The Ring – Stephen Fay & Roger Wood

Subtitled ‘Anatomy of an Opera’ this tells the story of the 1983 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the theatre the composer had built for performances of his operas in Bayreuth in southern Germany and which is still run by his descendants. It starts with the 1980 announcement that Sir Peter Hall was to direct the four operas with Sir Georg Solti conducting, journalist Stephen Fay and photographer Roger Wood become involved right at the beginning and this gives a fascinating glimpse into how the production grew. The book isn’t the story of the Ring Cycle operas but rather a backstage look as to how they came to be performed in 1983, from initial meetings, through set and costume designs, rehearsals and ultimately the appearance on stage in front of an audience and it is lavishly illustrated with Woods excellent photographs. Frankly reading this book makes it amazing that start to finish it was managed in just three years. Bayreuth is unique amongst the worlds opera houses for many reasons but one particular feature is that whilst almost every other house starts with operas one and two in the first year and then introduces numbers three and four over the next one or two seasons Bayreuth always has all four from the start which is a massive undertaking.

Because this book is about the production effort you don’t need to know anything about The Ring Cycle to appreciate the book but it does help to understand the flow of the parts and the overall structure of what is going on. For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with just how daunting a job this is I’ll just use this paragraph to summarise the task in hand. The cycle consists of four operas performed in sequence over four days/evenings and then repeated during the season, this would be a lot even with ‘normal’ operas but these are huge with large casts and long running times. Solti noted that a Beethoven symphony would have a score of roughly one hundred pages, his combined score for the four operas ran to well over two thousand pages, I have Solti’s famous recording of the cycle from 1958 on nineteen vinyl albums and the DVD recording I also have of Daniel Barenboim’s 1991 Bayreuth production has running times for the actual performances of Das Rheingold – 154 minutes, Die Walkure – 237 minutes, Siegfried – 244 minutes and Gotterdammerung – 270 minutes, a grand total of 15 hours and 5 minutes. Truly a musical marathon for all concerned, even the audience.

With so much needing to be done along with thirty six principal parts (several of which appear in more than one of the operas), a large chorus and numerous non-singing extras, a scratch orchestra put together for the season (the Festspeilehaus doesn’t have it’s own orchestra but draws players from various German orchestras who probably haven’t played together before) and limited time for rehearsals due to the need to do all of it in one go it is clear that this has lots of potential for disaster. Add in the conflicts between the various people involved along with all the back stage issues it’s remarkable it continues to happen and it’s this continuing rising tension that makes this book such a great read.

The spectacular set used for the start of Das Rheingold is depicted on the rear cover of the book as Alberich comes to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Along with the writing of Stephen Fay the book is adorned with beautiful photographs by Roger Wood, probably one of the finest theatrical photographers of all time although my reproductions here don’t do justice to his work as they are quite glossy and difficult to re-photograph. To really appreciate them you need to read the book but as they make up such a significant part I felt I wanted to give some idea of what he did. There is a very good reason why the two men share the credits.

The fascination of the book comes from the quite often difficult relationships between the various protagonists, Solti had terrible problems with some members of the orchestra but also one principal singer in particular. Reiner Goldberg had been cast as Siegfried despite never having sung the role in the past and whilst he had promised to learn the part it rapidly became clear that on arrival for rehearsals he hadn’t done so, he also would not take stage direction and simply went off on his own way so causing tension with Hall as well. Nevertheless the two of them persevered with him far longer that they should have before eventually giving up when they had reached the dress rehearsals so just before the first proper performance. Manfred Jung was asked to replace him at almost no notice and could only do so because he had sung the part many times including the previous seasons of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. This however was only in the last few months before audiences would see what had been produced, the stressed relationship between Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandson, who was running the theatre at the time and Sir Peter Hall had gone on for three years by now ever since Hall was chosen to direct. Hall was directing what would turn out to be easily the most expensive production of the cycle up to then and Wagner was having to pay for it. Wagner had also directed at least two complete cycles in his own right and had firm ideas as to how it should, and more importantly to him at least how it should not, be done. On top of this Wagner’s temper and Hall’s apparent calmness in face of it just wound Wagner up more exacerbated by the fact Wagner spoke no English and Hall hadn’t managed to learn any German so they had to use interpreters made the relationship particularly difficult altough highly entertaining to read about.

