Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Weird and Wonderful 'World of Interiors'

What's in, what's out
Today I will continue with the deconstruction, or detailed examination, of the colossal 437-page Oct 2016 issue of 'World of Interiors'. The first thing to note is that the editor's partner is Alan Bennett.  This means that some of the captions and turns of phrase in the text are suspiciously playful, in the manner of Bennett. There are puns and mischievous allusions, literary devices not found in - for example - House and Garden.

The October 2016 issue opens with a double-page spread advertising Ralph Lauren's home fabrics and wallcoverings, all shades of grey in a grey stone building with a 'distressed' wooden floor. So  far, so conventional. The reader gets a real shock on the next two pages, where a dishevelled androgynous figure  dressed in baggy clothes like a clown, stares out vacantly opposite a page featuring a block of rushes topped with what looks a bit like a black bin bag with handles.  The advertiser is Celine.

The next few pages are similarly portentous, evoking in the sceptical reader a bark of disbelieving laughter. Another purveyor of handbags, for example, chooses a closeup black and white photograph of an open mouth, dispaying a few uneven teeth, tongue  and lip curled back in a snarl.

The first sly Bennettism we encounter is in the caption on the Contents page : 'To witness her (an interior decorator) palette's impact, head gingerly to page 378'.  Further, we find 'Tables to dine for' 'Lights fantastic' 'It's a stick up job' (about wall paper); 'he's reinvented the wheel (of a potter) - and so on.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

World of Interiors

A pink library in Wiltshire, World of Interiors cover,  October 2016

The October 2016 edition of World of Interiors magazine is worth looking at carefully, all 437 pages of it.  On page 393 there is a floor mat in Henry 'Tarka the Otter' Williamson's writing shed, made from an old sack bearing the place name 'Stiffkey'.  Not everyone knows that this is pronounced 'Stewkey'.  I do, simply because I did a story for the Sunday Times in 1969 about an eccentric vicar from Stiffkey who ended up as an end-of-the-pier attraction.  More tomorrow.
'Light on Dumyat'
This is the children's book I have been asked to review for 'The Bottle Imp', organ of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.  It is a new edition, a paperback from  Rowan Tree Publishing, of a book first published in 1982 by The Saint Andrew Press.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

St George's school, Clarens, Switzerland

St George's school, Clarens, Switzerland
Here's where I was at school 1958-60.  The school is celebrating its 90th anniversary next year, and I am discussing with the organisers doing a book. The school is now co-ed, but back when I was there, it was  a school just for girls.  Like now, there were 40 nationalities.  We spoke French and English on alternate weeks.  What has become of us all, I wonder? If I decide to do a book, I will find out.

There is a thorough exploration see of the 'Chalet School' series of books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.  My thought is that, by following the fate of some of my contemporaries, a light can be thrown on a more general experience of change.

Friday, 26 August 2016

A ship with no name
Ulysses' boat (pictured) had no name, but Jason's was called the Argo.  Jason's pursuit of the Golden Fleece - gold -  is the link with yesterday's post. I have volunteered to review a children's book for The Bottle Imp, the organ of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, named after a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

How we live, yesterday and today

Reading The Golden Bough, as Gerald Brenan did when he was living in an isolated and backward village in the south of Spain, serves to remind us that there is nowt as queer as folk.  The current stramash about 'burkinis' is best viewed from the perspective of anthropology.  Tribes delineate themselves in various ways, including prohibitions and prescriptions regarding behaviour and dress.  There is a strictly-policed code, for instance, for dress at the race meeting at Ascot attended by the Queen. What we see going on in France seems to me more a case of confused identity and a clash of cultures rather than a question of 'rights' - religious or otherwise.  Is there a passage in the Koran that suggests that covering all or part of oneself up if you are a woman is a prequisite of piety? I suspect it is more to do with nationality and custom.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

