Friday, 27 December 2013

Clue dunnit

Inspired by years of grappling with cryptic crosswords, I've fashioned a few literary questions in this mode, which I offer in the spirit of end-of-year festivity.  Each answer is either (a) the title of a well-known work of fiction or (b) the name of a character within an (a) or (c) an author who would be recognised in most households whose inhabitants would have read or heard of any or all of the foregoing. There are no prizes, excepting that warm glow of satisfaction derived from reaching solutions, which is beyond monetary value, but not declarable against tax.

Bad, bad sign, o frog, for hairy carrier (5, 7)

The dynasty, the hills - the ring's between for romance (9,7)

Short actor my whole dove follows crookedly for thriller (3,3,3,5,2)

Scribe made Iran's lush arrangement (6,7)

Moor poor outside poor mat's a fearful novelist (4, 6)

Sounds like a horse? The circle's back for children's favourite (6,3,4)

Wishing you all a happy and interesting new year, (despite the Chinese blessing) - David

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Yule blog

Our advent calendar this year was selected by my wife, and very thoughtfully so, as it is based on a book of which she knows I am very fond, Tolkien's charming Letters from Father Christmas. The eponymous epistles describe, in the author's own understated comic prose and accomplished illustrations, the trials and triumphs of Mr. Christmas as he prepares for his annual quest while beset by, among other phenomena, accident-prone guests (principally a polar bear with very limited spatial awareness) natural disasters and ill-intentioned goblins. The book blends slapstick, gentle morality, myth, folk-tale and humour expertly, and is compiled from the letters which Tolkien contrived to arrive in his children's bedrooms each Christmas.  It would make, as they almost say, an ideal gift for a child of all ages.

Branching away from books for a moment, although words are certainly involved, I've just unearthed a festive CD that we have relatively neglected, and am as I write being very pleasantly reminded of how excellent it is, and of how many points for being self-consciously esoteric in one's cultural choices it confers.  It's called A Celtic Christmas, and contains many interesting noises from Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales and Scotland.  It illustrates the cheerfully diverse ways in which Ye Ancient Celtic Types droned, danced, sang and celebrated in this sacred season. My wife and I forbid, during the month of December, the reproduction of any music which is not in some way related to Christmas. Imbued with the generosity of spirit which characterises this time of year, however, we graciously confine this prohibition to our house.

This post leaves you with a few more books (see Puns in Royal David's City) which, alas, will not grace bookshop tables and annual best-read round-ups this Christmas:

Sleigh Misérables
Antlers Shrugged
Stocking Lear
The Noel-Shaped Room
Kane and Stable

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas -   David.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Games people don't play

It may not have escaped the attention of those of you possessing antennae tuned to popular culture that there exists a phenomenon called FIFA Manager.  For those not so calibrated, let me inform you that this is a series of electronic games which have modelled and reproduced the experience of managing a football team, and that such is the level of detail and accuracy that has been accreted to the product as the years have passed, that it is now possible to incur several forms of stress-related illness while playing the game, all of which are recognised by the medical establishment as legitimate reasons for being unable to work and receiving full sick pay.

This has naturally caused me to puzzle over why, among the plethora of scenarios and settings against which console games are placed, the world of publishing and books is not present.  Where is Librarian's Creed IV, for example, or Grand Copyright Theft VI (in which a band of plucky literary agents plunge themselves into the murky and dangerous underworld of pirated texts).  My latest cast-iron, guaranteed fortune-earner, is, therefore, Independent Bookshop Manager (I), soon to be available on the Y-Cube, Joy Platform and in many other formats.  Among other features, the game will:

  • Allocate you a budget to divide between overheads, stock and staff - (do you pay out big money for the brilliant but unpredictable Senior Bookseller who will either earn you a fortune with their mercurial sales technique and encyclopedic literary knowledge, or will alienate your customers by staring haughtily at anyone who asks for insufficiently- challenging books?)
  • Present you with tantalisingly fiendish puzzles - (can you solve The Christmas Rota without causing most of your staff to feel disaffected and exploited; is your mind prepared for balancing reductions from the recommended retail price against gross profit margins?)
  • Require you to predict the surprise seasonal best-sellers - (will it be the autobiography of the three-legged juggling cat, or the compendium of obscure facts about medieval armour-polishing?  The wrong choice could see sales plummet and the January sale tables tortured by tottering piles of un-returnable, ruinously-reduced stock)

Also featured will be pseudo-randomly-generated events, which will challenge your mental agility and literary awareness:

  • A local author arrives unannounced offering stock of their books - are they a nuisance peddling a badly-photocopied and stapled guide to their own kitchen, or do they offer an undiscovered jewel of local history?
  • Thanks to an obscure satellite TV channel, Macrame suddenly seizes hold of the popular imagination: do you order in every book you can obtain on the subject, at minimal discount from obscure publishers, or decide it's a temporary phenomenon and remain loyal to baking?

All this and more, including a special Battle Extension Module, in which you go to war against a new branch of a national chain, will enable the feeling that YOU are at the helm of that glorious but precarious vessel that is The Independent Bookshop.

