Dune – Frank Herbert

Where to begin writing about this strange, amazing and above all weighty science fiction classic, my copy is 556 pages excluding the appendices, it was also the joint winner of the 1966 Hugo award and the first ever winner of the Nebular Award for Best Novel in the same year, these two awards are considered the pinnacle of Science Fiction. The breadth of Herbert’s achievement in writing this complex masterpiece is so impressive and I knew I needed to read it before the new films finally come out, after all this copy has been sitting on my shelves for a decade now so this would be the push I needed to open it at last and what a way for a book to start.

So many questions are raised right at the beginning and some, like the identity of the Princess Irulan and her significance, are not answered until almost the very end of the novel, despite extracts from her various works appearing throughout the book. These extracts provided convenient stopping points whilst reading as despite its length there are only three chapters and the sheer number of characters and the complexity of their interactions mean that you really need to stop and assimilate what you have read far more often than that.

Arrakis is a desert planet, hence its other name of Dune, and it is populated by the Fremen, a people who are supremely adapted to the conditions both by natural adaption and technology such as their clothes that preserve and recycle all moisture from their bodies. There are many dangers to the desert besides the heat though, the desert of Dune is populated by giant sandworms capable of swallowing whole vehicles and even aircraft that trespass into their domain. It is also the only source of melange, better known as spice, which is a drug which extends life and expands mental powers especially amongst those who have been trained to exploit it such as the pilots of starships, who need it to foresee dangers, and the Bene Gesserit, but more of them later. This drug is so coveted amongst the Great Houses that rule the interplanetary systems that control of Arrakis is seen as one of the great prizes and as the novel starts the House of Atreides is set to take over from the House of Harkonnen as fief rulers under the Emperor although it is also clear that this is in someway a trap. The Duke Leto Atreides arrives on Arrakis with his Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica and son Paul along with his retinue and a well equipped military right at the start of the book and the sense of danger is clear but the source of the danger is not. The various Houses are clearly based of the power structure in medieval Europe with their own armies and rule over their domains although subject to the overall power of the Emperor, right I sort of understand the structure here, a solid enough base in history to take a story set far in the future and then you hit the Bene Gesserit.

The Bene Gesserit form a sisterhood that because of their powers are much sought after as advisers and consorts to the powerful planetary rulers, who little realise the control that these women have gained over the whole empire over the millennia and that their true allegiance is to the sisterhood. Only females can survive the rituals involved in attaining full awareness as a Reverend Mother but they have been searching, and selective breeding, for a male that would gain the ultimate power of time perception and mental control over themselves and others for centuries. This quasi-religious, and political grouping adds another layer and complexity to the story. The other group that you follow through the book are the Fremen who live away from the protected settlement where off worlders can exist out in the desert. These are clearly based on the Bedouin and some words and concepts from from the Muslim faith are used in association with them, specifically jihad, or holy war, which here refers to their fight back against the controlling Houses imposed upon them. It may seem that I am providing a lot of spoilers but everything mentioned above is all laid out within the first few pages of the book and the story develops from there, it really is a well grounded world that Herbert creates and sets his characters off into.

My copy is from the Gollancz 50th Anniversary set from 2011 which also included Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Eric by Terry Pratchett, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. For their 50th anniversary, Gollancz put the call out for readers to vote on what they considered to be the top ten books to come out of the publishing company in the past 50 years. When the results were in, Gollancz announced the winners and published them in iconic retro covers reminiscent of the classic covers that first drew me to more adult science fiction. I discovered science fiction well before I hit my teens and worked my way through the child and what would now be called the young adult sections at my local library pretty rapidly but upstairs, above the children’s section of the library in the adult science fiction area I found whole shelves of hardback books all bound in yellow covers with no pictures on the cover just text in a bold standard font and they called to me…

These were the books that marked a transition from works aimed at young readers to those for adults and although I never read Dune at the time, even for a precocious young teenager this book was daunting, this was where I first came across the title and now I’ve finally read it. It’s only taken just over forty years to get there but it was well worth the wait as I doubt I would have got as much out of the book if I had tackled it in the mid 1970’s when I first picked it up and then put it back on the library shelf. If you haven’t read it, don’t take as long to get round to it as I did, now I just have to wait for the much delayed first film from Denis Villeneuve and hope that this adaptation has finally managed to capture the breadth and depth of the original novel.

The Dutch Riveter : Edition 9 – Edited by West Camel

I picked this up from my local bookshop the other week and have been thoroughly entertained by this selection from modern Dutch writing and amazingly it’s free. This is volume 9 and was launched on the 17th March 2021 via an online event from the British Library. I’d never heard of The Riveter until Megan, the bookshop owner, suggested I might like to read it as she had had some copies dropped off at the shop a few days ago.

