Friday, 30 September 2011

Happy 25th, Bloomsbury!

Firstly, I'm so pleased by your enthusiasm for my A Century of Books project!  It really is the anti-challenge challenge - in that I shan't be making a list beforehand, I shan't make many rules, I shan't really even pick books for it, it'll just quietly fill up as the year goes by... I hope!  I'll certainly be including re-reads and multiple books by the same authors, etc. etc., but I think it should be really fun.  I'm really excited about those of you who want to join in, and feel free to do so over the course of one, two, however many years - or maybe just keep a closer eye on the publication years of the books you read?

asks whether I could give some suggestions for books to read from the first half of the 20th century - oh, Jo, I am going to have the MOST fun doing that!  I'll try and compile something, and post it soon - but for some ideas, there are really, really wonderful lists by Lizzy and Every Book and Cranny (sorry, can't find your name!) 

So I'll try and work out a list of ones I already have read, but not a list for what I will read.  And then I'll be probably keep quiet on the topic until the end of the year...

And now for something completely different.  Have I mentioned how much I love Bloomsbury publishers?  Well, I really do.  Not only have they printed the wonderful Bloomsbury Group series, thus bringing Miss Hargreaves back into print (there you go, Dad, a mention of it!) and the upcoming Bloomsbury Reader e-reprints (more on those uber-soon, promise) but they happen to be the most friendly publishing company in the world.  I've met lots of lovely publishing folk, and (besides being universally impossibly glamorous) they've all been very nice - but Bloomsbury go the extra mile.  Alice, my 'contact' there, sends me the catalogue with her own inscriptions and suggestions - as well as exchanging emails about cats and baking disasters etc.

Well, today (yesterday by now, I suppose) I went to Bloomsbury's 25th Birthday Party!  I had arranged to meet up with Elaine (Random Jottings) and Karen (Cornflower) both of whom I've met a fair few times before, and both of whom it is always an utter delight to see.  There they are above; apologies for the blurry photo.  And how glad I was to be with them when we arrived at a huge party in Bedford Square - actually in the square, or rather the garden in the middle.  Big marquee, lots and lots of people - and us, staring at name-tags to try and find our Bloomsbury friends.  In the meantime, we celeb-spotted, and all got in a bit of a tizzy about seeing Paul Hollywood from The Great British Bake-Off.  Goodness!  Also spotted Grayson Perry, Raymond Blanc, Heston Blumenthal, and (I think) P.D. James.

But we were most excited about meeting Stephanie and Alice, the two people at Bloomsbury who have been so lovely to all three of us for the past four or so years.  And of course both of them are totally lovely in person too - we hugged, we were introduced as the most important bloggers in the country (doubtless not true, but how nice to be introduced thus!) and I even managed to whisper how nice it would be to have a copy of the latest Magnus Mills novel. 

I am much worse than many bloggers at reading review copies - I tend to squirrel myself off to the 1930s and ignore a lot of what's going on in the 2010s - because I want my blog to reflect my reading tastes, and I think that's why the people who do read my blog are here (yes? :)) so I'm very grateful to Bloomsbury and other publishers for still keeping me in mind, and being so friendly.  I was so surprised to be invited to this shindig, and delighted to accept - it was good fun, and even worth the horribly hot, overcrowded train journey I had home....!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A Century of Books

I tend not to participate in reading challenges, simply because I like to be spontaneous with my reading choices - well, as spontaneous as someone who does a full-time university course and belongs to three book groups can be.  It's relatively rare that I can just grab something off my shelf for pleasure-reading alone, and it's incredibly un-rare that I buy books.  You do the sums...

BUT I have decided to set myself a challenge for 2012 - one which I can't really envisage myself completing, but which will be fun to try.  I want to read (and hopefully review) a book published in every year of the 20th century.  I'm calling it A Century of Books

Why, you ask?  Partly out of the simple pleasure of a list, and to have (at the end of 2012) a very selective glance at the course of the 20th century.  And partly to make me diversify my reading a little bit - currently the 70s, 80s and 90s are rather neglected in my reading life.  But it's the sort of challenge that I'll be doing without really noticing that I'm doing it - hopefully most of the years will fill up as a happy coincidence to my everyday reading choices.  (It has dawned on me as I write this that similar challenges might already exist... oh well, there is nothing new under the sun, and the more the merrier!)

So, this will probably basically involve reading what I like until the autumn, when I panic and start filling in gaps...

I'll set up an ongoing list, which I'll link to whenever I read a book for A Century of Books, so hopefully the enjoyment won't be all mine.  Indeed, I'd be delighted if other people wanted to join in - are you interested? 

Feel free to use my logo for A Century of Books, or make your own - I imagine lots of you are more graphic-savvy than I am. 
(My selection won't necessarily - or even probably - include the books in the above picture.  I just picked books at random and put them in a vaguely chronological order...)

So... 1900-1999, here I come.  Or, rather, I will in three months' time, when 2012 gets around to starting... let me know if you'll be on board!  

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

quick question for Blogger users...

I've recently updated to the new user interface of Blogger (which shouldn't change the way you read posts, just the way I write them) - but, oddly, it has now made all my gaps between lines double in size.  So when I press 'enter' it looks like I've pressed it once in the draft, but appears as though I'd pressed it twice... anybody able to help?

Books, books, books...

One or two of you have asked about my spoils from last Wednesday, when I gave Claire an entirely altruistic tour of some London bookshops... ahem.  Let's gloss over the fact that, thinking about her baggage allowance, she only bought four books to my nineteen (plus two for other people).  Here they are, and I am enjoying have a camera which will takes a non-horribly-blurry photo of amassed books.  Let's take a gander at them, in a vaguely left-to-right manner, in rows...

Red Sky at Morning by Margaret Kennedy : I seem to remember this was on a list of books about twins that abebooks published a while ago?  Does anybody know anything about this?  I haven't read a word by Kennedy yet.  This came from the lovely Ripping Yarns bookshop, where I had the chance to say hello to shop manager Jen
Awakenings by Oliver Sacks : this is my token non-literary book of the haul.  I'm a fan of Sachs', and I enjoyed Harold Pinter's plays based on these cases - where people were awakened from years of being in a coma.

Diaries and Letters 1930-39 by Harold Nicholson : as Darlene said, the dates alone would make me want to grab this book - but combine that with Vita Sackville-West's husband on the cover, and I couldn't leave it behind.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset : this is a hideous cover but a book I've been intending to secure for a while.  It came from an astonishing little shop (pictured below) near Archway tube station, run by an ancient Irish gentleman.  Books were piled at least forty high, in twelve stacks (four wide; three deep).  Teetering is the word.  Claire and I worked our way through as many as we could see without covering the floor, furniture and ourselves in paperbacks...

