The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.

Thomas More’s Utopia

I’ll refer to it as Thomas More’s Utopia because, despite the modern meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be for everyone. For a start, they have slavery. However, given it was written in the 16th century there’s still a lot in there to learn from, and if you replace the word ‘prince’ with ‘prime minister’ I would endorse a big chunk of his advice to anyone ruling a nation (Messrs Cameron and Osborne, please take note. Or perhaps someone could give Ed Miliband a copy).

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s couched as a conversation taking place between More and a well-traveled man who has found through vast experience that the most contented and best-governed nation in the world is the (fictional) nation of Utopia. He then explains to More and his friend why it is that Utopia is so great, and how it differs from England or other European nations of the time. This includes its justice system, foreign policy and welfare system, parts of which are now in place, parts sound ludicrously old-fashioned, and most of it I’m sure would have been thought mad (or subversive, or both) in the 19th century, let alone the 16th.

I believe it may have been written in Latin, so possibly depends on the English edition you get hold of, but I found it surprisingly easy to read, of great historical interest, and it shone a light on the great constants of socialist thought (for Utopia is a recognisably socialist nation, for all its oddities of antiquity).

Utopia is a book I vaguely intended to read in my late teens, but put off by the idea that it might be hard to read because of its age, and potentially long and dry (it turned out to be neither), I never got round to it. Being of Yorkshire birth and ancestry, naturally the prospect of free e-books piqued my interest so when I did get my e-reader a couple of months ago, I went straight to the online repositories of out of copyright books. A combination of resurgent interest thanks to Jonathan Rose’s book (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), and the ease of carrying several long books at once, plus a novel for light relief, means that I’ve been reading all sorts of books I never quite got round to at nineteen, as well as ones that weren’t on my radar back then. I’ve particularly been enjoying John Ruskin lately, and for that alone I salute the rise (but never the domination) of the e-reader.

The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I hadn’t heard much about this novel before I read it, but I kept seeing it in charity shops and the library and eventually I read the back because it had an intriguing title, and it sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy. A historical fantasy novel in which Yorkshire is a key place, and one of the two characters named in the title is a Yorkshireman. Excellent.

English Magic is in a bad way. There are no practical magicians any more, and the Golden Age is long over. Mr Norrell strongly feels it’s time for a revival, but only if it’s done properly. Which is to say, by him. As a curmudgeonly old Yorkshire recluse, he doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a trip to London to interest the government in English Magic. Magicians are not quite respectable, so society feels. However, he must try, and when he gets himself a pupil in the form of handsome young Jonathan Strange, the fate of English Magic looks much rosier than it has in a long time. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and by drawing attention to themselves Strange and Norrell evoke the envy and enmity of some powerful people.

I almost feel bad for saying anything negative about this book; the plot is entertaining and at times tense, the characters are well-drawn and the era is vividly evoked, not least by the writing style. The length, however… Well, the length in itself isn’t a problem (about a thousand pages in the paperback edition I bought), I have books that are as long or longer by Tad Williams and Stephen King. It could be the apparent lack of activity for long periods, but then I enjoyed Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past which is a longer book in which less dramatic things happen at less frequent intervals. I think in my view the very thing that makes the novel so unique has brought about its downfall.

The book is set in the early years of the 19th century, in fact the Napoleonic Wars feature prominently during one part of the book. The author has therefore taken the (at first glance brilliant) decision to write in the style of a Georgian or early Victorian popular novel; the spellings sometimes look odd (chuse, shew rather than choose or show) and the long-winded style with asides into gentle social satire or an examination of manners reminded me a little of Anthony Trollope (which, as regular readers will know, I intend as high praise). However, when it comes down to it this is a fantasy novel, a novel in which the stakes are lives and kingdoms and ways of life, not who will marry whom and when. While it was amusing to read of magic in England in such a commonplace manner, and much as I enjoyed the reply to a question on whether a magician could kill someone by magic (‘I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could’), ultimately I found it was too laid-back a style for what was happening.

A magician achieves something not achieved for hundreds of years, he’s alone and it’s dangerous, but because of the style this feat is described almost as though he’s dressing for dinner, and there is never any insight into whether he was afraid or what the consequences might have been. His wife does make him promise not to try it again for a while, but there’s no sense of her being terrified of what might happen. The asides and the scene-setting (amusing dialogues at society parties or in Cabinet meetings, for instance) do help place the story in time, but tension that has built up dissipates during these sections and I’d almost forgotten what jeopardy a character was in the last time we saw him, by the time he turns up again some chapters later in different circumstances.

