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”

My Name Escapes Me – Alec Guinness

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Subtitled “The diary of a retiring actor” this book takes us from the 1st January 1995 to the 6th June 1996. 1995 is treated rather episodically with large gaps in the diary but there are much more frequent entries for 1996 at least as far as that year goes. The book is quite a gentle read, ideal for a quiet afternoon where you just want something to entertain rather than educate. Guinness is in his eighties by the time he wrote this and effectively has retired although he does do a couple of very small parts for films and a short voice-over during the 18 months of the diary.

There are the expected reminiscences scattered through, not just of stage and screen but also of his conversion to Roman Catholicism forty years earlier. Through most of the book his wife Merula is having problems getting about leading to hip surgery and a long slow recovery and he clearly dotes on her, with various changes of plan wrapped around her current health. He is an inveterate name dropper and chides himself several times in the diary for long convoluted stories he tells at dinner parties probably boring everyone else in the process, a habit Merula sometimes curtails by commenting, with the punchline that he is slowly working up to, during the story. People expect actors, especially ones of his seniority, to be able to talk in public but Guinness is quite clear several times that having him give a speech is doomed to failure from the start, it always has been and age has not improved his ability.

One running commentary relates to the Star Wars films and the fan mail, usually with photographs they want signing that he gets all the time.  As in this entry from 16th December 1995 which gives a good flavour of the style of the book.

Today I have felt querulous. Behaviour has been spiky; largely due, I think, to our affable postman dutiful pushing piles of junk mail through the letterbox daily. It gets worse near Christmas. The rubbish, the charity appeals (often in duplicate) and worst of all, the photographs from Star Wars demanding autographs. They mostly come from America and as often as not enclose a stamped addressed envelope – the stamps being US stamps are useless her. The English usually make their demand without photograph, envelope, stamp or money. The nation has got acclimatized to asking something for nothing. Bills in the post are welcome in comparison. It’s mean and hard of me but from 1 January 1996 I am resolved to throw it all in the waste bin unopened (bills excepted, of course); I no longer have the energy to assist teenagers in their idiotic, albeit lucrative, hobby.

He makes a good point here, that a lot of the signed pictures are probably destined for Ebay or some such autograph trading site, where they would make a significant profit for the person who sent them and that is the reason for the contact in the first place. This is something that Sir Terry Pratchett was also somewhat wary of, threatening to sign any book where no dedication was requested “To Ebay purchaser”. Terry does actually make a slight appearance in the book in the 13th June 1995 entry where Guinness praises the Jungle Quest episode from the previous night which featured Terry and his PA Rob in Borneo with Orang Utans.

The diary ends on the 56th birthday of their son Matthew (also an actor) soon after a much needed holiday at Lake Como, not just to mark his birthday but also the anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1945. Guinness was in the opposite side of Europe, in Italy, at the time having taken part in the attacks on Sicily and Italy several days before, designed not only to take that area but also to divert German military forces away from Dunkirk.

It’s a good read, if a little light, and has an excellent index which reveals that Alan Bennett is mentioned twelve times, The National Theatre four times whilst the National Lottery gets five. Shakespeare or his plays are name checked forty five times whilst the second highest is his wife Merula at twenty nine (although much longer entries) and third comes dogs at twenty one times. I think this says a lot for his priorities. Sir Alec Guinness died in August 2000 and Merula only lived another couple of months afterwards.

An Unsung Hero: the remarkable story of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer – Michael Smith

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Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean. The first three Antarctic explorers listed are household names but Tom Crean is, as the title of the book implies, largely unknown. But he should be celebrated, as he took part in three of the main British Antarctic expeditions during what became known as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He  was with Scott and Shackleton on the Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904 which at the time set the record for furthest south at 82° 17′. He was then with Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, where he was beaten to it by Amundson and died on his way back to the ship. Crean was later with Shackleton on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance from 1914 to 1917 where the Endurance sank early in the venture. Shackleton walked his men to Elephant island and then chose four to go with him for help in an open boat across over eight hundred miles of the South Atlantic to South Georgia and Crean was one of those who was part of possibly the greatest feat of seamanship seen in the last hundred years.

So why is he so barely known, apart from those of us with a fascination with Polar exploration? Well part of the reason is that Crean was really only semi-literate, so he left no diaries or any other documentation for posterity; he also never gave any interviews and the four medals he earned in the Antarctic weren’t displayed. Apparently he never even told his daughters about his exploits in Antarctica. The sole hint that here was a man with his background in exploration was that when he left the navy in 1920 he opened a pub in his home town of Annascaul in Southern Ireland which he called The South Pole Inn. The pub is still called that and in 2003 a statue of Crean was erected in the town, so maybe wider recognition is finally happening for this quiet and self-assuming man and it may well have been helped by this excellent book which was originally printed in 2001, my copy is the first paperback edition from 2002 also published by Headline.