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes : I don't know much about this Persephone book, but I was lucky enough to come across one I don't have for only £3 in the wonderful Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange.  Indeed, most of these books came from there...

Mr. Tasker's Gods by T.F. Powys : I greatly enjoyed Mr. Weston's Good Wine and have been hoping to find this one for a while - finding it in this lovely Chatto & Windus edition was rather a treat.

The Topsy Chronicles by A.P. Herbert : while I know APH's name from A.A. Milne's autobiography and other similar sources, I haven't actually read anything by him.  These look good fun, and (as a bonus) I discovered APH had signed and given this book himself.  I love it when these things happen...

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald : I've had luck finding these beautiful editions...
The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald : ...and here's another!  Which Penelope Fitzgerald should I read next?

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann : I've heard good things about this novel, and wasn't about to leave it behind with a pricetag of fifty pence... (have I mentioned how much I love Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange?)

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark : how many more Spark novels am I going to stumble across??  The woman seems to have been unstoppable.

Don't Look Round by Violet Trefusis : having loved her novel Echo earlier in the year, I was more than happy to add to my Bloomsbury Group library.

Here's How by Virginia Graham : this is the book I was most excited about - indeed, I've already started it, and it's hilarious.  I adored her faux-etiquette guide Say Please a couple of years ago, and this one is a faux-instruction guide.  So far I've read How To Sing, How To Dance, and How To Play the Piano.  It would be going too far to say I've learnt anything practical, but I've certainly laugh.  I'll quote some for you all soon...

The Celestial Omnibus by E.M. Forster : I read the title story from this collection when it was published by Penguin in their short story series, and now I'm keen to read some more.  And such a nice little edition...

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates : chivvied on by Lyn's recent review, I grabbed this when I saw it on the shelf.  This'll be my first Bates...

The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor : I've heard all-round good things about this collection, not least in Nicola Beauman's biography of Taylor - and which of us Virago-fans can resist a VMC?

My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin : see above...

Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge : this is the other book I bought in Ripping Yarns, on the basis that Berridge is a Persephone author.  Not that I've read anything by her yet...  Pictured above are the beautiful shelves in Ripping Yarns, which made me go a ltitle weak at the knees...

Stately as a Galleon by Joyce Grenfell : I need a little more Joyce in my life.  This might be my next dip-in dip-out book...

So, there you go!  As always, I want to hear your thoughts - on which books you've enjoyed, or think you would enjoy, etc. etc.  Over to you!

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac

This post title could easily be a confessional moment for me, couldn't it?  Well, fear not, we won't be delving into anything too untoward today - rather we'll be turning back the clock to 1896 and discovering that an irrational love of books is nothing new.  For it was over a century ago that Eugene Field's posthumous book The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac was published, and it feels like a century ago (although it is in fact only two years) since my friend Sherry kindly gave me the book.

I should explain, before you wonder how tawdry this Victorian reader was, that the love affairs are strictly of the literary variety.  Mr. Field was a single man up until his death, but his love affairs with books were as lively and happy as many marriages.  

Initially I thought Field and I would have little in common - since he died before the end of the 19th century, he necessarily could not have encountered many of my favourite writers - and, even with the 19th century stretching out behind him, he makes no mention of Jane Austen, and only scant whispers of Hardy and Dickens.  Instead he reserves his fondest passions for Boccaccio and others of that ilk.  He quotes reams in Latin and Greek.  And he cares deeply about fine volumes from centuries ago, beautiful bindings, and the scarcity and value within a library.  I, on the other hand, don't.  I love having books signed by some of my favourite authors (including E.M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, and Dorothy Whipple) but aside from that, I don't care whether a book is a first edition or a scruffy reprint - except for unrelated issues of aesthetics.  I'd rather have an attractive reprint from the 1980s than an ugly 1880s first edition.

So I settled down into Field's company, expecting to enjoy the lust of a collector with the same detached interest that I read Wolf Mankowitz's excellent novella Make Me An Offer about hunting down a valuable antique vase.  But then I found Eugene Field writing things like this:
Books, books, books - give me ever more books, for they are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity - words, the only things that live forever!
and this:

As for myself, I never go away from home that I do not take a trunkful of books with me, for experience has taught me that there is no companionship better than that of these friends, who, however much all things else may vary, always give the same response to my demand upon their solace and cheer.  My sister, Miss Susan, has often inveighed against this practice of mine, and it was only yesterday that she informed me that I was the most exasperating man in the world.

not to mention this:

All men are not as considerate of books as I am; I wish they were.  Many times I have felt the deepest compassion for noble volumes in the possession of persons wholly incapable of appreciating them.  The helpless books seemed to appeal to me to rescue them, and too many times I have been tempted to snatch them from their inhospitable shelves, and march them away to a pleasant refuge beneath my own comfortable roof tree.
A kindred spirit!  A fellow bibliomaniac, indeed!  No matter that the biblios he maniacked were centuries-old copies of Latin poets whilst mine are 1930s novels by middleclass British women, we are singing from the same song-sheet.  This collection of essays is a bit like other Stuck-in-a-Book favourites like Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing and Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, in that it bubbles over with a love for books and reading.  

Field's collection of essays starts off quite generally, with the sort of sentiments quoted above, before getting increasingly specific.  Since our tastes diverge so greatly, it was the more general sections which I truly loved.  I wanted to reach out, across the entire 20th century dividing us, and shake his hand.  The beautiful essays at the beginning of this volume, tastefully over-written in the paradoxical way which so inimitably belongs to the 1890s, touch so closely at the shared love of literature we all have.  They could have been blog posts.  For even if his books are valuable, he does not appreciate them simply as valuable objects, as though books were no different from ornaments or houses or bank vaults.  As he says:
There are very many kinds of book collectors, but I think all may be grouped in three classes, viz.: Those who collect from vanity; those who collect for the benefits of learning; those who collect through a veneration and love for books.  It is not unfrequent that men who begin to collect books merely to gratify their personal vanity find themselves presently so much in love with the pursuit that they become collectors in the better sense.
I doubt many of us have, or want, valuable libraries - but I think many of us can empathise with the assembly of a book-collection which comes from 'veneration and love for books'.  And there is one manner in which Field is simply a blogger ahead of his time.  I, with Project 24 under my belt, did have to laugh at this:
Whenever Judge Methuen is in a jocular mood and wishes to tease me, he asks me whether I have forgotten the time when I was possessed of a spirit of reform and registered a solemn vow in high heaven to buy no more books.  Teasing, says Victor Hugo, is the malice of good men; Judge Methuen means no evil when he recalls that weakness - the one weakness in all my career.
No, I have not forgotten that time; I look back upon it with a shudder of horror, for wretched indeed would have been my existence had I carried into effect the project I devised at that remote period!
Oh, Eugene!  There is a place for you in the blogosphere.  How many of us have had this absurd intention, and how few of us have seen it through?  And even fewer of us regret this decision!