OneMonkey started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but gave up after about 300 pages. He said he kept thinking something was about to happen, then it didn’t, and in the end he grew tired of the anticlimax. I persevered to the end of the novel because I wanted to know what happened to the characters (who I had been made to care about), and I was impressed by what had been attempted with the book (the setting and the style), but I confess I wasn’t racing through chapters in a dash to the end, in fact it took me longer to read than any novel has for many years. In short, I want to recommend this book for so many reasons, but I’m reluctant because 9 out of 10 of you will resent me for wasting weeks of your time.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Thanks to friend T, I’ve read another Kate Atkinson book recently, and enjoyed it every bit as much as Behind the Scenes at the Museum; Human Croquet may even be better. Like Behind the Scenes at the Museum it’s a well-crafted story of Northern dysfunctional families, with a mystery at its heart and suffused with dark humour, but it has a fairytale feel to it (and in a sense, it is – you’re left at the end with a version of events but no telling whether it’s ‘true’ or not).

The novel is narrated by 16 year old Isobel Fairfax.  The Fairfaxes had money, once, just as Isobel and her older brother Charles had a mother. Legends have grown up around the loss of both. As with Behind the Scenes…, there are historical chapters filling in backstory and giving clues to later situations and behaviour, emphasising the patterns and repetitions in families and communities.

At the same time, it’s a story about a teenage girl in 1960 – concerned about boys, parties, and Biology O-level, while her friend Carmen is the same age but already engaged and working at a cheese counter in a department store. Wryly observed domestic disharmony and eternal hormonal truths blend well.

There is a revelation towards the end that might leave some readers feeling cheated or misled. However, if you’re prepared to shelve your desire for solid facts and stability in a story, Human Croquet is well worth a read.

Cheap editions and the end of perpetual copyright in 1774

I am a writer, but I’m also a socialist and as such a great advocate of universal education to as high a level and in whatever form possible. Perpetual copyright, while ensuring that you and your descendants retain control of your work in perpetuity (and of course continue to rake in the royalties), precludes the kind of cheap editions that allow someone on low pay to read freely and, by extension, educate themselves outside of school. In 1774 when perpetual copyright ended in Britain there wasn’t a network of free lending libraries in every town (of course, that’s ceasing to be the case now, but that’s another story) and for a worker to read a book, they or one of their circle had to have bought it.  The cheap editions of older works that were suddenly possible due to the change in copyright law allowed that to happen.

When I was in my teens, the Wordsworth Classics range was launched: a pound for works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and a host of other, mainly 19th century, authors. At the time I’m sure I could have borrowed any of them from the library but for less than the cost of a return bus fare into town I could have my own copy to keep coming back to. Most of them still grace my shelves. The paper may have been thin and the spines plain grey but the words inside were the same as if I’d inherited a copy with a tooled leather binding. Back in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries that revolutionary cheapening of old books would, if any formally educated man was willing to engage, have enabled me to debate those contents with my supposed betters. It would have let me creep into the citadel of learning.

In defence of Luddites

I saw an article this week that suggested the meaning and history behind Bonfire Night is being lost, and because of that and the proximity to Halloween, the two may gradually merge. Whatever you think about burning effigies of violent political protesters from times long past, it does seem sad to lose the meaning behind a tradition. It also strikes me as worrying when people start doing or saying something without knowing why – one of the least serious consequences of this is mixed metaphors and misplaced words.

Luddite. What does it make you think? Someone who doesn’t understand technology? A backward peasant, perhaps? I’m guessing that if that’s the case you don’t have a deep-rooted family connection to the textile industries of the West Riding. Some of my relatives were probably Luddites (it’s hardly something that gets officially recorded. Unless they got caught) so I’d like to nudge you away from using the word in that modern sense. I might not agree with their methods, but the Luddites were protesting against the introduction of labour-saving machinery that would take away their jobs. Far from not understanding the new technology, they understood only too well what it would mean for them and their families when the mill-owners needed to employ fewer workers. It’s a bit like supermarket checkout staff smashing self-service tills, or library assistants taking a hammer to the automatic book-sorter. Ultimately futile and likely to get them in trouble, but a heartfelt response to the prospect of unemployment. And in the early 19th century they didn’t have Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from a spot of pedantry, and not wanting dead relatives to be misunderstood, we need to hold onto history. Without remembering, we can’t learn from past mistakes, and considering how many there are, we have the potential to learn an awful lot.

Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

The modern ease of literary indulgence

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I take reading and writing for granted. It was sparked off almost as soon as I began to read The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. I had a similar moment of insight when I read a book about women in the 17th century but to read of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries (some recent enough to be contemporaries of people I’ve met, not just a faceless part of history) being looked on with suspicion, shunned by their communities or losing work just because they wanted to read more than the bible, or dared to try and write, is shocking. And yet, in the face of all this they pressed on and did it anyway.

There’s a man who built up a whole library for himself, when each book cost the equivalent of his pay for 10 hours’ work; a full-price novel now costs less than a couple of hours’ work on minimum wage and even a popular non-fiction book would most likely be no more than four or five hours. There are those who set up literature-discussion groups in their village, when everyone assumed they were stirring up revolution and reacted accordingly. Factory workers were sneaking a glimpse at books when no-one was looking, weavers were propping books on the loom so they could read while they worked, scullery maids were skimping on sleep to catch up on another chapter.

It’s so easy now (for as long as the libraries stay open, at least) to read books of so many kinds no matter how low your income, and to write poetry or fiction or essays on blogs like this, never mind privately for your own amusement. I can only look to the past, my ancestors and their contemporaries, and salute them.

Book crossing: not as new an idea as I thought

They do say there’s nothing new under the sun, and one of these days I’ll stop being surprised when it turns out true again. Book crossing is something I’ve heard of fairly recently, essentially it’s leaving books lying around and hoping some delighted new reader will happen upon them (there’s a bit more to it than that when tracking etc comes in, but that’s the basic idea). So it was interesting to read, in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose (a fascinating book, of which no doubt much more anon), that in the early nineteenth century shepherds in the Cheviot Hills regularly left books they’d finished with in nooks in boundary walls for other shepherds to find, read and pass on in turn. If it was happening there, it probably happened elsewhere too. I now have an urge to write a story about the life-changing discovery of a book tucked in a wall on a bleak hillside – it’s a truly inspirational thought.

The launch of Firestone Books

This week friend D launched his long-awaited publishing venture, Firestone Books, with some early science fiction. And by early, I mean stretching back a couple of thousand years. He’s got two collections for sale, plus some of the stories available individually. Because of the huge timespan we also get a wide geographical range and a variety of cultural settings, which is good to see. Firestone Books will also be seeking submissions in six months or so, though whether that’ll be for contemporary sci-fi or a broader range of fiction I’m not sure as yet.

You’ll notice I declared an interest right at the start there – even if I’d wanted to, it would have been hard to keep the link quiet given that the covers of the two collections are by comic-collaborating friend Mark Pexton and the website’s by the technologically gifted OneMonkey. Anyway, I publicised the connection at Morpheus Tales some time ago (back when Mark was masquerading as LeMat), so that in years to come we can point to it as the origins of our influential literary and artistic movement (we can dream, surely? If we didn’t, we wouldn’t come up with any of this).

Best of luck to Firestone Books, and may the muses bless all who sail in her…

Photographic inspiration

Basing a story on a picture is nothing new; there are websites which provide a picture and ask for related story submissions and I’ve done it myself a few times, with Psyche and the Soul, the Day the Circus Came to Town and a couple of as-yet unpublished stories all inspired by Mark Pexton’s art (Psyche, Insane Clown Posse, Meltoriel, and Pythia respectively). However, just because it’s not a new idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Whether you’re looking for more solid versions of the hazy characters in your head or searching for a full-blown story, a photo or postcard archive, your own family photo albums, or Flickr are good places to start.

I’m lucky enough to have copies of old family photos, like this one of a wedding group in the 1920s:

I vaguely remember the groom as an old man, and I’ve heard many stories about the bride so they’re tainted by reality for me, but the other people spark off ideas as I look at them. I have no idea who they are, what they did, where they lived so I have no limitations on the backgrounds I can conjure for them or the reasons I can come up with why one particular chap became best man. It all begins with details and questions. Who is the little boy and why doesn’t he look dressed up? Why is the older woman at the back wearing a heavy winter coat when the other women look more summery? What or who is the man at the back looking at?

As children, friend T and I spent many a happy hour huddled over a book celebrating the Picture Post, making up names, characters, backgrounds – filling in the reality around that one snapshot. Why were they looking over to one side? Who was the man lurking in the background with an ice cream? What urgent phonecall was the man with the moustache making as his secretary looked on?

Another good source, not quite the same, is the British Pathe film archive, free to view online. Fascinating in its own right, it has also provided a few sparking moments. Some of the films are silent anyway, but you can always mute the computer if you want to allow your imagination a little more room to manoeuvre.

