Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Berkshire

We have a copy of the original Pevsner for Berkshire (1966). It is not one of the best in the series. Firstly, it was mostly written soon after his wife’s death and his heart was perhaps not in the work. Secondly, Pevsner had a blind spot when it came to Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and this means that he didn’t really get Reading (the volume is dominated by Windsor), and many of the architectural splendours of the town passed him by.  

Art Nouveau shopfront, Reading

Art Nouveau, Reading style. The former ‘High Buttery’ (originally a boot shop). I love that 8.

Yes, reader, they exist. I’ll provide two examples, quoting from the new edition (2010), revised and expanded by Geoffrey Tyack and Simon Bradley. The Board School in Swansea Road ‘with upswept gables and a jaunty onion dome’, and the ‘pretty Art Nouveau in bright terracotta’ at 8 (the number is sinuously rendered on pilasters outside) High St. (I recall the latter as a health food shop and the only place in Reading where you could get natural yoghurt.)

 Not for nothing did Hardy rename Reading ‘Aldbrickham’. To its builders, a house wall or gable end was a canvas, and polychrome patterns in contrasting bricks zigzag their way across quite workaday terraced houses. In their way they are just as much folk art as any embroidered peasant blouse.

The geographical ambit of this volume encompasses those bits of the county officially lost to Oxfordshire, such as the Uffington White Horse and Abingdon, and the new edition of course includes much (of varying merit) that is more recent than the mid-1960s.  It is far longer than the original edition (812 pp., up from 357 shorter ones) and has 123 colour photographs.  There is some entertainment value in comparing entries in the two editions for buildings one knows, particularly on matters of opinion; for example the ‘rather terrible’ St Mary’s Burghfield has become ‘highly eccentric’.   It is a shame that Reading did not return the compliment paid to it in the new version by selling copies of it; the only remaining substantial bookshop there (Waterstone’s) did not stock a Berkshire Pevsner and I had to order it online.

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James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

I was recommended this in the course of a ‘book spa’ at a local bookshop. It’s the fourth in the series of ‘Grantchester Mysteries’ featuring a vicar with a habit of stumbling into crime and then solving it. This volume is set very precisely in the early 1950s.

Plenty of detail that I recognise with the Cambridge location and the churchiness. Sidney is a Corpuscle like me, though I wonder how comfortable he would have been with his broad churchmanship among the very High Church Fellowship* there at that time.

I enjoyed reading the mixture of murders and thefts to be solved, though I prefer my crime to be more densely plotted (partly a consequence of the short story format) and rather darker; even Sidney’s horrific wartime experiences do not seem to have affected him much.

Inevitably I spotted some possible slips and anachronisms. At one point Sidney cycles along Downing St and turns into Trumpington St after passing St Bene’t’s Church. Is St Botolph’s meant (even that isn’t quite right unless he diverts into Botolph Lane) or does he maybe go round via Free School Lane in order to check his Corpus pigeon hole? And I don’t think that foot-washing on Maundy Thursday happened in Church of England churches at this time; asking around friends of an age to remember suggests that it was introduced around 1970 (possibly taken from Catholic practice after Vatican II?) I can’t comment on the accuracy of the scenes involving jazz, and although Sidney is said to be a keen cricketer, this subject doesn’t come up again.

I would be happy to read others in the series without making it a priority. Although my supply of unread P.D. James is running out, so if I want my fix of Book of Common Prayer/murder combo, maybe this is where to go.

*Around this period a visitor to Little St Mary’s church observed of the rather sentimental Good Shepherd statue there, ‘I suppose this is where the less intellectual of your congregation make their devotions?’ to which the reply was ‘No, mostly Fellows of Corpus!’

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Victor Bridges, Trouble on the Thames

No plotlines have been spoiled in the writing of this review.

I’ve been discovering some of the recently reprinted ‘Golden Age’ detective stories and thrillers. They are celebrated for their ingenious plotlines, but score less highly when it comes to characterisation; modern writers in these genres are much better at avoiding stereotypes.

Trouble on the Thames, set shortly before the Second World War, is no exception in this respect, as the baddies in particular might as well be going around with BADDY written on a placard round their necks. It’s not as if Bridges’ writing is wooden in all respects; he had a deft touch when setting scenes and a knack for social comedy, and it’s a shame he didn’t indulge these skills rather more.

