The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.

The Shakespeare Codex – Stephen Briggs

Based loosely on The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, Lords and Ladies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Shakespeare Codex is a new Discworld stage adaptation written to commemorate Terry Pratchett’s life and works.

Pratchett and Shakespeare fans may also spot snippets from Maskerade, Wyrd Sisters, Richard II, Henry V, Hamlet and others as two worlds collide.

From the rear cover of the book

First published in 2021, but initially performed on 6th April 2016, this is Stephen Brigg’s first adaptation since Terry Pratchett’s death on 12th March 2015 and unusually takes as it’s base not one of Pratchett’s novels but the short novella written as part of the second Science of Discworld series which is used as the links between the science sections written by professors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. In the Science of Discworld series of four books the wizards of Unseen University accidentally create what they call Roundworld, but which is clearly our home planet of Earth, and then get involved in various adventures trying to keep it safe. In the case of book II this is to prevent Discworld elves taking over and involves Shakespeare as the man to write them eternally into fantasy and figures of fun and therefore no longer a danger, which he does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Briggs quotes extensively from Shakespeare’s plays with instructions to the actors taking the roles that these should be “played straight. Not hammy”.

As said in the quote from the rear cover Briggs has extended the source material beyond the Science of Discworld II and produced a play that works well even for non Discworld fans and which sold out through its first performances at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire where Briggs is part of an amateur dramatic company. He has been adapting Pratchett’s material since 1991 and these have been performed all over the world to apparently equally happy audiences. Despite this being the twentieth ‘Discworld’ play by him this is the first I have actually owned and read and it was very enjoyable with the mix of Shakespeare and Pratchett handled really well and plenty of the Bard’s own words to set it firmly in Elizabethan England.

The wizards are able to travel through time and ‘fix’ things that have gone wrong and which would prevent Shakespeare being born but they remain largely puzzled by this place where magic doesn’t work but despite which everybody there seems to believe it does work. They are also the only people able to see the elves as they spread their malevolent influence over the population although the Countess of Shrewsbury says to Queen Elizabeth at the end of the play that she could have sworn there was another Queen on the stage at some point so she clearly had seen, or at least sensed, the Queen of the Elves. Of course, all’s well that ends well, so to say and all does end well for the wizards and indeed for William Shakespeare whose new play making fun of the elves as silly fairies that try to interfere with mortal men but are ultimately defeated is a big hit with his audience.

As a final thought the Discworld librarian of the Unseen University is an orangutan (it’s complicated) and throughout the original book and this play is apparently successfully disguised as a Spaniard. I’m intrigued as to what nationality he is assigned in Spanish translations of the two books.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Probably Henry James’s best known novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story and although I’m not a particular fan of this genre I have to admit that the suspense builds superbly and that I thoroughly enjoyed this rare wander into the supernatural. Although born in New York in 1843 James moved to Europe in 1869 and finally settled in England in 1876 where he lived until his death in 1915 a year after gaining British citizenship. The book, written in 1898, reflects this and reads much more like a Victorian English novel rather than one from his homeland, indeed if I hadn’t known the author was an American I would never have guessed it from the style. The initial premise that it is a story read out to a group of friends from an old manuscript seems similar to so many British mystery and crime novels from the golden age of the 1920’s and 30’s although predating them by at least twenty years that the structure of the work felt so familiar. A group of friends are gathered at Christmas and are telling tales of supernatural events when Douglas stands up and referring to the previous tale starts to introduce his own story…

“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?…”
“We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on:
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that – to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful— dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women

As you can see this passage from the preface to the novel introduces the title which is then not referred to. The two children are brother and sister Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight, who start off being simply strange but rapidly become more than a little creepy. The story is told by their governess who was appointed to this position at the beginning of the book and the gradual loss of her composure as she discovers that the country house where she is working is haunted by two ghosts, the masters late valet Peter Quint and the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel. Only other servants live at the country house as the children’s parents are both dead and the house belongs to their uncle who never comes there, but lives in London, and as part of the condition of employing the new governess required her not to communicate with him. Her only support in dealing with the increasingly odd behaviour of the children, as they clearly seem not only to be able to see the ghosts but actively pretend not to and also appear to encourage manifestations is Mrs Grose the housekeeper who slowly reveals the history of the two characters. To add to the mystery Miles attended just one term at school before being expelled with no reason given by the headmaster and refuses to talk about his time there. When he was alive Quint apparently spent far too much time with Miles according to Mrs Grose and had an undue influence over the boy whilst Flora appears to have been rather too close to Miss Jessel.