Thank you, Sherry, for sending this book to such an amenable bookshelf, and to so kindred a spirit.  I hope this blog post will send Eugene Field to many other appreciative libraries around the world.

A word of warning.  There are lots of unattractive print-on-demand copies dotted around, and it can be difficult to find the pre-1900 editions on bookselling websites, even though they're actually pretty affordable once you track them down.  To save you some time, they're here on and (cheaper) here on

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Song for a Sunday

Have a great Sunday, everyone, and whilst you're doing that, why not listen to Come On by Princess & Mr. Tom, featuring Elin Ruth Sigvardsson?

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone.  I'm tucked up in bed, feeling better than yesterday but not quite fighting fit just yet.  But fit enough to give you a link, a blog post, and a book.  In fact, as a special treat, let's have two each of all of 'em... and a question for you too.  

Does anyone have any tips for finding out when people link to your blog?  I use Google Alerts, which used to be quite good, but now don't seem to turn up many results - often I find blog posts have linked to me, and I've been unaware of it.  Occasionally I check Technorati, which catches some of them, but I'd like an alerts service that actually does the job....?

1.) The blogs - two whole new-to-me blogs this week, rather than just blog posts!   Firstly, Helen at A Gallimaufry - she's been going for a while, but somehow I've only just spotted her blog.  It has a lovely scrap-booky feel, with beautiful archive photos surrounding her insightful reviews.  How could I not love a blog which has featured reviews of The Love Child and The Skin Chairs?  Go and have a gander.

And secondly, my friend Barbara - my e-friend, that is, whom I've known online for seven years - has finally succumbed and set up this rather beautiful photo-orientated blog, Mi Lady's Boudoir.  Travels and photos and books and delectable things like that.

2.) The books - are both review copies, and rather from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The sublime, from Frances Lincoln publishers, is Enthusiasms by Mark Girouard.  It's a collection of the unusual minutiae of literary exploration, from a neglected clue to Jane Austen's first love affair to the location of Waugh's Brideshead, stopping off at SiaB favourites like Oscar Wilde and Vita Sackville-West.  This one's going to be fun.

But perhaps not as much fun, and certainly not as much guilty pleasure, as the book Michael O'Mara Books sent me - Brendan Sheerin: My Life.  For those not in the know, Brendan is the (international) tour guide on one of my favourite TV programmes - Coach Trip.  It's the world's most budget reality TV programme, utter rubbish but completely compelling.  Friends come around and we watch seven episodes at a time.  This book will doubtless prove as guiltily entertaining.

3.) The links - are both of a bookish nature, quelle surprise.  Lyndsay pointed me in the direction of this - Esquire have named 75 Books Every Man Should Read.  Oddly all but one of them are by men.  Methinks they got confused about Carson McCullers...  Naturally I think this is probably all quite silly, from the idea that men should read different books from women to the idea that men should only read books by men (and Carson McCullers).  But I loves me a list, and couldn't resist it.

Speaking of lists... Laura of Guardian Books sent me a link to their Power 100.  Also clearer list etc. here.  It's the hundred most powerful people in books, including booksellers, authors, publishers, agents... and nary a blogger in sight, which isn't really entirely surprising.

So, twice as many goodies as usual there.  I'm off to bed with a book...

Friday, 23 September 2011

Cold in da doze...

Sorry not to reply to comments yet, there have been some very lovely ones which made me feel all warm inside, and also very lucky to have met such wonderful bloggers (oh, and Rachel, the Edith Wharton came from the previous day, otherwise I'd have offered it to you first!) but right now I'm feeling all sorry for myself, with a cold.  I know, man flu man flu... I must confess I'm good at feeling sorry for myself, but I'm also good at being proactive about it - I have bought most of the Boots medicine counter, and made myself a big saucepan of carrot and coriander soup to see me through the next couple of days.

So I'm getting lots of early nights at the moment - will come back and tell you about the twenty (!!) books I bought on Wednesday when I'm feeling more alive.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Will I ever get enough of London? (yes... that's enough now)

(Thanks to those of you who expressed interest in receiving a copy of my paper - I'm not ignoring you, will email off Thurs evening!)

Wow, if you thought I bought a lot of books at the weekend, wait til you see how many I got on Wednesday with Claire (who, remembering her luggage allowance, was rather more circumspect).  That's for another day, though.  For today I'll just show off this photo of me meeting Claire (taken by Darlene - who joined us for dinner, giving me the delight of seeing her twice in one week.)

Tonight, tired, and having succumbed to the inevitable cold (all my housemates have it - it was only a matter of time) I just wanted to write a quick question...

This is to all the bloggers who have met other bloggers in person.  I can say, without hesitation, that all the bloggers I've met have been lovely, Claire being (of course) no exception.  But what does change quite a lot is how similar or different they are to/from how I imagined them.  Some bloggers - perhaps especially Karen and Thomas - were exactly how I'd envisioned them.  Others, while lovely, were lovely in a whole other way that I'd anticipated.

I've been lucky - I've met probably 30-35 bloggers in person (I'll have to do a proper count sometime) so I can make these sorts of statements - but I'd love for you to answer, if you can!  How have your face-to-face blogger-to-blogger meetings gone?

And, for an even smaller group of respondents... was I how you imagined I'd be, when you met me?!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Londoning (the books)

Time to share with you the books I bought in London!  Blogger has a new interface thingummy, so I'm hoping things will go to plan... if I press the wrong buttons and everything turns out enormous or slanting to the right or something, then forgive me.  (Is the font still a readable size?)

First up are the two books I bought at the conference.  My heart more or less stopped beating when I walked into the conference hall on the second day - there was the most middlebrow bookstall in front of me.  Elizabeth von Arnim, E.M. Delafield, Viragos everywhere... Not the cheapest selection in the world, but I did manage to pick up a couple of gems:

Opus 7 by Sylvia Townsend Warner: the first book she published, this is a book-length poem and thus not my normal cup of tea, but I'll give it a go.  Plus... beautiful, no?

Novels and Novelists by Katherine Mansfield: a collection of her reviews, which is rather wonderful.  Lots of unfamiliar names in the index, and thus probably a more accurate representation of the period.  It does, serendipitously, include a review of Elizabeth von Arnim's Christopher and Columbus, which I was reading the day I bought this.

Off I trotted during some free time, and down to Judd Books, wherein I bought these: 

At Freddie's and Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald.  There are plenty of Penelope Fitzgerald novels around, but I fell in love with this series of editions from Flamingo - another incentive to explore more PF territory.

