Thursday, January 21, 2010

" A meme about books"

I stole this from Barbara Smith. But it's about books. How could I not?

1. Which book has been on your shelves the longest?

An oxford pocket dictionary bought in 1971 to start high school. If dictionaries don’t count then a now very tatty paperback copy of Michael Alexander’s translation of Beowulf.
2. What is your current read, your last read and the book you'll read next?

Currently reading ‘Hereward the Wake” It's awful so i blame Linda davis. Just finished The Pen Friend by Ciaran Cason and The monk. (who reads one book at a time?) Next non work read is Varney the Vampire though I think I have to read Butler’s Gender Trouble First..

3. What book did everyone like and you hated?

Don’t often hate books. I hated Eagleton’s “How to read a Poem” with the kind of hatred that is dangerously close to irrational loathing but I don’t know if anyone else liked it.
4. Which book do you keep telling yourself you'll read, but you probably won't?

The fairy Queen. I get about half way through and crash.
5. Which book are you saving for "retirement?"

why save a book?
6. Last page: read it first or wait till the end?

Depends. Most often or not I read the last page first.
7. Acknowledgments: waste of ink and paper or interesting aside?

I always read them. When I was kayaking it used to be a way of finding what some of my friends were up to…All the poetry I’ve published has been read by friends before it ever saw the light of day and some of their comments have been invaluable. Especially with the longer sequences it’s a big ask getting someone to read and comment. So I always try and say thank you.
8. Which book character would you switch places with?

I can think of three characters I’d like to swop with and three books I’d like to be in: I want Thursday Next’s job please. (what reader doesn’t). or to be the River Rat in Wind in the Willows or Lucas Corso in The Dumas club. Then I’d like to be in The House at Pooh Corner; At Swim Two Birds , and Ulysses. (Actually, I’d like to be Ulysses. The whole book.)

 9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time)?

Too many
10. Name a book you acquired in some interesting way.

All the Russias by Henry’s an old old book. I did a slide show at bill’s Adventure bookshop in Maleny and instead of paying me he gave me that and a couple more beautiful books. Best payment I’ve ever had for shooting my mouth off in public. (He also had a first edition of the Ascent of Rum Doodle which he didn’t give me.)
11. Have you ever given away a book for a special reason to a special person?

I tend to buy specific books for those kind of people.
12. Which book has been with you to the most places?

 Probably that Pocket dictionary and Beowulf if we’re talking houses. Copies of Ulysses (I’ve killed a few) have probably clocked the most air miles. Mandeville and Basho did the trans Siberian. My paperback of Byron’s Don Juan did the whole Russian/Central Asian trip so I think it has done the most land and river miles and probably been read in the weirdest of places.
13. Any "required reading" you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad ten years later?

 I hated it all and still can’t read a lot of it. I don’t remember liking anything we had to read except for Othello. My teacher put me off Keats and it wasn’t til I was at uni that I reread bits of it and saw it might have some value. Going the other way i loved Lawrence's Pansies when i first found them (we "did" some of his poems for O level. Didn't read them for years. Recently i found a cheap copies of his collected poems. It still sparks.(and no i don't like his prose or his attitudes)
14. What is the strangest item you’ve ever found in a book?

Creepiest was a lipstick smudge on a copy of Shadowland that I swear wasn’t there when I started reading that page. I buy a lot of second hand books so I’ve found everything from letters to flowers, ferry tickets, plane tickets, postcards blank or otherwise. None of them seem strange really
15. Used or brand new?

Both. I don’t’ care. . I like the second handedness of second hand books. I like the marginal scribbles and the underlining. I like the idea of an ongoing conversation with people I’ll never meet. I also love the smell of second hand books. James and I were actually sniffing a set in a book shop when we realised the owner was watching. Expecting to be embarrassed, he said: if you like that, try this..and gave us some first edition Arabian nights to savour…Book sniffers of the world unite!
16. Stephen King: Literary genius or opiate of the masses?

Neither. Damn good at what he does if you like what he does. I prefer early Straub.
17. Have you ever seen a movie you liked better than the book?

Yes. Lair of the White Worm. The film is bad but it’s a vast improvement on the book.
18. Conversely, which book should NEVER have been introduced to celluloid. Ulysses. Stoker’s Dracula. (Polanski’s version of the Dumas club is so bad it’s really a different story.)
19. Have you ever read a book that's made you hungry, cookbooks being excluded from this question?

Can’t say so.

20. Who is the person whose book advice you'll always take?

I’ll take anybodies.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The monk

Found shamelessly reading The Monk.