Our hero has been invalided out of the Navy with the sudden onset of colour-blindness during a voyage. Setting aside the medical implausibility, I kept waiting for a plot twist which turned on his failure to distinguish two colours, but it never arrived, though his handicap does generate the final line of dialogue in the book.

Much of my enjoyment came from the period detail (boggling for example that a woman might invite her male companion to choose what she should eat in a restaurant). If you enjoy vintage spy capers, this will pass the time – just don’t expect deep psychological insight.

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B. S. Johnson, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

A few years ago new copies of a book called Never Say Boring Again, about a group of accountants, was sometimes to be seen on sale at bookstalls in suspiciously large numbers.  It would undoubtedly seem boring, however, beside this one, in which the main character puts the principles of double entry accounting to uses which are unusual to say the least. It’s set in London in apparently the early Sixties.

So, a very black comedy about accountancy.  Johnson was an experimental writer,  but this work has a straightforward linear narrative.  There is a great deal of complex wordplay – I expect I missed a lot of it but I spotted jokes in passing which relied on a knowledge of Welsh or of ornithology.  

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Judy Bryant, An Adoptee’s Search for Identity

This is a self-published memoir by someone I think I may have met when I was an ‘extra’ on an Open University Chapel Choir tour to Southwell Minster. (I wonder whether she was the person who enjoyed running baths very early in the morning, setting off the noisy plumbing in the place where we were staying?)

She unflinchingly narrates the difficulties she faced as a child, leading to a breakdown in early adulthood. These were: being given up for adoption; the death of her beloved adoptive mother at the age of seven; and a congenital condition which meant her education was disrupted through stays in hospital. One senses that she could have coped with any two of these, but not all three. Happily she took advantage of opportunities later on and enjoyed an interesting career in the legal profession.

She was able to contact members of her birth family (before this was officially permitted) and here the story is tantalisingly incomplete. I would rather have heard more about her meetings with her birth parents than all the details about her various cars and journeys in them! Possibly some details have been blurred; we are told that her half-brother (who died a year after she was reunited with him) was an undergraduate at Oxford when she was in her mid-twenties, but also that he pushed her in her pram, implying that he was older than her.

The memoir might have benefited from an editor, to focus more on the essential story and less on various distractions along the way. But it is not an unrelieved ‘misery memoir’ and the author is able to stand back and do dispassionate self-analysis with a reasonably flowing prose style.

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Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths
Alan Bell, Sydney Smith: A Biography

The Rev. Sydney Smith would seem a good potential subject for a biography. No need to speculate about his views, as (like the reviewer, but more eloquently) he loved to shoot his mouth off on any subject on which he had an opinion. And he knew a lot of famous and influential people. The drawbacks are that his natural environment was the dining table, so any account of him risks reading like being an onlooker at another’s party, and his life was not in fact very eventful.

Hesketh Pearson (shown thoughtfully smoking a pipe on the back cover) wrote biographies by the yard in the mid-20th century, and the one of Smith is among his earliest. As someone from a clerical family and immersed in the world of letters, he must have found him an appealing subject. Unfortunately he managed something almost impossible – a biography of him that is dull to read. Apart from going and looking up Smith’s will in Somerset House, he appears to have done no original research, just ordered the details of Smith’s life from other sources, interspersed with appropriate quotes from his writings. He contradicts himself on such matters as whether Smith had ambitions to be a bishop and his attitude to music. Perhaps Smith’s views changed, in which case it would have been good to have had some discussion about this.

I hoped Alan Bell’s biography might be a lighter read, but it wasn’t. (It’s briefly dealt with in this obituary). It has a slightly different emphasis and though it draws on letters and documents that Pearson didn’t have (with considerably more research), inevitably there’s a lot of overlap with Hesketh in quotations from Smith’s writings. But I’m afraid I gave up after a couple of chapters. I think Bell, who like Pearson was not a practised biographer when he wrote the work, might have done better to have completed his edition of Smith’s letters (he only published one of a projected four volumes of them) before writing his biography. Perhaps he thought that the biography would whet readers’ appetites for the letters.

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Francis Meynell, By Heart

This is an anthology of poetry intended to be memorised.

It was compiled in 1965 towards the end of Meynell’s life, and this shows in the selection of poets; only a handful were born after 1914, and as far as I can tell Rabindranath Tagore is the only one who is not white. Most poems are in rhymed verse, and there are a quite a few extracts from longer poems.

