Lee, Laurie: As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning

                 

The proposer noted that the three books for which Laurie Lee (1914-1997) is remembered are autobiographical.  “Cider with Rosie” (1959) covers his life up to 16. His father abandoned the family and left his second wife to bring up a large group of kids. They lived outside Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Then he spent 4 years as a junior clerk in Stroud. Next “as I walked out one midsummer morning” he travelled to London and then across Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was published in 1969, ten years after “Cider with Rosie”. Finally, “A Moment of War” (1991) covers his return to Spain to fight in the Civil War.

He also published books of poetry, one of essays and records of some of his foreign visits. In this we see him going to Ibiza to write “As I Walked Out.” He was largely unimpressed by the tourists, but enjoyed the booze, the grub and the talent.

After the Civil War he married. His wife also died in 1997. He was a poet, writer, lecturer, and journalist, and was awarded the MBE. He died in his home county. Life was made easier for him because “Cider with Rosie” sold 6 million copies.

He kept a notebook on his travels, not with a view to writing books, he said, but rather to be able in the future to relive the events.

Why did the proposer choose the book? He was very fond of Spain, and 1934-6 was a dramatic time for a writer to be there. He had also enjoyed books about Spain by V.S. Pritchett and Gerald Brenan. But Lee’s poverty, honesty, compassion and charm drew him back to the book and its beautiful evocation of his Spain.

Finally, he noted that Almunecar has changed and is now like Marbella Old Town. And he wondered if Lee had a map? He hoped so, but he chose some areas with no roads and it must have been difficult to avoid getting lost!

This book was well received by the Group. “It was a delightful read, beautifully written …his language is poetic and lyrical” said one absent member. A surprising number of the group knew Spain well, through the decades, and had undertaken various walks there. One had walked through the Pyrenees into Spain, and one had been reading the book while olive picking near Malaga. Another who had driven across Spain now wished he had walked it!

The book was published some thirty five years after the events described. The book falls into 3 sections. The first describes his decision to leave his country village and set off on a great walk, with destination unknown. He carries a violin, and becomes skilled in busking for money. “It’s really a description of two journeys, one through part of England and the other through Spain. I love his description of life in England in the early 1930’s and the fascinating characters he meets on his journey. It amazed me how many others were wandering around the UK about the same time. On reaching London he manages to earn some money pushing a wheelbarrow for a year. The reason he gives for going to Spain is because he knew the Spanish for “Will you please give me a glass of water?” and  is almost laughable”. As well as meeting other tramps and the great army of unemployed searching for work on the way, he has a brief relationship with a rich girl, which is brought to an abrupt end by her father, and he finds work on a building site.

Then he sets off for Spain, saying he knows nothing about the country and does not speak the language. The central and most powerful section of the book describes with great power his journey south through the searing heat and immense poverty of Spain, how he adapts to their way of life, and picks up the language. “Having made a similar but swifter journey by car from south to north a few years ago, I was able to picture the vastness of the country, its unforgiving climate and the many delightful places he visits. I had forgotten how desperately poverty-stricken and wretched a lot of country folk were at that time in Spain”.

Everyone really liked the power and precision of his descriptive writing:

The thick silent dust, lifted by the shudders of heat rather than by the presence of any wind, crept into my sandals and between my toes, stuck like rime to my lips and eyelashes, and dropped into the breathless cups of the roadside poppies to fill them with a cool white mirage of snow.

His face was as dark and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lips like an adder.”

Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of the harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the fields like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light – blue shirts and trousers, and with broad gold hats tied with green and scarlet cloths.”

At Toledo he comes more into contact with expats, and there is a change of tone as he travels to the south coast, and gets to know Republicans worried about an impending challenge to their new Socialist government. Then the book ends with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his short-lived return to Britain. He soon leaves for Spain again with the ambition of playing his part in the Civil War.

Also very striking were his descriptions of how easily war breaks out, and how quickly violence can escalate:

That special adrenalin in the young which makes war easy, and welcomes it, drew me voluptuously to Altofaro”.

It was not victory, however,…. when the militia returned, round about midnight, there was no singing or cheering welcome. The wounded, the shocked, the dying and the dead were unloaded in bitter silence…El Gato walked speechlessly away trailing his rifle like a broken limb.”

There were many aspects of the book which attracted discussion. One was the issue of how honest he had been in what he wrote. Some felt there was an element of selective memory, and perhaps distortion, in his account? For example, he presents himself as a rural peasant who knows nothing when he sets out. Yet he has a rich girlfriend in London, can play the violin, goes in for poetry competitions, and seems able to mingle easily with the eccentric poet Roy Campbell and his partner.

It seemed amazing that he could recall so much of the detail of his journey. He often says “I remember…” but does not own up to having kept a notebook, as we now know he did. Just for the purpose of reliving the experiences, he said, but it is commonplace for writers to undertake great walks largely for the purpose of writing a book at the end. Or is he simply grafting later memories of Spain on to the walk he conducted as a twenty year old?

He falls into a long tradition of British writers describing walks in Spain – such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Morton (Beachcomber), George Borrow – and there are a group of French writers who have done the same. And they all seem to find the same Spain. So was his choice of Spain less random than he claims?

