Monday, March 30, 2015

Victorian Colour Illustrations

People appear to have stopped buying books for Lent, so instead of packing orders I've been busy scanning book illustrations and photographs.

Today's images come from an 1890s children's book by Dr Barnado. In an age in which few people travelled abroad and most book illustrations were black and white, these colour plates must have seemed extraordinary - a window on the world.

I shall refrain from the usual commentary, but have left the original captions. The pictures speak for themselves:
















Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring in Oxford

Today I went to Oxford on a whim, hoping that the city of dreaming spires would inspire my son to work a little harder. Sadly, I didn't realise that when the Welcome to Oxford sign appeared, we would be confronted with several miles of ring roads, light industry and shoddy housing estates. Brideshead Revisted was never like this.

But enventually we reached the real city and it more than lived up to our expectations. We began in this Saxon church tower, built in 1040:

As we climbed the steps, we could hear the hungry cries of baby pigeons, accompanied by the sublime singing of a young male student. The tower was reassuringly solid, with walls that were three feet thick. When we reached the top, we had a good view of the city:


I used all my guile to get my son enthused about Oxford:

"This is where they filmed some of the Harry Potter films...Do you remember that episode of Doctor Who when the young Amy was in that museum?"

He nodded politely. Then I casually remarked that the windows looked into the student bedrooms and my son suddenly lit up:

"Really? Oh my! I'd like to go here. Do you have to be very rich?"

The conversation continued. "Dad, why didn't you go to university here?"

I opted for the simple answer, deciding to leave out the possibility that I might not have been clever enough:

"I didn't work hard enough and I didn't love the subjects I studied. I wanted to do music, but I'd started too late to catch up. Whatever you do, do something you love and then it won't feel like hard work."

"Which famous people have been to Oxford?"

There were so many, I didn't know where to start. For some reason, Kris Kristofferson sprang to mind - he went to Merton - but that name would mean nothing to my son.

I had to think of someone that children liked: "You know the man who plays Mr Bean..."

The trouble with places like Oxford is that they offer a sensory overload. You wander around like an idiot, gawping with wonder, taking photographs of interesting bricks. It's not the linear square mileage that's the problem, but the temporal area - 900 years of history, compressed into a relatively small space, like the material inside a black hole.

I haven't even got to grips with Lewes yet. How long would I have to live in Oxford before I began to vaguely make sense of it?

I looked at the students and envied them, but then remembered that a friend's daughter studied here a few years ago. Naturally bright, she had sailed through every exam at school, but met her match at Oxford. After years of achieving top grades with very little effort, the punishing schedule of essays and reading lists came as a shock. She graduated, but seemed scarred by the experince.

However, it must be a very grounding experience to be part of a tradition that is almost a thousand years old, literally following in the footsteps of figures like Dr Johnson, John Donne and Erasmus.

In the photo below, the white house once belonged to Edmund Halley, of comet fame. I saw someone go in the front door and felt a momentary pang of envy.



I took this photo through the railings of a fence. It's a secret garden: Et in arcadia ego, which is the title of the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited. It looks like the perfect place for a picnic involving plovers eggs and a reading of The Waste Land.

This is the dining hall of Trinity College. Just in front of the mantlepiece, there is a large tomato ketchup dispenser. The seats have seen better days.



I watched a group of students sitting on a lawn, having an animated conversation and wondered what my son made of it all.

I hadn't brought him here to instill a burning desire to become an Oxbridge student. I simply wanted my son to be aware that he had choices, and that learning can become more interesting as you get older. 

I think he got the message.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

From The Books That Almost Killed Me To The Books That Built Me

Yesterday was a day of contrasts that began in mud, squalor and a brush with death, but ended in the opulent surroundings of the Cafe Royal.

The brush with death came when a tonne of books nearly fell off the back of a lorry, on top of me. The lorry driver glowered: "It's the tailgate that's making 'em wobble. They still 'aven't repaired it. What's in these boxes anyway?"

I made sure that I moved well back and watched as the pallet of boxes slowly descended, then inserted my trolley wheels underneath the wooden slats of the pallet and began pulling (oh, the glamour of bookselling!). If you've ever pulled a tonne of books along potholed, muddy ground, you'll know that it does odd things to the internal organs.

At one point my pallet got stuck in the mud and I had a momentary existential crisis, reflecting on the chain of events that had led me to this point in time, but my reverie was rudely interrupted by the sound of one of my bookshelves collapsing:

I've had better days.

Fortunately, a kindly angel had invited Mrs Steerforth and I to a literary event that evening, so the day ended on a high.

'The Books That Built Me' is the brainchild of Helen Brocklebank, a former director at Harper's Bazaar (also known to many as the blogger Mrs Trefusis) who now hosts a literary salon at the Cafe Royal, inviting writers to discuss the books that influenced them when they were young. It is a much more interesting approach than simply asking authors about their favourite books, as there is far more scope for self-revelation.