The story is engrossing and was originally serialised in an American weekly magazine over a period of twelve weeks, so two chapters at a time. This probably explains the regular cliffhanger revelations at the end of the chapters thereby ensuring that the next section would be looked forward to by a presumably growing band of avid readers. I’m certainly glad to have finally got round to reading what Stephen King in his 1983 book Danse Macabre described as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century, the other being The Haunting of Hill House and I heartily recommend giving it a go.

This copy is from the Alma Classics Evergreens series which at the time of writing has an excellent deal available of ten books for just £30 with free UK shipping.

Cochrane the Dauntless – David Cordingly

Lord Thomas Cochrane was the real life basis of two of the most swashbuckling characters in fiction, both C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower (12 book series) and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey (20 book series) take a lot from the actual exploits of this now largely forgotten British naval hero. Amazingly they probably had to tone it down in the fictional versions for some of the actual exploits of Cochrane are so unbelievable that they are beyond what even a fictional hero would attempt. Examples such as the attack of the HMS Speedy against a much larger Spanish vessel where Cochrane reasoned that if he sailed right up alongside the Spanish vessel its guns would fire harmlessly over the top of his own ship whilst he could issue broadside after broadside into its lower decks. As the Spanish sailors abandoned their guns and tried to board the Speedy he sailed away a few yards, then as they went back to their guns he came alongside and started firing again. Eventually the Spanish ship surrendered and was sailed away to a British held port by a portion of the crew of the Speedy. Lord Cochrane was a consummate sailor and during his time on board had learnt a lot of the skills of his men, this ability to muck in if needed alongside leading from the front with boarding parties earned him considerable respect from his crew a lot of whom followed him from ship to ship as he progressed from the tiny Speedy to much larger frigates.

In spite of his seamanship and skill as a coastal raider, both for taking enemy ships and destroying fortifications Cochrane himself never made it higher than Captain in the British navy and this was largely due to his inability to stay silent when faced with any real or perceived affront to his position. He continually annoyed his superior officers, even pressing for the Admiral he was ultimately responsible to during one battle to be court martialed, and also during his years in parliament as MP for Westminster annoyed most of the other parliamentarians with his continual pressing of causes that he had already lost and outspoken speeches condemning his naval commanders. His autobiography, written in his eighties, reopened a lot of the wounds he had dealt in his twenties and thirties and left him even fewer friends amongst the great and the good. Cochrane however always believed he was right and everyone else was wrong.

David Cordingley has produced a splendid book about this complex character using not only Cochrane’s, somewhat biased, autobiography but offsetting this with admiralty reports, letters, ships logs and other evidence such as the diary and correspondence of Captain Marryat who served as a junior officer under Cochrane before becoming famous as a novelist. The book is comprehensive with numerous maps, pictures, cutaway drawings of two of Cochrane’s ships, bibliography, index and most importantly a glossary of naval terms for those of us less familiar with them. At 362 pages, excluding all the extra items detailed previously, Cordingly gave himself space to explore his subject and it is a fascinating read. From rising naval star to disgraced prisoner (after being implicated in a stock market fraud that he probably wasn’t actually involved in but which his superiors used as a convenient way of getting rid of a noisy thorn in their side), to signing up to be admiral of the separatist navy under the Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins and helping force the Spanish out of South America Cochrane led an exciting life and the book reflects that. Cordingly isn’t shy about documenting Cochrane’s faults as well, worst of which was his impetuous nature which got him into more problems than was necessary.

Amazingly after his success as a South American mercenary captain helping to gain independence for not only Chile but Peru and Brazil as well he arrived back in Britain where his various sins were forgiven and he was promoted to Rear Admiral and eventually died, aged eighty four, as a full Admiral. I heartily recommend this biography of a supreme sailor and complex character who is sadly barely known today despite his influence on writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Cornwell. His adventures are as exciting as any fictional character and Cordingly’s descriptions are very well written.