The rest of the weekend's purchases are shown, colour-coded...

Blow on a Dead Man's Embers by Mari Strachan: I recently loved Strachan's first novel, so was delighted to pick her second up for £1.

Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark: it's no secret that I adore this novel, but the copy I read was from the library - I've been on the look-out for a cheap copy for a while.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay: somehow this was not amongst my Macaulay collection, despite being perhaps her most famous.  Thanks to Mary for spotting this outside the bookshop!

Epigraph on George Moore by Charles Morgan: I love authors writing about other authors, and although I've only read one book by Morgan, and none by Moore, this seemed like one I rather wanted to own...

Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle: between recognising Boyle's name, an instinctive covetousness for any Virago Modern Classic, and the cover painting, I couldn't leave this behind.  The cover is 'Portrait of a Young Woman' by Meredith Frampton, one of my favourite paintings in the Tate Gallery.

The Old Maid by Edith Wharton: I've been wanting to read more Wharton, and this is perfect for my research into 1920s spinsters - not to mention a rather lovely copy.

T.H. White: A Biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner: another one I should probably have on hand for my research - making this book buying haul, on the whole, an academic excursion... no?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Londoning (a many varied post...)

I'm back to what will hopefully become normal schedule now - and several busy days in London to report! This picture is a sneak preview of what I will talk about...

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been attending a Middlebrow Conference called The Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism, and very enjoyable it was too. (Hello to the people I met there, if you're now reading this!) Well, it was enjoyable tinged with nerves, unsurprisingly, since this was my first time presenting outside of a graduate conference in Oxford. My paper was called (laboured pun alert) The Love Child, The Witch and The Spinster: The Fantastic Middlebrow in Two 1920s Novels. Those novels were The Love Child by Edith Olivier and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - both, incidentally, very good indeed - although even at a Middlebrow Conference, where names like E.M. Delafield, Elizabeth von Arnim, and E.H. Young were thrown around confidently, nobody had read The Love Child...

I was on a wonderfully cohesive panel, all of talking about 1920s spinsters, including a paper on E.H. Young's Miss Mole and The Missess Mallett, which delighted me. In the interests of keeping their research private, I'd better not share too much - and, indeed, with some vague notion of Intellectual Property I shan't post my paper on here, but I'm happy to email it to anybody who fancies reading 3000 words on those novels. Just email me, or mention it in the comments. Oh, and while I was there I had the very great pleasure of meeting Tanya - we'd pre-arranged to meet up, and it was so lovely to have someone I 'knew' at the event.

Rather than any intellectual recap here, then, I shall instead relate the hilarious train journey I had on the Thursday, sitting opposite a delightful mother-and-daughter pair. The daughter, I quickly learnt, was almost seven years old, and called Megan. They were on their way to Disneyland - accompanied, I should add, by a singing Zac Efron doll ('Can I Have This Dance?' from High School Musical 3, since you ask) and a non-singing Justin Bieber doll. Megan was convinced that Justin had cellulitis (how on EARTH does she know this word?) and ignored her mother's correction that she meant laryngitis. After a while of silently laughing to myself, I started to scribble down their conversation... it makes the mother sound a bit mean, but you should know that she was clearly joking throughout. It was evident that they had an amazing mother/daughter relationship, and just being near them brightened up my day. And it might brighten up yours...

Megan: What are you getting me for my birthday, Mum?

Mum: The trip to Disneyland is for your birthday! What more do you want from me, blood?

Megan: Daddy's getting me a necklace, and Nanna's giving me money. Will Auntie Michelle get me Barbies?

Mum: No love, honestly, she won't get you Barbies, I promise you.

Megan: Why not?

Mum: She hates them, love. She thinks Barbies oppress women.

Megan: [pause] I want a Barbie!

Mum: You can buy one with your own money, I'm not buying you one. Seven year olds don't need Barbies.

Megan: I love Barbies! I'd play with them more, only I've got all my homework to do.

Mum: Oh yes! Is that before or after I make you scrub the kitchen floor? And clean the toilet with a toothbrush?

And on it went, putting me into a great frame of mind for the conference. But my three days of conferencing did not lead to a well-earned rest in Oxford on Sunday. No, it saw me back on the good old Oxford-to-Paddington train. This time with unadulterated bookish fun in mind...

I met up with not one, not two, but three delightful bloggers on Sunday. Guest of honour was Darlene, over from Canada, and also very honourable were Mary and Rachel. (Mary isn't fond of being in photographs, so she was chief-in-charge photographer.) I arrived shortly after them at the cafe of the National Gallery, and from then on we spent the next five or so hours chatting nineteen-to-the-dozen, buying armfuls of books, eating quantities of cake, and following the Virginia Woolf Guided Walk (before sloping off to, er, eat cake).

I'll devote another post to the books I bought, but they were several - from the shops on Charing Cross Road. In Henry Porde Books there were dozens of our-sort-of-novels (Delafield, Arnim, and Young all featured here too) most of which had one lady's name inside them. I can't remember it now... Muriel Nicholas, maybe? Sadly my tastes were rather *too* close to this fine lady's, since our libraries overlapped somewhat too much. I rather riled Rachel by the number of times my response, to proffered books, was "I've got it." Not, of course "I've read it"...

When I meet up with bloggers, it never feels like I'm meeting a stranger. I know their voices so well from their blogs, and (especially with people like Darlene) feel a very real warmth and affection from them - even when I have never heard their voice or seen their face. As we traipsed through bookshops and along streets, Darlene and I bonded over our shared inability to navigate ourselves out of a dead-end street. Darlene also brought us all some lovely maple Canadian candies in a Canadian tin - I love tins and boxes for stationery and so forth, and (it goes without saying) I love sweets. Serendipitously, Rachel and Darlene had won my giveaway of As It Was by Helen Thomas, so I was able to hand out those too. I just felt bad not to have anything to press into Mary's hands!

It was such a wonderful day. Really one to remember. Here's a final picture, us showing off our spoils from Bea's of Bloomsbury - and Rachel looking sad because she'd bravely decided to save her cupcakes for her mum and sister, and couldn't join in our icing-consumption. Oh, how I do love all the joys of blogging!

Friday, 16 September 2011


Sorry to go silent for a few days, I've been at a Middlebrow Conference - this one, in fact - and will report back soon. Just thought I'd keep you posted! Have a gander at the programme, and let me know what you think...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Shaving Through The Blitz

I believe, when I told you about my purchases in Hay-on-Wye, I advertised Shaving Through the Blitz (1943) by G.W. Stonier as being akin to 'Mr. Miniver', had that book ever existed. Which probably got quite a few of you interested.

Well, it isn't anything like that, really. About all is has in common is that is was evidently once columns in a paper. But it's still really good. Keep reading...

