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The book of a thousand poems

You know when you pick up a book in a charity shop and it prompts an unexpected flood of memories? This happened to me when I chanced upon a copy of The book of  thousand poems for the young and the very young. The dustjacket was unfamiliar but I opened the book and immediately remembered it vividly from my own childhood.

The book of a thousand poems had a certain romantic resonance for me even when I first encountered it as a primary school child because it wasn’t a new book even then. It was one of a handful of books my mother had kept from her own childhood in the 1950s: I also remember all four books in the Little Women sequence, Black Beauty, and the Susan Coolidge books about Katy. It was a chunky little black volume with a battered cover; my mother, who never throws anything out, may still have the original but undoubtedly it had lost its spine by the time my three siblings and I had finished with it. Its physical appearance added to the romance: solid and black, it was one of the books that was always used as a schoolbook when we played old-fashioned school, or as a spellbook when we played witches. Looking at this copy I see that it was first published in 1942, which would explain the soggy rationing-era paper which was used for my mother’s copy.

I bought the book, of course – £1.99, a bargain. I’m amazed to find how much of the poetry in it I remember. The poetry of your childhood sticks with you, of course. I think I can still recite the whole of Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum from memory; when I came across Don Paterson’s description of the poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”, it was Each Peach Pear Plum which first came to mind, with its neat form of looping rhyme and narrative.

The poems in The book of a thousand poems are of, shall we say, mixed quality. The book is divided into sections, starting with nursery rhymes (mostly familiar and traditional), and following that with ‘Poems for the very young’; ‘Fantasy and fairyland’; ‘The seasons’; ‘Flowers and trees’; ‘Fables and stories’; ‘National and love of country’; ‘Prayers, graces and thanksgivings’. No modern-day gritty realism here: ‘traditional’ (for which read conservative) values, Christianity, and a determination to limit children to childish subjects only: fairies, flowers, Christmas and Easter.

I was utterly charmed by this. I was a soppy child and found my left-wing, right-on parents unutterably prosaic; the values embodied in The book of a thousand poems seemed incredibly romantic and dashing to me even as I recognised that the poems in praise of the Union Jack and how ‘To be an English boy or girl/Is much the best of all’ were absolute tosh. The selection of rather saccharine prayers thrilled me; like Anna in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I spent a marvellous, if short, period as a secret believer in a family of atheists, devoutly reading my self-imposed catechism:

We thank thee, Heavenly Father,
For all the lovely spring,
For primroses and bluebells,
And little birds that sing. (Mary Anderson)

The prayer section has stuck less in my memory, though, than the nature poems. Some are famous: Blake’s The Tyger, short extracts from Hiawatha. I wasn’t literarily discerning at that age and was most fond of the kind of poems which anthropomorphised seasons or flowers:

April, April
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears!
(Sir William Watson)

or Snowdrops:

Little ladies, white and green,
With your spears about you,
Will you tell us where you’ve been
Since we lived without you?  
(L. Alma Tadema*)

Most of the poems are like that: small poems which fit at least two to a page, a tumpty-tumpty rhythm, a solid(ish) rhyming scheme, and a conscious and condescending focus on child-appropriateness. Some are much better than others, but the majority seem to have been written in the first half of the twentieth century by people who were ‘writing down’ to children, carefully making sure that nothing troubling or unpretty was offered to little innocent minds.

I read the whole book, though, many times over. I think what I got from it was the first inkling of the way poetry works, particularly with image and metaphor. The rhythms and assonances of the words never struck me (and don’t strike me now) as being particularly remarkable, but even the rather twee imagery of poppies dressed in their fluttering silken gowns and snow falling like feathers seemed beautiful and marvellous to me, and I wrote lots of poems in imitation.

Those poems are all lost now, sadly. But looking at some of the poems I still like, it’s clear that a striking image or a clever metaphor is still irresistible for me. I wonder how much my taste was guided by this rather unremarkable book?

* That’s not Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the Dutch painter of lush, swoony Victorian classical scenes, but his daughter Laurence, novelist and poet.

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Picture via the Oxfam bookshop.

Happy new academic year! September still feels much more like a new year to me than January, especially because autumn is wonderful and January is dismal. I shan’t rehearse the resolutions I’ve made (I am always making resolutions), but in honour of the new academic year, here are my five favourite books about schools.

Villette – Charlotte Brontë
One of my favourite books of all, anyway. Villette is such a weird little novel and the school in it is even weirder, all claustrophobic jealousies and neurotic competition. The portrayal of the headmistress Madame Beck, and spoiled pupil Ginevra Fanshawe bears out what Angela Carter wrote about Charlotte Brontë: that one of the most pleasing things about her is that she can sometimes be gloriously bitchy.

Autumn term – Antonia Forest
If you only read one middle class, mid twentieth century girls’ school story, choose one by Antonia Forest, who is massively more talented than any of the other school story writers. She’s very good at the awkwardnesses and petty worries of teenage friendships. Autumn term is very funny too; Forest writes some very good sarcastic lady teachers.

Claudine à l’école – Colette
This is most fun for the central character, the fifteen-year-old Claudine, revelling in her last year as Queen Bee in her tiny village school. She is one of those characters who would be unbearable to know – so malicious! so full of herself! – but is tremendously enjoyable to read: clear-eyed and smart and funny, with no time for hypocrisy and stupidity.

Frost in May – Antonia White
I’ve never been religious, but if I were to incline that way, Frost in May would work quite well as an antidote, I think. A lot of novels about schools are about the tension and claustrophobia of shutting up a lot of young women together; Antonia White adds strict Catholicism and some very scary nuns to this scenario. Reading Frost in May feels a bit like going slightly mad: you follow Nanda White’s initial revulsion at the cruelty of the environment, then her abject attempts to believe and conform, and finally her rebellion.

Mike and Psmith – PG Wodehouse
Someone recently produced a list of the sexiest men in British literature. It’s a pretty disappointing list, all things considered, but the omission that most appalled me and my sister was that of the unflappable, inimitable Psmith, definitely one of the most attractive literary heroes (certainly more attractive than Jerry Cruncher). Better still, he’s a socialist, if an unorthodox one:
“You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.”
Mike and Psmith is the first novel in which he appears, and has the extra virtue of being full of thrilling cricket matches. (Reading cricket matches in novels might be quite a specialist pleasure, I admit. Antonia Forest provides some good literary cricket matches too.)

