What’s ‘hooray’ in Finnish – or Swedish, come to that?

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER, by Tove Jansson, published in English translation in 1958, my (extremely tatty and yellowing) edition 1977

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 10

coverWhat are the odds of getting two appropriately wintry books in succession? I guess that’s the point about rolling the dice and picking a book – it is truly random. Actually, I think I’d have preferred Comet in Moominland when it comes to the stories of Moomintroll and his friends, but let’s not quibble: this is wonderful. And it’s frosty outside and we are thundering towards the solstice – “‘But that’s exactly why we burn up the great winter bonfire tonight,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You’ll get your sun back tomorrow.'” – and this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For adults and children both; I’m as enchanted by it now as I was when I was six. There’s only one downside to Moominland Midwinter as far as I’m concerned: the almost complete absence of my hero and role model, Snufkin (aka Aragorn, in his Strider persona?).

I’m not sure why the Moomins and their friends have exerted such a strong pull on me over the years, as they have on many other people. They’re undeniably attractive to small children (and bigger ones, even if you do end up identifying with Snufkin, a wanderer and adventurer, rather than the cutely rotund and domesticated moomins). The stories are good, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

wood

They’re atmospheric (here are people bringing torches to the midwinter fire), and the larger, more elaborate ones have a wealth of detail which used to fascinate me. Er, still does fascinate me. For me, they sit perfectly with the text, the ideal of children’s book illustration. A little, in fact, like Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations in the previous post.

But what of the plot? What of the story, the essence?

oooooWell, this book has been described, just a little pompously, as ‘having greater psychological depth’ than the earlier books in the series – I’m not so sure about that, though maybe once I stop laughing I’ll agree (I don’t have a lot of patience with over-academic analysis these days). Moominland Midwinter opens when Moomintroll wakes up when he should be hibernating, safely tucked up in bed with his tummy full of pine needles. No-one else is awake, and he is suddenly in a strange and alien land, where even the most familiar things are strangely different. The moominhouse is covered with snow, the sky is black and – when he goes exploring – the sea is frozen. He is terribly lonely, but gradually discovers that this different world has interesting inhabitants, notably Too-ticky, who has taken up residence in the family bathing-house

walk

which she shares with some invisible shrews and a mystery resident… and soon others come to the fore. Little My, for instance, an old friend, has also woken and crashes into him as she sledges downhill on a silver tray:

‘Little My!’ cried Moomintroll once again. ‘Oh, you can’t even guess… it’s been so strange, so lonely… Remember last summer when…?’
‘But now it’s winter,’ said Little My, and fished for the silver tray in the snow. ‘We took a good jump, didn’t we?’

fireGradually, through the coming of the Great Cold, the lighting of the Midwinter Fire and the arrival of many refugees from the consequences of the cold (who are welcomed, camp in the moominhouse and eat all the stored jam), Moomintroll becomes more and more at home in his winter world. But it’s not just about Moomintroll conquering his homesickness for the summer. There are many other little touches. There’s Salome the Little Creep, one of the refugees, who has taken up residence in a Merschaum tram, and her unrequited passion for the hideously sporty Hemulen (Moomintroll describes him to Too-ticky: ‘He’s going to live in an igloo, and at this moment he’s bathing in the river.’ ‘Oh, that kind of Hemulen,’ says Too-ticky, and we all know exactly what she means even though we may never have met a Hemulen). There’s Sorry-oo, the little dog in his hat and blanket who’d really like to be a wolf until he encounters the real thing; there’s the Squirrel with the Wonderful Tail, there’s the Groke… Hmm, maybe we’ll leave it at the Groke.

And above all, there’s winter:

cold...

Poor Tove Jansson, though (she was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community, by the way; hence the post’s title – knew I’d forgotten something!). There was a lot more to her and her work than the delightful family of small trolls she created, but they did tend to take over due to their immense popularity (her Summer Book is another wonderful read, and there isn’t a hint of a moomin). It’s difficult, though. Unless you are someone like Tolkien, who lived and breathed his world so completely, an incredibly popular character or range of characters is bound to assume greater importance than your other work, at least in your readers’ minds. And as a footnote I’d just like to raise another Tolkien comparison: the importance of the landscape and the natural world. Moominland is fully realised; the trees and – my goodness, they both have Lonely Mountains. Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Tolkien and Jansson were great lovers of the north… now, where’s the snow?

Almost good timing – Christmas with Dylan Thomas

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone; this illustrated edition originally published in 1978

Bookcase 9, shelf 2, book 3

The book-selecting dice are evidently not quite running on the same calendar as me, but I am very glad I got this in November and not, say, June – that would have been completely wrong. This nostalgic, romantic, poetic and occasionally deeply surreal evocation of Christmas past would have been impossible to read in warmth and sunshine, but snuggle up next to the stove on a dark night – perfect. And that’s even if I can’t read anything by Dylan Thomas without hearing Richard Burton’s voice in the background at the same time. Or my own – it’s a wonderful book to read aloud.

