Reading Diary #1 – To Have and to Have Not

I’ve decided to start a reading diary At The Quill. I don’t know how this is going to work, but I’m reading regularly now – have been for more than a year, I think, looking back. I’ve been mentioning my reading in my private diary more and more frequently. Why not extract those pieces and polish them up a little to post them? At least it will mean a more occasional posting than the dearth of what’s At The Quill at present.

I don’t need to call it anything more fancy than “Reading Diary” (though I expect I’ll think of something).

Book box giving

After my blog entry about the Book Boxes at Stops and Stories last Wednesday, I decided to take a bag of books and go round the boxes leaving the books – one here, one there. It wasn’t so difficult in the end, choosing which to give away. The three my mother gave me when I was last home (including the awful Linda LaPlante Backlash), plus the last of the Terry Pratchett books – The Shepherd’s Crown – which I liked well enough but doubt I’ll want to read again.

Then there’s the hardback of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman that I bought back home in Sweden last summer. I hope someone finds it and enjoys it (more than I did). I’m also giving my copy of Gone Girl (the beginning was better than the end), China Miéville’s Embassytown (good, but not nearly as good as The City and The City), and Angela Gillies’ The White Lie. Of them all, I think it’s the last I may regret giving away most. That’s personal – simply because I’ve been in touch with Angela directly (over Twitter). But I must be honest with myself – though I enjoyed it am I going to want to re-read it? Probably not.

Giving books away

Giving books away like this is a new experience for me. Of course I’ve parted with books in the past, but often not very willingly. I can still remember the covers of some of the books I sold when I was a student, and how painful it felt – like abandoning a child.

I’m being melodramatic. How would I know what it’s like to abandon a child?

But I still remember the deep green cover of my Everyman copy of Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke of the Governour; the white cover with the red, blue and black lettering and the imitation woodcut illustration of my book of mediaeval European history. And why can I remember them so clearly? And why does it still hurt that I was fool enough to part with them? For a handful of coins that weren’t really enough to pay for the next book I bought?

Make room! Make room!

My depression and my inability to read overlapped with our move to the present flat in Gothenburg where we had – still have – even less room for bookshelves than in the place we left. My re-discovery of the joys of reading, now, coincides with our move to Brussels and empty shelves that cry out to be filled. But I know in a year, or a year and a half, that we’ll be moving back and I have no idea how I’m then going to shoehorn all these new books into the flat. It’s probably a good idea to start training myself to be selective about the books that I keep, and to pass on the rest.

It is easy to let go of books you haven’t enjoyed reading. At the same time it feels a bit shabby. If I didn’t like them, am I not cheating others when I give them away? Am I passing them off as books to read when I really believe they’re not worth it? I argue with myself and say: Because this book isn’t to your taste doesn’t mean it won’t suit someone else. Besides I’m also giving away some books I’ve enjoyed but don’t see myself picking up to re-read any time soon.


You should borrow more books from the library, Mrs SC says. And she’s right. And I do. But mostly it’s when I want to be surprised. I go to the library, I look along the shelves, and I see what jumps out at me. It’s how I found Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water. It’s how I found Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. When I know for sure what I want to read, when I have an author’s name or a title, then a search online and an order placed. Or, as just happened, a visit to a local bookstore (in the belief that I am supporting local business against the evil Amazon) – that’s my usual practice.

To Kindle, or not

I’ve got a Kindle app on my mobile phone, but to be honest I mostly don’t see the point. Yes, yes. I know all the arguments about saving space and saving paper. But there are so many things you can do with a printed book that you can’t do with electronic document. Read in the bath. Make notes in the margins. (Not that I do the former – or the latter very much either to be honest.) Read without having to worry about battery time and without tiring my eyes. Give it away.

