Wednesday, 30 December 2020

'English Climate: Wartime Stories' - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I expect a lot of people are in the same boat here but I have found it very difficult to read in 2020 - as the sparse content on this blog this year will confirm. In such an unsettled and anxious time, it has been hard to concentrate on novels, no matter how much I would love the escapism. But short stories have provided a good solution, and fortunately this collection by British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner hits the mark. 

Published by Persephone Books (believe it or not, I do sometimes read books by other publishers), English Climate: Wartime Stories is, as you would imagine, a collection of short stories inspired by Sylvia’s experience of World War Two while living in the British countryside. We see vignettes of villagers who could populate any rural area all over the UK, and we have to wonder - a la DE Stevenson’s wonderful character Miss Buncle, also reprinted by Persephone - how many of these people were inspired by those whom Sylvia knew personally. They are not always flattering portrayals…

‘My Shirt is in Mexico’ is a mere four-and-a-half pages but neatly tells the story of two people who meet on a train and encourages the reader to be thankful for small things. ‘Noah’s Ark’ is about evacuated city children staying in the country, and their hosts’ difficulty in relating to these perceived wild creatures. While ‘Mutton’s Only House’ is such an extraordinary story about the preconceptions we make about people who we don’t really know that I had to read it twice, straight after each other. 

Sylvia writes in a typically Persephone manner (if such a thing exists), in that she has a crisp but friendly tone, slightly admonishing those who judge others negatively, and with a sharp ability not to waste words on unnecessary sentences - which is a great skill in any writer. And at this time when we are all feeling mentally fragmented and emotionally spent, some comforting short stories from a simpler time are just what we need as we brace ourselves to go into a second year of pandemic mayhem, this time with the added nightmare of Brexit. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

'Random Commentary' - Dorothy Whipple

Hang up the bunting and raise the flags, for Persephone Books has somehow managed to unearth another Dorothy Whipple book for us. Although alas, not a novel or even a short story collection this time, Random Commentary is instead a volume of this fantastic writer’s memoirs. And Persephone knows how much its customers love anything with the Whipple name on it. 

A short volume at a mere 159 pages, Random Commentary covers the years from 1925 to 1945 and Whipple herself compiled the text for the original publication in 1966 from her diaries. This means that Random Commentary covers the time when Whipple began publishing novels, rose to become a huge bestselling novelist and also when the anxious years that she spent living through World War Two: the book ends as peace is declared. 

While, of course, Whipple writes beautifully and comfortably, this is not a straightforward diary. Random Commentary may be taken from her diaries, but the reader is denied any kind of guide in the form of years or months to break up the paragraphs. Which makes for a rather disjointed read, and you need to keep going backwards and forwards to decide whether the paragraph you are reading follows on from the one before, or whether it is an entirely new topic altogether. Which I, for one, found rather frustrating. I had no sense of time or history, apart from the occasional mention of a real-world event or publication of one of Whipple’s own books. However, this was how Whipple intended the book to be read so this is how Persephone has kept the style. 

I was also rather confused as to who quite a few of the characters were and how they fitted in - and would dearly love to know who Mary was, and how Mary’s daughter Griselda fitted into Whipple’s life. Were they friends or family members? I have no idea but they were both obviously important people to Whipple. Maybe some footnotes would have helped the contemporary reader to fill in the blanks a little. 

But make no mistake, a Whipple is a Whipple and is something to be devoured. In 2020 of all years, we needed a Whipple more than ever and thankfully Persephone dug deep and found us one. Anyone who has read Whipple’s novels and short stories and enjoyed them as much as I have will find plenty to enjoy in Random Commentary.

Monday, 16 November 2020

'Fifty Words for Snow' - Nancy Campbell

Arctic traveller and writer Nancy Campbell’s new book Fifty Words for Snow was published at the start of the month by Elliott & Thompson. An absolute beauty of a book, as always with E&T publications, it is hard not to judge this by its cover. Because the hardback comes in a swirling blue and white wrapper, and contains gorgeous endpapers, while the pages themselves are blue ink on white paper and a myriad of sharp photographs of snowflakes. Just sumptuous. (See the image below this post for one of the photos.)

Campbell is an award-winning poet and non-fiction writer whose work has focused on the polar environment ever since she spent the winter of 2010 as artist in residence at a museum in Greenland. And her love for both language and the environment are sharply combined here. 

