The Down Side

Putting The Misery Into Tragedy

As my last blog was a bizarre shout at the planet to both slow down and get better I thought I would need to make the next one more upbeat… So I’m going to tell you about two of the most depressing books I’ve read. Be warned there are SPOILERS coming, I’ll try and keep them at a minimum but when blogging about a book’s tone you may need to refer to the end… just saying. If you want to know no more turn back now… otherwise “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

To be honest I’m not a misery and of course it’s not true that drama is tragedy; but try telling a compelling story where bad things don’t happen. It is so much harder to write anything with soul and heart that is upbeat. I don’t mean it’s impossible, I’m sure I’ll blog about my favourite upbeat books later (there is no real plan to what I do here), but it’s just harder. I guess this is why most people at the start of their writing experience, when charged with writing a story, go for tragedy over comedy.

Again I’m not saying that I think any less of the two books which follow, in fact they are both top quality writing, that’s not just my opinion, both writers have highly prodigious awards to prove it. My point is, although tragedy and depressive things aren’t necessary for a good story, we are kind of drawn to them and done well they will effect your soul.

I’ve waxed lyrical about my love for Les Misérables elsewhere (the book; I’ve not, and refuse to, access any other format of the story at this point), and my goodness it deserves the title. That nice lady with nice hair and teeth! But even then I wasn’t rendered stunned reading that as I was by the time I’d got to end of The Grapes Of Wrath.

Taking it’s name from the book of Revelation, John Steinbeck’s novel about a family trying to survive in the American Depression is what made me love this author. It was the second of his books I’d read and I am now on a mission to read them all, but sparingly. I really can’t say too much as the concept of what happens as we follow the Joads is the whole point of the plot and you really need to discover that as you read it. The Joads are a family who move from their farm in Oklahoma, which is no longer viable for them to survive, to California as they believe a better life awaits them. The book follows their journey, incorporating others who are doing the same. It’s not just them, these events happen to most of the characters. The fact is it’s not just a story. Whilst the events are fiction real people, real human beings like you and me, were making this journey as the book was being written in the 1930s and very similar challenges to the ones the Joads were facing were the life experiences of many many people who were around at the time of publication. When you know that it takes on a far more bitter taste.

So why read it? Why put yourself through the harrowing events? I could state it’s about greed and and how it’s a scream at the injustice happening back then which is still happening today, but we all know about that at this point, we’re not going to learn anything new. Instead the book is a master class in how to write tragedy to a very high standard, to invoke pathos without going too far. It’s human, it’s real, it’s gritty without needing any of those terms in the way that films bandy them about to make them look like they have depth. I said writing tragedy is easier, but to do it on this level is a gold standard I’ll try and aim for, but will fail at each time.

The other reason you should read it is because it’s a great book. Ok when I finished it, pushing on through the last pages to see how it ends, desperate to know, I did actually go into a decline for a few days after. The images at the end, the implications, the meaning of it all ghosted me for a good while after. I couldn’t get them out of my head which no other book has done. I still say this is one of the best books I’ve read just because of what it did to me.

The other book I want to recommend is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set in India in the 1970s and 1980s this is the story of a small group of people who, through events, form a community just to be able to continue to exist. Everything is against these people. They each have a story of their own and they are constantly fighting their own worst outcomes. Then they find each other. It doesn’t matter how the book ends, I don’t need to refer to anything in the second half of the book, to say it’s grim. This could very well pick up and work out well, it could not or it could be somewhere in the middle, discover that yourself, but as you reflect on what pushed the characters to get into the plot, to become part of the community in the first place, even that is enough to make anyone lose hope in any kind of reliability of the stability of their own life. Then you have the stories of the fringe characters… I will say no more, read the book, then we’ll talk.

I read this novel on a short break to the paradise of Placencia in Belize. Whilst I was sat on the beach looking out at the glorious Caribbean Sea I was slowly sinking into despondency… yeah I should have chosen another book to take with me. As the bars were alive with music and fun I was sat weeping into my cocktails and hot wings… well not quite.

I did really enjoy reading the book though. When I say that it feels like I’m taking pleasure in other’s misfortune, even if they are fictional. Don’t judge me you’ve done the same. I guess being inside the mind of people who aren’t real but are feeling things we’ve felt and thinking things we’ve thought somehow helps us process we’re normal? Or at least that there is someone out there who understands.

Tragedy done well can do more than change a reader’s emotions, it can make them think without preaching, this is a skill I wish I had. Upbeat books are harder to write than misery… but writing quality misery is a skill that should be prized because life is neither totally comedy nor tragedy and it won’t ring true unless it’s done well.

Buy The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Buy A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

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I’m Questioning How Much I’ve Achieved This Year… Is That Just Me?

Did January Actually Happen?

What happened to January? It went so fast that I didn’t properly notice to write a blog complaining about it until the third of February. I find it hard to believe that I was listening to the manic fireworks set off near where I live over a month ago, yet I was. What has this got to do with literature?

