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Bostin books

Santa’s been and gone and I hope he has left everyone something they wanted, particularly in books. As usual, the old fellow has come up with the literary goods for me, as well as delivering some surprises. Biggest surprise of all has been a signed copy of Michael Moorcock’s Doctor Who novel The Coming of the Terraphiles. I never saw this one coming!

The only TV spin off novels I’ve ever read were about Stingray when I was a child; it’s not a genre I’ve ever explored as an adult. The rather ugly name for books based on stories that first appear in film or TV form is “novelisation”. According to the BBC’s h2g2 site, Doctor Who is the most novelised programme in history, with only five episodes not transformed to book form. Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks alone wrote over 60 of them. Other famous novelisations are Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and the original Battlestar Galactica (I am currently rewatching the superb remake with Edward James Olmos). Comments the author of the h2g2 entry…

Beaus in tight breeches

A few days ago I went to the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in Lawrence, many of whose paintings I had seen in books on the eighteenth century. It was Lawrence who captured a moment of radical history in his chalk sketch of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft at their friend John Thelwall’s trial for treason in 1794. I had also read about the artist in his friend Joseph Farington’s diary, where (as I mentioned previously) he is described as “a male coquet”.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769. The family moved to Devizes in 1773 and he was brought up in the coaching inn The Black Bear. Lacking formal education and training, he was something of a child prodigy who sketched and charmed many of the inn’s visitors, Frances Burney amongst them. When his father was declared bankrupt the family settled in Bath, where young Lawrence began his career as a portraitist. In 1787 he went to London and joined the Royal Academy schools, but d…

The Little Sprite

I’ve just finished reading Janet Todd’s marvellous Death and the Maidens. The story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny is one of the saddest I have ever come across.

Fanny seems to have been one of those people who everyone took advantage of and no one cared for. When, at the age of 19 she committed suicide in an inn in Swansea, her body was unclaimed by the Shelleys or Godwins and she was given a pauper’s burial. Her relatives persisted in lying about her death – and indeed her existence – for years after. It was six weeks before her aunts in Ireland were informed of her passing. Godwin claimed that she had gone to visit friends in Wales and died of a cold. Her step brother Charles received a letter from his sister Claire a few weeks after Fanny’s death which did not mention it. Ten months later he wrote asking after her, and a year after that he had still not been told she was dead. In a memoir of Godwin her sister Mary (Shelley) left Fanny out of their father’s story, implying…

Writing for Nobody

I love reading other people’s diaries. Obviously I mean the historical ones, which makes it alright to pry. Or, if I was interested in the living, then it would be fine to read a diary intended for publication by its author – which raises the question about how far any diarist intends his or work for an audience. Did Pepys, as he scratched the smutty bits in his secret shorthand, really hope that no one would ever read them? Did Frances Burney when she addressed her diary to “Nobody” really accept that only Nobody would read it?

I don’t know, but I do know that both diaries are terrific reads. Diaries are wonderful for all sorts of reasons. They are great for historians. They’re great for historical fiction writers. And they have a meaning all of their own, though what that meaning is is hard to define.

I’ve been reading the diary of Joseph Farington RA (1747 to 1821) for the years 1796 to 1798. Farington was a landscape painter, an active member of the Royal Academy, a husband, a mem…

Free at Last

One thing I saved up from my mini account of what I saw of the Historical Novel Society’s Conference in Manchester in October was the workshop Creative Writing, Creative Reading: Bringing the Past to Life. What, I thought as I pondered the programme, is that about? I had no idea. So I went.

The session was run by Orna Ross, an Irish novelist and teacher of Creative Intelligence. Creative Intelligence: right. Well, Orna defines it as “the ability to own and hone our innate creative potential…by understanding how the creative process works and learning to apply it.” She believes that our formal schooling, with its obsession with measurement, analysis and efficiency, has stifled our creative intelligence. I picture this as the Gradgrindian world that Dickens described so wonderfully in Hard Times: the world where innocents are murdered by facts, by rules, by a pair of scales. I don’t think anyone has exposed this outlook any better than Dickens.

But doing is always better than talking ab…

Catching Up Part 2

I’m gradually catching up with life! Here’s Part 2 to prove it.

Mary Sharratt, Historical Novel Society Conference, 17 October – I knew nothing about Mary or her book Daughters of the Witching Hill, but she gave such an interesting and engaging talk about the history behind the novel that I have added it to my reading list. Memorable moment: listening to her read – she has a lovely accent!