It’s awful. The editor’s introduction (reprinted from the 1906 edition) gets it right:
“There is food for thought in the case of a man of mere average ability who, on the strength of one crude production written in his teens, was able to find publishers and a market for a miscellaneous series of works that would daunt the hardihood of the most indefatigable researcher to read now …but was regarded as among the leading men of letters of his day.”

Mathew Gregory Lewis was so famous for his book that he was known as “Monk Lewis”. He knew Byron and Moore.
Written in 1795 before the author was twenty, (like Vathek, except Beckford could write) the book attracted such praise and blame that the second edition was “expurgated” by the author.

The writing is awful. Not “awful by modern standards” but just “awful”. It’s hard to believe that Byron admired the book; though possibly it was the idea of openly admiring such a shocking story that was attractive to his lordship. (Actually given B’s biography there may have a been a bit of self identification at work).

There’s a certain sour attraction to the main plot line. And it’s obviously a very English assault on the perceived uglyness of the Catholic church and some of its institutions. (Which links it to Melmoth but Maturin could write) )
Ambrosio the monk begins life as a paragon of religious virtue and the story traces his slippery descent from fornication with another monk..( a woman disguised as a monk, or a devil disguised as a woman disguised as a monk) to destruction by the devil himself. On the way he becomes an obvious candidate for the Group W Bench with mother killing, sister raping and sister stabbing along the way, before being caught and mangled by the Inquisition and then signing a pact with Satan who admits he’s been after him all along, sinks his claws into his skull, flies him up to a great height and drops him.

There’s lots more: sub plots on sub plots…a Bleeding Nun, villains in way side inns, a pregnant nun, who is killed then found alive, brothers losing sisters and finding them, a lover who after losing his lover and finding her raped and stabbed takes up with a conveniently good looking nun who isn’t a nun …You could troop the colour through the plot holes..(Rosario the monk who is actually Matilda who is actually a devil is examined by the convent doctor who doesn’t seem to notice his patient is a woman and this doesn’t surprise Ambrosio.)

So, Le Fanu is still leading hands down. There is only Varney the Vampyre left to consider.

(According to Brewer's "to win hands down" comes from racing where a jockey who is taking it easy has his hands down and one who is trying hard has his hands up).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coventry June 1604 (The early joys of dictionaries)

27th to be precise
Robert Cawdrey (who?) signs the epistle to his book:

A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsual English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, latine or French.

Which will be published in London.

The first monolingual English dictionary, with "hard usual words" set out in alphebetical order. Hard to imagine how revolutionary the idea was. The attempt was not to explain all words, just the hard ones. As simon Winchester pointed out when Shakespeare was writing, he could consult books on history. There were atlases, prayer books, missals, biographies, romances and pamphlets. There were guides to rhetoric. There was even a book he could use to check his classical allusions. But he had no way to find out if his use of the word Consanguineous meant what he thought it did. Nor could his audience, on hearing the word, go home and find out what it meant by consulting a dictionary.

No dictionary. No coffee. He do it the hard way.

Consanguinity is in Cawdrey. Not that his little book was always so useful.

Crocodile. beast.

However Cawdrey's book was so novel that he had to explain why he'd written it. He also had to explain to the reader how it was set out:

If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand and to profit by this table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of Letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where every Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (Ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of the letter (c).

(yes he does spell beginning two different ways.)

The book has only recently (2007) been given a modern printing. It's the beginning of the great tradition of English Dictionaries (what little that's known of Cawdrey suggests he was as awkward and odd as you'd expect which is another part of the tradition) ) ; but what a beginning, and in Coventry too.

Anti Blurb wars part three

Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography

The blurb claims this is “Authoritative but often wryly amusing…” but more importantly: “featuring numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates and including brand new research which reveals previously unreported details Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography will remain the standard work on the man for years to come.”

So let’s see: “Authoritative” could mean any number of things.
the author does have a tendency to lay down the law about what is and isn't good about the songs or individual records. But unless you're the kind of person who wants to be told what to like, it's a bit tedious.
There’s already a very good biography of Cohen, by Ira Nadel called Various Positions. It’s more a literary biography than a piece of glib rock journalism but the list of people Nadel interviewed and consulted is a long one. The only real criticism you can level against it is that it’s almost hagiographical.

So wouldn’t you expect a book which is claiming to be “the standard work on the man” to be driven by its own agenda which would necessitate the writer moving away from what is readily available? Wouldn’t you expect it to include some interviews with the man himself, conducted by the writer? How do you write an authoritative biography of a living subject if you don’t ask him or her the questions that are driving your biography.

"So Wordsworth, what does it feel like to have been instrumental in killing off one of the greatest talents in English poetry?"
"Harold, what the hell were you thinking?"