I don’t know about you but I was happy to start a new year, a fresh start. As well as drawing a line under 2020 I thought with excitement about all the new books I’d discover and the ones I’d been meaning to read that I would finally get round to. By this time last year I’d completed reading five books, was well underway in writing my novel Indoldrum and managed a few blog posts and a trip to Albania; this January… well I made myself finish reading the book I started in December last night (which I ended up microwaving but that’s a different story), and this is only my second blog of the year. It’s true I did finish writing the first draft of my biggest project, but that was on the 13th of January and I’d done the majority of the work between summer and December last year. So what have I been doing with my time? Between me and you I think “they” have stolen several minutes out of each hour and we’ve had a far shorter month. Amidst all the conspiracies, here’s the one “they’re” getting away with. I can think of no other explanation.

I think we’re all worn down with “the virus” and its affects. A lot of my friends productivity this year has slumped as well. I don’t feel low in myself, but there is a sense of lethargy in the air running parallel with the fact that time just seems to have sped up. I redrafted the fist two thirds of my work-in-progress several times last year; the third section is has remained unopened in its first drift since I completed it mid January. I know what I want to do with it and have notes stored in many places yet I’m still to sit down and get on with it.

This is not unusual, type “procrastination writers” in a search engine and you get many results, of which I am now adding to. As writers we are known for it it seems, read books or interviews by very successful authors and this doesn’t appear to change. The considered work ethic is delay, delay, delay, stay up until four o’clock in the morning because we’re on a roll. Although in general this is not totally me, there is more than some truth in it, I’ve done many a late late night at the keyboard. I hear of ones speaking about goals of “words per day” etc, but I’ve never been able to get my head round that. I love writing, although at times I’ll tell you a different story, but to push myself when I just don’t feel in the mode, to force myself everyday to achieve a target, would for me take the pleasure out of it, I’d be writing words not stories. I know I would have to come back and change it all later anyway and that would be a bigger stress. I can’t move forward until I’ve got at least the structure of the section passable, on the occasions I have just written it and moved forward I’ve had to go back anyway and the changes have messed up everything after that. I’d rather wait until I’ve got my head in the right place and I’m feeling inspired. That doesn’t mean I just give up at a hard part, there are times I’ve needed to just push on through a difficult passage, but I try and keep this to only when I have to rather than just to hit a target of words.

That is me as a writer, as a procrastinator in life in general I’m not, and this is probably half the reason I can find other things to do, that I decide I must do, before I can carry on writing. As I’ve convinced myself January was a shorter month than it usually is, the time I’ve had I’ve somehow filled with “work was really busy today so I need a rest” or just “stuff” that I don’t really remember doing.

It’s February and I really want to get some more books read and I must get round to completing what I’ve written. Way back last summer I assumed I’d be able to have it nearly finished by now – I’ve still a ton of work to do yet it sits there on my hard drive waiting for me to make the changes I know will make it so much better. So why am I writing a blog and not working on my novel? To slightly misquote Rusty Shackle “3 a.m. I’ll soon find you again”.

I don’t think it’s unusual that this year we’re all feeling a sense of ennui or listlessness and I wouldn’t beat myself up over it. It’s good to have a routine though, I’ve read this in many places. My problem is I can make a routine of a lot of things other than writing and from what I’ve read that’s normal in writers.

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The History Of Rome

A Lot To Discover

Personally speaking I’m glad I’m not a Roman, no offence is meant to modern natives of the Italian capital. Shockingly I’ve only been there once and I do need to visit again, and when I say I need to, it’s a burning desire that demands to be soon quenched (although of course that’s easier said than done). The reason? For as much as I’m glad I’m not a Roman, I find the history fascinating; and although there’s plenty of it where I grew up in England, I do want to see it properly in Italy.

Some local Roman remains.

Of course when I say Roman I mean the ancient Republic / Empire and any of the inhabitants living from the cold wet island in the west to the Caspian Sea. Growing up it was one of those things that we were indoctrinated into believing was boring, the assumption that we had to learn about it because “sorry it’s on the syllabus”. It wasn’t until after I left school and I realised how much I loved history that the real importance of the age became apparent. I knew names such as Nero and Constantine as well some of the other Emperors (the shock when I learnt that Julius Caesar wasn’t counted as Emperor!) along with the likes of Cleopatra, Mark Antony or even the Colosseum or Pompeii, but it was all just vague information that didn’t piece together. Where does Hadrian’s wall come into things? Or even this fighting woman I was supposed to know all about, Boudicca? What does crossing the Rubicon mean? Who was Hannibal?

The fact that much of the history is so well known it’s always assumed that people already know it and therefore they aren’t told. I found myself in this situation, I could give you a list of Roman names and things, I knew they had a meaning but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much more. So after deciding I did want to do something about this I turned to books to teach me, and all these years later I still have a great interest the subject.