The Riveter is a free magazine devoted to riveting European literature in English. The idea is to make international writing popular and accessible to readers everywhere and to celebrate excellent translation and great books from the rest of Europe.

The Riveter was launched in 2017 by the European Literature Network. Professionally edited and published by a small dedicated team, it attracts support from a wide range of publishers, authors, translators, critics, academics – and readers. It has achieved acclaim with its special issues on Polish, Russian, Nordic, Baltic, Swiss, Queer, German, Romanian and Dutch literature in English.

From the website of the publisher https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-riveter/

It is mainly available online, follow the link in the citation above, but apparently print copies of the Dutch and Romanian versions are readily available in the UK and as I have greatly enjoyed this very professionally produced little volume, 120 pages, I will definitely be looking out for more as I prefer to read an actual book rather than on a screen. I’ll just pick out a few highlights for me:

Someone Who Means It, by Maartje Wortel. Translated by Sarah Welling and Margie Franzen. This short story, which was first printed in 2015, is appearing for the first time in English translation. It’s eleven pages long so represents almost ten percent of the total book but it’s worth the dominance of space it takes up. It’s a story of love and loss, jealousy and passion beautifully told and definitely makes me want to read more by Maartje.

Herman Kock gets one of the subsections, with an extract from his latest book Finse Dagen (Finnish Days) and a review of the most recent one to be fully translated into English, The Ditch. I quite enjoyed the three page extract from Finnish Days and was pretty convinced I wanted to get a copy of The Ditch whilst reading Max Easterman’s largely positive two page review right up until the excoriating final paragraph

Sadly, as the story progresses, Herman Koch doesn’t manage to meld these various strands into a convincing whole: they just don’t hang together. The analytical insight he brings to Robert Walter’s jealousy is dissipated in the final third of the book. The old prejudices about Sylvia’s unnamed country are laid bare, but in the end, the resolution of the story, in which the significance of the ‘ditch’ becomes clear, doesn’t work for me: it is a dying fall, a whimper, which left me wondering: why?

Well that’s one book that needn’t make it to my to be read pile then.

On the other hand Dutch poetry has a huge amount going for it and is well represented here with a two page introduction, twelve pages of poems and a two page review of a poetry collection. Poetry has to be the hardest style of literature to translate for not only does the translator have to manage the words but the flow of the words has to be right. The choice of poems is well done with a good mix of serious and lighthearted works with for me two stand outs from each of those categories. The excellent ‘My Skin’ by Dean Bowen is crying out to be read aloud, this is performance poetry written down and you can’t help reading it out loud to appreciate the rhythm of the words. on the other hand ‘Pitying the Reader’ by Menno Wigman will make any dedicated reader chuckle as we have all been there. I’ll just include the start of the poem here so you can see what I mean.

A book? From cover to cover? I lack the strength.
Even poetry – just thinking about it –
exhausts me now. I’ve overdosed on poems,
stare blindly at the pages of my books.
For many months I’ve had a reader’s block,

I’ve grown allergic to the alphabet.

The articles by translators on their job and the problems and joys of translating were fascinating, there is so much crammed into this slim volume but now I need more, I will have to see if can get other volumes in the series.

The one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent publication is the choice of a grey font on a grey background for the majority of the pages, this is clearly done for aesthetic reasons rather than for the practical as it makes reading more than a few pages at a time very tiring.

The Flemish section which has a salmon pink background is not much better either.

I’m astigmatic so have enough problems distinguishing between letters without the heavily reduced contrast that this choice by an unthinking design team has come up with. It’s not enough to put me off reading but it is a problem and they really should drop the background shades to improve readability.

Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities – Ian Stewart

After a series of novels, time for something factual and an exercise for the brain. Ian Stewart was Professor of Mathematics at The University of Warwick when he wrote this book in 2008 and still holds that title although now Emeritus since he retired. He has written numerous books on mathematics, several of which I own so this was chosen as the first one I picked off the shelf, he was also the third person to write the recreational mathematics column for the periodical Scientific American, taking the reins from 1991 to 2001. This column was started by Martin Gardner back in 1956 and he wrote it until the mid 1980’s and this was the true start of my love of mathematics so it has been a pleasure over the years to have sat in a few bars with Ian and discuss maths and also to enjoy his very readable books.