Meynell’s Catholicism also shows in the prominence of religious content, with a number of poems presenting unusual angles on familiar Bible stories.

The publication history is interesting; it was first published by Meynell’s own Nonesuch press, then under the imprint of Bodley Head Children’s (!) books, despite some distinctly adult themes. Another publisher was the Ezra Pound Institute of Civilization, London which seems mysterious until you learn that Pound was a friend of Meynell’s.

Like the original Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, this book seems to belong to a time about 20 years before its actual publication. As anthologies go it is harmless enough. You would need a good memory to commit some of the longer pieces to it, and the presence of extracts will be irritating to some.

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The Odes of Horace, trans. Edward Marsh

This translation dates from 1941, and I suspect it was made so that the author could prove he could do it. I don’t doubt his understanding of Latin; my problem is the archaic nature of the English. Did Edward Marsh really think this was the way to make Horace available to an English readership, or was the point really to demonstrate his own cleverness?

A sample will suffice (1.34):

    For Jove, whose wont it is to ply
    His zigzag levin mid a clouded sky
    This day through the clear azure drove afar
    His thundering coursers and flame-pinion’d car —

Brought up short by ‘levin’, I looked it up and found that it was a Middle English word for ‘lightning’. At this point I thought I’d be better off just reading the Latin. Horace does not on the whole puzzle his readers with obscure vocabulary.

Some biographical information about Edward Marsh may be found here.

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Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded

I felt rather guilty about enjoying reading this, as it isn’t a disaster movie but a real-life event that killed tens of thousands of people. However, if you want to find out about the cataclysm of 1883, then this is the place to go.

The book takes quite a while to get going and throughout there is a large amount, rather too much, of incidental detail. When I was told at length about the biographies of the discoverers of continental drift, I found my attention began to drift a bit too. And once I’d been made aware that Dutch colonials drank jenever much as their British counterparts did gin & tonic, I didn’t need to have repeated descriptions of them doing it. Once the eruption is imminent the pace quickens.

I don’t know much about the East Indies or about vulcanology and when it comes to fact-checking, I can only really go by measuring the book against what I do know. In this case, I found inaccuracies relating to classical languages. Palaeomagnetism is a word of wholly Greek formation, not a mixture of Greek and Latin, and while the pseudonym ‘Multatuli’ does indeed mean ‘I have endured much’, it does so in Latin, not Javanese.

A particularly interesting section was that on the worldwide observation of the atmospheric effects of the eruption. Descriptions of these were solicited from the public, and this is attributed to a Victorian ‘almost obsessive need for the complete’; I prefer to see it, less pejoratively, as an early instance of crowdsourcing, or ‘citizen science’. Certainly it produced a lot of documentary evidence, including an elegantly worded description from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The map on p. xv really ought to show the town of Anjer, which features prominently in the text.

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Faber’s The Great Languages: French, Italian, German, Latin

I came across Palmer’s The Greek Language, published in the 1980s, and when offered the chance to acquire some others in the series, seized the opportunity, thinking they would be of a similar vintage. But this series has a very peculiar history. The volumes on French and German were written in the 1930s, and Palmer’s companion volume on Latin dates from the 1950s. His work on Greek replaced an earlier book by BFC Atkinson (an author otherwise known for Christian apologetics), and I think is still in print.

The volume on Italian has a very different history; it is a translation by T. Gwynfor Griffith of Migliori’s Storia della lingua italiana. The work is structured differently from the others, being diachronic and going through the history of Italian by successive historical periods, rather than synchronic and dedicating whole sections to morphology and syntax as do the French and German equivalents. Palmer’s Greek volume takes a synchronic and diachronic approach in its two sections.

Needless to say much in the earlier volumes seems very dated now. There are some extraordinary assertions. The demise of the ‘past definite’ (meaning ‘past historic’) in French is attributed to the fact nowadays that we see the past as a picture rather than as an action (p. 254). Surely the opposite is the case if anything, now that we have (and had in the 1930s) ways of recording moving images? And why should this change, even if it were true, cause the French past historic to fall out of use?

I wonder what the intended readership was for this series. It seems too academic for the general reader, but the specialist in the language concerned would not need a summary volume of this kind. Perhaps it was for university students beginning a course in the languages? And why does the format differ so much between volumes? Was the Italian work co-opted into the series because it was to hand? Why was the volume on Greek updated, but not others?

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