Solti did recognise that one of Hall’s particular troubles was Wagner. He took Hall aside one day in July nd asked if he could possibly say something pleasant to Wagner, to improve their relationship. Hall replied that he could think of nothing pleasant to say.

I was first properly introduced the The Ring via a TV version broadcast in May 1985 which was of the 1980 production which preceded the Solti/Hall version and was conducted by Pierre Boulez directed by Patrice Chereau, Introduced by Humphrey Burton broadcast on BBC 2 television and BBC Radio 3 over four consecutive Saturday evenings and I was amazed at the breadth of the concept. Reading this volume which gives just a hint of the three years work that goes into producing a cycle I am even more astonished by ‘the biggest work of art in the world’.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively

Although Penelope Lively is nowadays best known for her books for adults, having been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize three times and winning it in 1987, she started out as a children’s author and this was her fifth book. all of which had been aimed at children. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was published in 1973 and won the Carnegie Medal, as best children’s book of the year which makes Lively the only author to win both of these major book prizes. Just for good measure she also won the Whitbread Children’s Book award in 1976 amongst other book prizes over the years.

I was prompted to pick this book up however due to an instagram post I saw last week which featured the Puffin edition and brought back happy memories of reading it all those decades ago. I knew exactly where it was on the shelves so I had to get it out and those memories haven’t let me down, it is still a fun read. The story starts with workmen renovating East End Cottage in the growing small town of Ledsham before a new family are due to move in. As one of them removes a rotten piece of wood from under the windowsill in the attic room a small bottle falls out and smashes on the floor and unbeknown to them something, or someone is released. This is the featured illustration on the title page and gives an immediate indication of the delightful drawings by Antony Maitland used to illustrate the book.

The room is destined to be the bedroom for James and at first he is very happy to have such an interesting room, all odd angles, so much better than the normal shaped rooms occupied by his sister Helen and their parents. It’s not long however before things start to very badly wrong as Thomas Kempe makes his presence felt. Kempe was a sorcerer back in the last sixteenth and early seventeenth century and had lived at East End Cottage, now he is a poltergeist and a particularly annoying one, smashing items, slamming doors, along with throwing things at James when he won’t do what he wants, because the worst thing is the notes making it quite clear that he regards James as a particularly useless apprentice and is intent on making his life as difficult as possible. Unfortunately for James he appears to be the only person who knows what is really going on, his parents are very sensible and don’t believe in ghosts so suggesting that is the real cause of the problems is a non starter. James therefore becomes blamed for the disturbances and broken items and suspected of the vandalism in the town as Kempe writes abusive messages on doors, walls and fences all over the place making clear his dislike of modern times and the people living in ‘his’ village. What is James to do?

Fortunately for James he eventually meets Bert Ellison, builder and part time exorcist, and finally he has somebody who not only believes him but may be able to do something about the increasingly erratic ghost. The picture below shows Bert’s second attempt at exorcising Thomas Kempe, which unfortunately is no more successful than the first. But then again the reader knew this would fail for some reason as there is still far too much of the book to go. The story rattles along and all to soon I had finished with a satisfying conclusion. I doubt I have picked the book up, other than to transfer it from shelf to box and back to shelf over various house moves, in over forty years but it was still there when I wanted it and it’s been a very enjoyable read.

This is one of my few remaining books from the Foyles Children’s Book Club, that I was a member of from about the age of five or six up to at least twelve. I discussed the club in an earlier blog and I was either eleven or twelve when this book came out in the club edition in 1974, it doesn’t say which month so I don’t know for sure. These monthly books were really formative of my early reading and as can be seen below from the back cover of this edition they were a real bargain. You could also have books from any of the other clubs either as well, or I think instead, and it was around this time I broadened my reading by dabbling with the science and travel clubs as well before leaving the club as I discovered science fiction and would rather have the choice in my local book shop rather than a monthly book in the post. I am forever grateful to the Children’s Book Club though and I hope there is something similar still going on somewhere.