All this proved nicely useful when I also realised I loved Shakespeare; the third play I saw at the Globe was Antony and Cleopatra, although I was going straight to the airport afterwards so had to sit with all my luggage with me, it was so uncomfortable by the time we’d got to the asp scene I was just wishing she’d get on with it as I couldn’t feel my legs at that point. Regardless the span of Roman history covered by Shakespeare’s cannon covers several research projects in themselves and although I would have enjoyed the plays, knowing the history from our point of view and comparing it with the fictional version presented back in the Bard’s day is an interesting dimension to add to the experience.

I could tell you all the books I read in my youth that informed me, but instead I’m going list two more recent publications. The first is Veni Vidi Vici by Peter Jones (he’ll crop up in later blogs). I only read this book last year and although its designed to be a beginner’s guide to the Roman Empire I still enjoyed it immensely. Starting at the mythical Trojan war (yes that is important) and working its way chronologically through 1,200 years this really gives the big picture and well as a lot of detail. Written in nice sized chunks so it doesn’t feel so heavy there is wealth of information I really wish I could just recall at the appropriate time.

The problem with a group of people who accept impossible myths as their truth is how do we differentiate? Here the author is able to give their perspective and at the same time keep it as a factual as best as possible. Far from being dry history this is very readable.

Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. The name may derive from the Oscan dialect fesf, ‘smoke’, or perhaps from Veiovis, a mysterious early Roman god. The volcano’s base is 30 miles (48 km) in circumference and it is 4,000 feet (1,219 m) high. Before it obliterated Pompeii in AD 79 it was perhaps twice as high as it is now.”
― Peter Jones, Veni Vidi Vici

For a more detailed look at one of the many stories in the era I found a copy of The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss. I knew of the story but couldn’t really tell you how or if what I thought I knew was accurate and that was only last year, proof of the rich history of the age.

To me Spartacus was the legendary enemy of Rome, the leader so loved that everyone was willing to sacrifice themselves for the chance to save him. Barry Strauss’ account of the life of this warrior certainly does it’s best to give you the as much history as it can, a difficult task as not everything is proven and a lot when it comes to Spartacus is guesswork. History is certainly different to the Hollywood versions that some people think keep accurately to reality. Sadly a lot of what we assume happened may have been exaggerated or plain invented. That doesn’t stop this being a absorbing read. The author keeps things simple and chronological, so it’s easy to keep up with. When your subject matter is from so long ago (mainly about 73 to 71 BC) keeping things true and reliable is hard; history is written by the winners and in this case Rome lasted longer than Spartacus did, even if it’s Republican form was soon to end. Strauss is honest and when it’s supposition he shows the workings regardless of if it’s his conclusion or not. If you want to know the truth, as best as possible, about this notorious defier of Rome this is a good place to go.

Gladiators didn’t have friends. They had allies, rivals, bosses, hangers-on, punks, spies, suppliers and double-crossers. The new gladiator learned whom to trust and whom to watch out for, who would cover his back and who would steal his food… One night a man shared a pre-combat meal with his comrades, the next day he killed his table-mate, and shortly after arranged for the victim’s tombstone.”
― Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War

Sometimes it can be a bit daunting taking on something like the history of Rome, then when we try and find good guides the number and variety can make things more overwhelming, however these are just two of a number of excellent works (and if you do get a chance to read I, Claudius and Claudius The God I’d recommend them very highly).

So what I learnt was whilst I love learning about the history of the Roman Empire, for all it’s civilisation, life was cheap and the average person, and therefore the slaves too, didn’t have the easiest of times to put it mildly. I like learning and reading about Rome, but I’m so glad I didn’t live there.

Buy Veni Vidi Vici by Peter Jones
Buy The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss

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2020 In Reading Part Two

My reads, not the books that came out this year…

This is the second of my look back at the books I’ve read in 2020. There were more then appears in these two blogs, some I’ve already written about, some I will do later, some I just read for fun. You can find Part One here (and last year’s batch here and here). So a new year is ahead and it’s quite exciting, I have a blank shelf again as it were. There are many books in my “To Be Read” pile but I’m sure I’ll add to it during the year; in December next year I could well be blogging about a book I’ve never heard of at this moment… well I find that interesting. Happy Reading all.

Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee. As posted elsewhere I try to avoid knowing anything about a novel before I read it. I’d heard of this book in various places over the years and when I saw it in a second hand shop decided I’d see what it was about. The novel opens with a first person account of moving into a home in the Cotswolds at the age of three, it goes on to then describe what living in this very rural location was like. It soon became clear that this was during the First World War and as such the England that is being written about is certainly different from the one I know. Just as the author was over seeing the cusp of a dramatic change in society I too felt I was doing the same, only over one hundred years later and at a much older age than he was. One of the negative points about avoiding all spoilers is that you miss the things you are supposed to know and it wasn’t until awhile into the book that I realised that the viewpoint of the character I was following was male and not female, it was this revelation that made me do a little research and I discovered that the author’s name is LAURIE and not LAUREN as I’d been misreading it all this time! Cider With Rosie is in fact an account of his actual childhood and the first of a trilogy. The title is a mystery until you near complete the book when at only that point does it make any sense. Overall it’s beautifully written, evoking a simpler time deep in the real English countryside; very much like The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh, only his is in Ireland. I enjoyed it so much I’m planning on finishing reading the trilogy.