I have one title on my telephone Kindle that I read three years ago – Sonya Hartnet’s Thursday’s Child. I really enjoyed that book and deeply regret that I don’t have a proper hard copy. It was the experience of buying Thursday’s Child through Kindle – it was only my second or third Kindle buy – that killed my interest in buying more. That and the ridiculous complications I ran into when I was forced to reinstall the Kindle app, and couldn’t find my password. I thought all the books that I had bought up to then were erased and I would have to pay a second time for any title I wanted to re-read. Well, that turned out not to be true. Not then and there. But it might be in the future, and it just added to my reluctance.

No, I’m sticking with the printed word.

So, if this reading diary is going to be a regular thing it’s likely to be – mostly – a diary of reading print media. You’re warned.

Filled with numbers and books - secondary school art
Filled with numbers and books – art decorating the outer wall of a secondary school on Rue du Grande-Serment, Brussels

A note on the heading and subheadings

To have and to have not is the title of a novel by Ernest Hemingway from 1937. It seemed appropriate.

Make room! Make room! is title of a science fiction novel by Harry Harrison published in 1966. Though, to be sure, it wasn’t an exploration of the consequences of unchecked book buying.

Books read 2015

Below is a list of all the books I managed to read (or at least partly read) in 2015. Thirty titles. Not nearly on a par with the days of my boyhood and youth when I could get through five or more in a week, but not too bad. Better than last year (I suspect). One of my New Year Resolutions is to read 50 books in 2016. I wonder how that will go.

