October 2017 re-reading: Notes from Overground

For my October re-reading it was the turn of 1986, and out of what I read that year I selected a book I’ve dipped into a few times in the intervening years. That’s because Notes from Overground by the pseudonymous “Tiresias” is a dippable kind of book: fragmentary, reflective, sometimes quite funny. The subtitle “A Commuter’s Notebook” makes it clear what the subject matter is – and it’s spelled out on page 12: “These notes, to be explicit, concern daily commuting on what is at present known as Western Region, between Oxford and Paddington.”

I was myself commuting daily in 1986, albeit for a shorter distance, from Chingford to W1, via (usually) the Victoria Line, so Notes, published only two years earlier, was a book that I must have felt had something to say about my own life. (The copy that I first read isn’t the copy I have now, which was acquired later when it was, as the official stamp puts it, WITHDRAWN FOR SALE by Waltham Forest Libraries.)

What makes it worth reading? First, it’s an idiosyncratic view of the everyday experience of travelling by train. It’s also, I notice particularly on re-reading, full of despair, anger and sadness – but somehow expressed cheerfully. Here, for instance, is one of 38 “anti-kontakions” scattered through the book’s 200 pages:

A curse on the train. Defecating freak. Micturating mastodon. Incontinent container. Untrained train. Fouler of its own fairway. Polluter. Contaminator. Commuter-exterminator. Anathema sit.

At other times Notes is simply a delightful compendium of observations:

Paddington Station. Along the route stations are anxious to declare their identity. Strings of signs on lamp-posts tell us: Reading Reading Reading … But here you can with difficulty find any indication you have arrived at Paddington, and no indication whatsoever that you reached London. …

Sometimes a goods train passes, wheels dripping sparks, like a horse splashing through sunlit water. …

On a red mini-tractor at Didcot and on certain wagons: For Use On Brute Circuit Only. Revelation dawned one morning at Oxford where a chalked notice: Danger, Keep Away, Do Not Move These Brutes, was propped … beside three or four trolleys which were supporting a broken fence. So Brute, disappointingly, equals something like British Rail Utility Trolley. …

Chalk cuttings like scenery from a spaghetti Western. On brink, against blue sky, black and white cat seems an outlaw watching our stagecoach pass. …

Observant he certainly is – in fact he objects to reading or writing much on the train because “one misses things. One does not buy a ticket for the theatre and read a book or write letters throughout the show.” What he calls “the entertainment provided” – fellow passengers and passing views – “frequently surpasses that to be seen on the stage, let alone in-flight movies”. Yet I re-read much of Notes from Overground on a train, from Cardiff to London, which after Didcot followed the same tracks as Tiresias’s and confess I was making notes for this blog rather than looking for what was different from the 1980s – how many, for instance, survived of the 15 “trackside industries” he noted.

Yes, the sadly out-of-print Notes has an extra appeal now, as a report from the distant pre-rail-privatisation, and pre-mobile-phone, era of over 30 years ago. Carriages with compartments! Buffet cars! Newspapers! Overheard conversations where both parties are visible! (Although there’s a presage of what was to come when the author records travelling “in a full compartment where a man sat in a corner unconcernedly using a Dictaphone as he went through his correspondence”.) Then there’s a reference to “the great new road to the west” near Paddington (i.e. the now ageing Westway); and Didcot is just Didcot – not Didcot Parkway. When did that unnecessary suffix start being appended to station names?

Interestingly it’s also a book that wonders, reflexively, what it is. “Have begun this notebook as occupational therapy” we read on the first page; later, Tiresias calls his book “a disjointed medium for a disjointed existence. Deliberate but not planned.” The genre, he decides, is that of Premeditated Notebook, and the best example he can think of is The Unquiet Grave by “Palinurus” (pseudonym of Cyril Connolly). It contains “whatever turns up in the sidings of my mind” and is “locomotion recollected in immobility”. And on the last-but-one page: “It has developed like a tumour, this long disease my book. Now must pluck up courage to ask the medical wallahs whether malignant or benign.” Benign, I’d say.

One small unanswered question: if this is a book about the whole commuting experience, what happened after the author reached Paddington? Unless he had an office near the terminus or took a bus, he would have trudged through that narrow corridor to the Circle Line or down the escalator to the Bakerloo to finish his journey. Concerning that part of his commute he is silent.

As for the pseudonymous author, “Tiresias” is not much of a disguise, as we know his real name from the line “©Roger Green 1984” after the title page. If you look him up on the web via a search engine – I recommend DuckDuckGo if you want to avoid Google – you’ll find that after giving up commuting Green moved to Greece, and lived (still lives?) on the island of Hydra, where he wrote Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen and is the author of several volumes of poetry.

Coincidentally in October my other reading included John Berger’s and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (also fragmentary, and also published in 1984), where this passage occurs:

Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams? … Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted. … The railway station – whatever the extravagances of its “decorative” architecture – remained stark. And it remained so because it was a site of arrival and departure, where there was nothing to muffle the significance of those two events. Coming and going. Meeting and parting.

OK, Berger is a great writer, but he is rather prone to the portentous over-generalisation, I feel, as in his evocation of an “ancient sense of destiny”. If we’re going to have generalisations, I think I prefer this, by Patrick McGuinness in a recent London Review of Books:

To be sure, trains and stations represent escape, travel and bohemia; to others, drudgery, offices, the rut of life and a particular sort of existential stasis that we only notice, paradoxically, because we’re moving – though only a little. That movement helps us sense our stasis better, in the same way that we’ll admit a bit of sadness into a happy moment because it helps us to tune the happiness we feel and feel it even more.

Also read in October: Outline by Rachel Cusk (disappointing, after all the praise I’ve read); Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (really good); and Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, another important book from Germany.

September 2017 re-reading: David Lodge’s Small World

My September re-reading had to be from 1985, when the records state that I read 26 books, most of them novels. Although one of them was Middlemarch (well done, younger me), this looks like a year when I went for fairly recently published stuff, including two from the previous year’s Booker Prize shortlist: Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Small World by David Lodge. (Neither of them won; they were beaten by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.) I decided on Small World because I’ve been a Lodge enthusiast for some time – and this particular book I remember as one of his most entertaining.