Gipsy-night and Other Poems – Robert Hughes

Printed this week in 1922, the year Hughes graduated from Oxford, this was his first book and remarkably it was selected to be only the eighth title printed by what would become recognised as one of the finest Private Press publishers, Golden Cockerel Press. The image above is of the title page as my copy is missing its dust wrapper but that is not surprising in the one hundred years since it was published as the wrapper was quite delicate. Only 750 copies of this book were published by Golden Cockerel and it is one of the just fifteen titles published under its control of the original founder, Harold ‘Hal’ Taylor before his recurrent bouts of tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1924. Before his death the press was sold to artist and author Robert Gibbings who transformed the business into a publisher of finely illustrated editions and really made the name of Golden Cockerel over the next nine years producing seventy one titles in that period before he too sold the business on. The press went through another couple of owners before ultimately closing down in 1961.

As I said at the beginning Robert Hughes had not been published before this collection but just two years later he was to be commissioned by the BBC to write ‘Danger’ which became the first ever play written specifically for radio broadcast anywhere in the world. In 1929 he also wrote ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ which was filmed in 1965 starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn so it’s clear that Hal Taylor had recognised some early talent in this young author. Hughes would later become a good friend of Dylan Thomas and his first book of prose ‘A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Dog’ was written whilst staying with Hughes. But enough of the history behind the press and the author, what of the poems themselves? Well as you would probably expect for a first collection from somebody who was still only twenty one when the book was published it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I tended to prefer the longer pieces, but of the ones that are short enough to include within the blog The Ruin is probably my favourite and gives a good overview of his style.

The Ruin

Gone are the coloured princes, gone echo, gone laughter:
Drips the blank roof: and the moss creeps after.

Dead is the crumbled chimney: all mellowed to rotting
The wall-tints, and the floor-tints, from the spotting
Of the rain, from the wind and slow appetite
Of patient mould: and of the worms that bite
At beauty all their innumerable lives.

—But the sudden nip of knives,
The lady aching for her stiffening lord,
The passionate-fearful bride
And beaded pallor clamped to the torment-board,
—Leave they no ghosts, no memories by the stairs?
No sheeted glimmer treading floorless ways?
No haunting melody of lovers’ airs,
Nor stealthy chill upon the noon of days?
No: for the dead and senseless walls have long forgotten
What passionate hearts beneath the grass lie rotten.

Only from roofs and chimneys pleasantly sliding
Tumbles the rain in the early hours:
Patters its thousand feet on the flowers,
Cools its small grey feet in the grasses.

Hughes doesn’t appear to have published another collection of poetry and apart from his plays wrote four novels although he was working on a fifth, which was supposed to be the final part of a trilogy, at the time of his death in 1976. Gipsy-Night and Other Poems itself is a good example of the work of a Private Press, using handmade paper and high quality letterpress printing and although it is dated the 24th March 1922 that is when printing was completed. The fact that only fifteen titles were published in the first three years gives some idea of the length of time it would take to print and bind the books using a relatively small hand press with often just two people working at a time. It was really a labour of love, Golden Cockerel never made much of a profit and some of the books in the Gibbings era definitely lost money despite their high initial purchase cost.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Well that was a fun read. First published in 2011 and clearly intended to be contemporary, the book starts out appearing to be a modern police procedural set in the Charing Cross police station of The Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) following the end of the probationary period for two trainee police officers, Peter Grant and Lesley May. Lesley is expected to do well in the police, her career looks bright and interesting in total contrast to that of Peter who appears to be heading for a life of doing the paperwork for the more go getting officers who are doing ‘real policing’ so haven’t got time for the boring bits. All this is about to change however following a particularly grisly murder that night at Covent Garden. When all the experienced officers have done what they can, but it is still too dark to do a proper search of the square the two most junior constables, Peter and Lesley, are called in to ‘protect the crime scene’ basically standing around on a freezing February night making sure nobody crosses the tape marking the edge of the area until dawn when the experienced officers will come back. At 5am Lesley goes off to get them both coffee and whilst he is alone Peter encounters a witness to the murder, the main problem with this witness is that although he did indeed see everything he is in fact dead and is a ghost haunting St. Peter’s church which is on the piazza. I’m really not giving much away here, this is all in the first few pages.