***** Special offer on pre-orders for Christmas 2014 *****

Monday, 18 November 2013

Fabulously beastly

I've just finished reading T.H. White's translation of and commentary on a medieval bestiary, The Book of Beasts, which pleased and charmed on many levels.  There is, most obviously, the accidental humour of historical mistakes, as what - to modern readers - are obviously bizarre and fantastical behaviours and creatures are described with a deadpan certainty in their existence, with frequent appeals made to apparently unimpeachable eye-witness or documentary accounts. For example, of stags:

When they feel themselves to be weighed down by illness, they suck snakes from their holes with a snort of the nostrils and the danger of their venom having been survived, the stags are restored to health by a meal of them.
and furthermore: 
We read that many people who have been accustomed to eat venison from their early days have been immortal, and immune to fevers, but it fails them in the end if they happen to get killed by a single wound.

In terms of mythical beasts, the usual and some lower-profile suspects leap, fly and swim through the pages (it is a very busy and noisy book), but the level of detail provided against the entries of creatures like the phoenix go far beyond (for this reader, at least) the commonly-known register.

The range of reference and allusion brought to bear by the original writers and White himself provide another layer of fascination, as etymologies, myths and legends are slotted in to wider perspectives.  Adding another attraction, White's writing oozes with the same humour, compassion and erudition which characterise his other work (much of which is animal-focused).  In fact White's Appendix, in which he defends and explains the bestiarists' approach, is a superb example of the  sympathetic understanding of history and past beliefs and cultures, of getting away from thinking that past generations were simply 'wrong' or somehow not blessed with the same faculties for thought and reason as we are (Larkin summarises this attitude beautifully with fools in old-style hats and coats).  This includes a very positive commentary on the extended sections in the bestiary where the behaviours of the creatures are said to symbolise various aspects of Christian behaviour and belief.

For those who know and love the Arthurian books, The Goshawk, and others, this is a very worthwhile extension to the House of White.  For first-time buyers, it would be an eccentric but nonetheless rewarding place to begin.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Paws for thought

The feline creature who previously graced this blog has left us mourning her passing, having attained the upper limits of cat longevity and brought us untold pleasure and invaluable companionship in doing so.  Following but by no means replacing Sally have come two new household deities. Splodge, 10 years old, is a handsome but frankly curmudgeonly rescue cat who is (literally) a poster boy for the Cat Protection League and who can turn (because, we fondly believe, of a challenging life including a period as a stray, not to mention arthritis in both forelegs, but, our more cynical selves suspect, possibly due to innate orneriness) from affectionate to violent behaviour in an instant.  Bramble, who is nearly new, is a kind of furry junior whirlwind, whose speed, excitability and curiosity send her ricocheting around the house in a bewildering blur of calico fur.  She has also recently and precociously taken to charades, as illustrated here. 

This was a particularly cunning selection on her part, because she obviously knew I would immediately plump for back cat-alogue and then Grimm's Furry Tails, whereas she had in mind the much more ingenious Our Mutual Fur-End.  You should see her do films.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Things ain't what they used to be

I have a fondness for literary movements - be they critical or creative - as a kind of book world equivalent to football teams.  I want to see gangs of adherents to rival schools, eyeing each nervously across the floor of The British Library, vicious metaphors and sharpened similes waiting to be launched with ruthless accuracy, with the Cultural Materialists chanting:

'You're a bourgeois product of the class dynamic'

and the Deconstructionists replying, a little smugly:

'Hah! That statement negates its own attempt at meaning'.

There could be scarves, t-shirts, and a whole range of associated paraphernalia; I think, in fact, this could be my route to entrepreneurial glory.

The point is, I was recently expanding my meagre knowledge about the Oulipo movement (from Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; or workshop of possible literature); that merry band of (originally) French pranksters who imposed a range of unusual rules and restrictions on their writing, in order to bother the envelope of form a bit and see what emerged;  (that was a rough distillation of a few slightly more technical explanations).  Perhaps the best-known example is Georges Perec's  La disparition; a novel written without the benefit of a single letter 'e', and translated into English (by Gilbert Adair) likewise, as A Void.

One of Oulipo's recipes for making poetry was to start with an existing piece of verse, select a dictionary and substitute the major nouns in the original piece with those seven nouns along from them in said lexicon. This technique is called, with insouciant Gallic mysticism, N+7 (or, S+7 for 'substantive').  Using this simple formula, you can create brand new poetry in the comfort of your own garret (no glue or nails required).  Here's one I prepared earlier; I used Collins Concise Dictionary Plus, and took the liberty of modifying one verb to agree with the respective arriving noun. The result, I am obliged by truth to declare, is less elegant but much more hilarious than the original first stanza of Ode to Autumn.

Seatbelt of mistress and mellow frump,  
Close botany-frigate-bird of the maturing sundae;       
Conspiring with him how to load and bless       
With fruit salad the vino that round the theatre-ecclesiasticism runs;          
To bend with applicator the moss'd cotter-tree-lines
And fill all fruit-machines with ripple-marks to the coriander; 
To swell the governor, and plump the headboard shelters     
With a sweet ketone; to set budding more,        
And still more, later flue-pipes for the beef burgers,     
Until they think warm daydreams will never cease
For summer time has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cellphones.

Do please Comment or Facebook with your own; hey! we can build an anthology.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Leaves in the lines

Despite being designed, conceived and manufactured in Malta, I have a profound physical aversion to extreme heat.  By 'extreme' I mean, of course, anything over 15°c, so to say this Summer has been a challenge is an understatement of subterranean profundity.  I am reminded, in literary terms, of J.G. Ballard's The Burning World and that sequence in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant cycle where The Despiser has hacked into the planetary weather system so that each season is exaggerated to acquire deadly characteristics.  It is, therefore, with undignified eagerness that I have embraced each slightly cooler day, and am panting for Autumn to begin in earnest.  One of my ambitions this year is to read Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal, which is one of the many yawning gaps in my literary CV.  A few years ago, giddy with the excitement of having purchased an Acme © Home Poetry Kit, I lobbed a lump of Autumnal words into the Sonnet stencil, cranked the attractively-bright plastic starting-handle and produced the following.  I sincerely hope MacNeices's effort is better.


