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

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writings for many years but I really don’t understand the reason for comics for adults so have stayed away from the creation that really launched Gaiman as a fantasy superstar writer, The Sandman series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved comics as a kid and have really enjoyed the nostalgia of the recent Folio Society triple set of Marvel reprints for what is known as the Gold, Silver and Bronze ages of comic books and reviewed the Silver Age edition almost a year ago here but I’ve never read a graphic novel or indeed been that interested in trying. I might have known that Gaiman would eventually draw me to a genre I have ignored for so long. Preludes and Nocturnes collates the first eight comics from The Sandman series which eventually ran to seventy five issues from January 1989 to March 1996.

The first comic deals with the capture of The Sandman, aka Morpheus, aka Dream in 1916 through a magical incantation that goes wrong. Roderick Burgess and his acolytes were actually trying to summon and capture Death and got instead the ruler of dreams. Frustrated by their prisoner clearly not being the right target and his refusal to say anything so they don’t know which powerful entity they have actually trapped they leave him in the magic circle hoping he will talk and be of use, but he simply sits there , biding his time, for seventy years, until he is accidentally released. After swiftly taking his revenge on the only mortal still alive who was involved in his capture he finds that his realm has gone to wrack and ruin in his absence and his three essential tools, his bag of sand, his helmet and his ruby talisman have gone missing and without them his powers are dramatically reduced.

The next six comics deal with his recovery of the missing artefacts, some of these stories work rather better than the others. The main failure is Passengers which tries too hard to make The Sandman part of the DC Comics universe by jamming other characters from that stable of superheroes and villains into the story line. Yes The Sandman is a DC character, initially created by Joe Simon and Mark Fleisher in 1974 in the traditional hero suit of close fitting top and tights but the Gaiman re-invention of the character fifteen years later doesn’t sit well amongst the costumed heroes and it just feels wrong, even Gaiman describes the attempt as “perhaps misguided”. These all come under the horror fantasy genre, especially 24 Hours which would definitely get an adults only certificate if it was filmed. The dark artwork if perfectly fitted to the story although the original artist left after just five comics and the design subtly changed at that point but not as much as it was going to do.

The page below is from the final comic in this volume, The Sandman now has his power restored and so his initial quest is complete. The resolution has come as an anticlimax and what he doesn’t know now is what to do next so is reduced to just sitting, feeding the pigeons in a park until his sister arrives to try to shake him out of his deep reverie. As you can see the artwork is very different in this comic which is effectively a codicil to the first seven, I actually enjoyed this episode more than those before it and this is the first slight hint of the existence of The Endless a group of seven siblings who are like gods (although there is no specific reference to the family this early on in The Sandman series). In the final panel of this comic, and the book, you see that The Sandman is back.

Did I enjoy reading this? Yes. Will I therefore purchase and read the rest? Probably not. It was fun to experience such a complex story in the comic format but I don’t feel the need to read more in this style. I am intrigued by the recent audio version being produced as a series of dramas by Dirk Maggs whose work in the field of adapting fantasy novels to audio dramas I greatly admire, so ironically I may well continue my experience of reading a graphic novel but in a format with no pictures.

Maverick in Madagascar – Mark Eveleigh

This is not my own lie. This is a lie that the ancestors told me

Mark Eveleigh opens his book with this traditional start to any story being told in Madagascar as he describes his plan to walk from north to south along the western coastline of the fourth largest island in the world and before you even get to that original plan you know that he doesn’t succeed because the maps at the very beginning of the book only show less than a quarter to that route. Instead there is a second map relating to Part II of the book where he heads across the middle of the country in a search for the Vazimba tribe who are a group of white pygmies not seen for decades or even centuries and this may be because the various tales relating to them describe them as alternately not short and not white. This is going to be a difficult hunt.

That his original plan was doomed almost from the start was due in part to the late rainy season which made the going even more difficult that it should have been and the fact that, despite his intention to purchase a horse as a pack animal for his equipment, all the horses in the north of the country appeared to have succumbed to a mysterious disease and died in the few months before he got there. Instead he decides to buy Jobi the bull zebu (a local breed of humped cattle) and despite warnings that nobody could drive a zebu that far decides to set off in the company, at least initially, of a couple of locals who were taking two cows for slaughter part way down the route he would have to follow,

Mark is an entertaining writer, particularly when describing his own discomforts, and there are plenty of those especially in Part II where he gets poisoned by various plants that he is walking through and has recurrences of the malaria he first caught in Indonesia whilst trying to avoid being shot by bandits. He is also an excellent photographer so it is somewhat disappointing that despite frequent references to taking photographs the format of the Lonely Planet Journey’s books doesn’t allow for pictures apart from on the cover as you so want a few pages of images especially when he describes a breathtaking view. He also clearly bonded with Jobi during his aborted trek and is genuinely upset when the walk has to be abandoned partly due to Jobi getting unwell so he sells him for a significant loss to a family that will take care of him rather than the higher offers from others where his lifespan is likely to be considerably shorter.