[su_spoiler title=”Ayres, You Made Me Late Again“]
Poetry (largely comic). This was a birthday present from my mother who loves Pam Ayres. Well, she makes me smile too, quite often.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Banks, Consider Phlebas“]
Science fiction, novel, re-read. Following the sad death of Iain (M) Banks in 2014 I started to re-read the books of his that I had on my shelves. This was his first published SF novel and I still think it one of his best.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Banks, The State of the Art“]
Science fiction, short stories, re-read. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Bohem-Duchen, Chagall“]
Art, biography and art criticism, read part. See my Stops and Stories review of the Chagall exhibition in Brussels.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People“]
Journalism, about the Nordic countries, good on Denmark, shaky on Norway, Finland and Iceland, poor on Sweden. A review on the Guardian website by Mariella Frostrupp.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Brayfield and Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction“]
Good “how to” book from Writers and Artists (Bloomsbury), includes some interesting contributions from a wide range of history writers, some written specially for this book.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Christopher, The Tripods Trilogy“]
Children’s (really “boy’s own” – I see Wikipedia calls them Young Adult) science fiction, read for the sake of nostalgia. I have read parts 2 & 3 before, but I think this was the first time I read part 1. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Cleese, So, Anyway“]
Good autobiography by John Cleese. See my review here.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Gaiman, Neverwhere“]
Neil Gaiman’s novelisation of his TV series – “the author’s preferred version”. I didn’t see that it strayed far from what I remember on screen.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Humes, Belgium: Long united, Long Divided“]
History of Belgium by American historian. (An amateur historian?) Interesting subject and information, but dreadfully boring and repetitive in style. I didn’t finish reading it, but will revisit in 2016 and take another run at it.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water“]
Traveller’s tales. Eighty years on (in 2013) Nick Hunt walks in a cloud of cigarette smoke from Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor (see below). Good read – to be honest often an easier read than Leigh Fermore. I may revisit this in 2016 for a Stops and Stories review. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Kimselius, Back to Pompeii“]
Children’s historical/time-travel adventure. Re-read in order to winkle out some Americanisms and slips for Kim’s new edition. My earlier review of this here.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Kimselius, Att Skriver med Glädje“]
“How to” book for (young) writers – includes a short autobiographical essay by Kim Kimselius – which was actually the only bit I read. (Sorry Kim! But that was the bit I found most interesting.) [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Langley and Jones, The Search for Richard III“]
Account of the archaeological excavation in the Leicester car park that unearthed the bones of King Richard III. Told in alternating chapters by the authors. Langley, who was the motive force behind the excavation, and Jones, who is a historian and writes about Richerd III, his life and times and the events that lead up to his death and burial. Here’s a review of the book on The Guardian’s website. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road“]
The missing third part of the trilogy describing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey as an 18-year-old, walking from Hook of Holland to Constantiople in 1933. The earlier two parts – A Time of Gifts (published 1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) took him to the Iron Gates, this final volume – published posthumously – carries the story on through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and finally to Mount Athos in Greece. Paddy Fermor died in 2011 aged 96. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Leone, By its Cover“]
Detective story, set in Venice.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Lispector, The Hour of the Star“]
Experimental novel by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. An odd but fascinating little novel. Some wonderful imagery. I was introduced to this author in 2015 by my Blogg52 friend Eva Ullerud – in this Swedish language blog entry. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher“]
Short stories – some of them rather good. (This was a Christmas present from my sister – thanks Lin!) The title story upset a lot of people when it was published – more (I suspect) for the title than for its contents which I found less satisfying than, for example, “Harley Street”. Hilary Mantel is the author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, two highly successful historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, both now turned into TV series. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Miéville, The City and the City“]
Science fiction/noir detective story. Very, very good read. One of the best of all these books. A review may come later, either here or in Stops and Stories. In the meantime here is Michael Moorcock’s review in the Guardian. China Miéville’s Wikipedia page here.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Miéville, Embassytown“]
Science fiction. Excellent novel, if not quite as much for me as The City and the City. A review in the American literary magazine Kirkus. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Mosse, The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales“]
Short stories by Kate Mosse the author of Labyrinth and the Languedoc Trilogy. Picked up by chance while I was travelling in England last spring, this surprised me. I enjoyed it and think I should perhaps give Kate Moss’s novels a chance (the blurb has put me off Labyrinth till now). [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Mullan, How Novels Work“]
Good reference work for writers and wannabe writers. This was my first book of the year and I’m saddened to find I don’t remember so much of it. But I remember I liked reading it and thought it useful. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Newman and Mittelmark, How not to Write a Novel“]
Humorous presentation of some of the many things an author can do to ensure his/her manuscript is unreadable. Disturbed to discover I was at first unable to see what was wrong with some of the suggestions. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens“]
Comic, fantasy. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. One of the many books I missed when I was reeading so little in the 90s and 00s. Glad I was able to put that right at last. Reading this was prompted by the death of Terry Pratchett. Too many good people have died recently.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Reynolds, The Oslo Tram“]
Poetry. I had a sudden hankering to re-read this and bought a second-hand copy on line though ABE Books. Oliver Reynolds poem of a man who imagines what his reincarnation as a blue Oslo tram would be like is a fine poem that has stuck in my head for years. (There are more poems than just the title one in the book too!) [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Sacks, On The Move“]
Oliver Sacks’ autobiography. See my review.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Schalansky, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands“]
Judith Schalansky’s little gem of a book – part travellers’ tales, part atlas, entirely poetic in its own special way. See my review.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound“]
Play. I was at home in Sweden and saw this slim little volume on my shelves. Picked it up and re-read it in an evening. I don’t think I’ve ever (yet) seen it performed.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Tegeborg Falkdalen, Vasa Döttrarna“]
Very good history book about the daughters of Gustav Vasa. I have still to read the second half, saving for later in 2016. Here’s a review (in Swedish) from Dagens Nyheter. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Williams, Tailchaser’s Song“]
Fantasy novel. Does for cats what Richard Adams did for rabbits in Watership Down. Rather good (though not quite as good as Watership Down IMHO). Another of those books I missed out on earlier.[/su_spoiler]

Some of the books read 2015

So, Anyway – the Autobiography of John Cleese

So, anyway, John Cleese has written this autobiography and it’s called So, Anyway. With the exception of the final chapter, which is a sort of post-Python Reunion extra track, the story cleverly focuses on Cleese’s childhood and formative years as an author and performer and finishes during the television recording of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As anyone who has read multiple autobiographies will know, the best part is always the author’s description of his or her childhood and growing pains. All the business of public life after the author has achieved success, fame and fortune tends to be largely namedropping and ego boosts. And then so many of the Monty Python sketches (and the Fawlty Towers episodes – and many of their backgrounds) are so well-known that regurgitating them here, while it would be, I’m sure, lapped up by the fan base (now that’s a disgusting image) would be pretty boring for the rest of us.