Going back the next night to try to find his ‘witness’ again Peter encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale whom on discovering that Peter is ghost hunting and recognising a basic talent decides to take him on in his section of the Metropolitan Police, the magical part. As well as being a senior police officer Nightingale is the last wizard in Britain and so the whole plot swings away from ‘normal’ policing to encounters with magical beings all of which live unnoticed by the general public within modern London. As well as helping to solve what turns into a series of murders Peter is charged with resolving a dispute between Mother Thames and Father Thames, both river spirits who have taken responsibility for the tidal and freshwater parts of London’s major river respectively but whose territorial limits were being disputed. Nightingale not only takes Peter on as a Constable in his tiny division (which up until then had just consisted of him) but also as an apprentice wizard teaching him basic spells along with Latin as it turns out that all the textbooks are in this ancient language.

The book runs these two story lines in parallel and this I suspect led to one poor review when it first came out that the novel had inconsistent pacing. It is certainly the case that the sections on the murders are faster paced than the more bucolic dealings with Mamma and Father Thames and the positively erotically charged parts with one of Mamma Thames’s daughters Beverley Brook and her dealings with Peter and Lesley. I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more as there are eight novels so far in the series, with a ninth due out next month along with three novellas. Aaronovitch demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of London throughout the book so I suspect that an enormous amount of research went into the novel and I loved the use of the names of the various rivers that become tributaries of the Thames for characters, Beverley Brook for instance is a short river, only 14.3km long, in south east London. There is also Tyburn, Fleet, Ash, Lea, Brent and several others all characters in the book and rivers of London. For some odd reason Rivers of London was renamed ‘Midnight Riot’ when it was published in America which somewhat lost this point.

I met Ben Aaronovitch at the 2014 Discworld Convention where I was helping to run an event which was loosely based on the hit BBC TV programme QI which for copyright reasons we had called Strangely Fascinating (I was the scorer). It turned out that Ben was a definite Terry Pratchett fan and thoroughly enjoyed his time at the convention and didn’t mind being roped in as one of the contestants for our quiz. He is in the photo below, on the left, next to Pat Harkin who at the time was still working at Leeds Institute of Medical Education where he had been, amongst various jobs, lecturer in pathology.

I is a Strange Loop – Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould

A mathematical play, not a combination of words I ever expected to write and yet somehow it works. The authors are Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Marcus du Sautoy and actress Victoria Gould who has a degree in physics and a masters degree in applicable mathematics. The play starts slowly with just one of the characters X on stage inside a large cube miming the drawing of two Platonic sequences, first the derivation of a regular hexagon using just a straight edge and a compass and secondly the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two using ever decreasing squares. Now this may not sound like riveting drama and frankly unless you know exactly what X is doing then it is very difficult to follow but X is about to have his whole world view changed by the arrival of the second character (or variable as they are referred to in the script) Y. Up until this point X has considered himself to be the only person and indeed the cube that he is in to be the only cube. Y however has travelled through millions of cubes and accumulated many things on her journey but is about to encounter her first ever other person, although she is surprised X is completely shocked by her appearance in his cube and through a couple of mathematical fallacies attempts to prove her non-existence.

OK this is probably sounding like a very niche production but believe me it is well worth sticking through the initial phases especially when we get to the second act which brilliantly turns the whole play on it’s head but more of that later. It also has to be the only play I have ever read that comes with a fourteen page guide to the maths in the play at the back of the book entitled A Mathematical Prompt Book. This is useful for the non-mathematician in explaining not only the maths but also some of the language used and functions very much like the glossary found at the back of some versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Would you get the joke about the Möbius script right at the end of the play if you don’t know what a Möbius strip is, probably not. But back to the first act. After Y demonstrates that there is a room, and in fact a series of rooms beyond the cube that X inhabits X then believes that the series must be infinite and tries (and fails) to prove this just as he also fails to physically prove other infinite series simply because, as Y points out, there are limits that prevent such physical proofs. All attempts to find an OUT, a place beyond the cube series also fail.