Unsurprisingly, Fifty Words for Snow is a collection of exactly that. But it is also more than that. Yes, the fifty short essays each cover a different language’s word for snow, but Campbell fully explores the etymology and history of each of those words and in doing so she shows us how language can be used to reflect the changing climate. And takes us with her on her travels as she does so.

Campbell says: “The idea for Fifty Words for Snow arose from my previous work on ice … While living on the island of Upernavik I began a decade of work on the changing language and landscape of the Arctic.”

Given how much the climate crisis is a topic for discussion in the 21st century, and given our global concern for the erosion of the natural environment, in Fifty Words for Snow Campbell shows how something as universal - and as simple - as snow can unite us in considering our shared planet’s future. And as Campbell says in her introduction, the process of tracing a single theme across many languages is a way to remove the borders that society has put up around the world. 

The different stories that we learn about each of the fifty words here, and how those words came to be, is much more uplifting and positive than you might initially expect. Campbell writes in a beautiful and picturesque manner. She brings in all manner of wildlife and other nature into her writing here, and you will finish this book with a yearning to explore more of the world for yourself… just as soon as lockdown rules allow us out of our houses again. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

'The Secret Life of Books' - Tom Mole

We have always been a world that loves books. Nothing seems capable of replacing them. E-books have tried but the sales of even the biggest authors are always far lower than those for real, physical paper books. We have a multitude of ways to distract ourselves these days, from computer games to endless streaming channels, and the internet means we can do pretty much anything we want without needing to leave our houses. Which is handy in these pandemic days. But physical books remain a staple of our culture. 

Which is curious, really. Books are terribly old-fashioned. These analogue, paper things with printed words. You have to manually turn each page yourself, eugh, how exhausting! You have to pick the thing up, and interact with it, and skim backwards and forwards if you want to check something. Jeez, how little do you value my time? A paper book! These things have barely changed in format since the 1450s when Gutenburg perfected his printing machine. Books are pretty much as old as the dinosaurs. 

Of course, I jest. I love books. And all of the reasons listed above are surely the reason why everyone else clearly loves books. We love the simplicity of them in their very being. And that's aside from even considering the content. These papery blocks have the ability to teach us new things, to transport us to new worlds, to allow us to escape our own tedium... to do pretty much anything. Of course we love them. That's why most of us go to bed with at least one every night.

And that's where Tom Mole's new volume The Secret Life of Books come in. Published on 29 October by Elliott & Thompson, Tom (who is the Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh, of course he is) has written a stylish and captivating study of the book as an object. The smell of books, the relationships we build up with other people through books (that we give/share/study), the books that were so terrible they needed to be banned (oh, save our souls). And much more.

Tom's ode to books and, as the sub-title says, why they mean more than words, is a lovely tribute to these most simple of objects. Of course, to a writer, a book is a complicated, sweat-inducing, nightmare of a thing from which you can, at best, hope to break even financially; to a publicist, a book is a gem that must be made to stand out from the crowd; to a retailer, a book is an item of stock that you hope finds the perfect home (perhaps in the same way that a pet shop owner hopes that rabbit finds a child who will treasure it). But to a reader, a book is simple. It is an uncomplicated and affordable collection of pages that has the potential to change your life. And this is what Tom explores in The Secret Life of Books.

The celebration of books in books is nothing new. There are innumerable miscellanies about books, libraries and so on. There are endless 'top 10 books you must read' lists and so many variations of books about books. So it is quite something that Tom has managed to make his stand out a little. It is beautifully written, drawing on personal experiences and his academic background to reinforce his points and flesh out his arguments. As you would expect from an English professor. But this is a book for anyone who loves to read. And, as I said at the start of this, surely that's most of us?

Monday, 11 May 2020

Running Tour - The Women Who Built (South) Bristol

During lockdown, my running club has been having a weekly scavenger hunt, where we are given three things to find during three runs that week and we report back with photos etc. One item was to take a selfie with a blue plaque. My blue plaque celebrated south Bristol shero Princess Caraboo (see photo above and text below). 

Having already done self-imposed running challenges such as running my name and various other keywords in street signs, I decided to write up a local tour of landmarks that are significant to some of the local old dead women in my books. It's something I'd been meaning to do for ages but never had the time.