The sunlight is soft with hospitable mystery;
In August it scorched us, expected and bland.
The pavements are crunchy with Natural History,
Where trees are dismissing their leaves out of hand.
It’s scruffy and vague, this shaggy brown season
Each morning arrives with a mist that depletes
All edges and borders – it was for good reason
That autumn inspired some reasonable Keats.
White winter is death, and all of us harbour
Suspicions of picture-book summers and springs,
A frisson of something amiss in the arbour
Is what this benevolent avalanche brings.
So wrap up in autumn, and heap praise upon it,
Season of almost compulsory sonnet.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Bloggin' the Nog

If all the biographies I have ever read were vertically stacked atop each other, the resulting structure would be far from an impediment to even very low-flying aircraft, or, for that matter, most wasps. This lack of engagement with the genre may be to do with my Reality allergy, or may be the result of a more amorphous blend of aesthetic and intellectual proclivities.  I'm hoping it's the latter. Whatever the reason, I was recently reminded of a book of this class which I had not only read but which also gave me an enormous amount of pleasure, namely Seeing Things, the autobiography of the remarkable Oliver Postgate.

Along with legions of others of all ages, I had been charmed, beguiled and not infrequently disturbed by Postgate's (and his partner Peter Firmin's) menagerie of whistling, knitted aliens, soporific talking cats and, of course, their own characteristic interpretation of Norse history and legend, namely Noggin and the Nogs   Knowing nothing about Postgate the person, the biography was a gradual, warming affirmation of a sensitive, ingenious human being who bore vicissitude with courageous stoicism, espoused all that is admirable in humanity and whose creative energies, sometimes diverted by restrained resources and facilities into wondrously ingenious channels, refused to be stifled.

I was reminded of this book last week as I worked (never was a verb less appropriate) my way through a delicious boxed set of Noggin the Nog books.  These 12 books, beautifully produced and illustrated, are charming fables in which characters and themes recur in a variety of 'Nordic' settings and themes, from The Hot Water Valley to the mechanical Island, from prejudice and fear to the misuse of technology.  There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in Postgate's putting the Vikings through a blender set on 'whimsy' (the foremost warrior, for example, Thor Nogson, is often strongly drawn towards discretion rather than valour), but there are also lovely jokes:

'With a crash and a slop like barrels of water breaking on the roof, the barrels of water on the roof broke asunder'

wonderful imaginary proper nouns, such as Troldeskow and Graculus, and delightful variations on well-known stories and legends.

Without over-egging the Nog, I can't help but think that Olaf, the ingenious court inventor who is constantly threatening the end of civilisation through the development of unpredictable machines, is Postgate wryly observing his own insatiable desire to create brilliant television out of two pipe-cleaners and a reel of Sellotape, while the ever-present Nogbad the Bad, lurking like an unpleasant odour in each tale, is a reminder that evil is never far from even the most innocent-seeming scenario (or even interwoven into it - Nogbad is, after all, Noggin's uncle).  To end on a jollier note, however, why not visit the lovely Dragons' Friendly Society website, and order the books.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Paradise glossed

It is a consolation to me that the lateness with which I came to Paradise Lost has been matched by the fervency of my recommendation of it since that time when, a mere few years ago, I walked alongside our first parents out of Eden.  I am now not unlike the Ancient Mariner, with my short grey stubble and smudged spectacle lenses, accosting guests en route to weddings, bar mitzvahs and other formal occasions and quothing 'There is a jolly long poem', and then driveling on about Milton's neologisms, his technical skill and my delighted surprise in encountering an explicit description of sex between angels.

I was, therefore, delighted to be introduced to a booklet in a series called Connell Guides, which offers many interesting insights into how the poem works and how Milton's life and beliefs are reflected in the subject matter, style and tone.  Unlike the undoubtedly useful but somewhat brash tourist guides that are the standard revision guides to Great Works of Literature, my Connell is a chic, urbane, well-dressed and highly articulate escort - more like being conducted around an unfamiliar city by a bi-lingual native as opposed to a slightly inebriated package holiday courier.

Caroline Moore is that person in this case, viewing the poem from a number of perspectives, posed as fundamental questions, many of which are archetypal responses to the poem, e.g.

  • Is Milton’s handling of Satan flawed?
  • What makes Eve finally choose wrong?
  • Is Eve inferior to Adam?
  • Why have so many critics misread Paradise Lost?
  • How does Paradise Lost fit into the tradition of epic poetry?

Moore's responses are intelligent, perceptive and full of excellent close reading, often teasing out nuances of word or phrase which demonstrate the subtlety and wit of Milton's writing. Moore expertly defuses much of the bafflement and inhibition that can surround a work like, this, the structure and scope of which are so unfamiliar to modern sensibilities. Accompanying the main text are shaded sections offering information on, among other aspects, the historical, literary and personal background to the poem, and the package is further graced by a number of very well-reproduced paintings, engravings and drawings related to this inexhaustibly inspiring story.  Your Connell also comes equipped with further reading and author chronology, as standard.