So it’s clever that the book dispenses with (most of) that, but it’s clever also because of the structure of the story as it is told.

The autobiography follows the conventional chronological route of childhood, youth, life as a student and the first hesitant years in which our hero discovers his talents, his professional life and the friends who will sustain him. At the same time, Cleese bakes into this mix flash-forward references to his future career with the Pythons and after, and to his philosophical, psychological and sociological interests, giving a new and different slant on the origins of some of the classic sketches. (Oh, and he’s still in love with Connie Booth – that’s what I see anyway.)

For a wider audience, I guess, Cleese is so identified with the Monty Python gang that many people are under the impression that Monty Python was where his career started. Even if you know something about his history in the Cambridge Footlights – the student revue club at the University of Cambridge – you may not know of his involvement in so many of the stage, television and radio shows that preceded Python. It was good to be reminded of these, and given a more rounded picture of John Cleese before he became a household name.

He comes across in the book as a very intelligent and generally a very kind, rather modest man. A loyal friend and who is always prepared to give credit where it’s due. There are moments though where his sharp intellect and the wicked side of his humour shine through and you get the feeling that you would not want to cross swords with him. (He has some cutting things to say about theatre and television critics, for example. You can understand why the Daily Mail is not among his more enthusiastic supporters.)

Cleese IlloI want to take a quick look in particular at what Cleese has to say about writing, and of course writing comedy.

After graduating from university John Cleese was recruited as a writer to the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department. Now, aged about 25, he had a job that involved writing comedy sketches on a regular basis.

I would start the morning with a blank sheet of paper, and I might well finish the day with a blank sheet of paper (and an overflowing waste-paper basket). There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block; but when you try to do something creative there can be no guarantee anything will happen…

But the man who had recruited him, Peter Titheradge, once a writer himself

…was able to calm my incipient panics when fruitless hours were passing. He got me to understand that, if you kept at it, material would always emerge: a bad day would be followed by a decent one, and somehow an acceptable average would be forthcoming. I took a leap of faith and my experience started to confirm this mysterious principle. (p185)

Writers – especially writers who are writing to a deadline – all struggle with the anxiety of wondering whether they will manage. It’s not just getting the words down on paper, it’s also a matter of producing something which is interesting, exciting or in John Cleese’s case funny. Cleese takes up the ambiguous nature of fear – on the one hand how it can block you, on the other hand how it may stimulate you.

Anxiety, he says, is the enemy of creativity.

The more anxious you feel, the less creative you are. Your mind ceases to play and be expansive. Fear causes your thinking to contract, to play safe, and this forces you into stereotypical thinking. And in comedy you must have innovation because an old joke isn’t funny…

Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

On the other hand you should try to [g]et your panic in early because

Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (p316)

(I think it’s a comfort that, despite this insight, the young John Cleese seems to have had exactly the same problems getting started as me. I’m encouraged to think this is a rather general problem. It was always quite difficult for us [Cleese is writing with Graham Chapman] to get down to work in the morning, and we developed many strategies to postpone doing so… (p368))

Assuming you manage to get going and actually write something, however, you must be open to the prospect that you will not be able to produce something brilliant every day that you work. Cleese credits Peter Titheradge again with teaching him the importance of finding the thing that is “good enough” (this is specifically in relation to punchlines, but in my experience it applies generally).

Later in the book, once Cleese and Chapman have established a working rhythm:

Our average rate was about four minutes of screen time a day, which may not sound much, but if sustained would theoretically have given us a movie script every six weeks… (pp368-369)


John Cleese also has interesting things to say about the differences between writing sketches – even half-hour TV episodes – and whole films.