So for anyone who wants it, here is a self-guided tour around 12 of south Bristol sites that acknowledge the women who stood there before. Plus a short paragraph about her. If you go for the run/walk, please let me know how you get on and do share any photos. 

Depending on where you start, the route is approximately five miles based on the assumption that you start and finish in Victoria Park. I'm also going to assume you have Google Maps or similar on your phone, so am not going to give detailed directions.

PS - 'Volume One' or 'Volume Two' after the woman's name denotes which volume of my book The Women Who Built Bristol the woman is in. If you'd like to buy a copy, please buy direct from me as I don't get money from copies purchased elsewhere. Each book contains 250 wonderful women, so you get good value for money. If you're local, let me know and I'll hand deliver to save you P&P.

If you'd like more running tours highlighting amazing but neglected old dead women in different areas of Bristol, let me know and I'll see what I can do. 


WOMAN ONE - ADA MARLEY (volume two)

30 Stanbury Road 
Starting from the lodge in Victoria Park, head a short way down Nutgrove Avenue and cut down Stanbury Road. At the other end, where the road joins Raymend Road, notice No 30 on the corner and look up to a blue plaque celebrating self-employed dressmaker Ada Marley. An unofficial plaque, this one was erected by the house's resident who had researched his house's history in the hope of finding an interesting ordinary woman to commemorate. In Ada, he found her. 

St John's Burial Ground, just off St John's Lane
Keep going down Raymend Road to meet St John's Lane and follow it all the way round until you notice an unassuming park on the right called St John's Burial Ground. Take the steep path to the top, then cross the grass to where a graffittied metal container is. To the left of the container, behind some overgrowth, is where you will find the treasure.

One week before the vicar of St John’s church in Bedminster had been expecting to marry Sarah Seymour to her beau Harry Larcombe in June 1859, he found himself conducting a joint funeral for the couple. Sarah and Harry were drowned following a boating accident off the coast of Watchet in which at least six other people also died. The burial of Sarah and Harry was the very first in the new cemetery. And due to the massive press attention the Watchet drownings had generated, their funeral became a public event attended by around 5,000 people.

240-248 West Street
Back down the steep slope of the burial ground and cross the road to Francis Road, and then turn right up Bedminster Road before going over the Parson Street railway bridge to West Street. Rock Cottage is right in front of you on the bank.

In the late 1890s, Rock Cottage was the home of the wealthy Bennett family. The story goes that toddler Henry was causing so much noise and disturbance one afternoon that his nursemaid, Ethel, took him into the garden so his elder siblings would not be disturbed during their lessons. While sitting on the side of the old well at the bottom of the garden and holding Henry in her arms, Ethel was terrified when the wall gave way beneath her and both she and Henry tumbled to the bottom of the well. Ethel had wrapped herself around the young boy to protect him, meaning that it was she alone who became agonisingly impaled on a rusty pipe at the bottom of the well. 

27 Chessel Street

Keep going up West Street and then turn left onto Chessel Street. At no 27 there is an official blue plaque for the wonderful Jessie Stephen. She's one of my most favourite of all the old dead women in my books. Suffragist, trade unionist, politician, pacifist, life-long women's rights campaigner. Even at the age of 85, Jessie was attending up to three women's rights meetings each week. You can read a biography I wrote about Jessie on this link.

248 North Street 
Carry on down Chessel Street until the end, then turn right and then left to wiggle onto North Street. Remember to look ahead so you see the view across to the Suspension Bridge. Head down to No 248 and a shop called Health Unlimited. This is our next stop.

When bootmaker Walter Steele died in 1924, his widow Eliza picked up the reins and continued the family business as a bootmaker and cobbler at 248 North Street. After all, what choice did she have? Walter’s death left Eliza a widow with five daughters to support, and it was not uncommon for widows and fatherless children to end up in the workhouses, even in the early 20th century. Eliza persisted for the sake of her daughters and as the head of a family of six she must have worked all hours of the day to avoid that dreaded fate.

57 North Street
Turn around and go back up North Street the way you came, keep going until you reach No 57 at the other end.