Despite the lack of much documentary evidence from Crean himself Michael Smith has done an excellent job of research to piece together his life from lots of sources. Sixty six books are listed in the bibliography, quite a few I already have in my small Polar library and this list has pointed me to others that sound worth adding to my collection. There are also numerous letters, unpublished diaries and other documents that have been consulted. All this has made a beautifully illustrated book of over three hundred pages which tells not only the story of Tom Crean but also the expeditions that he took part in.  He was in the group of the last eight men on the Beardmore with Scott when he chose the last five to make the final push for the pole. That Scott decided not to chose him may well have been an error as Crean was still fit and strong unlike Oates who had an injured leg and Taffy Evans’ badly cut hand, both of which for reasons of his own Scott decided to take with him. That this undoubtedly saved Crean’s life and allowed him to continue his polar explorations with Shackleton a few years later. What can only be wondered is if Scott had taken the fitter Crean then would his party made it back to the food depot they were aiming for when they died on the ice. We will never know, Michael Smith makes it quite clear where his opinion lies:

Scott, it must be said, made two basic mistakes in selecting his final party to reach the pole. First, he chose the men at the wrong time and second he chose the wrong men.

Shackleton on the other hand greatly valued the taciturn and powerful Irishman, not only selecting him for the crew of the Endurance but picking him as one of the four to go for help with him in that open boat when the expedition became a rescue mission. I’ll cover this in a later blog as I have been in awe of that journey since first reading about it as a child. After returning from the expedition Crean joined the war effort and Shackleton encouraged him to get promotion, along with writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty personally recommending his promotion. This he duly got and after the war ended up with a reasonable pension, which along with money sent to him by Shackleton enabled him to open the South Pole Inn. Shackleton tried to convince Crean to join him again on a trip south but by this time he was a family man with two daughters and declined, his exploring days were behind him.

Michael Smith has written a hugely enjoyable book about one of the lesser known great Polar explorers and even if you know nothing about the history of the time it is well worth reading.

Robin Philipson – Elizabeth Cumming

This is the first of my ‘what I got for Christmas’ posts and this book was a wonderful surprise from some very good friends. I first saw Robin’s art at their home and loved it straight away so that I have bought several pieces over the ensuing years, some of which I am using to illustrate this essay rather than images from the book itself.

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Sir Robin Philipson RA RSA FRSE RSW to give him his proper title was a major name in Scottish art through the second half of the 20th century; not only as a creator of beautiful works but as a teacher for many decades at the Edinburgh College of Art. There have been a couple of biographies before, along with pamphlets to accompany exhibitions, but this is easily the most comprehensive biography so far. Cummings has spoken to lots of members of Robin’s family including his widow Diana and also his nephew who gave me this lovely book.

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As this was a Christmas present it is appropriate to start with a couple of Robin’s Christmas cards on my walls. What can be immediately seen is his bold use of colour, as Dr Cumming says in her book.

…colour was always a principle tool in Robin’s art, and it evolved throughout his career; he was one of Scotland’s major colourists. It was this as much as technical experiment which drove all his work; whether easel painting, printmaking or his involvement in textile enterprises…

Robin produced a Christmas card every year from the late 1960’s, not only painting the original but also printing the cards, en masse they look fantastic, I only have three but hope to add others to my collection as time goes on.

The book’s cover picture is entitled Brenda Spring Portrait, she was his first wife, they married in 1949 a couple of years after he took up his first role as lecturer at the Edinburgh College, and he painted her several times. The Summer and Winter portraits are also included in the book along with a very interesting study for the Spring portrait. One of the joys of this volume is the inclusion of studies for works along with pictures of Robin in his studio which gives an opportunity to see how he went about some of his pieces.

The book is split into several sections, part one looks at his early life and how he came to be in Scotland in the first place; he was born in Cumbria in 1916. Part two is the longest and takes us from starting teaching and his marriage to Brenda, to his discovery of the joys of print making and the introduction of three of his main themes, cock fighting, kings and cathedrals.

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My largest piece and one that hangs above my desk can be seen above, limited to 50 and signed by Robin it is also my favourite in it’s bold use of colour and dynamism of the subject.

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The book is copiously illustrated and includes a significant number of works that are held in private collections so not generally seen, it also gives me a chance to roughly date the art I have collected as style and themes develop through the book as we move through Robin’s career.

He designed the posters and programme covers for the Edinburgh Festival in both 1958 and 1959, the book includes examples of both programmes and in my collection I have an original (and highly fragile) poster for 1959 which is a really good example of his style at the end of the 1950’s.

Part three takes us from the early death of Brenda from a brain tumour in 1960 which led to a period where very few works were produced and those that did appear are dark and angry in tone to meeting Thora Clyne who was to become his second wife in 1962. This seems to have led to a blossoming of Robin’s art and he also took up the appointment of head of Drawing and Painting in the early 1960’s so became very busy.

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I have a couple of versions of Peasant, which dates from 1958 and are different sizes, only one of which is signed, I really like this happy character and he also hangs above my desk where I am writing this.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Colorado in the summer of 1963 as a visiting Professor of Art in Colorado. During this time he became influenced by native paintings and also Mexican churches, there is a truly beautiful painting of a yellow altar towards the end of that section.

The fourth section of the books sees another theme emerging in Robin’s art as we complete the 1960’s and that is depictions of crucifixion. This is a logical extension of his works depicting church interiors , specifically rose windows, and the altars he had started painting in the early part of the decade. Again Cummings takes us through the change in his art against the changes happening in his life and explains how they fit together.

The fifth part covers most of the 1970’s, from his surgery for colonic cancer whilst on a trip to France to study tapestries through his divorce from Thora and marriage to Diana. This was a period not only of great creativity and more new themes to his work such as ‘human kind’ which depict inter-racial couples in various settings to his numerous paintings of ‘women of pleasure’; but also of much greater recognition in the world outside of the Scottish Art scene. He became president of the Royal Scottish Academy, a post he held for a decade and from that a fellow of the Royal Academy in London. In 1976 he was knighted for services to art and all whilst heading up the Drawing and Painting department at the Edinburgh College of Art. He would continue to have bouts of illness throughout this period but his workload and artistic output hardly seemed to let up.

