Reading on trains – Bluebird Book Club – Reviews May 2012

Are you a descendant of the Oscar Wilde school, who dictated that he always read his own diary on the train so as to be assured of something sensational?  Are you a railway magazine trash glutton, or one of those who seek to impress with a folded Observer crossword on your lap, as you gaze out into muddy fields ruminating over 7 across?  Or, one of the really unbearable people, who bring out a HUGE book, make peculiar sounds by exerting the energy just to get the thing onto the train table you are sharing with a salesman from Doncaster who has a goatee that looks like ladyparts, and then start sighing at the size of the book, and cynically rolling your eyes at the idea of just having to trawl through “War & Peace”.  For the third time?  Oh, look at me!  these people seem to be saying.  I am literate!  Big slap on the back for me, eh?   I was always taking books onto public transport, and then forgetting to take them away with me when I left the train.

Reading whilst travelling is time out.  When I started driving I read less, reading at the wheel being ill-advised.   What did you last read on a train?

I once left a biography of Lady Emma Hamilton (Nelson’s mistress) on an 82 bus.  It was in a plastic bag that also had in it half a packet of chocolate digestives and some business cards for a small business I was unsuccessfully starting up and attempting to promote.  Thinking it was lost for ever, I promptly went out the following week and bought another copy.  About three days after that I got a telephone call from a chirpy lady from Transport for London who was also called Emma who said she had correctly identified my telephone number from the failing business card and would I like my book back?  I suggested she keep it instead as I had another copy.  We had a ten minute conversation about Lord Nelson, which was nice – but I think this was actually a foil to avoid me asking her what had happened to my chocolate digestives.   She’s probably still chomping them somewhere, whilst reading about Nelson’s poop deck.  Situating yourself in a place whilst reading a book changes your memory of the book.  Patrick Hamilton’s wonderfully grim Hangover Square is set in the boarding houses of post-war West Kensington.  But to me the half light on the platform for the Circle Line at Baker Street always reminds me of Hangover Square.  I used to read it whilst standing there waiting for a train west to where I once worked on the letters page of the Daily Mail (don’t ask). Great Expectations, set in Central London and Kent, makes me think of Finchley Road.  Mrs Dalloway set in usually florid Virginia Woolf prose in sunny Westminster, makes me think of coffee in Caffe Nero in rainy Holborn.

Here is my review of books read in May, along with my usual comments regarding how, when and with what drink you ought to read them :

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘Harriet Said’

In an interview, shortly after her mother’s death, Bainbridge’s daughter spoke about how her mother was obsessed with the “tum-de-tum” of her prose; the rhythm of her language.  She would write a page of writing in longhand and then repeatedly distill it until she had the perfect paragraph of lilting prose.  There is something hypnotic about Bainbridge’s style.  Harriet Said was her first novel, which languished in a drawer for several years until she finally got it published.  This lilting prose, which is slightly hypnotic, brings the pace of her writing into an exquisite place, whereby the horror and strangeness of the tale is rendered more peculiar by the sensible, regular practical rhythm of the line in which it is encased.  Her powers lie in telling extraordinary stories, bound by ordinary words.   This is the story of two 13 year old girls in provincial Lancashire, locked in a mutally manipulative relationship.  Psychological disturbances are not hinted at but rather exhibited by the bald statement of action.  There is little thought or description or explanation.  Bainbridge was an excellent technician and understood that characters are action.  Men, in Bainbridge’s world are not only the weaker sex, but the stupider and damn sight more bestial, too.  An older man is pulled into the girls’ intrigue.  But whose strings is Harriet really pulling?  It builds to a terrifying climax. Is it murder?  Is it sexual manipulation?  Which of the two girls is to blame?

To be read : Preferably not in a house on a beach, but on a greyish day with lamps burning in the living room.  Be cosy.  Do not read if chasing for certainty or comfort – Bainbridge doesn’t always give that.  Eat with luxury biscuits and/or cakes, to make up for the spartan coldness of orange-lit North West England in the winter.   Drink: Yorkshire tea, perhaps with dash of brandy.  Do not read in bed.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Discovered through an article in The Observer, asking writers what their favourite novels were.  This one appeared in Zadie Smith’s list and another writer’s list (whose name escapes me).  The central female character is an intriguing construct.  Lily Bart is a well-bred, impoverished orphan, who lives a decidedly comfortable life amidst the high class society of New York but who is financially on the brink of destruction.  She must marry for money in order to survive.  However, each marital opportunity that presents itself is rejected; she will not marry solely for money.  She is doomed to seek nobility in an ignoble, material world and – well – you know what happens to people in novels who are like that.  Unfortunately, I find Wharton’s flowery, adjective-heavy, American prose slightly irritating.  After 150 pages I was close to quitting. Lily veers between understanding she must marry a rich man, to deciding she simply cannot do so.  Wharton, however, is so brilliant at describing Lily’s inner mental processes that you are prepared to forgive the awkward, hefty plot points.  But, this is still a marvellously written book. The degradation that ensures her downfall depends on the vast, social structure of New York society.  Futility in the struggle against this society is a theme of Wharton’s works (see Age of Innocence). It is the only world she has been bred for, the only world that can serve her and ensure her survival – and, ultimately- the world her heart tells her she must reject.  Lily is a character who lives and breathes on the page.

To be read: In the sun, in the garden, or on holiday.  If you happen to be in a New York State of Mind.  With cool drinks, and – I’m afraid – a bit of patience.  I found it a long read – although also an indulgent one.  Eat: Cucumber sandwiches, dark chocolate and cake.  People are constantly having afternoon tea in this novel, and you will want to join them, and eat food that make you feel rich.  Drink: Cool, bright lemonade, or the Earl Grey tea of early American afternoon tea parties.

 Francesca Segal, The Innocents

This is a reworking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, relocated to the Jewish community of present-day Temple Fortune, a north western London suburb that was lucky enough to house this ‘ere Bluebird for 8 years.  It’s the story of the perfect young man (Adam) betrothed to marry a perfect young Jewess (Rachel).  But one day at a Yom Kippur service, Rachel’s errant cousin, Ellie, appears.  Cue kosher tug of sexual war.  Adam veers between loyalty to his fiancee and loyalty towards his community, but has to admit to spending some time resenting the power and presence of both.  It is, of course, a brilliant slant to relocate the famously anti-semitic Wharton’s plot into a Jewish community.   Aspects of the appearance, fashions and structure of the Temple Fortune community are executed so accurately I laughed out loud with recognition at several points.  Ultimately the warmth, the loyalties, the niggling disagreements and the potential for love and war in Jewish families is captured perfectly by Segal.  The plot, oddly, becomes braver as it moves towards its conclusion, which keeps you waiting until the last chapter.  Terrifically told, I think this book is a wonderful achievement and happily recommend to Jew and Gentile alike.

To be read: At a bus stop in Golders Green, preferably next to a terrifically large Israeli woman with bright aubergine hair shouting at her husband on the phone.  You won’t be able to concentrate on the narrative, but the experience will be rendered authentic.  Not to be read if you have misgivings about anyone’s upcoming marriage (including your own).  Great book for swift enjoyment.  You can read it in a couple of days.  Eat: why, bagels and smoked salmon, salt beef, latkes and halva to follow, of course.  No pork or shellfish please. Drink: Drink?  DRINK?  Jews don’t drink.  Oh all right then.  You can have a cherry brandy. 

