Book Review: For Love and Money

Jonathan Raban is a multi award winning travel writer, critic and novelist. Eland Books has recently released five of his published works including For Love & Money, a memoir of sorts made up of articles and reviews that offer a fascinating insight into the author’s early life and career. First published in 1987 it provides a glimpse of the London literary world before the internet and the subsequent decline of print media.

The book is divided into five sections. The first introduces Raban as a professional writer with close to two decades experience. There is a brief history of his childhood including the burgeoning of his long held desire to become a writer. Although privately schooled he does not describe himself as academic. He attended Hull University rather than Oxbridge. This was in the 1960s when higher education was expanding rapidly. Armed with his newly acquired qualifications Raban secured a salaried job as an assistant lecturer at The University College of Wales at Aberystwyth.

From Aberystwyth he moved to the University of East Anglia where he worked with Malcolm Bradbury. During his time there he encountered students who went on to write best sellers. Raban regarded his tenure as a springboard into what he refers to as Grub Street – the world of literary hacks who write for hire. Bradbury talked to him about the difficulty of freelancing for a living with its need to jump between fiction and journalism, broadcasting and print. Raban was not deterred. The first section of the book finishes with a story accepted by the London Magazine in 1969. On the back of this, the editor invited Raban to review books for the publication. He resigned from his safe, salaried job and moved to London.

The second section opens with details of how a writer could earn a living in literary journalism. Raban wrote book reviews for magazines, took part in arts and book programmes on radio and TV, and wrote pieces for national newspapers. Included is an article he wrote about living in London at this time. It offers a window into the business of reviewing and the importance of the literary editor. As now, the view expressed was that more books were being published yet review space cut. Critics were commissioned to produce a set number of words, often fewer than could do a work serious justice. The remainder of this section is made up of Raban’s reviews of various books about writers, providing a masterclass in the form. Several do end quite abruptly, presumably when the word count had been reached.

The third section is a short history of Raban’s attempts to write plays. He saw this as a gateway to sociability after the solitude of a writer’s life. Television at this time was regarded as the national theatre. Money was available to commission more scripts than would be used, enabling producers to experiment with untried writers. Raban wrote for TV and radio. He is self-deprecating of his efforts.

The fourth section explores the world of the literary magazine where editors value perceived quality over sales figures. This is compared to commercial ventures which could send writers to far flung corners, fully financed, for a commissioned article. The remainder of the section contains several pieces written by Raban for a number of outlets. I was particularly impressed by Christmas In Bournemouth which cuts to the quick – an astute, verging on cruel reportage from a hotel which offers time-tabled entertainments for those whose family’s have inexplicably failed to invite their mostly elderly relatives to join them for the festive season.

The fifth and final section looks at travel writing and, in particular, why people travel. It is mostly made up of reviews of books by other travel writers and articles written on visits to foreign locations. There is also a walk along the banks of the Thames which is a slice of history. Raban came to be known best for his travel writing. His adventures developed from an early enjoyment of fishing to a point where sailing grants him freedom.

Raban has an eye for detail. His use of language is concise and rigorous. Where he writes about his early family life, his relationship with his parents, the insights are piercing. He admits to dramatising facts for effect but suggests all writing does this. Reportage and criticism are still performances for the benefit of the reader.

A prolific American writer of genre fiction tells him:

“It’s a writer’s duty to be an observer, not to show a high profile.”

I suspect there are many authors today who wish this was the case.

Raban’s book is a fascinating history of a freelance writer’s life and methods, personal and professional. It is witty, at times caustic, but always precise and percipient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

Advertisements

Gig Review: Adam Kay in Bristol

Last Thursday evening my husband and I set off, through chaotic travel conditions that had emptied motorway traffic onto every other route toward Bristol, to attend a sold out show I had booked tickets for in the spring. It was touch and go whether we would get there on time but we made it – just! Judging from the empty seats in the auditorium a fair few didn’t.

We were there to see Dr Adam Kay on his comedy tour based around his best selling book, This Is Going To Hurt. Much of his material was taken from the published diary entries. Added to these readings were songs in a similar vein.

The show is very funny. I did feel a tad sorry for the doctor seated near the front who Adam kept referring to for laughs. Hopefully he took it in good spirits.

There was further audience participation in a sing along quiz. This worked better than it may sound – Adam had most of the audience in the palm of his hand.