What stands out through the whole book is the welcoming and friendly nature of almost all the Malagasy people he meets, apart from the bandits, and their determination to share what little they have despite Madagascar being one of the poorest countries on Earth. Their astonishment that a Vazaha (literally outsider) has made it to their isolated village, quite probably the first white man that the children at least have ever seen, is an ongoing theme. Madagascar does have its tourist traps but they are few and far between and due to the danger of travelling especially in the zone rouge in the middle of the country tourists tend to be restricted to these small areas and mainly to an island off the west coast which Mark visits in order to complete paperwork and send letters but gets away from as quickly as possible. It’s a really good read and I definitely recommend it.

Lonely Planet Journeys was a relatively short lived series of travellers tales published by Lonely Planet between 1996 and 2002, I really enjoyed the eclectic selection and when it became clear the series was coming to an end I bought up as many different ones as I could find in my local bookshop and in all have twenty five titles. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive list of all the book published under this imprint, the LibraryThing list has forty seven titles but includes several books that were not actually part of the series so I’m guessing that I’m missing no more than ten actual books from the set, probably quite a bit fewer than that. This one has been sitting unread on my shelves for twenty years so it was about time I finally got round to picking it up. I have read most of the ones I have now but whilst checking the shelves for the date range and the tally of books there are at least two that I have no memory of reading so they will probably appear sometime in the next few months.

‘How it Works’ The Computer

This is a bit of fun really, it certainly isn’t a review of the book because any objective review would say that this book is no real use for understanding how computers work nowadays, but it is an insight into just how much technology has advanced since this book was written in 1971, so we are looking back fifty years. Before the days of computers in the home and decades before mobile phones and despite it being within my lifetime, as I bought this book new, it seems an unbelievably long time ago for technology. I was inspired to read it again after listening to Sir Tim Berners-Lee talking about the 32nd birthday of his invention of the World Wide Web which was celebrated last week. Actually this year (2021) marks the 30th anniversary of the Web being available to everyone rather than just the scientists at CERN which was where he was working at the time so it’s a good time to look back two decades before then to how computers started to be available to even a relatively small business although they were still wildly expensive.

This blog is going to be quite image intensive as I want to include several of the lovely illustrations by B H Robinson because they really tell the story to us nowadays far more than the informative but very technically dated text by David Carey. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the equipment and then as you look further you realise that the two installations shown above don’t have any screens, the user interface is a teleprinter. The first ‘business’ computer I ever used didn’t have a screen either so I sympathise with the operator above, screens did exist but were quite scarce, certainly in the early 1970’s. It is also worth pointing out that the massive amount of cabinets lights and switches in the ‘large computer installation’ made up considerably less computing power than the mobile phone in my pocket.

Back then the sections of a computer were really obvious because they were separate huge cabinets or large pieces of equipment, nowadays everything is in one piece so it is actually easier to envisage how a computer works by looking at these old examples. To start with you need to get a programme and some data into the machine and that was a lot harder than it sounds. The example above uses a card punch followed by a card reader, yes the process was for data entry clerks to type everything into a machine that could produce thousands of pieces of cardboard each with a tiny part of the information and then carry the stack over to another machine (being very, very careful not to drop it because they have to be read in sequence) and then feed them in to load data into the computer.

Just how tedious this job was is shown above, and everything had to be verified because a single hole in the wrong place would make the entire stack useless until it was corrected. The amount of time taken to produce even the simplest programme or data source was unbelievable to those of us today. One way of getting round the danger of dropping several hundred cards, all of which look identical to a human, was to use paper tape instead, at least then it was just on a long reel although these also needed to be handled carefully as they could easily tear.

The main reason I have included the picture above is because it clearly shows a punched card. Each card consisted of eighty columns of numbers and each column could encode one letter or number, this blog entry consists of 7305 characters so would need a minimum of 92 cards to just hold the text; the pictures were not an option on machines like this back then, which I have to keep reminding myself is well within my lifetime as I was nine when this book was published. I say a minimum of 92 cards because I’m pretty certain words couldn’t wrap over cards so there would be blank space at the end of each card where a word wouldn’t fit.

To run a programme again you would need to reload the stack of cards and read them again unless you had a sufficiently large computer centre where you could have magnetic tape storage or even that modern wonder a disc storage device.