At the corner property of 57 North Street, you can still see the Victorian tiling that reads ‘AD Collard’ outside the former butchers’ shop which was run in its prime by Bedminster-born Louise Collard and her husband Aldred. Louise and Aldred, who lived above the shop, had taken over the running of the family business following their marriage in the mid 1890s. Louise became a well-known and “strong-willed” figure who had grown-up in the trade because her parents had run a butchers shop on East Street. Louise continued to work at the North Street shop until the 1960s when she was well into her 90s.
PS: A bonus fact that is not about a woman who built Bristol but is about a woman’s father-in-law. Aldred Daw Collard was known as both ‘the worst poet in Bristol’ and ‘the poet butcher of Bristol’. The small and badly weathered gargoyle and sign for ‘Poet’s Corner, 1882’ was commissioned by his customers.

28 Warden Road
Follow North Street until it becomes Dean Street and then turn right onto Warden Road. No 28 is the former home of our next woman.

Iris Knight was a councillor who worked hard to gain a position of power and to achieve some semblance of change for the future women of this city. When her father’s business was hit by the depression of the 1920s, Iris took a job as a clerk to support the family. Iris remembered: “I was the only wage-earner for a family of six. My father, self-employed, did not qualify for the dole, so apart from the odd jobs he did we all lived on the 35 shillings a week I brought home … Those two years turned me into a socialist.” As a Bristol councillor, one area Iris was involved with was supporting the striking miners in the 1980s and she was an active member of the pressure group Women Against Pit Closures.

14 Southville Place
Go back down Warden Road to Dean Lane and turn right to keep going up Dean Lane, follow the curve of Alpha Road and then turn right onto Southville Place.

Lily and William Harris lived at No 14 Southville Place. When World War One was declared, William was called up to serve as a rifleman and was sent to France, where he became a prisoner of war. He wrote to Lily at Southville Place, asking her to “send golden syrup”, a message which she interpreted as “send gold in syrup” and swiftly sent him a tin of treacle containing a gold sovereign that she hoped would somehow help him escape. For the rest of his life, William wore Lily’s sovereign on his watchchain as a good luck charm.

Temple Meads Station
From here, nip down the short footpath towards Asda and turn left on to Coronation Road. Follow the main road round, go past St Mary Redcliff (so many stories about old dead women in there) and head to Temple Meads train station. Right at the entrance to the station you will notice a carved stone cameo commemorating Emma Saunders.

After working as a teacher, in 1878 Emma began a Bible class for Bristol’s railwaymen, which would lay the foundation for her future as ‘the railwayman’s friend’. Emma went on to run a mission for railwaymen, to visit sick railwaymen in hospital, and to found the Bristol and West of England’s Railwaymen’s Institute, which provided educational and spiritual classes for the workers in an effort to steer them away from the temptations of alcohol. Although she sounds like a pious do-gooder, the men absolutely loved her because they knew she saw the good in them.

WOMAN TEN - CLARA BUTT (volume one)

3 Bellevue Road, Totterdown
Come out of Temple Meads and head up the Wells Road. Go past the corner with Fowlers' motorbike shop, over the railway bridge and turn right onto Bellevue Road. At no 3, there is a blue plaque marking the spot where Clara Butt lived as a child. 
National treasure Dame Clara Butt moved with her family to live here in 1880. While attending the Bath Road Academy, young Clara took singing lessons and was trained to become a soprano. Such was her talent that by 12, Clara was being taught by Bristol’s finest singing teacher Daniel Rootham. Clara’s career skyrocketed after this and she became famous all around the world but she never forgot her connections to Bristol..


27 Richmond Street, Totterdown
Not far to the next stop. From Bellevue Road, go back a few steps and then turn right onto Cambridge Road and follow that round to Richmond Street. And at No 26 we find a plaque for singer Irene Rose.

Even at the age of 16 she was the star turn at a summer show at Bristol Zoo, to be accompanied by the zoo band no less, where the advertising billed her as “Miss Irene Rose (Clever Child Vocalist)”. Four years later and she was also the highlight in the spring show at the Theatre Royal: “A favourite from the Theatre Royal pantomime appears in the person of Miss Irene Rose. This dainty little versatile vocalist contributed four songs last evening, and she has evidently made a lasting impression upon Bristol.” Irene went on to become President of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild.