The final section deals with the last fourteen years of Robin’s life up to his death in 1992, this was still a highly busy and productive time with yet another theme to his art appearing, the wonderfully delicate poppy still life paintings.

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I have a couple of these prints, both signed, as my representations of this period and there are three originals reproduced in the book with various backgrounds which demonstrate his total mastery of colour. Sadly the cancer first detected in the 1970’s was to claim him just when it looked like he was reaching another peak in his creativity. I have more pictures by him than I have used in this short review and am always looking for more to add to my small collection especially now I have seen some of the works in this beautifully illustrated book.

All in all this is a major retrospective of the life and work of a man who became very important figure in Scottish art for several decades and hopefully it will help raise his profile again twenty five years after his death. The main body of the book (excluding chronology, notes and index) is 138 pages long, sixty nine of which are made up of full page (and indeed double page) illustrations and a large proportion of the text pages also have a picture or two on them, this really is a magnificent review of Robin’s works and for the most part is extremely readable. My one criticism is the impression you get that Cummings wants to prove she has done her research which leads to whole paragraphs which seem to consist of nothing but lists of names and dates which you hit like boulders in the stream of an otherwise flowing tale. Having said that I very much enjoyed the book and will finish this overview with my only Philipson original, a small pastel still life.

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The Great Beanie Baby Bubble – Zac Bissonnette

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The subtitle on the cover of this 2015 Penguin hardback first edition is no longer featured on the current paperback edition as can be seen below. The change of illustration to a bald eagle toy shot with an arrow is, if anything, more disturbing than the staring bear on the original cover.  I miss the line about mass delusion though as it really sums up the book in just eight words.

Although I now own one of the largest specialist teddy bear shops in the UK I first discovered the world of collectable bears right at the end of the Beanie craze and never started collecting them, as I was far more interested in the products of the Steiff company at the time. I do have a small number, but only of penguins, puffins and a pelican to sit on the shelves with the book series of the same names. This book therefore was an instant purchase when it came out, I knew some of the history but really wanted to know what and how it happened. How could a $5 toy sell for $10000 just a few short months after it was released? Talking to my staff members who had worked in the shop for many years before I took over and remembered the queues outside if word got round there was a delivery there was clearly something special, a self perpetuating dream that here was an investment for all as the initial outlay could be so small.

Bissonnette does a remarkable job in following the history from right at the beginning and tells the story of Ty Warner, a man who can genuinely be called a self made billionaire and who is still the sole owner of Ty Inc. and his rise from failed actor to a man worth in excess of $2.4 billion. Warner himself is notoriously difficult to approach and will not give interviews but Bissonnette has managed to talk to a wide range of people ranging from his estranged sister to ex-girlfriends along with people who worked at Ty Inc. and numerous significant collectors. What shines through is a ruthless perfectionist never happy with anything that he doesn’t personally totally approve. All the designs were by Ty and he would go through huge amounts of fabric, eyes, etc. to get the look he wanted. Checking the posture of a cuddly to get it sitting just right and rejecting anything that was not to his high standards. The reason why Beanie Babies took off initially was down to this attention to detail they really were very well made, especially for the price.

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The problems began when collectors started to deal in a secondary market and convinced themselves that what they had was an ever appreciating asset. This has happened before, the most famous example being Tulip Mania in the Netherlands in the 1630’s. Individual bulbs would sell for more than the price of a house at the height of the bubble but the only thing holding them at that price was the bubble itself and when enough people realised this and stopped buying in March 1637 it suddenly collapsed. Much the same happened with Beanies, there was no real reason for the high prices, yes some were limited but there was still a lot of them around and Ty Inc. stoked the fever by creating artificial shortages to boost the price. Stock would be held back from one part of the world creating demand for what was seen as a rare item only for the blockage to be released and the market flooded. They did this several times and this contributed to the crash as people stopped believing in rarities so were not willing to pay the high prices.

A lot of people lost a significant amount of money, especially those who got caught up in the craze just before it all fell apart at the start of the year 2000, some people did make money from the early days and if they got out in time they did OK. The only person to make a lot of money was Ty Warner. He later would plead guilty to tax evasion and be fined $53 million but as he personally made over $1 billion from the business I doubt that bothered him particularly and as Bissonnette points out in the book the day after the judgement there were workmen painting the gates to his $150 million mansion gold.

This is a really good book, not just of interest to bear collectors but for anyone with an interest in boom and bust economics or just human psychology. The story of Ty Warner himself is fascinating and very well written in this account.

Raw Spirit – Iain Banks

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‘Hiya Banksie! Written any good books lately?’
‘Not if you believe certain critics, but I’m going to be writing one about whisky.’
‘A book about whisky?’
‘Yeah, malt whisky.’
‘You’re kidding!’
‘Not as such.’
‘This mean you’re going to have to do the “R” word?’
‘The “R” word? Oh! Research? Yeah basically. Goin to have to drive round Scotland, take trains, ferries, planes and such, go to distilleries, taste whiskies, that sort of -‘
‘And they’re going to pay you for this?’
‘They’ve already started.’
‘Right I see. D’you need a hand?’