If, like that slightly younger version of me, you have yet to clamber into Milton's Garden, get thee to a copy immediately, and then buy the Connell's guide.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Thirkells within Thirkells

There is a strong and enigmatic appeal to the human mind in the paradoxical and the self-referential.  From Russian dolls, through novels within novels, to the more mind-endangering philosophical instances such as whether the set of non-self-membered sets belongs to itself,** we are drawn towards a range of cultural and mental phenomena that, as it were, double-back on themselves.

I am probably not a bear of sufficiently large brain to speculate usefully on the reasons for this strange attraction, but, if taxed, I might suggest it has something to do with the aesthetic and structural appeal of reflection and repetition, and if further pressed and supplied with spirituous liquor of sufficient strength and likewise volume, I may become pretentious enough to speculate upon how the nature of consciousness and the structure of the brain are linked to the matter.  I don't think I'd believe myself in the morning, however.

The phenomenon was recently re-presented to my attention by reading Angela Thirkell's High Rising (see my blog review). That's three hyperlinks in a row - is there not a large, cuddly toy now?  In this charming amuse-bouche of a novel, there is a great deal of writing going on, including serious historical biography, the main character's own light fiction (which sounds remarkably similar to the book we're reading) and her son's sudden outpouring of accidentally hilarious poetry, viz:

By marsh and mallow
Fern and glen.
By marsh and mallow,
Went they then.

By marsh and mallow

The moorhen
By marsh and mallow
Went she then.

By marsh and mallow

When, ah then,
A hunter sallow
Shot that moorhen.

By marsh and mallow

Fern and glen.
By marsh and mallow,
Ne'er again.

Writing in writing is used in many ways, of course, from such satire of precious teenage bathos to highly erudite pastiche, as in AS Byatt's Possession, wherein we can joyfully play 'spot the poet' as we skip through the pages.  One example that has tireless appeal for me is Kurt Vonnegut's hapless ego Kilgore Trout, the hack science-fiction writer who shuffles, dishevelled in appearance and fortune, through many of the late, great author's novels.  Vonnegut presents short summaries of Trout's writing to great comic and emotional effect, partly to satirise science fiction and people's attitudes to science fiction, and also undermining the whole notion that writing needs to have 'meaning' or 'secrets' picked out of it like nits from a scalp.  As a former marginalised 'science-fiction writer' himself, Vonnegut is also taking a swipe at himself, in a clear case of having your cake, eating it, then deriding the whole notion of cake-eating as a legitimate endeavour.  Vonnegut's terse summaries of Trout's work are always going to be more entertaining than the actual works would have been, had they really existed, which is part of the whole, very Vonnegutian, multi-layered joke:

'As for the story itself, it was entitled "The Dancing Fool." Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub'.

This particular stream of self-reference took an even wilder course when a real science-fiction writer produced a full-length novel by Kilgore Trout, these being Philip José Farmer and Venus on the Half-Shell, respectively.

I shall leave you to hunt down your own second-hand copy of the only surviving Trout novel, and I haven't even mentioned At Swim-Two-Birds.

**if it doesn't, then it must, and vice-versa; this realisation apparently gave Bertrand Russell quite a turn.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

An exceeding amount of poetry

Inspiration can be a phenomenon which is slightly short on details.  When, moved by reading Mary Hamer's excellent fictional rendition of Kipling's and his sister's life (Kipling & Trix), to read the man's poetry, I was unprepared for the sheer size of the task.  A few days ago, the equally excellent Herts Library service procured for me Kyle Cathie's edition of the complete verse, which proved to comprise over 600 pages of closely-set rhyming stuff.  Where did people from previous generations derive their literary energy, and what happened to its source? Was there a secret River of Prolificity, which has long since been stifled by some kind of cultural alluvium? Nothing daunted, I levered myself into my poetry climbing-boots, whittled a fresh ballad-stick and set off for the foothills.

The journey begins with - to further strain the metaphor to creaking-point - some outlying scree and minor ascents, which are of largely academic interest.  The Departmental Ditties are technically highly proficient light verse, documenting and satirising the British and (to some extent) native cultures and behaviours that defined the British Indian Imperial period.  Many of the themes that Kipling went on to elaborate and become notorious for are present here, such as the  blasé cynicism regarding the hardships of the colonial life (and especially the climate) among those who had not experienced it; the corruption and bribery that oiled the imperial wheels and the often torrid love affairs that distracted The White Men from their Burden.  The poem that stood out for me, like a significant preliminary peak, was The Last Department, in which Kipling brilliantly diverts the language and culture of British India to describe the inevitability and nature of death. The link will disclose the whole poem, but here's a taste:

When leave, long overdue, none can deny;
When idleness of all Eternity
  Becomes our furlough, and the marigold
Our thriftless, bullion-minting Treasury

Transferred to the Eternal Settlement,
Each in his strait, wood-scantled office pent,
  No longer Brown reverses Smith's appeals,
Or Jones records his Minute of Dissent.

And One, long since a pillar of the Court,
As mud between the beams thereof is wrought;
  And One who wrote on phosphates for the crops
Is subject-matter of his own Report.

This is macabre, satirical verse at its best, and well worth engraving above your own office cubicle.