Other excellent novels about schools I could also have mentioned: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and fall; Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater; RF Delderfield’s To serve them all my days; and dozens of children’s books, of course; and if you don’t follow @reelmolesworth on Twitter, you should.

Suggestions in the comments for ones I’ve missed?

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£0.01!

Things I didn’t know: you can do an empty search on Amazon, narrow it by price, and then choose a category in the side bar. Which means you can find, for example, all the poetry books currently available for £0.01 (such a seductive price, even though it really means £2.81, a price which would make me think twice about buying a book in Oxfam but has me merrily clicking Add To Basket, or indeed Buy With One Click, on Amazon). If you look at everything available for £0.00 you can see the amazingly obscure things available for Kindle.

Incidentally I’ve often thought that someone should map the speed at which individual books fall to £0.01 on Amazon. It must be related to two factors: inversely to the quality of the book and directly to its immediate success on publishing. Even really good bestsellers fall to £0.01 very fast; but terrible books which sell moderately seem to fall to £0.01 much faster than decent ones with comparable success. Someone should test this theory! It would produce a lot of attractive downward pointing graphs, too, which is always nice.

And of course there are some books which just get more expensive all the time.

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I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been writing because I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been reading, or going to concerts, or to the cinema. I haven’t been to the theatre in 2011. My brain is atrophying. My only cultural activity in the last two months has been going to the opera.

I always get a reading block around this time of year. I wonder why?

Here’s my goal: by the end of May I’m going to finish some of the books I’ve read half of and then stalled at. These are:

The state in capitalist society – Ralph Miliband
Greed – Elfriede Jelinek
The intellectual life of the British working class – Jonathan Rose
Woman’s estate – Juliet Mitchell
War and peace – Tolstoy
The end of the peace process – Edward Said
The Penguin history of modern China – Jonathan Fenby
La Débâcle – Émile Zola 
A tale of two cities – Dickens

You know what, when I finish that little lot I’m going to read some really short, fun books. Suggestions in the comments, please. I haven’t even included Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which I’m a quarter of the way through, because it’s so enormously detailed I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it before Christmas. The first two hundred pages took me three months.

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NB: I don’t usually bother to note spoilers in this blog as I don’t have a problem with finding out endings before I read things (in fact I will often read the end of a crime novel at the beginning, so that with the tension of finding out whodunit relieved, I can enjoy actually reading the novel). But since I’m writing about thrillers here I think it’s fair to warn you that you shouldn’t read on if you mind being spoiled for part or all of Alan Furst’s Night soldiers, Philip Kerr’s If the dead rise not, or John le Carré’s The spy who came in from the cold.

(more…)

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Over two million Jews emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Most of them went to America, but a significant number ended up in London, where, like the Huguenots before them and the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant communities later, they gravitated towards the East End. The question of what to do about this large, poor and foreign population was one which occupied Parliament as well as the established Jewish bourgeoisie, and a classically Victorian solution was found: philanthropy, but philanthropy with a guaranteed return for the philanthropists. The Four Percent Industrial Dwelling Company, set up by Baron Rothschild, set out to replace the lodging houses of the Whitechapel ‘rookeries’ with ‘model dwellings’ – tenements designed to house large numbers of the urban poor in relative health and comfort, and which would generate a four percent return on the shareholders’ investment.

Jerry White first noticed the Rothschild buildings of Whitechapel’s Flower and Dean Street in the early 1970s, shortly before they were demolished in another slum clearance project. In Rothschild Buildings: life in an East End tenement block 1887-1920 he sets out to discover what life was actually like in these buildings and through a combination of interviews with people who lived there and documentary evidence, he produces a wonderfully lively and detailed account of the community that lived there and the kind of life they lived.

The great majority were Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, but some from Germany and Holland. Interestingly, the people who moved into the Rothschild Buildings were of a slightly different class to the people who had lived in the lodging houses which had stood on the site earlier: where the poorest had previously eked out a precarious living as street sellers and prostitutes (public outcry over the crimes of Jack the Ripper had provided a great impetus for demolition of the ‘rookeries’), those paying rent to the Four Percent Company tended to be the more respectable and skilled working classes. Often Jewish immigrants brought artisanal skills (tailoring, joinery) from their home countries and found work in the furniture and clothes workshops of the East End; White’s description of the way that craftsmen found themselves working in an industrial sweatshop environment, where they moved from being artisans who made whole garments to being specialist cutters or seamers is an interesting reflection of the continuing drive for efficiency in manufacturing and the effect this had on individual workers.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is the way that it enters into the Rothschild Buildings and paints a vivid picture of the life that went on there. White provides a plan of the average flat – two rooms, a small scullery and a toilet; not so different in size and design from the cheaply built urban flats of today, except that the Rothschild buildings flats were usually inhabited by much larger families, with children sharing the parents’ bedroom and young children sleeping three or four to a bed. He talks about the role of the building superintendent and gives a copy of the rules for tenants; he details the shops that were to be found in the neighbourhood  – predominantly small Jewish businesses catering to the needs of the working poor; he even discusses the way that the public baths were used by observant Jewish families for the ritual baths which precede marriage and other religious ceremonies. What he doesn’t do is sentimentalise or romanticise the experience of the urban poor – while he’s fair-minded about the advantages the model dwellings offered over the older slums, he’s also graphic about the difficulty and unpleasantness that tenement life often entailed.

The interviews with former tenants bring the era to life, as they recall preparations for the Sabbath, school nature expeditions to Victoria Park and Epping Forest, the jobs they did on leaving school, the families who kept chickens in the flat and even individual schoolteachers and shopkeepers. If the book has a flaw, it is that the thematic organisation of the chapters (‘Home’; ‘Community’; ‘Growing up’; ‘Work’) sometimes obscures the changes which happened over the period discussed – for example, there must have been a certain amount of Anglicisation between 1887 and 1920 as parents born in Latvia, Poland and the Ukraine were followed by children born within the sound of Bow Bells. Also, as the former residents were interviewed in the 1970s, they are from the younger, London-born generations, which means that the experience of the very early immigrants is not as vividly described.