The need to keep the plot moving all the time is a hugely demanding one – the slightest moment of stagnation and a cinema audience is immediately bored (although a lot of explosions do help to sustain their attention). Add to that the following difficulty in comedy: you cannot make an audience laugh continuously for 100 minutes – human psychology and physiology will not allow it – so you have to plan a sequence of alternating peaks and troughs in the laughter while ensuring that you engage the audience’s attention fully during the passages that are not trying to be funny…

You will now understand why I have managed to write only one really good film script in 50 years (though I contributed to Life of Brian, too). (p382)

The good film script is, of course, A Fish Called Wanda.

So, anyway, I very much enjoyed reading this book, and giggling or even laughing out loud in places. The passages quoted above by no means exhaust what Cleese has to say about writing, and there is a great deal more on many other subjects too. If you know Cleese and his work (and you haven’t yet read the book) you have a treat in store. But even if you know nothing about the man and his career yet still have an interest in the writing process, the history of light entertainment or the British class system (for example) it is well worth a look.

There are also some great tips on keeping control of a primary school class when you are an untrained young teacher. Take it from me, they also work at secondary school level.

Do also pay a visit to John Cleese’s official website.

The illustration shows my copy of So, Anyway, with slips of paper in all the pages where Cleese says something funny or pithy about writing, comedy or teaching. I hate to write in books or stick things in them, but slips of paper are OK. I think it is a bit Pythonesque that they seem to be coming out of his mouth.

This review is also published on Goodreads

In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?

The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

In praise of ABE Books

…and in praise of Antikvariat Faust, Geijersgatan 5, Göteborg.

Post from ABEBooks

Look what the post just delivered!

Here I am writing my historical novel, Elin’s Story about a Swedish woman and Sweden in the mid-1500s – and I’m living in Brussels. I’ve previously had a huge amount of assistance from the library of Gothenburg University, but moving here I thought I had brought with me all the information, copies and references I needed. I hadn’t. Suddenly realising I really needed some reference books, I also discovered… they’re not to be found in Belgium.


If I’m trying to borrow a book from a library that’s also a sign it’s out of print so I can’t buy it new, and most often it isn’t available in electronic form either. Buying books on line is easy enough, but buying second-hand books, especially ones not written in English and not available from an American supplier used to be really tough. But that was before ABE Books. What a fantastic resource. Yes, I’ve used them before, but not for a while and I’d forgotten how good they are. But here, now, let me go on the record and recommend them.

ABE allows me to search for the book I want by title, author, key word, ISBN, publisher, and a whole lot of other parameters. It does not confine itself to books in English or bookshops selling books in certain countries.

Through ABE I was able to find the main book I needed, but more than this, ABE also allows me to carry out another search limiting myself just to the books available from this one bookshop. So I was also able to buy a couple of others I needed from the same supplier, Antikvariat Faust, in Gothenburg. (After all if I’m going to buy on-line I’d prefer to support a local bookshop back home.)

I placed my order, had it confirmed and saw “Delivery time: 25-45 days”. That was a bummer – so I might get the book in time for Christmas?

Not a bit of it. They arrived – in two parcels as you see above – within a working week.

And here they are unwrapped…

Post from ABEBooks unwrapped

The book I was most keen to get a copy of was Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen’s Vasa döttrarna, the only decent modern study of the five daughters of Gustaf Vasa. (Well, actually the only study, full stop.) But I was also pleased to get the other two volumes – Alf Sundberg’s Svenska Krig, and Lars Eriksson’s Johan III.

Now I can go on.

Bibliomania in the family

My grandfather was a bibliomaniac. This is my mother’s father, Charlie – Charles Bradlaugh Warwick. My grandmother threw him out sometime in 1939, just around the start of the war, and although my mother met him once more during the war and there were family sightings of him to the 50s, by the time I was born we’d lost contact and I never met him. However I heard a lot about him, growing up.

He had a number of habits and qualities, some of which were positive, but overall the stories tended to dwell on the negative ones. His philandering, his ego, his bibliomania.