There is a sort of narrative to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, taking readers through memories of the Christmas season, starting with one of the most evocative opening passages I can think of:

One Christmas was very much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It moves from ‘the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve’ with Thomas (or his narrator, perhaps that should be) in Mrs Prothero’s garden waiting for cats – (‘It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.’) – being diverted by Mrs P frantically calling ‘fire’,

to him going to bed on Christmas night:’I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

Ardizzone’s illustrations run throughout my childhood like a thread, as does this book – despite my growing up 250 miles from the nearest part of Wales; my father adored Dylan Thomas – and it’s such a perfect combination. The frantic Mrs P, the boys and the cats: they’re just right. It’s tempting to see Ardizzone as a literal ‘translator’ and so he is, but his versions of the time of Thomas’s childhood – ‘when there were wolves in Wales’ and the boys ‘chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears’ – are equally literal:

The use of language is, as you’d expect, absolutely magical. It’s impossible to describe; it has to be quoted:

‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss…’

The year before last, we had heavy snow right over Christmas, even here on the west coast of Wales where we normally get very little. As I forced my way out of the house and up the hill, trudging through the woods, I thought of this so clearly. I’d have liked to declaim it to the few sheep I passed, but I couldn’t remember it well enough (sheep are such sticklers for poetic accuracy – oh dear, I think it’s catching).

More realistically, I love the family get-together (brought hilariously and touchingly up-to-date by Mark Watson in the 2009 BBC film ‘A Child’s Christmases in Wales’), the aunts and uncles – ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas’ – around the fire:

This book is frequently described as a ‘modern classic’, and so it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a delightful read, an amusing, diverting journey into the past, into Christmas family traditions and foibles (‘Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year’), into a partly imaginary but completely believable poetic world. There’s even a possible ghost. What else can I say but a rather early Nadolig Llawen?

Of course, the classic version of this book is read aloud not by Richard Burton but by Dylan Thomas himself; it’s worth digging it out. And if you’re inspired to find this lovely illustrated edition, be aware that there is a minature version about; delightful but impractical. You need to see the deacon’s jawbone and the bishops in the belfrey. Didn’t I mention them?

Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?

Back to the trees

MYTHIC WOODS by Jonathan Roberts, published in 2004

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 17

I do love trees. I spent a large part of my teenage years up in an old tree, reading. Now I’ve got quite a few in the garden (er, 20 at the last count, though they’re not all huge), and more than a few books about them on the shelves. Some are field guides, some focus on a particular tree, some are tours of specific trees – but this is the only one which focuses on woods. Well, on a perhaps surprising interpretation of ‘woods’.

OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for books on trees. Some of the books I’ve bought on impulse and the strength of  a few positive words on Amazon have made their way to the charity shop fairly quickly, and for a moment this one nearly joined them. I’m not quite sure why, but it found its way back onto the shelves, where it remained unexamined until I rolled the dice and got it. Now I have read it and looked at it properly, I’m very glad that I changed my mind. This dice-rolling thing is having all sorts of unexpected benefits…

One reason why I nearly got rid of Mythic Woods was because of the fact that it is illustrated with what are, essentially, library shots. I’d hoped for a unified vision, and rather snottily decided that this wasn’t it. I was wrong. Yes, the photographs do come from a variety of photographers, but the photo editing is excellent, and there isn’t really a sour note.

I do think, though, that the title is misleading as well as being a little ‘away with the fairies’ with the ‘mythic’ tag. If it was full of legendary woods, woods like Sherwood, perhaps, redolent with stories and tales, then I wouldn’t have much of  a problem with it as an echo of the book within. But this book isn’t like that at all; it’s much more down to earth than the title implies. It’s also about forests than woods, and that’s forests in the old sense of the term – where a forest can be a bleak area of upland with a few trees dotting the hills, as in the Atlas Mountains,

or an ancient petrified / fossilized forest in Arizona, or a wilderness of kelp off the California coast. Oh, I know I’m quibbling, but I am an editor and that’s my job. Time to ignore my inner nit-picker and just enjoy the book, because it is eminently enjoyable. Here’s the kelp:

More conventionally, the book moves across the whole world in a way that some books of this type just do not. It includes, for instance, Canada’s Great Bear Forest (boy, would I like to see that some day) and the Kauri forests of New Zealand (ditto). I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the mix of photographic sources: it would have been extremely expensive as well as time-consuming – hang on, the Inner Editor is out again. Go away.