So begins Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of a Perfect Dram and those people familiar only with Iain M Banks the gritty science fiction writer or his even grittier ‘normal’ fiction written as Iain Banks are in for a surprise as this is a genuinely funny book interspersed with rants about the Second Iraq war which had just started as he set of in search of the “R” word. As a fan of both Banks and whisky, purchasing this book when it came out did not take much consideration and I recently pulled it back off the shelves as later this year I’m doing my own trip round some distilleries and like Banks I’m starting with Islay.

Rereading the book was a surprise, my 14 year old memory of what was covered is clearly faulty, yes there is whisky aplenty and distilleries also get pretty good coverage but a large part of the book is really about Banks’ love affair with Scotland and its “Great Wee Roads” or GWRs as they are referred to throughout. There is a lot more said about getting to the distilleries (both the roads and vehicle chosen to make the journey) than there is covering them or their production. There is also a considerable amount of reminiscences of past holidays, fun times in out of the way properties and time spent with old friends. The book is really as close as we ever got to an autobiography by Banks who sadly died in 2013 from cancer aged just 59. If you want a book about whisky then you are really better off with Michael Jackson’s definitive tome, but if you want a book about the joy of travelling around Scotland looking for whiskies and the friendships and fellowships that it can engender then this is for you.

Let’s take a random chapter and breakdown the coverage of each subject, “12: Porridge and Scottishness, Football and Fireworks” has a total of 20 and a bit pages:

  • Porridge, why he doesn’t like it and other Scottish institutions such as kilts – 2½ pages
  • Six distilleries visited and their whiskies – 7 pages
  • Memories of Monty Python (he was an extra in one of the films)  – 1 page
  • Memories of blowing things up (fireworks with mates) – 4½ pages
  • Travelling – 1 page
  • The joys and tribulations of following Morton Football Club – 4 and a bit pages

That seems to be a pretty average hit rate for the theoretical subject of the book, although the travelling to whisky ration is normally higher than that, at least after you get past chapter one where Banks does stick more closely to his brief. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, I very much did so, it’s an easy read and you want to follow Banks around the country as he enjoys the scenery, samples whisky and chats with old mates. You feel by the end that the Raw Spirit of the title is more the spirit of Scottishness rather than Scotch and it’s good fun.

As a final note my copy is the first edition hardback printed by Century in 2003, that also appears to be the only Century edition as by 2004 it was a paperback with a completely different cover published by Arrow. Both of these are imprints of Penguin Random House.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf – part 2

This blog follows on from Part 1 but goes through the entire plot line so should not be read if you have not previously read the book or do not mind knowing what happens.

The book is split into six chapters and each is effectively a stand alone tale dealing with a specific period in Orlando’s life. The first chapter makes perfect sense as you read it, Orlando is a boy when Queen Elizabeth I visits his fathers’ great house and so captivates Her Majesty that he is invited to court towards the end of her reign, where he grows up to be a young man about town and is still around the court when James I becomes king after the death of Elizabeth. By the end of this chapter you are happily reading a novel set in the time of the Stuarts where Orlando has loved and lost the Russian noblewoman Sasha and you are wondering what will befall him next.

Chapter two has him exiled from court due to the scandal with Sasha and spending time back in the family house attempting to write great works but being unsatisfied with them all and holding parties. This is a not so subtle reference to Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West who is also trying to write ‘a great work’ but Virginia doesn’t rate her as an author and doesn’t believe she is capable of achieving this ambition. Orlando also at this time meets Romanian Arch-duchess Harriet who attempts to seduce him but without success. Ultimately Orlando is getting bored stuck at home so that he requests a job from the King and is sent as ambassador to Turkey. This is also a reference to Vita as she lived in Constantinople (as it was then) when her husband was sent to the embassy there from 1912 to 1914.

If you know English history a few comments in the book may be ringing bells by now but the storyline still flows without many issues. The third chapter deals with his time in Turkey initially as ambassador but then the book takes a dramatic swerve. There are a few pages that read like sections of an ancient Greek play, with Purity, Chastity and Modesty introduced as characters parading through his bedroom with trumpet calls and overblown narrative until Orlando finally awakes as a woman. As a plot twist it is certainly unusual and gets odder as people seem relatively unfazed by the change and as the embassy had been attacked during an uprising whilst Orlando slept he/she goes off to live with gypsies for a while. This last part is again a link to Vita who had a highly romanticised view of the Romany people as free living and unconstrained by the pressures of modern life. The book has her living with them for a while and then realising that she is really an interloper and misses the green lands of her home, this is Woolf pointing out to Vita that for all she may fantasise about the gypsy life she would not cope with the reality.

Chapter four has her decide to return to London and her home in Kent where she again meets the Arch-duchess who reveals herself to actually be Arch-duke Harry and this time as a man tries to seduce the now female Orlando with much the same result. Again nobody appears to be surprised by this. She throws herself into London society and meets many famous writers before taking to disguises to explore the seedier side of London to stop life getting too dull. By the end of this chapter the aspect of the book that was ringing bells earlier has now been made explicit but without any explanation, I’ll get to it later.  The fifth chapter takes place entirely in the great house without providing much detail as to what goes on. By the end however the court cases started when she returned from Turkey as a woman and caused all sorts of issues with who owned what and if she really was Orlando are settled although they have used up most of her fortune and she marries somebody she has barely got to know just in time for him to leave to go to sea.