I was expecting whimsy and cosiness and a general determination to ignore the more brutal aspects of war in favour of bottling pears and entering flower shows - that sort of thing. And I was prepared to devour it in the same spirit. But Stonier's book - and his narrator Mr. Fanfarlo - is of a rather different temperament. It's quite lyrical, in a semi-experimental manner, moving through the sights, sounds, and feelings of wartime London, rather than narrating them in a straightforward manner. Fanfarlo is also proudly aesthetic, and is given to this sort of moral dilemma:
Suppose during an air raid I held Botticelli's Venus under one arm and an old woman unknown to me under the other, with the chance of saving one but not both, which should I choose? Immortal painting or crumbling flesh and blood? The first! As an artist, I claim that right.
I say moral dilemma, but he is not unduly given to morals. Shaving Through the Blitz was surprisingly 'progressive' - Fanfarlo lives with a woman called Lizzie, who would quite like him to propose, but doesn't intend to force the matter. He works, in a fairly dispassionate way, at the Ministry to 'provide slogans that shall be breezy and full of dare-and-do'. There were definite overtones of Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags. Which is a hint that Stonier can be very funny at times, even while being aesthetic and high-falutin'. I particularly liked a little conversation about a young man writing for the Mass Observation project. A lady comments:
"That's bad. Can't you break him of it? My little nephew was a terrible mass-observer, too, before he got married."

That puts Nella Last et al in their place, doesn't it?

As always, it is deeply interesting to read about the war from those who experienced it. I feel like I have a fairly informed awareness of the (upper)middle-class housewife's view of war, from various contemporary novels, but Stonier provides a viewpoint I hadn't really encountered before. All the pieces slotting together is satisfying, to create a portrait of how wartime Britain would have felt. And this (lengthy) excerpt, below, made the book worth finding, all by itself. I think it a really moving, unusual angle upon the way the war changed, and how people at home changed their responses to it. I'm going to finish off this post with it, and encourage you to track down a copy of Shaving Through The Blitz if you can. Not the most whimsical of wartime books, but perhaps one of the more unusual.
How it has changed in the last eighteen months! Do you (who does not?) remember the carefree evenings when we all used to go for strolls in the new-found dark? It was a spree then, to walk to a theatre, or merely to walk, to stumble over sandbags and cross the road by others' lights. "Sandbags!" we would exclaim as we picked ourselves up and went on to discover lamp-posts. Friendliness displayed itself in many ways, in a noisy jostling, in such illumination as was allowed. Torches stared at one another, cigarettes flickered a dialogue on street corners. Along Tottenham Court Road gaiety had lost nothing with the lights down, and a bubbling trail of voices down each pavement drew whisperers out of side-streets and brought even the sedentary to their doors. A gross amiability, the adolescent pleasure of being heard but not seen, infected every one who was being nudged, shoved, swept along and held back by the stream. A match would flare nearby, thrillingly, in the darkness, to reveal a face lit from below: a girl's sucked-in cheeks over a cigarette, a beaming negro, perhaps, delighted with hours when others were as black and easily tickled as himself.

All that has disappeared - the lingering, the voices, the cigarette dream; and now with darkness falls the hush. Emptiness, but with every cranny filled. London has been given over to a monstrous drama, an act of darkness from which ordinary people, you and I as individuals, shut ourselves away. Earth and sky contract to form the arena; the city puts up its searchlights, a beetle laid on its back and helplessly wavering its legs, while the hornet drones overheard; night after night the assailant returns, the victim quivers with upturned belly. "A very bad night," says Mrs. Greenbaum, heaving over in the morning to probe her fatness with an indignant finger, "an awful bad time it was last night, sure." The rest of us, having shared the same delirium, with the same hornet boring down to a point in our bellies, nod stoically and blink at our silly nightlight.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


Do keep your blog nominations coming on yesterday's post. One thing Book Blogger Appreciation Week is showing me is how many new blogs there are! The old faithfuls - the blogs I've been reading for three or four years - feel to me a bit like we're a huddle of parents at the schoolgates. Proud parents, of course. I just hope Stuck-in-a-Book can keep up, despite steadfastly refusing to have too drastic a face-lift! I'm always a little wary asking for feedback on the general direction of my blog, because I'm so overly-sensitive about creative things, but... well, I'm not going to make this a navel-gazing post!

Instead, let's gaze at title-pages, and endpapers, and all those bits of a book which a previous owner might have scrawled on. Oddly enough, although I could never bring myself to write in a book (except in pencil) I love buying secondhand books with these inscriptions. Now and then I have vague intentions to collate all the inscriptions I have found in various books, but, of course, I haven't done anything of the kind. And most of them simply say 'To Margaret, love Elspeth' or similar - a lovely memento of an unknown friendship, but perhaps not worth noting down at length.

But I couldn't help sharing this one with you all. It's in Llewelyn Powys' A Baker's Dozen, which I read and enjoyed recently, and will write more on later. That review may well descend (or, indeed, ascend) into a paean to the countryside. For now, we won't go past the first page - on which, on the 15th July 1941, Peter (I think) wrote this:

"Sun! Sun! Sun! Oh Summer
dancing Sun! Sink slowly down into

the West. Let the hours
happy freedom be long and longer."

To Swithin on his 26th birthday, from Peter


I assumed it was a quotation, but Google brings up no results. So, unless any of you can tell me differently, I think I must assume this was Peter's own, rather lovely, little verse for the enchantingly-named Swithin. As my housemate Mel pointed out - his birthday is St. Swithin's Day. Nickname or were his parents opportunists? And was he off fighting the war?

I've found lots of inscriptions in books before, but I think this one might just be my favourite. Any wonderful examples you'd got to share?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Bloggers Appreciation Week

I've spotted a few bloggers celebrating Book Bloggers Appreciation Week, which has rather taken me unawares this year. I wasn't sure how I would celebrate it - I hope that Stuck-in-a-Book is a fairly frequent supporter of other bloggers, old and new, since the community aspect of blogging is one of my very favourite things.

So, I could pick out some of my favourite blogs and bloggers this week... but, instead, I'm going to ask you to do it. And it comes with a prize. Whilst I was at lunch with my friend Andrea today, I spotted two lovely 1931 copies of Helen Thomas' wonderful biography As It Was. She was the wife of poet Edward Thomas, but you don't have to know anything about him to enjoy this book and its sequel World Without End (which sadly wasn't in the shop) - I certainly didn't know anything about him before reading this. Anybody with an interest in early twentieth century Britain will love this memoir. For a full review of the book, which is on my list of 50 Books You Must Read, click here. To find out how to win a copy, keep reading...