“I had learnt my first lesson, that I could not hit Vera, no matter how fuzzy her hair.”

“Eight to ten loaves came to the house every day, and they never grew dry. We tore them to pieces with their crusts still warm, and their monotony was brightened by the objects we found in them – string, nails, paper, and once a mouse; for those were days of happy-go-lucky baking.”
― Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie

The Man In The High Castle – Philip K Dick. The concept of this 1962 novel is intriguing, set at the time of publication mainly in San Francisco (as well as some other other states in the west of what we call the USA), this is a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War. Nazi Germany rules Europe and the eastern half of America, whilst the west is in the Japanese Empire. There is a book, forbidden in some places, that is a dystopian account of that would have happened if the Allies had won the Second World War. As a world this is very well thought out and and close enough to our own for it to feel totally alien, it’s only talk of going to colonise other planets and unrealistic rocket technology that break the spell. The concept is a good reason to read this novel. The plot, however, is… strange. Generally following the lives of a few citizens in San Francisco, it doesn’t properly lead anywhere. It does feel as if it has things to say, but doesn’t quite get to them. I believe the reason for this is because there was supposed to be a follow up that never happened. The result is with such a great concept and well built world, it feels like this should be amazing but is a missed the opportunity; still worth reading for the setting though.

“Send that,” he told her. “Sign it, et cetera. Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something.” As she started from the office he added, “Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”
― Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

It’s All Greek To Me – John Mole. This was a book a friend of mine had read and years ago commented to me that it was a amusing read. I’d made a note of it and it sat in my Amazon list for nearly a decade. It came up very cheap at some point last year and so I got round to ordering it, where is sat in my “to be read pile” until I decided I needed to read something light and fun. This did fit the bill. Telling the true story of the author’s attempt to build a house (or in fact refurbish a very old house) on a Greek island not that far from Athens. It doesn’t really stretch you as a reader, it does make you feel sorry for him when you realise the size of the challenge and smile if not laugh out loud. He paints a very vivid picture of the small Greek village and the people who live there. Not quite up to Gerald Durrell’s standard but this did exactly what I wanted it to do, take me away from England and think about a simpler life, well simple by watching – I’d not actually like to take that task on.

“Where I come from money isn’t to be talked about or flaunted in front of strangers. But Ajax snatched up the wad and counted it out loud, ceremonially, slapping the notes down on the table while the witnesses mouthed the amounts. It was all so public and embarrassing.”
― John Mole, It’s All Greek to Me!

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark. This was a book that I went through stages of hearing about quite a bit, then I’d not hear it mentioned for years only for it regularly resurface once more. I found it in a second hand bookshop for a pound so decided to give it a go. It’s… eccentric. I had no idea what to really expect and it turns out it’s about a teacher at a 1930s girl’s school in Edinburgh; not generally my go to place for stories. The teacher, the eponymous Miss Jean Brodie is obsessed with her “prime” or the peak of her life in all its ways. She mentors groups of girls in what she thinks is the best for them, but as not everyone would agree with her methods it’s all very secretive. It’s a short book, my copy is 128 pages and this is enough. It’s written from the viewpoint of one of her groups of girls and it goes on to show what became of them, but it’s not chronological. It’s not a book I think I would have read if I had not been curious as to why it keeps coming up in various places, or what people mean when they refer to it; as it is there are interesting things to think about, like what is/ was my prime and did/do I take as much appreciation of it as out title character did.

“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Buy Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
Buy The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick
Buy It’s All Greek To Me by John Mole
Buy The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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2020 In Reading Part One

My reads, not the books that came out this year…

December last year I complied a blog about some of the books I’d read during 2019. I normally do look back over what I’d read over the previous twelve months at this time of year as it gives me a sense of achievement and so I decided, as I had fun doing it in last time, to once again highlight some of my literary journeys of 2020; this is the first of a two parts.

It’s strange looking at last year’s blogs (which can be found here and here) as at the time of writing them I would not have believed what was coming, even only a few months later. If the me that is writing this here and now went back and had a word with myself I would think I too was telling a story.