But of course it’s not just about the photographs. The text is good, even if the font size is suspiciously large (a sure sign of trying to spin text out – go away, Inner Ed, I said). There’s a strong environmental message. This wasn’t, however, what Jonathan Roberts originally intended. He is quite open about it: saying that the green agenda wasn’t what he wanted to focus on at the start. However, as work progressed, that attitude became impossible to sustain. The sound of the chainsaw rang through many of the woods he visited, and there were clear signs of destruction caused by logging (napalm has even been used to clear the ground after the removal of trees, so that’s not surprising). As he says:

‘Trees can barely keep up with axes. With chainsaws they do no stand a chance. A thousand years a-growing destroyed by fifteen minutes with a chainsaw.’

There’s also a focus on those who have fought or are fighting for the forests, people like Lyautey with his aim of re-foresting the Atlas Mountains in Morocco just after the First World War. His civil servants had protested that old-growth forest, such as that which had once covered the Atlas, would take thousands of years to establish. Re-establish. Apparently he responded with ‘That, gentelmen, is why we will start immediately’. Quite. Go out and plant trees – though I, perhaps, should stop. At least in my own garden.

But I really, really warmed to this book when I found a quote from an old, completely inspirational archaeology book, one that turned me on to the whole idea of European archaeology in the late 70s, and provoked my deep and abiding obsession with the Mesolithic.

It’s probably too small or faint to see, certainly on a mobile device, so here goes:

“‘If one could have flown,’ wrote J G Clark in 1952, ‘over northern Europe during Mesolithic times [c 5000 BCE] it is doubtful whether more than an occasional wisp of smoke from some camp fire, or maybe a small cluster of huts or shelters by a river bank or old lake bed would have advertised the presence of man: in all essentials the forest would have stretched unbroken, save only by mountain, swamp and water, the the margins of the sea…'”

Hmm. Maybe ‘mythic’ isn’t that bad a word. The forest here, by the way, is the wonderful Black Wood of Rannoch. Now that one I do know.

‘A happy voyage to you…’

MASTER AND COMMANDER, by Patrick O’Brian, originally pubished in 1969
(My copy is from the series published in the 1990s with the wonderful Gary Hunt covers – much better than models dressed up in costume, hrumpf)

Bookcase 3, shelf 7, book 24

It had to happen sooner or later. The dice would select a book lurking in a series, one which could not be explored or explained without reading others. Or they would pick a book which started a series, and I wouldn’t be able to stop reading. There are twenty-one books in Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing Aubrey / Maturin series (If you count the one left unfinished at the author’s death), and I’ve been zooming through them, the dice having happily given me the first, Master and Commander. (And no, it’s nothing like the film with Russell Crowe, thank heavens.)

So what is it about these books, set in a version of Nelson’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? Why are they so addictive? And why do they excite such passionate attachment among their fans?

It may be heresy, but I have to say it: they’re not all perfect, far from it, but M&C is a stonking start. O’Brian sweeps you straight in. The language, even the punctuation – they could belong, sometimes, to the early nineteenth century, and it comes as no surprise that O’Brian adored Jane Austen and collected early editions of her books. You don’t have to understand the nautical vocabulary (I still have absolutely no idea what a ‘dog-pawl’ is and I’m not sure I want to know), but whether you do or not, it all helps to create an atmosphere which encourages readers to become absorbed in this particular world. And O’Brian was meticulous about the language he used, incidentally – it is authentic, substantiated in all the mountains of research and contemporary accounts in which he immersed himself. But that’s not it, though it’s a part of it.

It has to be the core relationship, the one between the comparatively straightforward and bluff Jack Aubrey RN and the considerably more enigmatic Stephen Maturin, and between them and various other characters who materialize and vanish and come back again, or who are relatively minor constants. You come to know these people: Killick the steward, Bonden the bosun, Mr Pullings – and you become involved. Will the delightful Pullings ever make captain, even though he has no ‘pull’ in the Admiralty? Will Killick stop grumbling? Who will get killed in the next engagement? Will Stephen’s spying activities mean he gets tortured again, and will he ever be able to break free from his attachment to – enough… As one reviewer noted, one key to the series’ success was that ‘times change, but people don’t.’ And the people are exceptionally well drawn, even if it is sometimes easy to forget that in all the excitement and the recreation of a vanished world.

Master and Commander is where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time; the former irritates the latter at a concert by beating time rather enthusiastically. A duel is averted when Jack is promoted and, in the consequent spirit of bonhomie, apologizes to Stephen. He then recruits the financially embarrassed  Stephen as his ship’s surgeon, and that is fortunate – fortunate for us as readers, because Stephen knows very little of the ways of Nelson’s Navy, and can be an ‘interpreter’ for the rest of us, especially in the very early books. He is experiencing things like the sudden uprush of activity when the watches change for he first time, and so are we; to a certain extent we see this world mainly through Stephen’s eyes. And of course O’Brian had no idea, when he delivered the manuscript for Master and Commander, that this would be the first in a series of over twenty books that would occupy the rest of his life and define his literary reputation.