Elizabeth Jenkins, ‘Harriet’

Don’t ask me why but this is the second book in a month I’ve read with the word ‘Harriet’ in the title. Originally published in 1934, and now resurrected in this beautiful Persephone publication, this is a fictional telling of a true story of the death of a woman called Harriet in 1875.  It was known as The Penge Mystery.  It’s beautifully told, and rather chilling.  A man marries a wealthy young woman who is not entirely of sound mind but not mad enough for the courts to intervene.  Within two years she is dead, having been apparently starved to death by the man’s family over a period of time.  Jenkins has told a story that has many unanswered questions, but then the real life case of The Penge Mystery seems to have some gaps in it. Jenkins mastery is to be able to fictionalise the story whilst not claiming knowledge of the interior motives of those involved.  Was she killed on purpose?  Or simply neglected?  Who, of the family, instigated the starvation?  A grisly tale, of calculation and deceit, excellently told. Jenkins is particularly good at using the efficacy of dialogue to develop plot, in this very sad tale.

To be read: As all Victorian, grisly stories should be – in a velvet armchair, safe in your townhouse, a blazing fire in front of you to stave off the horrid fear, and a brightly lit reading lamp being administered by the housemaid. Eat:  You won’t be that hungry, trust me.  Drink : Wine, red and warming, or hot milk with a dizzy dusting of nutmeg.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing

My second Bainbridge, and whilst not quite as gripping as the first, it’s still beautifully told. It’s the tale of an outing from a Italian-owned bottle factory in North London, with it’s mix of Italian and English workers.  As always with an English folk tale something horrid happens to someone in a wood.  I found it too long, and the tension was not quite as taut as the subject demanded it should be.  But this is early Bainbridge.  You can see her muscles being stretched and flexing for the fantastic, historical narratives she bashed out in later life.  All the pieces that made her the writer she was are there – particularly when the tragic is rendered comi-tragic by Bainbridge’s dialogue.   I found it ultimately unsatisfying, however.  If I were you, I’d give this one a swerve and read her novel The Dressmaker instead.

To be read: Anywhere except a safari park. Ideally, read in student accommodation.  Not good for bus reading.  Haven’t quite worked out why.  Eat:  warm roast chicken sandwich or soup.  It must be warming.  Drink : It’s set in an Italian wine factory, so pour yourself a Montepulciano. Avoid the sherry.  You’ll see why. 


Lettice Cooper, ‘The New House’

This is another of the Persephone reprints.  Cooper published this in 1936, and Persephone have just brought it back into print.  Persephone paperworks weigh in at £12.00 each, so in my case it’s better to get the Persephone reading list and take the lot out of the London Library, which is the only place I am guaranteed to find a huge range of the most underread and neglected of early twentieth century fiction.  This story is set in the course of one day.  The three sections are simply titled “Morning”, “Afternoon” and “Evening”.  One family is moving from their old, big family house, to a new build in a different part of town. Cooper takes us into the interior lives of the family members of this upper middle class family from the provincial, industrial North.  She is like a less florid, more exacting Virginia Woolf.  I admire Woolf as much as anyone, but even I get tired of sentences that are eight lines long.  Cooper is precise, and incredibly perceptive, particularly regarding the relationships between the women of the family. It’s not often I write out sentences and phrases from books, but I did this several times with ‘The New House’.  Her strength lies in her brevity.  Favourite quotes include : “Maurice was less unhappy than that tale of his own life which he told himself” and, “I’ve slipped behind Time, and if you do that once you’re all wrong.  If you’re wrong with Time you’re wrong with everything.” 

To be read: Whilst wearing red lipstick in the library, in thoroughly sensible shoes, away from distractions, mobile phones, work and those irritating family members that Cooper is about to mercilessly dissect in front of you.  Eat:  Rich tea or digestives, a thoroughly English snack for a thoroughly English read.  Drink : You’ve waited until the end of the blog for a 1930s cocktail, haven’t you?  Go on, have a pre-dinner gin fizz or dry martini.  Happy reading.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The London Library

Many blog entries have started here.  Or, been written here.  Or been interrupted by having to go here.   The London Library squats like a glorious book factory at the top left hand corner of St James’s Square, and is a place that, since discovery, I feel unable to do without.  Year after year, when the annual subscription payment request comes flopping through the front door at Bluebird Towers, I tell myself I really can’t afford it.  Every year I buy it.

There is a lovely article here from The Daily Paris Review, which mentions one of The London Library’s physical charms fairly early on.  That is the disjunction in the building – in that the outside and the inside don’t seem to match – which is mindful of West End theatres or cinemas; the sense that the dimensions on the outside of the building are not possibly adhered to in the magical wonderland within.  The London Library is such a building – it’s as tall and thin as a city spinster on the outside, but on the inside it is lush and thrilling, a deep-tunnelling rabbit warren of stacks and rooms that are, in truth, not best faced when one has a hangover.  Whilst a sense of sublime silence and studiousness pervades the building, the London Library is not pinched or austere in any way.  It is graceful and expansive, bereft of the municipal shabbiness of the shared printer, old Microsoft computers and general plastic humdrum-ness of the provincial library.  Its founder, Thomas Carlyle, discovered that The British Library was a genuinely impossible place to work (in many respects, this has now changed) so he founded his own subscription-based library where members could enjoy literature without staying in the building as The British Library, despite its awesome contents, does not lend.   The London Library was subsequently founded, with Thackeray as its first auditor, in the 1840s.

 In the Science & Miscellaneous stacks, known to members as the “Back stacks”, the floor is composed of vertigo inducing wide metal slabs with a series of rectangular, open slats in them.  You can immediately see three floors down underneath your feet and two floors above over your head.  You cannot wear high heels as you’d get jammed in the floor, or a skirt, in case other bibliophilic Peeping Toms stare up at you through the floor from the Topography section.   The floors clang and prang occasionally and seem to wobble about a bit.  Still, they’ve been there since 1893 and survived a couple of wartime bombs so they must be safe. 

The floors in the backstacks with their metal slatted floors.   Look down and there’s a further three floors beneath you.  Not for the stiletto wearer, the faint-hearted or the vertigo sufferer.

1930s-style hands are painted on to walls, authoritatively pointing you in the direction of new categories, amidst dusty, bookish hush.  At the moment, dangerously, some of these appear to be dying out amidst the library’s decoration and improvement plans.  Last time I visited a wall had been stripped back a layer, to reveal a sign from 1940, instructing members, in a clipped and concise manner, what to do in the event of a bomb attack.

The London Library is the most frustrating, jaw-grinding, eye-popping, irritating system of book shelving known to Western man.  It doesn’t have the Dewey Decimal system favoured by the majority of libraries.  It is based on subject, and has been since the middle of the nineteenth century.  The links are arbitrary to say the least as  “Science & Misc” is usually classified by “S. [subject name].”  In alphabetical order, then, you’ll get “S. CATTLE,”  “S. CAVALRY”,  “S.  “CAVES”, “S. CELIBACY”, “S., CENSUS”, “S. CEREMONIES”,  “S. CHAIRMANS HANDBOOKS”, “S. CHARACTER”, “S. CHARITIES”, “S. CHEESE”.  Does your local library have a Cheese section?  Then, somewhere in the alphabetical system it breaks off and continues two floors up, half a building back, up a flight of stairs and then turn left.  Even after emerging on the fourth floor in a sweaty mess, you still haven’t got what you were looking for.  That’s because some of the book references which end in “4&to” are in an entirely different section – probably a half a mile walk away down dusty, cream-painted warrens and grey-floored ante-rooms, where the books too big to fit in the original shelves are stored, still in their subject classifications, which means you have to start from the beginning of the alphabet again.  It also has an enviable Fiction section for European languages.  I have never seen bigger German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese sections in any academic library.  These include an enormous amount of first editions. 