Small World is a kind of sequel to DL’s Changing Places (1975), which I read soon after it came out, and the characters of Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp, the first book’s memorable protagonists, are fairly central again, joined here by a much larger group of dramatis personae. But what I remember is that unlike Changing Places (and most of Lodge’s other fiction) Small World is – how shall I put this? – far-fetched. Despite its “realistic” surface, its plot is based on various Holy Grail quest legends and Spenser’s Fairie Queene (T.S.Eliot’s Waste Land also plays a part); like its models it is full of coincidences, long journeys, an innocent hero and an elusive heroine. It nevertheless fits into the “campus novel” genre, and is structured around a series of international academic conferences about literature. This makes it sound rather forbidding: but it has proved enjoyable even on a second reading.

In fact I may have got more out of Small World – subtitle “An Academic Romance” – this time, as since my first reading my life has got closer to academia. Admittedly, in 1985 Clever Wife was nearing the end of a PhD, but I didn’t know much about the academic world. Now, having worked as a journalist-cum-publicist at a US university in the 1990s, later freelancing for a higher education weekly and doing quite a lot of academic copyediting, I feel more clued up (though I am still an amateur when it comes to English literature: I don’t even have an A-level in the subject).

Although Small World is fun to read, I feel that, more than any other of Lodge’s novels, it’s designed to be the subject of learned academic exegesis. Sure enough, you can find essays such as “Quest and Conquest in the Fiction of David Lodge” and “The Reader as Discoverer in David Lodge’s Small World” online, and the novel has also been quoted in some philosophical literature. Here’s Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen’s Truth, Fiction and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective, which I happen to have borrowed recently: in a chapter on “The Theory of Novelistic Truth” they quote Small World‘s “Author’s note”. In this, before pointing to some unlikely things in the book that “really” exist – “an underground chapel at Heathrow and a James Joyce pub in Zurich” for instance – Lodge states that his novel “resembles what is sometimes called the real world, without corresponding exactly to it, and it is peopled by figments of the imagination”. This is rather like the note at the start of Lodge’s Changing Places: “Rummidge and Euphoria [where much of the novel’s action takes place] are places on the map of a comic world which resembles the one we are standing on without corresponding to it”.  Such disclaimers, Lamarque and Olsen write, “implicitly make the claim that [the author’s] work is of a type that naturally can be construed as presenting truths about particular historical events or personages. For the very act of issuing a denial presupposes that there is something that needs to be denied.”

I could digress at some length about novelistic truth, but I’ll save such philosophical ramblings for another time. Meanwhile, some further random observations about Small World:

1. I don’t think I’d noticed this before, but Lodge’s narrative switches between present and past tenses frequently. While some readers (and writers) dislike the use of the narrative present, I feel it can add some urgency – which seems to be why DL uses it. For example he jumps rapidly from one character to another at the beginning of Part II to describe more or less simultaneous events in England, Australia, New Hampshire, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, Turkey and elsewhere (is this an echo of the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses?). Sample: “In Paris, as in Berlin, it is 7.30. … In the high-ceilinged bedroom of an elegant apartment on the Boulevard Huysmans, the telephone rings beside the double bed. Without opening his eyes, hooded like a lizard’s in the brown leathery face, Michel Tardieu, Professor of Narratology in the Sorbonne, extends a bare arm from beneath his duvet …” (p.97 in my edition).

2. Perhaps inevitably, some of the novel has dated. Here’s Morris Zapp talking about the “global campus” in Chapter 1: “There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine” (p. 43). In 1984, the Internet was still a few years away.

3. Yes, there’s a lot of air travel in Small World. And we are reminded that in the 1980s, long before Al-Qaeda was a threat, airport security was already a hassle: “He joins a long line of people shuffling through the security checkpoint. His handbaggage is opened and searched. Practised fingers turn over the jumble of toiletries, medicines, cigars, spare socks … Few privacies are vouchsafed to the modern traveller” (p.102).

4. Maybe it’s a bit too long, though – 339 pages in my paperback, compared to Changing Places’s 251. The kidnapping that occurs in Part IV doesn’t seem necessary to the plot, for instance. Does it correspond to an incident in The Faerie Queene or some other romance?

5. I rather like the cover to my 1985 paperback (below), which is by Ian Beck, and has the merit of suggesting that the artist has actually read the book. (You can see more of Beck’s work at https://ianbeck.wordpress.com/, where I’m reminded he used to do illustrations for Radio Times, and at least one cover – for the 1987 Proms issue.)

small world cover

Also read in September, two Brits and one American: Down and Out in Paris and London (something I should have read years ago); P.G. Wodehouse’s Doctor Sally (lightweight even by Wodehouse’s standards); and You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits (who’d have thought a novel about urban redevelopment in Detroit would be such a page-turner?). Plus some chapters of Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From – stimulating thoughts relevant to this blog …

August 2017 re-reading: Thomas Love Peacock

I vacillated a lot before deciding on my re-reading for this month. My list of “books read” for 1984, the year I had to choose from, gave me 27 possibilities: the short list included Ford Madox Ford (the middle two of his Tietjens tetralogy: maybe too much hard work?); John Cheever (not another American after last month’s Anne Tyler? Could be read later); R.K. Narayan (relevant book not in local library); Ross Macdonald (another interesting American, could also be kept for another year); PG Wodehouse … and so on.

In the end I opted for the rather obscure: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock, in a paperback that had been on our shelves since the 1980s. I must have bought it second-hand, as it is a 1967 edition, T31 of Pan Books’ Bestsellers of Literature, which was, according to the back cover, “A new series of ever-popular and compellingly readable novels by the world’s great authors … [with] an authoritative and analytical introduction, in many cases by a famous author of today”. The volume in question, original price 7s 6d, contained four of Peacock’s short novels: Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. And the famous author of the day introducing the collection was none other than J.B. Priestley, who presents a straightforward ten-page account of Peacock’s life (1785-1866) and appreciation of his “odd but delicious novels”. “[W]hat must not be missed,” Priestley concludes, “is the constant undercurrent of irony in him, the faint mockery in the very neatness and crispness of his dialogue, the grave mischief in the style itself”.