He was already, though, a huge fan of the period and of Nelson, and it’s his knowledge of that, and his deep enthusiasm for it as well, which illuminates all of the books. Some of the action may seem exaggerated or unlikely, but there is scarcely a naval incident that isn’t based in some way on reality, and the subplots are thoroughly researched as well. The actions in which Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, becomes involved are based on the experiences of Thomas Cochrane, and Cochrane is (largely) the model for Jack Aubrey. Maturin, it has been said, is more like the rather complex and troubled author. It’s a real achievement to take all that thorough-going research and knowledge and transform it into something as exciting and involving as Master and Commander – let alone the other books in the series.

It comes as quite a surprise now to realise how slow-burning the series was. Master and Commander wasn’t immediately picked up by a British publisher, for example, and the early reviews simply compared Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, usually to the former’s disadvantage. But slowly the word began to spread. O’Brian’s books picked up illustrious fans who weren’t afraid to sing their praises, and so the series grew into what it is today: something of a global phenomenon, if a somewhat select one. And one with something of a catching style for which I must apologize (no risk of duels, anyway)…

A Rough Guide to the past

THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer, 2008/9

Bookcase 10, shelf 5, book 22

The subtitle is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’ – and that’s exactly what this is. When the dice ‘chose’ this book for me, I was a little disappointed; I’d read it not long ago, and was sure that I could remember a lot of it. I didn’t particularly want to read it again so soon, but the dice select what the dice select.

Re-reading it made me wonder if I’d actually bothered to read it the first time – there was so much that I didn’t remember, or only partly recalled. I don’t think that’s down to me, though (no, really). I think it is because of the fact that this is an extraordinarily dense book, crammed with interesting information. I thought I knew something about life in Medieval Britain – it wasn’t my specialist study period, but I’ve worked on medieval archaeological sites – but there is something on almost every page to surprise and entertain. And it’s written in an accessible, easy style.

I suppose it all starts with L P Harley: ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ With that in mind, the idea of a something which is almost a travel guide to the past seems logical and almost inevitable – and here it is. Ian Mortimer starts with the idea of the past ‘happening’, of walking down a road in a Medieval town, hearing people talking and shouting, seeing the sights and smelling (phew) the smells.

And that is indeed a useful place to begin, and the opening for one of the most entertaining history books I’ve read in a while. Entertaining and informative. Unlike many historians, Mortimer doesn’t spurn re-enactors: in fact, he says ‘collectively they remind us that history is more than an educational process’. I’m used to the world of experimental archaeology, where attempting to recreate something from the (extreme) past is an acceptable form of research, whether that something is a way of making beer or of moving a huge stone over hundreds of miles. It’s less common to find historians embracing this approach, at least in the imagination, and then writing a bestselling book embodying it. Mortimer selected the fourteenth century because ‘…it comes closest to the popular conception of what is “medieval”, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art…’ and, of course, with cathedrals, revolt and insurrection, war with France, famine and the Black Death.

But for me, it’s the incidental information that you pick up that I enjoy the most. Snippets. So let’s have some, picked completely at random while flicking through the book:

  • It’s a multi-lingual society – not just English. French, Latin and, depending on where you are, the Celtic languages are all in common use and likely to be overheard on the streets. And people’s English is ‘a little rough around the ages’. It’s, er, robust. That’s seen in place names like Shitbrook Street and Pissing Alley (and quite evident in Chaucer’s work, of course). In fact, there are a lot of ‘English’ people whose English is not fluent.
  • Football is popular, though not the game as played today (of course); it’s more like the semi-riots that still take place in a few villages today under the flag of tradition. There are no rules as such, though there are some which try and ban it completely. Huge numbers of people take part, there’s a vast amount of noise and fighting, many get injured and some even die. One William de Spalding, for example, managed to kill a friend during a match when they collided so violently that De Spalding’s knife went through its sheath and into his friend.
  • People caught poaching game no longer have their hands cut off, as in the previous century, ‘but loss of limb is still meted out on their animals’ – so a poacher who managed to only get a fine may see his dog lose a paw.

Medicine is a strange mix of the rational (a truss for hernia) and treatments which appear somewhat more magical – annointing yourself with fat from a roasted cat (!), and frying beheaded dung beetles and crickets in oil to treat a bladder stone. Your doctors will want to look at your pee in order to determine what is wrong with you, by the way.