I can’t tell you what a stink I kicked up in English Fiction.  Half of the Fiction is in Fiction.  Fiction is in a room in the Central Stacks which double backs on itself and is almost always edged by an angry looking man at a window who has taken the only writing table.  Fiction also links into “English Lit,”  BUT English Lit is either critical theory or books about books, rather than the books themselves.  There is also “English Lit, Hist of” which is an entirely different section, and one I have never really understood the separateness of. For the first three years of my membership I couldn’t find Fiction S-Z.  I thought there wasn’t any, although I did think this was unlikely.  After all, it wasn’t possible that The London Library would leave out the really big hitters, the really big fruity writers, like Tolstoy or Steinbeck or Wells.  But it was three rooms across and four flights of stairs down to the wonderful, impeccable librarians at the Issue Desk and I couldn’t be bothered to go there.  I’d just swear at the shelving, take out another Beryl Bainbridge and head for the bus. 

One day I did go down and ask them where the rest of the section was.  I always think they must think I’m thick.  There I go : week after week, month after month, approaching the Issue Desk’s bespectacled inhabitant in my most convincing “I’ve-got-an-MA-you-know” manner, utterly convinced that an entire section of the library is missing, and say something like:

“I can’t find the History of London.”

“It’s in Topography, basement floor, you know – just beyond Science and Miscellaneous.”  Spectacles shine in mid-morning St James’s light.

“Yes,” I frown, hoping to exude academic langour with a touch – just a touch – of the superciliousness of Joan in Mad Men when she’s trying to get things done in the office. “I’ve been there.  I’ve been to Venice, Egypt and Abyssinia.  And Japan.  But I’ve not been to London.”

“Would you like me to show you?”

That’s what they’re like at The London Library.  They’re marvellous.  You get more decorous, enchanting service there than you do at The Ritz.  If only The London Library did room service.  They pop out in a haze of post-graduate optimism and sensible shoes and they’re off, with irascible, unkempt me in their bookish wake.  Unfailingly polite, and charming, they speedily whisk you off up the red carpeted stairs, through the Reading Room that looks over St James’s Square and where a whole raft of sleeping elderly folk are lying, mouths agog, in armchairs, and up to Fiction.  Then they show you a small staircase.  You could swear that the fairies put this staircase in when you weren’t looking.  Either way, it wasn’t there before, was it?  A dark, beige, lino-clad stairway hiding behind a wall behind a bookcase, leading to a further mezzanine floor that you never knew existed.  Aha.  Here they all are.  Richardson, Woolf, even their old auditor, Thackeray.  And, so many others.  Others I’d never heard of.  Part of the London Library’s central ethos is that they do not discard, or shove into stack storage, any of their books.  Just because a book isn’t taken out for 50 years does not mean its literary value becomes somehow reduced, so why should reading fashion dictate what the library make available to you?  I have held first edition Victorian thrillers that were last taken out when John F Kennedy was alive, books where typo-s have been angrily corrected in the margin by an 1920s ink pen, books that were presented to the library from the publisher before the First World War, books made with fragile 1870s paper, text as small as you could possibly read, paper so thin that you can see through it when you hold it up to the light. You find things here that you never knew existed and which enrich your reading life.

For someone as lazy as me, the lending policy is a dream.  You don’t bring a book back, unless another member requests it.  I have had books out for a year.  All you have to do is renew them online once every two months.  When a member requests one of your books you receive a brilliantly polite email from the library requesting that, if it is not too much trouble, could you please drop it in when you are next in town?  London members can take 10 books out at any one time.  On request (but no extra charge) you can arrange to take out more.  “Country” members – that’s those who live 20 miles or more from the metropolis – can take out 15 books.  They run a Europe-wide postal service as well.   There are 15 miles of books (approximately a million volumes) on open shelves for immediate access, which makes it the world’s largest independent library.

Of course, this excellence of service doesn’t come free.  The London Library receives no public funding, and therefore is dependent upon charitable donations and private membership fees.  Standard membership is £395 per year.  It was significantly lower, but the library has suffered from HMRC’s decision to withdraw Gift Aid contributions, and had little choice but to draw revenue from its membership pool.  I applied for Carlyle Membership for which you need no academic justification for application.  I won it and receive 30% off my membership annually.   Members under the age of 25 also receive generous discounts.  Still though, I can hear the tight-lipped intake of breath, the inquisitive look that says, “Bluebird, you pay all that?”  Many people turn away at this first hurdle, but I put the question to them, that I put to you.  How much do you pay for your Sky subscription and television licence combined?  I’ll bet it’s more than £33 per month. 

For booklovers, readers, or those keen to grow to become either, a membership of The London Library is a delightful thing.  Membership is open to all .  If you think this lovely place might be for you, as a happy, comfortable haven in the beating heart of central London, please join. Anyone who loves books will love this irreplaceable place.  Here is a video from various well known members saying how blinking brilliant the London Lib is (see second video down this page)

Further info for passionate bibliophiles:

See you in the back stacks.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 


I have been rereading the excellent The Perfect Summer : Dancing into Shadow England in 1911 by Judith Nicolson, for the second time.  Ms Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and from the fragrant confines of Sissinghurst, she is able to draw on all kinds of personal info from Great Aunt this and Great Grandmama that on all things decadent and Edwardian.  Her acknowledgements page features the kind of very grand characters who the Mitfords would have known.  This is a fine history book, mainly because it divorces itself from the canon of history books by actually being readable.  It focuses on six individuals from various slots in the strata of the English class system and tells the story of a nation at a time of a glorious, over-hot, decidedly poignant summer, cripplingly held on the brink of imminent disaster, when the world of Edwardian England is about to be blasted to smithereens by the trench warfare of the First World War.

One of the delightful debutantes towards which Ms Nicolson casts her tidy pen is Lady Diana Manners [pictured above],later Lady Diana Cooper: fashionista, cloche hat wearer, Vogue powerhouse, Slade Art School attendee and general Edwardian It Girl.  As well as being something of a modernist loon by Edwardian standards, painting her bedroom at Belvoir Castle black, practising boxing daily and sniffing ‘chloro’ (chloroform) for high jinks amongst her high class Edwardian coterie, Lady D Manners “comes out” in the book.  Now, Ms Nicolson doesn’t of course mean coming out in her grandmother Vita Sackville-West’s meaning of the phrase, because there appears to be nothing remotely Sapphic about Lady M.  She was far too busy winning costume balls and wearing double layers of crimson lipstick for any lesbian activity.  No. Lady DM was part of that unfortunate racket that was compulsory for ladies of her class and era : The Season.  During one’s first season you were pushing your marriageability if you didn’t get a proposal.  Lady DM feared that the ostrich feathers she was forced to wear for Royal presentation would make her look faintly ridiculous.  This was before she took into account that everyone wearing Edwardian high class fashion looked like a cross between a stuffed fabric cushion and a drunk giraffe.  By one’s second season, matronly eyebrows of maiden aunts were raised slightly : you were desperate for a proposal by one’s second season but had to appear not desperate.  By the third, it was India or spinsterhood, and no one ever quite agreed which was worse.  Lady M didn’t have any of that, of course.  She was too busy designing Russian-inspired dresses with fur lining whilst sitting in draughty corners of Berkeley Square dances or rocking up to the ancestral pile to get pissed with young fey chaps called Kim.  The supper menus for these Edwardian balls for the Season never varied.  They featured an alarming amount of hothouse peaches and strawberries, soup (hot and cold) and oysters and lobsters.   It was a kind of Carole Middleton-friendly menu, bereft of carbohydrates and excitement.  At one costumed ball, Lady M won 250 guineas for her fancy dress costume – which, Nicolson points out, was the equivalent of five years’ income for a labourer at the time.  Lady M planned to spend the money on books.  Devonshire House was a key site for all things Season.  It is now the home of Iran Air, as Devonshire House, including its 3 acre garden housing the Duke of Devonshire’s personal tennis court, was  mown down in Piccadilly in 1935.   Iran Air is a particularly dispiriting office featuring sloppy grey furniture with holes in and a window which appears to have never known a windowcleaner.  You would find it nigh impossible to imagine a 1911 upper class toff  rolling cherry brandy cocktails around his delightfully plummy mouth, surrounded by rose bushes filled with pink electric lights in the hazy garden and then gamely making a tremulent pass at Georgiana in the corner to whip her round the dancefloor to Alexanders Ragtime Band.  I don’t think anyone’s tried that in the offices of Iran Air.