Once again, I have to say I have no memory of reading anything by Peacock, and so this re-reading was in effect a first reading. Did I enjoy it? Yes, once I’d got used to the style. Priestley is right to call Peacock’s novels “odd”, by the standards not only of the present day but also his of contemporaries. You won’t find much plot or character development: Nightmare Abbey can offer you a little bit of will-he-won’t-he with regard to the love life of Scythrop Glowry, the young heir to Nightmare Abbey, but that’s hardly the point. Scythrop – derived from the Greek skuthropos, “of a sad countenance” – is apparently based on the poet Shelley, a friend of Peacock’s, and there are other disguised portraits: Mr Flosky, “a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman, of some note in the literary world” is based on Coleridge, and Byron appears in the guise of Mr Cypress. What chapter after (short) chapter consists of mainly is dialogue, with a variety of characters – not only the above mentioned but also Mr Toobad (“the Manichean Millenarian”), the Reverend Mr Larynx, the “fashionable” Mr Listless, Mr Asterias the ichthyologist in search of a mermaid, and others – arguing about a variety of matters.


MARIONETTA. I must apologize for intruding on you, Mr Flosky; but the interest which I – you – take in my cousin Scythrop –
MR FLOSKY. Pardon me, Miss O’Carroll; I do not take any interest in any person or thing on the face of the earth; which sentiment, if you analyse it, you will find to be the quintessence of the most refined philanthropy.
MARIONETTA. I will take it for granted that it is so, Mr Flosky; I am not conversant with metaphysical subtleties, but —
MR FLOSKY. Subtleties! my dear Miss O’Carroll. I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public, to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.

I went on from Nightmare Abbey (1818) to Crotchet Hall (1831), which Priestley preferred but which to my mind lacked the compactness of the earlier novel. Its characters – some of whom appear without introduction – wander all over the place, from the Thames Valley, where Crotchet Hall is said to be located, to North Wales (Peacock’s wife Jane was Welsh). It may, though, be the first novel whose characters travel by canal: they ascend from the Thames “by many locks” and then descend “through the valley of Stroud into the Severn”, finally, via the Ellesmere canal, “moor[ing] their pinnaces in the Vale of Llangollen by the aqueduct of Pontycysyllty” [Pontycysyllte aqueduct was built in 1805].

As it happens, while coming to the end of my Peacock readathon I was in a house that contained a book of Gore Vidal’s essays. This included his 1980 review of Marilyn Butler’s biography of Peacock. Using this, and Mary McCarthy’s Ideas and the Novel, he argued that the satirical narrative as exemplified by Aristophanes, Lucian, Swift, Voltaire and Peacock lost out in the nineteenth century to a different kind of novel: “In the half century between Peacock’s first work and his last [Gryll Grange], the novel was transformed by Dickens and the comedy of character replaced the comedy of ideas.” This, in Vidal’s view, is a loss: his typically opinionated essay, which also has things to say about the “dead end of the Serious Novel”, is worth seeking out.

(Incidentally, I note that Peacock’s novels aren’t available in either Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics these days. A pity. On the other hand, you could get a recently published scholarly edition of Nightmare Abbey from Cambridge University Press for £84.99 if you really – really – wanted. This version has 430 pages, I gather, as opposed to the 70-odd pages plus three pages of notes it occupies in my little Pan edition.)

I read most of the Peacock in Ireland, and mostly while travelling on trains in the Republic and the North. Earlier in the month I read The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (too long, but an amusing take on the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’), Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy (late but not great Greene, still worth reading),  some of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (not easy to read except in short bursts) and also some of Edging the Estuary, Peter Finch’s account of walking the shores of the Severn Estuary (recommended).

July 2017 re-reading: Anne Tyler

Now for 1983, when my Books Read list has 33 entries, 25 of them fiction of one kind of another. With the non-fiction titles, I see that I was honest enough to add “(not finished)” after three of them. I did get through Edgar Johnson’s memorable biography of Dickens, though, and Condition of England by Lincoln Allison, of which I remember nothing. But I’m sticking with fiction this month and re-reading Anne Tyler.

As noted in my previous entry, I “discovered” the US novelist Anne Tyler in 1982. I’d learned of her existence via a Radio 3 interview with her in September that year under the title ‘Convincing Lies’ (this detail via the BBC’s genome project, which gives you access to all old Radio Times listings: see http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/). What kind of a writer was she? I wondered – after all, the man interviewing her was David Wheeler, a former editor of Panorama, and obviously no ordinary litterateur. I began to find the answer in Westminster Libraries’ Little Portland Street branch (have I remembered that right? – it no longer exists), from where I borrowed Searching for Caleb, still to my mind one of her best.

I read two more of Anne Tyler’s novels in 1983 – her first, If Morning Ever Comes, and the more recently published Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My plan in July was to re-read If Morning … which AT published at the age of 22, and which I was sure was on our shelves. But it wasn’t, and neither was Dinner … Among the Tylers on our shelves, though, was her second novel, The Tin Can Tree, which – to my surprise – I don’t seem to have read before. So, breaking my own rule, that’s what I read (not re-read).

What did I think of this trip back to early Tyler? Well, it was clearly early – published over 50 years ago, when she was 24 – and maybe for that reason didn’t feel like a fully formed novel. True, it has similarities with later Tylers – odd, not-quite-functioning families, marginal characters turning out to be central, a sense of place, domestic day-to-day detail – but there seemed to be loose ends, explanations missing, odd changes in tone that I don’t recall in her later books. The later novels are almost all set in Baltimore and its suburbs (where AT has lived most of her life); but this one doesn’t stray from North Carolina, where she grew up, and is almost completely set in the fictional small town of Larksville and its surrounding tobacco fields. Just outside the town is a long “three-family house” where the central characters live: James, a local newspaper photographer, and his brother Ansel, who is an invalid (what’s wrong with him isn’t clear); the Pike family, who as the novel opens have just lost their six-year-old daughter Janie in a tractor accident; and two elderly sisters, Miss Faye and Miss Lucy. The only characters whose thoughts we are told about are James and the Pikes’ niece Joan, who is 26 and living with her aunt and uncle (are James and Joan in some sort of relationship? It seems so, but again we have to surmise …) The main thrust of the plot, such as it is, is about assorted people’s efforts to help Janie’s mother out of her grief, which has left her immobilised in her bedroom. The Pikes’ son Simon – a remarkably self-sufficient 10-year-old, of the kind that can be found elsewhere in AT novels – has a crucial role in all this.