This book, along with it’s sequels Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures’ from 2009 and ‘Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries’ from 2014, are an interesting mix of puzzles and mathematical history and are partly built upon notebooks that Ian started whilst still at school and more snippets that he has gathered over his long career of anything that looked fun or interesting in the field of mathematics. I had come across roughly half of the puzzles before and it’s surprising it was so few as I have lots of maths puzzle books but the 249 pages of puzzles and essays plus 60 pages of solutions and/or further further discussions on points raised contained a lot that was new to me. Of the essays I particularly liked his short summary of Fermat’s Last Theorem and how Andrew Wiles finally came to solve it centuries later. Ian demonstrates his skill as a good teacher in these essays, not simplistic, after all anyone picking this book up will have an interest in mathematics but not too complex either. The solution relies on a whole new branch of mathematics so he doesn’t try to explain how the solution works but instead explains why it is important and hints at the complexity involved. There are also essays on fractals, chaos theory, various famous mathematicians and numerous important conjectures and theorems spread throughout the book.

It is in the puzzles though that Ian allows his wit to shine through, even if sometimes that is just a series of bad puns as in ‘The Shaggy Dog Story’ which is a fun rewriting of a really old puzzle that would be familiar to almost all readers of the book so he dresses it up to still make it fun and then in the solutions section introduces a variant of the puzzle which I hadn’t come across before. The puzzle involves the terms of a will where the eldest son is to have a half of his fathers dogs, the middle son a third and the youngest a ninth. Unfortunately when the father dies he has seventeen dogs so the division looks like it could be quite messy if the will is to be executed exactly. The solution is actually quite easy and I first saw this puzzle over forty years ago but I’d never seen the follow up question which can also be solved where the legacy of the first two sons remains the same but the third son gets a seventh of the dogs and the puzzle is reversed because you have to work out how many dogs the father had in order for there to be a solution with no dogs harmed. If you haven’t seen the original puzzle before I’ll put the answer at the end of this blog.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maths, the essays are fascinating, the puzzles fun and you’re guaranteed to learn something new.

I also have both the subsequent books in this style and there is an interesting part to the introduction of the second book, I’ll reproduce it here.

Cabinet was published in 2008, and, as Christmas loomed it began to defy the law of gravity. Or perhaps to obey the law of levity. Anyway, by Boxing Day it had risen to number 16 in a well known national best seller list, and by late January it had peaked at number 6. A mathematics book was sharing company with Stephanie Meyer, Barack Obama, Jamie Oliver and Paul McKenna.

This was, of course, completely impossible, everyone knows that there aren’t that many people interested in mathematics.

Ian therefore unexpectedly received an email from the publisher wanting a sequel which did well, but not as well as the first hence the longer delay before the third book. The Casebook is easily the weakest of the three as too many puzzles are dressed up in cod Sherlock Holmes stories which frankly only serve to pad out the puzzle and it appears to have been remaindered as I didn’t know it existed until planning to write about the first two and got a brand new still shrink wrapped first edition copy for a third the original price seven years after it originally came out.

Dogs problem solution – You just need to borrow a dog from somebody else. This will mean you have 18 dogs, half of that is 9, a third is 6 and a ninth is 2. As 9 + 6 + 2 = 17 you can then give the borrowed dog back, Now try the follow up question…

Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff – Thomas Jefferson Hogg

This book is quite possibly unique in the annals of publishing in that the first review of it is far more famous than the book itself and that review has also been reprinted many more times than the book it was reviewing. This however is not difficult as following the first edition in 1813 (reprinted 1825) the next edition appears to be this one by The Folio Society in 1952 which has never been reprinted and apart from some modern ‘print on demand’ publishers offering it, as they offer most out of copyright works, that appears to be the sum total of published editions. So what about the review? Well that was written by Hogg’s friend Percy Bysshe Shelley and first appeared in The Critical Review in 1814. Hogg and Shelley had met at University College, Oxford where they were fellow undergraduates, one was destined to become a London barrister and the other one of the great romantic poets but if Hogg is remembered for anything nowadays it is his unfinished biography of Shelley which he was still working on when he died in 1862 forty years after the untimely death of his subject. The two nineteenth century printings of Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff are both extremely rare. Worldcat, the international library catalogue, lists one copy of each, both of which are in the British Library in London, there is also one copy of the 1825 reprint currently for sale in San Francisco. Regular readers of my blog will know that I sometimes include a link to out of copyright books at Project Gutenberg but I can’t do it for this book because it doesn’t even exist on that site.

Shelley’s review has however been reprinted many times either as a very short stand alone booklet or in collected editions of Shelley’s works, it is also included at the back of this Folio Society edition. It is 9½ pages long, which as it includes large chunks of the original book to illustrate his points is not very long at all but the real surprise is that The Critical Review published such a lengthy review by an unknown critic of a book that sold so badly that it has virtually vanished without trace.