Look out for further dispatches from Mount Kipling, as I inch towards the summit, without the benefit of oxygen.  In the meantime, those reasonably adjacent to the Borough of Sutton near London may wish to attend a talk being given by Mary and the acclaimed literary biographer Andrew Lycett, at Sutton Central Library on the evening of July 3.  Andrew's biography of Kipling was rapturously reviewed, and won the accolade of being selected as a TLS International Book of the Year by Terry Eagleton. It should be fascinating to hear the fictional and biographical approaches compared.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Telephone lines

I have previously discussed, in this blog environment, literature inspired by or related to work (see Working Titles, among others).  During the hours I am obliged to devote to my market research call centre work (employment for which I am grateful, but which I would never encumber with the label of 'inspiring' ) a refrain from WH Auden's lovely The Fall of Rome runs incessantly through my mind: 

Caesar's double-bed is warm 
As an unimportant clerk 
On a pink official form.

I hereby offer an embarrassingly trite poetic work response of my own, in the form of three limericks bemoaning the lot of a telephone market researcher which, if nothing else, may have rarity value in their combination of form and subject.

The request, which we make to a tranche
Of companies, (Head Office or branch)
To ask them some questions,
Provokes some suggestions
That would make a contortionist blanch.

A Market Researcher from Herts
Conducted his surveys in farts,
(Although he used wheezes
And belches and sneezes
To convey the more technical parts).

I'm sorry, she can't take your call;
She's recently had a great fall,
Been kidnapped by Cossacks,
Has eloped to the Trossachs
And is trekking through deepest Nepal.

I humbly invite you to render your own work into limerick form, and thereby make the publication of a quirky Christmas best-seller a virtual inevitability. Huzzah! We shall be rich.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Literary Thirkells

A quirky ripple of literary synchronicity is running through our household at present.  We suspect it's to do with the Victorian wainscoting.  The phenomenon began with my reading Mary Hamer's deftly-imagined novel depicting the lives and travails of Kipling and his sister, Kipling & Trix, then developed into my wife discovering and then bequeathing to me the novelist Angela Thirkell (the Kiplings' cousin) and has most recently manifested itself in a reference to Thirkell's novels in the Elizabeth Jane Howard novel my wife is reading, The Light Years. Cue X-files theme.

So I must add Ms Thirkell's literary work to the already overflowing basket of blessings with which my wife has presented me (where it nestles cosily alongside a regally ancient cat and a fiendishly ingenious domestic budgeting spreadsheet, among other articles).  We have both started our Thirkular tour with High Rising, an inter-war tale of family, love (largely camouflaged beneath bushels of shyness or circumstance) and society.  The introduction  - by Alexander McCall Smith - to the recently reissued Virago edition makes comparisons to P.G. Wodehouse, a resemblance one can see in the playfully imaginative comedic language. For example, the headmaster of the school attended by the principal character's son barks: 'in the voice of a sergeant-major who had been educated among sea-lions'. Indeed much of the book's charm and humour derives from Laura's (said leading personage) robustly cynical utterances to, and descriptions of, her youngest son: 'Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate my Children'

There are echoes, too, of Barbara Pym, Nancy Mitford and Jane Austen which combine, as the book simmers slowly and its ingredients blend, into a delicious concoction of social and character observation and the attempts of Angela and Fate to weave together kindred souls into a knot of romance.  There is a good deal of clever suspense established as to who will end up with whom and how, and a sublimely-drawn villain in the form of the manipulative, scheming secretary, Miss Grey.  Thirkell also offers some excellent writing about writing, as the popular novels Angela produces to keep her son in clothes (in which he can rapidly make mysterious holes) are contrasted with the more conventionally respected history books written by the irascible, curmudgeonly but much-loved  Master of the Big House, George Knox, suspected amorous target of 'The Incubus', Miss Grey.  The link in the first paragraph will waft you towards the UK Thirkell Society, a journey I recommend that you make.

Taking the connections off in a slightly different direction, Kipling & Trix has inspired me to borrow Kipling's complete verse from the library, in order that I can extend my knowledge beyond scattered portions of 'If' and a couple of well-known refrains. All I need now is a sponsored two-month holiday to get through this book.  Lazy, he wasn't.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Conjuring Trix

Every novel which features characters who vocalise (internally or externally) is an act of literary ventriloquism.  As readers, we expect such inhabitants of books to project a sense of credibility (whether as 'realistic' people or creatures, or as fabulous ones) through their mental and vocal utterances, unless a novel is striving for effects created by deliberate deviation from such an approach. As has often been observed, this does not mean that fictional monologue or dialogue can be mined directly from the real world, as most transcripts of real-life conversations would neither be replete with literary merit nor hold a reader's attention.  Fiction writers who choose to populate their pages with 'real' historical characters (I hear there's a certain Ms Mantel who shows promise in this regard) must face the additional discipline of securing a secondary level of plausibility within their particular framework, which involves considerable challenges in terms of vocabulary and register as well as in describing their characters' psychologies and thoughts.  Even if an author does not attempt to replicate historically authentic speech patterns and vocabulary, the system of utterances employed by each character still must convey an appropriate identity, and bear an accurate relationship to those of the other characters.  The test of how successfully all this is done is, I suppose, whether we can see the author's lips moving.  Mary Hamer hurdles these obstacles beautifully in the Virginia Prize-winning Kipling & Trix, which is based on the lives of, and relationship between the creator of 'If', Mowgli, etc. and his sister.