I don’t really want to go on any more about The Tin Can Tree; summarising plots can be a boring task, and these blog entries are long enough already. But I’d just like to make a point about the way AT has been ‘marketed’ in the UK. When I first started looking for her novels in the 1980s, it seems to have been assumed that she was some kind of

Untitled‘woman’s writer’. Hence these shiny covers, which despite the quote from John Updike (lifted from his review of Searching for Caleb) have a ‘female romance’ aura. (Also, some of her early novels were read as serials on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.) Later her treatment by publishers seems to have got a little more upmarket. My UK hardback edition of A Patchwork Planet (1998), for instance, has quotes from Nick Hornby (“my favourite writer”) and Lynne Truss (“a brilliant writer of emotionally sophisticated novels”). It wasn’t that Tyler had changed; somehow the literary world had reconsidered. Virtually all her novels are now published in paperback by Vintage, so much “classier” than those old Hamlyns from the 1980s …

What else did I read in July? Well, I finished Trollope’s The Duke’s Children: not the best of his Palliser novels, but good enough. And in complete contrast, the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days: atmospheric, and well translated by Susan Bernofsky.


June 2017 re-reading: Christina Stead

In 1982 the number of books I read was a much more healthy 36, according to my records, 26 of which were novels. Quite a few of 1982’s books are worth re-reading – for instance Esther Waters (George Moore), poems by Tony Harrison, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But it also seems to have been a year when I went for some out-of-the-mainstream authors: James Hanley, Alexander Herzen and Christina Stead, for example (it was also the year I discovered Anne Tyler – I hope to return to her in a later blog entry). And it is to Stead that I’ve turned for this month’s re-reading.

In fact, I read three Christina Stead books in 1982: The Puzzleheaded Girl, The Man Who Loved Children and Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife). I’ve no idea why, to start with, I picked up The Puzzleheaded Girl from my local library; but soon after, I bought what is generally agreed to be her best novel, The Man Who Loved Children, and remember being stunned by it, reading it on holiday in West Cork.

Anyway, it’s The Puzzleheaded Girl I re-read this month. While the library copy I first read was a hardback – possibly the original 1967 edition – this time I had the later Virago edition, with an introduction by Angela Carter. The Puzzleheaded Girl is actually four novellas, all either set in the US or featuring Americans in Europe: it wasn’t until later that I realised that Stead wasn’t American herself but Australian, though she and her husband William Blake (described in one biographical summary as a “Marxist banker”, whatever that can mean) travelled widely in Europe and America. The first novella, which gives the collection its title, is perhaps the most memorable: the puzzleheaded girl in question, Honor Lawrence, appears on the first page “a young seventeen, perhaps, dressed like a poor schoolgirl” looking for work at the newly established Farmers Utilities Corporation in New York. She is indeed a puzzle for the men running this firm, and their wives, and that is emphasised by the way the story is told: we never really enter into any character’s thoughts, least of all Honor’s, and have to judge them by what (we are told) they say and do. This can be disconcerting: it’s as if Stead is not so much a novelist telling us readers what she has invented, but rather is working her way through the story with us, finding out about her characters just as we are. Towards the end of the novella’s 60-odd pages Honor apparently disappears for several years: sudden jumps in time seem typical of Stead.

I have to say I wasn’t so impressed by the second story, ‘The Dianas’, which is about Lydia, a young American girl in Paris apparently looking for a husband but unable to decide between various men. Eventually she returns to the US and gets married for no clear reason to “a stately young man of athletic build”. It’s not that I found Lydia unsympathetic (I’m not the kind of reader who needs to find at least one “likeable” character in a story); she was simply not interesting enough, and her conversation – there are pages of it – goes nowhere.

Lydia is linked in Angela Carter’s introduction with Linda, one of the women in the last story, ‘The Girl from the Beach’. Linda, “the child of that lost cause, the American left” (Carter’s words), is also adrift in Paris, but it is the journalist-cum-crimewriter George Paul who is the real centre of that novella. He’s there at the start, talking about himself, his ex-wives and current obsessions, and he’s still at it 100 pages (and several years) later. Stead doesn’t express any judgements – that’s not what she does – but it’s clear he’s irredeemably self-centred and won’t ever change.

Both ‘The Girl from the Beach’ and its predecessor, ‘The Rightangled Creek’ have a curious two-part structure. It’s signalled with two separate headings – “New York: Late Forties” and “Paris: Early Fifties” – in the case of ‘The Girl from the Beach’. With ‘The Rightangled Creek’, set in New Jersey “hill country”, we have only a year between its two halves, but the house that is the centre of the story seems to change. It is a retreat from New York and alcoholism for writer Laban Davies, his wife and precocious son in the first 30 or so pages; then it becomes a summer cottage for Sam Parsons and his wife. They learn from locals about the house’s owners, the Dilleys, and their mad daughter Hilda, which leads to suggestions of a haunting (or is it just mice in the walls? We can’t be sure). And then it rains so much that the house is inundated and the Parsonses have to leave. They come back, talk about turning the place into a writer’s refuge, but nothing seems to come of it. Typical, perhaps, of Stead’s waywardness is the way two brothers, Frederick and Walter Imber, turn up towards the end of the story, ostensibly to help dam the eponymous creek. They first appear on page 177; by page 179 one of them is dead, apparently through ignoring warnings about poison ivy. Yet of all four novellas, this is the story, with all its loose ends, that I remember most from my earlier reading and stays with me again.

Stead died in 1983, the year after I discovered her, and there is a copy of her Times obituary inside my paperback of The Man Who Loved Children. There the (anonymous) obituarist describes her as “one of the century’s outstanding novelists” but also reveals that she and her husband “settled down in a flat in Surbiton” in the 1950s, an unlikely location perhaps. (She returned to Australia in 1969 after Blake’s death.) Incidentally, don’t take my word for the excellence of The Man Who Loved Children: here’s Jonathan Franzen lavishing praise on the novel: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html)

Was this the best book I read in June? I think so. There was Sartre’s The Age of Reason, which took a while to get through, maybe because it suffered from a less than fluent English translation. By contrast to that very male-centred novel, Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes, short stories about girls growing up in Northern Ireland, were fluently written; and I was really impressed with The Immigration Handbook, a recent collection of poems by Caroline Smith. I’ve now gone back to the nineteenth century and have started reading another Trollope … while contemplating what to re-read in July.