The great thing about Nicolson is that she is a splendid storyteller as well as a well-informed historian – if only she referenced her books, we would be able to find out where she has trawled through stacks of books to find her information  – and she also has the canny eye for the personal feelings of her characters, although perhaps here she takes a liberty better suited to the writer of fiction, to state how Queen Mary was feeling at a given time, and to furnish this book with a huge amount of inner feelings of people who she cannot have met, unless she is 140 years old.  The effect of this, of zooming down through the telescope of historical context to a small, plaintive, individual detail, is smashing for the reader, and presents a series of heartbreaking snapshots that tell more about a moment than a paragraph of dry socio-economic detail could :  the choirboy’s mis-spelt name on his Coronation entry card, the smell of the Blenheim footman’s powdered hair, the luscious breakfast in the mornings at Belvoir Castle, with red flags signalling the Indian tea pot and a yellow flag for the Chinese tea, the filth and stench of Hyde Park Corner, with its combination of deisel fumes and horse manure as the motorcar takes hold and the lady of means in the back of the car pokes the neck of her driver with her parasol to indicate which route to take, the nerves of the ballet dancer Nijinski, evident in the twisting of his thumbs and fingers at Richmond tea parties, the loneliness and sexual isolation of the poet Siegfried Sassoon through the long Kentish summer and – perhaps rendered the most futile vision by the facts that followed – the garden of The Old Vicarage at Grantchester, littered all summer with books of the poetry writings of its lodger, Rupert Brooke, the pages gently fluttering in the occasional, peaceful summer breezes.  Perhaps among those books, was his poem, The Soldier, published the following year, the famous opening of which “If I should die, think only this of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England…” banging on about the nobility of being of English matter in an eternally English earth and dying for war.  It took The First World War only eight months to claim Brooke.  His was an ignoble death of sepsis from an infected mosquito wound on a lonely Greek island.  One wonders what he must have thought of England then.

I am mainly re-reading this quite gorgeous book in order to fall into Nicolson’s next : The Great Silence : 1918 – 1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War.  Now, that one is really going to be great.  It is going to thoroughly depress me.  The great sweep of Edwardian niceties destroyed by the war, the shell shock, the return home, the black-edged telegrams of notifications of death, the dead poets, and the irretrievably lost England. Goodbye To All That. Jeez.  I’ll be lucky to make it to Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties.  That’s where I am going next (if I don’t end up in Post-Great War Therapy first).  After being depressed and upset following the detritus and flotsam and jetsam left in the wake of a great catastrophe I am going to cheer myself up by reading about means testing and economic depression and Orwellian urban poverty.  Honestly,  History books rock.  And, should I survive the major onslaught of margarine, trench foot, poverty and terror that is the early twentieth century, I shall presently be rolling out the barrel with another of Gardiner’s fruitiest, The Blitz: The British Under Attack.  Whatever I do read about the twentieth century, I certainly shall not be reading anything about The Titanic.  If I read any article, view any miniseries or catch the self-satisfied smug smile of the Winslet from a national newspaper again in the next three weeks I shall scream.  I think the low point was in last Sunday’s The Observer, which, for reasons only connected to mawkish commercialism, enclosed an A1 size ship plan, replete with third class dining saloons, drawing of promenade decks, snapshots of the Captain and a picture of the iceberg.  It sank.  I get it.  Tons of ships sink because of idiots who don’t read ice warnings.  Why are we always reading about this one?  Who gives a crap whether Lady GnarFnar and Lord FnarGnar of the Ostentatious Rifles Regiment survived or whether there was apple cake for dessert in second class or whether Leonardo di Caprio shagged Kate Winslet whilst pretending to “paint her portrait”?  An entire section of my local Waterstones is devoted to Titanicism.  We have menus from the Titanic, drawings of people who may or may not once have seen the Titanic, books about people who have been seen discussing Titanic at bus stops, information on floral displays within the Titanic and instructions for Titanic cocktails which, I can only imagine, include an awful lot of ice.

Avoid the ship that wasn’t in shipshape shape.  Head for the History drawer and collect either of Judith Nicolson’s, for an intimate portrayal of country first in grandeur and then in trauma, which is made real and accessible by the articulation of personal impact on a series of real individuals.  Yes, there is an awful lot of info that Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire  and similar high born peeresses probably gifted to Nicolson over  steaming tea and Chatsworth crumpets, but this kind of verbal history dies with its speaker unless someone crystallizes it and writes it all down, and there is no one better to tell us about history than the people who made it.  Nicolson’s books are gems.  Anyone who is interested in the first twenty years of the last century and the world that shaped our grandparents will find them touching, fascinating and brilliantly written, as the effects of the national and the political are effectively distilled into the personal.  The history is in the detail.  These are wonderfully evocative books, ones I found strangely compelling.   Go and read them.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Brought to Book

As the Bluebird prepares to move home soon, the great Book Giveaway has begun.  I have assembled a collection of  500 books or so, my husband double that number.  In honesty, as a literature post-graduate, I am slightly ashamed at the size of my book collection and think it should be bigger.  But we are downsizing in space, and unless I start gluing home-made bookshelves to the ceiling, or storing them in the bath, bringing all of them with us is a no-no.  Instead I have to abandon those which are no longer required.  In half an hour yesterday 140 of them were earmarked for the loneliness of the charity box. 

The criteria for ridding is as follows : I cannot remove anything that may be of academic value in the future of whatever academic career I may chose to have, nor can I remove those books brought down from the shelves in company, at one in the morning, after a festive, alcohol-fuelled evening with me spluttering – “THIS! – This book – this changed my life did you know that do you UNDERSTAND?”   Clearly, I cannot remove anything for which my heart beats or which I truly love and deserve to keep.  This leaves a glut of paperbacks enjoyed once, and never to be enjoyed again, of teenage Beverly Clearlys and Judy Blumes, of the Time Out Guide to Bars and Clubs 2004, of well-thumbed, dog jacketed pocket-size guides to Athens, of David Nicholls and Jane Greens.  These take up a vast, troublesome amount of nothing books that have been my companions from bookshelf to bookshelf in the 18 years since I moved to London and what shocked me was the ease and brevity with which I identified a hefty whack of them for the lady from Jewish Care.  I have a selection of books stolen from my school library on my last day there ( Iris Murdoch’s” The Sandcastle” and the Collected Poems of Shelley) which I shan’t return because they’ll put me in detention or something.  Anyway, I love their ’50s retro jackets.   I had four copies of “Great Expectations” and two each of “The Scarlet Letter” and “Decline and Fall”.  I found pink London Transport travelcards from the 1990s, split and missing sections to build roaches, from my copies of “A Passage to India” and, scarily, “A Womans Guide to The Car”.   Those I am proud of will not be evacuated : my Victorian bookshelf is only now truly coming into its own, I have every single book ever written by P G Wodehouse from when my father wrote a literary biography of him, I have also a wide selection of 1970s and 1980s history and literary criticism books sent free for review, including the brilliant “The Long Weekend : The Social History of Great Britain” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge – now disastrously out of print and being exchanged on Amazon for £65 per used paperback.