It’s impossible while reading this not to draw comparisons with the East End as it is today – the kosher grocers and street sellers with their herring barrels have now been replaced by Pakistani shops and Indian restaurants, and the Jewish girls slaving over their sewing machines have been replaced by a new generation of sweatshops. Even the characterisation by the government and the bourgeois press of the Jewish population as foreigners resistant to integration, among whom the seeds of political extremism might easily take root, is reminiscent of today’s racist rhetoric on the newer generations of immigrants.The history of the area is embodied in Brick lane mosque – previously a synagogue and before then a Huguenot church, and now serving the large Muslim population. Plus ça change… but Rothschild Buildings is as fascinating for the uniqueness of the community it describes as it is for the parallels it evokes with today.

Edit – more about the Four Percent Industrial Dwellings Company here, found via this Guardian blog. Hat-tip to Matthew (click through for his brilliant London photos).

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You don’t expect a sociological study to grip you like a novel, or make you laugh, but this book does both those things. Family and kinship in east London is a classic study, first published in 1957, and reprinted a couple of years ago as a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s based on three years of field work done in Bethnal Green in the early fifties, interviewing the residents about their family and social lives. Young and Willmott examine a community that was in the early stages of radical change as the London County Council began their project of postwar slum clearance, moving families from the old-fashioned terrace streets of east and south-east London to newly built suburban housing estates in Essex and Kent.

The study is split into two sections: the first describes the family and community structures that exist for the working class communities in Bethnal Green, looking mostly at young married couples. The authors find that the pivotal relationship here is between the adult woman and her mother, a relationship which sets the tone for other family relationships and which is the basis of the family’s engagement with the wider community. Social life with the family takes place at ‘Mum’s’; sons-in-law are integrated into their wives’ families, not the other way round. Daughters experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare naturally turn to their mothers for advice, sometimes over and above the advice of midwives and health visitors. A lot of the material is given as quotes from the interviews done, which means that it’s often very funny about the family relationships described.

The second part of the book looks at some of the east Londoners who have been rehoused in Debden (which the authors rename Greenleigh). The conclusion they draw is that the way that people have been rehoused into the suburban planning estates means that the ties with the community are fractured; as individual young families move out without the mother-in-law and the network which radiates out from her, they may experience a material improvement in their quality of life, but they lose the connection to a closely knit community in which they are used to knowing everyone around them. This argument gets away from the condemnation of post-war housing estates as being architecturally unwelcoming and instead criticises the way in which rehousing was carried out. I’m not certain, however, that there isn’t a certain romanticisation of the Bethnal Green community- warm, tightly-knit, everyone knows your name – which obscures the material discomfort of living in cramped inner-city terraces with poor ventilation and plumbing.

A few things really stood out for me when reading this. The attitude to the welfare state shown is interesting: in the post-Thatcher age, I’m so used to the right-wing positioning of the social state as something which is more or less in conflict with individuals and their families. The fundamental acceptance, not just that the welfare state is a force for good, but that the welfare state actively eases the relationships between family members, seems surprising to me today (although it shouldn’t). Of course, it stands to reason that (for example) the difficulties caused in poor families by the need to support penurious elderly parents are relieved by reasonable state pensions. But thirty years of small-state propaganda has made this a position which has constantly to be defended; the complete acceptance of the benevolent social state is dated but refreshing.

Willmott and Young suggest that the family is the connection between the individual and the wider community (there is a passage in which the authors follow a Mrs Landon on her shopping trip, during which she recognises fourteen different people, often knowing them through her siblings or her parents -‘My mum knew her mum’; ‘He’s a brother of my sister’s husband’). So the individual connects with the wider community through the family; but the state in return can ease the family relationship by relieving family members of the need to depend on each other.

I said earlier that the community examined was in the first stages of radical change, and this was not just in relation to the housing situation. Willmott and Young discuss the jobs done by the Bethnal Green working classes and touch on the ways in which work is beginning to change: the old furniture and clothes manufacturing workshops of the East End are being replaced by larger factories, often out of town. The jobs described are manual ones, predominantly unskilled: men work as porters in the markets of Bilingsgate and Spitalfields and as dockers; these jobs are passed down through families, from fathers to sons.

[Picture from urban75]

Three years after Family and Kinship was published, the postwar resurgence of the London docks would come to a halt as the containerisation of shipping meant that the shallow London docks were no longer suitable for international trade. All the London docks closed in the next twenty years, leaving a vacuum in the heart of East London which is still perceptible. The manufacturing trades were lost, first from London, then from the UK; Spitalfields market is now  a bourgeois playground. The study may romanticise the working class, but it also depicts a confident working class who imagined that full employment in steady work was something they could rely upon. The authors call for caution in housing policy in order to preserve what they saw as a close-knit and strong community. In the end, however, it wasn’t housing policy which fractured that community; the damage was done by deindustralisation, rising unemployment and the casualisation of working class work.

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Marxist dog

This is actually quite a sad book about the collapse of the CPGB in the 1950s, Krushchev’s secret speech, Hungary, etc. But this bit made me laugh. It’s by the television critic of the Daily Worker:

Once I found fault with Wilfred Pickles, for inviting on to his programme a man with a performing dog.

I referred to the dog’s look of misery, as it slowly went through its pointless tricks. Little did I know that this was a Marxist dog. ‘Let me tell you the dog Mij is highly respected up here in the north,’ wrote a reader from Durham. ‘You will be surprised to know this same dog has earned some good money for the Daily Worker at socials etc., and its master is a Party member, so I’m afraid you owe some apology.’

Among the other letters was one enclosing a picture of the dog about to do the trick which always brought the house down at Daily Worker bazaars. It was presented with an array of newspapers, and unerringly put its paw on the Daily Worker. ‘A trick which, I think you will agree, has some point.’

from The death of Uncle Joe by Alison Macleod

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Twenty million Russians died during the Second World War – civilians and combatants – and Germany would not have been defeated without the Russian effort. Catherine Merridale’s book Ivan’s war is a look at the experience of the Russian soldier, what motivated him (sometimes her) to fight, and how the experience of soldiers was seen by the Soviet state after the war. It’s a fascinating book, mostly because at the beginning of it it seems utterly impossible that the Soviet side might have gone on to win. They have no weapons – they train with wooden rifles; the officer class is in disarray following the purges of the ’30s; most conscripts are barely trained and poorly equipped, and in the initial months of the war the Germans sweep seemingly unstoppably across their territory. Merridale is very interested in the motivations for the Soviet troops, pointing out that while US troops deliberately instigated a feeling of brotherhood within small units, Soviet troops were motivated by a far more complex set of feelings: dumb obedience, fear of the officers and commissars, a sense of patriotism, and pride in the Communist achievement all play their parts.

