have noticed, I’ve been wrestling during November with a challenging book, during the readalong of Alfred Doblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for German Literature Month. It’s a book I struggled with at the start, and although I found at points that I did become quite engaged, I eventually lost the will to live (or at least read on with it) and abandoned ship. I confess to having interspersed the reading of it with other books, and a complete (and pleasant!) contrast was “Noted Murder Mysteries” by Marie Belloc Lowndes. I have her crime novel “The Lodger” lurking on the TBR; this is her re-telling of several true crimes which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer. It’s very entertaining and a review will follow when I catch up with these; I’m a bit behind with them at the moment, and things aren’t helped by an attack of raging indecision about what to read next: should it be a Barthes Binge or an Attack of the Gides????? ;D

Looking (at)

I do love a good documentary, as is probably blindingly obvious to anyone who drops into the Ramblings, but I’ve been struggling recently to find any decent ones. I do lose patience with some of them; the content can be trite, the music over-done and the points often lost. I had high hopes of the recent slew of Cold War programmes, but in the end only two held my interest – “Letters from London”, about a propaganda radio show, and “A British Guide to the End of the World”, a very thought-provoking work about the effects of nuclear testing and the daft films put out to guide us how to survive an attack. I really could do with a decent documentary, along the lines of Professor Richard Clay’s “Utopia” (which is currently repeating on BBC4 in the wee small hours, if you’ve not seen it) or “Viral“, both of which I enjoyed hugely. Fortunately, a little hint of a glimpse of a rumour reaches me that he might be in the process of filming something new, which is excellent, as his ideas are so very interesting and the subject matter sounds quite fascinating!

Thinking

I’m going to bend this category a little bit, as I spent some time recently looking at a live event as well as searching for documentaries, and that set me thinking about past times! That live event was an OMD concert at a lovely venue in the local Big Town; I’ve seen the band there four times now and they never disappoint, presenting a highly-charged and enjoyable set full of hits old and new. Despite my increasing age (hah!) I refuse to conform to anyone’s expectations of how I should behave; and so I spent the two hours of the gig happily dancing my little socks off right in front of the stage. It was a wonderful night and rest assured, I will be there at the front again when they make their next visit!

Andy McCluskey of OMD

The venue itself is a wonderful one, with a long history. It was previously a Gaumont and back in the 1960s hosted visits from both the Beatles and the Stones (and Mr. Kaggsy, being somewhat older than me, was at both concerts!) In my time, I’ve seen some inspirational musicians play there, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, The Teardrop Explodes, Tori Amos, and Morrissey (ahem…) to name a few. In fact, when I think back I’ve seem some incredible acts perform over the years: Bob Dylan, Echo and the Bunnymen, Patti Smith umpteen times, The Velvet Underground on their 1990s reunion tour, and the great John Cale on more occasions than I can recall. I love music almost as much as I love books, and there’s nothing better than a really good live gig! 😀

*****

So there you go. Three aspects of where I am at the moment: glad to be out of Berlin Alexanderplatz, looking forward to new documentaries and wishing more decent bands would play locally! “Three Things” is a fun meme – do join in if you want to! 🙂

 

“All committees are clay in the hands of determined men who fix agendas” #JLCarr

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How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

…which is possibly the longest book title I’ve reviewed – and it’s the second book about football on the Ramblings! Or is it?

I read and loved and reviewed Carr’s best-known work, “A Month in the Country” back in 2013. It’s pretty much universally loved, from what I can gather, and is a perfect and evocative novella set in the English countryside in the summer. I wasn’t really aware of any other works by Carr until recently, when I spotted a copy of this one in the charity shop. Alas, I didn’t buy it, and then regretted it. Then I read a review on someone’s blog that made me very keen to read it (and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where…) Then I kept looking for a second hand copy and it never came up and so basically I cracked, and picked up a copy at my local Waterstones. I have no willpower…

“Steeple…” is billed very much as a comedy, and it *is* funny. Narrated by Joe Gidner, who’s been sent down from an ecclesiastical college for an unspecified misdemeanour, the story is set in the small community of Steeple Sinderby. The location is vague, but this is Middle England in the early 1970s and it’s a world which I found very recognisable. The title gives away exactly what the book is going to be about, and Joe (who’s secretary and general factotum for the Wanderers) has been instructed by Mr. Fangfoss, the Chairman, to write a straightforward history of what happened. That history is wonderfully entertaining, enlivened with extracts from the committee minutes, newspaper reports, and possibly suspect recollections. It’s fab!