Much of the book contains talk of sexual experiences of various kinds, some briefly described, more hinted at. But we now know from biographical information that he met his “muse” while he was in Spain, and that she supported him financially, yet the book does not refer to her and suggests that busking was his main source of income.

And the fact that the British Embassy was aware of his presence and rescued him from the Civil War, along with other British nationals, again made us wonder if were quite the peasant tramp that he presents.

Even his amusing story of climbing into a girl’s bedroom by ladder in London had the cynics amongst us wondering if it had really happened or whether he had been reading “Le Rouge et le Noir”.

But in the end we concluded that it did not matter if he were selective or inclined to embroider – wouldn’t most do that in an autobiography?  It only mattered if while reading the book you found yourself doubting his veracity. One of or two of us had had that feeling, but all had enjoyed the book, even if, in the words of his biographer, Lee was “mythologising’ his youth.

His use of language was another area of discussion. It was argued that his great strength lay in his ability to describe in very visual and striking terms (“the road ran like a meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple…”). This flowed largely from his stunning use of imagery – of similes and metaphors – which were always fresh and arresting. It was no surprise to find that poetry was his first love.

He did on occasion go for a description that also used the sound of language, its rhythm and cadence, – e.g “submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish” to convey meaning. But most of the time his sentences concentrated brilliantly on poetic imagery rather than poetic rhythm. This differentiates him from many other writers of “poetic prose”. And the rhythmic inertia of his little poem that he quotes may illustrate why his poetry was less successful than his poetic prose.

And his approach was by no means a bad thing in this book. It gave the language a muscular feel that suited the descriptions of the exhausting walk, the wild interior and the grinding poverty.

Another factor, illustrated in some of the examples above, was that he was inclined to write sentences in an unexpected order of words, which similarly increased the arresting effect of what he was saying, while slowing down the flow of the words and the drive of the narrative.

What then of his politics? Although he was very compassionate towards the Spanish rural poor, to the extent of returning with the aim of fighting in the Civil War, he did not reveal any party political leanings. “Unlike so many of my age, for whom Spain represented one of the last theatres of political romanticism, I hadn’t consciously chosen it as a Cause but had stumbled on it by accident, simply by happening to be there.

Some felt, however, that he might have exaggerated the poverty he encountered, while others said they had seen similar things. At any rate, we strongly suspected his focus was on describing and empathising with the poor. Any one better off is dismissed with scorn. This reminded us of J. B. Priestley’s lop-sided description of poverty in his “English Journey”.

And one of our travellers noted that when travelling, whatever your background, you tended to be approached by people of all social classes who were equally friendly. It was hard to imagine this had not also happened to Lee. And even at the outset of the book he was at pains to establish his working class credentials with his work on a building site. But such attitudes are hardly unusual at the age of 20, as was the way in which he fell in love with all things Spanish while rubbishing all things British.

An interesting question was the relationship between the young person portrayed and the older person writing the book. The older persona does not appear much, other than in “I remember” mode, but occasionally there is a characteristically terse aside fro the older Lee- e.g. “I’d developed an ingrowing taste for the vanity of solitude.” Such remarks disarmingly acknowledge the naivety of the young man.

Being written in the mode of a journey, one might see the shape of the book as the naïve and immature young man at the beginning has through his experiences come of age in both his outlook to life and his sexuality. Nevertheless, some felt he still had a lot of maturing to do, and one who had read the third volume did not see much sign of that happening in that book either.

Perhaps the truth was that he remained throughout his life an Epicurean, for whom wine, women and song were his joys, and who was fairly lazy when it came to writing, having only produced the three books of real substance.

The proposer drew our attention to an interview on an arts programme when Lee volunteered that Paradise would involve unlimited capacity for food, drink etc, with friends always accessible when required. He thought his writing was voluptuous and secret as he never allowed others into his office. He claimed he had a tape of typing and switched the recorder on when reading Playboy or admiring the view from the window! He came over as charming.  

We debated, but did not resolve, why this book had been less successful than “Cider with Rosie”, as this book seemed better. Not as fashionable a subject as a nostalgic idyll in the English countryside? Too big a gap between the books? Spain of less interest than France or Italy? Too many other books in the same vein? Too long and vague a title?

We also noted that the books were fairly short, around 200 pages. Some of us would have wanted them longer, giving more detail of the travel in the way of Eric Newby. Perhaps this reflected his laziness, and the minimum target given him by the publisher. More charitably, his writing was very succinct. If you viewed much of the book as a kind of prose poem, 200 pages was long enough.

What about the title? The first line of a folk song. Was there perhaps also an echo of  Piers Plowman’s famous medieval walk:

“In a somer seson, when softe was the sonne…

[I] wente wide in this world wondres to here”

We concluded it was a fascinating book and a very enjoyable discussion.

But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……

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Reynolds, David: The Long Shadow

Introducing “The Long Shadow” (2013), the proposer said that, as our meeting fell in the month of the centenary of the Armistice, he felt we should mark the occasion with a book about the impact of World War One on the century that followed. The David Reynolds book was the only serious candidate of which he was aware.