My husband, who hasn’t read the book, was laughing more than I have seen in years throughout the evening. He wasn’t, however, impressed by the way the show was concluded. Having shared the very moving reason for resigning as a doctor, Adam gave his views on health secretaries and the way governments blame staff for problems in the NHS, which the media duly reports thereby influencing the general public’s perceptions. He asked that we consider the challenges of being a medical practitioner where, despite best endeavours, patients may die. Doctors are human. They sometimes make mistakes. The job is stressful enough without having to face accusations of greed when ninety hour weeks are being worked to ensure patients are cared for.

On that somewhat downbeat note the show ended. Adam received rapturous applause and moved to the foyer where he signed books purchased. He had explained earlier that, on each leg of the tour, a local bookshop is invited to provide stock as some tax may thereby be paid.

It was an enjoyable evening. Fairly short – for a show at that price, not a book event – at around an hour but was packed with laugh out loud anecdotes and irreverent banter. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the book.

Book Review: The White Book

“the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior”

The White Book, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), is prose yet reads with the piercing beauty of poetry. It contains a series of haunting and evocative short studies on the ripples created by loss.

At twenty-two years of age the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby, alone in an isolated house in the countryside. The child lived for less than two hours. The manner in which this firstborn entered and left the world remained as a shadow within the family. As the mother continued to mourn her dead daughter, her subsequent living daughter observed in the knowledge that she would not exist had her sister lived.

Each vignette in the collection is wound around a white object such as: swaddling bands, gauze, snow, a white bird, a shroud. The narrator has travelled to a strange city where she ponders her surroundings and their effect. She remembers aspects of her life thus far, including the stories she was told about her past and before she was born.

The observations are visual, internal and resonant. There is no sound other than the echo of her personal history. The narrator is living with the inevitability of loss, that all will one day die. For birth, marriage and death there are rituals – attempts to slow the erasure of those who have gone.

“there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever”

Just as freshly fallen snow adds a cleansing, soft beauty to the world it shrouds, so the writing is breathtaking in the visceral wonder it offers as it wraps itself around moments in time. The words are thoughtful and contemplative – hopeful in their acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived”

This is writing to be savoured. An exquisite yet grounded read.

Gig Review: Rachel Trethewey at Bowood

On Thursday of last week I attended a local author event being held within the grounds of Bowood House. This is walking distance from my home so, under glorious skies, I was able to combine two of my favourite activities.

  
Walking through the grounds of Bowood to the venue

Rachel Trethewey, author of Pearls before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, was to give a talk on her book. She greeted all attendees personally so I was able to tell her that I enjoyed reading details of a history I had not previously heard of.

Tea and pastries were served as attendees arrived and mingled. The current Lady Lansdowne, whose family by marriage feature in the book, introduced herself and gave permission for us to tour her private walled garden prior to lunch in the house. This delighted me as the garden is opened to the public on only a handful of occasions each year.

I chatted to several ladies who commented on how moved they had been by the personal stories told in Rachel’s book. Whereas I had baulked at the conspicuous wealth and privilege, at the decadent lifestyle that was soon to undergo change, they had found affecting the impact of the many deaths detailed.

Rachel’s talk was scripted, with accompanying slides. She told us that the four years of research required involved visits to: the Red Cross archives, Christies auction house archives, and appointments with descendants of the patrician families. The idea for the Red Cross Pearl Necklace Appeal came from Lady Northcliffe, wife of the owner of the Times and Daily Mail. These papers listed the names of women who donated pearls. Christies provided lists of the buyers of the completed necklaces.

Sections of the talk were taken from the book, including those pertaining to Violet Astor.

Lady Violet Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of the 4th Earl of Minto, married Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, younger son of the 5th Marquis of Lansdowne, in 1909. They subsequently had two children. Before the war Charles was equerry to the king. Charles was killed in action at Ypres in 1914. Violet was encouraged to remarry, to bear more children. She continued to mourn her lost love.


Violet and Charles

Rachel’s research involved reading large numbers of letters, diaries and memoirs. She commented on the women’s resilience and how they dealt with grief in different ways. She also read contemporary newspapers and society magazines.

The Duchess of Westminster set up an unconventional hospital in France where elegant ladies dressed in their finery greeted the mud and blood splattered wounded. As much as being an act of compassion, this was an adventure for hedonistic socialites.

Back home, country houses opened their doors to care for soldiers convalescing. Bowood’s orangery served as a hospital later in the war years.