One of the joys of the book lies in being reintroduced to a life and body of work (Kipling's) from unusual perspectives, especially that of his familial concerns and his complex, rich and troubled relationship with Trix.  Another source of pleasure is the skilful portrayal of characters who, although relatively minor in the book, have left a significant footprint in history. Edward Burne-Jones, for example, produces a pleasurable frisson as he walks these pages, grappling not so much with weighty matters of Art and Culture as how to keep his family healthy and happy (Kipling was his nephew by marriage).  Another very successful aspect of the book for me was the rendering of the kaleidoscope of locations through which the characters' lives are twirled, including India, Britain, America and a richly-recreated South Africa.

The character and story of Trix are engagingly-drawn, especially in the observation of how her psychology and development are warped as her fierce, instinctive desire to write (the book is very good on writing) is confronted by the conventions and restrictions of her culture and society.  Hamer handles this minefield of cliche with deftness and ingenuity, producing a convincing but never sentimental portrait of a beleaguered, intelligent woman, and vividly conjuring the atmosphere and preoccupations of the time.  Hamer uses her embodiment of Trix to examine the conflict, jealousy and guilt that characterise families, as well as to celebrate the profound, transfiguring joy that family relationships can bring.  If, as was the case for me, Kipling, his world and his family are little more than indistinct cliches, Kipling & Trix will provide very absorbing education.

I should not neglect to praise the quality of Hamer's writing.  An expertise with dialogue is obviously a prerequisite for this kind of novel, but Hamer supplements this skill with some fine turns of phrase:

'Alice spoke from the wooden embrace of the old Windsor chair'

and some excellent comic observation, such as of:

'A dark tower of a town house where, Trix suspected, the air was haunted by the steam of suet puddings'

and there are some very well-wrought set pieces.

In conclusion, I ought to say that (a) I am working part-time for the publisher, but that I wrote this post while intimately connected to a lie-detector and (b) on finishing the book I reserved Kipling's complete verse from the library.  On seeing the size of this tome, I realised that the world prolific needs upgrading.  Whatever negative epithets you feel may justly adorn the work and character of 'Ruddy', slothfulness cannot be among them.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Arable parables

I had reason to thank anew the tiny electronic post-person who delivers the Bookseller's e-bulletin recently.  The May 20th edition carried a link to a feature in The Atlantic on the surge in popularity of what to me was a newly-defined genre, namely Farm Lit., which is raking in sheaves of female readers, to the detriment of Chick and other varieties.  This school of writing substitutes brawny farm workers and rural female entrepreneurs for silk-suited city slickers.

Regular visitors to this blog will fail to swoon with surprise when I say that this news had me reaching immediately for my literary toolbox, from which I deployed my Genre Torque Spanner (with ergonomic grip design and flange swivel plate) and applied it to a few well-known literary works, so that they could claim their place in the ranks of this mode of fiction.  The results are as follows:

Silage Marner
Farms and the Man
Fifty Shades of Grazing
Kane and Stable
The Rape of the Flock
Hay wain and the Green Knight
Goats from a Small Island
Born Friesian
Udder Milk Wood

These works and similar others would, of course, be feted at the annual Hay Festival.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A few news musings

In a packed blog tonight, a crop of current bookish news stories is presented for your edutainment.


I was amused to read a snippet, in one of the free papers that decorate our train carriages, concerning the flood of 'Fifty Shades' volumes into charity shops.  This is, of course, due to their former owners having realised that they had not in fact purchased the definitive treatise on minimalist interior decor. If this influx grows too voluminous, i suppose we may see one of our best-known charity chains altering its name to (Bond)age UK. 

I have striven mightily, but failed, to resist observing that the proud new owners of these tomes will be literally paying money for old rope.


Inspired by the phenomenal success of the fasting diet book which took Christmas by surprise and shows no signs of loosening its grip on the population, I have conducted some modest private research to transfer the concepts involved into the literary arena.  It transpires that, given a properly and finely calculated regime, it is perfectly possible to read any number of populist, superficial novels containing no grain of improving content nor any challenge to traditional narrative structures and not suffer any decrease in aesthetic or intellectual trimness, provided that, for two days in each week only, you adhere strictly to ingesting the approved canon of Difficult, Serious (and preferably Foreign) Books. This may seem counter-intuitive, but, with the aid of my new series of books and related products, including my patent Literary Calorie Counter © (which will, once fed some basic information about a novel's tone, protagonists and vocabulary, assess it's Literary Purity) remarkable results will be in your grasp.  Pre-order now for my special introductory offer.


The annual Bookseller Industry Awards were announced recently, and congratulations are due to Sainsbury's for having come away from the event with the children's bookseller of the year prize in their basket.  This set me to thinking about some possible supermarket-oriented reworkings of literary classics, and to inflict the following upon you:

Morrison's and Lovers

Tesco of the D'Urbervilles

Asda You Like it

The Lidls of the King


Saturday, 11 May 2013

A jolly good Falla

Powerfully-evoked locations are often said to function as characters in their own right within works of fiction.  This being the case, Patagonia in Jonathan Falla's remarkable novel The Physician of Sanlucar is not one you would wish to invite round for dinner.  The Patagonian landscape and environment, and the lives of those dwelling therein during the second decade of the twentieth century, as described with unflinching accuracy by Falla, are grim and precarious.  The novel opens, in fact, with a forensic description of both the 'astonishing' venereal diseases to which the farming colonists are prey, and the ingenious device which the titular character has developed to treat them.  It is a highly arresting first chapter, and typical of the author's lack of inhibition to be bold with content and imagery.