In Memoriam A.H.H. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

By way of complete contrast with last weeks blog on happiness, this week I have read, to give the poem its full title, ‘In Memoriam Arthur H. Hallam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which is his long eulogy to his fellow student at Cambridge university who died in 1833 of a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty two. He started writing almost immediately after Hallam’s death and kept adding to the work over the ensuing years until it was finally published in 1850 by which time it had grown to 725 four line verses (2,900 lines in total) split into 131 cantos along with a prologue and epilogue although these first and last blocks of verse were not called that by Tennyson himself but rather have gained those titles over the years. Not only did this, one of Tennyson’s greatest works, finally get published in 1850 but in November that year he became Poet Laureate, a title he held until his death in 1892 the longest time that anyone has held the post.

Although the poem was published in 1850 Tennyson was still not satisfied with it and continued to tinker meaning that there are several versions produced by him over the next forty years and indeed the version included in my copy, and what is now regarded as the definitive version, was the one further amended by his son Hallam Tennyson after the poets death. For such a long poem on such a sad subject it is surprisingly readable once you get into the rhythm of the work. Each of the verses take the rhyming format of A B B A, meaning that the first and fourth lines rhyme as do the second and third, although sometimes the rhyme is rather forced as can be seen in the very first verse of the prologue. The middle lines are fine as they pair ‘face’ with ’embrace’ but lines one and four are rather shaky pairing ‘love’ with ‘prove’, I’m not sure what accent you would need for that to work but it is rather jarring and doesn’t get the work off to a flying start.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

There is, as you would expect for a Victorian English work of literature, a Christian emphasis to a significant part of the poem, but probably less than you would imagine. Tennyson is far more concerned about getting his feelings, along with those of his sister Emily who was engaged to Arthur Hallam at the time of his death, onto paper than expressing a strong religious position and the work is all the more powerful for it. It includes a very famous quote as the last two lines of canto twenty seven which can be seen in the image below as the third verse on the left hand side.

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ actually shows Tennyson starting to come to terms with the loss of his friend and prospective brother in law and contrasts with the last lines of canto one ‘Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn’. The rest of the text in the image above is part of the three cantos that deal with the first family Christmas after the death of Arthur Hallam, which eventually has the family able to sing together although somewhat reticently. Canto seventy eight deals with the following Christmas in 1834 where things are somewhat more normal although still strained and later in the poem he also covers the 1837 and 1838 Christmas festivities as he finds greater solace in his faith. The poem ends on a bright note with the marriage of another of his sisters, Cecilia, signifying the gradual coming to terms with loss of his friend.

Another famous line from the poem occurs in canto fifty six “Nature, red in tooth and claw” which came to be associated with the theory of natural selection as set out by Charles Darwin nine years later and indeed some parts of In Memoriam can be read as indicating that Tennyson was at least passingly familiar with the concept even then as he wrestles with his faith in the aftermath of his friends death. The quote isn’t entirely original to Tennyson but this is the first appearance of the full phrase.

My copy of the book is by the Folio Society and was printed in 1975. It is quarter bound in fine grained black leather with olive green cloth boards and printed on Abbey Mills antique laid paper which makes the whole book lovely to handle and a pleasure to read. The headings to the cantos are particularly attractive and the Bulmer typeface chosen for the text is very clear. It is pretty easy to get hold of this edition, at the time of writing there were four copies available on abebooks starting at just £6.60 plus postage. I probably still wouldn’t have picked it off the shelf if I hadn’t been in lock down due to coronavirus as a poem of almost three thousand lines is rather daunting, especially given the subject matter but it is definitely worth a read.