But lets look at the book itself, the Folio Society edition is beautifully bound in quarter buckram with marbled boards and has eight wood engravings by well known Scottish artist Douglas Percy Bliss who was then Director of the Glasgow School of Art. It also has an interesting introduction written by Sidney Scott which looks not just at the novel but the friendship between Hogg and Shelley, they had collaborated a couple of times at university including on a pamphlet entitled ‘A Necessity of Atheism’ which, although published anonymously, was soon traced to the two friends who were both summarily rusticated, never to return to their studies. Hogg continued this idea of hiding the true author through to this book as the Memoirs were originally published as though it was a genuine translation from the original Latin by a mysterious John Brown and it was many years before Hogg was identified as the actual author.

Meeting the Sultana – Wood engraving by Douglas Percy Bliss

You may feel that I’m taking a long time to get to the novel itself. There is a very good reason for that and it is the same reason that the book is so rarely published and that is that it isn’t actually very good. The narrative is disjointed and whilst there are passages that are beautifully written these are soon let down by huge gaps where much has clearly happened but it is covered in just a line or two with no explanation as to how we have moved from one position to another. At one point after escaping from the clutches of the Sultana in Constantinople, who intends to poison him if he leaves her, he wishes to replace his desire for her by bizarrely buying a female slave that reminds him of the Sultana. We spend several pages at the slave dealer but then after getting her to Naples she bears him two sons before dying along with the children of smallpox within a few lines. This is not the only occasion where the treatment of women is reprehensible but serves as a good example of the whole. The extremely odd German cult that Haimatoff joins is just plain strange and it really isn’t clear why he would have committed himself to it which includes being locked in a room for three months with no human contact or any means of passing the time such as books or pen and paper. I have categorised this blog as a book tale not a review as the story of how the book appeared and disappeared is actually more interesting than the plot. The Folio Society edition is almost seventy years old now and I can’t imagine any publisher setting out to publish it again but it was interesting to read such a rare book, if you want to then the Folio edition is easily found secondhand online for just a few pounds. The 1825 copy I found in San Francisco is over £3000.

I will leave this with the final two paragraphs of Percy Byssche Shelley’s review which I think sums up the book quite well even if he was being overly generous to a friend.

In the delineation of the more evanescent feelings and uncommon instances of strong and delicate passion we conceive the author to have exhibited new and unparalleled powers. He has noticed some peculiarities of female character, with a delicacy and truth singularly exquisite. We think that the interesting subject of sexual relations requires for its successful development the application of a mind thus organised and endowed. Yet even here how great the deficiencies ; this mind must be pure from the fashionable superstitions of gallantry, must be exempt from the sordid feelings which with blind idolatry worship l the image and blaspheme the deity, reverence the type, and degrade the reality of which it is an emblem.

We do not hesitate to assert that the author of this volume is a man of ability. His great though indisciplinable energies and fervid rapidity of conception embodies scenes and situations, and of passions affording inexhaustible food for wonder and delight. The interest is deep and irresistible. A moral enchanter seems to have conjured up the shapes of all that is beautiful and strange to suspend the faculties in fascination and astonishment.

Percy Byssche Shelly in The Critical Review 1814

There is an extremely badly formatted version of Shelley’s review available online here. If anyone knows of a better version I would love to hear of it so I can replace this link.

A Room with a View – E M Forster

Originally published in 1908 this Edwardian romance and comedy of manners is nowadays regarded as one of the classics in English literature although probably not rated as highly as two of Forster’s other novels ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Passage to India’. I know I have read it before, probably around 1985 when the Merchant Ivory film adaptation came out, but to my genuine surprise I realised that I had completely forgotten the story line when I started reading it again this week. I chose this over the other two, that I also have on my shelves as a good friend of mine in Barcelona has just started reading a brand new Catalan translation along with two friends so I thought it would be fun to join in with the English original.

The novel is in two parts, the first of which is set entirely in Florence, Italy whilst the second part mainly takes place in England. We start with twenty year old Lucy Honeychurch and her much older cousin Charlotte Bartlett, who is acting as her chaperone, newly arrived at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence and bemoaning the fact that neither of them had been allocated a room with a view despite being assured when booking that they would each have a good view of the square and the river. We are then rapidly introduced to the other guests at the hotel as they discuss the situation leading up to Mr Emerson and his son George offering to swap rooms as they do have good views

“What I mean,” he continued, “is that you can have our rooms, and we’ll have yours. We’ll change.”

The better class of tourist was shocked at this, and sympathised with the new-comers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said “Thank you very much indeed; that is out of the question.”

“Why?” said the old man, with both fists on the table.

“Because it is quite out of the question, thank you.”

“You see, we don’t like to take—” began Lucy. Her cousin again repressed her.

