A couple of slim and entertaining volumes from a favourite indie! @RenardPress #ReadIndies


Today I want to share some new titles from one of my favourite indies, Renard Press! I’ve sung their praises enough times on the Ramblings for them to need no introduction, so I’ll just get on with talking about the books instead. I have a monthly sub to Renard, which I think is a great way to support an indie, and the most recent arrivals were different but lovely! Renard specialise in bite-size treats which can be read in one sitting, and both of these fit that bill.

The History of England, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian – Jane Austen

First up, a small but entertaining piece of juvelinia from the wonderful Jane Austen. Here, she turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man” (I’ve long felt that history has misrepresented him!) The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

This is such fun (as is all Austen’s youthful writing, which I’ve covered in the past). I particularly enjoyed these humorous vignettes, and the edition is enhanced by the colourful reproductions of Cassandra’s illustrations on the inner covers. A treat!

Morris’s Manifestos 1: Art, Wealth and Riches – William Morris

Renard also print some marvellous essays in free-standing editions – the Orwells they’ve done so far are stellar – and this particular title inaugurates a new series of ‘Morris’s Manifestos’ which promises to bring to readers a series of writings by the esteemed artist and polymath William Morris. His work has become absorbed into our culture, and he’s so often now thought of in terms simply of his beautiful and distinctive designs. However, Morris was responsible for much more than lovely images; he had strong Socialist and Utopian views and values, and these come to the fore in this work which is drawn from a talk Morris gave at the Manchester Royal Institution in 1883.

Morris was of course a champion of all that is useful and beautiful, and supported artisanal crafts produced individually and with love and care. His lecture is critical of mass-production, the creation of ugly objects in difficult and unpleasant conditions, and all to feed what he calls competitive commerce’. He obviously recognised early on the negative effects of factory work, the division of labour into piece work and the deleterious effects of unsatisfying toil. And he’s clear about how it’s the workers who suffer and not the bosses – it’s obvious whose side he’s on.

“Art…” also rails against the wealth of the country, in terms of its heritage and its artistic creations, being kept in the hands of those with riches, bringing them more funds, and keeping the mass of the people downtrodden. Morris seems always concerned for a fairer, more equal society and his beliefs are laudable and inspiring.

Since the time of Morris’s life and work we have moved on, of course, to technologies and populations of which he could never have dreamed. And perhaps the kind of Utopian, gilded life he proposed is out of reach for most. However, his work is a stirring reminder that we can make a difference by choosing to take something into our homes that will last, rather than something cheap and ephemeral; that we *should* still fight for equality for all; and that we should having nothing in our houses which is not beautiful or useful, to paraphrase his famous quote. This is a wonderful first volume in what promises to be a fascinating series, and I’m definitely looking forward to see which title of Morris’s Renard issue next!


So today’s reads were fascinating; a marvellous pair of little books which really packed a punch in different ways. Austen is always a treat, and Morris an inspiring commentator. Renard is a shining example of what can be done by a small organisation determined to produced quality items – in this case, books – and I’m sure William Morris would have approved!

Recent Reads: Questions of Travel by William Morris/Lavinia Greenlaw


Notting Hill Editions is  a publisher I’ve only just become aware of – in fact, I stumbled across them in Foyles earlier this year, on a nice little display stand which caught my eye. It was the small grey-covered hardback emblazoned with the names of Owen Hatherley and Ian Nairn which first attracted me: I’ve read all Hatherley’s work, and love his attitude to architecture; Nairn is someone I probably saw on TV in my youth, but can’t remember, although I rediscovered him recently thanks to a BBC4 documentary. I picked up the volume on my second trip to London this year, and a small thing of great beauty it is. However, I was stunned to find another in my local Oxfam shop, and this seems to be one of their earlier titles: “Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland”, edited and annotated by Lavinia Greenlaw.


William Morris is of course well-know for being the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, artist, writer, designer – a real polymath and his legacy is still very much a part of the fabric of life in the UK. The text here is from his Icelandic Journals, gleaned from two journeys he made to the country at a turbulent time in his life.

Lavinia Greenlaw is a writer and poet in her own right, and what she’s done here is intriguing. Morris’s Icelandic journals are long, and so she’s taken extracts from them, distilled the essence of travelling if you like, and put alongside it her “Questions of Travel”. So contrasting with Morris’s beautiful descriptions of Iceland and humorous tales of the problems of his journey, there is Greenlaw’s thoughtful musings on why we travel, what the experience brings us and what we feel when we return home.

“When we first came into the plain, it was on the edge of the lava, sandy but grown over with willow and grass; we are on pure lava now which is also far from barren, being much grown about with grass and willow, but chiefly birch; everywhere, however, the bare molten rock shows in places, never tossed up in waves but always curdled like the cooling fire stream it once was, and often the strands or curdles are twisted regularly like a rope…” (WM)

NPG x19608; William Morris by Sir Emery Walker, after  Abel Lewis

It’s an interesting concept, and one that works well. Greenlaw has obviously chosen passages from Morris’s full “Icelandic Journal” that she thinks illustrate the travel ethos best, and they’re lovely. WM is an engaging narrator, providing some striking descriptions of the Icelandic landscape, whether it’s having a positive or negative effect on him. He’s also not afraid to make fun of himself (or his companions!) and is honest about his moods. Often the country strikes him as bleak and depressing, whereas at other times he finds it uplifting. He writes frankly about his trepidation on a high, narrow path, and about the people he meets who offer hospitality. Morris took off on his travels to avoid a complex home situation, where his wife was having a complex affair with the artist Rossetti, and this probably accounts for some of his melancholy during the trip.

“Once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes to seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland.(WM)

All in all, his descriptions of his trips are lovely and conjure up vivid visions of the dramatic scenery – in fact, I was oddly enough reminded of Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in parts, and almost feel moved to search out the full Icelandic journal. Whether playing whist, bathing in hot springs or being proud of his cooking skills, Morris is someone who it would be fun to travel alongside!

“We travel to escape whatever is ordinary for us.” (LG)


As for Greenlaw’s contributions, you can tell she’s a poet. Her questions and musing are pithy and potent, and very thought-provoking, getting to the heart of the reasons behind our travelling. The juxtaposition of her writings with Morris’s works well and the two complement each other beautifully. This ends up being a lovely, lyrical little hardback which certainly got my feet itching to travel and see new lands – though I suspect that I will restrict myself to armchair tourism!

(As an aside, I’d highly recommend Greenlaw’s memoir “The Importance of Music for Girls” – a great read for women of a certain age (!) and I really identified with it!)

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