Watching The world at war recently, the scale of the Russian achievement in militarising is still breathtaking: one of the experts describes it as a process in which the western side of the Soviet Union was tipped up and all the industry moved to the East. (This section of The world at war may be aesthetically my favourite part, as it consists mainly of footage of Russian munitions women in headscarves, set to stirring Russian folk songs.)

Merridale deals very even-handedly with the phenomemon of mass rape by Soviet troops: while in no way shying away from the horrors of the rape of German (and other) women, she notes that  Soviet troops had pushed very slowly over the German-occupied Russian territories, seeing at first hand what the Wehrmacht and SS had done to their own people. Atina Grossman on Russian rape:

Again and again in German recollection of what Russian occupiers told them, the vengeful memory summoned was not a parallel violation by a German raping a Russian woman, but of a horror on a different order: it was the image of a German soldier swinging a baby, torn from it’s mother’s breast, against a wall – the mother screams, the baby’s brains splatter against the wall, the soldier laughs.

These images may not have been authentic, or first-hand; propaganda from Moscow ensured that the crimes of the Germans were kept fresh in the minds of combat troops. A Soviet officer on the raping and pillaging in Berlin:

‘Millions of people had been brutalized and corrupted by the war,’ he wrote, ‘and by our propaganda – bellicose, jingoistic and false. I had believed such propaganda necessary on the eve of war, and all the more so for the war’s duration. I still believed it, but I had also come to understand that from seeds like these came poisoned fruit’.

For a lot of her witness testimony on the conduct of the Russians in Berlin, Catherine Merridale quotes from the anonymous diary of a ‘woman in Berlin’ who details with astonishing clarity the events during and just after the battle for Berlin. This is an amazing book, in which the author not only writes about being repeatedly raped by Russian troops (she then decides that the best way to deal with this is to find a ‘protector’ and marches up to offer herself to the first officer she can find), but somehow manages to occasionally inject humour into her account and find some of the ironies of her situation. The most unpleasant irony, of course, being that when her fiancé, Gerd, turns up from the front, he is appalled that the woman he was supposed to marry is now spoiled goods, and leaves her. There’s also a lot of really interesting detail of the time – one of the most interesting/amusing details being that the period between the Russians entering Berlin and the official German surrender is actually a very fat period in which the shopkeepers all bring out the food they have been hoarding, and everyone’s stocks of luxury food and alcohol are consumed in a decadent, nihilistic orgy – before the Russians arrive.

Another piece of witness testimony of the period, but a good deal weirder and less admirable, is Until the final hour, the diary of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary up to the end, including in the bunker, on which the film Der Untergang was based. It’s an unsettling account of an unimaginable situation and way of life, but I found that Junge’s admiration for the Führer still shines through, as she admits in the epilogue: she wrote up the diaries in 1947 and 48, and she says it has taken her her whole life to understand what it was that she lived through and her own responsibility for participating in the Nazi period. I think it’s interesting that Traudl Junge was never a fanatical Nazi – she starts off wanting to be a ballet dancer, and drifts into secretarial work, and to becoming Hitler’s secretary, almost by accident. But her admiration for Hitler’s personal charm, and her rather star-struck namedropping of the top Nazis, is difficult to read – one has the sense that she sees the people surrounding Hitler as rather boorish, compared to his personal charm. Other than that, this is weirdly fascinating despite the pedestrian writing, full of details of Hitler’s personal life – either kitsch, bizarre or both – and really capturing the insanity of the last days of the bunker.

The more human side of the book comes with Junge’s reflections in old age about the real meaning of her involvement in the Nazi régime, and about her own personal responsibility. Her internal reassurance that she was too young to understand or to make any difference is shattered:

‘At that time I must often have walked past the commemorative plaque to Sophie Scholl in Franz-Josef-Strasse without noticing it. One day I did and I was terribly shocked when I realised that she was executed in 1943, just when I was beginning my own job with Hitler. Sophie Scholl had originally been a BDM member herself, a year younger than me, and she saw clearly that she was dealing with a criminal regime. All of a sudden I had no excuse any more.’

Merridale also ends her book with a discussion of how the Russian soldiers deal with what they have done, which I found very moving. Her conclusion that the Soviet emphasis on heroism and an accepted version of history has been damaging for many of the veterans to live through is important: to a certain extent I think we in Britain have a comparable accepted notion of the heroism of the second world war combatants, something which hasn’t necessarily been healthy either for our image as a country or for the people who actually lived through or fought in the war. Perhaps it’s the case that a healthier self-examination has been forced on the losing side, while the Spitfire ale version of events goes unquestioned, or less questioned, in the UK? (German speakers can see my brother-in-common-law opining on this phenomenon here, towards the end.)

Nonetheless, the pride that many of the Russian veterans voice: that they saved their motherland cannot seriously be disputed. Merridale’s book only underlines, in the end, what an astonishing and hard-won achievement that was.

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‘[…] After all, you aren’t someone who writes little novels about the emotions. You write about what’s real.’

Anna almost laughed again, and then said soberly: ‘Do you realize how many of the things we say are just echoes? That remark you’ve just made is an echo from Communist Party criticism — at its worst moments, moreover. God knows what that remark means, I don’t. I never did. If Marxism means anything, it means that a little novel about the emotions should reflect “what’s real” since the emotions are a function and a product of a society …’.

The above passage, from Lessing’s The golden notebook, marks out what is really interesting about The grass is singing. I haven’t read it in some years and remembered it as a fairly straightforward novel about the colour bar in colonial Rhodesia. The surprise on rereading it is how much of the novel is taken up with the mental disintegration of the central character and the way in which Lessing shows that mental breakdown as being intertwined with the political situation of the white colonialist farmers.