The book ends with her finally finishing her great work “The Oak Tree” and it being praised and even winning a prize before her husband returns to her from foreign climes and she rushes to greet him.

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This cover is a bit problematic for me as the inclusion of the aircraft gives away the one aspect I left out in the summary above and that is the time travelling aspect of the novel. You start reading the book and it is clearly set at the end of the 1500’s with the reign of Elizabeth I coming to an end. Orlando is mentioned several times lying under the tree so what is the plane doing there?

In fact you slowly become aware of the drift of history through the book. As stated above Orlando was clearly a young man at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and much later on in the book we discover that the poem he has been working on since boyhood is dated 1586, so that would probably place him as born in around 1575, Elizabeth died in 1603 and we know he was at court during her reign for a period of years. The next monarch mentioned is James I (1603 to 1625) during whose time Orlando is largely banished from court after his relationship with Sasha at the frost fair. There were two of these during his reign (1608 and 1621) so Orlando is roughly 33 or 46 at this point. The first of these sounds more likely from his behaviour so let us say he retires to his country house in 1608, this is all quite plausible up to this part of the novel.

The next time period mentioned is when he goes to be Ambassador to Turkey after getting tired of being at home. I’m not surprised he was getting bored by then as the Monarch he asks for the job is King Charles II (he is described as being with his mistress Nell Gwyn so we know which Charles we are talking about). His reign was from 1660 to 1685 and he started his relationship with Gwyn in 1668 so as a minimum Orlando is now 93 and has spent at least the last 60 years holding parties at home. This is the first time that the time-scale appears to have stretched, as up until he goes home in 1608 it is quite believably a tale about a late Elizabethan gentleman, nobody appears to be surprised by this and he is still clearly a young man in the novel. Charles II is still on the throne when Orlando is made a Duke and subsequently changes sex. We then hit her time with the gypsies and this is also clearly several decades. On return to England she sees the dome of the new St Paul’s cathedral (consecrated 1697) and the captain of the ship refers to the late William III (died 1702) so we are now in the reign of Queen Anne (1702 to 1707) and this is explicitly stated later in the book as Orlando enters society as a young and eligible woman at the age of 130!

At last a positive date… Well sort of. There is a mention of 16th June 1712 being a Tuesday, it was actually a Thursday but never mind, it is the first specific date in the novel and this is when Orlando decides to quit society only to decide not to the next day due to an invitation that she really wanted to go to. There she meets Alexander Pope and through him various other writers such as Swift who quotes from Gulliver’s Travels, a book printed in 1726 so time is still moving on apace. She sees Johnson and Boswell (circa 1770’s) and chapter four concludes with the dawning of 1st January 1800 with a dark cloud over London. Chapter five includes a statement that she had been working on the poem “The Oak Tree”

… for close on 300 years now. It was time to make an end.

so that takes us up to the 1860’s. This is another huge leap in the time line of the book as it is only 8 pages into the chapter. It’s an odd chapter, using damp weather as a metaphor for the changes in society through the Victorian age, no more gay parties and bright lights, now the houses are cluttered and cold, the people withdrawn and everything is dark and covered up as society becomes more straight-laced and women are expected to be ‘the little woman at home’ safely married off. It’s also no wonder the court proceedings have used most of her fortune, they would have started in the early 1700’s and concluded roughly 160 years later as Lord Palmerston and Gladstone are mentioned with the court documents and Palmerston died in 1865. It is worth noting however that it does leave Orlando with the house, which as I stated in the previous essay on the book Vita specifically didn’t get as she was a woman so maybe this is a put in as a solace to Vita that although it may take 160 years a woman will eventually inherit what would be hers by right if she had been a man.

The sixth, and final, chapter brings us to the present day, well 1928 which is when the book was written anyway. It begins slightly before then at the end of the Victorian age as she finally gets her poem The Oak Tree published with the help of Nicholas Greene but most of the chapter is set on the 11th October 1928 starting in London with a very confused shopping trip. She drives out of London to the great house in Kent and is there as her husband finally comes home this time by aeroplane whilst she lies under the tree as she used to as a boy centuries earlier

It is not only Orlando who straddles time in the novel, several of the fictional characters fail to grow old with her, the Arch-Duchess/duke is also mentioned in chapter five as married and settled in Romania so he is also as old as Orlando and others survive well beyond a normal lifespan such as Nicholas Greene, the poet and critic who first met Orlando in the Elizabethan age and meets her again in the Victorian. Sasha from the frost fair in 1608 is also glimpsed during the shopping trip in 1928 and is described as late middle aged. Orlando’s husband, Shelmerdine, is also timeless, at least since coming into contact with Orlando, for they meet and marry in the 1860’s when her court cases have completed but he is clearly still only in middle age by 1928.

The book is complex and at times infuriating as it leaps about but still an enjoyable read, I’ve also had quite a bit of fun reading through it again trying to identify all the historical events that can be dated for this essay.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf – part 1

HE – FOR THERE could be no doubt about his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair of a coconut.

The opening two sentences of Orlando certainly make you want to know more… Just what is going on here?

Virginia Woolf’s best known work is 90 years old this year so it seems appropriate to write about it now. The book is strange reading it now; it must have been extraordinary to readers back in 1928 with it’s bizarre plot twist halfway through. Although for me it’s what Woolf does with the character of Orlando before and after that point that is interesting rather than the twist itself but it must have been quite a jump for the casual reader in 1928. I have split this blog into two because I really want to be able to discuss the plot line and that will require me to include a lot of spoilers so this part talks generally about the book and part two will summarise the plots within it and contain the spoilers, so if you haven’t read Orlando this blog is perfectly safe.

