Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Coincidence No. 544 – Kafka

The day before yesterday I start reading Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint. It is about the court case settling where Franz Kafka’s manuscripts should reside.

Yesterday I see that Facebook has added to People You May Know a certain Beverley Kafka. I don’t know her, it looks like she may be a friend of a friend of my mum.

Today I am walking in East Finchley Cemetery – it is perhaps only the second time I have been in here. (I am writing this in the shade of a spreading old oak.) At the turn to this side of the extensive mid-19C cemetery is the grave of Dorothy Kafka, born 1930, died 1988. The objective of my walk in the cemetery is to find a quiet spot out of the sun to read Kafka’s Last Trial.

I have never met or come across anyone called Kafka before.

Coincidence Nos. 362 & 363 – words

A couple of standard word ones but nice examples…

No. 362 Kabyle

I am watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance film ‘L’Armée des Ombres’ (thanks to my free 3-month trial of Mubi through the Phoenix Cinema) and the protagonist mentions that in the prison camp where he finds himself are Poles, Romanians, Jews of various nationalities and ‘Kabyles’. I’ve never come across that word. The film is set in France.

48 hours later I am reading ‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud and he refers to “a Kabyle waiter the size of a giant”. It is set in Algeria.

‘Kabyle’ relates to a Berber population in Northern Algeria.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud novel cover book

No. 363 Gimlet

I begin my second plague book for the lockdown – Jack London’s ‘Scarlet Plague’. In the opening chapter is the sentence: “In marked contrast with his sunburned skin were his eyes – blue, deep blue, but keen and sharp as a pair of gimlets. I don’t know what a ‘gimlet’ is – at least I didn’t until a few days ago.

Gimlets have been in my life recently only through Gimlet Media, the podcast outfit that make one of my favourite podcasts, ‘Heavyweight‘. I also have a vague notion of it in the realm of cocktails.

I am reading a book – ‘Get Wallace!’ by Alexander Wilson (1934) – and the word ‘gimlet’ comes up and I bother looking it up: “a small T-shaped tool with a screw tip for boring holes”

'Get Wallace!' by Alexander Wilson (1934) novel book cover

 

Coincidence No. 361 – Thalia

(1) I am sitting in my garden in East Finchley reading ‘Get Wallace!’ by Alexander Wilson (the subject of the excellent drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ played by Iain Glen – grandfather of actress Ruth Wilson who I had a very enjoyable chat with at last year’s TV BAFTAs at the Festival Hall, as well as with her father who was one of the sons of Alexander). The sentence I am reading is:

You left her in the company of Thalia Ictinos, and in your pocket were the documents I want.

(2) My other half is listening to Cerys Matthews on Radio 6. As I read the above sentence Cerys gives a shout-out to a man’s 11 year old daughter in Finchley called Thalia.

I have never met anyone called Thalia.

get wallace alexander wilson book cover

mrs-wilson-iain-glen-ruth-wilson-tv

19 years and counting

Our book group started in November 2001 with much the same personnel as we have now (lost one or two along the way with moves out of town etc., added one or two to bring fresh blood). I’ve ended up being the one archiving the titles read so here is the last two years’ worth since I last made a record in December 2017.

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer book novel cover design

  • Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff – Feb 2018
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens – Mar 2018
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Apr 2018
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid – June 2018
  • The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst – Sept 2018
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – Oct 2018
  • Arno Geiger – The Old King in his Exile (Oct-Nov 2018)
  • Ann Tyler – Back when we were grown-ups (Dec-Jan 2019)
  • Crudo – Olivia Laing (Jan-Feb 2019)
  • I Served The King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (Mar-Apr 2019)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Apr-May 2019)
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (June-Aug 2019) [my choice]
  • To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek (Sep-Oct 2019)
  • The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Nov-Dec 2019)
  • Karoo – Steve Tesich (Dec-Jan 2020)
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Feb-Mar 2020)
  • A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (March 2020)
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (April 2020)
To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek book novel cover design

A fine plague book

 

World of Zoom 3

It’s exactly a week since my second reflections on online conferencing which was exactly a week from my first reflections on online conferencing. This only slightly less weird week this morning brought the best Zoom background of the Lockdown from my colleague Simon Goodman at Showem Entertainment, with whom I made Naked & Invisible and In Your Face

simon goodman zoom background 2020-04-03

The other Zoom highlights included, after nagging from me, shifting the long-standing Charles Peake Ulysses Seminar from Senate House, University of London to online (for the first time). Also having our first ever online book group after 20 years IRL.

Book group zoom screen

The distinctive thing about this session was that we didn’t discuss a book. We were supposed to be talking about A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke but our host for the evening is down with… yes, you guessed it, Corvid19. We didn’t want him to miss the discussion of the book he had chosen (it only comes round about once every two yaers that you get to choose) so we just chewed the fat about life, love and the universe – and the plague.

Coincidence No. 488 – Bletchley Park

bletchley park the mansion codebreakers

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

I go to meet my cousin from Melbourne, Australia at my old home tube in Tufnell Park. We have never met before. She has come to London to work as a mathematician at the Alan Turing Institute in King’s Cross. Mention of Turing’s name prompts me to ask whether she has visited Bletchley Park yet? She has. I explain how it was very little known about until Peter Bate, David Darlow & John Smithson made the TV series Station X for my alma mater Channel 4 in 1998. We talk about how the men and women of Bletchley Park did not talk about it for five decades until the interviewees for the programmes got permission from the MoD. We talk about Sue Black who saved Bletchley and who I got to know originally during my time at C4.