I had thought about simply having a draw and offering two copies - but I've decided to do things a bit differently. I'd like you to tell me about a blogger you love. They can be one you've been following for years, or only discovered this week. Perhaps they're simply somebody you think would appreciate the book. The winning entry will secure a copy of As It Was for you, and for the blogger you nominated! And it's open worldwide.

If you to participate but don't fancy the book, that's fine, of course - just say so in your comment. Let's spread the blogging appreciation, everyone!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Early Young

One of the best books I've read this year was William by E.H. Young - a few of us did a joint read back in February, and I became a confirmed fan of Emily Hilda's, after having previously enjoyed Miss Mole. In a manner not unknown to me, I had stockpiled EHY novels long before I knew whether or not I would like her, and so when I saw that someone at the conference I'm attending this week would be discussing The Misses Mallett (1922), I was able to prepare.

My received understanding about EH Young, from various reviews and from Virago's judicious selection of novels to reprint in the 1980s and 1990s, was that her first three novels were rather mediocre and that The Misses Mallett (also published as The Bridge Dividing) was something of a momentous turning point. After that (so I understood) she wrote nothing but gems. After all, nothing separates those early rural novels from the sophistication of William except one novel: yes, The Misses Mallett.

I had great expectations. And, I'm sorry to say, they rather faltered. The topic showed such promise, especially given my predisposition towards spinster novels of the 1920s. And there are plenty of spinsters around - let me hand you over to my favourite one, Caroline:
"The Malletts don't marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We've been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn't married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation."
Caroline, Sophia, and Rose are sisters, Rose being rather younger than the first two - who are drawn rather two-dimensionally, if amusingly. Caroline is fairly feisty, and spends her autumnal years reliving imagined conquests of her youth, and alluding to improprieties which she, in fact, has never had the opportunity to commit. Sophia is mousy and quiet and traipses after Caroline, excusing, correcting, and loving her. They have their own touching dynamic, even if their characters aren't hugely evolved. It is with Rose, and later their feckless brother's daughter Henrietta, that the reader is supposed to sympathise. They are from the same mould - affected intensely by their emotions, but compelled by society to quash their wilder affections, etc. etc. And they're both tangled up with love for the (to my mind) wholly unattractive Francis Sales. He's off the market anyway, married to an invalid wife of the variety who alternates catty remarks with lunges after her smelling salts.

To be honest, much of this plot reminded me of the most unlikely excesses of Thomas Hardy. People fall in love from distances of a hundred metres, flash their eyes all over the place, and emote wildly through woodland and over moors. Here's an excerpt:
She did not love him - how could she? - but he belonged to her; and now, if this piece of gossip turned out to be true, she must share him with another. Jealousy, in its usual sense, she had none as yet, but she forged a chain she was to find herself unable to break. It was her pride to consider herself a hard young person, without spirituality, without sentiment, yet all her personal relationships were to be of the fantastic kind she now experienced, all her obligations such as others would have ignored.
I haven't read anything by Mary Webb et al, but this has to be the sort of thing Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm, no? (Which reminds me - review of Stella Gibbons' Westwood coming soon, promise.) I'm being a little cruel to EHY here, perhaps, but only because her later novels are so brilliant. It's somewhat reassuring that she wasn't born with inherent subtlety and style.

I'm skimming over the plot rather, because it's a bit predictable. I've watched enough corny films to know that the Rugged Hero will eventually be passed over for the Male Best Friend. In Henrietta's case, the latter appears in the wonderful character of Charles. He is like a lump of real gold amidst fool's gold - when EH Young went on to write better, much better, novels, she need not have been ashamed of creating Charles. He is a wonderful mixture of the aesthetic and inept. He lives for beauty in music, much in the way that characters in EM Forster might, but he also lacks confidence and is unnervingly self-aware.
Charles blinked, his sign of agitation, but Henrietta did not see. "He's good to look at," Charles muttered. "He knows how to wear his clothes."

"That doesn't matter."

Charles heaved a sigh. "One never knows what matters."
As a hero he defies cliche, and thus is a nod towards the sort of complex characters which Young would later form. It's just a shame that the Misses Mallett themselves, inoffensive though they might be, never really reveal any inspiration on Young's part. A novel about 1920s spinster sisters living together could have been deliciously fun or painfully poignant, or even both, but there are only brief moments when The Misses Mallett could be said to be either. A serviceable novel, certainly, and good enough to pass the time - but unworthy of the pen which would later create William and Miss Mole, and goodness knows whatever other sparkling or clever works.

I'm very glad that this wasn't my first encounter with EH Young, as it might well have also been my last. Instead, I shall chalk this up to experience - and go foraging for one of her later novels next time. Can anybody at all step forward to defend Young and, equally importantly, those Misses Mallett?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Song for a Sunday

Somehow the 10th anniversary of September 11th feels more poignant than other anniversaries, and today comes with extremely sad memories for a lot of you, I'm sure, whether or not you knew people directly affected.

I had thought about putting up something sombre for today's song, but - I do believe that joy and light are the most effective ways to combat violence and darkness. And so I've taken the recommendation of Tom, and chosen an infectious and happy song called Hey Mama by Mat Kearney. I hope you don't mind - and that this puts a smile on everyone's face.

Friday, 9 September 2011

If the title fits...

Firstly, I am told that Better World Books are celebrating International Literacy Day by having 20% off three-or-more books. Time differences confuse me, but I think, if you spot this soon after I post it, some of that day is left in America.

Secondly, a meme. I love this meme, which I've been stealing from other sources for the past couple of years - this year Jane reminded me of it here. Basically, answer a set of questions from the titles of books you've read so far in 2011. I should probably wait until December to do it, but can never resist once I've spotted that the blogosphere has started on it. Oh, and I've anglicised it here and there.

Do join in - on your own blogs, or in the comments.

One time on holiday: The Caravaners (Elizabeth von Arnim)

Weekends at my house are: The Element of Lavishness (William Maxwell & Sylvia Townsend Warner)

My neighbour is: Not To Disturb (Muriel Spark)

My boss is: At Large and at Small (Anne Fadiman)

My superhero secret identity is: A Kind Man (Susan Hill)

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry because: Bonjour Tristesse (Francoise Sagan)

I'd win a gold medal in: Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau)

I'd pay good money for: A House in the Country (Jocelyn Playfair)

If I were Prime Minister I would: Live Alone and Like It (Marjorie Hillis)

When I don't have good books, I: am The Perfect Pest (Adrian Porter)

Loud talkers at the cinema should be: People Who Say Goodbye (P.Y. Betts)

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Still - William

Everytime I revisit Richmal Crompton's William series, I have a nudging fear that they won't be as good as I remembered, that what seemed screamingly funny to me when I was eight will have palled...

