Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)

A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.

Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?

In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.

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Life of Python

mpfoot

Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

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“A near-divine miracle”

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm.
A memoir of childhood reading
Vintage 2018

“[Y]ou simply never know what a child is going to find in a book (or a graphic novel, or a comic, or whatever) — what tiny throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years.”
— Chapter 8

Lucy Mangan knows what it is that makes someone a bookworm because she is one herself. And as a retired teacher (and former schoolboy, now recidivist bookworm) I can vouch for the fact that throwaway lines, whether written or spoken, are often the unexpected catalysts in later life determining personal philosophies or prejudices, likes or hates, potential triggers for creativity or lasting pessimism.

Bookworm is for all those who from an early age discovered that books are one’s entry to lives beyond our immediate experience. It’s also for those who have forgotten what it was that they read at that age, or have foolishly put it behind them as inconsequential: because this is not merely a nostalgia-fest, it’s an examination of how one person went on a voyage of discovery to visit people and places and different times, to see how others have lived and may still live their lives; and through her voyage one may see what nuggets of truth she has brought back that may enrich our own lives.

Above all it’s a plea not to deny children the pain and pleasure that access to all literature affords them:

[C]hildren should be allowed to read anything at any time. They will take out of it whatever they are ready for. And just occasionally, it will ready them for something else.

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Putting the kind in mankind

https://aboutartanddesign.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/graysonperry_2243662k.jpg
Grayson Perry and a tapestry he designed, The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
Penguin 2016

It takes a bit of nerve to use the same title for your book as Charles Darwin did for his 1871 study, but in a way Grayson Perry seems to be saying that modern men are fully capable of evolving, and for the better. It should be possible for them to transition from their traditional dinosaur-like sense of what it is to be a man towards something more fitting for the future, more so now that we are in the era of #MeToo and with urgent demands for well overdue gender parity.

Who is Grayson Perry? This is his official bio from the paperback:

Grayson Perry is a man. He is also an award-winning artist, a Bafta-winning TV presenter, a Reith Lecturer and a bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills.

He is also adept at self-deprecation and incisive insights, as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser (it’s hard to miss him in this role for many of his public appearances). A three-episode TV documentary, All Man, went on to explore aspects of masculinity touched on here, but in the meantime this autobiographical memoir explores Perry’s boyhood experiences — he was born in 1960 — and his changing perceptions of what it means to be a male in a modern world. What he reflects on may be rooted in an English perspective, but much of his ruminations has ramifications in the rest of the western world, and of course elsewhere.

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A kind of joy

Icebreaker Akademik Sergey Vavilov (photo: http://www.cruisemapper.com/ships/Akademik-Sergey-Vavilov-icebreaker-1761)

Jenny Diski: Skating to Antarctica
Granta Books 1998 (1997)

The notion of skating al fresco always brings to my mind the worry of thin ice, and in some ways the feel of this memoir is of ice at times so thin that it might be possible to fall through. Skating to Antarctica therefore has a fragility to it, but it’s a fragility told by a writer who’s managed to weather many storms and isn’t going to give up just yet.

Superficially the memoir’s about the author taking a cruise in a converted icebreaker to the southern continent; but under the guise of a travelogue this account focuses on a journey of a different kind. Jenny Diski, as is well known by now,* had a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional and abusive family, becoming estranged from her parents to the extent of not even knowing whether her mother was alive or dead. It’s the questions over her mother’s life and death that forms a counterpoint to the physical trip and makes this piece of creative non-fiction so readable.

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Sugaring the pill

Dahl, Llandaff
Roald with his sisters Else and Alfhild, at Llandaff

Roald Dahl Boy: Tales of Childhood Puffin Books 1986 (1984)

Boy is less an autobiography than a patchy memoir of Roald Dahl’s youth, up to the point in his early twenties when a world war rudely interrupted everybody’s planned trajectories. But that’s not to say his life had been uneventful before then — this account is full of memories of home, family, school, acquaintances and holidays, many of which were to supply material for his published fiction. As he says of the incidents he recounts, some are funny, some painful, some unpleasant, but “all are true”.

Many are very vivid, perhaps too vivid, especially the things he witnessed or experienced at his schools. Though I am of a generation three decades adrift from Roald Dahl my experience of a boys school was uncomfortably close to what he describes, first at Llandaff Cathedral School near Cardiff, then at St Peter’s boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare, and finally at Repton, the Derbyshire public school. What comes through is Continue reading “Sugaring the pill”

Death, wizards and hats

brain, old print
… and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew.

Terry Pratchett A Slip of the Keyboard:
Collected Non-Fiction
Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Corgi 2015 (2014)

I’ve come late to Pratchett’s writings. I had tried some comic fantasy and sci-fi and found it wanting; it mostly seemed to be trying too hard to be funny and witty. I enjoyed Red Dwarf on TV and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio but somehow on the page much of this genre writing seemed to consist of dull, lifeless things, full of their own cleverness. So, despite everyone saying I ought to try Pratchett, that I’d like his stuff, I resisted it. Perhaps it was the cover illustrations that put me off: “This is a wickedly weird funny book!” they seemed to scream at me.