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh. Before you ask I did know the author of this was a man before I started reading it (that’s important for later). In January when the world was in its previous state I took a trip to Tirana in Albania taking a copy of this with me. I knew a few facts about it before I started, mainly there was a teddy bear called Aloysius and it was set in either Oxford or Cambridge University. As it turns out the teddy bear wasn’t as important as I expected (not that I was thinking he was a main character) and the setting of Oxford is only in part of the grand tale that is woven over many years. I seem to have, by chance, read a lot of books written in the first person this year (a coincidence as I spent the first half of this year completing my first novel told in this style). Set in the 1920s the narrator is Charles Ryder, at the start a new student at Oxford. At first he is looking to be independent, but soon befriends Sebastian Flyte (owner of Aloysius) and ends up very much tied to not just Sebastian but pretty much the whole family. Many think this is a book about the friendship between the two young men, whilst it starts off that way the later parts of the novel deal with the implications of Charles’ dealings with the whole Flyte family. It seems a long time ago I was sat in a bar in Tirana drinking raki engrossed in tales of Upper Class England and I wish I was back there.

“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”
― Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth. Learning the origin of words is addictive. If you are looking for a fix and haven’t read this book, what’s wrong with you? To be honest this was the second time I’d read this. Starting with the word “book” the author leads you on a trail from one word to the next, as he goes he describes the history of each word as well as the secrets hidden in our vocabulary that once told you can’t believe you’d never noticed before. Words that we think of as unconnected are shown to basically be the same thing, or there are many occasions where meanings change so the original understanding may have been something completely different. “Down” is a great example of this, as is the fascinating connection between “black” and “white”. Also, why do we call some alcoholic drinks a punch? This is the type of book that you can start from the beginning and work your way through or just pick up and read a bit of every now and then, although that one section (generally about one or two pages long) will turn into several. The fun you will have discovering why men are gentle, what chickens have to do with pub games and why a race of people ended up being called British. I wish I could memorise it all and quote it at my friends, unfortunately my memory is not that good for which my friends are very grateful. My only wish is that there was an index as there isn’t one the edition I have, so trying to once more find something I vaguely recall is difficult.

“The medievals often mixed up their Gs and Ws, which is why another word for guarantee is warranty.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

The Clocks – Agatha Christie. I’ve given up trying to read Christie’s books in any kind of logical order. I see them cheap, I buy them and take a random one off the pile when I feel it’s time for another dose. The Clocks is typical of what you would expect, although billed as a Poirot novel he actually plays a small, although important, part; as it centres on a narrative by a Colin Lamb, who pretty much does all the leg work in investigating why a man was stabbed to death in odd circumstances. The clocks of the title are there for a reason, but the mystery as always isn’t always as straightforward as Christie wants you to believe it to be. I didn’t guess who was behind it all, but that doesn’t give away anything. This is comfort reading as you know exactly what you are dealing with here (rather ironic for a whodunit – but you know what I mean).

“He’s not dead. But I have a feeling he’s bored. That’s worse.”
― Agatha Christie, The Clocks

The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner – Alan Sillitoe. I didn’t realise this was a collection of short stories. It wasn’t until half way through the second that it dawned on me. I previously heard a Radio 4 adaption of the first story (of the same name) several years ago and liked it although I didn’t remember enough of the plot to realise that the whole thing had finished at the end of what I thought was Chapter One; and so I was somewhat confused as Chapter Two was no longer written in the first person and about something entirely different. There are nine prose stories and a long poem in the volume I have and, as is the case with anthologies, some are better than others. The headliner, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner, is about a young man who has gone to Borstal and had been encouraged to train and compete in cross country races, during the practice sessions, alone in nature he has time to think. The text is very dense, reading a page felt like I’d read two or three, but I did enjoy it. The writer really gets into the head of this young man and presents the world from his viewpoint. The other stories are somewhat lighter, although mainly dealing with the working classes in the nineteen fifties and the tone is generally stark. It sounds like I’m being negative about this book, I’m not – I liked the worlds of which I was privy to, the private small scale worries of people trying to survive in a world that isn’t designed for them; sometimes grim and heavy is good, here it is.

“I run to a steady jog-trot rhythm, and soon it was so smooth that I forgot I was running, and I was hardly able to know that my legs were lifting and falling and my arms going in and out, and my lungs didn’t seem to be working at all, and my heart stopped that wicked thumping I always get at the beginning of a run. Because you see I never race at all; I just run, and somehow I know that if I forget I’m racing and only jog-trot along until I don’t know I’m running I always win the race. For when my eyes recognise that I’m getting near the end of my course -by seeing a stile or cottage corner- I put on a spurt, and such a fast big spurt it is because I feel that up till then I haven’t been running and that I’ve used up no energy at all.”
― Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Buy Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Buy The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
Buy The Clocks by Agatha Christie
Buy The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe

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Watership Down, Rabbit Hunting (In A Good Way)

It’s A Real Place

Over the summer I took a number of road trips throughout southern England and I used it as an opportunity to learn some more about my own country. It’s ridiculous I’ve been to some far and obscure places and yet some of the obvious ones on my doorstep I’d not visited. Regardless I got in my car and drove away from them to tour some other options.