11 Princess Street, Bedminster
Keep going along Richmond Street, down the lovely stone steps, until you hit St Luke's Road, then turn right towards Spring Street and weave around to Princess Street (get Google Maps to guide you, it's a bit fiddly but not far). This is a desolate trading estate but, on the side of an unassuming timber yard, is a detailed blue plaque for our final dead woman today: Princess Caraboo, aka Mary Wilcocks. 

In 1817, a cobbler met a confused young woman wearing unusual clothes and speaking a language he couldn’t understand. Eventually a Portuguese sailor claimed that he knew what she was saying. The sailor explained that her name was Princess Caraboo, that she came from the island Javasu in the Indian Ocean and that she had been captured by pirates before swimming ashore and finding herself in Bristol. And there's more... but you'll need to read the book to find out.

And that's it, you're finished for today. Well done. Do let me know how you get on. I'd love to know if anyone actually follows these suggestions. And maybe I'll do some tours of other areas of Bristol to take in other amazing dead women who so rarely get the love they deserve. Let me know any requests.

Of course, there are plenty more tours of amazing old dead women you can do in Bristol. There are plenty of interesting dead women to be found in Clifton, which is not my usual habitat so I will direct you towards Lucienne Boyce who has some suggestions of suffragette-themed walks in Clifton (there's nothing to stop you running them) on her website.

And if you'd like to buy any of my books, please let me know. If you're local, I will hand deliver to save you postage.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

I Love Yoga with Adriene

Oh man, Yoga with Adriene. Do you know it? Are you obsessed with it? You will be. I absolutely love her.

The unofficial Queen of Quarantine, Texan yoga shero Adriene Mischler is the person everyone but everyone is going to for their lockdown yoga and/or meditation fix. Especially me. 

I’m a relatively new convert. A friend mentioned Adriene to me and I eventually looked her up on YouTube and that was it, from my first video I was hooked. I now do an Adriene video pretty much every day. She’s so soothing, so calming, so reassuring… and Benji! Her gorgeous dog Benji, who sleeps through pretty much all of her videos, is *almost* as lovely as my own dog.

Adriene has been putting free yoga videos up on YouTube every week for almost ten years, she has more than seven million subscribers to her channel and her live yoga classes in London (on her rare visits across the pond) cost around £40 a ticket. She’s sponsored by Adidas so always wears lovely kit, yet she still seems so normal and down-to-earth. Her videos are shot in her Texas dining room, she leaves in her goofs and slip-ups, there is no annoying background music (sometimes you’ll hear a plane flying past the window, that’s how normal she is), she tells terrible jokes sometimes and all of her sessions are manageable whatever your yoga skills. 

Her YouTube channel (which hosts about 500 videos and counting) reads like a catalogue of potential ailments: Yoga for Writers, Yoga for Vertigo, Yoga for Feet, Yoga for Stress and so on. Seriously, Adriene is speaking to you. Each and every one of you.

I’ve been doing yoga on and off for about 25 years. But I’m but no means any good at it. I appreciate yoga for it’s breathing, it’s stretchiness, it’s mental health benefits, but I can’t do any of the more tricky poses like crow or headstands, even Hindi squat is beyond me (but then I'm a long distance runner so I don't bend). I’m not into power yoga or rocket yoga or hot yoga, I just want calm, normal, quiet yoga. And that’s what Adriene delivers. It’s yoga for the people. Yoga we can all relate to. You don’t need to be able to bend yourself in half and come back out the other side in order to complete an Adriene class. As she says, just showing up is half the battle. Yay. That’s an easy win. Adriene makes you feel good. 

She uses chilled out phrases like “rain your fingers down to the earth” or “kiss your knees” when you come to a sit up, and it’s not nauseating but endearing. I genuinely feel like Adriene cares about me even though she has no idea who I am. I am desperate for her online shop to re-open so I can buy some Adriene branded merch - that’s how much I love her. Her Instagram is a further insight into the lives of Adriene and Benji and their simple home, which feels both nourishing and normal. She just seems like somebody you’d know. 

I love Adriene. And Benji, obviously. Thank you, Adriene and Benji. PS - I'm busy trying to recreate Adriene's yoga studio in my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island. Like the obsessive I am.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

'The Sack of Bath' - Adam Fergusson

During these times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing about the books I've been reading.



Book six already? Actually, given we are four weeks in, this seems pathetic. Time has taken a very elastic nature lately and seems to be racing by when it comes to actually doing anything, and crawling by when it comes to thinking about The Future. We are stuck. We are unable to make plans.

