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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 h2

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

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, implyi

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

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 talki

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

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

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

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 criti

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 rema

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 a

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.

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 pa

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 f

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

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 scientifi

He's here!

The last half of March was an anxious time. He was due to arrive on Saturday 3 April, but I was going to be in Italy and I’d miss him. We had a wonderful time visiting the Colosseum, the Forum and Castel Sant Angelo. A morning in Ostia was lovely. We went early, before the crowds, and found ourselves sharing the ruins with birds and lizards. Then on to Sorrento by way of Monte Cassino, where we visited the Polish Cemetery. I happened to be reading Richard Holmes on Wellington during the journey. The visit and the book brought back all my loathing of war, of the pomp and ceremony and cool language behind which this most dreadful of human failings is cloaked. From these saddening thoughts on to Sorrento where as we sat carelessly eating and drinking a procession of cloaked and hooded penitents passed by. To terrible Vesuvius next and a hot walk to the top of the crater, climbing up from the ordure that infests the area around the ticket office: the dog shit and litter, dust and fume-be

The White Guard

Whenever I try to talk about Mikhail Bulgakov I go all spluttery and purple-faced, my eyes water, I choke and gasp, and I might after a few minutes’ gibbering manage to squeak “bloody genius” – and that doesn’t express a fraction of the regard I have for his work. Mention The Master and Margarita and I fall apart completely. Refer to his novel The White Guard and I may just about manage to convey that it’s got the best ending of any book anywhere in the universe at any time. Imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to seeing The White Guard at the Lyttelton Theatre last Saturday (20 March), in Andrew Upton’s “new version”. I read the novel in readiness, spent the afternoon at the splendid Wallace Collection, and then went to the theatre. The performance surprised me. The play was funny – and I hadn’t expected that. Yes, I expected humour – this is Bulgakov – but I suppose I had something darker in mind. I was frustrated by not knowing how much of a new version Upton’s rewri

Merrily Merrily

So it’s a capital offence to use adverbs? It is, according to Elmore Leonard, who lays down the law in his book 10 Rules of Writing , to be published shortly. If you haven’t seen the Guardian’s Leonard-inspired article Ten Rules for Writing Fiction , in which a number of authors share their dos and don’ts, you should. It’s packed full of advice: useful, funny, exasperating, gnomic, silly…see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one. But the poor old adverb. Why such animosity? I think there can be few words as wonderful as an adverb when it’s used in the right place. I remember the first time I came across “friendlily” many years ago, in a novel by Kate O’Brien. I’d never thought you could make an adverb of friendly and it stopped me dead in my reading tracks. Hang on – isn’t that what good writing is not supposed to do, interrupt the flow, introduce a bit of rough with the smooth? Well, no, not really. The occasional jolt or jar can work won

A mote will turn the balance

When I was at school I had problems with A Midsummer Night’s Dream . It wasn’t just the dull way it was taught in my school back in the day. Students nowadays have much livelier texts to read from; many don’t even have to read a whole Shakespeare play any more but can get by with extracts. (Though how deciding half the school population are too stupid to read Shakespeare and thus denying them access to a hugely important element of our culture fits into the brave new widening participation world is beyond me. Still, it keeps the school exam results looking good.) The real issue for me was the play’s violence. This is a work that is often played as if it’s sweet and light, a bit of a romp, an easy confection. It’s got fairies, hasn’t it? But for me from the very start it was the violence that struck and disturbed me. A play that opens with a father threatening his daughter with death if she doesn’t marry the man of his choice, and that daughter being told that her father should be as

Missing Simon Armitage

Last Sunday (28 February) we (husband Gerard and I) went to see Simon Armitage at Bath Literary Festival, reading from the anthology he and bird enthusiast Tim Dee have put together: The Poetry of Birds . I love birds and I love Simon Armitage’s poetry and I’m sure I’d have loved Tim Dee too except that when we got there Simon Armitage was cancelled. That is, he was unable to be with us but lovely Helen Dunmore took his place. Lovely she is, but we had our hearts set on Simon Armitage so we got our money back and then looked for ways to redeem the morning. We quickly found them in coffee and cake followed by a joyous half hour in that book paradise which is Topping & Co Booksellers. I first encountered Mr Armitage at On the Border, a series of poetry readings which take place in the Drill Hall, Chepstow. He was appearing with Owen Sheers, and if I am honest – though at the risk of hurting Mr Armitage’s feelings – it was Owen Sheers I wanted to see. (If you want to know why read R