Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 1

Last August I completed a reading challenge of all ten books in the first Penguin Books crime set from 1938. So this month I have decided to also attempt more than the expected four books by tackling the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font. My copies are well read and the titles on the short stories are badly worn, although looking at other examples in various bookshops this does seem to be a common feature of this particular edition.

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Now although this looks like a logical reading order in fact Doyle wrote the first two novels “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four” before he produced any short stories so in fact a better reading sequence is those books this week, followed by the short stories then finally the last two novels. Although novel number three “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set during the time of the first two collections of short stories it didn’t actually come out until much later and it doesn’t affect time lines too much to leave the last two novels until the end as they both are looking back on past cases.

As last year I will be writing about each volume as I go along rather than waiting for completion so without further ado lets jump in with the first two novels

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A Study in Scarlet

This is the first appearance of Holmes and Watson and originally appeared in print in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual before being published in book form in July 1888.

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.

“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

and so a partnership was born…

The book fairly rattles along, just ten pages in Holmes and Watson are ensconced in 221b Baker Street and Holmes has started his work much to the puzzlement of Watson. The two men are after all just sharing the property there is no indication that Watson would get involved in anything in fact he is specifically looking for a quiet life whilst recovering from his injuries from the war in Afghanistan. Watson however is intrigued as to what Holmes is up to and creates a list of attributes to try to work it out, these include him knowing nothing of literature, astronomy or philosophy, whilst other things such as botany (natural poisons anyway) or geology (soils and clays) were specialised in the extreme. Chemistry and sensational literature however he was a complete master of; none of these items seem to make any sense though.

Another few pages and Holmes again demonstrates his deductive reasoning and explains he is a consulting detective just as he gets a message from Sergeant Gregson of Scotland Yard asking him to come to Lauriston Gardens; Watson joins him and so starts his journals that the Holmes stories are supposedly taken from. The case, to Holmes anyway, is absurdly simple. In fact so simple that by the eightieth page he has apprehended the murderer with the help of his street urchin employees also known as The Baker Street Irregulars, and there is where the book starts to fall apart. For the next fifty two pages are back story. Doyle writes well with the dynamic of Holmes and Watson along with the bungling Gregson and Lestrade from Scotland Yard but over fifty pages without any of these characters whilst he ranges over the settlement of the Mormons in Salt Lake City and the inter-family rivalries just plods along especially after the pace of the first half of the book. It is not even written as though being told to our protagonists it is just an over long history.

We finally get back to Holmes, Watson, Gregson, Lestrade and their prisoner in 221b with just 22 pages left for Watson’s journal to wrap up and the murderer to explain how and why he did it. Very much a book of two halves but with enough promising material regarding the great detective to make a sequel inevitable.

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The Sign of Four

The second time out for Holmes was in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine issued jointly in the UK and US, and by October of that year it had been published as a standalone book.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

The opening paragraph of The Sign of Four shows Holmes the drug addict, in this case injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine much to the disgust of Dr. Watson. This was turned into a particularly powerful scene in “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”, a play starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke that I saw in 1988 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. These two actors, for me at least, are the definitive Holmes and Watson and to see Brett as Holmes in silhouette at the back of the stage injecting into his arm before the lights were cut at the end of the scene is a dramatic act that has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As for the book itself it is much better written than the first although there is again a large section of back story at the end. This time it is much shorter than in “A Study in Scarlet” and rather than being a standalone tale it is given as Jonathan Small telling his involvement in the crimes at 221b Baker Street with Holmes, Watson and in this case Athelney Jones of the Yard. This is a considerable improvement as the three can react to Jonathan Small’s story and there is no massive disjointed section. This is also the first appearance of probably the most famous Holmes quote

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Still back to the beginning, Dr. Watson is trying to draw Holmes away from the cocaine over breakfast the next day when a young lady by the name of Miss Mary Morstan arrives and lays out a singular problem for the great man. Her father had returned to England eleven years ago and disappeared without trace however each year for the last six she has received a fine pearl from an anonymous benefactor and now she has had a letter from him desiring her to be at the Lyceum theatre and she can bring two companions. Naturally Holmes and Watson are willing to go but for very different reasons, Holmes to solve a puzzle but Watson has fallen for Miss Morstan almost immediately and in this state would do anything for her.

