Change of Use – Candia McWilliam

As a response to Penguin Books and Pheonix producing small cheap editions in the mid 1990’s Bloomsbury decided to have a go as well and so the Bloomsbury Quid was born, and almost immediately died. The initial ten books, which came out in 1996, were never followed by any more. Priced, as implied by the series name, at a quid, or one pound, they are probably the nicest designed and best produced, being on much higher quality paper than others of these cheap editions so it is a great pity that Bloomsbury never saw fit to produce any more, perhaps they didn’t sell, perhaps there simply wasn’t enough money in it, who knows after almost thirty years? The titles chosen were certainly interesting:

  • Change of Use by Candia McWilliam
  • The Drowned Son by David Guterson
  • Faith by Joanna Trollope
  • Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan by Nadine Gordimer
  • The Queen and I by Jay McInerney
  • She Wasn’t Soft by T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • A Story for Europe by Will Self
  • Three Stories and a Reflection by Patrick Süskind
  • Two Boys and a Girl by Tobias Wolff
  • The Labrador Fiasco by Margaret Atwood

From the page dedicated to this series on Library Thing you can see that the series was bright and colourful and even that these are suggested as a collectors item of the future; and whilst that hasn’t proved to be the case so far, I’m glad I picked up the full set when they came out.

So enough of the publishing history, what is the book itself like?

On the back of the book is the opening line of the story and it’s certainly intriguing, Why is Mary sitting on the edge of a sink and what sort of rituals? It slowly comes clear that most of the story is set in a retirement home and the rituals are literally that, things that are done ritually by the people being cared for. Mary is one of the nurses at the establishment and she is overseeing one of the residents as he polishes some silver spoons whilst reliving his time as a butler, interestingly enough at the same property that is now his nursing home. Interleaved with his story is that of the grandmother of the person who drives the laundry van that calls at the home. She is getting increasingly fed up with the research work that she does for various authors and dreams of a life away from it and like Mr Charteris, the ex butler, she longs for the memories of her younger life and is scheming to reclaim them.

The story is interesting as you get into the minds of the various characters very well for such a short work and I loved the twist at the end. I’m definitely going to have to read another of McWilliam’s surprisingly few books. She stopped writing in 1997 and then had a medical condition in 2006 which left her blind for two years and which inspired her to take up writing again although this time a memoir which was published in 2010 which was her last published work. Interestingly this story has never been reprinted, even though McWilliam published a collection of short stories in 1997 so this small volume remains the only place you can read it.


Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It has been said that I will eat anything. This is, of course, nonsense. Medium Density Fibreboard soaked in paraffin served between two discs of foam rubber has never got me salivating (which is why I steer clear of McDonalds).

Start of chapter two

Hugh gained the sobriquet of Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All from a review of one of his books where he advocated eating as much of an animal as possible, no discarding of offal, if a pig has been killed to provide the diner with pork chops the least people can do is eat the rest of it with as little waste as can be managed. I am very much in agreement with him and regard most offal as a treat due to the flavours and textures that you would otherwise miss. I haven’t gone as far as Hugh’s keenness for brains and frankly his descriptions of the texture, which for him makes the dish, are quite off-putting to me.

This book, unlike the others I have by Hugh, is a collection of his journalism and whilst some of the articles are campaigning for various issues, especially regarding ‘nose to tail’ eating, others are very funny and even self deprecating. His own personal food business ‘River Cottage‘ barely gets a mention and whilst there are some recipes in the book they appear only rarely and always to illustrate a point in the article they are attached to. This is worth pointing out as most of his books are cookbooks, and one is my favourite which is his Meat book, nothing I have ever cooked from that book has failed to work or indeed been so complicated that I was immediately put off trying it. Having said that the journalism is a delight and being short articles it makes this a great book to dip into pretty well at random. Hugh started out as a sous chef in the kitchen of the famous River Island restaurant in Hammersmith, London but didn’t last long as a need to cut costs led to him being fired about eight months after joining them, he has never looked back, or indeed worked seriously in a professional kitchen since that date in August 1989. He moved to River Cottage in 1997 and presented his first TV series from there two years later and nowadays it is River Cottage rather than his journalism that most people think of, which is a pity because as I said earlier it’s very good.