I no longer seem to be seeking 'comfort literature' and instead am just devouring books. And yes, this is the second book by a man on this blog in as many weeks. What on earth is the world coming to?

Well, this is an absolutely furious book and maybe fury is what we need right now. Originally written in 1973 and reprinted a handful of times since (this edition is, of course, by Persephone Books and, if you want a copy, please do buy direct from the publisher to best support an independent, women-led business), The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson is about the unforgivable destruction of Georgian Bath at the hands of nonsensical town planning decisions. 

I have already written about the anger-inducing bulldozing of the historically unique Suffragettes' Wood at Batheaston here (it features prominently in Volume One of my book The Women Who Built Bristol and I regularly talk about it in my public talks, but it makes me so cross). But it is the wrecking ball that was taken to the central areas of Bath that dominate Adam's book here. Coming in at just 77 pages, plus Adam's 2010 foreword, this is a brief book, but I'm not sure how much more righteous anger the reader could take. Liberally illustrated with before and after photographs showing the appalling decisions the planners took, it is clear to see which side of right or wrong anyone reading this would fall on. 

Aside from Adam's anger, what I also noticed while reading The Sack of Bath was the absence of any women's names. It wasn't something I deliberately looked for, but save for a nod to Jane Austen, who only briefly lived in Bath, all of the historical references alluded to, all of the council officials and decision makers and architects slurred in the book - every single one of them is male. Of course, that partly says something about the role of women in official positions during the 1960s and 1970s, but women were starting to be 'allowed' into such jobs back then. That Dorothy Brown was tirelessly working to save Bristolian buildings from a similar fate during the same time period (again, you can read much more about Dorothy and her amazing work in Volume One of The Women Who Built Bristol) shows that it was evidently possible for women to campaign, fight and - most importantly - be heard in matters of town planning during these decades. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

'Make More Noise' - Short Story Collection

During these strange times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing here about the books I've been reading.



Book five in this Lockdown Literature series is, like book four, a return to suffrage stories for young adults. Make More Noise is a collection of ten short stories by female YA writers aimed at empowering younger readers to think positively about their own actions. Published by the independent Nosy Crow in 2018 to tie in with the partial suffrage centenary, £1 from each book sale goes to the charity Camfed (the Campaign for Female Education).

Opening with a whopper from the always excellent Sally Nicholls (see my write-up about her excellent book Things A Bright Girl Can Do here), the story 'Out For The Count' follows a schoolgirl as she and her sister, mother and female house staff camp out for the night to avoid the April 1911 census report. Sally uses this as an opportunity to bring in a range of issues without it being too clunky. So we hear about how women are paid less than men for doing identical jobs, how women are expected to leave work once getting engaged, and even how women had to turn down engagements to their sweethearts because they had adult dependents who they wouldn't be able to afford to keep caring for, especially once marriage obliged them to leave the workplace. It's an excellent way of showing that the suffrage campaign wasn't a one-trick pony. There was a lot more to the suffrage campaign than just demanding votes for women. 

Elsewhere in Make More Noise, we meet other suffrage sisters but the range is not just confined to the Victorian and early Edwardian eras. We also have a ghost story (albeit not a spooky one) in 'The Tuesday Afternoon Ghost' (by Ella Risbridger) which is really about the values of friendship and forgiveness. 'The Bug Hunters' (by MG Leonard) covers the topic of schoolyard bullies and the issue of liking things, such as bugs, that are not seen as a traditional 'girl' interest. While 'On Your Bike' by Jeanne Willis was an absolute treat - written in diary form, it tells the true story of American woman Annie Cohen who became the first woman to cycle around the world in 1894. 

PS - If you're struggling to explain the coronavirus situation to your kids, Nosy Crow has a free book that you can download that aims to help you with this. Click here for to go to the web page.


Now, more than ever, it is so important to support your local, independent retailers to help ensure they are still here for us on the other side of this pandemic. So please consider ordering books direct via your local, independent bookshop rather than that very problematic online monolith. Thanks.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

'Star by Star' - Sheena Wilkinson

During these strange times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing here about the books I've been reading.