Without giving away the plot, the pearls are quickly revealed to be part of a large treasure and in searching for the remainder Holmes engages the use of a scent hound to follow a creosote trail left by one of the culprits from a house in Norwood after he stepped in some of this highly pungent liquid, and this provides one of the few bits of genuine humour in the books as the dog getting confused by crossing trails eventually comes to its mark…

On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creosote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Another funny passage occurs with Watson attempting to take Miss Morstan’s mind off the danger they may be in with some of his tales from Afghanistan.

To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

His tongue-tied behaviour is somewhat explained at the end of the book when less than a week after first meeting her he explains to Holmes that he will no longer be available to accompany him on adventures as

Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.

Next week I start on the short stories first printed in The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893. Will Watson still be living with Holmes or are he and Mary setting up home together with him merely reporting from the sidelines?

A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

In 2010 BBC Radio 4 ran a fascinating series where the then Director of the British Museum in London chose 99 objects from the museums collection to illustrate world history. Each object was described in its own radio programme over a period of several months and soon became addictive. By Christmas a book had been produced which not only included versions of each lecture but importantly had a really good photograph accompanying it. MacGregor had done a wonderful job describing each item for the radio but the inclusion of pictures completed the project.

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The book is over seven hundred pages long to cover properly the 100 objects in the series and has an excellent index and bibliography which alone makes the book an invaluable companion to the series. The 100th object was chosen by MacGregor from suggestions by listeners to represent the modern day and was purchased by the museum to complete the collection. Fortunately both the BBC and the British Museum regard this as a milestone project so all 100 episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts from this BBC site. The museum also maintains a series of web pages dedicated to the project including a programme by programme set of pages which also tell you where the object can be found in the museum if it is currently on display (at the time of writing 21 of the 100 objects are not in a museum gallery).

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The above mosaic shows all 100 objects and as you would probably guess this is not a book you can really just sit and read. Not only from its sheer length, but also from the way it was created from 100 separate lectures which were never intended to be listened to one after an other although it does make sense to hear or read them in sequence. Having loved the series from its inception I of course bought the book when it came out but still I tend to listen to Neil when I want to delve into the series, preferably with the book to hand so that I can admire the object as he talks about it.

We start with the mummy case of Hornedjitef and end with a Chinese made solar lamp and charger but I’m just going to pick out five of my favourites:-

  • 12 – Standard of Ur – A truly beautiful object which nobody knows what it was used for. It is inlaid with a mosaic of people coming to pay their taxes to the king so is clearly a demonstration of his power.
  • 17 – Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – Basically a primer in ‘all the mathematics that you need’ in order to work in the Egyptian civil service. How such a document came to survive the centuries is a miracle. I have a book on ancient Egyptian mathematics, maybe I should review that sometime?

  • 47 – Sutton Hoo Helmet – It was reading about the Sutton Hoo discoveries as a child that first gave me an interest in archaeology and history.
  • 76 – The Mechanical Galleon – It was this object that really made me want this book, listening to Neil’s description of this marvellously intricate device made me want to see it and there is a wonderful close up image of the stern with the beautifully detailed figures standing there.
  • 91 – Ships Chronometer from HMS Beagle – One of twenty two carried on the famous voyage where Charles Darwin was inspired in his great work on evolution. The chronometers were used to determine longitude and led to the first truly accurate maps of South America.

So this short article before I hit my planned August reading marathon for this year is yes a suggestion that you should obtain and read the book but really  a big hint to check out the podcasts available via the links I have included and enjoy a master at work.

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

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November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

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The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.

Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs – Paul Carter

Or to give the book its full title “Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse”. A series of real life stories of life on oil rigs around the world in some of the most dangerous places you could ever hope not to go to.

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Carter has written a really funny summary of some of his exploits in fifteen years working on oil rigs around the world and the scrapes he has got into whilst doing it. The book has a prologue with an extract from chapter nine which has him in business class on a scheduled flight from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; unfortunately with Amoebic Dysentery which strikes just after take-off. Now there is definitely nothing inherently funny about an explosive attack of dysentery, especially in a crowded aeroplane, but the way he writes about it is so vivid that you cannot help laughing at the situation.

The first chapter relates to his childhood and initial links to oil, He had a rough time in his early years with a domineering father who was in the RAF, eventually his mother left him taking the two children with her. She moved the family to Aberdeen and got a job in the oil industry where she would meet her second husband and subsequently got posted to Australia which is where Carter spent his adolescence and eventually some dead end jobs but he wanted to work on rigs. Ironically after his father left the RAF he also started working on rigs and Carter would sometimes meet people who had worked with him. As he says the work is all over the world but the actual people doing the work form a surprisingly small community and there are regular characters that keep turning up no matter where he is working.

In amongst the stories about offshore and land rigs, crazy holding accommodation and the horror stories you also get to learn a little about the oil business and definitely a lot about why being involved may be lucrative but also extremely dangerous. Carter has worked on all sorts and after proving his abilities has been freelance for four years at the time he covers in the book. He is obviously good enough at what he does to be wanted by numerous companies no matter what type of rig is involved.

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We go on a bounce around the world starting in Australia with a land rig in the Western Australia goldfields back in the early 1990’s where he learnt the trade as a labourer, or roughneck, and worked his way up and then mainly in the Asian oilfields. Apart from the dysentery, and the local wildlife trying to kill you this was relatively safe until it got to time away from the rig when men who work in a dangerous and frequently deadly job chill out by doing dangerous and sometimes deadly ways of not being at work. The wilder the country the more dangerous it was, not just from the locality but also the often poorly maintained equipment such as ancient helicopters.

Every time I read Upstream, an oilfield newspaper, there’s an article like this

Bumfuck Nowhere: all nine passengers and crew died yesterday, when a twelve seater Sikorsky helicopter operated by Doom Air crashed in a really big ball of flames shortly after take off from Bumfuck Nowhere regional airport. Witnesses say the helicopter fell for, oh wow, ages before vaporising into the jungle at 1592 miles an hour.

He also worked the Gulf and South America but the stand out awful places were Russia which  was cold, so very cold and really primitive and worst of the worst Nigeria which was so dangerous to work in that getting out alive was regarded as a bonus. Nowhere in Nigeria was without armed guards when not on the rig especially on the trip to and from the airport, his two predecessors for the job he had there had both been killed by fake taxi drivers before they had even made it to the camp for the first time.

But it’s not just about the oilfields you also get the ups and downs of his personal life and the surprising sideline he ended up doing which was in advertising in Sydney in his downtime between jobs. This is probably what honed his way with words and makes the book such a pleasure to read.

This is not a book for the easily shocked or offended, but you probably guessed that from the prologue so at least you have been warned. I loved it and need to get his follow up “This is Not a Drill”

Porpoise Books

One of Penguin’s few publishing disasters was Porpoise Books which were all released in September 1948. Planned to be the first four in a series they totally failed to sell, probably due to the high price that these children’s hardbacks retailed at which was more than double Puffin story and picture books were at the time. It may well also be that hardback children’s books of this format were difficult to display in shops so were not stocked by many retailers in the first place. Most were pulped, although a large (but quantity unknown) number were apparently sent to New Zealand where they almost all vanished, but that is where they do occasionally turn up on the secondary market, two of mine came from there. For books printed as editions of 100,000 copies per title Porpoise are extremely rare but there are only four to collect if you fancy a challenge.