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Although it is a short novel (just over 200 pages) there is a lot packed into the book and part of the conceit of it is that it claims to be biography. Virginia writes in first person as the biographer and frequently employs the literary equivalent of the theatrical trick of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by talking directly to the reader about the difficulties of finding material to work from in compiling the biography. There is even a short index at the back as you would expect in such a work. One particular passage near the end of the book sums up this stylistic method rather well.

It was now November. After November comes December. Then January, February, March and April. After April comes May. June, July, August follow. Next is September. Then October, and so behold, here we are back at November again, with a whole year accomplished.

This method of writing biography, though it has its merits, is a little bare, perhaps, and the reader, if we go on with it, may complain that he can recite the calendar for himself and so save his pocket whatever sum the Hogarth Press may think proper to charge for this book.

As can be seen ‘the biographer’ can be quite chatty to the reader but also quite pompous, these brief interludes give you time to absorb wherever the plot has suddenly taken us next, but it is also Virginia’s way of ridiculing historical biographers who she clearly thought took themselves far too seriously.

From the way she writes about it Woolf was clearly also not a fan of ‘Society’, that endless round of functions and engagements that the upper classes seemed so devoted to right up to her time. There are many disparaging passages in the book about this foolish waste of time and money where nothing seems to be done or said that was memorable. She is also less than enamoured by her own profession of writing, or at least the majority of what was being written at the time, one particularly favourite quote of mine from the book is.

For it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on the top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.

The book is definitely an oddity, so many different things happen and great numbers of historical characters are introduced and yet there is the constancy of the huge family house which is used to pull Orlando back to normality when things get too strange only to bore after a while and lead into another adventure. It really becomes one of the characters in the story and is the solid anchor around which the shifting tale is woven.

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The house featured in the book is clearly based on Knole in Kent, one of the largest houses in England; and one I know well, as it is 17 miles from where I used to live at the end of the 1990’s. It was the family home of Vita Sackville-West and like her house at Sissinghurst it is now owned by the National Trust. I used to go there regularly to explore the 1,000 acre park or wander round the house, it has according to Vita 365 rooms just as Orlando’s vast house does; although she also said that “I do not know that anyone has ever troubled to verify it”. The house was also the source of great sadness for Vita as if she had been born a man she would have inherited it as her parents only child but as a woman she was passed over in favour of her cousin. As explained in my previous blog about Vita, she and Virginia were lovers for many years and there is a lot of Vita’s family history interwoven in the book.

The dig at writers and specifically poets mentioned above was also somewhat aimed at Vita who was clearly not in Virginia’s league and for all that she loved her Virginia really didn’t rate her as a poet or author. There is also, at the start of the final chapter some discussion as to whether it is even proper for a married woman to be a writer. Clearly it is fine for an unmarried female to dabble in writing for her own amusement and also what is marriage anyway…

She was married true: But if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.

Both Virginia and Vita were married throughout their relationship and Vita in particular took other lovers at the same time both male and female. Orlando was written at what is now recognised as the peak of their love for each other when both were also at their creative best, probably feeding inspiration off each other. It was also a time of female emancipation in Britain, 1928 was not only when this book was written but it was also the year that woman finally gained full voting equality with men and more pointedly a couple of pages later Woolf includes the line…

as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking

I struggled initially with the plot of the book (see part 2) but I’m glad I persevered, this is the first of Woolf’s novels I have read although I had read her best known feminist work ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Common Reader’ before. Maybe it’s time to get that copy of ‘To The Lighthouse’ off the shelves where it has languished for a few years.

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Of equal interest, to me at least, is the background to the three copies of the novel that I possess and two of whose covers have punctuated this essay. The top one is the first Penguin Books edition (number 381) from July 1942 and therefore published under wartime restrictions. This meant that fewer copies were printed than might have been the case before the war and also that the paper quality is poor to say the least, making the book quite fragile.

The second cover at first glance look to be the same, but this was printed in Cairo in 1943 for the troops fighting on the African front. This explains the price in piastres printed on the cover. If possible these books, there were 20 titles printed in English and 1 in French as part of this programme, are even more fragile than the ones produced in England at the same time and few have survived their time in the Africa campaign. Books for the troops were in short supply, especially in Africa and as any soldier will tell you a culture of ‘hurry up, and wait’ means that there is a lot of quick movement followed by long periods of not a lot apparently happening so any reading material was eagerly seized upon. Quite what the troops made of this very strange book is not recorded, I can think of many more suitable novels from Penguins extensive catalogue which would have been a lot more popular.

The third copy I have is the American Penguin edition from April 1946 and this being far more capable of surviving having its pages turned is the copy I read for these essays. However as the illustrated cover includes a massive spoiler for the book I have used this in part 2 of my discussion of Orlando. There is also an interesting tale behind this imprint. Penguin wanted to sell books in America during the war but clearly shipping books across the Atlantic was out of the question, as was using up the paper ration that they had been allocated on books which would not then end up on sale in the UK so they sought an agent to produce the books for them. They settled on Ian Ballantine and he originally printed books that looked like their UK equivalent but soon switched to illustrated covers to appeal more to the American reader. In the end under his control over 180 titles were printed in the US as either Penguin or Pelican before in 1948 Penguin Books withdrew from this enterprise as they could now export again. The titles were re-branded as Signet (for the Penguins) and Mentor (for the Pelicans) and Ian Ballantine with his wife Betty continued to publish under those brands before also creating Bantam, New English Library and of course Ballantine books. The Ballantine book group was acquired by Random House in 1973 which in turn merged into Penguin Random House in 2013 thereby bringing the story full circle.