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

And so within the first couple of pages we hit on the class difference between the Emerson’s and the other guests at the hotel as Lucy and Charlotte were shocked by the suggestion as it would leave the two women under a perceived obligation to two strange men, something that never occurs to either of the Emerson’s. It is this perceived total social unsuitability of these men to the rest of the group that provides the dynamic through the remainder of the book as various characters keep meeting them and recoil regarding their ‘common ways’. In fact a clergyman, Mr Beebe intercedes and convinces Charlotte that the exchange of rooms can be done without obligation so they both end up with a room with a view by the end of the first chapter. I don’t want to give away the plot but suffice to say that Lucy finds herself accidentally alone with George on more than one occasion whilst in Florence to the considerable embarrassment of her and the pleasure of him.

Part two has a sudden shift in location and time, clearly many weeks, if not months have passed and a new character is introduced, Cecil Vyse. We are also at the home of Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother in the fictional village of Summer Street in Surrey. Slowly various characters that made up the guests at the Pensione Bertolini also appear in the village either accidentally or deliberately and the tensions between the group are reproduced only this time with the added complication of Cecil who has become Lucy’s fiance or her ‘fiasco’ according to her brother Freddy and never a truer word was said in jest. The problems caused by various unseemly, at least to the mores of the time, acts or words by the assorted people and again unfortunate meetings and misunderstandings carry us through a thoroughly satisfying final chapter. I greatly enjoyed the book and the interplay between the characters and although many of the things they regard as shocking or unsuitable would not be so nowadays the fact that Forster is gently poking fun at them is always clear.

The edition that I currently own is from a set of six Penguin Classics designed in 2008 by Bill Amberg, the London based leather work studio, each book comes in a sturdy box with a belly band indicating which book is inside. The book itself is fully bound in a soft brown leather with a hole punched right through the cover and all the pages in the top left corner where a leather book mark is attached with the titles and author embossed in it. The only thing marking the cover itself is the Penguin Books logo at the base of the spine. It is also incredibly difficult to photograph accurately, the photos below are as close as I could get, with the bookmark being the closest to the actual colour of the leather. The leather cover overlaps the pages by a significant amount making it a yapp binding where over time and repeated reading the leather will fold over to totally encase the book. Each book was published in a limited edition of 1000 and priced at £50 per volume.

For the Penguin Classics leather binding I have chosen a vegetable tanned, buffalo calf. I should stress that all the skins were taken from ‘fallen animals’ – i.e. they died from natural causes – and were sourced from India’s premium calf tannery. They use traditional methods in a totally ecological process, where the water used is recycled after filtering through reed beds. This creates leather that improves with every use, the grain and sheen brightening continually over time.

Bill Amberg

Leaflet included with the book

Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.

Silas Marner – George Eliot

I’ve made a few attempts at reading Middlemarch and have failed miserably each time but do feel there must be something to George Eliot to explain her popularity so when on lithub.com I came across the following ‘recommendation’

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861) : Like MiddlemarchSilas Marner is exquisitely written and ecstatically boring. Unlike Middlemarch, it is quite short.

I felt I had to make a go of it and I have a 1944 first Penguin Books edition on the shelves, so Silas Marner here we come…

Like several of her contemporaries Mary Anne Evans used a male pseudonym for her novels although unlike the Bronte sisters for example this was not how she was first published as she used her own name for her earlier translations, nevertheless it is as George Eliot that she is best known. She took the male name to avoid being pigeonholed as a romantic writer which would have undoubtedly have been the case in mid Victorian England and she wanted to write far more serious novels. Having finished, and enjoyed Silas Marner I have to say that the above quote that prompted me to pick up the book is extremely unfair. Yes there are some dull parts, especially when the ladies are getting ready for the new years party and seem to spend far too long discussing, and admiring each others dresses but even that had some interest in how they would prepare for a social gathering with outfits sent on in advance so they didn’t have to carry them in the carriage or on horseback.

Whilst the book is specifically split into two parts in reality it more properly falls into three each fifteen to sixteen years apart. The first short section deals with Marner as a young man brought up in a strict religious community in an un-named norther city, where he is falsely accused of stealing the church funds and expelled from chapel. He also loses the love of his life due to his apparent crime to the man that framed him and Marner duly leaves the city to start a new life on the edge of the fictional small village of Raveloe in Warwickshire. All this happens in a flashback during the first chapter of the book to provide some background to his character and why he is such a loner as the rest of Part One deals with his life fifteen years after he came to Raveloe. This is a part of the country well known to George Eliot as she was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and whilst the book is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and she was born in 1819 this would still be a familiar territory for her to set the novel in and one of the features of the book is the descriptions of the lives of the various social strata within the village. Marner earns his living as a weaver, in fact the full title of the book is Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe and from this skill he is able to amass quite a substantial sum over the fifteen years he had lived there and was respected for his skill but took no part in village life other than that which was necessary for his trade working at his loom all available hours day in day out. This solitude coupled with his bulging eyes which were rather short sighted, his bent back from hours at the loom and his occasional cataleptic fits which left him motionless for up to an hour at a time when they struck him made him an object of fear amongst the village children and his non-appearance at church a concern for the adults.