The books themselves are each forty eight pages long, eight and three quarters inches tall and seven inches wide (222mm x 180mm) and significantly very fragile, almost all examples that you find are missing their spines and although they were all issued with dust wrappers these have also tended to go missing in the seventy plus years since they were published. Of the ones in my collection only The Flying Postman is in poor condition with no dust wrapper and just over 50% of its spine surviving.

J1: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – Traditional

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Printed by Chromoworks Ltd of Willesden, London and dated 1947 inside, although like the others it was not actually released until September 1948. No translator is given and it is described on the title page as ‘from the Arabian Nights Entertainment’. Penguin would not publish an edition of A Thousand and One Nights until August 1954, appropriately as book number 1001, although this was reissued just six months later as L64 in the classics series. However this is not the source of the text used here as Aladdin is not included in the original tales translated by N J Dawood, it being an 18th century addition to the book by French translator Antoine Galland when he produced the first European language edition in twelve volumes between 1704 and 1717.

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The illustrations are by John Harwood who was also approached to produce Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (another addition to 1001 Nights by Galland) for the second tranche of Porpoise Books.  His work with Penguin included what are now some of the rarest of their productions such as a couple of ‘Baby Puffins’ in 1944 and two Christmas themed cut out books from 1955 all of which are now pretty well impossible to find. He did also illustrate several Puffin Story books for Penguin so he continued to have a link with the company for many years.

J2: Paul, The Hero of the Fire – Edward Ardizzone

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Printed by Van Leer apparently in England rather than their main presses in Amsterdam, Paul, The Hero of the Fire was written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and the Porpoise edition was its first appearance in print. This was the only Porpoise book to be reprinted by Penguin although that didn’t happen until March 1969 in a considerably cheaper format in the second set of books in the Picture Puffin paperbacks launched in October 1968. The book tells the story of a young boy who hears his parents talking about having to sell their house as the stock market has collapsed and they have no money to live as they do now. He loves living there so decides to run away and earn some money to help. Ending up in a circus he does get a job but one night a fire breaks out and Paul sees some panicking children which he gathers together to lead to safety, on the way they also save many of the animals. The newspapers declare him a hero and he is presented with a reward which enables his parents to keep the house.

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I love the work of Edward Ardizzone, he was a prolific artist of books for children which is where I first came across his instantly recognisable style and I also own some of his prints from his time as a war artist in the 1940’s. He illustrated many books over the years for Penguin and was scheduled to be featured in his own volume under the Modern Painters series but sadly MP18 was never published.

J3: The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

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Printed by Balding and Mansell Ltd. of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and with the list of current and proposed titles on the back inner page rather than on the rear of the dust wrapper. The story is the classic by The Brothers Grimm about a swans egg that accidentally ends up in a duck nest and when the egg hatches of course the cygnet is treated as ‘an ugly duckling’ and teased by his apparent siblings. Eventually he runs away and is resigned to being lonely all his life on a lake but sees some swans who tell him what he really is. That moment is captured in the painting below.

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For me this is the most beautiful of the Porpoise books, the watercolour illustrations by Will Nickless fit in perfectly with the tale. Although he illustrated several other children’s books I can’t find anything where he worked with Penguin again. It’s a pity as he is clearly a very talented artist and I would have liked to see more of his work in my Penguin collection.

J4: The Flying Postman – V H Drummond

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Printed by The Haycock Press from Camberwell, London. Like Paul, The Hero of the Fire this appears to have been specially written and illustrated by Violet Drummond for Porpoise, the only other editions I can find are significantly later. It’s a distinctly off the wall story regarding a postman who delivers his mail by autogyro until one day he crashes into the local church tower causing lots of damage to his aircraft and needing the fire brigade to get him down. He is subsequently fired and takes up making ice-cream for a living but eventually manages to get his job back after the postmaster falls off his horse and is looked after the postman and his wife. Actually his job is dependant on the postmaster having six ice creams a day delivered to him which somewhat smacks of corruption and is very odd in a children’s tale.