South from Granada

South from Granada
I had never read the classic: 'South from Granda' by Gerald Brenan until now.  Brenan settled in a small village on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains overlooking the Mediterranean above Almeria after WWI. My Kindle edition has a 21 st century introduction by Chris Stewart, who himself lives in a similar village now and wrote about his experience in his excellent  'Driving Over Lemons'. Brenan's observations of village life, customs and beliefs are punctuated by his accounts of visits from various members of the Bloomsbury Group, hilariously disastrous in the case of Lytton Strachey; more successful in the case of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
I am alternating 'South from Granda' with 'Eastern Approaches' by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, a more logical follow-up to 'Persia and the Great Game'. Fitzroy was having supper in our kitchen one evening with my stepson and an Iranian friend from school, when my stepson's friend suddenly exclaimed in a perfectly friendly manner that he realised that Fitzroy had kidnapped his uncle at pistol point at some point in their (Fitzroy and the uncle's) careers.
I wanted to read Russian with Spanish at university, but it turned out at that time that one could only read either language with another such as French, not as a pair.  This was disappointing.  I saw Spain and Russia as having quite a few general similarities: both, for example, having been invaded by Islamic powers at one time, and being both situated geographically on the fringes of Europe.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Bolter

I loaned my copy of 'The  Bolter' by Frances Osborne yesterday to a friend of the author's (George Osborne's wife) who I found myself sitting next to at a lunch in  Lochmaben. I have had this book for some time, and had re - read it on Saturday, unable to put it down. I had taken it to the lunch, a fund-raiser for Moffat Russian Conferences, to remind me to mention the number of Old Etonians who were attracted to Communism in the 1930's, repelled by their parents' and parents' friends' sense of entitlement and promiscuity. The protagonist of 'The Bolter' (the real life model for Nancy Mitford's character in her novel 'The Pursuit of Love') was Frances Osborne's great-grandmother Ida, whose son David became a member of the Communist party.
I very strongly recommend this book: it is well-written and gut-wrenchingly sad without being a 'misery memoir'.
The Bolter, Lady Idina.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

With a bowstring, in the shrubbery?
I owe my readers an apology.  The Persian manservant was not strictly a manservant, and he was not strangled with piano wire before being buried in the garden at Buckingham Palace. The unfortunate murder victim was a 'favourite' of the Shah, who displeased him in some way while they were staying at Buckingham Palace in 1889 and was garrotted with a bowstring.  Of course!  What on earth would a Persian nobleman be doing with piano wire?

The footnote reads: 'His corpse is said to be still buried in the palace garden.  See Ralph Nevill, Unconventional Memoirs (London, 1923).
The site of a possible 19th century Persian corpse

I ran out of steam with Persia, The Great Game and Sir Percy Sykes. Two bits of information stay in my mind: one is that polo is a Tibetan word meaning a ball made from willow; the other, that there may be the corpse of a Persian servant strangled by his employer with piano wire buried in the garden of Buckingham Palace.  As it happens, I have been a guest there and, had I known of this fascinating possibility I would have asked my hosts if they were aware of it.  I was there as a member of the London branch of the Royal Forestry Society, with a handful of others. We were admitted at a side entrance, expecting to have a guided tour of the trees in the garden.  We were milling about on the lawn, when we saw the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh coming down the steps.  We were invited in for a drink and some twiglets.  Extraordinary.  It may be that meeting the Queen had been anticipated by the organisers, but, if so, we ordinary members had not been warned.  It was in the days of the IRA and Lord O'Neill was among our number, so perhaps that was the reason.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Persia in the Great Game - Sir Percy Sykes: Explorer, Consul, Soldier, Spy

This book comes highly recommended, both to students of that part of the world (Iran aka Persia) and connoisseurs of lively narrative.  All persons named Sykes, according to the author, Antony Wynn,  originate from one forebear in Yorkshire.  Now read on...