Last night's writer, Andrew O'Hagan, was the perfect guest, blessed with a mercurial intellect and quick wit that never flagged. I particularly enjoyed his anecdotes about being a bookish cuckoo in the nest of a working-class Glasgow family. After what felt like half an hour, I was surprised to see that he'd been talking for an hour and 20 minutes.

But the success of the evening was also thanks to Helen Brocklebank's skill as a host, unobtrusively moving the conversation forward, making intelligent, perceptive comments that clearly pleased Andrew O'Hagan. Helen had obviously done her research for the evening, but seemed equally at home when the conversation went completely off topic.

The quality of the discussion was far better than a certain book programme that will remain nameless and it is surely only a matter of time before an enlightened broadcaster realises the potential of The Books That Built Me.

In the meantime, if you can get to London for an evening, I would strongly recommend booking a ticket. I'll see you there.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dark Age - Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

TheTrainline.com offers a wide range of railway tickets, but there is one that I think they should add to their selection: the Ishiguro.

Buy an Ishiguro ticket and your destination will be clearly stated, but somehow you’ll never quite get there. Instead, you’ll have enigmatic conversations with strangers, leave the train halfway through the journey and find yourself in an unknown town that feels disconcertingly familiar. Eventually you’ll realise that you grew up there, but had forgotten until now.

Of course, I’m thinking of The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro’s maddening but wonderful masterpiece, the fictional equivalent of a waking dream (as one person astutely observed, it is we, the readers, who are the unconsoled). His new novel, The Buried Giant, takes the reader into similar territory, exploring themes of memory and identity, but this time the narrative takes place in a post-Arthurian Britain.

In true Ishiguro fashion, The Buried Giant is not what it initially seems. It is set in the past but isn’t a historical novel. It contains ogres and pixies, plus a cameo appearance from Sir Gawain, but doesn't belong in the fantasy genre either. Indeed, it's much easier to say what it isn't rather than what it is.

The narrative begins with an elderly Briton couple – Axl and Beatrice - who have been afflicted with a malaise that has clouded their memories and sense of identity. At first, I thought I’d spotted an allusion to Alzheimer’s, but in The Buried Giant, young and old alike are affected by the ‘mist’.

Believing that they have been mistreated by their neighbours, Axl and Beatrice decide to journey to their son’s village, but only have the vaguest idea of where he lives or when they last saw him.  

In spite of the ogres, the nearest this novel ever gets to fantasy fiction is that there is a vague, half-hearted quest, an occasional use of swords and a geriatric dragon. However, fans of Robert Jordan and David Eddings would, I suspect, be nonplussed.

What is The Buried Giant about? God only knows. But part of the pleasure of reading Ishiguro is that his writing works like poetry, speaking to the subconscious. We may feel baffled by the narrative, but we can also feel a strong sense of empathy with the characters, who struggle to make sense of what is happening to them.

I was listening to Nielsen's 5th Symphony the other day - a work I've loved for over 30 years. It is a deeply profound piece of music, but I wouldn't even try to tell you what it was about, although on some level I feel I know. It would seem absurd to ask what a symphony was 'about' and yet we feel that it's perfectly reasonably to always ask that question of a novel.


If I had to put my cards on the table, I’d describe it as a story about memory and loss – the pain of forgetting and the fear of the price that must be paid for remembering. The phrase 'magical realism' has been used, but the contrast between the author's deadpan style and the bizarre events of the narrative make this more a 'realistic magic'. Does that make sense?

The medieval saga-like setting and mythological elements are merely incidental to a novel that is, ultimately, a meditation on the human condition and the mythologies we build around ourselves.

However, like an Ishiguro character, I may be completely on the wrong track. I have avoided reading any reviews or author interviews so that my response wouldn’t be clouded by the reactions of others.

Overall, I enjoyed several things about the book. I particularly liked the evocative descriptions of the often desolate landscape. I was also touched by the relationship between Axl and Beartrice, whose strong love contrasted with their physical fragility. But most of all, I admired Ishiguro’s bald, understated prose, which managed to say so little and so much at the same time.

I wasn’t completely convinced by the decision to included short chapters narrated by Sir Gawain and also found some of the characters’ reminiscences a slightly tedious digression, but these are minor quibbles.

The word ‘haunting’ is overused in reviews, but it is apposite for Ishiguro’s elusive, spectral fiction. It is nearly 20 years since I read The Unconsoled, but I remember it more clearly than some books I read last year. I suspect that The Buried Giant will also get under my skin and on sleepless nights, I’ll imagine myself huddled in the ruins of a Roman villa, surrounded by wet ferns and nettles, seeking refuge from a winter storm.