  • Cow’s milk is suitable only for cooking, and for old woman and children. Each member of a monastic community is allocated a gallon of ale a day. And as for monks not eating meat – well, the monastic Rule states that they should not have meat in the refectory. So there’s another room, the misericord (place of mercy), in which they can eat meat with impunity. Westminster’s Benedictine monks manage to justify eating bacon, however, and bacon and eggs are served in the refectory as a treat before Lent.
  • If you’re a monk in an urban monastery, you’ll live – on average – about five years less than you would if you hadn’t entered the monastery but had lived outside. It’s the infectious disease risk that makes the difference. Yes, you have better sanitation and a much better diet, but you’ll also have a shorter life. And if you die while staying in someone else’s house, the goods you have with you automatically become his property.

More seriously than all of those (not that some of them aren’t serious), looking at history this way does bring up the whole issue of how we perceive the past. Traditionally, history is deeply concerned with assessing, selecting, interpreting the evidence available, and that’s generally documentary evidence. Evidence like this imposes boundaries – because all you can really assess is the evidence. Approaching history as something that was lived, and lived by people who were not that different from us, certainly makes you think. And so does this book.

Dum di Dum di Dum, di Dum…

THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL, by Graham Greene, my edition 1978

Bookcase 3, shelf 5, book 17

I’m not a Graham Greene fan, really. There’s a limit to the amount of Catholic angst I can take without becoming impatient and advising the characters to stop moaning and make a nice cup of tea . Some do get through. Like this.

I must have bought this because The Third Man is probably my all-time favourite film ever. I’m not sure why I wanted the book because I can recite the script, sing the theme tune, see the images in my mind’s eye and stand around in darkened Vienna doorways with a kitten on my feet. OK, not the latter. I prefer to walk away from besotted men in wintry cemeteries while someone plays the zither.

But I found this fascinating, not so much for Graham Greene’s novella – really a basic film treatment – as for his introduction. And I quite enjoyed The Fallen Idol, the brief short story which accompanies it, an altogether a more finished piece of work (but forgive me for concentrating on TTM here). That’s because The Third Man was never really meant for publication. It was, as Greene says, ‘never intended to be read, but only to be seen’. Greene, asked by Alexander Korda to write a film for the director Carol Reed following their collaboration on The Fallen Idol, wrote a ‘story’ on which to base his script. And this is it. The raw material for one of those films which will last forever.

The seeds of the plot had been sown much earlier, a snippet of an idea Greene had jotted down ages before, a thought about someone who had just heard about the death of his friend – named Harry – and had then seen him on the street. Korda wanted a film about the occupation of Vienna after WW2, and the combination is cinema history. Or not quite – the differences between the film and the original story are what fascinate me. And how much better the film is for those differences, as Greene himself acknowledges.

The novella is narrated by Calloway, played – brilliantly – by Trevor Howard in the film. And Calloway’s voice is perfect; he makes an ideal narrator.

He tells the story of a down-at-heel writer, one Rollo Martins (Rollo? yikes), who is invited by his friend Harry Lime to come and do some unspecified work for him in war-ravaged Vienna. When Martins arrives, as in the film, he discovers that Lime has apparently been killed in a car accident, and that his funeral is taking place at that very moment… or is he really dead? Who was the mysterious ‘third man’ who carried the corpse away from the street? Why did Harry, apparently killed outright, nevertheless have final words for Martins and for his refugee girlfriend, Anna? And was it Lime that Martins saw for a fraction of a second in the dark, standing in a doorway with a kitten sitting on his feet?

The novella and the film do follow each other quite closely – of course, the book is a trial for the script, so that’s not surprising. The penicillin racket that Lime is running, his associates Kurtz and Dr Winckler, the chase through the sewers: they’re all here. The changes do come a s a shock if you know the film, though.

Both Martins and Lime are British here, something which had to change once Orson Welles had been cast as Harry Lime. As Lime’s childhood friend, Martins had to be American too, even if he had not been played – superlatively – by Joseph Cotten. Martins’ bafflement, and general good nature, do come through in both the book and in the film.

And thank heavens they were cast as they were; Wells is perfect, with a combination of sleaze and charm which perfectly suits the character as written here, as well as in the final script. And, even though Holley Martins is a silly name, and was quite intentionally so, it isn’t half as silly as Rollo Martins. That was wrong, even though it was supposed to be ‘absurd’. Just wrong (Greene admits it – and note who changed it: ‘Mr Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objected to the name Rollo…’).

There’s also confirmation in the introduction that Harry Lime’s famous lines about peace and creativity:

‘You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…’

were indeed written and inserted into the script by Welles. But there are lines that leap out of this novella / treatment / whatever it is, lines which made it into the final script, such as the iconic (if a line can be iconic) ‘I never knew Vienna before the War … with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm…’. The surprise is that there are so few of them.

More modifications were made. Lime’s Rumanian associate is an American in the book; having cast Welles as Lime, it was felt that there couldn’t be another American baddie. Anna, Lime’s devastated girlfriend, is kidnapped by the Russians, rather than arrested. And who knew Lime was an ex-Catholic, whose final words might have been an act of contrition? (I suppose that was inevitable, really.)