My first encounter with Watership Down was, probably like a lot of other people, as a child seeing the cartoon and hearing of its reputation to terrify. I do remember it being quite dark, even as a small kid, but at that age I think I’d confused it with Bambi and several other things; I must have been very small.

One day several years ago I was bored at work and was google mapping England (don’t tell my boss) and to my surprise, quite by accident, I came across a location near the town of Newbury, just over the county border, called Watership Down. I love that part of the country anyway and often go there, but I’d never realised there was an actual place called Watership Down. Memories of the film flashed through my mind, fragmented by the passage of time and the comprehension of a child.

It is the location the author Richard Adams had in mind, in 1920 he was born nearby and would have know the area well. He only passed four years ago.

A few days later I found myself in a bookshop and there on the shelf was a copy of the novel. I felt inspired to read it so took it home (I did pay for it) and started straight away. I loved it. There is some darkness there but it’s not as blatant or strange as the film is said to be; well for a story about a colony of rabbits and their need to survive. There is a lot of depth to it, this is not a children’s story but a myth to be passed down the generations and considered, to learn from, for at times the writing is so astute and rich with substance and intelligence…

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down

But what makes this book so brilliant is the fact that the author Richard Adams knows this world completely, the myths, the history, the relationships, it’s all there. Set in the Hampshire countryside this also benefits from creating beautiful imagery in the mind’s eye, which the reality does live up to.

A couple of years ago I watched the film again, or should I say for the first time not as a small child. It was no way as freaky as I was expecting, in fact I really enjoyed it and was hoping for a bit more weirdness, of course the book is so much better.

Having read the book the traveller in me demanded I went there. It took up until this summer to do so, when I couldn’t really go anywhere else. Just south of Newbury the Down is there and what is lovely is that it’s not been commercialised at all, so much so that you’ve really got to be looking to find it, the way it should be.

I parked a short distance away and decided to walk. Several people were heading back in the opposite direction, already near the end of their hike. The rolling hills of the countryside surrounded me, with Newbury clearly in the distance. It was a glorious Sunday afternoon, the sun was bright, the sky was cloudy but the day warm. There was the hollowness in the air that this type of landscape creates, perfectly ruined by the sound of hard-house emanating from a small isolated house in the valley below, I didn’t mind, others complained.

I was sure I was going in the right direction and stopped to ask what looked like some locals. They all said they weren’t too sure. There is a plaque which will confirm the site, but they didn’t know of it. Eventually I discovered it hidden away and ruined the whole atmosphere of the location by hollering to last group of people I’d asked that I’d found it. There was then a difficult moment when they felt they had to come back and look at it simply because I was standing there waiting to show them. It took them a few minutes to get back and I proudly indicated my find and they politely showed an interest until I walked away.

The whole area is beautiful regardless of the literary significance. I didn’t see any rabbits, I didn’t see much fauna, but the Down is lovely and I can understand why a group of rabbits would want to spend their days here.

“The rabbits mingled naturally. They did not talk for talking’s sake, in the artificial manner that human beings – and sometimes even their dogs and cats – do. But this did not mean that they were not communicating; merely that they were not communicating by talking.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down

Buy Watership Down by Richard Adams

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Recent Interview

With SmartCherry (Twitter @SmartCherrysTho )

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by SmartCherry. You can find his YouTube channel here.

These days I’m used to video chatting with people, as most of us are; it’s strange to watch it back though. I’m pleased to say, although I move about a bit and use the word “err” a little to much I think I come across alright. He’s very professional, you can see which one of us is used to it!

I suggested the title. If you want to watch me ramble on about my books click below.

Check out some of his other interviews as there are lots of good ideas and advice from other writers.

Thank you SmartCherry for taking the time to chat to me.

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How Not To Arrange A Bookshelf

I Don’t Think There Is One Easy Solution

I recently moved homes and as I had been living in a smaller place a lot of my books had been stored in boxes. This to me was a great tragedy, but now I have the space to have most of my books proudly displayed on bookshelves. In fact rebuilding the units and unpacking my books were the first things I did. (It always is when I move.)

My first very important rule is: only books on a bookshelf. I can’t cope with books and then ornaments or “stuff” placed in the remaining space in front, and books should not be put lying on their side resting on the tops of the correctly shelved ones. Some people’s arrangements can make me come out in hives!

My OCD would not cope with this.

To me this is all to be taken for granted, but I then hit upon the issue of how would I arrange my books? In my previous home, when I had the space to do it, I’d had this odd system of arranging my books by size, I’d done this for years. I liked the nice lines on the shelves. Where possible I had tried to buy books by the same authors in the same format so that they could all sit together, I had achieved this with my John Stienbecks and Graham Greenes but there were others that I had had to split. My James Herriots had on odd one out and there was so much difference in my Agatha Christies it was murder trying to organise them.

The thing is I’m not alone in this odd habit. During the first lockdown BBC News reported that a cleaner in a library had rearranged all the books, also by size. Forget Dewey Decimal this makes more sense to me.