There is a parallel tale to that of Marner within the book and that is of the local squire, or more specifically his dissolute sons, the eldest of which had made an unwise secret marriage to an opium addicted poor woman and fathered a daughter whilst the other was of generally bad character thinking nothing of bullying his way around the local populace and wasting money of drink and gambling. Initially it seems that there is no link between the two tales but the two are destined to become entangled with both tragic and happy results. Part two is set sixteen years after part one but the various loose story strands have got no nearer to resolution but everything is about to change and oddly it is the improved draining of the fields that is going to be the catalyst. It is the clever interleaving of the two facets of social life in the village that make the book so enjoyable even whilst I sometimes struggled with the written out dialect when the poorer people are talking amongst themselves. The characters are all believable and the interplay between the gentry (such as they are in such a backwater), the poor and those who see themselves as in between such as the parson, the doctor, the innkeeper and the farrier is very well done.

I felt drawn in to this portrait of rustic middle English life from two centuries ago, maybe it’s time to have another go at Middlemarch…

The High Toby – J B Priestley

This is less of a review of the High Toby than a brief look at the history of the toy theatre in Britain and more specifically the end of an era with the collapse into administration of the most famous, and by then the only significant, toy theatre company in the country, that run by Benjamin Pollock. For those readers unfamiliar with toy theatres I will also look in some detail at The High Toby and what you got when you purchased the book.

Benjamin Pollock didn’t set out to be a toy theatre maker and retailer, he married into the trade in 1877 when he took Eliza Redington as his wife and effectively inherited the family business of print making, especially sheets for toy theatres, before that he had been a furrier like his father. But his name was to become synonymous with toy theatres which was already a declining business when he started in the trade. However he was in for a considerable stroke of luck, with the reduction in the popularity of the toy theatre had gone a significant reduction in the number of competitors as they had slowly gone out of business and then in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ about his love for toy theatres and specifically mentioning Pollock’s business, you can read it as chapter 13 of his later compilation of essays called Memories and Portraits available on Project Gutenberg. The title refers to the way the sheets were priced either a penny a sheet that you had to colour in yourself or two pence for pre-coloured, frankly half the fun of these was the colouring in as successfully performing a play on a toy theatre was actually quite difficult. This essay which originally appeared in The Magazine of Art drove interest in the subject and dramatically increased trade for Pollock’s.

Benjamin Pollock continued the business until he died in 1937, largely simply reprinting the sheets originally sold by John Redington with his name replacing Redington’s (just as Redington had done with his predecessor in the business) although he did introduce a handful of new plays in the six decades he was in charge. It was this careful use of the existing plates that kept his costs down and enabled the business to continue bringing in an income in the face of yet another downturn in demand for the products he was selling. Pollock’s daughters continued the shop for a short while but WWII intervened, the building was bombed and in 1944 they sold the plates and remaining stock to Alan Keen who ran an antiquarian bookshop. Keen may have understood book selling but the far more financially precarious world of toy theatres was all new to him and he set about expanding the new Benjamin Pollock Ltd company he created and that meant new plays and new designs of theatres to perform them in. Not content with new versions of classic pantomimes which didn’t require much or any royalties to be paid he commissioned completely new works including an adaption of the 1948 J Arthur Rank film of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier.

As the film was in black and white the backgrounds and wing dressings for this production was also in black and white although the characters were reproduced in full colour using photographs of the actual cast. The licencing for this could not have been cheap but was almost certainly eclipsed by the cost of the other 1948 publication of The High Toby. There would be one more new production from Benjamin Pollock Ltd. which was a version of the nativity story published in 1950 but by 1952 the company had gone into receivership, probably pushed over the edge by the two 1948 new productions.

As indicated above The High Toby should really have been called The High Cost. In 1948 when this book was published Priestley was at the height of his powers, his most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 and had reached the London stage the following year to excellent reviews so hiring him to write a play was a bold but extravagant choice for the Benjamin Pollock company. That they also got the well known artist and theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen to design the sets and figures may well have been a step too far, although getting Penguin Books to publish the book unlike than their self published Hamlet may well have offset some of the cost as Priestley could at least expect more royalties that way but as this was a commission he would have received a significant advance. The book is intended for use with the Benjamin Pollock Regency Theatre which cost 38 shillings and sixpence (the equivalent of £69 in 2021) so not a cheap toy, especially so soon after WWII, so this was only an option to wealthier families. Along with the short play there are backdrops, dressings for the wings and characters in various poses to fit the performance all of which need to be cut out and mounted on cardboard before attaching to rods so they can be moved on the stage.