A Guide to Happiness – Epicurus

EPICURE

Noun
A person who takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.
‘they see themselves as epicures—delighting in food that is properly prepared’

Origin
Late Middle English (denoting a disciple of Epicurus): via medieval Latin from Greek Epikouros ‘Epicurus’.

Oxford English Dictionary

The definition above was the only thing I knew about Epicurus before I picked up this book which is an extract (minus the notes) from ‘The Epicurean Philosophers’ edited by John Gaskin and published by Everyman in 1995. Epicurus lived in Athens between 341 and 270 BC and unfortunately like Sappho, whom I featured last month, the vast majority of his works have been lost to history with just three complete letters along with some fragments and two collections of quotes making it to the present day out of the estimated three hundred works he is believed to written. He formed his own philosophical school, largely in opposition to the prevalent Platonic teachings of the day and unlike the majority of his contemporaries he allowed women to join, in fact he positively encouraged them.

The book starts with his most famous work ‘the letter to Menoeceus’ which is an excellent place to begin as this epistle summarises his teachings and is very much a guide from a master to a pupil. Much to my surprise though Epicurus himself would not be impressed by the definition that has been derived from his name with it’s implication of, if not a hedonistic lifestyle, at least one of the pursuit of luxuries. In the letter to Menoeceus he includes the following instruction:

Once the pain due to want is removed, plain flavours give us as much pleasure as an extravagant diet, while bread and water bring the greatest possible pleasure to the life of one in need of them. To become accustomed, therefore, to simple and inexpensive food gives us all we need for health, alerts a man to the necessary tasks of life and when at intervals we approach luxuries we are in a better condition to enjoy them.

This exhortation to a simple diet, indeed simplicity in all needs, is reiterated several times in the collections of quotes also included in the book. Yes a follower of Epicurus should take delight when they encounter something special but this should be a happy rarity not an object for living. He emphasises again and again that you should be happy with what you have or can achieve because desiring what you don’t have, and cannot possibly get, simply leads to unhappiness for no good reason. He does however say that you should strive to be free of pain by which he means not just physical pain but also the pain of want for food, drink and shelter. He is not in favour of the hermit or of deprivation of the body to find truth for the soul as some philosophies would have their followers do, indeed attendees to his school would eat simple meals whilst discussing the matters in hand.

The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst and cold. For if a man possess this safety and hopes to possess it, he might rival even Zeus in happiness.

Another vital aspect of Epicurean philosophy is the importance of friendship and the support of friends when needed. A follower should live wisely, justly and well if they wish to have a pleasant life, they should also seek out friends, not for what they can do for you now but from the benefit of mutual support at times of need and companionship at all other times.

It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help

All in all I found this book to be a fascinating read and indeed very different to what I was expecting from the definition that started this review. Epicurean philosophy seems like a very sound basis for living your life, lacking the want for excess and high on respect for your fellow man. It’s a pity he is now just associated with the enjoyment of fine wines and food. One final quotation emphasises this switch of emphasis from happiness with what you have to want for luxury that has happened over the millennia.

If you wish to make Pythocles rich, be not adding to his money but subtracting from his desires.

The Unpublished Spike Milligan Box 18 – Norma Farnes (Ed)

Norma was Spike’s agent, manager and friend for over thirty five years and as she explains in the introduction Spike had a comprehensive filing system based on numbered box files for work based items and lettered box files for personal things. Box 18 – IDEAS was a sort of dumping ground for things not finished or just ideas that would possibly be expanded later, every now and then he would go through it and pick out bits that he felt he could work on, sometimes they would go back in Box 18 untouched or partly modified others would make it through to completion, and some would just get discarded as unworkable. The problem with this book is that by definition anything in Box 18 was something that Spike didn’t regard as finished and frankly a large chunk of it shows why although there are definitely some gems hidden in here amongst the bits that really don’t work.