If you simply cobble together your work from the answers to other people’s questions aren’t you just retracing the well known tracks? Wouldn’t you think that maybe interviewing the ex wife, or some of the women who figure so prominently in the songs might be a good idea? (it would be the one way to improve on Nadal’s biography). Footman did neither.
So the blurb says:
“numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates”
There are 200 endnotes to the biography section of the biography. Of these 5 are credited as “interview with the author[Footman]”. Is five numerous? It’s easily outnumbered by references or quotes taken from either Nadal’s Biography or Harry Rasky’s book.
"Exclusive" perhaps but “Some of Cohen’s key associates”…so if you know Cohen’s story think of “key associates“ ..Sharon Robertson, Jennifer Warnes, Rosco Beck.. or Marianne, the ex wife, the “real Suzanne”, Anjani Thomas, Dominique Isserman…? People he knew on Hydra/Nashville/Montreal?
As far as I can make out the “original interviews’ were carried out in May or June 2009 and the book was published in November 2009. Which suggests a lot. The subjects of the "numerous and exclusive" interviews were John Simon John Lissauer, and Stephen Scobie. (Scobie’s work on Cohen has been a long term academic project which actually treats the man’s work with the attention it deserves but nothing he’s quoted as saying here is of that standard.)
I’m not sure what the “previously unreported details” can be since most of the information in this book is taken from previously published and often readily available material.

I think there's a point where blurbs move from being overblown and funny towards being dishonest.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


One of the first Kayaking courses I ran. A week long residential course for adults. In Cornwall. Great place but not for a kayaking course. Anyway.
We're in the pub on the last night going round the table: "What's your best moment?" (leading up to "What do you suggest we change?")
She was twenty three, and had come on the course with her husband on a "let's do something weird and different" impulse.
Her answer: "Being In a field". She paused and thought about it."The one that had the real cows in it. I'm gonna remember that for a long time."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The point of all this slang…apart from the pleasure of it.

(In the canting tongue to open the door is “to dup the gigger”. “To mill the ken” is to rob the house…I will find a way to use these phrases!)
I started out looking for the source of a phrase and was surprised to find that its origins were mid 20th American, not English as I thought.
There’s an undoubted attraction to language that is indigenous to place and time. Barry Lopez went so far as to suggest that genuine mental health is tied into the usage of a language that is organic to the place where it is being used. And certainly Seamus Heaney et al have made their localised dialect a cornerstone of their practice.
In England, language spoken under a cloth cap with ferrets down its trousers always seemed “authentic” in a way that FSE never did.
But when I came to write Lady G I thought about making it specifically west midlands and realised I couldn’t. It’s true that you can argue that the man from Stratford wrote the plays of Shakespeare because so many purely Warwickshire words and expression turn up in them.
But Coventry was a migrant’s city. In some ways it always had been.
According to the VCH, after the war the percentage of incomers to the city was disproportionately high. The people I went to (RC) school with had parents who were Irish, Polish, Yugoslavian, Lithuanian, and 'Slovakian. Neither of mine were born there. There must have been some English but the swirl of voices was anything but indigenous.
This was compounded by our English teachers who laboured under the now unfashionable idea that teaching the children of NESB migrants Formal Standard English was a door opening activity. (“Sir, may we use contractions in our stories?” ”Only in Dialogue, and only if it is essential!”)
So apart from the fact that the way I say Bus and Road betray my place of origin, I have no local dialect to fall back on, no “thole” to make a fuss about. Damn. But then it occurs to me the attraction of the local in a world of mass movements is a kind of romantic nostalgia. I'd love to know how many people live and die in the place they are born. I'm betting it's not the majority. How many of Heaney’s readers have stuck their hands up a cow’s arse?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Even More joys of Slang

The excitement of discovering that what you thought the phrase meant is exactly what it 1811

Slang dictionaries remind me that whatever the rules are, the words will always escape. They don’t remain tied to their classifications as parts of speech, and they certainly don’t rest in the comfort of a neat dictionary definition. Nor will they be tied down to the ball and chain of etymology.

It’s reassuring though to find phrases I thought I’d misheard, misremembered or which had simply been misused. I’d come to the conclusion that Cupboard Love must have been a mistake (perhaps for covert love) but no, it’s there and it meant what I thought it meant. As does/did Mumchancing.

It’s even more reassuring to find out how much hasn’t changed. Phrases that needed explaining in 1811: Kick the bucket, out of kilter, a lazy man’s load, lop-sided, queer street, toddle etc etc meant the same thing 150 years later and were still colouring the speech of adults and children alike.

And then there are the phrases used today which needed explaining then and which, if you stop and think about them, don’t make any more literal sense now. A shop lifter. To sit bolt upright. To be taken in.