David Reynolds is a British historian who is Professor of International History at Cambridge. He specialises in the two World Wars  (although until now most of his book output has been about the Second) and the Cold War. He served as Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge for the academic years 2013–14 and 2014–15. A short TV series narrated by Reynolds accompanied the launch of the book, and he also lectured at the Edinburgh Festival.

In his introduction Reynolds quotes George Kennan, who characterised the First World as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century”. Kennan was struck by the “overwhelming extent” to which communism, Nazism and the Second World War were all “the products of that first great holocaust of 1914-18.”

Although the book was long, it was written with unusual clarity and incision. Reynolds was able to simplify complex ideas across a whole range of subjects with admirable brevity. If it sometimes made you pause, or was challenging, it was only because the wealth of ideas successively described left you giddy – a sort of intellectual fairground ride. The book was in many respects the history of the last century.

The general – and very enjoyable – discussion that opened up reflected the vastness of the subject matter covered by the book. It cannot be covered in a blog of acceptable length, but here are some highlights.

It was very unusual to get a writer so comfortable in writing across such a wide range of subjects. He covered military history, political history, economics, painting, poetry, literature, general culture and more. He did this across a time span of a century. And, although his major focus was Britain, he wrote very cogently about developments in Germany, France, Russia, Ireland and America. Reynolds was inclined to give both sides of an argument without overtly stating his own position, but that gave the book a welcome feel of objectivity and absence of a personal agenda.

A “terrific book” was the general view, “very enjoyable”, “enlightening and absorbing”.

But there were some notes of reservation. “At times too much detail for my taste….I would have preferred more focus on what is the shadow….I think his writing is too diffuse, and in the end I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say”.

Could we define “the shadow”? Was it loss of life, anguish, the rise of fascism, the spread of communism, the Great Depression, World War Two, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East?’ The consensus was that it was all of these and more. He had been wise in using the evocative concept of the “shadow” rather than in striving to demonstrate causation, always very difficult in considering history. He was talking about impact in a general sense. And the word “shadow” – for which 16 meanings are given in the OED! – is not necessarily pejorative.

Another reservation was that “the structure was a bit confusing (Part One ‘Legacies’; Part Two ‘Refractions’), and it led to a degree of repetition”. But for most the structure was fine.

Irritatingly we found Reynolds hardly put a foot wrong in his grasp of the bewildering array of subjects he covered, whether on concept or on detail. For a book of history to deprive us of the satisfying opportunity to pick nits is rare indeed. Finally, however, our resident statistician claimed to have nailed him – Reynolds had asserted that German South West Africa (today Namibia) was roughly the same area as England and Wales combined, whereas we reckoned it was 6 times bigger!

Occasional shafts of ironic humour brighten the narrative, such as:

A year after the Armistice, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the imperial general staff, fumed ‘We have between 20 and 30 wars raging in different parts of the world’, which he blamed on political leaders who were ‘totally unfit and unable to govern’. Wilson’s deputy, Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode, warned colourfully that ‘the habit of interfering with other people’s business, and of making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’, is like ‘buggery’; once you take to it you cannot stop.

The financial dimension of the War was one of the few that Reynolds did not discuss in depth. We noted the heavy financial impact on Britain of the two German wars. Britain had not been entitled to reparations after the First War, having declared war and not having been invaded, but found herself in substantial debt to the US, as it did also after WW2. British WW2 Lend Lease debts to the US were not fully repaid until the end of 2006. War bonds raised from the British public for WW1 (and earlier wars) were not repaid until 2015.

We debated the impact of World War One on religion, again one of the few subjects not tackled in the book. Had the War accelerated the decline in religious belief, which could be traced back to Darwin and beyond? We could not resolve this, noting that many in the forces and amongst the bereaved had found religion a great comfort during the War, but accepting that later reflection on the appalling violence and subsequent brutalisation might have shaken the belief of many.

An interesting fact unearthed by one of our members was that the Armistice would have been at 2.30pm on the 11th of November if Lloyd George had got his way. For Lloyd George, with characteristic egotism, wanted to announce it at 2.30 when he stood up for PM’s Questions. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the senior Forces member of the British Delegation, had to appeal to the King to overturn Lloyd George’s order and change it to 11am. Thereby Wemyss saved hundreds of lives, and thereby he incurred the vindictive fury of Lloyd George.

We noted that Reynolds heads a whole chapter “Evil”, which is devoted to genocide in the Nazi concentration camps. But, leaving aside that as unquestionable evil, could the Allies claim the moral high ground given some of their behaviour in other aspects of the Second World War, such as the hundreds of thousands of European citizens killed by RAF bombing, the use of flamethrowers and thermite grenades, and the use of nuclear bombs? The defence is that such tactics were necessary to win – or shorten – the War, but not all of us accepted that argument.

Reynolds is particularly strong on tracing the changing perspectives on the War in Britain, and clear-sighted on the ways in which the facts had become distorted. However, the head of the Imperial War Museum recently said that he had hoped that the commemorative efforts for the centenary of the War would lead to the popular view and the historians’ view of WW1 moving into alignment, but that they had failed to achieve that.