Book four in this Lockdown Literature series sees me return to familiar territory - suffrage novels. I've long had a fascination with novels about the suffrage era, and specifically young adult novels, because I believe it is so important to educate and interest the younger generation in this critical period. And this is where Star By Star by Sheena Wilkinson comes in. 

Initially, this seems a bit of an odd choice to read during a global pandemic given that Star By Star is set in 1918 during the height of the Spanish Flu global pandemic. For instance, here is the back of the book:

But bear with me. There is actually something rather comforting about reading about a past pandemic in the middle of the current one. We are reminded that this has happened before and we have survived it before. In fact, by virtue of the advances in medicine, technology and communication we have it more comfortable now. Although, of course, it is no less worrying. 

Our hero Stella is just 15 and her mother has recently died after contracting the Spanish Flu. Left alone as an orphan in Manchester, Stella travels alone to Cuanbeg on the west coast of Ireland to stay with her aunt Nancy: her mother's sister, whom Stella has never previously met. Stella's mum, you see, had been a suffragette and her family had disowned her when she became pregnant as an unmarried 16-year-old, forcing her to flee to England and forge a new life with her daughter. Growing up with a militant mum, Stella is imbued with the suffrage spirit and is struggling to come to terms with her grief, her new life in a quiet rural town, the realities of the deadly flu raging all around, the seemingly never-ending war and her immense sadness that her mother will not be able to vote in the December 1918 elections - the very first one that some women could vote in. 

I really liked that Star By Star repeatedly acknowledges that the 1918 result was only a partial victory for women. So many people now think that 1918 was the end of the suffrage battle but it was far from it - women could only vote if they met stringent criteria: being over 30, owning property, having a degree etc, meaning that many of the women who fought for the vote were still not able to vote until 1928, by which time many had died. 

It was refreshing to read a suffrage novel that is a break from the norm. In Star By Star our focus is less on the suffrage campaign as it is on the aftermath of the survivors of that bitter war. Stella is a strong young woman and her character is shaped by her mother's spirit, but the issues of grief and isolation are what are covered here, coupled with Stella's fighting spirit to find good, her determination to make the world a better place and to help those that she can. And in these current times of grief and isolation, it strikes me that Star By Star would be a useful novel for many younger readers to turn to at the moment. 


Now, more than ever, it is so important to support your local, independent retailers to help ensure they are still here for us on the other side of this pandemic. So please consider ordering books direct via your local, independent bookshop rather than that very problematic online monolith. Thanks.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

'Another Planet' - Tracey Thorn

During these strange times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing here about the books I've been reading.



In a different vein to my previous two suggestions for Lockdown Literature which were both older novels, book three is a contemporary memoir by musician Tracey Thorn. Perhaps best known as half of Everything But The Girl, she is also an acclaimed writer and her first memoir Bedsit Disco Queen is a real treat. It is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the world of *real* independent music in the 1980s and Tracey's narrative voice gives the book a wonderful presence. Check it out. 

Anyway, Another Planet focuses on being a teenager in suburbia, specifically Brookmans Park on the outer edges of London during the 1970s. Being a teenager is never easy, especially when you feel you are on the edge of something and somewhere. I grew up in a tiny village in rural Somerset, so share Tracey's frustrations at feeling bored and ignored. It's something I've given a lot of thought to over recent years because, like Tracey, I have also revisited my teenage diaries (except mine are from the early 1990s) for a writing project. So it was especially interesting to read Another Planet and see Tracey's tackle all this from a different decade and a different geographic area.

Another Planet is a fascinating potted biography of a suburb. Even if you don't know Brookmans Park, you know plenty of places just like it. Identikit commuter dwellings that popped up at the end of the war and were places for those who worked in London to live without enduring the big city prices. Of course, the implication here is that the residents were the worker bees, the ones without the big pay cheques. In other words: know your place. 

Brookmans Park has one of everything: one school, one pub, one playground and so on. Which means it is deathly dull for a teenager. But as Tracey explores by revisiting her diaries, is being a teenager ever anything other than boring? Her diaries are more significant for what she does not do than for what she does do. Her entries are catalogues of trips to towns and garments she did not buy, and events she did not go to... but the omissions also speak loudly about aspirations. 

In Tracey's case, she escaped suburbia, went to university and was part of a successful duo with her partner Ben Watt. The flip side of that coin is what her life might have been had she not escaped. If she had remained in suburbia - as so many of her friends might have - what would she then have done?