One story has him coming home to the cottage at Wilmslow on the outskirts of Manchester, where my grandmother and he lived in the late 20s and early 30s, opening his coat and taking out the two or three books he had stolen from bookshops on his way home.

Charlie worked as an accountant for various employers, but as a committed socialist and paid-up member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he may not have kept his jobs very long as he was always agitating for workers’ rights. His political convictions may also have helped him justify his book thefts.

According to Mum – and to my grandmother because she told this story as well – Grandma was always nervous about Charlie’s thefts, fearing he would be caught and arrested.

Debbie, Charlie and Elsa in 1925
Debbie, Charlie and Elsa (Mum) in 1925.

My grandmother, Debbie, was born Jewish in Odessa which is now in Ukraine but between the wars was a part of the Soviet Union. Her parents brought her with her elder two brothers to England at the turn-of-the-century, fleeing poverty and the pogroms. Grandma always insisted that she had been taken to see Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege, so I place their immigration sometime around 1900 as the old Queen died in 1901. I suspect though that they were illegals as I’ve been unable to find them in the 1901 Census.

As a Russian immigrant, Debbie was always worried about the police showing up on her doorstep. A marriage certificate with a British citizen was a fair security to have – but how would it be if he was a convicted criminal? I believe she went through a second residency legalisation after 1941 (when Britain and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side in the war).

I don’t really know whether Charlie ever stole more than two or three books. Perhaps one theft was enough to generate the story, but I suppose it’s more likely that it was a habit. In a way, I hope he was a bibliomaniac and did steal books on regular basis because only stealing two or three would put him on about the same level as me. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t done it for a long time, but when I was a poverty stricken student and reading matter was not nearly as easily available as it is today, when books I needed to read were all borrowed out from the library and bookshops were more common and far less security conscious than today, I stole my share.

I never told Mum or Grandma of course. That would have only provoked a retelling of the Charlie stories and accusations of incipient bibliomania, which I already had a reputation for with all the library books I had overdue.

Grandma didn’t throw Charlie out because of his bibliomania but because of his philandering. As a 1920s Communist Charlie believed in “Free Love” and would have been perfectly happy not to lock himself into a “bourgeois relationship” (marriage), but he got Debbie pregnant and with the help of his parents she shamed him into marrying her. Not the best start perhaps.

Charlie full lengthIt didn’t stop Charlie continuing to act on his convictions, however, and for fifteen years or so he seems to have taken up annually with one new sweet young thing after another. My grandparents lived in or near Manchester, but when Charlie was having an affair, Debbie used to take my mother and move home to her parents’ in the East End of London. After Charlie’s affair had burned itself out, he would come down to London, plead with her to come back and they would all return to Manchester together.

This went on until Debbie got a job of her own. She became the warden of the Ivinghoe Youth Hostel just north-west of London in about 1937. According to my mother Charlie settled down for a year or so, but then took a shine to a guest at the hostel with whom he left. Later, he came back as in previous years to plead with Debbie, but now she had a degree of independence and she refused to take him back, so he returned to Manchester alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Mum did meet him once more during the war. She was in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps) and apparently he tracked her down and wrote to her commanding officer asking if she could be given permission to come and visit him. She was then about 22. So she travelled to Manchester by train and went home to the address she’d been given. Her abiding memory of that visit is the books. Charlie was uninterested in spending money on bookshelves and had simply constructed walls of books – a row standing upright on the floor, a row lying down on top, a row standing upright on top of them, and so on right up to the ceiling. They were also good insulation, he said.

“That was an odd meeting,” Mum says, “I never knew what it was he wanted. I have a sort of feeling there was someone else there, one of his women, and that he was meeting me because she wanted him to.”

Many years later, quite recently in fact, Mum learnt that Charlie remarried (bigamously as he never divorced Debbie) and had a son. Mum’s new interpretation of her strange meeting is that Charlie had got the invisible woman pregnant, was going to get married (history repeating itself) and that the woman had twisted his arm to get him to try to reconcile himself with his first family. That didn’t happen.