The novel begins with the murdered body of Mary Turner, killed by her black house servant Moses. Lessing gives us the ‘facts’ of the case as set out in the newspaper report of the incident, and then proceeds to examine what she sees as the ‘truth’ of the situation. Mary has married unhappily; her husband Dick is a poor and incompetent farmer in the Rhodesian veldt. Isolated and unhappy on his farm, Mary begins to break down mentally, to the point where she behaves in a way unthinkable to white Rhodesian society of the time and breaks the colour bar, forming a strange and dysfunctional relationship with Moses. In offering us the truth rather than the facts of the case, Lessing leaves out the details of what might be considered the two essential events of the novel: she does not tell us the sexual details of Mary’s relationship with Moses, and she leaves out the details of Moses’ murder of Mary. Instead, Mary’s relationship with Moses is shown only through one scene described through the eyes of another character:

He was struck motionless with surprise. Mary was sitting on an upended candle box before the square of mirror nailed on the wall. She was in a garish pink petticoat, and her bony yellow shoulders stuck sharply out of it. Beside her stood Moses, and, as Tony watched, she stood up and held out her arms while the native slipped her dress over them from behind.When she sat down again she shook out her hair from her neck with both hands, with the gesture of a beautiful woman adoring her beauty. Moses was buttoning up her dress; she was looking in the mirror. The attitude of the native was of an indulgent uxoriousness.

The strangeness of the incident is highlighted by showing it from the viewpoint of Tony, newly arrived from England. Taken aback, his only remark to Mary about the incident serves only to heighten the bizarreness of the situation:

He said, in a jocular and uncomfortable voice: ‘There was once an Empress of Russia who thought so little of her slaves, as human beings, that she used to undress naked in front of them.’

At this point the outsider viewpoint makes it clear how detached Mary is from sanity, and the racism of the colour bar is underlined: Tony realises that Mary has reached a point where ‘other people’s standards don’t count’ any more, which for him is madness. It is only in this state of ‘insanity’ that Mary can have anything approaching a human relationship with her black servant, however warped a form this may take.

But there is no simple answer as to why Mary undergoes her breakdown. Loneliness, isolation, the difference between her expectations and the reality of her marriage, the impossible situation she finds herself in with her husband and his disastrous farming experiences, and their separate sexual neuroses are all factors. But more than that Lessing suggests that the terrible situation of the white colonialists and the racism of their society also create the circumstances for Mary’s encroaching madness. This implication is never crude: one of the really interesting and good things about Lessing as a novelist is the way in which she connects the external circumstances of her characters with their mental states. She has an uncomfortable psychological honesty which makes it difficult to sympathise with any character, but reveals their motivations with an unsettling clarity. At the same time, she evokes the oppressive heat and the bitter struggles of the farming life in a way that allows one clearly to imagine the unbearable physical and emotional pressures that Mary has to endure.

In the end, Mary approaches her death at Moses’ hands in silent acceptance, as he will later submit to arrest by the white authorities. Her behaviour has passed the point of no return long before her husband starts planning a recuperative holiday for her; Dick and Moses are left, one mad, the other taken away by the police. The white people refuse to admit Tony’s views on the situation that led to Mary’s death; her behaviour has been so unthinkable for them that they see her death as the best solution to the whole problem.

I’ve always liked Doris Lessing’s novels, particularly the early ones, and it was interesting to reread this one after thirteen-odd years and see how much is in it that I loved in The golden notebook and the Martha Quest novels. A lot of the themes are recurrent – in particular, the dry bitterness of the unfulfilled woman’s experience. Lessing’s own mother had a disappointing experience in emigrating to Rhodesia; Mary’s experiences may in part be based on hers, but the difficulties that Mary feels with her own mother are more like the way that Lessing describes her own relationship with her mother. Later in Martha Quest she returns to a young Rhodesian woman character who has a similar upbringing to Mary, but whose life turns out differently: rather than the isolation that Mary endures, she becomes politically engaged and ends up a middle-aged activist in 1960s London, where all life is going on. But there too Lessing brings her brutal psychological truths about the dependencies and dysfunctionalities of human experience and the way these reflect and are shaped by the political situation of the time. Again it comes back to the quote from The golden notebook: Lessing’s little novel about the emotions is unquestionably about what’s real.

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I find that all the books which really stick with me are the ones I have no sense of ‘getting’  at the time of reading. Instead of being able to define them easily, I think round them, never really pinning them down to my satisfaction. The age of reason is one of these: a book I found absolutely enthralling, but which, after reading, left me unable to pinpoint quite why – while still feeling that my absorption in it was completely justified.

Street scene in Paris. Late 1930s. Alexander Trauner.

(Photo from the Hungarian Quarterly)

The book follows Mathieu, a philosophy teacher, in the couple of days of his life after he learns that his mistress, Marcelle, is pregnant. He must find the money for an abortion or marry her, and this problem has consequences for everyone in the novel. Mathieu can try to borrow the money from his bourgeois brother, but the brother refuses to pay for an abortion and instead offers Mathieu money to marry his girlfriend. He can try and borrow money from his friend Daniel – but Daniel, despite being a homosexual, is involved in a secret liaison with Marcelle, and suspects that she would prefer to keep the baby. He asks his friend Boris for a loan, but Boris’s only way of raising money is to ask his much older mistress Lola, who despises Mathieu. So Mathieu is pushed towards doing the ‘right’ thing for Marcelle and marrying her, but at the same time imagines himself to be falling in love with Boris’s sister Ivich.

The only character not embroiled in this tangle is Brunet, the communist. For him life and its purpose is clear; he encourages Mathieu to follow the same route:

‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straight away, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us? […] You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connexions, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there. It can’t be an amusing sort of life.’

But it is this nothingness that makes Mathieu free, and this that ties him to Boris and Ivich, who are not much more than children, but share Mathieu’s drifting existence.

Couple in café - Brassai

(Photo)

Beautifully evocative, the background to this drifting state is the city: Paris in the sweltering summer, but also Paris in the run-up to war. The sense of oppressive heat reflects the ominous international tensions of August 1938: the book opens with Mathieu meeting a man who talks longingly of Madrid, where the Spanish Civil War is reaching its climax. Brunet, too, is clear-eyed about the future:

‘You know where they will send me? To the Maginot line. That’s a sure and certain knockout.’