An Englishman is partial to doom-talk and always has been, as is demonstrated by the nightmare stone carvings all over Barchester Cathedral, and misses it now that the Church doesn’t go in for Religion raw, red and bleeding anymore. Our countrymen appreciate confirmation that Hell yet prevails and that it is well on the cards that they are thither bound.

The idea of training a small local team up to win the biggest football trophy in the land is generated by Dr. Kossuth, a Hungarian refugee who heads the local school. A remarkably inventive man, he comes up with a series of scientific rules which, if applied, should make a team invincible. Enter Alex Slingsby, a teacher at the school who abandoned his footballing career to look after his invalid wife. Alex is in exactly the right frame of mind to take on this kind of challenge, and starts to build a local team. This in itself is hilarious, as they seek out the ideal goalkeeper from a local milkman, and use the tub-thumping sister of the local vicar to lure a former soccer star, languishing with an attack of melancholia, back to the fold. And once the team is built up and trained, the matches begin…

The road to cup fame, of course, is not without its bumps and potholes; and it will take all of the strength, training and willpower of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers to get to that final and win their cup. How they do and what happens afterwards is a real blast and has some wonderful laughs. So on the surface, this might seem like a very different book to “A Month in the Country”; but scratch the surface of the humour and you find there’s an awful lot going on underneath.

For a start, there’s the wonderful portrait of English country life; not the bucolic, pretty tourist type village you might see in adverts or on vapid TV programmes, but a much more realistic take on it.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.

There are feuds and infighting, poverty and stupidity; and underlying much of the narrative is a real sense of despair. There is pathos in Alex’s relationship with his wife; in Gidner’s loneliness; and in the lack of purpose in many of the characters’ lives. The modern world is encroaching on Steeple Sinderby, and that place just doesn’t like it much. The book is as much a study of the effect of mass publicity and a sudden spotlight on a quiet little place as anything else, and it’s quite fascinating to see how the locals react.

Carr is a remarkably clever writer, and it’s clear he’s on top form here. He plays with reality, adding in spurious quotes from Pevsner’s guidebooks, inventing histories which involve Steeple Sinderby, creating a locality and a topography for it; all of which obfuscation succeeds in hiding up where the place actually might be! He’s happy to send up football and its fans, local MPs and bigwigs, any of his characters and the general backwardness of the country. His melancholic outlook seeps through and the story ends up being surprisingly moving.

Part of the success of “Steeple…” is of course down to the characterisations. Carr peoples his story with some wonderfully alive characters with the most outlandish names, and yet I came to love them. There’s the wonderfully named Mr. Fangfoss, a local farmer who’s the club’s chairman and has things under control most of the time. He’s not a fan of the modern world, preferring to have out of work people forced to take jobs and certain people castrated (yes, really!); yet you can’t help but cheer him on, whether he’s standing up to a local Lord who wants to come in and make money out of the situation, or a jumped up TV interviewer who tries to get the better of him on live TV and fails. Fangfoss is an unusual character, with a very dodgy home set up, and yet he becomes lovable. Joe Gidner is someone you really want to get to make more of himself rather than just festering away in a village writing verses for greetings cards; there’s the lively Alice ‘Ginchy’ Trigger whose mangled prose is employed to write up the matches in the local paper, and is just too influenced by Thomas Hardy; and of course Alex Slingby, the driving force behind the team who’s so obviously crushed by his love for his wife and her plight. There are so many wonderful players in this book – basically, you need to read it and get to know them for yourself.

via Wikimedia Commons. Although Steeple Sinderby is set in the 1970s, it frankly feels more like the team should look like this…. 😀

“Steeple…” is brilliantly constructed; Carr’s narrative sucks you in and cleverly draws out the strangeness of the story in a way that keeps you hooked. Of course, the British love to see an underdog win (Leicester City, anyone?) and so the plot is an appealing one to start with. But there *is* so much more to this book, from comments on the national character, the national game, and basically life itself. “Steeple…” may *appear* to be a lighter, more superficial story than “A Month…”, but it really isn’t…

But the great and abiding Truth I learnt these weeks was how many people in this world have no Purpose in life, people who live second-hand, sitting all the hours God gives them free of drudgery, staring at either picture papers or TV, waiting like little kids for just another story or for Guidance.