Another Planet is an evocative exploration into the world of suburbia. And if you're looking for an escape from these isolated times of pandemic anxiety, then why not climb into these pages and slip back a few decades to a charmingly uncomplicated time before the internet, before mobile technology and before, for Tracey, fame. 

PS - Although I have a hardback copy featured in the photo, Another Planet is now out in paperback so you can save yourself a few pounds by splashing out on that one. And please do support an independent bookseller if you get a copy. 


Now, more than ever, it is so important to support your local, independent retailers to help ensure they are still here for us on the other side of this pandemic. So please consider ordering books direct via your local, independent bookshop rather than that very problematic online monolith. Thanks.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

'The Fortnight in September' - RC Sherriff

During these strange times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So, whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing here about the books I've been reading. And I hope that, if you're looking for hot-water-bottle book recommendations for yourself, then some of these sound appealing to you, too.



I'm breaking with tradition on this blog and writing about something that (whisper it) a man (gasp) has done. But he's done it ever so well, and he's disguised his name by using only his initials so we can pretend it was written by a woman and all will be well. (Removes tongue from cheek.)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1896-1975) has been sitting on my to-be-read pile for about two years. Maybe longer. But it got rocketed to the top after author Lissa Evans (who is a delight on Twitter; you should also read her books - two of which I have written about here and here) posted her list of books for troubling times. And this was on there. 

Published by Persephone Books (please do buy direct from them if you'd like a copy, as that's the best way to support an independent publisher), we know we're in safe hands from the off. Persephone don't often publish books by male writers so when they do, we know they must have done it for a good reason. And they certainly have. The preface to The Fortnight in September is by Sherriff himself and is an excerpt from his autobiography. He describes how his 1931 novel came to be. It was a huge departure from his previous work (including the successful WW1 play Journey's End that drew on his experiences in the trenches) and he initially wrote it only for his own amusement, unable to imagine how this simple story of a family going on their annual holiday to Bognor Regis could possibly be of interest to anyone else. How wrong he was!

The joy of The Fortnight in September lies in its detail, its mundanity, its close observations of the nuances of middle-Englanders who know their place but secretly harbour aspirations to be something more. The Stevens family consists of Mr and Mrs Stevens, son Dick (who is frustrated in an office job he felt pushed into), daughter Mary (who works for a dressmaker) and school-age Ernie. I absolutely love the fact that even though we know the first names of the parents, they are only ever referred to as Mr Stevens and Mrs Stevens. This detail perfectly sums up the time, place and atmosphere of our leading family.

Closely-knit, the Stevens' know they are on the cusp of change but they don't want to mention it. Dick and Mary are really getting a little too old for a seaside holiday with their parents and kid brother. The boarding house they go to (the same one every single year, for two decades) has become shabby and uncomfortable, but nobody wants to say anything less they spoil the magic. Most delightfully, Mrs Stevens doesn't even much enjoy the annual holiday (her favourite hour of each day is the one when everyone goes out and leaves her on her own with a glass of port) but keeps pretending that she does so as not to spoil it for anyone else. It's all just wonderful. 

Nothing really happens. In exacting detail, we follow the family as they close up their London home, drop the canary off with an annoying neighbour and we go with them on their train journey to Bognor. We share in the magic of walking from the station to Seaview, their boarding house, and we go with them as they each quietly pretend not to notice how the house is that bit more rundown than it was last year, and the year before, and the year before that. 

For the Stevens', the days are taken up with routine. Mrs Stevens goes to the shops, the children swim and play on the beach, Mr Stevens enjoys his evening drink in the pub and flirting with the barmaid. But we see the shadow of change looming on this evolving family. Dick is starting to go out on brooding walks on his own. Mary is befriended by a more outgoing girl than herself. And Mrs Stevens has a frank heart-to-heart with their landlady at Seaview.

But when the family head back to London, we know that while small changes might well take place for the Stevens family, ultimately they will continue in their gentle, kind and considerable manner. Looking out for one another, considering the feelings of others, and being good, honest people... albeit ones who have to draw straws to decide who has the bad luck of visiting the neighbour to deliver the canary.

I cannot recommend 
The Fortnight in September highly enough. Especially in these difficult times. I wished it would not end.