It doesn’t bode well that in recent popular opinion the word “bibliophile” has been mistakenly replaced with the word “bibliomaniac”.  Does it say more about certain societal values that people who develop a high quality library for personal use are assessed in ways that people who have 20,000 songs on their iPhone are not?   In other words, is this about the long running, and boring, opposition of high and low culture? Probably not.  It’s more to do with CDs being flexible enough to chuck into your computer and instantly convert to iTunes, and the refusal of books to do the same.  After all, you cannot convert a paperback to a Kindle ebook.  You have to buy the ebook.  An ebook for fuck’s sake : –  an invisible, slim, delicate, vulnerable file, bereft of coffee stains and the underlined pencil passages, and prone to breakage at the sign of a technological white-out. Yup.  Perfect.  I cannot present a class with a Kindle.  If the anxiety surrounding the acquisition of a lot of books – and I do mean acquisition, I do not mean hoarding  – isn’t about inverted cultural snobbery, then perhaps it’s time we agreed with Foucault : “I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space”.  Books take up space.  They invite dust and they are clutter.  We are depressingly programmed in the modern age to act with irritation and unjustified territorial anguish when something takes up space within our precious tiny homes of alloted modern space.  But something is always clutter.  If it’s true we are all suffering with spatial anxiety in the modern age, then it’s also true that nature abhors a vacuum.  Inevitably some other bit of modern detritus will come along and replace the books with less meaningful and instructive clutter.  It will be a sizeable coffee table, or a calendar, or a framed picture – and then you’re in the same position, except this time, when searching for something to help you rise above the malaise and seek solace from this world of material detritus and spatial anxiety, you can’t reach up for a comforting chapter or two of  “Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky” because you threw it away.  At least, if we must be spatially impoverished, we don’t also have to be poetically or literally impoverished.

The difficulty in throwing away books becomes apparent when you recognize that books are not books.  Or rather, they are books, but they are more than the sums of their parts.    If you were raised in a godless house, as I was, your shelves become your spiritual guides.  And what guides they are, because – at risk of falling into platitudes – literature renders our world comprehensible and when confronted with the bits we can’t understand, takes them by the short and curlies and grapples them like there’s no tomorrow.  You could argue that once they have been read and absorbed their philosophical work is done, but that’s not true.  Reading a book ten years apart is a different book (as the beady-eyed amongst you will have noted from my entry “A Right Charlie” a couple of weeks ago) and offers a different manifestation of beliefs for you to applaud, converse upon, or downright disagree on and throw the book out of the house.  Even the depressing ones might offer some comfort or reflection in the years ahead – even that great pessimist Virginia Woolf sitting high and frigid on top of the tree of turgid dustheap of English modernism.  All right Virginia, you have scraped the test and will stay with me.   There she goes, bonnet a flutter, dressed in her flat-chested smock-type dress, into the back of the removals van.   Thomas Hardy, who I don’t enjoy at all, but who I think I ought to keep as its supposed to be very good and one day I might get it, is staying.   His face just blinks at me, resplendent mustachios a-quiver, with a supercilious faraway look, as if I have yet to realise that he is a literary marvel, despite all that clumsy, metaphorical lay-it-on-with-a-trowel-stuff about strawberries in Tess of the Dooberrys.  He goes off into the van, nostrils flaring with fear when he realises he has to sit next to Virginia Woolf.  Little does he know.  I’m sending Patricia Highsmith into the van next.  Nothing can agitate your fatalistic writer of nineteenth century naturalism more than a massive  lesbian from Texas.

I am parting with the monstrous “Guide to Olde English”, “The Canterbury Tales”, anything by Dawn French, paperback Margaret Atwoods, Gilbert Adairs and second rate frothy literature.  But the Life Guides I keep : nothing more brilliant has been written about the hypocrisy of respectable society than “Vanity Fair”.  No one could read of the cruelty in the first seven chapters of “David Copperfield” without becoming a better, kinder, more sympathetic human.  What could make alcoholic addition more dangerous or more destructive than F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned”?  Not much – apart from F Scott Fitzgerald himself, of course.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to take Life Advice from a man who spent two decades blustering about in plus fours, bitching about Zelda and chucking the rye whiskey onto his morning Coco Pops.  There’s enough madness in the world already.  But his stories – the stories will be staying.

And so I’m off – back among the spine-filled shelves and delving into my reading past to continue my packing.  As soon as I’ve finished reading my book.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

A right Charlie

And, so, as the world descends from Charles Dickmania following the bicentenary of the birth of our great writer, the Culture Secretary launches his attack on his cabinet.  Jeremy Hunt, in possession of a name that can only come from a limerick, has given each member of the cabinet a different Dickens novel to enjoy / depress / intimidate the recipient.   Whilst not belittling anything the great social commentator of the British produced – and no one could create character like Dickens could – it’s fearful, the amount of laudatory and celebratory efforts towards this most great social chronicler of the English.  Arnold Bennett doesn’t get to celebrate his own birthday once he’s dead. Neither does HG Wells, but Dickens has locked himself firmly in the teaching, television-viewing, sentimental heart of all of us, and he isn’t budging.  Apparently, David Cameron received Great Expectations and Hard Times.  That’s probably because if someone had given Hard Times to Liam Fox he would have thought it was a story about Viagra.   Nick Clegg got Oliver Twist.  Cue huge Tory guffaws about him always “asking for more”.  I can’t imagine that George Osborne got A Christmas Carol, despite the alarming similarities between his economic policies of austerity and those of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Anyway, word has it from No 10 that George Osborne is frightened of A Christmas Carol, and so couldn’t be given it.  It has ghosties in it, you see, and one sight of those and he screams “Nanny!” and sucks his thumb and has to be given a warm rusk in the night by a housemaid.

Some lucky bastard would have got one of the two most mature and devastating of Dickens’s novels – namely Little Dorrit and Bleak House.  Each concerns itself with the corruption inherent in the material world, and the psychology of imprisonment and legal procrastination.  Neither of them clocks in at under 800 pages.  You wouldn’t have time to buy / squander / illegally rent a second home if you were too busy trying to find out what happened to Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam.  Is it for the good of the nation that Dickmania is circulating among the cabinet?  Will any of them actually read them?  Probably not, although they may come in handy as reading “decoys” on Chequers weekends when Cameron wants to avoid playing croquet with Sarkozy.  Bleak House is often considered to be one of the greatest novels written in English, a view to which I concur (the scene where Guppy proposes to Esther Summerson is one of the funniest in English literature) and its opening pages are so splendid that they are enough to make any prospective writer baulk at the prospect of ever putting well-nibbled biro to paper.  However, one of the strange aspects of the English is that no other literature seems to exist except that which is written in English.