The second act is completely different and the humour of the piece grows, that’s not to say that the first act isn’t funny, the interactions between the purely mathematical X and the more practical Y are definitely amusing but the second act introduces reality is an very unexpected way. Right from the start of the second act Y believes the play is over and indeed no longer calls herself Y but instead uses her real name Victoria, X however is still very much in character. Victoria makes various attempts to disabuse X of his belief that the play continues including showing him that it is possible to leave the stage, go round the back and come back in from the opposite wing. She explains that the seemingly random noises heard during the play are the sounds of the underground trains near the theatre (there really was the sound of the underground where the play was first staged at The Barbican Pit Theatre in London) and she even produces a model of the set to show X that it is simply a stage. Nothing works and instead the play finishes almost back where it started. It really is very funny, both in the absurdity of the position that the characters find themselves in throughout the play and their changing relationships but also the increasing frustrating part of Victoria as the play is forcing itself back around her even as she believes she has finished.

The entire play can be seen here in a performance filmed at the Oxford Playhouse where the two parts are taken by the authors showing a surprisingly good acting ability from du Sautoy especially in what has to be described as experimental theatre. At one hour and fifteen minutes into the video the play is over and we go to a three quarters of an hour discussion about the play with Marcus du Sautoy, Victoria Gould interviewed by Simon McBurney, founder of Complicité, the theatre group responsible for the performance and which Gould is closely linked to. It’s definitely worth watching the play and it is considerably less intimidating knowing that the over two hour runtime of the video represents almost twice the length of the actual performance. Give it a go…

The Man and His Paintings – David Shepherd

The paintings behind David Shepherd in the cover photograph are some of his best known works, ‘Black Five Country’, ‘The Four Gentlemen of Tsavo’ and ‘Winter of 43, Somewhere in England’. These three works represent the three subjects for which he is most famous, the end of steam railways, wildlife (especially elephants) and aircraft. This large format book (33cm x 24½cm) was first published in 1985 by David & Charles and is now sadly long out of print as are the other titles featuring his work that they published. The book consists of approximately five thousand words by Cyril Littlewood, founder of the Young People’s Trust for Endangered Species by way of an introduction to David Shepherd and his work and roughly twenty to twenty-five thousand words of biographical detail by Shepherd himself plus often comprehensive descriptions of each of the sixty one featured paintings along with numerous sketches in both black and white and colour.

As can be seen in the two examples, above and below these paragraphs the book’s format is simple and elegant. Each featured painting is reproduced on the right hand page whilst the description by David as to how he came to produce the work is on the facing page with sketches filling in the page if there is room. In many cases the story he is telling about how the work was produced or received by the public or the commissioning client fills the page so there is no room for an additional sketch. It’s hard to believe that these paintings are the work of somebody who was rejected by the Slade School of Fine Art as having ‘no talent whatsoever’ when he applied to study there. As he explains in the biographical section of the book that he subsequently made his career in art at all was down to a chance meeting with professional artist Robin Goodwin at a party and despite Goodwin agreeing with the Slade he did agree to try to teach him.

Shepherd started off his commercial art three years after starting training with Goodwin and was painting aircraft. initially civilian and then military with several of his works hanging in the Officer’s Mess of various UK regiments but his big break came when he was flown out to Africa by the Royal Air Force and they didn’t want pictures of planes, as they saw enough of them, what they wanted was the wildlife and so he painted his first elephant and that really started his career. His very first career plan was to be a game warden in Africa and in fact he even flew out to Kenya as a young man and presented himself as prospective employee at a reserve only to be told to go home as they didn’t need an untrained and callow youth getting in the way of their work. Painting the wildlife many years after that initial rejection brought his early interest in conservation to the for and he would go on to raise a huge amount of money by selling wildlife prints for charity.

Shepherd’s fascination with steam trains went far beyond painting them, he actually purchased two from British Rail as they were being withdrawn, restored them to their original beauty and ran them on ‘The East Somerset Railway’ a preserved line he helped set up, although both locomotives are now owned by ‘The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’ another preserved line. Although I was first drawn to Shepherd’s works via the wildlife paintings it is his work showing the last days of United Kingdom steam that I most admire now. The book was really interesting in that it showed the development of his career from aircraft art which he often couldn’t sell even for £25 to the massively successful prints which really made his name with the general public. Nowadays you would need to spend in the order of £100,000 to purchase a Shepherd original although few of them are on the market. Sadly David Shepherd died in 2017 at the age of eighty six but the foundation he set up to continue his charitable work has raised over a million pounds over the years and continues to do excellent work with wildlife conservation in Africa and Asia.