The initially disclosed reason for Matthieu Macanan's having secreted himself in this obscure part of the world is to minister medicinally to the immigrant farmers and the indigenous population, and he comes to espouse the cause of the latter more forcefully and dramatically as the novel progresses.  But there is clearly something deeper and darker in his personal history, the revelation of which is cleverly interwoven into his contretemps with a particularly amoral and loathsome representative of insensitive colonialism, Lovell.  Into Macanan's world come a married Austrian couple (Silke and Theo) who hope to bring the new miracle of aeronautic transport to the region by establishing a flying postal service. There is an immediate and obvious attraction between the physician and the wife, which becomes one of the main engines of the plot.

The subsequent love affair functions, (as does the aircraft which sits awaiting repair in a stockade as the husband sails off to find spare parts) as a beacon of redemption and hope in the physical and moral gloom of the setting.  Without wishing to divulge too much of the plot, however, it is safe to say that there is no unalloyed escape from the toxic effects of the Patagonian environment, and the situations of those caught up in this period and place.  Falla particularly excels in describing how Patagonia invades the souls and bodies of its inhabitants.  At one point, during a dramatic and life-threatening journey to a new location, a character's head wobbles 'with what might have been agreement, or hypothermia', demonstrating that his identity and volition have become indistinguishable from the effects of the extreme climate.  The aeroplane (which is called a dove by its creator and also described in angelic terms) is observed late in the novel to have accumulated 'a lot of dust; it was filling with Patagonia'. 

This is not to say that the book's overall effect is gloomy or depressing - there is a pervasive and effective wry humour at play and, decorating the elegant and efficient prose which propels the plot, passages of very fine, lyrical descriptive writing:  Macanan, for example, hauling a mess of wet canvas, is said to be

'dragging it behind him like a bride with an impossibly heavy train'

and Silke's hair being

'like cobwebs tied back by an orderly spider'.

Additionally, the book's handling of the colonial issues is deft and never sentimental; Falla makes good play of symbols and motifs (the plane being angelic and dove-like, it's creator being called after the prefix for divinity), and there are absorbing insights into and descriptions of human character and behaviour.

All the elements of the plot and setting, including a crucial guest appearance by a German naval crew smuggling gold for the war effort, swirl into a dramatic kaleidoscope of a denouement that brings a satisfying and surprising ending to a riveting book which excavates one of the murkier periods of modern colonialism and in which, most often, the characters' best intentions are warped into tragedy by circumstance and fate.

Monday, 6 May 2013


Another imaginary poetry anthology (see Write to Reply) comprises a series of definitions of literary genres and themes in limerick form.  This is a similar but humbler path to that already lain by the frighteningly talented Martin Rowson in his Limerickiad books.  For some reason, the only two entries I have so far constructed pertain to crime, but more may follow later.  If so, the Land of Blog will be among the first to know.  Watch this space, by the way for a Proper Grown-up Book Review of the excellent Physician of Sanlucar, a tale of colonialism, love, flight and sexual disease in Patagonia.  I think this has also been a prog rock concept album.

The Traditional English Village Murder

The scene is quite bloody and grim,
And clues are confusing and slim;
That apparently meek
And retiring geek
Who won't hurt a fly? It was him!

Crime Noir (Nordic and otherwise)

The hero's divorce is a bitch
And his cravings are making him itch.
In a plotline whose forking
Would stump Stephen Hawking,
The shot and garroted will twitch.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Balancing the books

There is a widespread assumption that the world of Letters and Arts is exclusively populated by raving, left-of-centre liberal progressives who will launch into a polemic about neo-fascist government policies at the drop of a stylish beret, probably because they are insulated from the harsh realities of the world by not having to do proper jobs.  As a counterblast to this view, and to prove that we in Bookland are as capable as any decent Briton of recognising the need for frugality and economic good sense during a period when the economy (thanks to a few Bolshevite ne'er do wells having snuck into government while no-one was looking) is taking more dips than a swimming addict, I present my Reduced Classics Canon, in which the previous extravagances of some literary products are suitably curtailed.  Without further ado, may I recommend:

The Reasonably Tolerable Lightness of Being

The Kitten, the Conjuror and the Bedside Table

A History of Neasden in 10 and a half Chapters

More than a few of the President's Men

The Acting Assistant Administrator of the Flies


....and anything by Paul Austerity, naturally.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Gift Mooses, and others

We care for physical books very deeply in our family, even to the extent (see figure 1) of employing a fierce Book Guardian to ward off potential literary miscreants.  When the para-military E-book Enforcers teleport themselves into our house to confiscate our library and hard-wire our brains into a small silver machine, we shall hurl deeply injurious slogans at them from behind the cat.  There may also be finger-wagging.

Which brings me to the beastly, or probably bestial theme for today's post, namely my recent birthday.  Among the generous and thoughtful gifts which were bestowed on me by friends and family (including a cd of Ecuadorian Baroque music, whose aural quality equals its obscurity cachet) was a trio of books with an animal theme, each as delightful as it is different from its companions.

Two Rivers Press produce the most exquisite edition of Christopher Smart's poem Cat Jeoffry. This is a consummately well-designed book, incorporating a bold Eric Gill typeface that combines readability with a playful hint of the antique, and illustrations in lino cut and rubber stamp by Peter Hay, which capture delightfully the playful, feral and mystical aspects of this noblest of animals.

Reaktion Books' Animals series has beguiled me for many years, offering delicious portrayals of individual animals through, in each case, a single author's examining the beast in its cultural, historical and mythological contexts, as well as the natural historical. The cover design for this series uses a simple but startlingly effective two-colour approach, incorporating the appropriate animal's silhouette.  Kevin Jackson's Moose now shyly awaits my approach.