However as my book collection is now so random I’ve decided to rethink things. Alphabetical order doesn’t seem right so I’ve gone by subject, although I’ve still mostly separated fiction from non fiction. Therefore all my books on Ancient Greece are together just before my collection on Rome, my copy of Colin Thubron’s In Siberia is grouped with my books on the history of Russia, whilst George Orwell sits next to my complete works of Winnie The Pooh (I’m not quite sure how that happened).

The problem was it felt more correct to put Aesop’s Fables and Homer with my non fiction on Ancient Greece than with my books on modern Greece. Where possible I tried to keep author’s works together so Down And Out In Paris And London is in non fiction but now so is Animal Farm and Keep The Aspidistra Flying, this seems ok, but my Bill Bryson books are scattered amongst my several actual book shelf units which is a bit of an annoyance and it was about here that I realised it was all falling apart.

Andrew Marr’s A History Of The World should really be next to A Short History Of Nearly Everything, but that didn’t work. Then in the fiction, which was originally ordered by location, I reached things like E.M Forster’s A Room With A View which is set in more than one country and don’t start talking to me about anthologies.

Of course at the end of the day I know where to find a specific book when I need it and no one is actually going to judge me on this (you’d better not) so I can live with it… and where possible they are still in size order, but I continue to find myself fiddling with it all every now then, shaking my head and questioning why I was so stupid to put that book there and correcting it.

The same works for everyone as I believe a bookshelf is insight into the person, not just the titles of the books on it, but how they are arranged; so frankly do what you want with what space allows, and don’t let anyone else tell you any different.

I’ll probably always be changing mine, but that’s fine because not only do I enjoy reading but also, now that I have the space to properly display them (of which I am very grateful), I have fun arranging and rearranging my collection, because basically I love books.

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The Deep Ways Of Thinking

I am no poet, I am no philosopher, I’m just trying to help you out.”

A little late but the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded… and I’d never heard of her… sorry. Having done a bit of research, however, I decided that I approved of the selection (don’t have a go at me about that being pompous, we all decide if we agree with it or not each year – I’ve simply admitted I do).

Louise Glück is a poet from New York and one of the first things I discovered about her was that paper copies of her works can be quite expensive! I’ve read a bit online and I can appreciate what I’ve read of her work and overall the decision seems to have gone down well.

However here is another admission that I’m sure will reveal me for the fraud I am… I struggle with poetry. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate it, I understand it’s a very skilled and precise art-form, that a few lines can be a depth of emotion, knowledge and philosophy concentrated into a neat potion. My problem is I don’t always have the patience for it. A poem of just a few lines can be revisited again and again, considered and unlocked… this is my problem I haven’t yet trained myself to do this.

Places and geography are very important to me, I love travel, I mean I really love travel, my feet itch; what is over that horizon? Where does this road lead? Give me a map or an atlas and I can be lost for hours. I’m moving, I’m advancing. I love the journey, but the whole point is the destination, my goal. Then when I’ve achieved that I see the hill on the horizon and need to know what it the other side of that. Yes I can explore a new city, town or place for days or longer but I need to be moving to different location within that destination and soon I have the desire to be on the move again. To ask me to stay in one exact spot and study a river, street or a building for days, no matter how incredible they are, I feel like I’m missing out. I need to be moving again.

With books I can immerse myself and do all my thinking as the writer carries me along, it’s a long journey and I can look out the window and see the landscape as we go, I feel I’m getting somewhere. Poetry is the opposite, it’s looking at a line of words and digesting the meaning, the intent, my opinion of it, and then to go back again… as I say it’s a skill I have not learnt and I am somewhat envious of those that have it.

That’s not to say I don’t like any poetry, Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is one I can go back to again and again, so to Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (a school assignment forced me to for that one, but I benefited) and I have explored more of these and other poet’s works.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

― Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (extract)

In the last two blogs I spoke about my love of Shakespeare and he wrote a lot of poetry. I have his complete works and try to read them but I can only deal with a couple of his sonnets at a time; I still haven’t managed Venus and Adonis or the other long ones – which is odd because I can read a whole play.

Song lyrics mean a lot to me, but take away the music and I have a mental block.

Last year a pamphlet entitled Island Of Towers was published by the poet Clarissa Aykroyd. This appealed to me because many of poems are about places, and as I’ve said places are important to me. Some are set in and around London, we see the poet’s experience of the city and moments in time as well as its heritage (some Sherlock Holmes love surfaces in Sign). Other cities and worlds are opened up, other places to explore, to sink your teeth into, some I have been to, some new: Berlin, Cairo and Lisbon to name a few. With the subsequent restrictions and lockdowns, this is a way to travel, to discover a soul in these new worlds.

Under the hills swollen blue with water
I remember my coming and its why.
There was a plainness in the sky a light
to clear the mind of all that’s left behind.
― Clarissa Aykroyd, Wicklow Mountains After Rain (extract)

My favourite poem in the collection is Realpolitik, which is very clever in its use of lines and words, I stopped and paused and considered… maybe there is hope for me.