When I was Very Young – A.A. Milne

Although nowadays best known for his stories about his son Christopher Robin and his toys Winnie The Pooh and all the other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, Alan Alexander Milne would rather be known for his other books and plays. He wrote a surprisingly good crime novel (The Red House Mystery) and over 3 dozen plays along with several books of non-fiction. When I was Very Young is one of his rarest works as the only publication of it is the limited edition from The Fountain Press printed in 1930. Just 842 copies were produced and all were signed by Milne on the limitation page at the back of the book, my copy is number 38. The book comes in a plain card slipcase rather than a dust wrapper although this easily damaged and is often missing from copies for sale

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The book consists of five short biographical stories from Milne’s childhood which are written in the first person and probably true as the facts that it is possible to check are accurate, such as H.G. Wells being his science teacher at his first school, where his father was head-master. In the book his two older brothers are called David and John (in reality David Barrett Milne and Kenneth John Milne) and the age differences are correct along with the description of all three having blue eyes and golden hair. There are several illustrations by Ernest Shepard and the pages have the feel of handmade paper with rough edges. It’s short, here are only 23 pages of text along with 2 title pages, one page with the copyright information and the limitation page at the back so it definitely only takes a few minutes to read.

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All of Milne’s Christopher Robin books were also printed as deluxe editions along with several of his plays and other works some of which were also released as signed limited editions. Milne, or at least his agent in America assuming he had one, also seemed to go in for special editions only sold in the USA so there are numerous varieties of some of his titles to collect especially limited editions and pre-signed signed copies. When I was Very Young was not even the first short book by Milne in being initially issued exclusively as such a volume, in 1929 The Fountain Press released The Secret and Other Stories in an edition of 742. The Secret has however since been printed in unlimited modern editions leaving When I was Very Young alone in not being available to a wider readership.

The first page sets the scene

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After this introduction to the boys David isn’t mentioned in the first two tales, it is clear that Alan and John were close playmates though and the two boys shared a bed for many years but David, as the eldest, presumably had his own room. The first tale is a bit odd as it relates to an apparently shared dream of the two boys when they were about 5 years old for them to wake up one morning and find that everyone else in the world was dead.

As soon as we woke up we should know that it had happened; the absence of the governess from our morning toilet, the discovery of her body in the passage between her room and ours – these would be the first signs. Having explored all over the house to make sure that the thing had been done properly, and that there really were no survivors to say “Don’t” we would then proceed to such-and-such, a sweetshop, step over the body of the proprietress and have our first proper breakfast.

There then follows a drawing by Shepard with the boys eating chocolates and sweets in the shop with the corpse in the background.

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Not exactly the gentle Winnie the Pooh type tale you might expect! The second story is considerably less disturbing but none the less would be surprising to us nowadays. The two boys had collected various mineral samples and decided that they wanted to show them to somebody at the Geological Museum (then in Jermyn Street). By now it was 1890 and they were 8 and 9 years old and living in St Johns Wood, which is about 3½ miles (5½ km) from the museum. However their father seemed quite happy to let them go on their own as long as they ‘asked a policeman to help them cross Piccadilly Circus’, one of the most busy and therefore dangerous junctions in the city. They manage the trip, meet the curator who spends time with them looking at their small collection and also shows them round the museum and on their way back buy some matches to strike in their bedroom at night after the lights had gone out.

Two very short reminiscences follow, both featuring all three boys, in the first, inspired by a book called The Golden Key they put on an impromptu (and unscripted) play which turns out to be very short and in the second again after being inspired by a book they decide to be sailors and having lined up in front of their father David explains this to him. After consideration their father explains that “There will be examinations to pass”, at this David promptly gives up on the idea.

The final story moves us forward in time again to 1896 when ‘John’ and Alan were both at Westminster Public School and Alan was 14. Although they were boarding students they were allowed out at weekends providing they had somewhere to stay and this one weekend they were staying at the home of some elderly friends of their father. They had found a firework left over from the bonfire night celebrations and decided to extract the gunpowder from it. After a while a fairly disappointing quantity of powder was tipped out…

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I don’t know why Milne always refers to his brother as John rather than Kenneth or Ken in this short volume, particularly as he always calls him Ken in his book It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer published in 1939 and dedicated as follows; 1880-1929 To the memory of KENNETH JOHN MILNE who bore the worst of me and made the best of me.

Oddly David is called Barry in the autobiography so Alan does like to confuse his readers.

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The signed limitation page at the back of the book

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84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Last week I went to see the play based on Helene Hanff’s best known work 84 Charing Cross Road at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. There is a touring production currently travelling the UK with Stephanie Powers playing Helene and Clive Francis as Frank Doel. I first read the book in the early 80’s and have happy memories of that and seeing the film with Anne Bancroft and  Anthony Hopkins made in 1987 so it was a joy to see the play and how well it was done. I think that from now on that when reading the book I will always hear the letters as read by Stephanie Powers she gave a wonderful performance. Clive Francis was very good as Frank, but it’s very difficult to beat Anthony Hopkins, so I now have a weird mix of play and film in my head. You can see a clip from the film on youtube here.