I could say so much more about this book; about its quiet despair at the modern world and its longing for the past; about the sense it gives that life can often be pointless but sometimes magnificent; about the effect the media can have on a place, and the aftermath when the attention has moved on elsewhere; and about the underlying pathos of most human stories. Even such a simple paragraph as Carr/Gidner’s comment on an opposing side reveals much about the need to escape from our everyday lives:

Mostly, they were very respectable men, muffled against the winter day in home-knitted cardigans with large leather buttons; a phlegmatic, shuffling, stamping lot, grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetery. Here, lost in the throng, they had bought another identity for ninety minutes. They bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the great heavens in godlike despair, clamoured angrily for revenge. For 20p they did all this and were not called to account.

(Is that a kind of Utopia? Yes, according to Richard Clay in part one of his documentary on the subject, where he suggests the ritual of Saturday football as a search for the fabled land! But I digress…)

I picked up “Steeple Sinderby…” because I rated Carr’s most famous work so highly, and despite the fact it was apparently about football it sounded – intriguing… It’s more than that, it’s a remarkable piece of art; funny, provocative, entertaining and with surprising depths, it completely absorbed me and left me quite moved at the end. If you want a book that amuses and gets you thinking, as well as giving a glimpse of a kind of small-town England that may well be gone, I recommend you get acquainted with Joe, Alex, Mr. Fangfoss, Ginchy Trigger, Giles the Vicar, his sister Biddy, Sid Swift, Monkey Tonks and all their fellows – you really won’t regret it! 😀

(As an aside, I can’t help wondering if the “Golden Gordon” episode of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” was just a teeny bit influenced by this book!)

“…the future’s uncertain and the end is always near…” @BL_Publishing #murieljaeger #sciencefictionclassics

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Ah, Utopias! I seem to have been circling, and repeatedly coming back to, the subject since first watching Richard Clay‘s “Utopia” series back in 2017. Then there’s the vexed subject of the loose Utopian reading list I set up for myself, which I haven’t actually got very near to approaching in recent months. However, a recent arrival from the lovely British Library, in the form of one of their Science Fiction Classics, has nudged me back closer again – as it’s a lost work that ties in with utopian/dystopian literature very significantly. It’s also a very thought-provoking read…

The book’s author, Muriel Jaeger, is an interesting subject herself. She attended Somerville College in the early 1910s, moving in a circle which included Dorothy L. Sayers and Winifred Holtby; Sayers, in particular, was a close friend. Jaeger went on to work for “Time and Tide” magazine, as well as writing her novels and scraping a precarious living; however, at the time, her novels were not particularly well received and she eventually abandoned writing. “The Question Mark” was originally published in 1926, and as the newly-reissued edition from the British Library (in their Science Fiction Classics series) reveals, it was put out by the Hogarth Press! The new edition reproduces a letter from Leonard Woolf to Jaeger about the publication of the book, as well as a striking portrait of the author; and the excellent introduction by Dr. Mo Moulton gives background on Jaeger’s life as well as putting her book in context.

“The Question Mark” takes a timely look at projections of the future, a popular subject in early science fiction, and draws on works like Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The main protagonist, a very ordinary and lowly clerk, one Guy Martin, is sent 200 years into the future. Martin is not a happy man; scraping a living, constantly short of money and struggling to make his way in the capitalist world, he finds the world of the future initially to be a blissfully comfortable and, yes, utopian one. Poverty has been wiped out; no-one wants for anything; and all manner of modern technologies provide for humanity’s every need. However, it isn’t long before Guy starts to see beneath the superficial reality of the future; because despite the comfort and convenience, something is missing. Complications come in the form of Ena, the daughter of the doctor treating Guy, who seems to be oddly immature despite her years and somewhat fixated on the visitor from the past. Guy begins to encounter humans who are not the rational, intelligent beings he first came across on his awakening; and he comes to realise that humanity seems to have replaced the capitalist class system with a new kind of system of its own…

“Do you mean that we might have had – all this,” Guy spread his hands in a wide gesture to the countryside, “if we had chosen?”