Bowood Hospital – 1918

It was Lord Lansdowne who piloted the bill through parliament that attempted to get the law changed to allow the pearl necklaces to be distributed via lottery. Lady Northcliffe believed this would vastly increase funds raised. There was disquiet among some at the time that status symbols may then be owned by the working class.

The great sadness uncovered during research was tempered by pleasurable aspects. Rachel mentioned a lovely visit to Dorset, to the beautiful home of Lord Julian Fellowes and Lady Emma Kitchener Fellowes. Emma is the great great neice of the first Earl Kitchener who featured on the famous wartime posters – he was killed when his boat sank off the coast of Orkney. (Julian is best known as the writer of Downton Abbey.)

Pearls Before Poppies was launched earlier this year at Christies Sale Room where the necklaces had been auctioned. Many of the descendants of those written about attended. On the night the Red Cross announced a new Pearls for Life appeal. Jewels were received from celebrities, the famous and the wealthy. They were auctioned at the Savoy in July raising around £275,000 for crisis support at home and abroad.

Questions were invited from the audience. Rachel was asked what happened to the necklaces. Although Christies know who purchased them – mainly jewellery houses – they have since disappeared. Fashions change and it is possible the pearls were restrung and no longer exist in a form that could be recognised. Each was sold in a distinctive box and Rachel has tried to uncover any trace of these – asking, for example, organisers of antique roadshows to look out for them. So far nothing has been found. Pictures of the necklaces exist in the original sale catalogue, copies of which are held in various museums.

There was a question about what happened to the money raised. As it was not ring fenced it would have been used where needed.

  

Corsham Bookshop provided copies of Rachel’s book for attendees to purchase which she was happy to sign.

We were then lead through the beautiful walled garden, shown the site of the now demolished big house, and taken into what is known as the little house.

      

While the rest of the party went into lunch, I visited an exhibition currently running in the orangery. This includes letters, photographs and details of the history of the Lansdownes, in particular during the war years. It was poignant to read about and to see the pictures of the lost young men.

    

The many aspects of this unusual author event were both enjoyable and of interest. I am grateful to Charlotte Doherty for my invitation to attend.

Pearls before Poppies (reviewed here) is published by The History Press.

Monthly Roundup – September 2018

This month I watched as my three children packed their belongings and dispersed, each to a different capital city in the UK. My house feels very quiet. This does mean that I now have plenty of reading time, although I am making a concerted effort to remain active and leave the house each day. Autumn is my favourite season and I wish to wander the fields and watch the leaves turn.

I reviewed fourteen books in September, a good mix of fiction and non fiction including one translated work and a children’s book. I also wrote up one of the literary events I attended.

This was a strong month for fiction.

  

The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught, published by Patrician Press
Francis Plug: Writer in Residence by Paul Ewen, published by Galley Beggar Press

  

The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan, published by Little Island Press
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, published by Virago

  

The Plankton Collector by Cath Barton, published by New Welsh Rarebyte
The Groundsmen by Lynn Buckle, published by époque press

Little by Edward Carey, published by Gallic Books

Buffy is currently my go to TV series for those evenings when I feel the need to switch off my brain. I enjoyed this children’s picture book which takes the key characters and presents them in an appealing form for the next generation.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Kim Smith, published by Quirk Books

My non fiction reads were an eclectic mix.

  

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre), published by Pushkin Press
Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek and Dave Philpott, published by Unbound

Pearls before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls by Rachel Trethewey, published by The History Press

My selection for Bookmunch were all worth reading.

Fiction

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks, published by Hutchinson Books

Non fiction

  

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harare, published by Jonathan Cape
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, published by Profile Books

I attended a party at the aptly named Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath

Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

I have quite a few gigs lined up for the coming month and will also be writing up those I attended at the tail end of September but didn’t have time to include here.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Pearls Before Poppies

Pearls Before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, by Rachel Trethewey, delves into the stories of the wealthy women who orchestrated a First World War fundraiser that, thanks to supportive reporting in national newspapers, captured the wider public imagination. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was instigated by Lady Northcliffe, wife of an influential press baron who owned the widely read Times and Daily Mail. She asked that her fellow society ladies give one pearl from their jewellery collections to enable a necklace to be created that would be auctioned, with proceeds going to The Red Cross to help fund support for soldiers. Pearls were in vogue and many of these patrician women possessed numerous strands, inherited or gifted to them as status symbols from husbands or lovers. It was pointed out to them that one pearl would not be missed, and the gift would be regarded as an act of generosity. How one was seen by one’s peers mattered.

