Book 16 – Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson first came to England in 1973, settled here in 1977 and has become probably our only American National Treasure. He has written books on the English language (Mother Tongue is superb!) and then developed into a travel writer with an idiosyncratic style that makes him always a joy to read.

After marrying here and bringing up a family, he decided in the mid-nineties to move back to the USA but before going he wanted to write a farewell to Great Britain. Notes from a Small Island is Bryson’s tribute to this country, written with an eye to detail, a command of language and a heartfelt love of the place that has long been one of my very favourite books. It is funny; it is accurate; it is perceptive. He shows us both the faults of the people and the systems and all that makes them so wonderful.

He packs the book with incidental facts about places that were (and still are) a surprise to me. There’s one part when writing about the Cotswolds where he gives just enough detail for an determined enquirer to find a genuine roman mosaid floor hidden away in a wood. Armed with an ordnance survey map and his hints we managed to find it too!

His perceptions on the way we think here are spot on. The first chapter contains a near parody of a pub discussion about how to travel somewhere that is side-splittingly funny and deadly accurate.

It is quite simply one of the best books about this country that’s ever been written. And as an aside, he has moved back here and now has a followup volume called The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island that is high on my list of Books To Get Very Soon.


Book 15 – The Tin Princess

I think I’m going to have to read some more Philip Pullman. Some years back I got hold of the His Dark Materials trilogy, partly because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and partly because Pullman was quoted as saying that he wanted to use the trilogy “to kill God” – spoiler alert: he doesn’t! The books were a thoughful and entertaining read with some wonderful characters – who could not fall in love with Serafina Pekkala? – but left me somewhat dissatisfied as in the end it all seemed to peter out somehow.

A year or so ago I found The Tin Princess in a secondhand book sale, thought it was a very different looking Pullman novel and therefore decided to try it. But again, it seems to not really have much of an ending and all the anticipation leads to nowhere in particular. As with the trilogy, some of the writing is superb. There’s a description of a small battle in a developing snowstorm that is wonderful and evocative to read, but overall I was left feeling “is that it?”.

This could be because the book is part of a series for young adults (something I was not aware of when starting it) and thus there is a back story of which I knew nothing. And perhaps these days modern young adult fiction is not for me. As I said at the beginning, I’ll have to try some more Pullman before definitely making up my mind.




Book 14 – The Leveller Revolution

It was Margaret Thatcher that I hold responsible for my political awakening. Growing up in a small C conservative Catholic family and attending a Catholic public school I was slightly too young for the political upheavals of the late 1960’s (though in the later years at school and then at university I enthusiastically followed the changes in the Church, but was slow to come to recognise the social and political changes that they implied) and followed my parents and most fellow students in becoming a supporter of the Conservative cause. In my defence I must point out that in the late 1970’s the left in this country was a mess and (at least as portrayed in most of the press) the Labour Party was in hock to a trade union movement that was running amok. So, in 1979 at the first General Election where I could vote my mark was placed against the Conservative party.

I hasten to add that that was the only time in my entire life where I did so. Thatcher hadn’t  been in post for long when I began to see the damage that unbridled  implementation of policies based mainly on market forces could do to society and to smaller communities. And at that point I began to put together the social teaching of the Church and my changing political outlook. I never joined a political party but for the last 35 years I’ve definitely been on the left in my political views.  I refuse to accept blindly the accepted concepts of capitalism and the view that the best answer to everything is “the market”.  I suppose that the nearest label that could be applied to my viewpoint is “Christian Socialist”, with an equal emphasis on each word.

I did my best to demonstrate this outlook to my daughters as they grew up, and Marianne, the middle daughter, gave me John Rees’s The Leveller Revolution as a Christmas present.  She thought I’d enjoy reading about some of the very earliest left wing thought in English history,  and in that she was absolutely right. 

The English Civil War was one of the areas of history that I studied for O’ Level but it was at a fairly superficial level.  I have absolutely no memory of the Levellers ever being mentioned and though the name has cropped up in my general reading over the years I knew practically nothing of them. I knew more about the Diggers, famous from the Leon Rosselson song The World Turned Upside Down. After reading this book I am far more aware of some of the major undercurrents that formed the revolution that brought about  the execution of Charles I. Moreover I am in awe of the sheer courage of many of those involved and their steadfastness in the face of overwhelming power.  The establishment of the networks of illegal printers that allowed the promulgation of pamphlets showing the literally revolutionary new ideas was a bit of an eye-opener. There is so much in this book to admire.  The people,  their strength,  their enthusiasm, their ideas all in the end had an influence that extends down the centuries to form the country as it is over 350 years later. If you’re interested in the radical history of England I  think you’ll enjoy this book. 

Book 13 – The Chalk Pit

My mother introduced me to detective stories when I was,  I think,  around 11 years old.  She’d borrowed Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced from the local library and passed it on to me as she thought I’d enjoy it.  It was the first time I’d read a story where things were discovered through reasoning rather than by accident or were planned, and I found the concept thrilling.  I also rather enjoyed the book!

Having found detective books I read lots more Christie, being captured by Poirot in particular, then branched out into John Creasey (the Inspector Roger West books) Dorothy L Sayers (the Lord Peter Winsey books) and many others.  In later years Ian Rankin hugely impressed me by the sheer quality of the writing in the Rebus books.