A few years ago a friend of mine, wanting to know the difference between her Pushkins and her Dostoyevskys, tried to sign up for a course in 19th century Russian literature in London.  There were none.  And she looked on Floodlight (although first got confused and looked on Searchlight, the magazine of the Anti Nazi League where there, actually, quite a few Russians).  London’s evening classes are among the most diverse in the world, offering a highly consistent teaching standard.   There are literally hundreds of courses.  The organization of English literature evening classes in this country depend on dividing in 1900.  For the twentieth century there are the modernist classes, focusing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, attended by fey women in unusual hats.  Then there are the post-colonial novels, working on texts by Samuel Selvon and Chinua Achebe and unlikely to cause Dickens to turn in his grave when confronted with the quality of their prose.  They are selected in order to apologise for the fact the British once – whoops! – ran a silly Empire, and which is intent on endlessly examining how post-colonial discourse as a literary expression has…..zzzzzzzzzzz…. sorry I fell asleep for a moment there.   On the other side of 1900, back in the olden days, lives something sacred called the “canon” of English literature.  George Eliot, Thackeray, Shakespeare and Dickens live here.  Anyone who was ever buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey is essentially a shoo-in for the “canon”.  Many of these people wrote books that are televised on Sunday evenings on the BBC and feature people in bonnets.   Classes on the “canon” are attended by neat, middle aged women who live in Archway, retired school teachers and spindly young post graduates studying the homosexual in Great Expectations.

Why they put a great big line in at 1900 beggars belief, but they do.  The Edwardians, therefore, present problems.  I love the Edwardians for this.  Some people shove them into 20th Century Fiction and herald them as modernists.  Others tag them onto a riot of Victoriana and suspend that riot of Victoriana right up to the shot of the first bullet of 1914.   Either way, E M Forster confounds classification in this regard, and the sublime Tono Bungay by HG Wells gets thoroughly neglected.  Nor is it quite so clear why Virginia Woolf sneakily manages to monopolise the entire modernist section from beyond her watery grave, whilst other writers of more merit get neglected.  But try to find courses on the Russians, or the Germans or the Italians?    Nothing.  The two greatest European novelists who ever lived – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky – don’t crop up anywhere.  Eventually, my friend found one course on the Russians, taking place at the City Lit, only for it to be cancelled a week before it was due to begin, as so few people had signed up.  This was particularly annoying as by then she’d bought all the books and given herself a hernia carrying The Brothers Karamazov back from Hatchards.   It would be just as difficult to find an evening class in London on Flaubert or Balzac and, just as no one captures character as brilliantly as Dickens does in English, so no one  in French literature captures character quite like Balzac.  But in England, you don’t learn about that.  In English literary culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking no other language seems to exist.  Whilst the French and the Russian write of crime, punishment, money, social revolution and how to keep your head warm in a Russian winter, the English prefer to find out whether Darcy and Elizabeth are ever actually going to shag.

I don’t want to belittle Dickens or the English canon at all; Dickens is one of my favourite novelists who never fails to astound me.  In fact, as I get older and my outlook on the world develops, his ability to astonish me drastically increases.   David Copperfield is my favourite, closely followed by Our Mutual Friend.  At re-reads he is even more exceptional.  Shades of narrative and character that had previously lain undetected when you read the novels at first ten years previously burst out of the pages and make themselves known.  The novels become truly different books if you read them a decade apart, so probing and perceptive is Dickens’s intimation of behavioural patterns and social observation.   Little Dorrit is astonishingly modern in its preoccupation with the destructive forces of economic speculation and the weariness and depression of a mind in a debtor’s prison.  I’m 100 pages from the end of it at the moment and can’t wait to get to the end of the story.  However, in English literature Dickens is like the sun – he breathes heat and illumination over the Victorian age to bring it to life for the rest of us, but his vigour and energy and vibrancy are so all-encompassing in our culture that he is nearly in danger of blotting so many other writers out.  A cursory glance at the television documentaries of the last year would be enough to convince someone unfamiliar with Victorian literature that only the two people who ever wrote anything atall between 1810 and 1870 were Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  There are hundreds of Victorian writers out of print and a whole ton more in print and not celebrated or edging their ways onto the Schools Curriculum.   What of Somerset Maugham?  George Moore?  George Gissing?  Mary Elizabeth Braddon?   Do so many wonderful Victorian luminaries deserve to be left out in the cold?  In the last ten years the movement towards resusitating previously obsolete Victorian texts has spread with abandon (see, run by someone who attended the same MA as I did, Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, and which pledges to reprint some wonderful forgotten Victorian thrillers) but the Victorian Age is over a hundred years ago, and perhaps the die is cast regarding who is to be celebrated and remembered and who is not.  Whilst Dickens deserves to straddle the Victorian canon like some great, mustachioed colossus, I can’t help suggesting, as Oliver Twist did, “please sir, can we have some more?”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Sensational Stuff

Dear Reader,

The Bluebird Book Club requires another entry as we launch from each gothic winter day to the next here in London town. No one seems to want to do anything other than curl up on the chaise longue of life, draw the shutters and settle back with a good yarn at the moment.  The icy winds and dark nights are making hermits of us all.  At Bluebird Towers we have just brewed the Darjeeling, a riotous cake has been stumped up with the helpful addition of Dorsetshire apples and we invite you into our gas-lit drawing room reading club for a slab of gothic Victoriana.  What shall we thrill ourselves with this January afternoon?  A ghostly tale of shock and madness, oh yes, that’ll cheer you up, dear Bluebird followers!  Draw nearer the fire.  Do you take sugar?

I first read The Woman in White back in 2002 and it blew my fucking mind.  When published in 1859 it was a trailblazer of the genre known as sensation fiction and it totally kicks everything up the butt.  Everything.  Thackeray couldn’t put it down, the crazy old loon.  Gladstone had tickets to the theatre and forgot to go as he was too busy reading it.  Prince Albert started giving copies of the book to all of his friends as Christmas presents, but then he was a German so we can’t really trust anything he did.   M E Braddon, an author we have focused on before here at Bluebird, tried to imitate this novel with many of her own, but she never quite clinched it.  The Woman in White  is a bona fide, Class A, 24 carat gold, Derby Day winner.  A grim, sinister country house?  Check.  A series of unreliable and suspicious characters?  Check.  An asylum?  (What Victorian novel would be a novel without one?)  Check.  A modern, inspirational heroine who is forced to tackle a man’s power and control as a woman?  Check.  A deep family secret that threatens to destroy an entire family?  Check.  A car chase?  Check.  All right – no car chase.  I just wanted to check you were concentrating at the back.

There is skullduggery, blackguards, tomfoolery, arch aristocrats, madness, illness, peculiar Italians and a drawing master who has the hots for his pupil.  If this set up seems slightly cliched and melodramatic by today’s standards, remember this novel was the first one of its kind to present the characteristics above.  And who is the Woman in White anyway?  Aha.  I would be spoiling something wonderful for you if I told you and if you have not read this entertaining yarn, nor were unfortunate enough to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name.  I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but sufficed to say it’s a book that causes a feverish, obsessive reading in a bid to find out the truth.  In addition, for those of you with a keen mystery eye, it’s one of the first detective stories ever written, setting into motion a new literary “type”, the brave, detective renegade, a character type of which Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are direct descendants.  In this book it is a strong, lone, spinster woman who is forced to become amateur detective to save herself and her sister battling against any number of difficulties and obstacles from outside the home and within.   