...and everytime I realise I needn't have worried. (Photo credit, btw.) If you've never read one of the books, you're in for a treat. Think how PG Wodehouse might have written about an eleven year old boy, if PGW tempered his exaggeration a little and developed an intimate knowledge with the minutiae of village life. Here's one of the passing characters, for instance: 'He was extraordinarily conceited and not overburdened by any superfluity of intellect.'

This isn't a fully-fledged review or anything, it's just a little overflow of joyfulness at revisiting William - in this case, Still William. Richmal Crompton wrote over thirty William books between 1922 and 1970, this being the fifth - each is a collection of stories about the well-intentioned mishaps of William Brown, who is eternally eleven. They're hilarious, and warming. Although everything almost always goes lamentably wrong, and William ends up being hounded by his relatives and neighborus, there isn't a malicious bone in his body. If anything, most of his misfortune comes from an irrepressible desire to help. In Still William he proposes on behalf of his brother, and later on behalf of his sister. He determines to be truthful on Christmas Day, with disastrous results. He determines to live a life of 'self-denial and service' with (you guessed it) disastrous results. He has only marginally more success when attempting to put on a show of 'natives', or teaching a visiting French boy idiomatic English.

I suspect most of us have read some William books at some point - but perhaps you've neglected them for a while, or somehow have never read one. Get one now. And get one with Thomas Henry's excellent illustrations, not the more modern, awful ones. Richmal Crompton also wrote lots of wonderful novels (and some less wonderful ones) but, although she deserves wider fame for those, equally she deserves the immortality she has secured through William Brown.

In case you're still not convinced, here is an excerpt between William and his uncaring older sister:
William's mother was out to lunch and Ethel was her most objectionable and objecting. She objected to William's hair and to William's hands and to William's face.

"Well, I've washed 'em and I've brushed it," said William firmly. "I don' see what you can do more with faces an' hair than wash 'em an' brush it. 'F you don' like the colour they wash an' brush to I can't help that. It's the colour they was born with. It's their nat'ral colour. I can't do more than wash 'em an' brush it."

"Yes, you can," said Ethel unfeelingly. "You can go and wash them and brush it again."

Under the stern eye of his father who had lowered his paper for the express purpose of displaying his stern eye William had no alternative but to obey.

"Some people," he remarked bitterly to the stair carpet as he went upstairs, "don' care how often they make other people go up an' downstairs, tirin' themselves out. I shun't be suprised 'f I die a good lot sooner than I would have done with all this walkin' up an' downstairs tirin' myself out - an' all because my face an' hands an' hair's nat'rally a colour she doesn't like!"

Ethel was one of William's permanent grievances against Life.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Earth Hums in B Flat

A long time ago (17th July 2009, to be precise) I got a copy of Mari Strachan's
The Earth Hums in B Flat through the Amazon Vine reviewers programme. Subsequently I sat next to Strachan's editor somewhere, I believe, and was able to say "Oh, I already have a copy, thanks" - but it has taken me over two years to actually read the novel, having persuaded my book group to read it along with me after my housemate Mel loved it. I finished the book approximately five minutes before book group started, and I've just come home from the discussion.

It's times like this that I wonder how many hidden gems are lurking on my bookshelves already - because The Earth Hums in B Flat is really, really good.

Strachan's novel is set in a small town in 1950s North Wales, where 12 year old Gwenni Morgan and her family live. The typical atmosphere of a close-knit community pervades - everybody knows everybody else, and there is no chance of keeping secrets for long, yet there is far greater intimacy and neighbourly care than would be possible in a city. If the reader isn't always immediately 'in on' the whispered secrets, it's because we see the world through the naive, slightly unworldly eyes of Gwenni herself. Here's how she opens the novel:
I fly in my sleep every night. When I was little I could fly without being asleep; now I can't, even though I practise and practise. And after what I saw last night I want more than ever to fly wide-awake. Mam always says: I want never gets. Is that true?
Mari Strachan has said that her starting point for the novel was the image of a girl sitting in hair, struggling to fly. Gwenni's flying isn't the start of a fantasy novel, nor does it play a huge role - other than setting the tone. The reader doesn't know whether to believe her or not - or how seriously she believes what she says. While she's up there, flying, she sees the whole earth and can hear it humming - in, you guessed it, B flat. I like the title. The earth's humming isn't integral to the novel, but it gives the reader the right sense - of an ethereal girl, with a big imagination.

The events of the novel, through less hazy eyes, could border on gritty. Running like a thread through The Earth Hums in B Flat is a murder investigation - but this is nothing like Christie or Sayers or - Heaven forbid - Rankin, Brown, Larsson etc. The investigation lends momentum and a puzzle to the novel, but the more significant focus is upon the Morgan family - Gwenni, her irritable older sister Bethan, her tempestuous mother 'Mam' and incredibly patient father 'Tada' - not to mention an assortment of relatives and neighbours. This is definitely a novel about a community.

Gwenni's mother is almost an ogress, but not quite - because she is believable. She openly favours Bethan over Gwenni, constantly treating the latter to sharp words and angry looks. She accepts her husband's endlessly patient adoration without even seeming to notice it - and then shouting at him for some imagined misdemeanour. Her behaviour is gradually explained... but to understand is not always to forgive, and I found her a very difficult character to love. Which is presumably what I was intended to feel.

Gwenni, on the other hand, is easy to feel affection towards. She accepts everything at face value, even while believing herself to be a competent detective figure. She is somehow both dreamy and determined, unable to make sense of the people and events around her: the reader peers over her shoulder, detecting answers before Gwenni does, and wondering anxiously when she'll catch up. Here's a quick snippet of her thoughts, which constantly frame the narrative:
Alwenna says that Mr. Williams winds his wife up every morning; she says you can tell by the way Mrs. Williams talks more slowly in the afternoons and has nothing at all to say by evening. When I told Mam she said: Don't be silly, Gwenni.

I'm a big believer that style is the most important part of a work of fiction, ahead of character and a long way ahead of plot. For a first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat is remarkable on this front. Gwenni's voice is utterly credible, and never irritating. It doesn't feel as though an adult writer has 'written down' to a child's perspective - it simply feels like a child's perspective. Strachan doesn't overwrite anything, but is subtle and consistent. There are plenty of plot twists along the way, but they are never jerky - things slowly dawn on Gwenni, or are even never quite vocalised. Strachan's prose is deceptively simple - for this is actually a very complex novel, as we all gradually realised as the book group discussion unfolded. Just the sort of thing I love.

Oh, and I love the cover on my edition (pictured) with Bruno Ehrs' photograph - much more than the more recent edition, which most people had at book group.