And – no! – the ending is different.

Greene’s ending is wrong; it doesn’t work, and he says so in the introduction: ‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’ The ending of The Third Man is, after all, one of the most powerful and restrained in film (or I think so, anyway), and the one in the book would have trivialised everything that had gone before.

And as a final note, reality often matches fiction – and it does so here. Green says that he knew someone who had taken two friends to see the film when it was in the cinemas: ‘He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the War when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.’

Possibly not what Greene or Reed had in mind…

And now I’ll just walk off into the distance with autumn leaves rattling on the ground. Dum di dum di dum, di dum…

Forgotten – New York

FRONTIER NEW YORK, by Jan Staller, published in 1988

Bookcase 7, Shelf 3, book 25

This whole ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise is fascinating. I think I’d got used to looking at particular bookshelves, or picking up books on a single subject – travel, say, or history (I’ve got lots of both, which is why they keep coming up). Basically, I’d got lazy. Intellectually lazy, and maybe physically lazy too, because there’s no denying that the shelves that are easy to reach undoubtedly get the most attention.

But the throw of the dice made me stand on the back of the sofa, hand on one shelf to make sure I didn’t fall down the gap behind,  stretch out – and pull out a book I’d forgotten I owned. And it’s wonderful! Since I hauled Frontier New York out from between two larger, beefier, altogether heavier photography books I’ve been carrying it around with me, urging people to have a look at it. Surprised the postman, anyway.

I can’t claim credit for having discovered FNY. That belongs to my photography tutor from my City and Guilds in the 1990s, who pointed me in the right direction. I was working on a project which involved getting up at about 4 a.m. and being in run-down, ex-industrial areas by the Thames as dawn broke. I was working in black and white, but Gus suggested I look at Staller’s work, and I found the book in the old Photographer’s Gallery bookshop. Isn’t it strange, the way you suddenly remember little, specific things like that so very clearly, even though you’d not thought about them for years?

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, because I fell in instantly love with Staller’s images…

Boy, oh boy, oh boy. And now I’ve fallen in love all over again.

Staller wasn’t a huge fan of New York, though he moved there in 1976. But, by exploring and investigating, he found a different city, found what he describes as ‘many pockets in and around New York that are relatively unused and ignored’. In his brief introduction, he adds that as life had almost withdrawn from these locations, they had become ‘a neglected frontier abutting the functional metropolis’. What he means is made quite clear in his shots of the abandoned West Side Highway (left above and below), awaiting demolition,

and the strange, often dreamy, images of the edges of the Hudson River.

The shots of and from the old West Side Highway are amazing. Staller apparently ‘discovered’ the location while looking for somewhere quieter, more withdrawn, less frantic. What he found was somewhere that was all that, but which also gave him ‘unblocked sunlight, an open horizon, and all varieties of weather’.

Beautiful. Well, I think they are anyway. My own New York was quite different – as a visitor, albeit a working visitor, in the 90s, I knew frantic energy and life. I hardly stopped to appreciate colours, or the forms of buildings, or the typeface of an old ad on the side of a building, or the reflections in a large puddle. Wish I’d known this book then; it would have given me quite a different perspective.

There’s much more than a heap of gorgeous shots of the West Side Highway, though. In other places Staller created his own frontiers, notably by being out and about very early or in weather conditions that are best described as ‘challenging’ – like the shots he took during the night of the 1983 blizzard. They are, quite simply, magical. My own personal favourite is one of traffic lights, colour blurred in a hazy, snowy, almost-monochrome-but-slightly-indigo vision. Sigh.

In other shots the city is dystopian, a John Carpenter vision of Manhattan.

But again there’s this sense of frontier, here almost of a stage or film set (or maybe I’ve just seen Escape from New York too recently). It doesn’t matter how conventionally unappealing the subject matter, either; the colours are still terrific. Love that electric blue.

So how did he achieve these shots, technically? Well, he used existing light sources, so exposure times for his signature twilight or night images could be as long as 8 minutes. In addition, the nature of the light source in those shots – incandescent, sodium vapour, whatever – added an unexpected element. He was using Vericolor L Colour neg film, and colour film is not formulated for these lights, so the colours are rendered differently, are altered, unearthly and intense. I’ll say.

I’ll leave the last word on this book (almost) to Jan Staller: ‘…I find the atmosphere to be rich in mystery, reminiscent of a lost city’. Yup, me too.

Staller is still working in interesting ways. It’s worth checking out his website to see what he’s up to – and there are more shots from the fabulous Frontier New York there, too.

