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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The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

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Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.

Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.

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Mischievous, not misleading

giuseppemariacrespi_bookshelves
Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Bookshelves (Wikimedia)

Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore
Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993

With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres.

Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.

I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod:
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I Spy

My attention was drawn to a post which that wonderful literary gourmet Helen at She Reads Novels put up in June. In it she highlighted an I-Spy challenge that had been doing the rounds of the blogosphere and which rather appealed to me too. She limited her choice to historical titles, however, while I shall be looking at the whole gamut of my shelves, non-fiction as well as fiction. Here’s the challenge:

Find a book that contains (either on the cover or in the title) an example for each category. You must have a separate book for all 20, get as creative as you want . . .

Thus it was that I set out to waste spend a few precious moments minutes wildly carefully honing my choices for your possible delight. In a couple of cases I really did have problems fitting title to category, so I certainly had to exercise my spindly creative muscles…

See what you think.

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