The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

Just for a change this book was recently acquired as part of my collection of the first thousand Penguin paperback books and a quick perusal of the humorous biography on the back (see below) moved it rapidly up the to be read pile. The opening chapter not only introduces the eleven main characters as they all travel from London to Oxford by train but also describes the trials and tribulations of making that trip especially with the apparently random delays from Didcot onwards and is very funny, not something you expect in a mystery novel. Crispin’s amateur detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford university who is friends with the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire who has a hobby of writing literary criticism. Both enjoy dabbling in each others chosen career but recognise that they wouldn’t want to do it all the time as they wouldn’t cope with the more tedious aspects of the job. The majority of the other characters are involved in putting on a play which will have its opening night at a theatre in Oxford. The final sentence of the first chapter sets the expectation for the rest of the book.

And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence.

The plot is somewhat complicated and the reader can get a bit irritated by Fen who says he has solved the case of the first death almost immediately but won’t tell anyone what he has found but just drops clues to the other characters without the reader being informed. For example he mentions to one character that as well as the gun being taken from where it was stored something else was as well which they agree was the case but the reader isn’t told what it was. Having said that the book is fun to read and there are quite a few clues dropped into the readers lap which only make sense right at the end when the murderer is revealed. Although I did find the solution to the first death somewhat far fetched, it was certainly possible but required more skill on the part of the murderer than would probably be expected by the character as described in the book.

The descriptions of the play being rehearsed are well written and are probably from first hand experience as Edmund Crispin was actually the composer Bruce Montgomery who specialised in film music especially for the long running British comedy series of ‘Carry On’ films. As Edmund Crispin he wrote nine crime books of which The Case of the Gilded Fly was the first, dating from 1944, and I have to say it’s an impressive start. One other title by him was released by Penguin within their first thousand books so I’m now on the hunt for Penguin number 974, Love Lies Bleeding, his other books were also published in paperback by Penguin through the 1950’s.

Montgomery was also the great uncle of one of my favourite fantasy authors Robert Rankin although they never met because his father didn’t approve of Montgomery as he considered him ‘far too snooty’ according to a recent facebook post by Robert Rankin.

Love in a Life – Andrew Motion

This is Andrew Motion’s sixth collection of poems and seemed an appropriate read for valentines day. Published by Faber and Faber in 1991, so eight years before he became Poet Laureate, it is a deeply personal selection of poetry largely telling stories from his two marriages (up until then) spread over multiple poems in a series of emerging themes. Again it is a book that has sat on my shelves for many years (presumably thirty as it is the first edition) and remained unopened until yesterday having constantly slipped down the ‘to be read’ pile for various reasons. Having now read it I am forced to wonder why it kept failing to make it to the top until thirty one years after I bought it. This was the first of Motion’s books to be published by Faber and Faber and they have gone on to publish most of his collections of poetry since then.

The wife referred to in the first verse is his second spouse, Jan Dalley, whom he had married in 1985 and had three children with including the twins mentioned, there are also poems referring to his first wife, Joanna Powell, that marriage ended in divorce in 1983. The second verse is considerably more tragic, Motion’s mother had a riding accident in 1969 when he was just seventeen and was in and out of a coma for the next nine years until she died in 1978, there are a few references to her in this collection. My favourite poem in the book is about his time with Joanna Powell and is called Toot Baldon where it is clear that he is still at work on his Masters degree when they married as he refers to himself as Edward Thomas, the poet whose work he analysed for this qualification and who he must have totally immersed himself in to get his MLitt after his first class honours degree from Oxford University.

The poems all have a strong narrative flow, he is definitely telling a story in each example particularly in the poem The Prague Milk Bottle which was written in spring 1989, so just a few months before the Velvet Revolution that saw the freeing of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet block, in this there is a repeated two line stanza

It’s not suppression
It’s humiliation

Those two lines appear four times in the poem and give a powerful tension to the work as he details the woes of living in the country at the end of the communist regime and dedicates the poem to the Czech writer, his friend Ivo Smoldas.

Motion was the first poet to refuse to accept the post Laureate as a life long role and stipulated that he would only take the position for ten years, a situation that the poets that have followed him (Carol Ann Duffy and currently Simon Armitage) have also stuck to. Before him just eighteen people had held the position of Poet Laureate since its creation in 1631.