Manda Scott, HNS Conference, 17 November – Manda was supposed to be talking about author/publisher relationships with her publisher Selina Walker, but unfortunately Ms Walker could not make it. Instead, she gave us some wonderful – and funny - insights into how her writing career got started. Memorable moments: actually there are so many that I’m cheating and picking three. Manda said the f word. Thank god: it made me feel more at home. Manda told us how the gods told her to write her Boudica novels when she was on a vision quest. Manda told us how Christianity came into being and showed up Paul …

Catching Up Part 1

My poor old blog has been neglected lately. I’ve been horribly busy and struggling to keep on top of things, but now the house has been excavated from under tons of dust I can look about me and reflect on what I’ve been doing. Or, more accurately, who I’ve been seeing – and I’ve been very busy indeed seeing other writers! So, as I can’t write about every event in great detail I shall recall one memorable moment from each. Here’s Part 1; Part 2 to follow!

Howard Jacobson, Topping & Co Bookstore, Bath, 13 September – the author pre-Booker prize making us laugh in Topping’s much-loved (by me) book store. Memorable moment: Jacobson suggests that all novels should be comic novels.

Martin Jarvis, Cheltenham, 10 October – a reading of two Jeeves and Wooster stories under the gaze of the angels of the Everyman Theatre. Memorable moment: listening to his “out takes” as he read the same sentence two or three times to satisfy his Radio 4 producer, each time with a slightly different inflect…

e-Make it so

E-readers do get a lot of publicity, don’t they? Virtually every Bookseller news round up has at least one article about them. There are websites and blogs devoted to them. Print journals carry articles about them. They’re big on the agenda at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising when you think that e-readers are in the hands of some of the most powerful technology and communications firms in the commercial world.

One wouldn’t like to accuse e-reader manufacturers of having a vested interest of course, but sometimes it does feel like a conspiracy to shove the things down your throat. Amazon can’t do enough to push its Kindle. They even have a link to the publisher on the webpage of books that are not available as an e-book so you can tell them you want to read it on a Kindle. That’s consumer power for you, isn’t it? Or perhaps it would be if the button also gave you the option to ask the publisher to drop the price, or to publish more books like this and less like t…

Unreadable books

One night when I was very young I was crossing a bit of wasteland in Sheffield when I said to my companion, “I never leave a book unfinished.” Struggling to explain myself, I added, “The author has gone out of their way to try and tell me something –to express something – it seems wrong not to read their book.” “That’s as deep,” returned my companion in broad Scouse, “as a muddy puddle.” For these were the sort of young men I went to university with.

Since then I have discovered, sadly, that there are unreadable books. It isn’t necessarily that the books are “bad”, though it might be. Occasionally a book is so bad I’ve flung it against a wall; once I even trampled on one. (And no, I won’t tell you which it was. It might be your favourite.) To qualify for this thankfully rare treatment a book must exhibit something cynical in the workmanship. It will be a smug, complacent, passionless piece characterised by sloppy thinking and lazy writing.

But most books have something to offer an…

Playing Away

Last Saturday I enjoyed seven plays, four of them at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond and three in the London Library.

The Orange Tree – a wonderful theatre I’ve mentioned before – had put on another staged reading of suffragette plays. This time we were treated to Edith by Elizabeth Baker, The Surprise of His Life by Jess Dorynne, and The Pot and the Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Chris St John. In Edith a family gather to discuss the terms of the father’s will: to their surprise and horror he has left his retail business to his daughter rather than his son. In Edith’s absence they decide to sell the shop – but when Edith arrives she has other ideas. The Surprise of His Life tells the story of a young working class woman who is pregnant and has been deserted by the father: her father struggles to persuade the young man to marry her though he is a horrible piece of work.

Both had comic moments but the second was moving too as the girl faced her father’s wrath, confronted the ghastl…

Speculating Other Lives

I’ve been reading two biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft: Janet Todd’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, and Lyndall Gordon’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (which I have only recently started). I do love a good biography and both books are enjoyable, painting very different pictures of Wollstonecraft (Todd’s unsympathetic portrayal of a moaning, nagging, inconsistent woman; Gordon’s “pioneer of character” scarred by her background of domestic violence).