Many women subsequently contributed, often citing their reasons in notes accompanying the donation – a lost child or partner in whose memory the pearl was sent. These included pearls from women of less affluent social backgrounds, some of whom clubbed together to purchase a jewel they could not individually afford to give.

The aristocracy expected their children to marry their social equals or those regarded as superior, which led to a great deal of overlap between particular families. Within the various chapters of this book the reader learns of the women’s personal losses as a result of the conflict as well as the voluntary roles they played at home and abroad. Their menfolk, many having been brought up at the likes of Eton, had had instilled in them the sacredness of patriotism alongside the glory of battle and sacrifice. Prior to the war these young people had been indolent, decadent, searching for anything that would give their life meaning. The women were decorative and their families expected them to behave with superficial decorum. Prior to marriage they were strictly chaperoned while their parents philandered.

The war offered opportunities for freedom and adventure to both sexes. Unlike most factual histories of the time, these accounts focus on the women. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was seen as a fashionable cause and enjoyed royal patronage. Wives and their husband’s mistresses worked together. The tenets of the Christian faith were cited as a comfort in times of bereavement. Infidelities were, it appears, regarded as acceptable.

Many of the women lost brothers, husbands and sons. Concern was voiced that the best of a generation – the heirs to the landed gentry’s estates – were being sacrificed. Eugenics casts a shadow over several of the comments made. The children had been raised by nannies, governesses and schools. Parents did not just lose favourites but also the perpetuation of the family name. Young widows were encouraged to remarry and produce more babies – ‘splendid boys’ to replace lost scions.

Given what we now know about the degrees of difficulty experienced during war between the upper and lower echelons of society, and indeed the role played by powerful men in sending troops to their deaths, it is hard to feel as much sympathy for these privileged ladies as for their working class counterparts. Nevertheless, where all strata of society are levelled is in the emotional impact of bereavement. The loss of a husband may not have led to destitution but it was still challenging to bear with the stoicism expected.

The energy and sense of purpose demonstrated in the fundraiser was also evident in other wartime roles the women played. So many offered to open their opulent homes as hospitals, to be seen to be helping the war effort, that not all could be accepted. Many constrained young society women relished the opportunity to serve as nurses.

“There was some scepticism about whether untrained aristocrats were the right people to run hospitals.”

The Pearl Necklace Campaign was just one of many fundraisers. Other items of value were collected for sale in bazaars across the country or at auction. With the war machine generating wealth for a few and the inevitable currency fluctuations in times of conflict, luxury items such as pearls became an investment. Family assets were to be protected.

Lady Northcliffe believed most money could be raised from the pearl necklaces created if they were raffled. By offering the possibility of attaining such a prize to even the lower orders of women for a relatively small outlay, it was anticipated that vast sums could be collected. This idea caused some consternation amongst her peers. Concern was voiced that such status symbols – pearls symbolised the wealth of the wearer – should not be owned by poor people. A lottery was regarded as gambling and condemned.

Attitudes to the poor were an interesting aspect to read. With able bodied men off fighting the women were doing their work. Although paid less this granted them previously unattainable freedom.

“there was a widespread fear that working-class women were using their […] allowances to buy alcohol and get drunk in public.”

Presumably the champagne parties society women attended were regarded as acceptable to the aristocracy. Any attempts at temperance merely sent consumption underground. Parliament retained its bars.

The auction of the pearl necklaces raised funds as intended. A century later what has become of them is not known. Although the inspiration for this book, the pearls are just one detail in what is an eclectic history of privileged women on the cusp of societal change. Despite the sometimes obsequious manner in which their stories are shared there is much of interest.

The various anecdotes jump around a great deal in time but conclude with a few details on the introduction of cultured pearls into society after the war years. This offers a chance to ponder the intrinsic worth of any material item. However valuable a treasure may be considered by self-regarding elites, worth is either sentimental or what a buyer is willing to pay. The author writes of what the pearl came to symbolise over centuries. The value to the soldiers that this fundraiser aimed to help was measured in the eventual Red Cross donation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The History Press.

 

Rachel Trethewey will be giving a talk on the 1918 Red Cross Pearls appeal at Bowood House on Thursday 27th September – the Lansdownes of Bowood are one of the aristocratic families featured in her book. For details of this event and to purchase tickets, click here.