The book is split into six sections with articles gathered thematically so for example the first part ‘Hard to Swallow’ includes pieces about McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, bemoaning the quality of their products and the Atkins diet pointing out the dangerous side effects of that regime. There are also articles about the poor standard of food in first class on Eurostar and other other similar topics. These sound like they could be hard work to read but rather they are quite entertaining, especially when he tries to replicate a Big Mac at home. Later sections dwell on travelling to try new foods and also his home life from childhood to his current family life at River Cottage, he is a very good writer, short articles are notoriously difficult to do especially if you are also raising an important point such as intensive farming without just banging on about it. No everybody can’t live the way he does and eat fresh home produced vegetables and meat but we can try to do the best we can afford’ Hugh has the advantage of coming from a wealthy family and sometimes he can be somewhat divorced from the realities of how most people live but having said that he comes over as a very likeable person and at some point I will get down to River Cottage to do one of his cookery courses.

One thing I think that is missing is which publication the articles originally appeared in, you get the month and year but not where. He had regular columns in Punch magazine and the Evening Standard and Sunday Times newspapers so I guess most are from those but it seems a strange omission.

Penguin Marvel Classics collection

On the 14th June 2022 Penguin Books embarked on a new series of titles with three books each simultaneously printed in hardback and paperback. The paperbacks, as can be seen above, were designed to look like the current iteration of Penguin Classics but noticeably larger at 252mm tall and 180mm wide as opposed to the ‘normal’ size of Penguin Classics which are 198mm tall and 129mm wide. This larger size makes the reproduced comic books in each volume far more legible. The hardbacks are larger still at 272mm tall by 198mm wide, their covers are very different and have gold page edges on all three sides. The hardback covers are illustrated below as each book is discussed in this blog. It isn’t the size of the books that strikes the reader as different when you pick them up though, it’s the weight. At getting on for a kilo each for the paperbacks and even closer to two kilos for the hardbacks, this is due to the high quality paper used in order to do justice to the full colour pages throughout the almost four hundred pages making up each book, these are clearly not books for reading in bed.

All the books have the same introduction to the new collection as shown below:

It’s an interesting idea to class early Marvel comics as Penguin Classics, after all that series concept began in 1946 and 1947 with translations of Homer’s Odyssey, Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, Sophocles’ The Theban plays and Voltaire’s Candide in the first two years, quite what E V Rieu (the original series editor) would have made of these comic books appearing in Penguin Classics can only be surmised but it probably wouldn’t have been positive. Having said that, the introductory essays do indeed set the comic art in it’s historical and cultural context so at least some attempt to hold to Rieu’s principles for the series has been made.

The Amazing Spider-man

I was interested to see how these editions differed from the Folio Society curated volumes currently being produced, see their Spider-Man launch video here. Penguin have gone for a very different approach to their selection of comics to the Folio Society as with Penguin you get an almost contiguous run of early comics rather than a selection over the years by former Marvel editor Roy Thomas which is Folio’s take on the subject. So in this volume you get Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy number 15 (August 1962) followed by the first four comics from The Amazing Spider-Man (March to September 1963). There then follows an essay about the characters development which also discusses comics five to eight and then the reproductions of the full comics continues with The Amazing Spider-Man comics nine and ten before another essay replacing issues then more reproductions and so on until the last comic included which is number nineteen from December 1964 by which time there have been twelve full reproductions. I actually really liked this way of doing it because at least you can follow story development rather than the more bitty Folio treatment and the three appendixes dealing with further aspects were really interesting as was the volume introduction by Ben Saunders. What you miss with the Penguin version rather than the Folio edition is a feel for where the character is going over the subsequent years however these are Penguin Classics after all so we should be looking at the early version of the character and even the hardbacks, at £40 are less than half the £95 of the Folio Society version.