Finally, and including flora and other subjects, Ted Hughes' Season Songs, (Faber) written with younger readers in mind, is, along with Jeoffry a charming addition to our poetry section (which can be located a few feet above the cat). I'm off to tend to the literary menagerie now - by the sound of it, the mooses need feeding.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Fair words

I'm not sure what images are conjured by the words London Book Fair to those who have never had the pleasure of meeting it in person.  It's sadly unlikely that anyone's mental space is occupied by a vision of carousels, coconut shies and food stalls based on literary themes.  It seems to me that this idea has potential, however, and next year I may run a 'pin the metaphor on the sentence' stall or a roller coaster based on the varying fortunes of a Thomas Hardy character; see this post for similar scenarios (this is subtle intertextuality rather than self-plagiarism).  No-one but the lowest cad would snigger cynically if the vision were more one of publishing staff exchanging erudite banter in a smartly bohemian - if not languid - environment, occasionally interrupting this activity to discover an unknown genius or two lurking in the portfolio of a Norwegian publisher.  While there are elements of the foregoing, the book business (and its Fairs) are generally highly commercial, hard-nosed enterprises, with an acute awareness of profit margins (and the threats to same) driving most activities.  This sense of walking a financial tightrope, especially among smaller publishers, has been sharpened in recent years by the explosion of electronic commerce and publishing, one of the effects of which has been to   make one platform for book sales - the physical bookshop - a narrower and more difficult place on which to tread. There are, therefore, as many conversations littered with percentage signs and shipping tariffs as with evaluations of literary worth or promise, and it is a beleaguered but brave band of people who persist in converting ideas into words, arranging them on paper (or pasting them into the ether) and attempting to sell them; a band, moreover, constantly aware of each cost incurred while doing so, and seeking ways to reduce or eliminate it.

Not least among these costs is (I was reminded last week during my one day's duty at the Fair on behalf of Aurora Metro) the price of a bottle of water at the London Book Fair.  The careers of many a young Editor or Marketing Assistant have met untimely ends when it was discovered that they have blown an entire quarter's marketing budget on buying London Book Fair bottled water (i.e. about three bottles).  Let us say nothing of the sandwiches.  

I was reunited with two other curious phenomena that day: The Journey to the Waterstone's Buyer and The Slow Europeans.  The former entails an initial application, before the Fair, to be selected for a brief, personal interview with one of the Buyers, a process managed by the estimable Independent Publishers' Guild.  When the appointed hour for the favoured delegates arrives, they present themselves to an IPG acolyte who conducts them along secret corridors and mysterious stairways to the Outer Chamber, in which the holy effulgence emanating from the Buyers' Inner Sanctum is palpable.  After a solemn transfer of the delegates into the care of a superior acolyte who dwells in this Higher Realm, the recitation of solemn incantations and the donning of ritual, sacred clothing, the fortunate visitors are ushered into The Appropriate Presence, who, after due deference has been offered, will utter some Words of Power such as 'Send me the ai for that new cookery title'.  Enlightened and enriched, the delegates withdraw, and are escorted back into the Mundane Realms.

Actually, one or two parts of that description were tweaked with the tweezers of comic effect, and my colleague Rebecca and I had what were, in fact, two very useful sessions with the folk from the Big W.

European Slow Walking (actually, it's French, but I was being diplomatic) is an oft-misunderstood phenomenon.  To the insufficiently-trained eye, it comprises the staff of a Gallic publishing company walking, for no apparent reason, at a funereal pace across the entire width of an aisle, thus requiring any Book Fair visitor desirous of punctual arrival at a meeting to dart round them and threaten the physical integrity of neighbouring stands, not to mention the physical and mental health of those staffing same.  Since conducting research into the history and development of alternative theatre, however, I now realise that these incidents are all interconnected elements in a massive and sophisticated performance artwork which explores the paradox of journey and the futility of the notion of progress in the context of modern existential emptiness.  It can't be long before they win the Turner Prize.

Until next year.....

Monday, 15 April 2013

Write to reply

One of my favourite literary hobbies is developing ideas for original poetry collections and then creating, at the very most, one entry before abandoning the project altogether. Relentlessness is not one of my defining characteristics, except by its absence. The latest example is a series of  poems, which should preferably be in the appropriate forms, in which the human or otherwise sentient creatures addressed or described in canonical works, reply to the original.  There now follows the first example. It is © David Birkett, but any imaginative literary editor is welcome to dangle obscene or even slightly suggestive advances before me to develop an entire book.


I met a spirit in the afterlife
Who said some arty, disaffected git
Had given me some some fey, poetic strife
About my so-called despotism. It
Behoves me to observe it's somewhat rich
For someone who was paid to wave a quill
To criticise my efforts, each of which
Was made to strengthen borders, or to fill
My people's mouths with food. The years were tough,
And yes, I hold my hands up to the crime
Of being not consultative enough.
You try to make the camels run on time.
That statue? Well, it was a P.R. thing
For even tyrants bow to Marketing.

I am (emoticon denoting level of excitement inconsistent with any widely-recognised level of personal dignity) off to the London Book Fair (technically, the London International Book Fair, but I've been so many times that I can be informal) tomorrow on behalf of Aurora Metro, so a blog based on this conclave of all things literary is not entirely unlikely. Stand G855, if you're passing.