Monthly Archives: February 2017

What’s February for …


…  if not to read … and read …


Alexander Scrimgeour kept a (totally illegal) personal diary as a trainee midshipman for the first years of World War I, and wrote many letters home.  In this selection there’s a good deal of superficial snobbery, and a lot of growing up, while the content is a wild mixture of experiences as he met them.  One minute he is complaining that the girl he fancies doesn’t have enough hair and is therefore ineligible to be his girlfriend.  The next he is giving an unembroidered but terrifying description of a storm in the north Atlantic – a 40 degree roll going on and on, everyone sleepless, soaking and freezing, ship’s biscuit and chocolate the only food, the ship’s boats being snatched by huge waves, one after another, electric shocks from the deck, and finally the huge sea which demolished the fore-bridge, wheel house, chart-room and intelligence office and threatened to dislodge the funnels (he records with surprise that nobody was lost overboard).  In a more reflective mood, Scrimgeour describes the frosted-up ships in a squadron looking “like great white icicles”, or then indulges in some sarky remarks about the all-pervading Admiral Beatty and his even more all-pervading wife. In a letter of December 1915 he records his admiration for the ship’s stokers (possibly the most looked-down-upon seafarers of all): “their whole life in war-time is a vivid succession of discomforts and hardships, unparalleled in severity and monotony” – a respect he was incapable of experiencing a year earlier.

Diaries can be wonderful because the author is writing in the moment, unbiased by hindsight.  This author never had a chance for any hindsight, and reading the diary is coloured by a sobering dramatic irony:  we know, as Scrimgeour did not, that he would be killed at Jutland, aged just 19.


The conceit of this slim volume is that poets submit one of their own poems, alongside a poem from another writer who has influenced them.  Somehow this didn’t quite come off for me (perhaps some of the selections were too predictable).  Not without gain, however.  I’m very happy to have met quite a few poems which will grow on me, especially Robinson Crusoe’s Wise Sayings by Ian McMillan (“…If you talk to a stone long enough you’ll fall asleep…”) and the Warning to Children by Robert Graves.  Well, I think they should be warned.


Slightly had my doubts (*whispers*:  American you know) but was encouraged to find Cobb thanking St Augustine in the author’s acknowledgements, alongside colleagues, editors, copyright granters etc., and making an early nod to the failures and transgressions of theology.  Thus fortified, I pressed on, enjoying some decent writing, and a thread of optimism which the author himself sees as defiance.


Fiction for younger children is remarkably poor.  Remarkably, because picture books are often superb, and fiction for children of 9+ is often very good too; but stories for 5 – 7 year olds mostly have no excuse for existing.  No wonder children don’t want to read, I mutter viciously, as I flick though another 40 vacuous pages.  Most maddening of all, there are a number of books where you can see a good story trapped inside the lack-lustre writing.  This was a case in point:  I really wanted to know about Jellyblob.  But no; Jellyblob’s poignancy and weirdness are forever veiled behind the pedestrian plot and worthless protagonists.


Before John Arlott went global with TMS, he wrote this brief account of the Test series (MCC against South Africa) in 1947.  According to the fly leaf, it cost eleven shillings, a not inconsiderable sum in 1948, and perhaps it seems a little odd that anyone would fork out to this extent for summaries of matches a year old.  Still less worth reading about matches of seventy years ago, you would think; but cricket tends to generate good stories, and this book had found its reader. There’s interest in the conditions of cricket at the time, as these were four day tests, with uncovered wickets, and Arlott mentions players still trying to regain fitness after war-time food rationing.  But mostly it’s the writing. Arlott of course adored both the game and phrase-making, and even a cricketing moron like myself could visualise it:  “England’s Nos. 9, 10, and 11 – looking like Nos. 11, 12 and 13”;  Dawson on his follow-through taking “a barely Christian caught-and-bowled”; Nourse who “doled out runs like slowly thought-out insults”.  My favourite story was the one about the batsmen panicked by a phantom ball.  Too long to post here, but oh, joyous.



We only have the edge of the storm, and the sea has often been more spectacular; however, there was plenty of white water and the horizon was lumpy and vigorous.


Someone had been having fun.  I pottered in a convocation of beach art.


The moment of sun expired and the reed beds heaved in the freshening gusts, and the spindly trees leaned and moaned and thrashed.


Oh all right then




Well it had good reviews, but then, what do reviewers know?  Or Very Reverend Doctors, for that matter.

Naturally I had to buy it, but was overtaken by deep reluctance.  Nearly two years on, and mostly because of the £10 expended, I approached the first chapter crabwise, reading with my face (as it were) averted until well into chapter two, and backing off at intervals to squint from a safe distance.

With hesitant trust established, I gobbled the remaining eleven chapters at speed, scribbling notes as fast as possible so as not to interrupt the prose.  The biographical writing and critical analysis step gracefully in and out of one another, and Drury seems to have all the time in the world for his discussion.  He writes with zest and, I think, affection, and with enjoyable turns of phrase.  Almost all the argument rang true as I read – there were one or two small clonks, but then, what do I know either?  Drury also has a gift of quotation which makes one actually want to rush off and read the sermons of seventeenth century divines, so there’s a novelty.

So yes, all right, Drury can do Herbert. I am ridiculously relieved.