In conclusion, we agreed for our part with the historian John Horne’s view, quoted by Reynolds, that the Great War was “the seminal event in the cycle of violence and ideological extremism that marked the twentieth century.”

Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day

We were informed by our host that he often reads books by prizewinning authors. It was for this reason that he had acquired “ The Remains of the Day”, by the Nobel Prizewinner (2017) Kazuo Ishiguro.

While this was a credible explanation for his choice no one was fooled.

The host had originally nominated “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera but had forgotten that he had previously nominated this book in 2015 when it had been discussed and reviewed by the Group!

His embarrassment led him to reflect on the cause of this memory lapse and he concluded that like Stevens, the butler and narrator of “ The Remains of the Day”, his forgetfulness was age-related.

The appropriateness of his choice became apparent as we read the novel.

It was perhaps some conciliation to the host that the only member to spot the not-so-deliberate mistake was our youngest member.

Our host provided a brief overview of the Kazuo Ishiguro’s family background and literary career. Born in Nagasaki, Japan on 8th November 1954 his family moved to the UK in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent in 1974 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English and Philosophy in 1978 and in 1980 he gained a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He became a British citizen in 1983 and he and his wife and daughter live in London.

Ishiguro’s writings have been hugely successful. He has written eight works of fiction and his books have been translated into over 50 languages. Some, including “The Remains of the Day” have been made into lucrative films.

He also writes screenplays and song lyrics. They are successful too. Our host played us a snatch of Ishiguro’s friend and jazz artist Tracey Kent, singing his melancholy song ‘Bullet Train’ :

Tokyo to Nagoya
Nagoya to Berlin
Sometime I feel I lose track
Of just which hemisphere we’re in….

He has received many awards for his work, including the Man Booker prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day”, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017 and most recently, in 2018, he was Knighted for his services to Literature.

There was general agreement that this is a beautifully crafted novel. To those who had not read any of Ishiguro’s work it was a great surprise. They had not anticipated such sophisticated use of language from a Japanese author, not realising that he had been raised and educated in Britain.

The novel impressively establishes the character of Stevens, the butler and narrator of the story. His stiff manner of speech exposes Stevens’s limitations as he struggles to find the language to deal with emotion, to converse with his peers or to adjust to the need to engage with the new American owner of Darlington Hall with a much less formal relationship, and especially the “banter”.  Thereafter, Stevens becomes a student of “banter”, taking every opportunity to hone his skills, often without success.

The Group considered the novel “technically brilliant”.

It manages to present an unpromising tale about the life of a man who lived exclusively in the service of others in an interesting and compelling way.

Stevens was the butler in a distinguished English country house, Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington to whom Stevens had devoted his long life of service had died and Mr Farraday, a jovial American who is the new owner of the Hall encourages Stevens to make use of his vintage car to take a short motoring holiday to the West Country.

As this journey unfolds Stevens describes his understanding of the role of the butler in a stately home and he identifies the essential characteristics required of those butlers who aspire to be regarded as a  “great” butler.

Much is made of “dignity”, devotion and unquestioning loyalty all exemplified through vignettes drawn from life at Darlington Hall.

The story reveals the fragility of Stevens’s circumstances.  His need to “inhabit” his professional role requires him to set aside any thoughts of questioning what he is told by Lord Darlington. The dismissal of the Jewish housemaids at Darlington Hall who were well liked and who performed their duties to a good standard illustrates the absolute authority exercised by Lord Darlington.

As the journey progresses, more and more about Lord Darlington’s involvement in political maneuverings in the lead up to the Second World War is related. His attempt to broker rapprochement through engaging with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Great Britain is referred to as is his post war troubles with his reputation ruined through a failed libel action. These reflections cause Stevens to adopt an increasingly protective/defensive attitude towards Lord Darlington, “He wasn’t a bad man at all”

Stevens is unable to deal with emotion. This disability manifests itself in his relationship with Miss Kenton who tries to elicit a reciprocal  response to her affection, and also in his account of his relationship with his father and in particular his troubling behavior at the time of his father’s death.

The motoring holiday draws to a close with Stevens facing up to reality. His reflections enable him to recognize his mistakes and to ponder, “what might have been” . However he continues to show the irrepressible spirit upon which his self worth is dependent. He continues to rationalize and excuse his actions. Finally, he plans to find ways of improving his “bantering” skills in order to commit to a new way of life embracing the changes needed to enable him to satisfy his new American master.

While most of the group found themselves feeling a bit sorry for Stevens as the victim of the anachronistic social system, molded by his upbringing and the culture of the day, one member suggested that he was dishonest and manipulative. He questioned Stevens’s sexuality and considered him devious in allowing the villagers to believe that he was an upper class gentleman.

These comments apart the novel was unanimously admired, both for its technical excellence but also as a cameo on growing old and the expression of quintessential ‘Englishness’.

Reference was made to the film of ”Remains of the Day” and to the portrayal of the English butler in other well known works; Jeeves, as gentleman’s gentleman to Wooster, Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey all portraying life “below stairs”.