Op the rigging

THE LAST GRAIN RACE, by Eric Newby, published in 1956

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 3

What a winner, getting this – one of my all-time favourite travel books. One of my all-time favourite books, in fact. And in this case I am including the actual, physical book in my remark, because this is a first edition I found several years ago at a book fair when I was on holiday on the north Norfolk coast. It replaced a Picador paperback which had been read so often that it fell apart (not always that difficult with some of those white-spined Picador titles, mind).

I remember once hearing The Last Grain Race being discussed on Radio 4, and somebody dismissed it as ‘very much a bloke’s book’. Rubbish. I am most definitely not a bloke, and I adore it, so perhaps I should explain why instead of simply repeating the fact that it’s a wonderful read.

A large part of its appeal is down to Eric Newby’s attitude and the sheer style and class of his writing, writing which is never over the top or remotely purple, writing which nonetheless conveys the wonder of the world, whether that is rounding Cape Horn on one of the last grain clippers here, hiding from Nazis in Italy (Love and War in the Appenines) or trekking through Nuristan with a maniac friend (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Lest anyone who doesn’t know Eric Newby assume he was a cross between James Bond and Richard Hannay, I’ll add that he is equally evocative describing his youth in Barnes or his work in the post-war rag trade (Something Wholesale). And of course he is also self-depreciating (the classic anecdote is one from Hindu Kush, where he and his companion encounter that legendary traveller Wilfrid Thesiger. They blew up their inflatable matresses at night, getting a predictable reaction from the Great Man: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’…) and immensely funny.

The Last Grain Race is the story of his voyage around the world as a young apprentice on board Moshulu, one of the last of the great windjammers, in 1938-9.

(Moshulu, incidentally, has a brief role in Godfather II, where she carries the young Vito Corleone to America – watch out for it, as it gives an idea of the scale of these huge but lightly crewed grain ships.)

Newby had always been tempted by the sea and finally gave in to romanticism, bad influences (Mountstewart, an elderly friend and possibly certifiable lunatic), heredity (his father ‘had once tried to run away to sea and been brought back from Millwall in a hackney cab’) and the growing realisation that this was an opportunity which was about to disappear from the oceans of the world for ever. He kept a meticulous record during the voyage, as well as writing letters and taking many remarkable photographs, all of which enabled him to write Grain Race so evocatively nearly 20 years later.

After a laborious attempt to locate a caribou-skin sleeping bag – ‘it took up a great deal of time which I could have spent more profitably in eating’ – which he had become convinced was necessary (the salesman: ‘The last one gave the man who slept in it anthrax’), and lugging the second-hand Louis Vuitton trunk found in a lost property shop, Newby set off for Belfast, Moshulu and – eventually – the Southern Ocean. All in all, for a voyage of some 30,000 miles.

The ship finally left the unappealing docks of pre-war Belfast on 18 October, and EN began a steep learning curve in everything from getting on with his variously eccentric shipmates to climbing the rigging in all situations (above a dock, in a storm, when someone is throwing up on your head), to what happens if you lose a hammer over the side and how bad a dead dog smells when you excavate it from the ballast four months after the Belfast stevedores have amusingly placed it there.

There is a lot of detail about the organization of a sailing ship, but it can easily be skipped; in fact, Newby tells readers where to jump to at one point if they don’t want to follow his ‘technical interlude’. Even without reading that, though, you inevitably pick up a lot of vicarious knowledge – how slippery the ratlines could be, and how dangerous; how to clean the revolting heads; how to set a course in Swedish, the working language of the ship.

And so the outward journey to Australia continues, Moshulu crossing the equator (with a horrible initiation ceremony for those who had not done so before, including EN) about a month after sailing.There is some wonderful writing about the sea, evocative in the extreme:

‘On Christmas morning the weather was cold and brilliant. Big following seas were charging up astern in endless succession. They surged beneath the ship, bearing her up, filling the air with whistling spray as their great heads tore out from under and ahead to leave her in a trough as black and polished as basalt except where, under the stern post, the angle of the rudder made the water bubble jade-green, as from a spring. From the mizzen yardarm, where I hung festooned with photographic apparatus, I could see the whole midships…’

Now is the time to mention the photographs – the extraordinary photographs. They are so good, and so comparatively rare, documenting life on a windjammer, that at least one commentator has described them as the most important aspect of Eric Newby’s work. They are indeed excellent, and in my edition are reproduced particularly well. In fact a book entirely devoted to them was published in 1999 – Learning the Ropes.

The ship arrived in Australia in early January, loaded and left in March 1939, and arrived back at Queenstown (now Cobh) in June, 91 days out. Moshulu was the winner of the ’39 grain race. But this was just before the outbreak of war and everything was to change, and change extremely fast, just as EN had anticipated. One of the other ships in the race, the Olivebank, hit a German mine in early September, but Moshulu herself survived, and is now – wait for it – a floating restaurant. And occasional film location.