Having learnt about the existence of her half-brother, Mum tried to get in touch with him. She wrote and then as he didn’t reply she eventually phoned him. They talked and she learnt a little bit more about him, but he was “not interested” as she says.

I’m not at all surprised. The poor fellow must be in his early 70s and this crazy old woman writes to him out of the blue and then phones him to tell him she’s his sister and that his father – now long dead – was a bigamist and he’s a bastard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mum also told him about Charlie’s bibliomania. In his position, I doubt very much that I would be interested in pursuing a relationship, but Mum gets a little tearful about it now. She says she would have liked to have had a brother.

Another slice of family history this week, gleaned from my ongoing interviews with my mother (see here). The title of last week’s entry – Bibliophile – set me off thinking about bibliomania and the the only (if putative) bibliomaniac in the family.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.


Over the last seven days, following my last entry for Blogg52, I’ve run a bibliophile’s — a book lover’s — questionnaire. One question a day here At the Quill, and on Facebook and Twitter. I come out of the experience with a slightly increased respect for all those people who create “click bait” questionnaires on the social networks. It’s not quite as easy as it looks. (Which isn’t to excuse the poverty of effort put into some of those Facebook questionnaires.) Anyway, having got to the end of my seven days it seems appropriate to sum things up.

First of all I should thank all the people who took time out of their days to respond to some or all of my questions. Thank you Agneta, Aleks, Anna, Eva, Kate, Lena, Miranda, Monica, Pernilla and Silia. The overall average of your response suggests you are all delightful, well-balanced people who are nevertheless passionate about books. Not an entirely surprising result.

If your responses say something about how you feel about books, the questions — and the way the alternative answers were formulated — gave you pointers towards my feelings. To be sure, I was trying to be light-hearted, but I think there are undercurrents.

I tried to strike a balance between questions about the physical object and the content of books. For good or ill, I am — as it seems all of you are — still wedded to the book as a collection of printed pages bound up between covers.

My first question had to do with books on shelves – the space available, the decorative quality, the dust trap they constitute, the challenge from the e-reader. “You sit in your sofa and look at your shelves and think…” No one chose E, my fifth alternative response: “Now all my books are on my e-reader I have much more space for my collection of porcelain plates with pictures of kittens.” Because, after all, you’re book lovers – not Dolores Umbridge. The results here were 7 As, 8 Bs, 1 C, 2 Ds. What I didn’t do was identify the sense in which people looking at their shelves were thinking: “So many books, and so many I’ve not yet read” (B). I hope it was an expression of delight and anticipation.

The second question was to do with giving away books you have enjoyed. It seems we’ve all done it and that none of us are unaffected. I clearly share the experience of waking in the middle of the night crying “Oh, no! What have I done?” And going on-line to replace the books I’ve given away. However none of you seem to have sunk to the level – as I have – of going to the charity shop and trying to buy back the books you’ve given them. (I didn’t succeed – someone else was ahead of me.)

Question 3, on Friday, had to do with our reactions when we see people reading books on public transport. Six out of seven of us find ourselves trying to identify the book by squinting at the cover or casually leaning over the reader’s shoulder. The seventh, it seems, is happy to actually ask, “What are you reading?” And strike up a conversation. In reply to some comments on Facebook I reminisced that for a period of time I was taking photographs of people reading books in public – till I saw a cartoon in our local paper in Gothenburg where a man reading a book on a park bench was surrounded by people taking photographs of him with their mobile phones. I decided my photographing of readers was a cliché, and stopped.