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However this is a review of the book, it was first published by Grossman in the US in 1970 then by Andre Deutsch in the UK in 1971, the copy I currently have was printed by Time Warner Books in 2006. It has to be at least the third copy of this book I have owned as previous copies have disappeared over the years, as I either gave them away to people who I thought would love the book or just never got back a loaned volume. Like most editions nowadays in this copy the original book is paired with Hanff’s follow up work The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which describes her journey to London for the UK launch of the original book. The first book itself simply consists of the letters between Hanff, who is in New York and Marx & Co. antiquarian booksellers based at number 84 Charing Cross Road. Initially they are quite business like, Hanff has seen an advert in the Saturday Review of Literature so on 5th October 1949 she first makes contact with the firm and pens a short note with a list of books she wants to see if they can supply them. but by the time of the last letter from the firm to Helene it is almost 20 years later on 8th January 1969.

There is no exposition, it is just the letters so all you know about Frank, Helene and the others who write occasional missives is what they include in the correspondence; but from this you really get involved in this developing two decade long friendship. By the end you feel you know them and the final few letters mean as much to you as they must have meant to Helene when they prompted her to compile the book, as she writes in Q’s Legacy.

“I have to write it.”

Then I went cold inside, I could only write it if I still had Frank’s letters. I’d begun saving them 20 years later because a tax accountant wanted a record of what I spent on books… The thin blue airmail letters with a rubber band round them took up no space, lying nearly flat under manuscripts in a back corner of one of six small cabinet drawers under my bookshelves. But year after year when I cleaned out the cabinets, I’d come on them and wonder why I was saving them. Sitting there that evening, I vividly remembered that when I had reorganised the cabinets a few weeks earlier I’d stood by the waste basket hefting the letters, debating whether to keep them or throw them out. I couldn’t remember which I’d done. And I was afraid to find out.

Fortunately she hadn’t thrown them out although they were only found after an agonising search

I carried the letters to the table and opened them – and snapshots of young families spilled out of them. Some were from Nora Doel, some were from one of the girls who worked in the shop, all of them were 10 or 15 years in the past … I found snapshots of Frank standing proudly beside his new secondhand car. I was laughing by this time, I poured another cup of coffee and settled down to read the letters.

By the time I went to bed I was positively happy, I was going to relive the lovely episode Marks & Co. had been in my life by making a short story of the correspondence.

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The letters get less formal as the years go on, by February 1952 Frank is writing to ‘Dear Helene’ as opposed to ‘Dear Miss Hanff’ which is how he starts off and whilst initially Frank’s letters are solely about the books or in response to gifts of food Helene sends to ration struck England, Helene’s become quite chatty very early on and she jokingly tells him off several times (these are just extracts from letters not full examples)

November 2, 1951

Dear Speed ___

You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realise it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.

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Clearly remembering this letter many years later Frank was able to eventually get in a small riposte.

3rd May 1957

Dear Helene,

Prepare yourself for a shock. ALL THREE of the books you requested in your last letter are on their way to you and should arrive in a week or so. Don’t ask how we managed it – It’s just a part of the Marks service.

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Other members of staff at Marks & Co. also write to Helene, along with Dora (Frank’s wife) who initially just thanks her for the food she has sent but then also enters into a longer correspondence. What I really liked about the play was that the script really was just reading the letters to one another, the stage was split into Helene’s New York apartment on the left with the bookshop taking up roughly two thirds of the stage to the right. Almost all the letters in the book were read verbatim, in the film the letters are still the main part of the text but it is expanded to make it more cinematic and as you can see from the clip I included a link to above we even see other locations than the bookshop and the apartment.

It’s very difficult to review this book without spoiling it for new readers but it is truly a delight to read and if you haven’t read it then please do so, then see the film and if possible catch it in the theatre. The images from the play are lifted from the Cambridge Arts Theatre website whose production this was.

The second book included in the paperback is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and this is more of a diary tracking Helene’s trip to the UK, all the people she meets and the various publicity events she goes to including a special opening up of the by now closed Marks & Co. shop on Charing Cross Road, so she did finally get to visit ‘her bookshop’ even if it was too late. The main signing event took place in Poole’s bookshop, next door in number 86. This diary runs from 17th June to 26th July 1971 and is considerably longer that the book it celebrates. Sadly the shop is now a McDonald’s burger place but there is a plaque outside commemorating the old bookshop and Hanff’s apartment on  305 E. 72nd Street has been named “Charing Cross House”.

For the really keen there is the third book in ‘the series’ which I quoted from above, Q’s legacy explains how, when it became clear she was not going to be able to afford any more than a year at college, she was in a library and she first came across Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She felt his books of essays and lectures taught her more than the first year had done and she was hooked. Q, as he was invariably known, introduced her to Walton, Newman, Milton and numerous others and she wanted to read more than just the extracts he quoted so was looking for a good bookshop when she saw that advert in the Saturday Review. If anyone is responsible for all that followed after that it is the now largely forgotten Q. Forgotten that is except by those of us who own a copy of his massive 1100 page work The Oxford Book of English Verse which for decades was the definitive collection, first published in 1900 and revised in 1939 to expand the selection up to 1918.