Some of the backdrops included in the book can be seen below, there are a total of nine pages of backdrops

Wing dressings and a couple of carriages are on these pages again there are more wing dressings than I have included here.

and the designs for figures include these, there are two more pages of characters to be cut out. Not only did the lucky child with this toy need wealthy parents they also needed endless patience to cut out and mount all the various parts.

The text of the play indicates which version of each character is needed in that scene and as you can see this would have been a very colourful performance which is more than could be said for the largely black and white version of Hamlet printed by Benjamin Pollock at roughly the same time.

The play is actually quite good fun and the stage directions are clear and easy to follow there is even a section which indicates the type of voice to be used for each of the characters, but it would still need at least two children to perform it with any degree of success. There is a licencing note as well in the book that makes it clear that whilst toy theatre performances are royalty free, should anyone wish to perform the play on a real stage then there would be a licencing cost associated with it.

I’m glad to say that 1952 was not the final end of the Benjamin Pollock business, in the mid 1950’s Marguerite Fawdry needed some parts for the toy theatre that her children played with and tried to buy them from the receivers who refused. They did however suggest she could buy all the plates, printed sheets and theatres they held which she duly did and opened The Benjamin Pollock Toy Theatre museum, which also continued selling stock as the shop had. She even produced new plays but in a much more modest fashion than Alan Keen. The museum she created still exists and is still run by the Fawdry family in Fitzrovia, a district of London, and is now high on my list of places that I want to visit the next time I am in the city.

Sacred Britain – Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer

OK let’s start off by saying this book is a little odd and although I’m sure it could be used in the way it appears to have designed I have never done so in the twenty four years I have owned it. The book lives in my car rather than on a bookshelf and the times I have referred to it are when I am away from home and for some reason have some spare time to do a little exploring. But lets get back to why I think it’s odd. Firstly it is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Now why, coming up to the millennium, this charity thought it appropriate to involve itself in a project regarding sacred spaces is beyond me as apart a small reference to trees and plants commonly found in a British churchyard there appears to be nothing linking nature to this book. Secondly although there are ancient pilgrimage routes in Britain these have been largely ignored by the authors, apart from one route to Canterbury cathedral, and instead they have created their own routes linking various sites which are usually associated with a varied selection of faiths, including pagan, all in one journey. Even the journey to Canterbury which was a major Christian pilgrimage in medieval times especially for those unable for financial or time reasons to make the trip to the Holy Land the suggested journey in this book goes via an iron age fort, the remains of a 1000 year old synagogue, a druids grove and some neolithic burial mounds, none of which fit in with a Christian pilgrimage. The inclusion of some excellent churches, cathedrals and ruined abbeys does not really get away from the trip being an odd mish mash of sites. The third oddity is to do with the panel maps within the text of the routes which are all narrow vertical pictures regardless of the true geography and to my mind are also upside down. Now there are ‘proper’ maps as well but these are the ones that you have to hand so to speak.

The example above shows what I mean, this is a journey TO St David’s and if you are going to ignore geographic orientation, north is to the right on this panel, then at least work down the picture to the destination not up. Also as you can see the text doesn’t actually refer to the map on the page, in fact that part of the journey is eight or nine pages further on, where there is no map but could easily have been one. The whole page layout throughout the book is as confusing as the selection of routes, you find yourself either inserting lots of bookmarks or constantly flipping between pages in an attempt to follow what is going on.

So why am I reading it this time, rather than dipping in for a specific locality which is my usual way of using the book? Well England is about to come out of what is the third and hopefully last lock down to prevent the spread of Covid 19 and I’m desperate to escape these four walls and go somewhere, in fact pretty well anywhere and I’m looking for inspiration. In all there are thirteen of these suggested journeys and they cover most of England, Scotland and Wales, the latter two will still be out of bounds next week but it should be possible to go somewhere in England if only for a day trip as overnight accommodation is still not easily available and won’t be for at least another month, probably longer. I’m not looking for a route but a destination preferably not too far away and if there is somewhere else interesting near to it then that would be a bonus. The one advantage of the route structure of the book is that places near one another are next to each other in the book so you can get happy accidents of two or three interesting places all in one go.

