Category Archives: The Golden Country

This is not a bookstore review

On a recent trip to Roma, I’d planned to visit an English bookstore to pen a review for this site, the Open Door Bookstore in Via della Lungaretta. However, I was caught up in the history of the Eternal City. I managed to conquer all the major sights, but ran completely out of time.

Fortunately, I came across a hidden find on a pilgrimage to the Spanish Steps. I headed to this area to re-trace the steps of the fictional character Mrs. Stone in the magnificent short story by Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone

The Steps are atmospheric and full of tourists and singing troupes of European school children. Think a punk version of the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. It is here that the poet John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of just 26, in a tiny room overlooking the steps.

spanish-steps

But alas, I digress. I stumbled into Caffe Greco for an espresso fix impressed by the charms of its shop front. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find a cove of autographed portraits, busts and statues. For the café has been a favourable haunt of writers and artists since 1760. It boasts a customer list that has included Goethe, Baudelaire, Casanova, Gogol and Hans Christian Anderson. The Piazza di Spagna has been a magnet for artistic souls, with Byron, Balzac, Wagner and Liszt also exploring this rich area.

Caffe Greco

I did need a literary fix during the holiday though, as I quickly got through Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, a kind of twist on the Lolita myth with a Mum having a complete infatuation on her stepdaughter’s 17 year-old boyfriend. Shades of Anais Nin and lush descriptions of the Mediterranean setting. So I visited the international book store at Termini, close to my hotel, where I picked up a copy of a Philip Roth that I had not read, Deception. (Had to pay a striking 15 Euros, but when in Rome and all that).

termini book store

A clever dialogue between two adulterers before and after their meetings, sheer debauched, intelligent and humane. I can always rely on Roth to challenge and entertain at the same time. The cashier, who served me without making eye contact, appeared to be engrossed in a book under the counter, hence her lack of acknowledgement.  Sadly she was busy texting. Damon Albarn sings it quite rightly in his latest offering,

We are everyday robots on our phones.

I found myself wandering around open book stalls that sold volumes of Italian novels. I recognised authors translated into Italian by their cover artwork. The little market-like emporium also sold vinyl LPs (long player records) and grossly explicit pornographic DVDs with front covers on full display. Bizarre indeed!

book stalls

I did chuckle to myself thinking, I may not have made it to the book store I had planned to, but I had managed to experience a literary café, a literary supermarket and fall upon an alternative type of entertainment centre.

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Etymology geekery

I am reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and it is so fantastic in so many ways that I can’t wait until I reach the end to write about it.

the _wake_paul_kingsnorth

Set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion, told in an ‘edited version’ of 11th Century English, these first few pages have been a daunting read. Reading a book like this on a tablet really lets the technology come in to its own, allowing for frequent looking up of the bits that have had me truly stumped.

To give you an idea:

of angland he saes i can tell thu naht. i colde tell thu of hams in wessex in the land of the golden wyrm and of the hwit clifs in the south where they locs ofer the sea in fear and i colde tell thu of the holtmen of the andredesweald who belyfs they is safe beneath the great ac treows… but i colde not tell thu of angland for this word is too lytel for all the folc of this land to lif within.

When I first began reading the book, I found that speaking the lines aloud helped, whereupon words like ac, treows, lytel, lif and the ever-present thu soon give up their meaning*. I could pat myself on the back for remembering from school that ham meant home, as it lives on today in many place names, Buckingham for instance.

Wyrm is obviously worm, or so you would think, but that is a false friend because really it means dragon or snake. The golden dragon of Wessex came from legend and appeared on their flag. Yet if some words are easy to guess, what is a reader to make of things like fugol – this was a bird – with the word having links to Proto-German (which could have been a rejected Kraftwerk song title), Old Frisian and Saxon. The word bird was used in Old English, but Kingsnorth’s storyteller is a Lincolnshire man, a well-bred and wealthy farmer and freeman, or socman, descended from a previous generation of invaders and so likely to use more Germanic words.

What we call ‘Old English’ was a blend of other languages, influenced by Latin, Norse and Celtic, with an array of local dialects depending on which tribe was doing the colonising. Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric and Norse would all have been spoken around the edges of the nominal boundaries of Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and the Viking-ruled lands of the North.

Some of these old place names are still in use or, as with the white cliffs in the south, can be guessed at. Only an internet search enlightened me that andredesweald is Kent and the holtmen the people who lived near the woods that covered that area before the Normans arrived. Following the 1066 invasion, England’s geography as well as her language would be irrevocably altered.

There are many ideas of England that are peddled around by those with agendas and ambitions of their own. And while I wouldn’t like to second guess where this remarkably crafted tale is going to end, this history, to me anyway, has a lot to tell me about my country today. Rather than multiculturalism being some recently introduced change that could or should be reversed, we have always been a mixed up group of people, ruled by ‘cyngs’ of other nations, with our language adaptable and fluid in the face of outside influences.

Perhaps a longer post for another day. For now, it’s back to my reading.

* Did you spot all of them? The words were oak, trees, little, life and you.