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The illustrations are just as offbeat as the story and like Nickless she does not appear to have any further dealings with Penguin beyond this one title.

As you can see above another odd feature of Porpoise books was that despite only four titles being published they were all printed by different printers. Also unusually for Penguin the books were not numbered or printed with a series code and it is only from later official catalogues from Penguin that we know that they were J1 to J4.

Grace Hogarth, the series editor, had high hopes for the series before publication and was well under way with negotiations for more titles including having commissioned some books so on the back of three of the dust wrappers (as mentioned above The Ugly Duckling wrapper doesn’t have a list but repeats the rear cover of the book) there was the tantalising hint of things to come.

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Steve Smith’s men – Geoff Lemon

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The moment you pick this book up you notice the texture of the printed title, it looks and feels like the sandpaper that caused all the trouble and the crash and burn of Australian cricket in South Africa that March day in 2018. Geoff Lemon has covered the team for many years and this is his analysis not just of what happened in Cape Town but also just how did the Australian national team come to be in this mess in the first place. However as Lemon points out at the start of chapter three

This book is not a detective story. It won’t give you every detail of what happened in the Cape Town dressing rooms…

… Only once careers finish will talk begin. Someone can write the comprehensive history then.

What Lemon does do is look deeply at the team and make as good attempt as can be done now as to what happened and why.

For those people who don’t know the background to this, Cameron Bancroft was seen rubbing the ball with sandpaper to roughen it and make it swing more during the Test Match against South Africa. More details can be found on the BBC website here which details the bans given to Bancroft and also the captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner after this incident.

However this isn’t just about cricket it is also a look at the psyche of a team that formed an effectively closed group and how harmful attitudes were just amplified as there was nobody from the outside to point out how the worst things became normal and then continued on a downward spiral egged on by certain members. As such it can be read as a useful resume of just how groups can deteriorate if left to their own devices. As Lemon points out the team became self selecting, performance on the field became secondary to being mates and being seen to fit the culture that had been created. At times it reads like a real life Lord of the Flies, and just as self-destructive, no matter how good you were you wouldn’t get in the national team unless you were one of the gang and that gang was so tight knit that they rejected all suggestions that things might be wrong.

Things had been going wrong for years and Lemon looks back over that time not just at the team but also at the governing body, Cricket Australia, to try to track why Australia had become the most disliked team in world cricket. Chapter 21 “Australia’s Cricket Culture” starts with five pages of quotes all riffing on the theme that they “never cross the line” meaning that they play hard but not beyond limits, the problem was that the Australian team wanted to set the limits and wanted them further in the distance for them than their opponents. Although stressing that this was a much older problem Lemon decides to focus of the England tour of Australia over 2017/8 to emphasise the build up to the South African debacle. This was a pretty bad tempered few months with Australia emerging the clear victors so they should have gone to South Africa on a high especially given their record in that country, but things started to go wrong soon after they arrived at the first test match. The sledging on both sides was distinctly unpleasant, Warner had taken considerable offence to references to his wife and this had led to a fight almost breaking out after they left the field which unfortunately was caught on camera. That it was Warner, who is probably the nastiest sledger in world cricket, who took offence is ironic in the extreme but that set the tone for what was to come. The Australians claimed that the attempt to alter the ball in the third test was the first time it had been done but nobody believed them so the one caught along with the captain and vice captain had to go, not because of the cheating, but because they were caught out telling bare-faced lies that just kept the story going. If they had just held a press conference at the end of the day and admitted to what had been done then there would have been fines from the match referee but probably not much more.

The book is not only incisive but funny and difficult to put down, the one problem with it getting a wider readership may well be the frequent use of expletives, the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words appear a lot. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lemon is trying to show where things had got to and on-field abuse hurled at the opposition, known as sledging, is often quoted verbatim and this may put off some readers. I think he was justified in the use of language because of the story he is trying to tell and it is a thoroughly good read.