This book should be consumed within six months of purchase

I read a lot, but not as much as I’d like, or rather, not as many books as I’d like, which isn’t quite the same thing. New books emerge every week, I hear about old ones or get recommendations, and my To Read pile (which has now taken over the original cupboard and a small bookcase) keeps on growing. Inevitably some books get pushed to the back – I get a new one that attracts me more immediately, or I borrow a book so I only have a short window of opportunity. There are books on my shelves that I’ve moved off the To Read pile because I’ll get round to them when I get round to them, and they’re taking up room.

Which brings me to my current problem, which isn’t so much a problem as a pang of regret with a lesson attached. Some books have a Read By date.

By this I don’t mean some flavour of the month bestseller that wasn’t very good anyway, so needs to be read during the hype period while all your friends are insisting it’s ironic and subversive – so bad it’s bloody marvellous. What I mean is there are books you grow out of, and not just the ones whose puerile humour appealed at 14 and appalls at 40.

The book I’ve been slowly reading on my daily commute for the last couple of weeks is an abridged (but still hefty) edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I bought it, as far as I can remember, with a Christmas book token 13 or 14 years ago and had I read it then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. I had more uninterrupted reading time, I could remember a lot more Latin (Gibbon assumes, no doubt perfectly reasonably for the time, that if you’re reading his book you must be educated enough to translate the Latin quotes and inscriptions, so he doesn’t patronise his readers by doing it for them), and I had more of an idea which order the Roman emperors came in and what each was usually remembered for. Even 8 years ago when I did a couple of open learning courses on the early middle ages at my (then) local university, I would have been immersed in the period though my Latin was already patchy.

The lesson to take away from this is: don’t keep shoving things to the back of your To Read cupboard.

Unless it’s: don’t buy more books than you can manage.

A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett

A history of the Protestant Reformation sounds like it should be dry, dull, of narrow interest, and not at all relevant today. Which is why I’d like to tell you about this book. William Cobbett is marvellous, sadly not as widely-known as he should be, and an inspiration. If he were alive now he would be blogging and tweeting every moment of the day, trying to bridge the ever-present gap between truth and the population at large. This book is written in Cobbett’s usual style, not so much conversational as like the man who corners you at a gathering and begins a lot of sentences with ‘And I’ll tell you another thing about…’; it’s certainly not formal and dusty, though he does like to cite references (primary sources if possible so you can go check for yourself) and he gets himself wound up to a pitch and repeats things sometimes (this was serialised, too, so no chance for him to change his sections around later).

The main spur for this book was the ridiculous and appalling anti-Catholic laws still existing in England in the early 19th century (some, like no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic can be the monarch, are in place even now). The point that tells you the most about Cobbett is that he and all his family were members of the Church of England, he had no personal axe to grind but he saw an injustice and he couldn’t resist bringing it to public attention, questioning it in a reasoned and logical manner, and campaigning for its end. Although the book, and the creation of the Church of England, are nominally about religion, Cobbett argues persuasively that it’s all about greed, power, corruption, and land-grabbing. Everything rides on a political agenda.

It’s the same today, which is why Cobbett’s book is still relevant. Not only did I learn some unsavoury things about the Tudors, but it made me think in a joined-up way about the things I already did know, which was part of Cobbett’s point – you don’t have to hide unpleasant truths, you just have to present them in such a way that people are unlikely to go ‘but hang on, didn’t he also do…?’ and want to dig deeper. How many contradictory things do governments say on a regular basis, and how many laws or policies are formulated ‘after careful consideration of expert evidence’ meaning ‘we read it, it didn’t fit our pre-formed ideas or political goals so we discarded it’?

If you’re not interested in religion, or you’re not British (or Irish – they came under the same heavy-handed laws at the time, of course), or you’ve never heard of William Cobbett, it doesn’t matter – you might not be familiar with all the players but the game itself may be enlightening. I would also suggest that if you enjoyed Josephine Tey’s unusual detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, this might appeal to you in that same spirit of painstakingly uncovering historical facts that weren’t hidden, but have just been publicly contradicted so often that ‘everyone knows’ the complete opposite.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

The most enjoyable Chevalier I’ve read for a while, Remarkable Creatures takes a few fictional liberties with two real fossil-hunting women who lived in Lyme Regis in the early 19th century; the title could refer equally well to Mary and Elizabeth, or to the fossils they found and studied.