“Certainly, most of it, if you had set about getting rich collectively instead of individually.”

Jaeger’s book is an absolutely fascinating look at human behaviour and where it might go; and as I read on I sensed elements in it that were similar to another lost classic I read recently, Rose Macaulay’s “What Not“. The troubled subject of eugenics is bubbling under the surface of both narratives, and it becomes clear that instead of dividing humans into a complex strata of various classes, the future world is separated on simple lines between those deemed “intellectuals” and those deemed “normals”. The latter are portrayed as vapid and easily led; they’ll worship the latest sporting hero as easily as they will a preacher who claims to have a direct line to God. And the media feed on this, fuel the hysteria created and are a damaging influence on the whole of society (sounds familiar, that…) Once Guy realises this, he’s shocked and repelled by the world in which he finds himself; and in fact both classes seem to struggle to find a purpose in life, as all need for work and striving has actually gone. Our hero even starts to miss the past, despite the depression and alienation he felt; but as the story reveals, he may have no choice about where he lives and the book *does* end on a slightly ambiguous note.

I found “The Question Mark” absolutely compelling from start to finish. Jaeger writes really well, capturing brilliantly the depths of despair Martin sinks into before his journey to future; and painting equally well her portrait of a future world which is gradually revealed to both Guy and the reader. There are so many interesting issues here; whether human beings will always divide into types; whether we need work and a purpose to feel any worth in our lives; whether the influence of the media really *should* be dramatically curtailed; and so on. It raises difficult questions about collective responsibility and state control: at one point, Guy encounters a situation where he discovers that women can choose to be part of a harem and live in a situation where a man has multiple wives. Should humanity intervene or allow the women their choice? That’s another topic which has very modern resonances… Again, it needs to be remembered that Jaeger was publishing before “Brave New World” was written and as the introduction makes clear, took the utopian writing of Wells and his ilk which had gone before and gave it a twist. Her hero is given no easy answers, especially when faced by the response from one particular resident of the future. Ena, the product of a marriage of an “intellectual” and a “normal”, and who is classed as the latter, is portrayed as wanting to step outside that limited definition and she sees the possibility of more. The “normal” characters are motivated pretty much by romance, sex and violence; yet Ena touchingly perceives a world where she and Guy could be just ‘pals’, and that’s a heartbreaking element of the story.

Oh, what have you done with the world? What have you done with it? You have everything we ever wanted and everything to make you happy. I thought when I first came that all the nightmare was over. I thought you were all happy at last; and you are miserable – worse than miserable – so damn doubly hopeless that you clutch at every straw.

Underlying so much of the narrative are the many failed opportunities of humanity (another theme which resonates…) Guy comes to recognise that the inequalities are just the same as in his time, and that the intellectuals are detached and uncaring, leaving their fellow humans to get on with it in their overexcited and hysterical lives. The authorities will step in when there’s been a violent murder or such, and a visit to the location where euthanasia takes place is chilling in its matter-of-factness…

Jaeger’s portrait in the book

So “The Question Mark” turned out to be such an absorbing and interesting (and enjoyable!) read. It raises all manner of issues which are still sitting in my brain while I muse on them. In her own foreword, Jaeger takes issue with the utopias that have come before her – she accepts the worlds that have been created but she finds herself unable to accept that the inhabitants are realistic enough. As she says “At this point my effort to realise Utopia fails. With the best will in the world, I have found myself quite unable to believe in these wise, virtuous, gentle, artistic people. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity as I know it – even by the most distant descent; they suggest, rather, Special Creation.” Jaeger’s people are instantly recognisable to us, and I guess at the heart of subtext of the book is nature vs nurture: are we born a particular way or can we learn? It’s a subject that’s still debated (a recent example might be “Educating Rita”); and possibly always will be – because I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to humanity! Anyway; I think Leonard Woolf was right when he took a risk on “The Question Mark” – I found it a brilliant and thought-provoking book, another winner from the British Library and definitely most unjustly neglected!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! 😀

A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

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We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

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

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

The art of the self-portrait @LesFugitives #sylvieweil

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Selfies by Sylvie Weil
Translated by Ros Schwartz

We live in a modern age characterised by fast communications, short attention spans and a huge focus on the self; all of which might seem like new and modern preoccupations. However, I was reminded that there is nothing new under the sun by Prof. Richard Clay’s excellent “How to go Viral” programme back in March; Richard pointed out that memes were really nothing new and that the transfer of signs and symbols in popular culture had a long and varied history. And reading a fascinating new review book which popped through the door recently, I realised that that arch-symbol of modernity, the selfie, really isn’t that modern at all!