For those people reading this who aren’t familiar with the comic genius and deeply troubled man that was Spike Milligan he was born in 1918 and fought in Africa and then through Italy during WWII and was badly shell shocked during the conflict which would lead to frequent bouts of depression and more serious mental illness throughout the rest of his life. Despite this he was the leading light of 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s comedy in the UK as a founder and main script writer for the Goon Show and then his TV series Q which started in 1969. In fact in interviews included on the DVD’s of Q the Monty Python team recall seeing the first episodes and thinking that this was exactly what they had been planning, yet again Spike had got there first, The Pythons subsequently amended their format so that they didn’t appear to be copying Spike. He also wrote over eighty books including seven hilarious volumes of war diaries. Because of this pretty well everything that Spike thought should appear had done by the time of his death in 2002. I first came across his work whilst at primary school which a book of children’s poetry called a Dustbin of Milligan, I still have this rather battered due to being read almost to destruction paperback and have loved his writing ever since, still being able to quote the poems fifty years later.

The photo above is of the Goons, Peter Sellars, Harry Secombe and Spike during what Norma believes is a rehearsal although clearly from the ages of the actors it was towards the end of their appearances together and one of the gems in this book is a script for a Goon show in Spike’s handwriting. You can see his mind at work with the crossings out and alterations, The Goons would be regarded as surreal even now, back in the 1950’s there was nothing like them anywhere but the pressure of not only appearing but also writing most of the material led to Spike having the fist of his manic depressive attacks which saw him frequently in mental hospitals from then onwards.

The final quarter of the book reproduces some of Spike’s letters and again you wonder why some were chosen although the spat with Harrods over a unpaid bill is somewhat amusing. This section, along with the first part which has pages of his diaries is also clearly not something that came from Box 18 in fact probably only about half of what is in the book could logically have come from the IDEAS box, the rest is abstracted from other files although a couple of diary pages are rather poignant as Spike is obviously going through a difficult time again

All in all this book is interesting for a Spike Milligan fan but there is so much more of his to explore for a newcomer to his work, definitely read the war diaries, or his numerous books of poetry but this is not the place to start. I must have over twenty of his books purchased over the years along with the DVD re-issue of the five series of Q and would recommend all of them ahead of this amalgamation of bits which has been sitting on my shelves for several years before I finally opened it this week, I think I need to pick up the diaries again to remind myself of what Spike’s writing properly finished to his own satisfaction could really be like.

Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory – Ilmar Taska

Set in the author’s native Estonia in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War as the Soviets tightened their grip over the Baltic states this, his first novel, grew out of a well received short story. The original is simply called Pobeda 1946, the addition of the subtitle mirrors the way that the original sections in Russian are dealt with in the translation, that is by providing an English translation immediately afterwards within the text rather than as a footnote as may have been expected. Pobeda’s were a luxury vehicle manufactured by the Molotov works in Gorky and were only available to senior apparatchiks such as the un-named security services (some derivation of KGB in Estonia) major who drives the one in the book. One of the interesting features about the book is that we never find out the names of several significant characters, specifically ‘the woman’ who is married to an ex WWII freedom fighter who is being hunted by the soviets, ‘the boy’, the woman’s six year old son who tries to make sense of what is happening as his parents disappear one by one and ‘the man’ the driver of the Pobeda who causes their disappearance and maintains an apparent friendship with the boy whilst using him to seek out his parents.

Dragged along in the aftermath of this is Joanna, the woman’s half sister who worked as an opera singer before the war and Alan who is employed by the BBC World Service radio as an announcer and who fell in love with Joanna in the 1930’s and now desperately wants to get her out of the country and into safety. The rising tensions of the interwoven stories of the adults and the bewilderment of the all too easily manipulated boy who just want to understand and find his parents whilst also wanting to help the man who he believes is his friend is really well told. The characters are totally believable and I found the book difficult to put down as I became engrossed in just what was going to happen next. I loved the fact that for the most part the story is told from the viewpoint of the boy, his confusion, and also his excitement over his experiences as the man tries to work out the best way to make use of him but which he sees as the mans goodwill towards him that doesn’t seem to work out right each time is a fascinating way to tell the story.