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Liverpool’s Little Eden

A rare thing happened this year in Liverpool: we have actually had a summer! For the first time in years, I have not re-read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book to cheer me up.  This year it will have to wait till the depths of winter, when everything goes a little Narnia-esque and the spring feels an eternity away.

One of the many great things about the city of Liverpool is its green spaces. I visit Calderstones and Sefton Park regularly on my bike. In the City Centre a lunch hour’s reading in St John’s Gardens is a pleasure, even if on occasion you are besieged by pigeons or vagabonds. I find that when friends visit from around the country they are generally taken aback at the good quality of the parks and gardens on offer. The media has not always been kind to the Pool of Life and so visitors expect to find only concrete, villainy and pollution.

I recently had the fortune of exploring a little piece of Eden in Woolton, the sumptuous grounds of Reynolds Park.

Sunlight in The Beeches, Reynolds Park

As I strolled around, the beeches were showered with sun rays, pushing down through the foliage onto the ground. The paths were flanked by rhododendrons. A composition that could have come straight out of the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel, so it seems appropriate that I was introduced to this space by my good friend – and Hardy aficionado – Giles Winterbourne.

It was quite a shock to find, particularly as I am an indigenous resident of this part of Liverpool. Although I must say Belle Vale is more Last Exit to Brooklyn than the Hardy-esque Woolton! Still, each has its own particular charms. As I heard one snob in a restaurant say, ‘Oh no, dear, it’s Woolton NOT Walton.’

reynolds_park_dovepark

A stroll around the 14 acres of open lawns, formal gardens and woodland is a great way to escape after a day’s toil in front of a computer screen. Far from the sadding crowd! A chance to clear the head space.  Reynolds Park lies within an area that used to be the estate of a series of wealthy local businessmen.  In the late 19th century it came into the possession of the illustrious Reynolds family, who had made their fortune in the cotton trade. James Reynolds was the last owner of the estate, and he generously donated it to the City Corporation in 1929.

In 1975 the mansion was decimated by fire, and was replaced by a housing scheme for the elderly. The grounds have a number of notable features, including: a wildflower meadow, a walled and sunken garden, a topiary (the only one of its kind in the city), a Ha Ha and a quarry (closed to the public but available for biological research).What is a Ha Ha, you ask? Let this picture be your guide.

Ha_ha_wall_diagram

I would urge you to take a little stroll through this little piece of Eden. I am looking forward to re-visiting through all of the forthcoming seasons.  Next summer, I may even take a picnic and read The Summer Book there one wistful mid-summer evening.

the summer book

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The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome

The architecture impressed even before I’d seen the artwork at the Group Show, part of this year’s Biennial, at the Old Blind School, 24 Hardman Street L1 9AX. I was intrigued to wander around the former Blind School, which was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton and was the first school of its kind in the country.

I found dis-used rooms textured with peeling paint, rotted walls and cast iron fireplaces. Echoes of its former use as a Trades Union Centre in 1983 are illustrated in a mural on a dome ceiling. A Scouse Diego Rivera creation, perhaps? The building immediately charms in all of its sumptuous decay.

Liverpool Old Blind School mural

One of the walls is entirely taken over. Showing three miners in the atmospheric Quarry (1907) by Marc Bauer.You can practically taste the sooty atmosphere with the effective use of charcoal.

Quarry Marc Bauer

Marc Bauer Quarry detail

Bonnie Camplin’s pencil on paper – Sparkle – is an illustration you will not find in the windows of a Bond Street Jeweller’s. A vacuous face in amongst the items for sale, a metaphor for the shallowness of materialism.

Bonnie Camplin Sparkle

Throughout the show basic mediums of pencil, charcoal and watercolours are displayed and this simple skills-based approach is effective. Peter Wächtler’s two paintings reminded me of work by Hogarth. One particularly looked like an updated version of a snapshot from Nan Goldin’s erotically charged body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

Nan Goldin

Other highlights include:

  • Amelie Von Wulffen’s zany caricatures that poke fun at modern attitudes. A banana having stage fright, two glasses of wine lounging on comfy chairs watching television.
  • Nicola L’s room full of white objects, including an inflatable couch in the shape of a hand, looked like the kind of décor that would not be out of place in the Notting Hill apartment of Patsy and Edwina from Absolutely Fabulous.

With all modern art, there are always bound to be pieces that suffer from what I call the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. All pomp and no substance! One such piece is by Norma Jeane (the artist was born the day Marilyn Monroe died and decided to label herself with the legend’s name). A simple ice machine is plonked in the middle of a room, powered by solar energy, with its door open. The ice is made and then spills out onto the floor to dissolve.

Transforming heat into cold, and liquid into solid. The machine keeps working relentlessly, even though its product continually melts away into the wet floor.

I found myself perplexed by this piece. Bamboozled, even! After reading the description, a little sarcastic Scouse internal voice, (like Margie Clarke’s) said to me, ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ One of the highlights of experiencing this ‘objet’ had to be seeing people trying to manoeuvre themselves around the wet floor, in case they accidentally walked onto the art. Taking a little droplet of a souvenir home with them. Art crime! You really could not make it up.