Wednesday, 17 August 2016


A literary agent friend staying in Moffat for the Edinburgh Book Festival represents Rachel Bridge, who was a columnist for The Times and wrote a book called 'How To Make a Million Before Breakfast', a catchy title you must admit.  She also does motivational speaking at conferences,  and is trying her luck in Edijburgh this year - see the flyer.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Back from holiday reading

Nature's Engraver - the Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow

On the train back to Moffat yesterday, I enjoyed reading 'Nature's Engraver - the Life of Thomas Bewick' by Jenny Uglow see also

It may be of interest to students of Virgin Trains that the 16.30pm from London Euston to Glasgow Central broke down at Preston, so all of us who were going to points north transfered to the 17.15 which came in on an adjoining platform.  Luckily, the 16.30 was not at all busy, so there was plenty of room for us all to sit down.

I have contacted Virgin to congratulate two of their staff who helped me in different ways yesterday. I had put my one £1 coin into a trolley stack to get a trolley, which turned out to be unuseable because one front wheel wasn't working.  By the time I realised it was hopeless, I had wrestled it some distance from its rack, half way up a ramp leading into the station. Just then, two men who struck me as possibly connected with the railway, walked nearby and I called out to ask if that was the case. After a slight hesitation, one of them said yes, he was to do with the railway. He very kindly took the dud trolley and retrieved my £1 coin, and pointed out that there was another rack of trolleys just ahead of me, inside the entrance way to the station.

A little later, I was making my way to my train when I saw my Good Samaritan again: he was the driver of the train!

The second episode was on board the train, when I discovered that my iPad upon which I had been depending on to read the aforementioned Life of Thomas Bewick appeared to have died.  It had worked perfectly well earlier in the day, but now the screen remained stubbornly black.  When the trolley came round, and I had got some stuff for tea, the woman wheeling the trolley said would I like anything else? I replied that I needed someone to fix my iPad.  She said 'John might be able to help', nodding at her fellow team member (with Virgin, it's all about teamwork) at the front end of the trolley. He took my iPad and in a second had it working again.  He explained that sometimes to reset an iPad it is not enough to press the silver bar on the side, you have to press it and the round button on one side of the screen simultaneously.  Wow!!! What service!  And then the train broke down, but never mind, I am getting a refund.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Holiday Reading

Holiday Reading

Highly recommended

I took all (12) of James Lees-Milne's published diaries, dating from 1941 to 1997, to read on holiday. I finished the last volume a day or two early, so looked on the shelves of our rented house in SW France and found 'The 8.55 to Baghdad' by Andrew Eames, which I highly recommend.  Eames's ostensible theme is to retrace Agatha Christie's journey by train across Europe to the Middle East after the failure of her first marriage.  He is a great stylist and observer and - as he now says - much of what he saw has now sadly been destroyed by the civil war in Syria.

Friday, 5 August 2016

As I was saying...(not that long ago):
We are looking forward to our 5th Moffat Russian Conference 21-23 Oct, in which connection I have just circulated the following encyclical

Hello All
There is apparently a debate going on in the UK press (I am on holiday in France) about a push by the Putin government by fair means or foul to use 'soft power' - ie culture - to influence the British public. Moffat Russian Conferences is by definition (our partners are State institutions) implicated in this debate. 
All I can say is: use your common sense and general reading not to fall into  time-honoured traps such as accepting freebies or indulging in sexual liaisons which render you vulnerable to coercion.
A more subtle form of  persuasion we must be aware of, not least because it has already occurred, is the appeal not to upset the apple cart by (eg) mentioning Stalin in a pejorative way, thereby exposing our partners to criticism that they are being disloyal.
Alexander Etkind , who I hope will attend, deals with the Russian failure to come to terms with the savage realities of a Soviet regime where everyone informed on everyone else. It cannot be said often enough how utterly incomprehensible to us this experience is, leading I hope to a certain amount of humility on our part. Citing the experience of counter-cultural figures such as Ian Hamilton Finlay or Hugh Macdairmid in the same breath as our five Russian poets in this respect is not just ridiculous, it is deplorable.
Soviet visitors would whisper to us on walks in the park 'Don't let it happen here'.