It is explained in the afterwords by the author and the translator that there is some of the authors own family story that provides the basis for the book. He was born in Siberia where his parents had been sent during Stalin’s forced repatriation of the people of the Baltic states and one of the other aspects dealt with in the book is the movement of people in the opposite direction. Joanna has a family from the Russian steppes forced upon her in her tiny flat and when she goes with the boy back to his parents property they find that another family has been moved into there as well. It was thought that if enough Russians were sent to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along with their natives being deported to Siberia then the ethnic balance would be sufficiently diluted so that these countries would quietly acquiesce to their amalgamation into the Soviets republics but this soviet aspiration never really happened. Despite this the Estonian population is still 24.7% ethnically Russian even so long after the movement of people took place, as is the population of Latvia. Lithuania presumably being further away received far fewer people as just 4.7% is ethnic Russian.

Definitely a book to read this year as the 20th August 2021 is the 30th anniversary of Estonian independence from the Soviet block, my copy was published by Nordic Press in 2018. Estonia has been invaded and become independent many times over the centuries hopefully 1991 will have been the last time they need to set a new Independence Day.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.

Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion

Dodger – Terry Pratchett

Having had my annual read of Charles Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol‘ I thought I would follow it with a book not written by Dickens but one where he appears as a character. Set in the early years of Victorian London various real people interact with the fictional Dodger and his compatriots including not only Dickens but Disraeli, Gladstone, Robert Peel, Joseph Bazalgette and Henry Mayhew to name but a few. Of these probably the least well known nowadays is Henry Mayhew whose monumental book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ sits on my shelves just as it did on Terry Pratchett’s. Without this exhaustive, but surprisingly readable, study of the poor in Victorian London which did so much to raise awareness of the problems that beset them and ultimately helped to improve their lot I doubt if Pratchett would have produced such a leap from his ever popular Discworld series. The book is unusually dedicated not just to Terry’s wife Lyn but also to Henry Mayhew.

Dodger, the star of the book is the nickname of a tosher, a person who scours the sewers of London for things that have fallen or been washed down the drains and got caught up in the detritus down there. It was a step up from being a mudlark, someone who similarly looked for lost items or money but along the tidal banks of the Thames, mudlarks still exist but as a hobby rather than a career but toshing stopped after Bazalgette designed the new, more capable, sewer system for London. Right at the beginning of the story Dodger rescues an unknown woman from two men and his adventure, and rapid rise up the social tree begins as his heroism is recognised by Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens who come along just afterwards. Dodger is an interesting character, clearly based on descriptions in Mayhew’s book but fleshed out by Pratchett in quite a believable way even if his subsequent adventures do stretch the imagination somewhat especially after his encounter with another fictional character from the period Sweeney Todd, the demon barber. It says a lot for Pratchett’s ability as an author that you are quite willing to allow for the speed of the plot and the people he gets to meet so quickly, and improbably for his social class.

The story fairly races along with Dodger and the young woman he rescued being dragged into an international crisis due to her unfortunate background and the reason she was trying to get away. Because of this however it is almost impossible to discuss more of the plot in this review as it would give too much away for future readers but it is a really fun read which I managed in one, fairly long, sitting but I didn’t want to put the book down until I finished. At the end Pratchett provides a short section on his use of actual and fantasy Victorian London

I have to confess ahead of the game that certain tweaks were needed to get people in the right place at the right time … but they are not particularly big tweaks, and besides, Dodger is a fantasy based on a reality. … This is a historical fantasy, and certainly not a historical novel. Simply for the fun of it, and also too, if possible, to get people interested in that era so wonderfully catalogued by Henry Mayhew and his fellows.

Because although I may have tweaked the positions of people and possibly how they might have reacted in certain situations, the grime, squalor and hopelessness of an underclass which nevertheless survived, often by a means of self-help, I have not changed at all. It was also, however, a time without such things as education for all, health and safety, and most of the other rules and impediments that we take for granted today. And there was always room for the sharp and clever Dodgers, male and female.