Captain America

Captain America takes a similar way of selecting comics but with one major difference to the Spider-Man volume as although we get a reproduction of Captain America number one (March 1941) the rest of his largely propaganda driven World War II comic book stories are skipped. Because we get number one though we do at least get the famous cover illustration of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler. Instead we leap to Tales of Suspense number fifty nine (November 1964) and take the Captain from his relaunch including Tales of Suspense number sixty three (March 1965) which tells the origin story of Captain America. This had to be done as an entire generation had grown up without the character so who was this guy in the stars and stripes outfit? There are in total twenty two partial or complete reproductions of the comics, all but the first being Tales of Suspense which tended to have two, or more, separate stories in each edition and only the Captain America parts are reproduced here and he also didn’t appear in every edition so the last one included is number 113 (May 1969). Again unlike the Folio Society version we are focusing on one period of the characters existence rather than a more rounded overview and we also get essays that cover comics not included and provide more developmental background.

Black Panther

Unlike the other two, Black Panther originally appeared in another series entirely and has The Fantastic Four visiting Wakanda, home of The Black Panther, at his invitation only for him to launch an unexpected attack on them. This takes place in Fantastic Four numbers fifty two and fifty three (July and August 1966 respectively) both of which are in this volume. Despite the initially unfriendly approach, Black Panther and the Fantastic Four end up joining forces to attack an enemy of Wakanda and them ultimately encouraging him to continue fighting for good as Black Panther. We then leap to his next appearance, which is Jungle Action number six (September 1973) and have an uninterrupted series of comics from there to Jungle Action number twenty one (May 1976) this time with no explanatory essays replacing the comics. The appendices are very different as well, this time we get the essay written by Don McGregor as his introduction to Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther volume one and the typewritten plot synopsis originally created for Jungle Action number seven also by McGregor. This is a very interesting document as it shows how stories were developed before any artwork had been started.

The first three volumes of the Penguin Marvel Classics collection are excellent and anyone interested in comic books or the booming graphic novel market should seek them out.

The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli

Everyone has heard the name Machiavelli, but how many have actually read the book he is most famous for? Well until this week I hadn’t got round to it despite owning a copy for many years. It’s an interesting book, originally written in Italian at around 1513 and ultimately dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici after the original proposed dedicatee died before the work was finished; it has given its author a reputation for ruthlessness and scheming which is partly but not entirely justified. Machiavelli was above all else a patriot to his city state of Florence and having lived through turbulent times when the various Italian states had been repeatedly fighting each other along with invasions from both France and Spain he wanted to set down some advice based on his experiences. Florence was seriously weakened during his lifetime and he wanted it to rise again so sets out in the first half of the book some arguments as to how a state rises, is maintained, and can ultimately fall with numerous historical examples to back up his propositions.

It is probably the second half of the book which has been historically so troubling but frankly despite the directness of the language, you can still read it and see where he is coming from even if you don’t agree with his arguments, see the following passage for how a prince should behave

he should learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps, and the fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like lions are stupid. So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and should not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.

Chapter XVIII – How princes should honour their word

He further looks to whether a prince should be generous or parsimonious and concludes that whilst generosity can possibly rise a new ruler to princedom it cannot keep him there as it ultimately will be ruinous and any attempt to raise further funds will be resented by the majority who have to supply the money either by taxes or seizures of property and merely appreciated by the minority who gain by them. This will lead to uprisings against the prince and the loss of his state or more likely his life. The decision is then that a prince should be seen as miserly by preference especially if they use the garnered wealth to maintain sufficient soldiers to make the state safer from possible attacks from its neighbours. He also has much to say about armies and why mercenaries are a bad thing as they just draw on the state funds when not in use and can simply move to another state willing to pay them more money if things start to look as if they are going against them. Even a professional army is a problem that needs to be carefully looked after to avoid officers rising to a point where they could see themselves as possible rulers and therefore mutiny and there is a balancing act needed to ensure loyalty without engendering resentment from the populace who ultimately have to pay for them.

He is even more troublesome when it comes to cruelty or compassion to your subjects

So a prince should not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty as long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine, These nearly always harm the whole community, whereas executions ordered by the prince only affect individuals.

Chapter XVII – Cruelty and compassion, and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse.