When London solicitor John Philpot marries, he arranges for his three remaining unmarried sisters to move to a cottage in Lyme Regis, a small town on the south coast where they will still be able to live a respectable middle class life in reduced circumstances. Louise and Elizabeth have their botany and fossil-collecting, respectively, to make spinsterhood more palatable but their younger sister Margaret still has hopes, fuelled by her Jane Austen novels. Mary Anning, a local girl who finds and sells fossils to supplement her father’s income, meets Margaret through Elizabeth, and is influenced by her romantic notions.

Though there are gentle flavours of romance, intrigue and adventure, the novel is largely about fossils and strong female friendship (the phrase ‘vicious gossip and the heartbreak of forbidden love’ on the back cover refers to restrictions of class rather than gender). Tracy Chevalier has once or twice in the past fallen into the trap of dumping incongruous passages ito the narrative rather than wasting her research, but in general it is woven seamlessly into this book. Her only stumbling blocks in this regard seem to arise from the format of alternating chapters being first-person accounts from Mary and Elizabeth’s points of view, which left working-class Mary having to say a couple of things which, in my opinion (and really, what do I know about 19th century Dorset girls?) didn’t sit quite right. With Elizabeth’s chapters, however, the tone seemed to fit brilliantly, very Trollope (and regular readers will know just how much of a compliment I mean that to be).

An infuriating book to read if, like me, your blood boils at the thought of scientific women in the past being sidelined, ignored or having their discoveries stolen by male colleagues. Nevertheless, an interesting insight into the time, and a well-written tale.

The Cardinal’s Blades by Pierre Pevel

A fantasy novel translated from French, which doesn’t happen that often; it’s set in Paris in 1633, the Cardinal in question naturally being Richelieu and the Blades his finest and most elite soldier-spies, who had been disbanded 5 years earlier for political reasons. A good portion of the book is the ‘we’re putting the band back together’ section, where the Blades are located and plucked from their dayjobs, which is light and enjoyable.

Although it’s a fantasy novel, for almost the entire book except the climax it’s easy to forget that and assume you’re reading a historical swashbuckling adventure. As you might expect from the setting, it’s full of spies and double-agents, intrigue and political scheming, sword-fights and heroic rescues. And, thankfully, humour. The fantasy element arises from who some of the spies and double-agents are working for, and what additional power that might give them, though I don’t think that aspect was fully explored.

I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed all the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, the Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask. If you don’t think they’d be your sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but if you like high boots, doublets, rapiers and repartee, and you don’t mind the occasional dragon, I’d say you were in for a cracking read.

Know your heritage: pioneers of SF

Among the semi-random books I got out of the library recently was a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith under the title Out of Space and Time. Never having read anything by him before I thought I’d give it a go, but the first story, The End of the Story, put me off. The phrase ‘purple prose’ suggested itself; it was from 1930 but seemed 40 or 50 years older at least (more, even – Poe sprang to mind), a suspenseful mild horror story set in the 18th century and concerning a forbidden manuscript in a monastery library. It may be that he’d overdone it on this story as he wanted to create that historic feel, but I had a small pile of other library books demanding my attention so one story was all I gave it. It is of course purely a matter of taste, and if you like that kind of style, you’ll enjoy Clark Ashton Smith’s works much more than I did.

Part of the reason I wanted to try this collection at all was the feeling that I hadn’t read many of the classics of the genre. I read Jules Verne and HG Wells when I was an adolescent (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter), and naturally I’ve delved into Tolkien and Philip K Dick, but there are plenty of other names I’ve heard often enough but have no first-hand experience of. I don’t think I’ve read any HP Lovecraft (I might have read one story in an anthology but it obviously hasn’t seared itself on my brain), I haven’t read any Edgar Rice Burroughs, EE “Doc” Smith, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut… Given my cynical assumption of Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome whenever ‘classics’ are mentioned, I’m often in two minds whether to read them or not. On one hand they’re important influences, it’s a way of tracing the history of stories that I have enjoyed, and I might find that I enjoy some of these classics themselves. On the other, many of them are quite old now, possibly old-fashioned or in a style that’s not to my taste; some of them (I’m thinking sci-fi rather than fantasy here) are even irrelevant and eclipsed by later discoveries.

For when I’m in the mood to read the old stuff, I have discovered a rather wonderful site where you can download (for free) thousands of public domain books in several languages and formats, including a whole host of science fiction, fantasy, gothic and horror (and a pulp section which covers plenty of SF). A bibliophile’s paradise.