Then, shortly after we moved to the Fens we were browsing in Toppings in Ely and under “Local authors” saw a book called The Crossing Places written by someone called Elly Griffiths. The premise looked interesting so we bought it.  It was about a female archaeologist named Ruth Galloway who lecturers at the university of Norfolk in Kings Lynn who is consulted by the local police inspector in regard to some child’s bones that have been discovered.  It’s an unusual book with a very human cast of characters and I enjoyed it.  And as subsequent novels in the series have been published we’ve bought them;  The Chalk Pit is the latest. 

The things that marks these books as different is partly the love of place – they are set in and around the salt  marshes of Norfolk. But another strong attraction is the way the lives of the people involved – Ruth herself, the local police and the other local people who are in the books – are all slowly developing as themselves and with each other.  They are growing in popularity and if you like the idea of a police procedural with a difference then I suspect you’ll enjoy the Ruth Galloway books.

Book 12 – Night Watch

Some time in 1986 I saw a pair of books in a bookshop.  They seemed to be an amusing and intriguing new fantasy set on a place called Discworld and captured my attention.  Titled The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic they were by an author I’d  never heard of,  named Terry Pratchett and proved to be a entertaining read. The following year two more books were published and the flow continued for 41 books, almost all of which we bought soon after publication – quite a few of which were birthday presents. 

The Discworld  books mostly fall into three main categories though these are not exclusive. The first books were about the Wizards, then came the Witches stories (which can be further subdivided into the Lancre and The Chalk witches). And then came the Watch books.  There are also various books that do not fit into any of these categories,  but they all fit into the main Discworld milieu. 

The first few books were mainly humorous but as the writing developed the themes of the books became deeper, the personalities became richer and the stories more complex. The humour remained of course; in some books (Soul Music and The Truth in particular) there’s a huge number of in-jokes, and many of the books have very funny footnotes.

The books about the Watch are those which are most grounded in humanity, with the Discworld magic more in the background rather than being part of the life experience of the people as is the case with the wizards and witches. And the exploration of humanity and self and and what it means to live in an ordered society grows through these books. At the same time Pratchett’s writing developed over the years. Night Watch is The 29th Discworld novel, the 6th in the Watch series and in my opinion shows Pratchett at his very best. It has a young Sam Vimes, young Fred Colon and a very young Nobby Nobbs, and also introduces a promising student assassin named Vetinari. It deals with tyranny,  civil unrest,  and great evil at both the individual and societal level and because of what it deals with and what Vimes discovers is the least funny of the Discworld books. Terry thought that humour just would not be appropriate given the subject matter. 

For me it ranks with I Shall Wear Midnight as his very best books,  even if the lack of humour is atypical. It is powerful, thought-provoking, engaging,  and at the same time gives an insight into some of the history of Ankh-Morpork. It’s a book that leaves the reader in a slightly sombre frame of mind but at the same time content with the outcome. 

Book 11 – Three  Men in a Boat

A few weeks ago I wrote a short blog associated with my 2017 reading project discussing some of the books that will be forthcoming over the next few months. A friend commented and gave me several suggestions of what to read,  and ended her list  with the line “And one can never read Three Men in a Boat too many times”. And I realised that she was absolutely right!

Three Men in a Boat was the first novel by Jerome K Jerome. First published in 1889 it immediately became a success, despite some critical reviews. The success continues to this day because the book has never been out of print.

It is usually described as a comic novel,  and tells of a fictional rowing trip along The Thames from London to Oxford in a skiff. The participants are Jerome himself (referred to as J throughout the book), his friends Harris and George and Montmorency, Jerome’s fox terrier. The latter is an essential part of the story,  to the extent that the subtitle is “To Say Nothing of the Dog!” But the author originally intended it to be a travel guide for rowers attempting the journey,  though his wit and imagination gradually got in the way.  What we have ended up with is one of the finest gems of English comic fiction,  that interweaves historic facts,  descriptive and almost purple prose, reflections  on life and brilliant sparkling wit.

Witty comments such as this, as J watches his friends doing the packing:
“When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world;”

Or (and did you know that Jerome coined this phase?):
“I like work;  it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

The humour, to my mind, is reflected down the years in Wodehouse and Pratchett, with the asides and anecdotes. In fact Wodehouse actually mentions one of the anecdotes in Psmith in the City.

But it’s the entirety of the book that makes it such a rewarding read.  There’s a wonderful meditation on being in the village of Runnymede on the day of the signing of the Magna Carta; and the story of the trout in the glass case; and the complete volte face on the subject of steam launches. And so on and so on.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining,  informative and witty book that also gives a good insight into late Victorian England. It has pride of place on my bookshelves, though my 1982 Penguin edition is finally falling apart – another trip to Toppings is in order!

Book 10 – The Flying Inn

G K Chesterton is a bit of a puzzle to many readers these days, but in his pomp in the first half of the last century he was a literary polymath. His output included novels, short stories, books on literature,  theology  and biography, to name but a few. He’s mainly known now for the Father Brown detective short stories, about a simple Norfolk country priest who has a knack for solving crimes, and to my mind this is rather a shame because he wrote some great stuff. 

The Flying Inn was written in 1914 and is probably one of his lesser known works, though it does contain one of my favourite poems. A taster:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. 

The story is of an aesthetic politician who manages to get through parliament a bill outlawing pubs because of his conviction that  Islam was the purest form of thought with its  ban on alcohol. Through a loophole in the law a publican named Pump and his Irish naval friend take the pub sign for The Old Ship, along with a barrel of rum and a large round cheese and open up wherever they place the sign. Hence the name, the flying Inn. 

It’s a somewhat bizarre tale that celebrates Englishness, drink and poetry and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you know Chesterton then you might well enjoy this.