My copy is one of several ‘special editions’ produced when the book was first published on the 13th September 2012, this is the specially bound, stamped & numbered, slipcased edition limited to 3000 and sold exclusively by Waterstones, there was also various un-numbered ‘specials’:

  • 20000 copies exclusive to Waterstones with 500 for Australia with a special jacket and an extra section ‘The Wise Words of Solomon Cohen’ at the end.
  • 30000 copies for W.H. Smith along with 3000 for Easons with a bonus scene at end, Dodger goes to Bedlam to see Sweeney Todd. Both are the same except for different stickers on jacket.
  • 25000 copies exclusive to Tesco with post cards inside the front cover.
  • 6000 copies exclusive to Asda with a map of Dodger’s London at end.

This means that the ‘special editions’ outnumbered the ‘normal editions’ at publication in the UK of which there were 77000 copies. The ‘exclusive’ extra chapter in the edition for W.H. Smith and Easons was subsequently included in the UK paperback when this was published by Corgi on 26th September 2013. The Wise Words of Solomon Cohen do not appear to have been available in any other edition than the Waterstones special, they are not in my copy despite that also being a Waterstones exclusive. Bibliographic details are taken from the website of Terry Pratchett’s long time agent Colin Smythe which is a fount of knowledge on the subject of Terry’s works and is a fascinating read.

The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

I first read this extraordinary book when it came out in 1997 and somehow it seems to be the perfect book to read again at the end of 2020 which has seen so much tragedy throughout the world. Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor in chief of Elle magazine in Paris when a brain stem trauma put him first in a coma and then as he comes round from that he is completely paralysed, able to move only his left eyelid, his mind however was still as active and alert as ever. Locked in Syndrome is fortunately rare but a book written from inside the prison of an body unable to move is even rarer, that the book is this good is probably unique. The diving-bell of the title refers to his immobile but still painful body whilst the butterfly represents his thoughts flying free, beyond the confines of his hospital room. The book was dictated by Bauby winking as letters were laboriously read out one at a time by his assistant, Claude Mendibil, and she then slowly composed the words and then checked that each one was correct. The chapters are short but each one took days, if not weeks, to dictate one letter at a time as Claude repeatably read out

E S A R I N T U L O M D P C F B V H C J Q Z Y X K W

The sequence of letters is not alphabetic as that would have taken too long, instead they are in order of frequency in French, by comparison in English the first twelve letters would be ETAOINSHRDLU.

The chapters vary in subject from hopeful, when he feels a little progress has been made or he is recounting a good day going along the seafront at Berck-sur-Mer, which is where the hospital is, in his wheelchair to sad when things are not going well or the small frustrations at his inability to communicate to all but a handful of people who can use his letter system, there are also two chapters recounting dreams he has had which are comic and moving at the same time. Because the chapters are short you can pick the book up whenever you have a spare few minutes and enjoy the next beautifully written passage and feel that you are catching up with his oh so slow progress. It should be a depressing read, but it isn’t, each small victory over his condition is celebrated and he is funny in the good times.

It is only in the penultimate chapter that Bauby addresses the events of Friday the 8th December 1995 when his life was completely turned upside down. As he says in the book he knew he needed to cover this but was avoiding it for as long as possible. The day starts so normally with time in the office before heading off to collect his son for a trip to the theatre and a meal before spending the weekend with him. He had separated from his wife a few months earlier and had not spent quality time with his son since then. Sadly soon after collecting Théophile in what was fortunately a chauffeur driven car he started to feel unwell and collapsed with the massive stroke that would put him in a coma for twenty days

Bauby died on the 9th March 1997 just two days after the first edition of this book was published in France and sixteen months after he first slipped into a coma but he left us a great book of tragedy and hope. In the final short chapter he was making slight progress with speech training and could grunt (his word) along to a simple tune and although this was a tiny step forward you feel his joy at this triumph over adversity but sadly he succumbed to pneumonia before getting much further.