The book is called just that – “Selfies” – and is by Sylvie Weil, published by Les Fugitives. Weil is an author not as new to me as I orginally thought; she’s the niece of Simone Weil, the philosopher, whose Virago collection I picked up fairly recently in the Oxfam. Her father was the famous mathematician Andre Weil; and Sylvie herself is a distinguished academic and author, although I get the sense that she’s often overshadowed by the rest of her family. Les Fugitives are a new imprint for me, but their remit is one that appeals very much – to publish contemporary French writing in translation – and so I was very pleased that they decided to send me a review copy of this book, because I might not have stumbled across it otherwise, and it really was excellent.

“Selfies” features a photograph by Vivian Maier on the cover, and a better choice couldn’t have been made; in many ways, that self-effacing photographer is reminiscent of Weil herself, and both are concerned with what the self-portrait can hide or reveal. Weil’s book is structured in thirteen sections of varying lengths; each takes as its starting point a work of art which is a self-portrait of a female artist and Weil uses this to theme her own recollections, which are self-portraits in writing. It’s a really interesting concept, and allows Weil to explore not only her past and life, but the way we view women artists and they way they choose to present themselves to the world.

So, for example, “Self-portrait at the organ” starts with a description on a self-portrait by Sofonisba Angiossola from 1561; Weil then follows this with a nuanced memory of organ lessons as a young girl and her music teacher of a “venerable age”. “Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom” springs from a painting by Gabriele Munter and explores a toxic friendship. And “Self-portrait with a dog” is one of two pieces using the works of Frida Kahlo as inspiration (and it’s quite heartbreaking, too, in an understated way). This method allows Weil to explore her memories, sometimes in a playful way, but often with a deeper, darker tone; there are some really difficult and moving pieces in the book, and in particular the events relating to Weil’s son are desperately sad.

When Japanese friends told me, before my trip, that I’d see the cherry blossom, I replied politely: “Cherry blossom, how lovely, I’m thrilled.” I had no clue. I didn’t realise that I’d walk for days under a shower of petals, that I’d see pink rivers and at night I’d join long, slow processions, dark rivers mirroring the pale rivers of petals, and that like everyone else I’d hold my camera high above my head to capture and possess a tiny fragment of the stunning, soft, pink mass.

Lighter moments come from chapters like “Self-portrait as an author”, where Weil wryly explores the discomfort experienced by a writer at a bookstore signing, where a much more popular writer is receiving all the attention from the shopping public. And “Self-portrait as a visitor” reveals the different perceptions that we can have of someone and how a friend will never see the same side of that person as a family member will. In fact, Weil’s family is a theme which runs through the book, all the way up to the very clever “Photobomb selfie”, the last piece in the book.

“Selfies” is a short book – 152 pages – but is packed with so much that lingers in the mind, provoking thought long after I’d finished reading it. Weil weaves the threads of her life into her narratives brilliantly, allowing her to cover topics such as anti-Semitism, Palestine, ageism, genetics and psychosis. The format means she always approaches these with a delicate touch and the book is quick to read, though not lightweight; its imagery and stories are powerful and stay with you. The book also had the (perhaps intentional!) effect of making me go and research the women artists I’d not heard of so that I could actually *see* the pictures Weil was describing. The self-portrait is such a part of art history that I’m just surprised I hadn’t made the connection with the modern selfie before!

So “Selfies” turned out to be an original and inventive way to discuss memory, history and perception, as well as how women’s lives are understood. Sylvie Weil has obviously been too long under the shadow of her famous forebears and it’s about time more of her work was available in English. Kudos therefore have to go not only to Weil for writing such a marvellous book, but also to translator Ros Schwartz and Les Fugitives for publishing the book – I can see I’m going to have to watch their catalogue with interest! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! “Selfies” is published on 25th June.)

The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

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