May 2017 re-reading: Alan Brownjohn

The year in question this month is 1981 – the year I briefly assumed the role of strike leader* as well as letters editor (still), father-of-four, husband etc … But back to reading. There are only 18 entries in my “books read” tally for this particular year, making it one of the shortest lists (only 1997 has fewer, I think), though I see that I read two really big novels – Tom Jones and Bleak House – in 1981. But for my re-reading I’ve gone for a book of poetry: A Night in the Gazebo by Alan Brownjohn.

At least one volume of poetry has appeared in most years’ lists, but I may have missed out some of what I’ve bought or borrowed in the last 40 years. Perhaps because I’ve only half-read some of the poems therein, or not wholeheartedly liked them, I haven’t bothered to make a note of them. Alan Brownjohn is actually a case in point: I have two of his collections on my shelves – A Song of Good Life (1975) and The Old Flea-Pit (1987), neither of which feature on any year’s list, even though the first actually has an inscription on the title page that shows I went to poetry reading by him (“Signed for John with all good wishes – Alan Brownjohn, Walthamstow Central Library, 28th February 1979”). A Night in the Gazebo, though, must have been borrowed.

For this re-reading, I’ve read not only the book in question but also some poems in the other two mentioned, plus a later Brownjohn: Ludbrooke & Others (2010). Although not a Top Writer, AB is, I think, my kind of poet: observant, fond of expanding on the details of everyday life, occasional user of elaborate poetic forms, and not afraid of seeing the funny side of things. In A Night in the Gazebo there are some good examples: ‘A Bad Cat Poem’ is simply about a couple trying in vain to make their cat use a cat-flap; ‘Union Man’ is a poem in praise of a union official (“In a city where minds are slabbed with gold, / He builds a sheltering-wall of brick”); another poem is entitled ‘Art Deco Railway Advertisement’ and that’s what it’s about. Although some poems are dull or disappointing, I liked the collection’s final offering: ‘The Seventh Knight and the Green Cat’ (more cats!), a kind of alliterative parody of Gawain and the Green Knight. This shows, as well as Brownjohn’s sense of humour, his penchant for narrative – which also comes to the fore in his ‘Old Fox’ poems (two in this collection, another couple in A Song of Good Life) which feature a disreputable subverter of committee meetings and other conventions. Something of the same tone is to be found in his sequence of 60 poems, all 13 lines long, about ‘Ludbrooke’. This (fictional) character is an ageing and somewhat deluded figure trying to maintain his dignity while chafing at his lack of recognition for past achievements and his failures to attract younger women. Sample lines:

No one has phoned him for what seems several days.
Ludbrooke tries one-four-seven-one, the lonely man’s friend,
And confirms it, his last call was on the ninth… [‘His 1471’]


He does not concede that any quality
Essential if one wants to look civilised
Is actually beyond him. He expects
To be thought well-informed, open-minded, and controlled
In every sort of appetite … [‘His Excuse’]

Brownjohn is also, it should be noted, a London poet. I call in evidence ‘Reflections on Learning’ in A Song of Good Life, an elaborately rhymed poem about his schooldays in Hither Green; or ‘Waterloo Road’ in The Old Flea-Pit, which describes the road’s “rainy stretch up to the river / Past garage, café, theatre, a grey half-mile /Slowing down to a darkness under the railway / Where pedestrians cross it and not notice.” I like that sort of thing.

One further observation: Brownjohn – who is now 85 – seems to have been passed from publisher to publisher in his long career, rather in the manner of a not-quite-top-class utility midfielder moving regularly between football clubs. After Macmillan, Secker & Warburg and Hutchinson, he seems to have settled in at Enitharmon, whose print and paper quality are far superior to (for instance) Secker – their hardback copy of Song of Good Life has paper that has yellowed badly on my shelves. (Secker’s habit of starting a completely new poem two-thirds of the way down a page is irksome, too.)

I think I’ve gone on enough for this month, but more by Brownjohn can be found on the web, for instance at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/alan-brownjohn

As for other stuff I read in May, there were a couple of short story collections, very different in manner and subject matter: William Maxwell’s All the Days and Nights (American, suave and rather old-fashioned) and Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s There Once Was a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband … (Russian, bleak and blunt). Plus Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man and Going to the Dogs by Erich Kästner. A mixed bag there but, oddly, nothing set in Britain …



* I was father of the Radio Times NUJ chapel at a time when we had a dispute with BBC management – RT being part of BBC Publications in those days – and we had been ignored in a corporation-wide “regrading” exercise, seemingly denied the pay rise that other BBC journalists got. The strike lasted nearly a fortnight, and threatened to disrupt production of a special Royal Wedding issue. But it ended up being settled in talks at ACAS, where the NUJ side was led by John Foster and the late (and much missed) Vincent Hanna. I was, I felt, more a figurehead than a firebrand – most chapel members provided the impetus in picketing, leafleting and demonstrating, and I was more or less an onlooker at the negotiations.

April 2017 re-reading: Olivia Manning

So far my re-reading has confined itself to Dead White Males, so for the revisit to something from my 1980 ‘Books Read’ list I’ve found a Dead White Female: Olivia Manning, whose The Danger Tree I read towards the end of that year. (Incidentally, there are plenty of women writers in my list potentially to be re-read in the coming months, including some real favourites: Anne Tyler, Christina Stead, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Ellen Gilchrist …)

Why did I go for this book, presumably a library borrowing? The Danger Tree (published 1977) is the first of Manning’s so-called Levant Trilogy, three semi-autobiographical novels set during the Second World War. The final book in the trilogy, The Sum of Things, came out in 1980, soon after her death. So I suppose obituaries or reviews had alerted me to Manning’s work; and I have a vague memory of someone asserting at the time that her descriptions of battle in the Egyptian desert had a remarkable authenticity, given that she could not have experienced anything like that herself. Certainly these passages, which centre around Simon Boulderstone, a junior officer newly arrived in Egypt in 1941, read quite vividly – the boredom as well as the danger of desert warfare are convincingly depicted. Briefly at the beginning of the novel Simon meets Harriet Pringle, and it is the story of her uncertain acclimatisation to Cairo, and her relationships with her husband Guy, local Egyptians and various other British and American hangers-on, that takes up more than half of the novel. It’s all written as a conventional third-person narrative: the only characters whose thoughts we are aware of are Simon, Harriet and (briefly) Guy: everyone else is observed from outside, as it were.