Finally I recently took the plunge. Somehow the Piaf song Je ne regrette rien now rings a little hollow…

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To savour, not hurry

Uttley garden
Alison Uttley photographed in her Buckinghamshire garden in the 1960s (www.alisonuttley.co.uk)

Alison Uttley
The Country Child
Illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe
Puffin Books 1981 (1931)

Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit picture books, was more than just a writer of sweet (some might say ‘twee’) tales of anthropomorphised animals for children. As well as a celebrated novel for older children A Traveller in Time she wrote a prolific number of non-fiction titles, as a glance at a list of her publications shows. Halfway between fiction and autobiography is The Country Child, which is in effect a true depiction of the author’s childhood but with the names changed. Continue reading “To savour, not hurry”

The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition

MMFB

Michael McIntyre Life and Laughing: My Story
Michael Joseph / Penguin 2010

With the notable exception so far of North America, there seem to be few parts of the English-speaking world that haven’t heard of Michael McIntyre: Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Dubai, Norway and Singapore seemed to have lapped him up. He has broken records for sell-out tours and venues in the UK, and the DVDs of his arena shows do well. He seemed, as is the nature of things, to have suddenly emerged as a fully-fledged and confident comic into public consciousness in the first decade of this century, but of course success is rarely an instant rags-to-riches story. In McIntyre’s case not at all — if anything, it was a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale, as this autobiography outlines.

McIntyre is first and foremost Continue reading “The shock-haired comic and the shock of recognition”

Enthusiasm, experience and expertise

keys

Charles Rosen Piano Notes:
the World of the Pianist 
Penguin 2004

The late Charles Rosen, who died in 2012 aged 85, is remembered as both pianist and writer, and Piano Notes is in large part a personal response to the art and pleasure of keyboard playing. I found this a wonderful book, full of enthusiasm, experience, expertise, knowledge and humour, and it helps that this reviewer largely shares the writer’s philosophy (though, sadly, not the experience, expertise and knowledge). Continue reading “Enthusiasm, experience and expertise”

The last visions

San Marino flag
The flag of San Marino showing the three towers of Monte Titano

Antal Szerb The Third Tower: journeys in Italy
(A harmadik torony)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Pushkin Press 2014 (1936)

I felt bereft when Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy stopped mid-sentence only in sight of Lyon. Mr Yorick was due to travel down western Italy via Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome as far as Naples but, unhappily for all, the full account was cut short by the small matter of the writer’s death. Fortunately there was Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower recently published in English to console me, though the Hungarian’s travels were essentially down the east coast of Italy only as far south as San Marino. But, just as with Sterne’s writings, this was as much — if not more — about the person than the places visited.

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The sweet white flowers of memory

Nesbit

E Nesbit Long Ago When I Was Young
Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1966

If, as Wordsworth proposed, “the Child is father of the Man,” then reading someone’s childhood memoirs may help hold up a mirror to the adult mindset. If that someone is a noted author such as Edith Nesbit, then it’s hard not to see in the accounts of youthful escapades a key not just to understanding their motivations as a grownup but also for revealing the inspirations for their writings. And so it is with the reminiscences in Long Ago When I Was Young, written for publication when Nesbit was nearly forty but just before she embarked on The Treasure Seekers, the first of her many books aimed specifically for children. Continue reading “The sweet white flowers of memory”

Chicken feed

ceramic hen
Glazed look from ceramic hen

Martin Gurdon Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance:
reflections on raising chickens
The Lyons Press 2005 (2004)

Having travelled from the west coast of Britain all the way to the west coast of the United States, it seemed a little odd to have picked up this arresting title in Seattle’s University Book Store only to find it was written by a fellow Brit. But that’s not the only coincidence surrounding our acquisition of this book, a witty parody of a famous work on tinkering with motorcycles, and this review therefore is split into two unequal halves, the first a gentle appreciation, the second a mild rant. Continue reading “Chicken feed”

Humoresque and the picturesque

Pyrenees

Tony Hawks A Piano in the Pyrenees:
the Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains
Ebury Press 2006

How can this book fail for me? I’m a pianist, I’ve walked in the French Pyrenees and skied on the Spanish side, plus I passed a crew about to shoot location sequences for the film of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge (in West Wales — where else?). So I couldn’t pass up on reading this humorous account of the comedian/musician/writer buying a house near the border with Spain and building a swimming pool, honing his pianistic skills and performing music, making new friends and seeking true love.

Hawks’ story starts a little slowly but settles, literally, once he is living in his new Pyrenean home and interacting with the locals. Continue reading “Humoresque and the picturesque”