In the background you can see the five foot high magnetic tape cabinets, these were pretty quick in the day but nowadays the lag from a request for data and it actually arriving at the CPU (see later) makes them completely redundant, even more so than all the rest of the equipment shown. For example there would be an initial lag whilst the right part of the tape was found for the data needed and the book then explains that the tape could be read at up to 900 characters per second, now that figure is a little misleading as we are talking binary so just 0 or 1, to encode a letter or even a number other than 0 or 1 you need a lot more than one character, in fact you need 8 bits, otherwise known as a byte so reading this blog at 900 characters per second (111 letters per second) would take over a minute. Throughout the book Carey refers to storage in bits, presumably to make the numbers look big and impressive, even working in bytes is hopelessly outdated as we will see shortly.

Ah, disc storage, but just look at the size of the discs, 14 inches (35.5cm) across, six layers in a cumbersome disc pack, but at least you got lots of storage which was very quick to access. Quick yes but in today’s terms quite slow and 7.25 million characters per disc pack. Time for some maths again, lets work out just what that storage is in modern values.

  • 8 bits to the byte, 1024 bytes to the kilobyte, 1024 Kb to the megabyte. (Yes I know nowadays we just use 1000 for ease of calculation but in 1971 it was definitely 1024 as that is the relevant power of 2)
  • 7,250,000 bits = 906,250 bytes = 885 kilobytes = 0.864 megabytes
  • I would need eight complete disc packs to store one photograph taken by my phone, even assuming that such a thing was possible and I don’t even have a particularly up to date phone.

Actually that’s pretty good, the first computer I programmed for a company in the early 1980’s was an Osborne 1 which had 64 kilobytes of memory and two 90 kilobyte disc drives but I still managed to write a working insurance claims handling system for a parcel carrier on it.

Back in 1971 whilst there were computer chips, machines were still filled with transistors soldered onto printed circuit boards alongside the fairly limited integrated circuits available. The memory often however hadn’t moved on from the horribly delicate magnetic core store shown above. This isn’t an analogy as to what is happening you really did have lots of tiny ferrite cores strung onto wires which could be magnetised on or off to signify 1 or 0. As you can imagine the amount of memory was therefore pretty limited although the book claims that it could get up to a million bits (122 Kb).

Output back then would mainly be to a printer or possibly a screen in an advanced setup, I don’t think we need a picture of what they look like.

I’ve greatly enjoyed this trip down memory lane and when I showed the book to a seventeen year old friend she was astonished at the size of the machines and the limits they had. The computer she carries around with her all the time is millions of times more capable than the equipment featured in the book and tens of thousands times cheaper as well when inflation is taken into account.

Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office.If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked who he was.

The opening of Ethan Frome draws the reader in immediately, who is Ethan Frome? Nobody seems to know yet everybody ‘knows’ him and as a reader you to already want to know about this mysterious character. The narrator seems determined to find out so lets keep reading, further down the first page he is described as “but the ruin of a man” with “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”, what on earth had happened to him? After the opening preface in which the anonymous narrator gets to know a little more about Ethan Frome whilst employing him to drive a sleigh each day to and from the railway station as it is winter and the snow is feet deep. He is about to enter Ethan’s home after finally being defeated by the snow one evening trying to get back to town when suddenly the preface ends and the first chapter leaps back in time. The book drops the narrator and continues in the present tense but this is clearly the present for Ethan of almost two and a half decades ago.

Back then the Frome farm is in a bad way, very little money coming in and what there is being spent on remedies for his ‘ill’ wife. I put the word ill in quotes because it’s fairly clear that a lot of what is wrong with Zeena is psychosomatic although she probably does have some underlying illness but not a severe as she believes. The other occupant of the farmhouse is Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, whom they took in a year ago when her parents died and is supposedly helping around the house although she isn’t very practical. Over the seven years since their marriage Zeena has become more and more sour tempered and nagging and the arrival of Mattie into their household had initially given Ethan some relief from her constant complaints. Over the intervening months however his feelings for her had changed to something far more and it transpires that Mattie’s feelings for Ethan had also grown but it is obvious that Zeena had noticed this and resolves to send Mattie away which leads to the tragedy which is foreshadowed several times during the book. The development of the entirely platonic romantic relationship between Ethan and Mattie in the shadow of the terrible atmosphere at the farm is beautifully written, neither character will admit to their feelings for the other with its implications for Ethan and Zeena’s marriage which frankly had fallen apart years ago and they were only still together due to the impossibility of doing anything else given the dire financial position of the farm.

The final chapter returns to the narrator and what he finds in the Frome household when he enters and all I’m going to say about that is that it isn’t what I expected from the start of the book.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition from November 1938, the book was first published in 1911 nine years before Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for easily her best known work ‘The Age of Innocence” but by 1911 she had already published three full length novels, three shorter novellas, a couple of books of poetry, six volumes of short stories and even four non-fiction books, Wharton was clearly an experienced writer and this shows in her confident use of language and entirely believable dialogue in Ethan Frome. The book is now out of copyright and can be read or downloaded as an ebook from Project Gutenburg at this link.