I get on the bus to come home. I open my novel, Old Filth by Jane Gardam, which we are reading for my book group. (I’ve just looked it up because I suspected as much… Jane Gardam is the mother of Tim Gardam, now Principle of St Anne’s College, Oxford, in 2003 Director of Television at Channel 4 when I joined.) This was on the page I was up to and started reading on the top front tourist seat on the 263:

But they had me later in the War at Bletchley Park and there we met again. [NB Bletchley had not been mentioned in the novel before or had any role in the story] Bletchley Park was full of innocent, nice girls (not me) who had a very particular aptitude (crosswords) for solving cyphers and things, as you will be hearing in a year or two when ALL IS TOLD (the fifty year revelation).

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Hut 1, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Hut 1, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Lake, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Lake, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Marilyn & Ulysses

marilyn monroe reading james joyce ulysses

Marilyn reading the best book ever written

In my last post I included this photo by Eve Arnold, shot in Long Island in 1955. If you’re wondering whether it was just a pose and whether blondes prefer Irish gentlemen as a source of reading matter, this letter from Eve Arnold contains the answer:

eve arnold_letter to Richard Brown about _marilyn monroe_ulysses

Eve Arnold to Richard Brown, 20th July 1993

The letter is a response to Richard Brown, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Leeds, a Joyce specialist. Brown subsequently wrote an essay entitled Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Postcultural Cyborg? Which is the kind of title that puts people off of academia. But his query to Arnold was an interesting one and I’m glad he asked.

Marilyn Monroe Reads Joyce’s Ulysses eve arnold

The Long Island playground shoot 1955

Marilyn was frequently photographed reading – which in my book is a big plus even when you are a blonde bombshell.

Marilyn Monroe Reads Arthur Miller's Enemy of the People

Close to home: Arthur Miller

Marilyn Monroe Reads walt whitman's leaves-of-grass

Turning over an old leaf: Walt Whitman

Life in a nutshell

reading books life

Enfant Terrible No. 1 sent me this the other day – it more or less captures my worldview.

4 places worth visiting in Vilnius

I was in Lithuania last week working on ESoDoc, a workshop and development space for social documentaries. The last time I worked on it was back in 2010 in Tenno, Northern Italy. We were based this time in the National Library of Lithuania and between sessions I adopted my favourite role of flâneur.

1. The National Library of Lithuania

the national library of lithuania vilnius 1919

Its classical grandeur dates back to 1919, the year after Lithuanian independence from Germany and Russia. It sits next door to the modern parliament building which stems from Lithuania’s second independence day, 11th March 1990, the first of the Baltic States to break away from the USSR.

Lithuania parliament vilnius

An important emblem of Democracy

The books in the main atrium are cleverly decorated with black covering on their spines to create the faces of various key literary/historical figures.

Lithuania national library vilnius

2. Knygynas VAGA book shop

Knygynas VAGA bookstore book shop Vilnius lithuania

Knygynas VAGA book shop

A book shop where you can get strudel – what’s not to love? Really enjoyed hanging out here. Had to speak German as the strudel lady couldn’t speak English. We struggled a bit trying to identify pumpkin.

I picked up two Lithuanian novels in English here: Cold East by Gabija Grušaitė (“A new voice that disrupted Lithuanian lierature”) and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (a Lithuanian American, author of the very successful debut Between Shades of Gray).

3. The Republic of Užupis

uzupis republic vilnius lithuania

Border of the Republic

A hippy, bohemian quarter a bit like Chrisiania in Copenhagen. The name means “other side of the river” – it sits in a loop on the far side of the Vilnia. It declared itself a republic in 1998 – it has its own flag, currency, constitution and ambassadors (including my friend author Charlie Connelly who it turns out is their UK ambassador – I believe drink may have been involved in precipitating this appointment). They change the flag every season – it is currently blue for Winter.

uzupis flag vinius lithuania

Winter – blue, Spring – green, Summer – yellow, Autumn – red

It began life in the 16th century as a mainly Jewish area. WW2 reduced the Jewish population of Vilnius from 58,000 to 2,000. The Soviets then destroyed the cemetery up the hill from Užupis.

Now it’s mainly an artistic area, albeit a gentrified one at this point. Between the War and Independence in 1990 it was the realm of the homeless and prostitutes, very neglected. Needless to say, the artists moved in and made it cool and meaningful. Gotta love the artists. It still has a certain charm and some good street art. It seems to have been set up as an artistic provocation, to prompt important conversation. The Republic’s independence day is 1st April.

4. The Ghetto

the site of the great synagogue vilnius lithuania

Site of the Great Synagogue

Vilnius had two ghettos during the Nazi period – the small and the large. They both got liquidated (or “liquidized” as one Lithuanian tourist website has it) by Nazis and Lithuanian police shooting tens of thousands of Jews in the forests around the city. Above is the site of the Great Synagogue where 3,000-5,000 worshippers could be accommodated. It was damaged in the War but the Soviets were the ones who finished the job in the mid-50s, turning a magnificent building into an architecturally insignificant kindergarten (in the background above). I had an interesting chat with a Polish woman at this sign. She told me how poor all the Poles were before the war. Just like the citizen of Neulengbach in Austria (location of Egon Schiele’s studio) who told me how poor the Austrians were.

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

Commemorating the inhabitants of the ghetto

Despite these dark shadows I enjoyed the ghetto area in its autumn colours. I could sense the people. I sat in an open area reading a Lew Archer novel and sucking up the vibes. The city has peppered the area with monochrome murals of the former citizens, with QR codes linking to some basic information. I wonder what this fella would have made of QR codes…

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

QR codes schmoo R codes

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

oskar kokoschka kunstler und poeten book cover design

The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

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