I often marvel at how far I seem to have time-travelled in less than one life’s span. We are all, in fact, time travellers, living a life partly dreamt but sometimes barely imagined when we were younger. Driverless cars, 3D printing, seeing almost to the edge of the known universe, was this not the stuff of science fiction in the not-so-distant past?
And how frequently have our elders and betters misjudged our present future in times past: regular visits to the Moon, a pill for everything with no side effects, an end to poverty, superstition replaced by science.
My musings have been kickstarted by simply sitting down to write this post.
Philip Wilkinson The Pocket Guide to English Architecture
Remember When / Pen & Sword Books 2009
This is one of those books the title of which says it all: a guide that you can carry around with you when visiting towns, cities or country houses to view the buildings of England. (And it really does mean only England, not the other currently constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though much of the information here is transferable to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.)
Explicitly excluded from the notion of custom-designed architecture — except for a brief mention of building materials — are all those examples of fine vernacular structures, whether thatched cottages, terraced houses or tithe barns, though I suspect the last-mentioned cathedral-like storehouses may well have been planned by the same individuals who directed the building of the associated abbeys.
The book is simply structured, starting with a timeline taking in twenty-two broad stylistic categories — from Saxon and Norman to Modernism and Art Deco — and covering the period 600 to 1939. This is then followed, after a short introduction, by chapters summarising the principal features of all those styles, with occasional ‘interludes’ to discuss changing tastes or available materials. Before the final index there are useful appendices illustrating diagnostic details to aid identification of periods: pillars, windows, doors, arches, vaults and towers.
According to his blog the author has written “The English Buildings Book, England’s Abbeys, Restoration, the book of Adam Hart-Davis’s series What the Romans Did For Us, other books about architecture and buildings, and various books on other subjects, including Dorling Kindersley’s handbooks on Mythology (written with Neil Philip) and Religions.” So he definitely knows whereof he speaks.
An added attraction of this unpretentious and accessible guide is the inclusion of vintage illustrations, from the line drawings of Colen Campbell’s 1715 Vitruvius Britannicus and Victorian reference books to historic postcard photographs. The picture research was done by Fiona Shoop who had access to the postcard collection of the Estate of Stanley Shoop, and they add greatly to the character of this 136-page guide.
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness Introduction and Notes by Owen Knowles
Penguin Classics 2007 (1899)
The Dark Continent. Darkest Africa. How often do we still — more than a century later — hear these terms bandied about. Though it’s often assumed that the phrases have racist connotations the original intention seems to be that much of the heart of Africa was still unknown territory as far as Europeans were concerned. And why were they concerned? Because at the root of European imperialist dreams was the drive to expand and exploit, to extract the commercial potential of a region before your rivals. In a way nothing much has changed in the intervening years.
Heart of Darkness is set in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century. But the tenebrosity of the title alludes more to the blackness of white men’s hearts than to the interior of Africa. The novella begins, unexpectedly, Continue reading “Congo odyssey”→
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …
— Kipling 1889
Many years ago I had a Chinese poster from the Communist era showing the interior of a classroom. On a wall was a world map which — and this is what particularly interested me — positioned China dead centre. In a flash I understood where much of that country’s paranoia came from: to the left was Western Europe and Soviet Russia and its satellites, to the right was the USA, and it was quite clear that Red China felt completely beset by rivals or foes. Are we surprised that Chinese corporations are now busy exploiting commercial opportunities all around the Indian Ocean, South America and elsewhere if their maps continue to suggest China’s a beleaguered country?
It was a natural step for me to realise that America’s own Cold War paranoia stemmed from its world view, US maps showing the country surrounded by Chinese communists to its west and, to its east, communist Eastern Europe and Russian Soviets. No wonder conservative Americans worried about Reds under the bed and commie sympathisers.
On the other hand, the British psyche was long buoyed up by its being centrally placed on its world maps, the globe’s chronology even being set by Greenwich Mean Time. Huge swathes of the world were coloured pink — Canada, bits of Africa, Australia and innumerable colonies and possessions — until, in the mid-20th century, that Empire was slowly but surely eased from its hands. Right now Britain also feels embattled, cut loose from its former Empire, increasingly casting itself adrift from Europe and encouraged to believe itself menaced by ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ of immigrants.
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente.
Anything with ‘book lover’ in the title is bound to attract, is it not? And The Book Lover’s Tale has such echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that it comes as little surprise that a late 15th-century printed edition of the Tales plays a crucial role at the climax of the novel. But take note: Chaucer is nothing if not ironic. The Clerk, who appears so idealistic, the antithesis of greed and worldliness, a man who would rather “have at his beddes heed | Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,” is — like all the Pilgrims — not quite what he seems. His tale, following on soon after The Wife of Bath’s Tale with its theme of women’s sovereignty over men, appears to favour the model wife: The Clerk’s Tale tells the misogynistic story of Patient Griselda, uncomplaining despite everything thrown at her by a husband determined to test her obedience. However, the Clerk then adds some surprising comments: women should really stand up for themselves and follow the example of the Greek nymph Echo who, of course, always answered back. His further advice is that wives should aim to make their husbands worry, weep, wring their hands and wail.
All this background, I think, is important in trying to understand what is at first sight a pretty grubby tale told in the first person by a real Lothario, a book collector by the name of Matt Le Voy.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.