The problem with this novel is that although it is the first of a trilogy, it is itself a sequel to Manning’s earlier ‘Balkan Trilogy’ (The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes) which begins in 1939 and follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet in Romania and then, fleeing the German war machine, Athens. So the new reader – as I was – is given only perfunctory introductions to characters from the earlier novels. What was Dobson doing before he reached Egypt? What’s the significance of Lord Pinkrose? We’re apparently expected to remember them from reading the earlier novels. At least Simon is a new character, is given a fair amount of background and so feels more fully realised. I suppose that is the reason my memories of the book are of the desert soldiering passages rather than anything else.

My novel reading seems to be full of sequences, I have to admit: I’ve read all 12 of Antony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ novels, and most of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories; Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens tetralogy. The constituent parts of the last two I got through in quick succession, but Powell’s sequence took me from 1977 to 2012, and reading O’Brian has taken me from 1995 to 2010. Oh, and there’s Trollope’s Barchester novels, consumed between 2012 and 2014. Why this sequence-reading habit? Obviously it’s because one has enjoyed X that one turns to X’s sequel(s), and I suppose there’s a feeling that there are loose ends, narratively speaking, that might be resolved in its successor. But even in a sequence it should be possible to read each novel as a stand-alone piece of literature. I think this is the case with Trollope; I’m not so sure with Powell, and I might try reading an O’Brian novel from the middle of his series to see if it ‘works’ on its own. With Olivia Manning, however, I’m sceptical: I note that in 1980 I wasn’t tempted to continue from The Danger Tree to the next novel, and I’m not sure I want to carry on now, either. (Too many other books waiting to be read.) While quite readable, Manning’s style is a bit flat-footed at times, and her attempts at atmospheric description can read awkwardly: “The evening star appeared as if from nowhere, radiating long rays of white light, and the coloured electric bulbs were lit among the creepers …”

What I haven’t got round to mentioning yet is that the whole thing – the two trilogies (hexalogy?) – became The Fortunes of War, a seven-part serial for BBC1 starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, transmitted in 1987. I notice that in that same year I read all three of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy novels: I was still working at Radio Times and although I remember we put the serial on the cover when it started have no memory of what the accompanying feature consisted of. Did we interview the star actors? The adapter, Alan Plater (who, I note, had done a TV version of Trollope’s Barchester novels a few years previously and was to write Channel 4’s A Very British Coup the following year)? Or was it one of those features that looked into the original books behind the adaptation? Although Olivia Manning was dead, her widower, Reggie Smith, a former BBC radio producer, was still alive, so he may have had a role to play. Anyway, the serial seems to have been well received and to have boosted Manning’s reputation. Most of it can now be found on YouTube: as well as Thompson and Branagh, it featured Rupert Graves (as Simon Boulderstone), Robert Stephens and Alan Bennett.

As for my other April reading, I managed to read two other novels by women: Edna O’Brien’s The Red Chairs (ambitious but slightly disappointing) and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (recommended). Also three (translated) novellas by Patrick Modiano, a writer I’d like to return to some time.


March 2017 re-reading:
W.N.P. Barbellion

In 1979, the year Clever Daughter Number 2 was born, I read (according to my records) 30 books, 18 of which were novels (or 19 if you count Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia). But for my re-reading in March I went for non-fiction: The Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.

I remember buying this (see pic above) in the Oxfam shop opposite where I was then working, in Marylebone High Street.* What did I know of this writer? Very little, but I may have recalled some lines from the poet Christopher Middleton (it’s from number 3 of his “Five Psalms of Common Man”, reprinted in Penguin Modern Poets 4 (1963)):

W.N.P. Barbellion (pseudonymous)
March 1915
sees ‘on top of an empty omnibus
a little heap of dirty used-up bus tickets
collected by chance in the corner’

felt sick
the number of persons
the number of miles
the number of buses …

Barbellion is indeed a pseudonym: his real name was Bruce Frederick Cummings, and he lived from 1889 to 1919, suffering in his later years from what was then known as “disseminated sclerosis” (MS in modern parlance). He grew up in north Devon and kept diaries from an early age, initially recording his boyish enthusiasms for nature, from collecting birds’ eggs to examining insects and small marine creatures under a microscope. Soon he widened his diary entries to include reflections on his own life, his adolescent yearnings and frustrations and, later, his physical decline: the published journal was, his brother A.J. Cummings stated, just “a carefully selected series of extracts from twenty post-quarto volumes of manuscript” (I wonder if the whole thing survives anywhere). Despite a lack of formal scientific education and being initially obliged to follow his father into local newspaper journalism, Barbellion/Cummings was invited to apply for a vacancy at the British Museum of Natural History (what we now call the Natural History Museum, in Kensington) and moved to London at the beginning of 1912. Soon after this he seems to have started thinking about publishing a selection of what he had written and was continuing to write. He had had little luck getting his essays, on natural history and literature, placed in the magazines of the time, but eventually he got Chatto & Windus interested in the project; they published The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which runs from 1903 to October 1917, just a few months before he died.