Throughout The Last Grain Race, as with his other books, Eric Newby’s essentially genial and humane personality comes through. Yes, he’s a romantic, but he finds that characteristic amusing and gently pokes fun at his younger self (as in the affair of the wretched sleeping bag). He genuinely likes people and finds them interesting – and that’s not something you can say for every travel writer, or indeed every writer. There’s no need to explain away undesirable attitudes as being ‘common at the time’ or ‘simply reflecting the times in which the book was written’ because there aren’t any such attitudes in evidence. Having met the man himself when I was a baby bookseller, I can testify to his genuine niceness – an often under-esteemed quality.

A wonderful book, and a wonderful author.

What’s left of Londoners

LONDON BODIES – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day, Museum of London, 1998

Bookcase 9, shelf 4, book 6

I am surprised that this is the first exhibition catalogue the dice have presented me with, given that I used to work in museums and galleries, and have an incurable catalogue habit (well, I’ve cured myself of it now – largely, OK, I’m cured for this year).

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of exhibition publishing – possibly not of general interest, ho ho – and it also sent me to my other shelves, pulling out old catalogues, new catalogues, big catalogues, catalogues that set themselves up to become the definitive work on X or Y, catalogues that are little more than a flyer… What are exhibition catalogues for, when it comes down to it?

I can only answer for myself. I find that unless I visit an exhibition several times – and that’s been known, quite apart from the time I effectively lived with exhibitions every day – I later forget about things I would prefer to remember. And I miss things, especially at blockbusters where seeing anything through other people is next to impossible. The enormous tomes are also useful reference books, though they do break your back and lead to other problems: I had a nasty fight with an Air France steward about Le Siecle de Titien being too heavy to go in an overhead locker. Or even fly. She did have a point.

This, happily, is not such a breezeblock of a book, nor is it a straightforward list of everything that was in the Museum of London’s fascinating 1998 archaeological and historical show. The show was based around their extensive collection of human remains, but it was more than that – they have equally extensive collections of all sorts of other things connected to physical appearance, from Roman leather knickers and an Elizabethan child’s knitted vest to Victorian underwear. Unsurprisingly, London Bodies is one of those discursive catalogues, rather than one which details the exhibits one by one and then tells you something about them.

There are seven chapters on various aspects of the show, starting with one on excavation, and then moving chronologically through to a photo-essay on modern London (superfluous, in my opinion). However, because the chapters are all written by different people there is little unity of tone; one chapter is a bit dry, another chatty…

But having said that, there’s still plenty to chew on. Each chapter throws a light on a specific aspect of the time it discusses – the Black Death and famine in the Medieval chapter; costume in the one on Tudor London; the question of a ‘London look’ in the one on the Georgian and Victorian city. In addition there are feature spreads covering all sorts of subjects from recent work in Roman cemeteries and what it tells us about Londoners (most people ate comparatively well, and only a small proportion show evidence of deprivation, or of parasites) to what made you sexy in Elizabethan London (minute waists and large cod-pieces). So inside this particular exhibition catalogue is a wealth of interesting information.

Human remains – and what you do with them – are a controversial subject in archaeology, and this is little explored, but I recall the the show as being both fascinating and comparatively sensitive in the way it dealt with the issue. The book is quite clear – the remains are valued for the information they can give, and they give a lot. This woman, for instance, was a Saxon. She was about 30 when she died (of what, we do not know), and was buried dressed in an overgown fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. The brooch is still there, but we also know that she wore a bracelet – her wrist bones are stained by the metal – and that she had a congenital back disorder, had once broken her collar bone but been treated well since the mend was good, and that she had enjoyed quite a bit of sweetness in her diet (bad teeth – the sweetness could have been from beer or honey). At the same time, I am sure that more attention would be paid to the ethical side of displaying human remains were the book (and the exhibition) to take place today. I know where I stand – I trained as an archaeologist, after all.

On a less profound level, one of the things I recall most clearly from the show was the corsets, and of course they are reflected in the catalogue. I know quite a bit about Victorian dress, but I found things here to inform me further, and amuse me (like one corset manufacturer in Berners Street, who won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – the wonderfully and apparently anachronistically named Madame Roxy Caplin). Oh, by the way, her corsets were ‘beneficial to the weak, delicate and imperfect’. Just about everyone, then.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this catalogue and, through it, remembering the show. Not all are so interesting, of course, and I’m not sure this could properly be described as a ‘catalogue’ anyway – it’s more a ‘book to accompany the exhibition’. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it’s time to pull out a few more and renew my acquaintance with Ancient Greek gold, the effects of light on fabric or Russian Constructivism. Sigh…

(Apologies for the slight hiatus in posts – not idleness, an exotic holiday or a sudden weakening of resolve on the book-buying front. More mundane: problems with WordPress…)