Mathieu’s idea of freedom as nothingness is not disconnected from the real world, from the political reality which is present but just off-stage. Nor is it a moral nihilism: there is a clear distinction between acting in the right way, doing the right thing, and acting in the ways that society expects. At one point Mathieu is offered the possibility of stealing the money for the abortion, and this is contrasted with Boris’s penchant for stealing things not because he needs them, but to add excitement and danger to his own life. But freedom is a rejection of the expectations of society, of Mathieu’s brother’s bourgeois morals which would force him to marry Marcelle. And Sartre’s psychological honesty is brilliant here: it’s clear that despite society’s expectations and despite Marcelle’s desire to bear her child, marriage would be a terrible idea for her as well as him. The psychological honesty of the novel is wonderful: like Doris Lessing’s best books, there is an almost uncomfortably clarity about the motivations and desires of the characters. There is no such thing as a trivial mood: everyone’s feelings for other people, however fleeting or ephemeral, mean something; and life is lived through that meaning, not despite it. The important thing is to live, and to live freely:

‘I’ve only got one life,’ [Ivich] said passionately. ‘From the way you talk, you sound as though you believed yourself immortal. According to you, a year lost can be replaced.’

The book ends in a minor key: the various relationships dissolve, the characters drift apart. Boris and Ivich will be sent back to the provinces; Marcelle splits from Mathieu, but her decision to marry Daniel instead cannot be seen as a happy ending. The threat of war is still present; only Brunet the communist retains his clarity of vision and purpose. But Mathieu’s conclusion is that he has made a series of decisions which have brought him, finally, to the ‘age of reason’:

He yawned: he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth.

Jean Paul Sartre with pipe in library

(My favourite photo of J-P Sartre)

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Dead air – Iain Banks

I am trying to read a bit more contemporary fiction, as I actually don’t know any contemporary writers except ones I despise. This surely gives me an unfair idea of the fiction-writing community.

However, this was a bad choice. The central character and narrator is completely obnoxious, and well-drawn enough to remain obnoxious throughout the novel, so it was like spending a few days with the biggest nobber you know. I was perplexed as to what this book is about. It’s narrated by Ken Nott, or McNutt, a left-wing shock-jock (is there even such a thing?) working for a commercial radio station he despises. In fact he despises most things, except sounding off about his views at tedious length and in an unbelievably irritating smart-arse style. Is this satire, or are we meant to sympathise with him? For the first three quarters of the book he drifts about, sounding off at regular intervals with his facile views (he is like one of those men you meet at parties who think conversation is a martial art) and then in the last hundred pages some plot happens, most of which seems to come straight out of a Guy Ritchie film.

But I just didn’t get this book. The central character in incredibly obnoxious, so is it satire? Am I supposed to feel an amused contempt for all these dreary London media stereotypes? Or am I meant to pity the emptiness of their coke-snorting, Docklands-loft-apartment lives?

I’m put off the satire idea by the fact that all the women are gorgeous and full of warm intelligence. Each of them elegantly calls the hero out on his bullshit before just as elegantly falling into bed with him; each of them is beautiful and sexy and utterly unmemorable, forcing me to flip back through the book to remember which is which. I would honestly rather a book full of bitches than have my own sex put on a pedestal like this – but who is putting women on a pedestal — the writer, or his character the narrator?

So maybe not satire. But in that case are we supposed to feel for the irredeemably stupid narrator and sympathise with his lengthy diatribes? Only one of them is any good (I will post it when I can find the book). The rest of the time he’s a ginormous prick. A well-drawn, convincingly obnoxious ginormous prick, but that’s not enough to make the novel worth reading.

My cohabitee and others assure me that Iain Banks can be better than this, so I won’t write him off yet. Recommendations for other books of his to try?

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The road

I saw the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The road at the weekend.

It’s very beautiful. The monochromatic scenes of dying forests and deserted motorways are eerily gorgeous, and the greyed out, sunless lighting reminds one of the quiet bleached out light of snowy days. This weird stillness means that the scenes of occasional terrifying violence are all the more scary; the experience of watching the film is as queasily tense as that of reading the book.

However, the film does underline the reason why the book is not as good as it could be. In the novel, Cormac McCarthy is systematic about depicting the actual death of the planet: there are no live animals, no live vegetation, no sun, and the humans who remain are either starving, or resorting to cannibalism — which is, in the long run, unsustainable. Having created such a meticulous picture of a dead planet, McCarthy then wants us to see the father and son’s struggle to survive as noble and even necessary, when in actual fact the mother’s suicide is the most rational response to the circumstances. There comes a point where it is not worth carrying on, and it must surely be when the only food still available comes in ever scarcer tins, and the earth is too poisoned to be able to grow anything.

In the film, the man tells his wife that she sounds crazy when she wants to kill herself; in both film and book the onward march of the father and son, seemingly irrational but representing the triumph of humanity and hope, is vindicated when, after the father’s death, the boy meets and is taken into the care of a family so nice that starvation has not even driven them to the point of killing and eating their pet dog (fools!). In the movie the light even changes slightly, as though the dustclouds obscuring the sun had cleared. 

But the family come from nowhere; all the people we’ve previously encountered in the book have been violent, thieving, cannibalistic, desperate or insane. It seems as though Cormac McCarthy stepped back from the brink, not quite bringing himself to face the horror of the world he had so carefully constructed. Humanity cannot transcend the planet it lives on; once the planet dies, so must we.

Looking back, I see I really loved the book when I first read it – the unsatisfactory sentimentality of the ending has only gradually occurred to me. The film is still definitely worth seeing if you like watching the end of the world: details like the last can of coke, prised from the workings of a long defunct can-dispenser, are very pleasing. But both novel and film would be better if there were no triumph of hope over absolute disaster.

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On forced industrialisation and collectivisation of farming:

The whole experiment seemed to be a piece of prodigious insanity, in which all the rules of logic and principles of economics were turned upside down. It was as if a whole nations had suddenly abandoned and destroyed its houses and huts, which, though obsolete and decaying, existed in reality, and moved, lock, stock, and barrel into some illusory buildings, for which not more than a hint of scaffolding had in reality been prepared; as if that nation had only after this crazy migration set out to make the bricks for the walls of its new dwellings and then found that even the straw for the bricks was lacking; and as if then that whole nation, hungry, dirty, shivering with cold and riddled with disease, had begun a feverish search for the straw, the bricks, the stones, the builders, and the masons, so that, by assembling these, they could at last start building homes incomparably more spacious and healthy then were the hastily abandoned slum dwellings of the past.

