Regular visitors to this blog will know that I’m a voracious reader. I’ve covered my reading habits many times before, and as an aside, the joy of writing a blog like this is that I get to recommend books and writers in the hope that someone – anyone – discovers something which they hadn't previously read. I’m always looking around for the next new thing myself, so these things go around.
Having said all that, I’m slightly embarrassed to recall that between the ages of 16 and 19 I stopped reading. I didn’t go near a book within that period unless it was required by the A-level syllabus. This is not to say I was too busy studying to read at leisure – quite the opposite, in fact. I suppose I just lost interest. And I didn’t even realise it until my father (also a keen reader) pointed it out to me.
I can still recall his disappointment that his bookish daughter had taken to lazing around, doing nothing except grunting. The problem was, not having read in so long, I had no idea where to start.
Up to age 16, I had followed the predictable trajectory of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, American YA and then books for grown-ups. Rarely did the classics feature. Little Women and What Katy Did were as close as it got, aside from prescribed reading for school. So it was with some trepidation that I received the suggestion from my then boyfriend that I should read some classic literature.
“You should start with Wuthering Heights,” he said. “If you like that then you’ll be fine with anything else. And I’m sure you’ll love it.”
I’ll admit I struggled at first. It was so dense and grey that I had to work hard to get through even a single page – although this, I’m sure, was as much to do with my lack of practice as Brontë’s prose. But as I went on, it gripped me. And before I knew it, I’d finished a book for the first time in three years.
It is, of course, an outstanding book. Its atmosphere is unique among anything I’ve read, and the story is compelling no matter how well you know it; to this day I can pick up Wuthering Heights and read it as though for the first time. There are books that I’ll read over and over, but I ration myself with this one. I want it always to be special. I get goose bumps just writing about Cathy and Heathcliff, and I want it to stay that way.
I owe Wuthering Heights a great debt, as I so often say in these Why I Love posts. I’m sure that had the former boyfriend suggested a Wilkie Collins or a Charles Dickens, I’d have credited that with setting me back on track with reading. But Wuthering Heights did so much more than end a dry spell: it opened my eyes to the classics; it made me read the other Brontës’ work, and visit Howarth, and start reading history.
Wuthering Heights, I think, was the start of my modern self. Without it, who knows what I’d be doing now? And all of this because it was recommended to me as something I should read. As I said above, these things go around. And long may book and author recommendations continue!
This is the first of my Why I Love
series to focus on a radio show. Not that I originally intended it solely to involve books; it’s just the way it’s worked out until now. But as this wonderful series on Radio 2 has progressed, so I’ve become more drawn in by it.
Its premise is best described by the Sounds of the 20th Century (SOTTC) blog
: “Sounds Of The 20th Century is an audio journey through five decades of triumph, tragedy and trivia in 50 hour-long episodes. Each programme is dedicated to one year from 1951 to 2000 and features nothing that wasn’t heard, seen or read at the time. There is no presenter, no explanation, no hindsight, no ‘I-heart-the-80s’ reminiscences, just the music, the news, the radio, the TV and the movies as they were first experienced.”
Yes, the programme has its own blog. And its own Twitter account. In fact, keep an eye on #SOTTC on Twitter on a Thursday night and you’ll see that the latter is certainly effective. It speaks volumes, I think, that they’ve given this discrete show such a strong web presence. Radio 2 knew they were onto something big when they came up with this idea.
What’s so great about it? Well, in a previous blog post
I talked about how the best way to learn about history is to hear it from contemporary accounts. This is simply an extension of that thought: it’s an aural collage of hit records, archive clips, news broadcasts and vox pops from the year in question; a great overview and a good spring board for finding out more about any particular event.
Of course, it’s also a great source of ideas for writing.
I’ve made it obvious on here that my main historical interest is early 20th century, which means that anything from about 1950 to my own awareness of current affairs (let’s say somewhere in the 1990s) is a little fuzzy. This show helps fill in the gaps. We all know about the major news stories over the years, but the show’s genius lies in its identification of smaller events, or ongoing political situations about which one might be less aware. And the, “Gosh, I’ve not heard this in ages!” reaction to a particular tune is always a welcome surprise.
The upshot is that at the end of each instalment you have a feel for the year in question – which might well be very different from the previous one. It’s a great illustration of how quickly things move on; this will surely become even more apparent as changing attitudes and emerging technologies are featured in future episodes.
The series comprises 50 programmes, and I believe this week it will be halfway through. Which gives you another 25 years (well, OK, episodes) to explore, if you’ve not yet heard this fantastic show. I’d suggest you visit the SOTTC website
if I’ve in any way tempted you. SOTTC is broacast on Radio 2 on Thursdays, 2200-2300.
Specifically, this post is about why I love my
A-Z London, although obviously it’s not much different from anyone else’s – aside from being older, and falling apart, and missing many landmarks that have risen since it was printed.
To the best of my knowledge, you can buy an A-Z map
, in any size, of pretty much anywhere in the UK. Obviously I’m biased towards London: I live here, and have done so for fourteen years. Yet I’m still surprised by the range of sizes available from the bigger newsagents; what a market there is for these maps.