I’m sorry if my understanding of this art-form is limited, that I’m still learning here, but I suppose poetry is like novels in that it can’t all be grouped together and opinioned on as if it were all the same. There are poems I like, maybe I just need to work to find some more.

Buy Island Of Towers by Clarissa Aykroyd

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Entertaining Shakespeare: Part Two – Shakespeare Who?

I completely get why some may be put off, but here is why I think you should give it a go.

Plague was filling the city and the country. Normal life was on hold. Theatres were closed. It’s been said many times that although we think that our circumstances are unusual, Shakespeare might disagree. It is said that whilst under a form of Lockdown Shakespeare was hard at work writing new plays, we can only guess this, but it’s either a motivation for writers or a somewhat depressing comparison.

On the previous blog I spoke about some of, what I think are, the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as maybe the ones that maybe don’t always get the spotlight in the way that Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream do.

That post was about his Works, the whole point of what he was trying to achieve; which was it seems just making sure the theatre still had material and he could pay his way rather than looking for fame and immortality; in fact it’s likely that if he was brought to 2020 London and shown The Globe, the books and the videos it would be a massive surprise to him, let alone the fact his works are performed all round the actual globe in languages and countries he’d never heard of.

If you enjoy Shakespeare’s writings then of course the next step is to learn something out about the man. There are far more words written about him in many books and documentaries then he ever wrote himself. Of these there are two books I think that are great for either a starting point, or just a general containment of the facts in a clear and simple way.

First I’d recommend Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare (now subtitled The World As A Stage). Compared to some of Bryson’s works this is actually quite a slim volume, there is a reason for that. It seems there is a vast difference between what we think we know about Shakespeare, including myths and spurious stories, compared to what we do properly know as facts. Bryson (and the second book I will suggest) both avoid the apocryphal, only commenting on a myth to debunk it. No there isn’t any evidence that it was someone other than Shakespeare that wrote the plays, as a conspiracy it’s just an invention by people at the start of the 1800s and only hangs around for nay-sayers to point and feel superior.

Instead what we are given is the what facts we do know, or have a good chance of being true, most interestingly we have the context of the times and society as it was. It’s clearly written, the text is informative but not heavy going, and I’d suggest it’s one of the best books on Shakespeare’s life that I have come across. Chronological in it’s format it follows the life of this man as best we know it, including the impact that he was had on you and me which maybe we don’t know. You can read it in a couple of days even if you are taking it easy. The only slight issue I’d have is that, in my copy at least, there is no index so trying to find information again means wading through it once more. That aside this is a very good book.

“Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.”
― Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage

The other book I’d recommend is Shakespeare On Toast by Ben Crystal. It might be an odd title but the point of it is that the information within is supposed to be easy, like a lunch of beans on toast. The first part of the book certainly delivers this promise and compliments Bryson’s volume in that it either fills in gaps or provides the same information but from the view of a performer rather than a historian. This would make sense as Ben Crystal is an actor.

There is an index in this book, as well as charts and simple boxed out explanations that make reading this in short intervals possible. Again the author goes to lengths to make sure what he is presenting is as accurate as possible. He also takes up the whole of Elizabethan life that is relevant and condenses it down to the basic facts that once known adds so much more colour to Shakespeare’s works. Did you know the difference between thou, thee, thy and you? Did you realise that the word “table” used to mean “notebook”?

It’s fascinating stuff… then you get to the second half of the book. Deciding to drop the general facts Crystal becomes a little obsessed with the rhythm of Shakespeare’s dialogue, this is NOT a bad thing because after reading just the first few pages of this explanation, you will too.

Crystal unlocks entire secrets hidden in Shakespeare’s works that actors would have seen all along. No I don’t mean conspiracies against the King or Queen, I mean stage directions that add a whole other dimension to the scripts. Because these are scripts not prose and Shakespeare wrote them for his friends to read and perform they would have had shortcuts that the actors would have understood but we wouldn’t.

What is iambic pentameter? How does the way Shakespeare used it to write the lines of the script show the personality of the characters? Trust me that might sound like a snore, but it’s so well explained, not just informative but entertaining. It’s a real revelation in Shakespearian writing, and you may find you attempt to speak or write in one of the pentameters for a while after, or is that just me?

“The Elizabethans watching one of Shakespeare’s plays would be relatively unaccustomed to seeing pictures or images – save perhaps a sign outside a tavern, a portrait or tapestry. In our time, unless you make an incredible effort, it’s impossible to turn a corner without seeing a photograph.”
― Ben Crystal, Shakespeare On Toast

For one of England’s most famous people it’s surprising how little we know about someone who has literally changed all our lives in one way or other, even if it’s just using the words he invented.

Buy Shakespeare (The World As A Stage) by Bill Bryson
Buy Shakespeare On Toast by Ben Crystal

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