Imagine that that nation numbered 160 million; and that it was lured, prodded, whipped and shepherded into that surrealistic enterprise by an ordinary, prosaic, fairly sober man, whose mind had suddenly become possessed by that half-real and half-somnabulistic vision, a man who established himself in the role of super-judge and super-architect, in the role of a modern super-Pharaoh. Such, roughly,  was now the strange scene of Russian life, full of torment and hope, full of pathos and of the grotesque; and such was Stalin’s place in it; only that the things that he drove the people to build were not useless pyramids.

–Isaac Deutscher

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woodland pig

Pig of the week comes as a book review this week. Marie Darrieussecq’s Truismes, translated into English as Pig Tales, is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The heroine-narrator has a dubious job working for a perfume company, where she has sex with clients in the guise of selling them expensive perfumes. As she begins to put on weight, she notices her popularity rising with her clients: they love her ‘healthy’ look and rosy pink skin. Meanwhile our heroine finds she can no longer stand the taste of ham sandwiches but finds herself craving raw potatoes. She is turning slowly into a pig. Gradually this dawns on her – she starts to prefer being on all fours to walking upright, instead of having a human menstrual cycle she has periods of being in heat, and she starts to grow bristles on her back and extra nipples.

At the same time the political situation in France becomes increasingly crazy, a spiritual-fascistic dictator takes power and adopts the narrator as the face of his campaign: ‘Pour un monde plus sain!’ His drastic measures to clean Paris of the ‘unhealthy’ result in him losing interest in our heroine who finds herself living in the sewers, where she gives birth to a litter of dead piglets.

She is stil in a state of flux, switching between human and sow, when she meets a werewolf with whom she finds, temporarily, happiness: they shack up together in connubial bliss, surviving on takeaway pizza – she eats the pizza and he the delivery boy. Eventually the situation becomes unworkable as his wolfish needs overcome his love for his companion. The sow escapes to her mother’s home in the countryside where she gives in to her piggish side, finding peace in the woodlands eating acorns and making friends with ‘un sanglier très beau et très viril’.

Truismes is wonderful as a satirical take on our ideas of nature, femininity, bestiality (in the sense of becoming a beast) and sex. The passages about the erotics of the pig are brilliant: the way men go crazy for the piggy fatness and pinkness is very funny and good. ‘Dans les miroirs je me trouvais belle, un peu rouge certes, un peu boudinée, mais sauvage, je ne sais pas comment dire. Il y avait comme de la fierté dans mes yeux et dans mon corps. Quand je me relevais le client avait lui aussi les yeux tout dénoués. On se serait cru dans le jungle.’

The contrast between the tolerant, matter-of-fact tone of the narrator and the crazy turmoil both within her own body and in the world around her gives the novel its bizarre edge: although she’s appalled by the changes to her own body, she embraces the pleasures of her animal side. By comparison her life as a woman is grotesquely sordid – she is, in fact, treated like an animal by almost everyone she comes into contact with. The writing about her moments as a pig is wonderfully evocative: the damp, woodlandy smells of the country, heightened by her pig senses, and the satisfaction of living off roots and acorns are positively enticing. In becoming a pig she finds more identity than she ever had as a woman in a society which dehumanises its own.

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AlexandraKollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary who wrote about the liberation of women and the need for any kind of socialist revolution to deal with the inequalities existing between men and women before it could be truly

Love of worker bees is her novel which expands on some of these ideas, being built on the conflict between a (common-law) husband and wife when the husband, Volodya, is still tied to bourgeois notions of marriage while his wife, Vasya, is convinced that the new politics of post-revolutionary Russia must be reflected in new social and personal relations. Volodya becomes a director of a large factory, and starts to expect Vasya to take on the bourgeois role of ‘director’s wife’ – to stay at home and keep the house nice (with the help of a servant), leaving behind her previous work in the Party, and the communal house she has devoted herself to organsing. She finds this constricting, and when her husband’s workers come to the house to complain about working conditions enthusiastically throws herself back into the role of Bolshevik trade unionist, helping them find ways to fight the boss.

Volodya sees this as a betrayal; but betrays Vasya in turn by keeping up an affair with a beautiful, non-political woman, Nina. Vasya, sincerely committed to a new politics of sexual engagement, is less troubled by the affair than by Volodya’s failure to tell her the truth about it. The psychological reality of the novel is in Vasya’s inability to make a clean break with Volodya: she is sensible enough to realise that the life he offers is not for her, but her passionate sexual desire for him makes her dither and delay, breaking things off only to be overwhelmed by his declarations of love; convincing herself again and again that he is not lying to her, that he has truly broken off his affair. But in the end her redemption is to walk away from her marriage to Volodya and return alone but pregnant to her communal house. Here she intends to make a life more in keeping with her communalist, progressive ideas:

‘But how are you going to raise a child all on your own?’ [asks her friend Grusha]

‘What do you mean, all on my own? Everything will be arranged perfectly, and we’ll set up a crêche. In fact I thought of asking you to help run the crêche. I know how you love children. And soon there’ll be a new baby, for all of us!’

‘A communist baby!’

‘Precisely so!’ They both laughed.

Sheila Rowbotham, who writes the afterword to my copy, suggests in Women, resistance and revolution that Love of worker bees fails to solve the problem it expresses so beautifully:

‘…Vasilisa’s choice simply ignores the basic causes of tension. She goes away and is able to rid herself of her jealousy of Nina and the traditional feminine […] She finds her identity thus only by denying the existence of the man and her own sexuality. The only solution possible is no real solution.’

But this is a misreading of the source of conflict: Vasya’s problem in Love of worker bees is not one of sexual jealousy of the other woman, but of separating her own desires and needs as an individual (for freedom, independence, her work, the ability to live how she likes) from her sexual desire for Volodya. Furthermore, Vasya doesn’t rule out sexuality forever: all she decides is that her passion for Volodya is spent, since they no longer share the friendship and trust she needs in a relationship.

Nonetheless it’s true that the ending with its sunny communist optimism is not as psychologically subtle as the depiction of Vasya’s struggle to detach herself from Volodya. But Kollontai’s ideas about the need for new forms of personal life to follow new political structures are important, and Love of worker bees expresses them beautifully.