I bought my copy when I was planning to move to London in 1997. Running between various houses trying to find a room to rent – and being completely ignorant of the city back then – it was essential. Not only did it help me find somewhere to live, but it sustained me throughout the first year or so while I felt my way around.
After about three years of being kept in a rucksack, and pulled out none-too-gently when required, the covers began curling at the edges. Then they started to fall off. Soon afterwards, the book wouldn’t lie flat because all the page corners were turned up too. As the photos show, my A-Z has been bound together with sellotape more times than most people would bother.
Why not buy a new one? Well, I did. Some years ago, out and about without mine, I had to duck into a newsagent and buy a pocket version, which is at least a little more recent. But I still prefer my old, roughened, 20th-century copy – it gets me around just fine, and so what if it doesn’t know the London Eye ever happened?
When I moved to London all those years ago, my A-Z was my best friend. It helped me find my first (dreadful) house share, and then my second, which was wonderful – I still have the post-it note on its respective page. As I prepare to move out of London (although not too far away), I feel a little sad that my adventures with my A-Z will be fewer – although I certainly don’t plan on turning my back on the place completely.
So, yes, I cling onto the dog-eared copy from pure sentimentality. But unlike most things that we keep for such reasons, this one is still functional. What better justification could one need?
Back in 2007, I dragged the boyfriend off to the Riverside Studios
, to see a play called Forgotten Voices
. All I knew was that it was about the first world war (a particular interest of mine), featured the experiences of people who’d lived it, and starred Matthew Kelly.
Until that point, I’d not encountered Max Arthur’s Lost/Forgotten Voices
series, all featuring first-person accounts – snippets, if you will – by those who were lived through the respective era. I hadn’t realised, before going off to the Studios, that the characters in the play would quote from Forgotten Voices of the Great War
, or that the play was pulled from the accounts therein.
We enjoyed the play. I cried at the end. The boyfriend spoke to Matthew Kelly. And afterwards, in the foyer, they had this book on sale. Only later did I realise that the copy I’d bought was signed by the author. Dog-eared as it now is, it’s a treasured possession.
With accounts drawn from the Imperial War Museum
sound archives, Max Arthur has put together a book full of accounts of the Great War: from all points of view, by many different people, of the many aspects. Soldiers, airmen, housewives, munitions workers – they’re all here, and they’re not confined to just the British. The snippets are long and short, sad and funny. It’s a book you can read from cover to cover, or dip into as and when. But it’s not easy to stop, once started.
Reading it is an excellent way of learning about history – how better than from the participants themselves, in their own words? I’ve mentioned before
that I read a lot of early twentieth-century history, but nothing has brought it alive in the way that this book has. Its key omission is also its main strength: the lack of any commentary allows the voices themselves to be heard clearly with nothing getting in the way.
There are other books in the series: WW2, the Edwardians, the Battle of Britain, plus other volumes about those left behind and anniversary collections. Predictably enough, I’ve read most, if not all, of them. I’d recommend them to anyone interested in the periods stated, but especially anyone writing about them.
Most importantly: read them to enjoy them. If you like your history to come alive, these are the books for you.
To the best of my recollection, this book was a sixth birthday present from a neighbour. I still have my original copy, unlike the majority of my early books. I’m writing about it now, not so much because it’s the greatest book ever written – although, obviously, I like it very much – but because I have such fond memories, and simply because nobody else seems to have heard of it.
As a children’s book, it has 24 pages, of which only 14 contain text, so it’s difficult to outline the story without rewriting it. But here goes – and be warned, I’m going to give away the ending.
Ormalaine is an island, inhabited by a lot of monkeys and a single anteater called Tamandua. Old and stuffy, Tamandua and his frequent cautions are a source of ridicule for the monkeys, until he devises a defence plan against an attack by neighbouring crocodiles. In the meantime, a large white stone has appeared, upon which, ignorant of its provenance, the animals play. Come the attack, Tamandua’s battle plan is implemented until the stone’s sudden cracking scares the crocodiles into retreat. From the stone, which turns out to be an egg, emerges a gryphon who flies off once hatched. On the closing page, Tamandua has the respect of the monkeys and everyone is happy.
It’s a charming story; reading it again as an adult, the moral of listening to one’s elders is obvious. For a writing workshop recently, I used Tamandua as a favourite childhood character; I think that even as a youngster I recognised his status as the outsider, being happy when he was finally accepted.
Illustrations are by Roseanne McConachie. They’re colourful, and as they should, they tell parts of the tale that the words don’t. I’m not going to argue they’re the best you’ll find, but it’s impossible to read the story without taking a good look as you go along.
Obviously this book has a special something if it’s stayed with me for over thirty years. Not just from a nostalgic point of view: it’s not difficult to see where some of the influence for my own writing comes from. When I grabbed the book from my Mum’s house last year, I was struck by the similarity of the battle scene with mine in Fidelity and the Forest
. I clearly remember writing Fidelity and I know that I wasn’t thinking of Ormalaine while doing so.