Question 4 was the question I feel most viscerally about. “You are watching a film and a scene comes up in which books are burned, torn, drowned or thrown. What do you do?” I was a little disappointed that only four people responded, but perhaps that’s indicative of something in itself. (Okay, it might just be indicative of a lack of time on a Saturday for silly questionnaires.) When I wrote this question I was thinking exclusively of my reaction to seeing physical books damaged or destroyed (“Wince, shudder; Cry out.”) Some of the responses reminded me that another perspective is to think about what the books contain and what reasons may be given for the destruction. This was the question I had not thought through as thoroughly as I might. However, I still feel that physical books have a value that may be greater than their contents. Is this rational? I’m just now thinking of that scene in the TV series Homeland where Brody the putative terrorist and traitor, lovingly wraps and then buries his copy of the Koran after his wife has thrown it on the oily floor of his garage. On the one hand this feels emotionally appropriate – the book has been damaged, is dead, and should be buried with respect. On the other hand, burying a book puts it as completely beyond use as burning it, so how is it better?

Question 5 came on Sunday. This one was about book series for young people that have become film series. I think I may have inadvertently skewed part of the response here since one of the series I chose to mention was the Fifty Shades series by EL James. Here’s what I was thinking.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) sparked a phenomenal interest in reading among a generation of young people, and for all the criticism the series received from the literary establishment (the likes of Harold Bloom – “Harry Potter is stupid crap”), both children and teachers were delighted with the series though for different reasons. The children loved the stories and the characters; the teachers said “It’s fantastic how this series has caught young people’s attention and introduced them to the delights of reading.” (Which was also the most popular option in my quiz.)

Harry Potter started out as a series for older children, but grew over the seven episodes to become a Young Adult series, taking up some darker themes not usually seen in books for a younger audience. Susanna Collins’ Hunger Games series (2008-2010) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008) were both aimed at a Young Adult/New Adult audience. Although both certainly developed their own unique readership, it seems to me that they may well have benefited from the success of Harry Potter and inherited some of that series’ readers as they grew older and started looking for more books that spoke to an adolescent’s spirit of enquiry or resistance, filled the sense-of-wonder/fantasy void and/or confronted awakening sexuality.

How does Fifty Shades (2011-2012) fit into this context? Well, it started life as amateur fiction created within Twilight’s fan base. For all its trappings of explicit sex and rose-coloured BDSM it is a romantic fantasy. I can appreciate that enthusiasts for Potter or Catniss are uncomfortable finding their favourites yoked to what is effectively soft porn, but I think the link holds.

Although none of my respondents ticked the D box (“What? Are they books? I thought they were films!”) it was apparent from the comments that most people are familiar with these series as films rather than books. As all my respondents, “you”, are adults I’m guessing it rather depends on how old the children are you associate with, which series you have met met as printed books.* (Declaration: I read the first five of the Harry Potter series because my niece Caroline was reading them, and the first one of the Hunger Games series because my friend Lena translated it. I’ve seen all the Potter films and the first two Hunger Games films. My knowledge of Twilight and Fifty Shades comes exclusively from YouTube trailers and Wikipedia.)

Let’s move on to Question 6. This was about film adaptations. I was interested to see that while some people were prepared to behave stoically in the face of the compromises (aka butchery) always present when films are adapted from books, others were prepared to admit to outbursts of ranting “to your friends and work colleagues about how the director has ruined the book” and enumerating “in detail in which specific ways the film fails to follow the book.” There’s passion for you!

Finally, Question 7 was to do with the disappointment one feels when a friend’s book recommendation turns out to be less than satisfactory. I’m not sure whether it’s a positive thing that no one admitted that a disappointing book recommendation might lead them to doubt their friend’s judgement and the basis of their friendship. Or perhaps it’s just me who is unhealthy in this respect. Having gone through this once – some years ago now – I’ve schooled myself to try to react according to my A answer (“Toss the book aside and get on with your life”) but it has to be said there is always a sneaking concern, given that the recommendation came from a close friend, that I may be “just too dull to appreciate” the book’s qualities.

Well, there you have it. My questionnaire and its analysis are complete. I promise not to do it again… at least not very soon.

*Hmm. It occurs to me that although you are all adults some of you may still be young enough to have met at least Harry Potter as teenagers. I sometimes forget my own advanced years. 🙂

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.