It was remarked that interest in this is a peculiarly English fascination linked to what made the country “great” (a superiority complex born of the fact that Great Britain is the only country undefeated in Europe).

It was also suggested that the virtues of unwavering loyalty and dedication to his master extolled by Stevens were still alive and kicking and could be seen in the behavior of Civil Servants today. We were reliably informed that no senior Civil Servant voted for Brexit but that their professional duty was to set aside their personal views and to work towards delivering the best outcome.

There followed a discussion on the failure of our politicians to seek to establish “common purpose” on such an important matter. One of our group, who has occasion to visit China in the course of his work, explained the contrasting singularity of purpose in China, where, for example, there are weekly Party meetings in the university departments that must be attended.

It was suggested that the novel is not so much about “ what the butler saw” but what the butler did not see or was unable to see until it was too late.

Stevens’ reflections resulted in his having to confront things he had done or said and with hindsight had regretted or was embarrassed about.

We sympathized with him, recognizing that most of us would admit to having these feelings from time to time.

In Stevens’ case his reflections attack the ideas upon which he has built his life. They test his ability to keep a lid on his emotions and to retain the “dignity” with which he has tried to live his life.

The novel succeeds in exposing the man behind the butler in a clever and powerful way. It struck a chord with many members of the group and this added greatly to their enjoyment. It provoked unanimous approval.

Our host was congratulated on his choice of novel and for being able to remember that an important theme of the “Remains of the Day” is the effect of age on memory.

Harari, Yuval Noah: Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow

A select company of three met to discuss this month’s book, a follow-up to our look at his previous work, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’.

Since we did not wish to diminish the scope of our discussion by 33.3%, we did not have a blogger for the evening.  Hence the notes that follow are a brief (briefer anyway than Yuval Noah Harari’s definition of the word) summary of the proposer’s preparatory notes.

The proposer felt that this is a book that invites discussion and debate.  Like ‘Sapiens’, it stimulated him to  run its ideas past whoever happened to be nearby when he was reading it.  It also stimulated reflection on his own life decisions.  The text is engagingly written, and frequently provokes the reader to interact with it, weighing the plausibility of the various arguments presented.

The first part of the book is to some extent a re-run of the content of ‘Sapiens’ – perhaps a necessary exercise in order to set a context for Harari’s account of the new projects of mankind.  He defines these new projects as immortality, happiness and divinity, and argues that famine, plague and war are largely problems whose solution now lies in our own hands, rather than being beyond our control.  These assertions, deliberately provocative, stimulated much discussion on the evening.

The writing throws up some great metaphors and similes.  For example: “terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop’ (they have to enrage a bull), or the illustrative use of the history of lawns.

Harari also uses catchy section headings that provide a memorable framework for his ideas – for example ‘Organisms are Algorithms’ and ‘Why Bankers are different from Vampires’.  The proposer also enjoyed the snippets of history and accounts of scientific experiments with which the writer illustrated his themes.  For example the Pharoahs’ creation of a huge artificial lake and the city of ‘Crocodilopolis’, and the experiment with rats placed in flasks of water (not so enjoyable for the rats, of course).

The cover of the paperback edition was not great in terms of graphic design, but the little thumbprint/electronic circuit image was a clever interpretation of one of the book’s important themes.  We noted too that it hinted at the shape of an acorn, also appropriate.  The use of images in the book itself, while sparing, is very effective.  The proposer particularly enjoyed the ‘Humanism in Five Images’ pages.

In conclusion, the proposer found the book somewhat overwhelming, in that each proposition opens up numerous new lines of enquiry.  However, by identifying the quests for immortality, happiness and divinity as themes for investigation, Harari provides a useful framework to combat passive or heedless acceptance of ‘the way things are going’.

 

 

Bythell, Shaun: The Diary of a Bookseller

Our evening commenced with one of our members, an emeritus professor, recounting his stressful day when he had lost his four-year-old grandchild whilst collecting his seven-year-old sibling from school. Fortunately, the “lollipop lady” had found him but our professor had been quite traumatised. Severely rebuked by his wife, he wished to talk. So we listened sympathetically and after a respectable time moved on to the evening’s main activity.

The proposer had chosen this book to give us some light summer reading. It had been recommended by a friend, as an amusing, short and easy holiday read.

He didn’t know too much about the author, as he hadn’t found too much about him “on line”.  However the book tells us that he had been brought up in Wigtown, the son of a farmer, had been sent way to public school. (Interestingly, four of our last five authors have strong Scottish connections.) Bythell remembered the bookshop opening in the 1980’s when he was 18 and thinking it wouldn’t survive a year. After attending Trinity College and leaving without his intended degree in law, he bummed about for a while, returning to Wigtown in 2001, aged 31, with no definite plans. He happened to visit the shop looking for a copy of Three Fevers. He confessed to the owner that he was struggling to find a job he enjoyed. The owner, who was keen to retire, persuaded Shaun to purchase it for £150,000. He regrets not reading George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories, which dispels the myth that selling second hand books is not the idyll many people think. Orwell’s comments “many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”

Wigtown, during the author’s childhood, had been a thriving county town with imposing County Buildings and a population of under a thousand folk, despite being isolated in the rural peninsula of the Machars, in southwest Scotland. A creamery and a whisky distillery had sustained the economy. With their closure around 1990, the economy of the town suffered greatly. However, in recent years, Wigtown had reinvented itself, with the establishment of a community of bookshops, small businesses, the reopening of the distillery and a successful book festival. It is now known as Scotland’s official Booktown. The Bookshop, the subject of the diaries, had grown to be the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland with 100,000 books spread over a mile of shelving. A few of the group had visited Wigtown, the book festival and the writer’s premises. One, having read the book, was keen to visit.