Put simply, were it still available I’d buy it for every child I know. I wonder what other lesser-known children’s books have had this affect? Do let me know if you have a similar story.
This is one of my favourite books in my collection – and believe me, there are plenty.
I mention on my About
page that as I child I read Yuri Drozhkev’s The Adventures of Pencil and Screwbolt
; clearly this made a greater impression that I could have realised. I bought Russian Fairy Tales
around the time I resumed writing, thinking simply that it would be an entertaining read.
It’s packed with well over 100 tales. Some are just a paragraph long, more fable than fairy tale. Others are what we’d consider to be short story length. They vary in quality. But as a whole, the book screams, “Read me! Over and over again!”
Why? Well, it’s pure escapism. Very little in the book resembles real life (isn’t that why we enjoy fairy tales?). Across its numerous stories it has its fair share of foxes, goats, tsars, geese, champions, idiots, maidens and so on – often thrown together in the most curious of combinations. It’s beautifully illustrated. And I love the irrationality of the fairy tale world: the “I didn’t like you doing that so I’m going to cut off your head” mentality.
There’s no saccharine Disneyfication here. Some of the characters meet nasty ends. Some suffer and struggle. Speaking of which, this book is also responsible for introducing me to Baba Yaga
, that mainstay of Eastern European folklore. I can’t help it, I think she’s great.
The joy of a book of short works is the ease of dipping into it when required. I have been known to open Russian Fairy Tales
at a random page then read whatever story starts next. For a really quick fix, a simple glance through the Contents pages is sufficient. Here are just the first eight titles:
The Wondrous Wonder, the Marvelous Marvel
The Fox Physician
The Death of the Cock
The Castle of the Fly
Now imagine scanning through all the others – how could one not be inspired?
I honestly hadn’t foreseen just how much this book would influence me. I remember reading it on the train to and from work, then leaving the train brimming with new ideas that I just had write down. Not all of those ideas would be stories on their own: sometimes they would form just part of a story, or maybe just affect the mood of a piece I was writing. But I can honestly say that if I’m stuck for ideas, it’s to this book I turn first.
As with my previous Why I Love entry, Russian Fairy Tales
also made me go off and read more. I mention Baba Yaga above, and she pops up all the time in other tales. I’ve included gypsy and folk tales in my reading, as they often amount to a similar thing. I now try to collect books of fairy tales whenever I visit other countries. But aside from good old Pencil and Screwbolt, I don’t think I’ll ever find a fairy tale book to match this one. I highly recommend it. A mention is due to Norbert Guterman, the translator for this collection. Because I don’t speak Russian, I’ve not read these tales in the original. But it strikes me he’s captured the mood of them perfectly.
Some ten or eleven years after I bought this book, I still have problems believing that a chance purchase can have had such an influence on my life.
I was still doing my degree at the time. I had never really heard of Evelyn Waugh (probably still thought he was a she, to be honest), but I bought it simply because I liked the cover. Penguin Modern Classics has since chosen a different cover image, but the one I bought can be seen here
. I still find this image compelling.
For those who’ve not read it, Vile Bodies is set around 1920s party culture with all its reputed hedonism. If there is a main story it is that of the hapless Adam Symes and his quest to earn enough money to marry fianceé Nina Blount. Both currency and Nina continue to slip away from him in the most unorthodox ways. The story is interwoven with the escapades of many other characters to the point where it’s hard to identify a definite main character at all. This is one of those great books that lurches from one episode to the next, never losing pace and capturing the mood of the period in a way that – if not necessarily accurate – certainly feeds into common conceptions of how it was.
Waugh himself was a reluctant participant in the party scene, and I find it interesting that he clearly doesn’t like most of his own characters. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that I find it fascinating how a book in which the author despises his characters can work so well. There’s one for further discussion! The commentary in my copy (by Richard Jacobs) makes reference to the fact that Waugh’s wife left him while he was writing Vile Bodies, and suggests that this underpins the somewhat dour mood of the latter half of the book. I think he’s right.
So, what grabbed me? The hedonism, certainly, and the sense of the period it covered; the humour – it is extremely funny in places. It’s well, and cleverly, written. And it made me want more. It was when I read Vile Bodies that my 1920s fixation began – to the extent that when I came to write my degree dissertation, I focused upon 1920s party culture. It was a good excuse to sit in the National Newspaper Library
and read old newspapers; in fact the research I did for that piece cemented my interest in the 1920s. By the time I submitted it, I was irreversibly hooked.
Studies completed, of course I had to read more Evelyn Waugh, working my way through most, if not all, of his novels and letters. My interest in the 1920s expanded into The Great War, and then slowly and surely into a love of anything early-twentieth century. Vile Bodies is responsible for most of my current non-fiction reading, a lot of my fiction reading, some of my favourite music and (very probably) my degree. I have a lot to thank it for. And I still get as much satisfaction out of reading it now as I did that first time.