I’m intrigued, though, by the way biography so very quickly moves into speculation, often on the slenderest grounds. Take Gordon’s theorising about Miss Mason, one of the teachers at the Wollstonecraft sisters’ school at Newington Green. Mary Wollstonecraft, Gordon writes, often referred to her as “‘poor Mason’, as though some misfortune were common knowledge”. Gordon informs us that “in most such cases the parents had lost their fortune, so that instead of fulfilling her destiny as a marriageable ‘lady’ the daughter was…

Puffing

I am sorry to say it, people seem to go to the theatre principally for their entertainment!

So complains Sneer in Sheridan’s The Critic, and if that’s what people want that’s what they’ll get if they hurry down to the Chichester Festival Theatre and catch the double bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Sheridan’s The Critic. Since the National put the plays together in 1985, they’ve been widely recognised as a couple, and have even been taught as a pairing in schools. In some ways that’s a shame as it’s too easy to fall into the “compare and contrast” approach to literature (the characters of Richard vs Bolingbroke, images of war in the poetry of Brooke and Owen, etc, etc). They do make for an entertaining three hours, however.

I didn’t know the Stoppard play and I was surprised at how funny it was; the parody of the country house murder is wonderfully done. The comedy is spiked by a disturbing edge when the barrier between performance and spectator, here the critics Moo…

In St James’s Square

What makes the perfect library? Is it one that still spends money on books, not just computers and DVDs? One that nevertheless uses modern technology to its fullest extent to make the best research tools available to its readers? One that never throws out books? One that has reading rooms that are genuinely quiet enough to work in? One that lets you borrow books for as long as you need them? One that offers you access to on-line catalogues and research databases from your own home? One with membership open to all?

They’re certainly the things I look for in a library. Not one that periodically throws out books and journals. Not one where you’re trying to work against a background of chatter, the rustling of food packets, the blare of mobile phones. Not one that culls its reference sections and moves the much reduced collections into tiny corners of its premises. Not one that thinks the bulk of its budget is best spent on computers. Not one that has bought into some Gradgrindian ideal o…

Abbotsford

More poking about the homes of the literary great and the good this week with a visit to Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford. Reminiscent of Walpole’s project, here is another attempt to recreate a Medieval atmosphere, this time by a man who fancied himself as a Scottish laird. It’s a lovely house on the banks of the River Tweed, which flows by wide and fast at the bottom of walled gardens. Inside is a harmony of stained glass, carved wood, bosses, finials, marble, ebony, swords and armour. There’s also a display of items Scott – rather gruesomely - picked up on the battlefield of Waterloo including a French eagle, a Polish shako, cuirasses. Tacky souvenir collecting is clearly not a new invention.

When I went to Monk’s House recently I was struck by a reference in the guidebook to Virginia Woolf’s light wearing of the mantle of literary greatness. This kind of hyperbole makes you shudder, but I suppose people do get carried away, especially when talking about their friends. (The remark…

Happy Birthday Penguin

I had a fascinating day and a half last week looking at penguins. I wasn’t at the zoo, but attending as much as I could of the University of Bristol’s three day conference celebrating Penguin’s 75th birthday. Bristol, the birthplace of Allen Lane, is home to the Penguin Archive, which contains editorial files, correspondence, photographs, papers from the Chatterley trial, and a collection of Penguin books from 1935 to date.

It was an Aladdin’s Cave of bookery. I started with the Reading Penguin 1 panel. George Donaldson, of the University of Bristol, talked about the clash of academic and commercial interests between David Daiches, general editor of the Penguin English Library (also known as the Penguin Classics Library), and the company. Penguin wanted introductions that addressed the “general reader” rather than academics and students, whereas Daiches felt that it was important that the introductions were academic and authoritative. Daiches eventually resigned over the issue. An ama…

Votes for Women

The play is clever and witty, and it kept the audiences brimming with excitement and in roars of laughter.

So said the Pall Mall Gazette in 1909 of Cicely Hamilton’s and Chris St John’s How the Vote Was Won performed at the Royalty Theatre in London, and so say I of the same play given in a performed reading at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in June 2010. The one act play is funny on the page, even funnier on the stage. I read it years ago in a collection of suffragette plays edited by Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, and I never thought I’d see it acted.