Heard in the night


Best beach is inaccessible just now, so I walked down to the waves I hear in the night.  It was almost windless, so I could hear them well.  And I took my coat off.

Essential equipment


These are the reading trousers.


Their virtues are legion:  they do not bite, itch, ride up, expose the ankles to drafts, generate electric shocks, or work themselves into vicious little wrinkles which dig in.  They enable much intellectual endeavour (also sleep), and accommodate not only legs, but any size of lunch.  Social graces should not be expected of the reading trousers when appearing outside the home, as they are not interested in public opinion.  Indeed, at formal gatherings they may spontaneously fall down.

Every reader should have some.

A sea of error


Still sifting the library, knee deep in small children and the hideously-accumulated errors of the catalogue.  No doubt I am adding yet another set of inconsistencies and typos.

The errors pursued me into the picayune literary magazine which is in editing, and throve exceedingly.  So preoccupied did I become with formatting (but how did that paragraph get condensed?) that I mislaid an apostrophe.  Oh the shame.  And now it is too late, I see yet another formatting error.  Luckily the infants will not know that a specific word was meant to be bolded.  Stop fussing, stupid:  time for the blind man on a galloping horse to be invoked.



For reasons too complicated to go into, this has been my latest read:


I had a disdainful nose in the air before I began, but to my annoyance soon began to chuckle (oh dear, I must be a girl after all).  The elaborate typographical jokes were a slight pain, but Kuenzler is rather good on the sausage dog so long that his back end was always doing something completely different from the front end.  And on the Dingley Dell wedding with man-sized squirrel.  Also rather good on the uncle who, trying to please his new fashionista girlfriend, has smartened himself up, and refuses to go to the playground in case he gets his suit dirty, to the horror of his niece:

“Was this the man who had driven across the Sahara Desert in his underpants because his shorts were holding the engine together? …”

Then today was bleak indeed, and raw; the flat sky dribbled a few mean little flakes and it was a good day to stay in, knitting lethargically, daydreaming, and reflecting on the vagaries of literature.  And in idleness I had a snow poem; all eight lines of it.  The insufficiency of the fall required no more.




In the raw weather I tidied the perennials overwintering in pots, sweeping away the accumulated dead leaves and stems and greb, until the broom poked an alien thing … which turned out to be a saggy but undead large overwintering toad. I tenderly re-buried him in a quilt of leaves and tucked the agapanthus round for shelter.  Hope he makes it.


I don’t often want to tear books in half.  I did consider it for this one.  It weighs in at 60 oz  – nearly 4 lb – or, for younger readers, 1723 g – and reading would have been less tiring if I had sliced it firmly down the spine and read it one moiety at a time. However, this is an unusual paperback in having been glued very thoroughly into its cover (kudos to OUP) and I don’t suppose I could have (quite) brought myself to do it anyway.


That weight includes a small forest of notes-to-self, so the authors were obviously doing something right.  The final chapter is entitled ‘The future of Christianity’ and ends on page 665; I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t a teeny weeny private joke going on.


There are some other teeny weeny things going on.  Spot the verbascum.

Crawling about on the floor



Tricky choice for an audio book, with 25 CDs, a cast of thousands, and ranging over all of Europe, including elaborate military evolutions which could only be intelligible with a map – especially while distracted by counting stitches, reading recipes, sorting out cupboards etc.   The main contention seems to be that WWI was not a case of ‘sleepwalking’ but was triggered by intentional German aggression. It was difficult to tell if certain phrases were quotations from other authors or Hastings’ own.  I did like the one describing the badly planned battle of the Heligoland Bight as a Grand Fleet ‘come-as-you-are party’.  Also one army officer (whose name I didn’t catch) saying that with aeroplanes increasingly involved in warfare, he could only tell his soldiers ‘to put hay on their heads and make a noise like a mushroom’.

2-on-the-floorI’ve been crawling on the floor while sifting a library.  The library is on the floor because the children who use it are only little dots and need low shelving, but it’s agony on the knees.  The cover of this rather elderly item caught my eye. The story was less original than I had hoped, but the author occasionally has a good idea, such as the hungry tiger saying, ‘The pleadings of the buffet can be really quite amusing’.

3-dingyThere used to be an unfortunate tendency to put children’s literature into drab jackets.  This book won a Newbery back along, and deserved a better outside, especially as it is not illustrated within.  The setting is the austerity of an American great plains farming community not far from its pioneering origins. Sarah from the East coast answers an advertisement for a replacement wife for a widower and his two children, and visits the family for a month while she tries to decide.  The courtship between the children and Sarah teeters gently back and forth, and the father’s overtures are hinted in the background.  This subtlety was coarsened into a mainstream film, in which the children are dislodged from the centre of their own story and the events of the original tale sensationalised – the book is its superior in every respect.


If fame is indicated when an author is referred to only by surname, how about when initials are enough?  It’s somehow fitting that GBS and GKC faced off across the early years of the twentieth century.  GKC is a bit mannered, but I enjoy his relish for words:  ‘The most interesting thing about Mr. H. G. Wells is that he is the only one of his many brilliant contemporaries who has not stopped growing.  One can lie awake at night and hear him grow.’  (But somehow one doesn’t call him HGW.)

And I’ll always love Chesterton’s definition of a heretic:  ‘that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine’.