Those who worked in the shop commented that customer interactions produced ample material for a book. He started jotting down incidents as they happened and so his aide memoire became a diary.

The author provides an insight into the trials and tribulations of the second hand bookselling business. From his idiosyncratic Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, to a huge cast of eccentric customers, his buying trips to old houses and his insight into the workings of Amazon, the book is full of interest and amusement.

We all enjoyed his facetious, sarcastic and almost downright rude descriptions of staff and customers. The book, although in diary format, was easy to dip in and out of. It didn’t have a continuous narrative, like Arthur Gould Lee’s diary “No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I” we had recently read.

The author’s rudeness worked both ways with him giving as much as he received. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Some of our group felt that his discourtesy compared favourably with the late proprietor of a renowned hostelry in the south of Edinburgh. Others observed that he seemed less offensive about identifiable Wigtown locals than he was to anonymous visitors. Perhaps he didn’t wish to offend too many residents.

He ranked his customers accordingly.

  • The dream customer is the collector who buys £200 worth of illustrated poetry books.
  • A good customer is someone who buys even a single book without attempting to haggle the price down.
  • A bad customer doesn’t buy anything.
  • And a really bad customer gets their laptop out and shamelessly checks the bookshop’s prices against those listed on Amazon.
  • Then there are the customers who aren’t really customers – those waiting for the chemist up the road to fill their prescription, or for the garage to finish their car’s MOT.

The book is packed with amusing anecdotes, fascinating characters and insights into the second hand book business. The proposer’s friend who runs a second-hand furniture and book business in Kingussie knows many of the regular customers and they are real!

His Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, with a penchant for wearing home-stitched tabards or a black ski-suit, arriving late, stealing food from skips, sloppily eating her breakfast whilst driving her car, misfiling books and creating a mess in the shop, came in for a lot of stick. Despite this, he was totally reliant on her so that he could go off fishing, swimming and buying books. She was also of “value beyond measure” with her amusing remarks. When a customer asked if they had a “rest room” she replied “there’s a comfy seat by the fire if you need a rest”.

Some of the regular characters are Bum Bag Dave who carries at least two bum bags and various beeping electronic devices. Smelly Kelly who reeks of Brut 33 and relentlessly woos Nicky, Sandy, a pagan and the most tattooed man in Scotland who makes walking sticks for sale in the shop, and Mr Deacon, who doesn’t wear his well cut clothes well. “It appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him, and however they have landed upon him they have stuck”. Mrs Philips starts her phone calls with “ I am ninety three years old and blind, you know.” And of course we have the cats, his own black cat, “Captain” and a stray cat which was an unwelcome visitor and subsequently “had had his balls chopped off” by the Cats Protection League, much to his owners displeasure.

We enjoyed his brutally honest job reference he wrote for a former employee, Sara, following her discourteous request. This inevitably led the group to discuss the value of written references. References seem to be written differently depending on their country of origin, some being pretty bland whilst others are pretty frank. Telephone discussions seem more truthful.

One member questioned his annoyance at customers haggling. But “he’s in the haggling business”. Others were amazed by the amount of travelling he did.

One of our email contributors had thoroughly enjoyed the book and its different format. The portrayal of all the weird and wonderful characters he is surrounded by, both staff and customers, was most amusing and kept the book ticking along. The constant fight with online giants, particularly Amazon, gave the book bite and a bit of anger and it was good to see him kicking back. Witness “The best thing that could happen to Kindle”. Interestingly, of the six members attending this evening, only three had read a hard copy of the book. Two had read it on Kindle and one had listened to it on Audible. No one had shot their Kindle!

One member had considered opening a second hand bookshop but hadn’t taken it any further. He had also bought a book at a local Church of Scotland jumble sale “The Story of O” which he later discovered was all about sexual bondage. He was intrigued about the reading material of the congregation but felt his purchase had been excellent value at 10p! Others were less enthusiastic about running a second hand bookshop. Another found that some books could give off an unpleasant odour that he didn’t fancy. And yet another argued that he preferred books for their reading content and not their presentation or value. He didn’t see the point of having a first edition or a signed copy.

There was discussion of the author’s concern about his shop’s rating on social media. How accurate was it? One member had been a regular reviewer on TripAdvisor but had become sceptical of its value and had stopped contributing. He however felt that household equipment was now much more reliable thanks to customer feedback and consumer pressure. Another was concerned about the dominance of Amazon and had stopped using them, preferring to support local businesses. Another felt that time was our most valuable resource and Amazon allowed him speedy searching and purchasing.