So did I enjoy re-reading the Journal? This time I had the advantage of the 1984 Hogarth Press edition that, unlike that old Penguin, included Barbellion’s posthumously published Last Diary. Well, yes, I was hooked again; though there are overblown introspective passages, one can skip them (published diaries, after all, can be just dipped into). The diary is divided into three parts – the second and third parts are labelled “In London” (from 1912) and “Marriage” (from September 1915) – and it is the London passages, where Barbellion observes street life, writes about his museum work or embarks on tentative love affairs, that are the most interesting. Thomas Mallon, in his A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries (1984) says that “there is no room in Barbellion’s world for anyone but himself”, but I disagree. I could quote extensively, but here are just three passages:

In Aldgate, stopped to inspect a street stall containing popular literature – one brochure entitled Suspended for Life to indicate the terrible punishment meted out to – a League footballer. Another stall held domestic utensils with an intimation, ‘Anything on this stall lent for 1d’. [24 October 1914]

After four months’ sick leave, returned to work and London … On the Underground, I was delighted with the smooth, quiet way with which the ‘Metro’ trains glide into the Station. I had quite forgotten this. Then, when my hand began to get better … I re-enjoyed the child’s satisfaction in coaxing a button to slip into its hole: all grown-up people have forgotten how difficult and complex such operations are. [2 Feb 1917]

And this (which would merit inclusion in any anthology of literary allusions to breastfeeding):

On a ’bus the other day a woman with a baby sat opposite, the baby bawled and the woman at once began to unlace herself, exposing a large, red udder, which she swung into the baby’s face. The infant, however, continued to cry and the woman said –
‘Come on, there’s a good boy – if you don’t, I shall give it to the gentleman opposite’
Do I look ill-nourished?  [7 August 1915]

It also caught my interest that in 1916 he wrote that “my gorge rises at those fatuous journalists continually prating about this ‘Greatest War of all time’ … We ought to hush it up, not brag about it”. And that in 1919, in his Last Diary, Barbellion noted that he was reading serialised extracts from Ulysses, “an interesting development”, but that “of course, the novelists are behind the naturalists in the recording of minutiae”.

Incidentally the quote that Christopher Middleton adapted doesn’t come from the published journals; rather it’s to be found in Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, another posthumous publication which collected some of Barbellion’s “scientific” essays as well as further essayistic diary entries omitted from the Disappointed Man journal. Some time after 1979 I managed to find a copy of that book too, in another second-hand-book shop trawl, I’m not sure when.

As for Barbellion’s aforementioned brother, A.J. Cummings, he had a distinguished journalistic career, ending as the political editor of the News Chronicle, by virtue of which he got an obituary in the New York Times (6 July 1957 if you want to look it up) and fathered the cartoonist Michael Cummings.

Meanwhile, in today’s infosphere, there are two Twitter accounts that occasionally tweet extracts from Barbellion’s journals: @wnpb and @WNP_Barbellion (“A Disappointed Man”), And a recent posting on the MS Trust website discusses Barbellion’s “literary classic” from the point of view of a present-day person with MS: https://www.mstrust.org.uk/news/views-and-comments/diarist-who-made-a-literary-classic-his-life-ms. Worth reading.

In March I also read: The Infatuations by Javier Marias (not an easy read, but it has stayed with me) and two US novels: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (good) and Noah Hawley’s The Good Father (a journalistic page-turner – which is not a bad thing, of course)


*By 1979 I had been letters editor of Radio Times for a couple of years – the nicest job I’ve had. For anyone interested, here’s a sample of the kind of pages I was responsible for, in those days:


February 2017 re-reading: Mark Rutherford

And so to 1978 – the year Leyton Orient reached the FA Cup semi-finals, I learned to swim as a 30-something adult (for which I will be eternally grateful to Waltham Forest baths) and the Callaghan government limped on. According to my records, I read 35 books, 23 of them novels or short-story collections (including an unfinished Mill on the Floss) that year. Which to re-read?

I have gone for something obscure that still sits on our bookshelves: The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford. An old hardback that I remember buying, one lunchtime, in a second-hand-book shop in Bell Street (Marylebone). Why did I buy it? I suppose I must have had some idea that despite his obscurity Mark Rutherford was a serious writer – perhaps thanks to George Orwell. There are a couple of substantial references to MR in Orwell’s four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, parts of which I had read in the early 70s. In an essay on Gissing (1948) Orwell claims Rutherford is the “English writer nearest to Gissing”, although he was “less definitely a novelist [and] wrote much better prose”.  He thought the two writers had “a sort of haunting resemblance, probably explained by the fact that both men lack that curse of English writers, ‘a sense of humour’” and that what they had in common was “a certain low-spiritedness, and air of loneliness”.

Certainly there is an air of loneliness, and no humour to speak of in The Autobiography. What there is in its 139 pages is a lot of introspection, a lot of agonising about nonconformist versions of Christianity … and very little plot. Which is, to summarise: middle-aged man looks back looks back on his “weaknesses and failures”, from growing up in a Calvinistic Independent household in the East Midlands, his attendance as a student at a “Dissenting College”, and then his career as a preacher, first with “Independent” nonconformists, then Unitarians. His gradual loss of faith in any organised form of religion leads him to give up this life and move to London, where he rejects a teaching job and finds work as a clerk with a publisher. Among the characters that cross his path are the “strictly proper” draper Mr Snale, a deacon at MR’s first chapel; Mardon, a local newspaper compositor who is sceptical about religion, and his devoted daughter Mary; and a butterfly collector who has no name but inspires MR with his enthusiasm.

But before I go any further, I’d better introduce some salient facts for the uninformed. As I learned after my first reading, “Mark Rutherford” is a pseudonym for the Bedford-born William Hale White (1831–1913), who wrote five novels late in his life, beginning with The Autobiography (1881) and its immediate successor, Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (“one of the best novels in English” according to Orwell): both of these purport to be “edited by his [Mark Rutherford’s] friend, Reuben Shapcott” – a distancing effect that was maintained in his subsequent books. In the voice of Shapcott an introduction claims that “Rutherford, at any rate in his earlier life, was an example of the danger and folly of cultivating thoughts and reading books to which he was not equal”. An awkward don’t-trust-this-writer message to wrong-foot the reader

In reality Hale White did attend a “dissenting college”, but was expelled for his unconventional views, and the publisher Wollaston who appears in the Autobiography’s last chapter is apparently based on the radical publisher John Chapman; his niece “Theresa” is similarly a version of Mary Anne Evans (in other words, George Eliot), whom the author met before she was well known. Hale White spent most of his working life as a clerk at the Admiralty, supplementing his income with journalism: his career as a novelist did not begin until he was 50. He also translated (and must have been influenced by) Spinoza.

What was/is the appeal of Mark Rutherford? His concerns seem much more remote from our present day than other writers of the 1880s such as Hardy, Trollope or Robert Louis Stevenson (OK, Trollope died in 1882, but the other two were flourishing right through the decade). His plain prose has a kind of earnestness that is attractive, though; and the fact that it throws a light on a way of life and thinking which despite everything still pervades our mental and physical landscapes (think of all the used and disused nonconformist chapels here in South Wales) makes him worth reading. The only similar work I can think of is Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), a memoir about growing up among Plymouth Brethren.