Well that last sentence is certainly true, especially for the individual being executed, but I’ve never come across such an argument so brutally put and it is probably such sentiments that have given Machiavelli his reputation today, and indeed pretty well ever since the book was published in the early sixteenth century.That is not to say that the book is not worth reading, because it definitely should be read today especially when considering the current state of world politics and conflicts. Machiavelli is blunt in his opinions but that only makes them easier to read and understand, I’m certainly not recommending the book as a guide to how to exist nowadays but it can give valuable pointers as to the possible mindsets of various rulers today who whilst not embracing Machiavelli in his entirety definitely give the impression of being in general agreement with him.

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes – Rob Wilkins

I was given this book for Christmas and picked it up to read a few chapters at 4pm that day, ten and a half hours, and most of a bottle of wine, later at 2:30am on Boxing Day I finished the last of the 429 pages. I just kept thinking I’ll read another chapter and then by one o’clock in the morning it was a case of, well I may as well finish it then. Yes I knew a lot of the story already but Rob’s writing draws you in, he is surprisingly good with a turn of phrase although I suppose he was taught by a master. Rob Wilkins, for those who don’t know, was Terry’s PA and later business manager from December 2000 until his death. He now runs Narrativia (a production company looking after Terry’s works) and Terry’s literary estate alongside Rhianna Pratchett, Terry’s daughter. It is this that gives him a unique oversight of Terry’s life and works.

Terry had started to compile notes for an autobiography before he died in 2015 but by then had only produced around 24,000 words and reached 1979, still way before he wrote his first Discworld novel. At that point he had had only two novels published, ‘The Carpet People’ and ‘Dark Side of the Sun’ along with a handful of short stories. Rob has used these notes extensively but there needed to be a lot more research, not just to fill in gaps but also to do some fact checking. Not everything was, or even could, be checked and some of these fell into the category, referred to several times in the book as Too Good To Check, invariably abbreviated as TGTC. Terry was diagnosed with Posterior cortical atrophy, a variety of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and as Rob points out, just how reliable were his memories especially near the end so a lot of checking was needed, fortunately Lyn (Terry’s wife for more that forty years) and Rhianna were always available along with numerous other people so the book has to be described as pretty accurate, except possibly where it is TGTC.

The book does indeed cover Terry’s life, rather unlike a lot of biographies which tend to rush to the point at which the person being written about has done something significant that brought them to the public’s attention. As I said at the beginning there are 429 pages and it is only as we approach page 200 that the first book in the Discworld series is being written. Before that we have his schooldays and his initial somewhat ambivalent attitude to reading. His first job, in a library, and leaving school before his A levels to become an apprentice journalist on his local newspaper. Journalism was where Terry learnt to write and love words and especially books. One paragraph in the book really spoke to me and my love of books.

You know how it goes. You start out just borrowing a few books from the library, or your grandmother, and thinking you’ve got it under control and that you can handle it – they’re just loans, after all, so what’s the fuss about? And the next thing you know you’re moving on to the harder stuff -second-hand books from second-hand bookshops, and actually paying for them with your own money and taking them home with you to own, putting them on a shelf in your bedroom, even. And at that point, most likely, it’s all over and you’ll be on to brand new books before you realise it, and almost certainly an addict for the rest of your life.

Chapter three

In June 2011 Terry and Rob appeared in their second TV documentary ‘Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die’, an incredibly difficult programme to watch about assisted suicide which was something Terry was considering for himself as his condition worsened and was actively campaigning for a change in the law in the UK so that people wouldn’t have to go to Switzerland which was the only place in Europe where it was legal. Throughout the programme you can see Terry getting more enthusiastic and Rob getting more and more distressed as the reality of what they were talking about hit hard. The next day after the broadcast I happened to be talking to Rob on the phone about something else and he asked me what I had thought of the programme and I told him that I had cried at times, much as I did nearing the end of this book eleven years later, and that it was his reactions that I had most been drawn to. I wish he had mentioned something that appears in this book as he sat watching the programme himself and was scrolling through the twitter feed to try to gauge peoples reactions to the documentary when he randomly paused his scrolling to read “Terry Pratchett’s Assistant is a Right Knob”. Years later at the 2016 Discworld convention, the first one after Terry’s death, he had clearly embraced this sentiment.

Rob Wilkins on stage at the 2016 Discworld Convention at Kenilworth near Warwick, England on 26th August, photo taken by me.

It was a great read Rob, and no you’re not a Right Knob.