The advent of the multiple narration in which characters “write” their own chapters in a series of interviews and diaries, puts the reader in direct association with the narrative and the characters, without the usual nineteenth century safety net of the strong authorial voice and, although this is a technique that Wilkie Collins’s friend Dickens had used with Bleak House six years earlier,  it is still rather unusual in the mid-Victorian canon.  But what it reveals is the most important aspect of the Victorian sensation novel :  Collins is intent on revealing the corruption, moral decay and danger inherent in that most English of desirable objects : the middle class provincial home.  It doesn’t matter how many factories you’ve curtailed into existence in the Midlands, or whether you’ve been earning philanthropy marks in your life as a respectable banker : the shadow of murder and corruption and madness lurks behind every single William Morris wallpapered wall, and the contagion of insanity is, it appears, catching.  No one is ever more than an itinerant player in life, in Collins’s novels, a player walking through a peculiarly English landscape of plots of mismanaged inheritances, wrongful imprisonments and people being incarcerated in nuthouses.  The law is an ass, ever faithful to its own long purse.  The women in his novels tend to inhabit liminal spaces; women intent on puncturing holes in the dividing line between public propriety and feminine domesticity, women who are manly and fail to conform to the feminine ideal and flagrantly immoral women who get up to all sorts, frankly.

Giggling yet?  I admit, it doesn’t sound like that much fun.  And I know what you’re thinking – you there, at the back of the class, ink-stained elbow leaning on your defaced wooden desk – “This is a LONDON blog.  Have you just gone culturally supercilious on us?  We want sparkly, happy LONDON things!” you protest, as you kick your sandaled feet against the wooden floor and gaze longingly outside, anticipating breaktime with its orange squash and bright sunlight and shortbread biscuits nibbled under the climbing frames.  Do not fret, kids.

The beginning of the novel opens on Hampstead Heath – that urban piece of magnificent rural wildness that is so beloved of George Michael and birdwatchers.  Our first narrator is striding over to his family homestead having spent too much cash recently ( splurge over Christmas?) and been reduced to staying in his mother’s “Hampstead cottage” for the foreseeable future.  Whilst a Hampstead cottage in today’s London could seriously be categorized as a des-res, in 1859 it seems to be a bit embarrassing.  I mean, he’s a bit of a bitch about it. Anyway, on he marches for supper.  At supper in his mother’s awful, horrid, downmarket and utterly uncool Hampstead cottage, he is delighted to find his old Italian friend, Professor Pesca, in residence.  Pesca knows of a drawing master’s job that has come up and instantly recommends our narrator for the post.  They drink sherry and do nineteenth century stuff with pianos, and then our narrator walks home towards Camden Town.  But what exactly happens at the place on the Finchley Road “where four roads meet”?  He collides with a mysterious woman dressed head to toe in white and who is being pursued by two chaps in a brougham with horses, who race forward, in blatant disregard for the traffic calming measures outside the Swiss Cottage Odeon. All right, the Swiss Cottage Odeon wasn’t there in the olden days, but I find it nigh impossible to imagine a part of London I know very well into another age, i.e. to re-imagine it in it’s Victorian splendour.  As far as I can tell, the Woman in White first makes her appearance at the junction of Finchley Road, Avenue Road, Belsize Road and probably…er..another road which, as one time long term resident of the area, I find I cannot identify.  Frognal?  West End Lane?  Where has she been – in Waitrose?  Or merely having a shufti around the O2 Centre, weeping around the dull aquariums, and searching for a long lost squire or governess in the multiplex cinema? 

I tried to shove my head back – back through decades and on and on and I wonder if anyone’s mind can truly do this – through the greying 1980s, the tower blocks ricocheting up in the 1960s, the transient, European wartime population of the region scattering up through the 1950s, back through to the 1930s and the vast monolith of the Odeon being constructed in the middle of one of North London’s most dissatisfying one way systems, back through the 1920s with its austere apartment blocks, onwards through suburban Edwardiana until there is nothing  but hush and quiet as there are no stations or tubes on the main Finchley Road.  Back even further, to the smell of camphor and the squish of horse shit underfoot, to the custardy yellow of gas lights and the dark red fortresses of Avenue Road houses of the 1880s, to the absence of proper pavements and the musty mist of Victorian fogs set against the rattle of the carriage, to the dark red omnibus that trundles over cobbles and hay through the mid-evening gloam…  And then BANG!  Suddenly a branch of “Amy’s ‘Ardware” store and a brash branch of “Costa” appear in my mind’s eye, and I’m suddenly startled back into the real world of 2012 again.  No sooner has Wilkie Collins painted his scene than my frontal lobe wants to paint it out again, and, disturbingly, put in a traffic cone where a Victorian top hat used to be.  Our London, the city we pass through, curse at, love and loathe with equal abandon and which has, astonishingly, been voted the best city on the planet this week (who voted?  Pigeons?) can’t be nudged aside in our mind with all the other cultural London’s that compete – Dickens’s London, Shakespeare’s London, Sherlock Holmes’s London, Martin Amis’s London – Stop STOP!  Too many Londons.  My brain is tired.  I don’t know where I am – or when I am. 

That said, and back to The Woman in White, this is not a London novel.  Most of it is set in Northumberland. And you can’t get further from London than that, otherwise you topple off the top of the country.  It glides beautifully along and I must demand you read it forthwith.  Should you enjoy it I thoroughly recommend Sarah Water’s Fingersmith which deliriously takes all of the literary conventions of the gothic sensation novel, reconfigures them, exploits the reader’s expectations of the genre and turns it all upside down before you know it – an ingenious read.   

Meanwhile, dearest Bluebird readers, I instruct you:  Get a bar of chocolate and a big mug of tea and settle in for these January nights : go forth and read The Woman in White

For more to whet your appetite, here is an interesting article from The Guardian, writing on the 150 year anniversary of the novel’s publication :

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Bluebird Book Club

I adore bookshops.  I actually like them more than I like the books I often purchase from them.  I liked one particular bookshop so much I married the manager, but therein lies another tale.  In this summer of chilly discontent, many people aren’t going on holiday.  This is a great shame, and this year – like 2009 – is the year when the mercury has failed spectacularly to go anywhere above freezing and when nothing could be nicer than a fortnight in the Algarve.  But, frankly, I don’t know anyone who is going abroad for a holiday this summer.  Britain is tightening her pretty little purses and, frankly, it has never been so easy to get an excellent restaurant table in London in mid-week.

Just because we are not going on holiday doesn’t mean we can forsake our holiday reading, however, and for me a bank holiday is not a bank holiday without a rollicking good read.  So, welcome to the Bluebird Book Club – we serve coffee as good as Rome’s Cafe Greco, we serve home made apple tart, and we bitch about writers by cosy lamplight whilst investigating a diverse series of authors.   Also – unlike ordinary book clubs – I suggest the circumstances in which you should read these books – and when you most certainly should not. Draw your chairs up, kids.   Pencils to the ready..


Over the last two weeks though I have gone schizo.  Or eclectic.  Or nuts.  Either way, my choices have been broad.  The first book was Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started Early, Took my Dog.  Those of you who salivated over Jason Isaacs in Case Histories on the BBC earlier this year will rediscover his literary incarnation, Jackson Brodie, here.  This is a police thriller set in two timelines – one the pre-Yorkshire Ripper Yorkshire of the mid 1970s and the other in the present day.  Brodie is one of three main characters which are neatly dovetailed into Atkinson’s narrative.  The other two principal characters are an ageing stage actress losing her marbles (Atkinson is bitterly accurate on the interior monologue that goes on in the head of an ageing luvvie) and a lonely, chubby security officer called Tracy, who is retiring.  One day Tracy does something which changes everything.  Of course I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Jackson Brodie is a fascinating rootless sort of character, driving around the county of his youth (Yorkshire) bemoaning the loss of its industrial backbone and becoming increasingly enchanted by the county’s medieval relics.  The author recaps on Jackson’s somewhat diffident love history for those of us new to Brodie (like me) so we don’t feel entirely all at sea.  Despite the book weighing in at 420-ish pages, it is a deceptively quick read, with Atkinson’s dark and laugh-out-loud humour keeping the prose and narrative taut throughout.  The only negative point Iwould make is that this is easily 50 pages or so too long, but these 50 will fly by. 