How the Vote Was Won is a very funny piece and, with Hamilton’s Pageant of Great Women, one of the most successful suffragette plays. Amongst the many feeble arguments put up against enfranchising women was the proposition that women did not need the vote because they had men to look after them. In the play women take men at their word, giving up their jobs and homes and turning to their nearest male relatives for support. Poor …

Slumming in Sussex

I had a splendid day last Wednesday (16 June 2010) popping my proletarian nose into the houses and lives of the Bloomsbury Group. A fascinating programme of visits started at Berwick Church to see the Murals, then to Charleston, and on to Monk’s House. The outing was organised by the Friends of the Women’s Library. If you don’t know about the Women’s Library you are missing a national treasure. Situated in Old Castle Street, London E1 and now part of London Metropolitan University, it is a marvellous resource for women’s history. And – mark this all you university libraries whose mission seems to be to keep out as many people as possible – it is open to all. It’s an art gallery too and puts on some wonderful displays, including the most memorable exhibition Art for Vote’s Sake in 2003 which featured some of the beautiful embroidered banners used in women’s marches.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s work but I enjoyed the Berwick murals. The tradition of pain…

Topping times

David Mitchell: what’s not to like? He’s intelligent, critically acclaimed, charming, self-effacing, courteous, and if Cloud Atlas (the only of his books I’ve read so far) is anything to go by, an interesting and talented writer – and he watches Dr Who. He proved all this and more on Friday 28 May in Bath at an event organised by Topping and Company.

I’ve referred briefly to Topping’s before. I hope that when I die I go to Topping’s: it’s heaven. The independent book shop in Bath has got hand crafted bookshelves, probably more signed books than you’ll see in any other bookshop, and friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you go for a browse they’ll make you a pot of coffee served in pretty blue cups and saucers. If you go to an event they’ll pour you a decent glass of wine. If you tell them you’re looking for a book by what’s-his-name and you can’t remember what it’s about but it’s got scholars in it and you think the author’s Canadian they’ll tell you it’s the Cornish Trilogy and take …

Stockingers and Croppers

The only good thing about having a fluey-throaty-coldy thing is that when you have gone past the unable-to-lift-aching-head-from-pillow-stage you can take advantage of the strangely emptied hours to read Very Long Books that under other circumstances might take months to finish. I’ve taken advantage of my not-yet-done-with-me cold to read several books connected with a novel I’m working on, and in particular the work of E P Thompson. I’ve galloped through Whigs and Hunters and enjoyed it enormously, and now I’m on Customs in Common, a collection of studies looking at how the customs and culture of working people resisted the march of what the ruling elite – and later historians - liked to give such names as enlightenment, reform, or progress.

I find Thompson a very refreshing read. It’s partly because it’s an antidote to the thing called Social and Economic History I was taught at school. It was not merely that this was dull – all those spinning jennies, mechanical threshers, and fatt…

Horace and Selima

On 6 May 2007 Professor Sir Christopher Frayling unveiled a blue plaque at the London home of illustrator Edward Ardizzone. He spoke of his “passion for illustrated books”, which he also described as “an under-rated art”. Almost to the day three years later in Bristol he proved with his latest book, Horace Walpole’s Cat, that if it is true that illustration is an under-rated art, it is unjustly so.

Frayling was speaking on 7 May 2010 at an event which was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This intellectual bash had been long overdue for Bristol. Cheltenham has its festival, Bath has its festival, but until 2005 Bristol had nothing comparable. Now we do, and it really is worth having. Topics to come this year include religious faith, art in the First World War, feminism, capitalism and lying (I wonder if the last two go together?), and you can be sure that I’ll be going to as many talks as I can. Though, just to prove how highbrow I really am, my favourite event so far is still Ge…

Strawberry Hill for ever

Last week I went to London for a day to look at a couple of exhibitions connected with the eighteenth century. My morning was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition. This was a wonderful display of objects from the Thames-side house, as well as fascinating drawings and plans of the property showing not only how it was designed but something of what it looked like when Walpole lived in it.

What struck me was the number of objects in Walpole’s collection that were wrongly attributed. Francis I’s gilt suit of armour was never worn by the French king; a painting of the children of Henry VIII actually depicts three children of Christian II of Denmark; a portrait of Frances Duchess of Suffolk and Adrian Stokes shows Lady Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes; early sixteenth century ebony furniture dates from some 150 years later; and coins from the reign of Elizabeth I are fake.

Of course, Walpole didn’t have access to modern scientific me…