I was also interested to find an unexpected consonance between MR and another book I’ve been reading recently: Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, about Sartre, de Beauvoir and their influences. Here’s Mark Rutherford:

As I got older I became aware of the folly of this perpetual reaching after the future, and of drawing from to-morrow, and from to-morrow only, a reason for the joyfulness of to-day. I learned when, alas! it was almost too late, to live in each moment as it passed over my head, believing that the sun as it is now rising is as good as it will ever be, and blinding myself as much as possible to what may follow. But when I was young I was the victim of that illusion … which causes us, on the brightest morning in June, to think immediately of a brighter morning which is to come in July.

Now Sarah Bakewell, on phenomenology:

The point is to keep coming back to the ‘things themselves’ – phenomena stripped of their conceptual baggage … it is a liberating task: it gives us back the world we live in. It works most effectively on the things we may not usually think of as material for philosophy: a drink, a melancholy song, a drive, a sunset, an ill-at-ease moment, a box of photographs, a moment of boredom. It restores this personal world in its richness …

Or her observation that phenomenologists and existentialists

set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology … or any of the other -isms and disciplines that explain our lives away.

Also interesting in my edition of The Autobiography was the previous owner’s (or owners’) annotations. He/she/they obviously took Mark Rutherford very seriously, underlining in the margin passages such as “Those who have sobbed together over a dead friend, who have held one another’s hand in that dread hour, feel a bond of sympathy, pure and sacred, which nothing can dissolve”. Or this: “Passion may burn like a devouring flame; and in a few moments, like flame, may bring down a temple to dust and ashes, but it as earnest as flame, and essentially pure.” How did that chime with their own experiences?

Before I finish, it’s worth noting that if you type “Mark Rutherford” into a search engine you’ll discover there’s now a Mark Rutherford school in his birthplace of Bedford: among the school’s alumni is the now US-based comedian John Oliver. Do they ever read the works of MR there? There is also a small but enthusiastic Mark Rutherford Society, I gather, to be found at http://www.davidfrench.org.uk/markrutherford/mrsociety.htm. May they flourish.

As for my other reading in February, another not-quite-novel I enjoyed this month was Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, which might more properly be called a “biographical fantasia” based on the facts of Shostakovich’s life. I liked it a lot – Barnes’s output, whether fictional or journalistic, is generally worth making time for. I also enjoyed a short story in the New Yorker: ‘The Prairie Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld. However, another much-praised recent novel borrowed from the local library was a disappointment. I won’t name it.

January 2017 re-reading: Cakes and Ale

My list of “books read” from 1977 is quite an impressive one: it starts with Anna Karenina and ends with Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time, it includes The Mayor of Casterbridge, Gulliver’s Travels and several volumes of poetry. The writer who gets the most mentions, though, is Anthony Powell: I started what was to be a long journey through his 12-volume sequence by reading the first three – A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market and The Acceptance World – in 1977. But I’ve chosen something else to return to: Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. This seems to be for two reasons: (1) I can hardly remember anything about it, and (2) it’s still there on my bookshelves (A lot of what I read back then came from either Westminster or Waltham Forest libraries: this was an old second-hand paperback, bought I don’t know where).

So what did I think of it? Perhaps I shouldn’t have first read Maugham’s introduction (presumably added for the Penguin edition, first published in 1948) where he denies the accusation levelled at him that his novel was based on the life of Thomas Hardy, and specifically the behaviour of his second wife in protecting his reputation (Hardy died in 1928, survived by a second wife who had been his secretary, and Maugham’s novel came out two years later). Well, it’s true that Cakes and Ale is all about a dead author’s reputation, and the suppression of uncomfortable facts that accompanies the writing of that author’s biography. But Rosie, the first wife of the fictional author Edward Driffield, is nothing like Hardy’s Emma; Driffield’s novels, from the vague outlines we are given, don’t sound much like Hardy’s; and apart from London the setting is a thinly-disguised Whitstable rather than Wessex.

Actually, the best things about Cakes and Ale are, I think, (1) the observations about class distinctions in the first half of the book, where the narrator looks back on his adolescence in “Blackstable” and Driffield’s ambiguous status vis-à-vis his (Maugham’s alter ego’s) higher position as the vicar’s nephew; and (2) the inside view of literary London of the 1920s and an earlier (undated) period, which is presumably around the same time as Maugham’s early literary career – his first book came out in 1897. In fact, the first chapter, which is all about man-of-letters “Alroy Kear” and his collaboration with Driffield’s widow to write a biography, made me wonder if Kear was to be the central figure. He seems to be more definitely realised than Driffield is, and seems to have more pages devoted to him than anyone else. Meanwhile Rosie, Driffield’s cheerfully promiscuous first wife, becomes more and more central as the novel goes on – at the same time as she becomes less a real-life woman and more a typical fantasy figure, especially when she takes her clothes off (“her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love.” Really).

Here I am going to quote from a contemporary review (not something I think I will do much) by Arnold Bennett, who was seven years Maugham’s senior. In the last few years of his life Bennett wrote a weekly column for the Evening Standard – it came about because of Bennett’s friendship with Lord Beaverbrook – and his review of Cakes and Ale was written just a few months before he died.

“In principle I am against authors as protagonists in a novel,” Bennett writes; but Maugham has “seen and avoided” the danger of over-stressing the “literary side of these fellows”: “To the general public novelists are, rightly, more interesting … as husbands, lovers, and ingenious exploiters of their own talents” (as is perhaps even more the case in the 21st century). For Bennett, Cakes and Ale’s portrait of Alroy Kear is “delicious” and “will intimately amuse and exasperate the ten million [sic] authors of Great Britain”. Bennett also notes that the novel is “oddly constructed … [in that] Maugham jumps to and fro between ‘present day’ and thirty years ago”; but the best point made in the review is that the book “stops too soon. We do not learn what kind of a sticky mess [Alroy Kear] made of the biography of Driffield nor what were his methods of preparing the book-market for it.” Well said, Arnold.

Final (for now) confession: I am a member of the Arnold Bennett Society (www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk), which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth this year, so I will probably return to Bennett if this blog continues … There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent Somerset Maugham Society. I wonder why not?