Dozens of other bloggers have already read The Earth Hums in B Flat, so there are reviews to read everywhere. Do make sure you head over to Lizzy Siddal's blog, though, and read a wonderful live chat with Strachan - I just have, and it's incredibly interesting. If you've already read The Earth Hums in B Flat, do tell me what you thought - and let me recommend that you immediately go onto Angela Young's Speaking of Love. These wonderful novels are from the same stable, both with subtly excellent prose writers at their helm.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Beauty is in the Eye of the Bookholder

Quick post today, since I'm supposedly going to spend the day getting to grips with the conference paper I need to present next week. (Incidentally - anybody going to the Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism conference in London?) So, something shallow and frivolous to make up for that... have you ever bought a book solely, absolutely solely, because of how it looked?
I have.

I was in Eastgate Bookshop in Warwick (which is rather brilliant, by the way) and spotted a little shelf of King Penguins. They're all beautiful on the outside, and a little drab on the inside. I couldn't leave behind this:

Am I interested in the English Tradition in Design? Very slightly. Moreso than I am in Ballooning, which is the other King Penguin I toyed with buying. But above all other criteria, couldn't resist that William Morris-esque cover, to say nothing of the beautiful feel of the book in my hands. So, thanks William Grimmond, who apparently designed the cover based on a design made by Eva Crofts for Donald Brothers, Dundee. 65 years after you created that cover, you indirectly helped me add an entirely unnecessary book to my library.

But, was it not William Morris himself who instructed us to have nothing in our house that we do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful? The same, dear readers, applies to books... doesn't it?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Song for a Sunday

Since summer has decided to slip into September, here's a cheery little track called 'Dress and Tie' by Charlene Kaye, featuring Darren Criss aka Blaine off Glee, if that means anything to you. I think they were at music school together, or something.

Happy weekend!

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Pitts

After having been in Oxford for nearly seven years, today (or, by the time you read this, yesterday) I finally got around to visiting the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Their website describes the collection as being anthropology and world archeology - but it would be as true to describe it as 'stuff'.

There is a mind-boggling assortment of objects in the collection, which covers one main floor and two galleries above it. They are grouped in categories such as 'Humans Depicted in Art' or 'Treatment of Dead Enemies' - there are cases devoted solely to zithers; to model canoes; to beads used as currency... and so on and so on. Within these cases everything is jumbled together - objects from all periods and countries. It's rather overwhelming - and a wonderful, dizzying experience.

There isn't much description - this isn't one of those museums which has six panels of writing for every artefact. When information is supplied, often it is delightfully vague, on little handwritten tags which, as often as not, forget to mention anything so quotidian as the century of origin (see above).

Apparently the collection was overhauled a few years ago - actually, I remember it happening. I recall how aghast people were that the disorganisation would have been firmly shaken into organisation, and that the Pitt-Rivers would have lost its charm. They needn't have worried. It's great fun to be able to open a discreet little drawer, and find a varied selection of globular flutes tucked away.

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section on the history of writing and writing instruments - including something from 2500 BC. Here's a quick, slightly blurry snap of about a sixth of what they had on display in this area.

Although I have put off going for many years, and have learnt remarkably little today (except for the amazing coffins which are produced in Ghana - they had a special video about it) I would thoroughly recommend the Pitt-Rivers to any visitor to Oxford - simply because of its ingenious eccentricity. Each artefact in the collection (apparently about half a million) represents hours of human labour - to have them all gathered in one place creates an astonishing miscellany of humans and their infinite variety.

And speaking of eccentricity... I decided to experiment with my baking. These are ginger cupcakes with lime-flavoured icing. I love ginger and I love lime, and thought these flavours might well taste nice together: I think I was right! They certainly aren't aesthetically up to scratch (they all overflowed the cases, for one thing) but they're fun - and I think they'll prove worth trying again!

P.S. it's Our Vicar's Wife's birthday today - wish her a good one!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Live Alone and Like It

I don't often talk that much about my DPhil research, because most of my time is spent reading books and articles that are either impossible to track down, or too prosaic to recommend. But after reading Marjorie Hillis' Live Alone and Like It (1936) for my upcoming chapter on childlessness and fantastic creation (oh yes) I thought I'd like to blog about it. But surely it would be too difficult to find? (thought I) So I Googled it, and it turns out that Virago reissued it in 2005 - and there are plenty of copies around, so I feel I can blog about it guiltlessly.

The book is non-fiction, and does what it says on the tin - it's a guide to the single girl. There were already rather more women than men in the UK before the First World War, but in the 1920s and '30s there were around two million 'surplus women', as they were labelled. The whole history of these women is detailed in Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out, which I've been reading for a while and will talk further about soon. I'm rather annoyed by the tacit assumption in both Nicholson's book and the contemporary guides that any single man could easily get married - I suspect life could be as difficult for bachelors as for spinsters - but certainly unmarried women proliferated at a rate higher than ever before in living memory.

I've read quite a few of these guides - some are maudlin, others are progressive, and everything in between. They agree on very little. The reason I wanted to write about Marjorie Hillis' Live Alone and Like It is because it is the most accessible for a modern audience. You don't need to be an unmarried woman in 1936 to find this a fascinating read, and what is more, a funny one. Hillis' tone is not hectoring or patronising, but quite witty and sensible. Whether or not you're on the look-out for a spouse, you might chuckle at this piece of advice:
But hobbies are anti-social now; modern men don't like to be sewn and knitted at; and the mere whisper that a girl collects prints, stamps, tropical fish or African art is, alas, likely to increase her solitude.
or this:
Clutter is now as out-of-date as modesty, and for just as good reasons.
or, without intending to cast aspersions against any bloggers (and glossing over my uninformed references to Gissing and Braddon yesterday), this:
Most people's minds are like ponds and need a constantly fresh stream of ideas in order not to get stagnant. The simplest way to accomplish this to is [sic] exchange your ideas (if any), with your friends and acquaintances, cribbing as many as possible from books, plays, and newspaper columns and passing them off as your own. Anyone who does this well is considered a brilliant conversationalist. If you do it extra well, you are a Wit.

There are sections on how to save money, how to furnish a home on a budget, and even what term to use to describe the unmarried woman (the term spinster is 'becoming rapidly extinct', apparently). Hillis also cheerfully lists the advantages of living alone, including this rather unlikely one, demonstrating how the times, they have a-changed:
You will be able to eat what, when, and where you please, even dinner served on a tray on the living-room couch - one of the higher forms of enjoyment which the masculine mind has not learned to appreciate.

All in all, there is quite a lot that still comforts or helps the single person - but for the most part Live Alone and Like It is an involving piece of social history, and also amusing in that wry, 1930s, almost Provincial Ladyesque manner. I found it useful for my research too, so that's a bonus. And I'll leave Hillis to offer the last piece of advice, as true now as it was in 1936:
For the truth is that if you’re interesting, you’ll have plenty of friends, and if you’re not, you won’t – unless you’re very, very rich.