TO BE READ : on a summer’s day when the rain is unpleasantly battering on the window and you are in the mood for a fast-paced thriller.  In bed.   If you love dogs.  If you enjoyed Life on Mars.    Accompanied by : strong cup of coffee and a hob nob, a no-nonsense biscuit as grainy and rough as the Yorkshire Moors themselves.

NOT TO BE READ:  If you are in the Yorkshire Moors at night.  If you are in the West Yorkshire police force or have ever been in the West Yorkshire police force.  If you are a prostitute.  If you find blood and gore hard to take.

A good ghost story should creep silently under your skin.  It is a short step from “Reading a terribly good ghost story” to shivering and wailing alone in the night, terrified and unable to sleep.    This is from the same writer who gave us The Woman in Black which is still running in the West End startling people nightly, after 23 years.  And The Woman in Black is scary.  I used to know someone whose job it was to go around the theatre after every performance and check the arm rests were still attached to the seats, as people would rip them away in shock during the final scene.   The Small Hand is a quick book – you can read it in a couple of hours.  The prose is sparse, the story is traditional.  It features an antiquarian bookseller who has an odd experience in an isolated rural garden and starts to send cold chills down the back of the neck forthwith.  There are terrible, wind-thrashed country drives down remote Spanish hillsides, freaky old ladies (nothing is more frightening) and – of course – some sinister monks thrown in for good measure.  Hill is a master of pace.  She knows how to unnerve and delivers the scenes in a calm, pragmatic tone that belies the eerie content.  Strangely, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, despite the various loose ends being competently wound into place.  But the thrill of a ghost story is still rendered intact.

TO BE READ: on a bright day when you are feeling full of fortitude and gumption.  In a built up area.  If you are one of those people who like a bit of a scare.  Accompanied by: chocolate – soothes feelings of ghostly anxiety, with a hipster flask of brandy nearby from which you can take steadying nips throughout. 

NOT TO BE READ:  At night, on your own, in the countryside, or if you have a fear of water.

The History of Love  is an extraordinary book – but, again I am behind the times here, as I believe it was nominated for an Orange Prize in 2006. To tell you the truth, I am still 70 pages from the end, and fully expect the complex plot to wrap rings around my frontal lobe, but it reminded me – a bit – of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife in which alternative realities exist in the different spaces for the same character.  It is rather self-referential  – but it is written incredibly deftly and is the only book I think I have ever read that made me cry with laughter and then, one paragraph further, reduced me to a weeping, soggy mess on the carpet.  The History of Love is about a book – rare and only ever published once in Chile in a small pressing – called The History of Love.  Much comment is made regarding this book’s somewhat traumatic beginnings, its authorship and in particular its principal character, Alma, quite clearly the love of the novelist’s life.  But who is the novelist?  This novel spans Israel, South America, Spain, New York and England and never quite rests at all.  A stunningly beautiful read – the ending of which I simply cannot guess.  The principal character is called Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish Jew now living in America who is terrified that no one will notice when he dies.  He tries to be disruptive in public places and create commotions to ensure remembrance.  Then there is a young girl desperately trying to counteract her mother’s life of loneliness and trying not to worry that she has a brother called Bird who has convinced himself he is the messiah.  It’s about lost words as much as it is about lost people and lost hearts.  I cannot wait to read the next Krauss novel Great House, having read this one.  It’s truly extraordinary, although the structure may frustrate some people. 

TO BE READ: If you like books about the nature of books, if you are interested in Jewish migration, think old people are highly amusing, if you are a frustrated author and if you believe in true love.  To be accompanied by: a good cup of tea.  No food necessary.  You’ll have to concentrate enough on the plot, never mind a sandwich.

NOT TO BE READ: If you are frustrated ever by a novel’s lack of action, if you are a misogynist or if you really don’t like the name ALMA.

This is a re-read.  This spanking new edition, complete with a foreword by actor Alan Cumming, has heralded a mini-Mitford revival.  In its wake another of Mitford’s novels, Wigs On the Green (a satire of British fascism of the 1930s and one that made Nancy fall out with her sister Diana and brother in law Oswald Mosley, who Nancy had clearly lampooned) has been republished for the first time since 1935.  Too sensitive for re-issue in the years after World War II?  Or just not as brilliant or dazzling as Mitford’s others?  I’ll let you know when I’ve read it.  It’s next on my list.  This book, Love In A Cold Climate, has never been out of print, and is one of Mitford’s most wonderful and enduring novels, along with Pursuit of Love.  Mitford’s world is eccentric, often sexually amoral, slightly nutty and concerns itself with minor aristocratic affairs of the heart.  Although written just after the war, her two best known novels are set in the 1920s and 1930s, in an unmistakably inter-war milieu. She is a master of humourous writing and shares Waugh’s talent for wonderfully funny speech.  Please, please read Pursuit of Love first, if you plan to read this.  Love in a Cold Climate is set at the same time and features some of the same people.  It tells the story of Polly Hampton, and her rather intimidating parents, Lord & Lady Montdore, through the eyes of Fanny, a young debutante and the daughter of a rarely seen woman called “The Bolter”.  Fanny’s anxiety about the upper-class world of the Hamptons and their parties suddenly disappears when kind, quite, beautiful, perfect Polly falls in love, with her own uncle.   Courageously, Mitford produces one of the most openly gay characters I can think of in mid-twentieth century literature.   The Montdores have no son; and are concerned that the inheritor of their incredible possessions is destined to be a stranger from Nova Scotia.  When Cedric Hampton arrives, in blue sunglasses, and proceeds to give the elderly Lady Montdore a stunning, gay makeover, it’s enough to make any reader guffaw with joyous laughter.  No one seems to mind that he is rather “mauve” and all the women instantly go shopping with him.  Like Wodehouse, Mitford is divorced from much of the world’s poverty.  But, even if you decide you’re not in the mood to read her, after five minutes of this book, you’ll find that you are.  If this book was a foodstuff it would be one of those boxes of miniature Green & Black’s chocolates : rich, biting, sweetly luxurious – and you feel immediately better afterwards.  And for those of you keen to write off Ms Mitford with a gesture of shallowness, she was an ardent Francophile who also churned out historical biographies of high profile French peeps, as well as translating works of literature from her home in France.  So there.

TO BE READ : When you wish to take cover from a brutal and uncaring world.  In the bath.  At cocktail hour.  At a country house weekend.  When you want to be a tourist to the upper classes for a day.  To be accompanied by:  A morning Bloody Mary before Giles takes the dogs out on the hunt.  A stiff pre-dinner G&T.  A slice of tarte tatin in tribute to Ms Mitford’s French escapades.

NOT TO BE READ: If you are a Marxist, if you dislike hearing about parties and dresses, if you dislike eccentrics or if you are Oswald Mosley (which you probably aren’t.)

Please return to The London Bluebird if you have enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.