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A collection of post-apocalyptic fiction, for my summer holiday.

mushroom cloud

First, Ballard’s The drowned world, which I’ll try and write about later.

Then I read Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, which was very weird indeed. Written in the fifties, it’s about the world following a nuclear war between the USSR and the US, but it portrays the post-nuclear apocalyptic world as a great, jolly, exciting adventure, like Swiss family Robinson for the nuclear age.

The US and USSR blunder into war and nuclear weapons are used extensively throughout the US. Randy Bragg’s hometown of Fort Repose in Florida escapes a direct hit, but Florida is declared too dangerous due to the high levels of radiation and it sealed off from the rest of the US. The novel tells the jolly, inspiring tale of the Fort Repose inhabitants’ survival – under Randy’s leadership, they band together and through teamwork and co-operation cheerfully overcome obstacles, from looters and highwaymen to running out of salt. The only people to get radiation sickness are the white trash who have been looting jewellery in very irradiated areas, which serves them jolly well right. Just when they have managed to rebuild their community along brave new lines of co-operation (but nothing too suspiciously communistic), they have a marvellous windfall, discovering a handy attic (which for some reason they’ve never previously investigated) containing such treasures as a wind-up gramophone and a treadle sewing machine. What luck.

The whole thing is written in a very dreary flat prose, and the conclusion is utterly bizarre: the army officer who finally gets through to Fort Repose says, in response to the question ‘But who won the war?’ “We did! We really clobbbered ’em! Not that it matters.” The combination of all-American triumphalism with a half-arsed attempt to acknowledge the horror of nuclear war is jarringly odd, as is the fact that the over-riding message of the novel is one of hope: those who are prepared to adapt will survive. I wondered if this was just a result of ignorance about the effects of nuclear war – but Nevil Shute’s On the beach, which is horribly chilling, was written two years before Alas, Babylon (and is a much better novel if you’re looking for nuclear war fiction). Pat Frank must just be quite an upbeat sort of person. Or possibly insane.

After that I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle, the first Vonnegut novel I’d read. I admired this rather than liked it: it’s clever and blackly funny and has some excellent jokes (“Son, someday this will all be yours” is the best), but that kind of dark but flip sixties humour is not really my sort of thing (although I like it much more in Catch-22 and Doctor Strangelove). Most of all in this I liked the teachings of the Bokononist religion which was just brilliantly silly and strange.

Then a random book I’d picked up in a remainders bookshop, Tatyana Tolstoya’s The slynx. This is an odd sort of satire. Two hundred years after The Blast, humanity has returned to a neolithic-age level of technology, eating mice and unable to make fire. Benedikt works as a scribe, copying the classic Russian literature that the dictator Fyodor Kuzmich passes off as his own. He marries above his class and discovers literature, and gradually moves towards rebellion – but it doesn’t end well.

This was fun, an absurd sort of satire on Russian history, but I found the translation incredibly irritating (Russian seems to lend itself to bad, over-slangy translations. I wonder why?) and most of all, kept finding myself picking holes in the post-apocalyptic set-up (if there are still people from before the Blast, why can’t they make fire? If so many books have survived, why no dictionaries?)  I guess satire doesn’t have to have a perfect internal logic; I just have the kind of mind that dislikes it when it doesn’t.

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Journeys to the Underworld

A&E on a  Friday night is not to be recommended*. Happily I had Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s Journeys to the Underworld with me, recommended by my friend S, which was about the most calming, cheering book I could have picked (much more cheery than the gruesomely biological narcissism of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, the other book I had on me).

Journeys to the Underworld is a travel book about F P-K’s visits to ancient sites where there were supposed to be sibyls. It’s oddly downbeat as a travel book – she doesn’t gush or even enthuse very much – but hilarious as a record of the casual sex she has with various Italian men along the way. It does the Italian reputation for sexiness no favours – all the men she meets are revolting: clammy hands, tight polyester trousers and sex in cars, as S put it. F P-K is completely unflappable, though, and her tart little observations about blokes are lovely.

As for sex itself – [Italians] are certainly more willing than the British, but then everybody is. The Englishman is not an easy lay. It’s not that he’s any worse sexually, when you get him down to it. It’s just that he takes a devil of a long time to get there. It’s arguable whether he’s worth waiting for. It’s not flattering if someone isn’t sure he wants to have sex with you and needs a few drinks to pluck up the courage.

* I fell off my bike and gashed my elbow open, so went off to A&E to get it stitched. After four hours of sitting around they x-rayed me and said I’d chipped a tiny bit off my elbow bone. After a further three hours they bandaged me up and said they want to admit me overnight. After another two hours they found me a bed. Good old the NHS.

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Very interesting interview with Owen Hatherley (who blogs at sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy) at ReadySteadyBook, talking about politics and modernism.

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I’ve just been reading Georgette Heyer’s biography, which turned out to be one of those rare books that I finished even though it wasn’t very good. It carefully ticked off all the things about biography that I detest. Firstly Georgette Heyer is not very interesting. She was born in Wimbledon, started writing in her teens, was first published at 19, and then wrote for the rest of her life. She didn’t go anywhere or do anything or have any interesting experiences, except for a short period in Nigeria as a newlywed. She refused to do personal publicity so the book is based primarily on her letters and her written work.

Secondly, she comes across as rather an unpleasant woman, constantly bitching and moaning about modern life (the welfare state, income tax), and pretty much apolitical (the unappealingly right-wing kind of apolitical) except for some dodgy remarks about Enoch Powell. Oh and most charming of all, as a comment on the Six Days War: ‘Isn’t it FUN to see the Israelis beating hell out of the Wops?’. Nice.

Thirdly, the author’s constant attempts to find literary merit in Heyer’s works are unconvincing and pointless. She keeps citing articles by people with a bit of serious-lit credibility who enjoy Georgette Heyer novels, and claiming that that means they have literary merit. They really don’t, and I have read lots of them and enjoy them too.

Fourthly, she does that irritating thing of trying to sell the person she’s writing to the extent of leaving massive gaping holes in her own consistency. There are several assertions that GH was ‘meticulous’ in her accounts, but at the same time she mentions several times how bad GH was at supplying information to her accountants, at calculating what tax she should be paying, and GH herself complains bitterly, all through her life, about the terrible tax burdens she’s labouring under. You do wonder whether biographers read their own books.

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