What is fantastic about this group show is to see a robust piece of architectural splendour, the building that is The Old Blind School, being totally re-energised with the lifeblood of new creatives. This aspect of the Biennial is marked by a building as impressive – part Berlin crack den, part faded decadence – as some of the content on display.

The Old Blind School Liverpool staircase

Next stop on the Biennial review will be The Bluecoat!

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Rear Window

The sizzling summer heat forces people to open up their windows and extend their living space outdoors. From my study window, a tapestry of real life drama plays out amongst my neighbours. Debbie Harry claims that the apartment block where she lives in New York City was the building that the writer of Rear Window – Cornell Woolrich – lived. The view from his residence worked his imagination into drafting a short story that went on to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic classics.

The rotund master of film had a deep understanding of human behaviour. He stated,

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Rear Window on the big screen at Fact Liverpool and I was once again captivated.

RearWindow Movie poster

A wheelchair-bound photographer, L. B. Jefferies played by James Stewart, spies on his neighbours from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. It is a treat for the eye to watch Grace Kelly, in all of her sensual elegance as Lisa Carol Fremont, on the big screen.

rear-window-first-outfit-sitting-down-2

Jefferies finds himself in a conundrum. He is frightened of committing to Lisa. As he works through this problem, he sees a variety of his neighbours at different stages in their relationship, the newlyweds, the bickering couple and the one that kills his wife. The human trait of voyeurism is explored in the film and is still as rampant as it was then, today. Perhaps the windows have just changed?

Take the television for example, Big Brother, which is essentially a room of people interacting, clashing and, in some cases, screwing. Is watching this no different to peeping out of a window? The obsession with watching others is intrinsic to our society, whereas once there were known curtain twitchers in a street, now it’s a little bit more advanced. Facebook and other social media allow people to look without the other person really knowing. I often hear things like,’Oh, I haven’t seen her in ages but I am friends with her on Facebook.’ This translates as, ‘I am watching what she gets up to, looking at her photographs and reading her status updates.’ A socially acceptable type of stalking, perhaps?

We all know what curiosity did to the cat.

As I sat watching Rear Window, I was struck by the cinematic cleverness; as the bamboo blinds go up to reveal the view from the window, the audience immediately made the voyeurs. The watcher watching.

We’ve become a nation of peeping Toms,

complains Nurse, Thelma Ritter, condemning James Stewart’s character, before merrily joining in.

rear_window grace

A very telling comment!

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Hot Reads Part Deux!

I haven’t been away this year, but I have found John Maguire’s mantra of ‘Read, Reflect, Recharge’ to be a sound one, even if applied at home. I have tried to cram in as much quality reading time as possible, made easier as it has almost been too hot to move. Here are a few of the books that found their way into my hands this summer.

kurt vonnegut a man without a country

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This could be the perfect holiday read as it is a very slender volume. Although that does mean you will read it quickly, there is so much of interest that you will find yourself leafing back through the pages. Part memoir, part ‘state of the world’ treatise, this is Mr Vonnegut at his finest.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

road home

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

There was so much to enjoy in this tale of Lev’s journey from an undefined part of Eastern Europe via homelessness and a celebrity chef’s kitchen in London, to the asparagus fields of Lincolnshire and back again. He is also moving from heartbreak over his wife’s death and the subsequent parting from his small daughter, we hope to something better. The tale was absorbing and the writing beautiful at times.

However, this is let down by the clichés of some of the characters Lev meets – the Irish landlord who’s a drunk with a heart of gold, a terribly represented gay couple – along with the situations that he easily swerves which must surely sink the precarious finances of most economic migrants. I was also stunned by a glossed-over incident between Lev and his estranged girlfriend. It is left ambiguous as to whether it is rape, but it is horribly uncomfortable to read. Despite this, Lev retains his status as a character we are meant to root for. While I wouldn’t regret taking this with me, I would probably leave it behind in the hotel.

our game

Our Game by John le Carré

It is always a dangerous endeavour to begin reading John le Carré before bed as ‘just one more chapter’ soon turns into 1:00 a.m. But it is the holidays, so why not stay up late reading? Twists and turns abound as the Soviet Empire unravels and with it the relationship of two Cold War warriors. There are also some choice views on the futures of ‘The Office’ and the KGB, which le Carré must have been aiming at any critics preparing to cast him as a dinosaur in this new era. Recent events have made this story seem even more prescient, as the author once more leaves the rest of the airport bookshop looking pale by comparison.

under fire

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

The anniversary of World War I prompted me to pick up this account of a French soldier’s experience of the trenches. Published in 1916, it had the distinction of being one of the first war books and the only one to appear while the conflict remained unresolved. Barbusse was a student of literature before he signed up and it shows in the wildly abstract opening and a scene where his scribbling of notes during a lull attracts the attention of his fellows.

Beset by the constant horrors of attacks, shelling and deaths, the French perspective adds extra weight as many of the men are fighting close to home. A search by the author and a friend of the ruins of the friend’s former village is particularly poignant. There is no better way to mark this dark anniversary than with the words of those who fought and who recognised its futility even as they did.

Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite holiday reads in the comments below!

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