There are also sections that don’t stick to the routes but dot around by theme and one of these chapters on stone circles and tombs has probably inspired me to journey out on day trips more than any other and this is the only travel guide I own that specifically has a section on these ancient sites. So what to make of the book as a whole, well as I said at the beginning it’s odd and doesn’t really work in the way it was intended. It can also be infuriating due to the constant chopping and changing of pages to see what should be all together but it has earned its place in my car for when I have a spontaneous urge to go somewhere unplanned. It also has the advantage that it doesn’t matter that it is nearly a quarter of century old, which would be a serious handicap in most guide books as it is specifically pointing you to places that largely haven’t changed for centuries and will remain for years to come.

This book was originally published in 1997 by Piatkus in the UK and was reprinted in the USA in 2000 by Hidden Spring Books under the title ‘The Spiritual Traveller’. The sequence of some of the chapters are altered and suggestions of places to stay are added in the American edition but the books are to all intents and purposes the same.

The Golden Age – Kenneth Grahame

Originally published in 1895 by The Bodley Head without any illustrations, my copy is also published by them and is the 1928 first edition illustrated by Ernest H Shepard who is probably best known for his Winnie the Pooh drawings for A A Milne’s classic children’s works. The book is simply beautiful even before you open it with the cover silhouette and text embossed into buckram covered boards. Kenneth Grahame of course is famous for his own children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’ which was published thirteen years after ‘The Golden Age’ and was converted into the play ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ by Milne in 1929. Surprisingly after such a major hit with ‘The Wind in The Willows’, and despite living for another twenty four years after that, he published no more books and ‘The Golden Age’ is the second of just four other books he wrote before ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

Kenneth Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1859 but when he was only five years old his mother died and his father, who was probably alcoholic, couldn’t look after Kenneth and his three siblings so they were sent to live with their grandmother in a small village in Berkshire. This sudden change from the centre of a Scottish city to a rural English parish had a lasting effect on Grahame and his explorations as a child of the countryside surrounding him undoubtedly led decades later to ‘The Wind in the Willows’. His earlier writings, especially ‘The Golden Age’, feature a group of children having fun growing up in just such an idyllic environment written entirely from their point of view and are clearly fictionalised versions of his own life in the mid to late 1860’s in Cookham Dean. The book is made up of seventeen short stories and a prologue which refers to the, largely distant, adults as The Olympians and the children as the Illuminati because only they could see the pirates, knights, soldiers, wild animals etc. of their playing and truly enjoy themselves.

Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut to behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed. They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. … These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy—of their good luck—and pity—for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character (when we troubled ourselves to waste a thought on them: which wasn’t often) that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it.

From the opening paragraph of The Golden Age

The stories are delightfully and really evoke a long gone period in mid-Victorian England, as well as harvest time depicted above they encounter mounted soldiers in one of the lanes all dressed up in regimental finery with red jackets and plume helmets so very different to the modern military. There are stories of Charlotte, the youngest girl, playing with her dolls and telling them off for misbehaving, the three boys are always in and out of the river or exploring the woods or generally being where and doing what they shouldn’t be, often in the company of Charlotte if not her elder sister Selina. The relatives the children were staying with were clearly quite well off, the house appears to be quite large and there are servants hence the opportunity for them to enjoy their childhood despite regular complaints about having to do schoolwork. For those wondering ‘dreeing his weird’ is a Scottish expression meaning to accept your fate, so clearly Harold had ended up with a tummy ache after all that raw turnip but had recognised that his illness was entirely his own fault so wasn’t complaining about it. None of Grahame’s actual brothers and sisters match the names of the children in the book or its sequel ‘Dream Days’ where Charlotte appears again in the short story ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ which of all of Grahame’s short stories is easily the best known although the rest of ‘Dream Days’ doesn’t really live up to this gentle fantasy.

The illustrations by Ernest H Shepherd are as charming as you would expect from this master of book illustration but for me the real joy in the book are his silhouettes, they are just so beautifully done and as can be seen above sometimes continue across a double page spread. The children are enjoying some ginger beer purchased with the reward for Edward being steadfast under the dentists attention and having a tooth removed that morning. The misunderstanding as to what corked wine meant with the subsequent worry about expanding pieces of cork being dangerous inside you is quite funny and behind Selina can be seen one of the children’s rabbits chosen as the “most self-respecting of the rabbits … let loose to grace the feast”.

The book is still easily available and as far as I can tell has never gone out of print in the 125 years since it was first published, maybe not very well known now but still worth searching out. I’ll leave the last word however to Kenneth Grahame himself.

Well! The Olympians are all past and gone. Somehow the sun does not seem to shine so brightly as it used; the trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres. A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego—I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?

Closing paragraph of the prologue to The Golden Age