Discussion moved onto the success of book festivals, the tourist invasion of Edinburgh, the proposal to have a tourist tax and even the shocking suggestion that Scottish football might move from Hampden to Murrayfield.

As our discussions drew to a close, our emeritus professor, still reeling from his earlier trauma, mentioned that on the journey home from the state primary school, the seven year old saw a sign outside a large educational building saying “Private School”. What does this mean? The trauma of the day was too much for our professor “Things will become clearer when you get older…”

Time to depart after thanking the host for providing some delicious home made brownie cakes.

Kassabova, Kapka: Border, a Journey to the Edge of Europe

Referring to an interview from the Scottish Review of Books, February 2018., we were advised that Kapka Kasssabova and her family emigrated to New Zealand after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She studied French at university, and began to make a name for herself as a poet and novelist. Some of her early poetry can be found in a collection entitled “Someone Else’s Life” (2003), which deals with people who live on the margins of society, the forgotten and dispossessed. This is clearly a major theme in the current book. After brief spells in Berlin and Marseilles, she settled in Scotland when she was thirty years old. She continued to work in different literary forms.

Talking of this month’s book, set on the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Kassabova said  “The trauma of half a century of social life based on lies is going to take several generations to heal, if it heals at all. That’s why I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.’ ‘Everything that I was discovering felt exciting, like some of the folk motifs. For instance, I had never witnessed fire-worship before. The way people spoke was a challenge, in terms of how to render it into English without losing the authenticity. The source languages were Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, with dialect variations. That’s why I ended up using some of the regional words, because they are a sensory part of the story of the landscape.”

At our meeting, the book encouraged a wide debate among the six members present. The title “Border” was used in two ways: as a crossing and on the periphery .  We thought that she had visited the area three times to compile her “stories” about the movement of peoples since 2000 BC backwards and forwards. In her lifetime the flow of people had reversed from the Iron Curtain blocking southerly passage to the current strong Turkish border blocking the Syrians northerly trek.

It was largely felt that the book was well written although some unusual words in the early part of the book made it hard work – thankfully the language became simpler – had she been trying to impress? One person was irritated by the use of “he said”, “she said”, “he said” in a short passage but it was pointed out that this may have been an attempt at rhyme which had been successful on page 192. She had also interspersed some short chapters to highlight issues and themes – not unlike Steinbeck the month before.

Her story unfolded through dialogues which were largely believable (did she make any up?) and were short and well controlled. The people interviewed were quirky (because only they remained in such a depopulated area?) and varied greatly from simple, friendly individuals to mystics and several rascals as well as bad people e.g. some border guards and smugglers. She was lucky to meet these people as they were dying out.

As ever in country areas, you found great acts of kindness and hospitality but also great selfishness and cruelty. On page 331 she becomes very romantic, idealising an old couple – “The true spirit of the Balkans that hangs on, no matter how renamed and resettled, imagined and invented. Our bitter beloved borderless Balkans”. Is this why she returned?

She used colour – Black Sea, Red Resort, White Wind etc – to display this simple world and her scenic descriptions were good, a list of pen pics but some felt that photos would have enhanced the book. It would have been interesting if we had compared mental pictures of the characters!

The many topics touched upon included mythology, historical names (Thrace means Europe), peoples (the Romas were detested apart from their music!), agriculture (tobacco and sheep were very important), politics (Bulgaria right wing again), religion (the Ottoman’s tolerated Christianity), mysticism, consumption (Raki/Rakia and sweet Ottoman Baclava etc) and the shifting zone between East and West, North and South, Europe and Not-Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Christianity and Islam, Balkan and Mediterranean, made it very interesting.

Her views are balanced, not taking sides apart from being anti Communist, but the book is difficult to categorise. It has been described as a travel book but her route is untraceable. Someone related it to some of Scott’s novels with his myth and ritual in our borders. Anthropology is a possibility but it is more about herself. Maybe, we could just leave it as the journey of a poetic journalist making friends in an area which is part of her.

To conclude, all found it an engaging and enjoyable book of its time but unlikely to become a “classic”

 

Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath

We gathered on a Thursday evening in South Edinburgh to tackle one of the most feted books in American literature, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. To the disappointment of one of our number this wasn’t a Star Trek sequel, but a story of the Great Depression, of the exodus from the dust bowls of Oklahoma and neighbouring states to California in search of fruit picking in the promised land. Clearly, this had timely echoes in current economic migration within Europe.

The proposer had not read much American literature, with the exception of Steinbeck and Hemingway (covered elsewhere in our blogs). He noted that Steinbeck was a great literary figure, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, and found this book well worthy of the accolades. There was digression to talk of Steinbeck’s fascination with Camelot, encapsulated in a posthumous publication, ‘The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”. Is there a connection? Maybe this exists in the depiction of ‘noble peasants’ within The Grapes of Wrath.

