‘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…)

‘Somewhere a’ stories are real, a’ songs are true.’

THE WEE FREE MEN, by Terry Pratchett, published in 2004

Bookcase 3, shelf 8, book 16

Well, that’s a bit of a change from the last book!

Before anything else, a confession. Until a few years ago, I’d not read a word of Terry Pratchett. That was because I knew I wouldn’t like him, right?

Then all my books were in storage, and I was living in a friend’s house for six months.  I had to read the books already on the shelves or bankrupt myself, and I was ‘reduced’ to Pratchett. Within half an hour I knew I’d been making a terrible mistake for years, blinded by stupid prejudice and ridiculous assumptions about genre. His books are wonderful.

But, but, but – I’m still not a huge fan of the earlier books, and there are inevitably some weaker ones (Monstrous Regiment went to a charity shop). I prefer the later Pratchett, the angry Pratchett, the Pratchett of the Night Watch. I wondered what I would do if the dice gave me a Pratchett I didn’t particularly like – admit it, or loyally defend it with qualifications? Happily, they didn’t. I got this.

It’s ostensibly a children’s book, following on from his award-winning Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. But this is darker, fitting in more with the overall atmosphere of Discworld. It centres on Tiffany Aching:

a child who is something of an anomaly in her family, having a deep respect for learning (she reads the dictionary for pleasure) and being a witch in the making. In this she is most closely linked with her recently-deceased grandmother, a shepherd of outstanding ability and status. Tiffany sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be. So when she sees a horrifying monster in the river she knows it is real and reacts appropriately. That means using her sticky baby brother as bait (that’s the ruthless witchiness coming out) and whacking the river-sprite – who is similar to a classic British folk horror – with an iron frying pan. This not surprisingly attracts attention, but the watchers are surprising: some of Pratchett’s most wonderful creations, the Nac Mac Feegle, or the Wee Free Men.

Apart from uttering cries of ‘Crivens! or ‘Oh, waily, waily, waily!’, I’m not sure how to describe the NMF. Hm. They’re wonderful. They’re diminutive fairies, except they don’t have wings, they have tattoos; they don’t tend to do good things unless there’s no other option or they’ve been bribed by promises of Special Sheep Liniment; they’re not cute or twee, they’re Glaswegian. They were thrown out of Fairyland, possibly for being drunk and disorderly. The Feeglespotting poster above, by Paul Kidby – whose illustrations of Discworld I absolutely love – comes from The Art of Discworld, where Pratchett comments ‘The Wee Free Men was launched in Inverness, to see if I survived. I did.’

Let’s whip through a bit of plot. Tiffany’s sticky brother disappears; he’s been knidnapped by the Queen of the Elves in one of her repeated attempts to invade the Discworld; she also invades dreams. Pratchett’s elves are nothing like Tolkien’s; they are immensely dangerous, self-centred beyond belief and wickedly tricksy. Tiffany, aided by the NMF, advice from Miss Tick (itinerant teacher and witch), Miss Tick’s ‘familiar’ (a helpful toad – he’s yellow because he’s unwell, but the actual pun is avoided, thank heavens), and her own natural good sense, sets off to rescue him. Which… no, no plot spoilers… it’s not a long book; read it to find out what happens.

But that’s just the plot. For me the main themes are more to do with being true to yourself, dealing with bereavement and understanding the power of the land. The high chalk, Tiffany’s country, is almost another character, a perpetual presence which is powerfully described. Pratchett says that ‘there’s a lot of my past in some of the descriptions in the book’, and you can tell. Let’s hope that’s mainly confined to his wonderful descriptions of the landscape, and not to any personal acquaintance with any small, aggressive, smelly (Tiffany makes them bathe), kilted and armed pictsies [sic]…

‘Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!’