Our proposer noted that Steinbeck was anti-business, anti authoritarian, and this wasn’t exactly surprising given his body of work and this book in particular. The book was widely acclaimed when it came out, yet criticised by some as an inaccurate socialist polemic, for example by the California Farmers Association. In passing, we noted that those who instigated the original clearances in Oklahoma seemed to somehow escape with lesser censure. Maintaining the anti-authoritarian posture, Steinbeck shows how the authorities supported the farmers against the immigrants. However there is reference to the ability to get relief and the setting up of Federal camps. It was suggested that the unsympathetic portrayal of business and authority was largely accurate, and one could draw parallels with the use of illegal workers now, although the practices depicted were legal in 1939. Sanora Babb, whose notes from employment within the Farm Security Administration were used by Steinbeck, would add support to the Steinbeck thesis. Her own, consequent book wasn’t published until 2004, having been gazumped by the Steinbeck novel in 1939.

Another member found the book harrowing, relentless, employing a style of writing which reflects the relentless pressure on the immigrants. The only uplifting factor in the book is the indomitable human spirit of the migrant workers. Steinbeck juxtaposed the story of the Joad family and their co-travelers with the overall historical descriptions of the Great Depression as a very clever structural component. He highlighted the gap between the American dream and the American reality.

The next speaker went further. It is just too long and relentless. There was a lack of light and shade, the text lost its pace, and sometimes went flat. He had read it firstly as a youth, then finding it boring, but now appreciated it more. Nevertheless, he did not join in the generally favourable criticism, even now.

Inevitably, the major issues are universal and pertinent today. Today, Western Europe is regarded by some as new land of milk and honey, but nevertheless there are food banks and illegal worker exploitation as noted above. (Strangely as I write this note after a long dry spell there are stories of a lack of migrant workers to pick fruit, post Brexit referendum, and the gaps are not being filled by the local population.) Having said that, there is considerable social buffering in comparison with the 1930s and allegedly the gap between rich and poor may be decreasing, although that probably depends on how you interpret the statistics. In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants were treated almost as a sub-human species; is that the case in the UK or Europe today? One suggested that the Brexit referendum result was caused by illogical fear and panic rather than rational debate based on sound arguments put forward by politicians (Surely not! –  Ed.). If alive today, Steinbeck would still find ample subject matter for some new books.

So, in this text, the California farmers don’t get a good press. What of the depiction of the migrants themselves? In general, not all migrants are noble, law-abiding and upstanding citizens, are they? Some are good, some bad, as with any section of population. One questioned the lack of aspiration of the migrants; perhaps they should raise their horizons? Are they ‘losers’ to quote the current US president? Au contraire, many migrants to the UK are highly educated and aspiring and many sectors of the economy, such as the high technology business, and public service, such as the NHS, are very dependent on such citizens. OK, there is some mention of aspirations to study vehicle maintenance but no real practical effort to fulfill these aims. Ah yes, said another, but this a polemic, not a balanced argument. It is quite justifiable to argue case with considerable bias. In some countries, revolutions occurred; here, there are references to the formation of labour movements, strikes etc., but these are peripheral to the main threads.

“Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”

There is an emphasis on family, and on the mother figure, Ma Joad, who holds the family together with such emphasis. Religion is a target of the book, it is implied that religion is a thing of the past, explicitly stated for Jim Casy. The references to religion are quite controversial.

“Maybe there ain’t no sin, there ain’t no virtue… It’s just what people does… Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice … And that’s all any man’s got a right to say…”.

Can they, should the California farmers feed the world? Should fruit picking not be mechanized? Progress is the elephant in the room and to what extent is a job a job for life?  The Steinbeck solution is, arguably, unworkable, you cannot turn Californian land over to small peasant farmers and feed the country. A car salesman is also portrayed as dishonest; there is a reference to taking a rotten and a god half cucumber and joining then together with a matchstick. Is there no such person as an honest salesman or benevolent farmer?  Again, one emphasised that this book is a polemic and therefore one shouldn’t expect balance or unbiased thinking. This contributor loved the sentimentality of the narrative, he felt empathy with people who work on the land, the gnarled sons of the soil, the salt of the earth, romanticised and self-indulgent. This was absolutely justified in this opinion.

Was there an absence of humour, was the subject too serious for humour? There were occasional passages that raised a smile, as when Tom tricked the driver, The Indian half breed regretted he wasn’t a whole breed as he missed benefits. One called it a misery memoir – that word ‘relentless’ cropped up again.

As the evening drew on, the talk turned to the possible soundtrack of the book, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Lonnie Donnegan, Merle Haggard, …

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee …. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free..”

Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie (the Oklahoma poet!), …

“The highway is alive tonight, Where it’s headed everybody knows, I’m sitting down here in the campfire light, With the ghost of old Tom Joad”

Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Country Music – right wing, south of the Mason Dixon line. Poor white music, three chords and the turn.

“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip, When you make that California trip, Get your kicks on Route sixty six”

To conclude, most thought the novel worthy of the ‘great’ accolade, but this was not the unanimous view. Those who could make the comparison thought this his best book. Is he a good writer? One called the descriptive passages excellent, with dialogue that made the characters believable. Opinion was always divided. An absent colleague was in no doubt, describing the work as a masterful piece of literature. The story romped on, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens next. The ending was controversial but interpreted as hope for the future and of inbred humanity through Rose of Sharon….hoping for a child but giving her milk to a dying stranger at the end.

… and we missed the England – Belgium game…..