Monday, 22 September 2008

Hotel world

So, another trip to the Great Wen, and now I'm sitting here in my rather drab hotel room with a view of backs-of-buildings and the small hotel garden where I had a lunchtime glass of wine on Saturday, managing despite the setting to do a bit of luxuriating in the unexpected sun. From time to time someone in our organisation makes an effort to find somewhere else to stay, and our current President hankers after a neighbouring institution whose rates nearly doubled overnight after a refit. At her instigation I investigated a number of alternatives, small, family hotels that she thought looked pleasant from the outside – I'm glad to say I resisted booking any of them until I had done a bit of research, because I quickly came up against horror stories about bedbugs and grubby sheets. We may, as a very small charity, be on a tight budget, but there is a limit to what can be tholed (good Scottish word that, inadequately translated as "put up with"). So I remain a regular at this dreary establishment, which at least provides clean sheets, adequate space for working, and hot water, as well as the worst coffee I have ever tasted. Good thing I'm a tea drinker.

To be fair, the view this visit from one of the top floors was a little more diverting, since it included the dome of the Reading Room at the British Museum, and the sinuous glass roof which covers the Great Court. By contrast, I also discovered that by leaving a crack in the curtains to allow some cooler air in, I could see the illuminated top of Centre Point while I lay in bed. For those who don't know it, this is alternately an icon of '60s architecture or a carbuncle which lay empty for years after completion. I lean towards the carbuncle school myself. Also in the view are both the BT Tower and Senate House, pictured below. Senate House, which houses the University of London Library, is a building that never fails to amaze me, making an assertively un-British statement at odds with our predisposition to classicism or to the historical vernacular which Prince Charles would prefer us to celebrate. Not surprisingly, it is much used in film and television: v
iewers of Jeeves and Wooster may recall it as Stuyvesant Towers, where Bertie lived in Manhattan, and it was effectively used as the London Tower in the 1980s' serialisation of The Day of the Triffids, the latter very much in keeping with the claim that Hitler planned to make his base there following a successful invasion of Britain; it is also supposed to have provided the inspiration for Room 101 in Orwell's 1984. After dark, with the frontage lit up, it is admittedly very striking, but to me it still looks like a paean to facism.

Photo: An Siarach

Monday, 15 September 2008

Happy Birthday, Agatha

Today is the anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth in 1890 and, although I've got a little sidetracked by Allingham, I am still reading my way through her books; I shall have to try launching a raid on the library shortly, as I only have one or two left on my TBR pile. Reading several in short succession, I've realised what a good writer she was – her dialogue in particular in excellent, and is often funny. And as I've said before, I am a huge fan of Miss Marple, who was apparently based on Christie's grandmother.

This morning it was announced on Radio 4 that Christie's grandson has found a collection of 27 half-hour tapes, made while she was working on her autobiography, in which she talks about her writing. And last night there was a new episode in the long-running ITV series with David Suchet, an adaptation of Mrs McGinty's Dead. I still have that to watch, as we were actually watching a 2006 episode last night, Taken at the Flood; it was high melodrama, quite dark and rather good – Poirot is without any of his usual sidekicks, although the local inspector is delighted to play that role. The house party that Poirot attends is a delightful collection of grotesques, with Celia Imrie relishing her part as one of the grasping family. Most of the Poirot novels and stories have now been televised with Suchet as the detective, with the likelihood of the set being completed in the future – there is only a handful of novels and a collection of short stories left now. It took me a while to warm to Suchet as Poirot but, now that I have, I find myself eagerly looking forward to them.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


I'm afraid another of my obsessions has crept over me. It's something of a family failing, since both sons are afflicted as well – once we get hold of an idea we pursue it doggedly until something else takes over. The internet feeds it, of course, since one can do so much research without ever leaving the comfort of home.

Actually this is something of a sub-obsession, since it falls within the category Books, which is one of my two major lifetime obsessions (the other is folklore, but I dip in and out of that, and anyway it could be considered a subset of Books – or possibly, vice-versa) and it is running parallel to the various other pursuits which currently
exercise my mind; these include reading my way through my 101 Children's Books and trying to extricate myself from an unhappy work situation, both of which require a good deal of research, since they keep sending me off in different directions (this is why I become agitated when studying history: I always need to go just a little further back to find out why a particular situation arose, so that I eventually find myself in a cul-de-sac indulging in wild speculation about the origins of society).

Short-lived obsessions tend to be reasonably manageable, and it's more pleasant to go with the flow than to try to overcome it. They are, however, time-consuming, and that's ultimately what kills them off; the need to spend time on more pressing matters finally trumps the satisfaction of following up the current interest. Where books are concerned it can prove expensive, however – novels at a penny on Amazon Marketplace aren't quite a
s cheap as they seem when you add on the £2.75 postage charge, and OH is inclined to point out that Bookmooch isn't quite the economy I claim (note to self: don't ask him again to post 3 books to the USA in the same week!). Bookmooch also necessitates actually parting with books, and that's very difficult, even though I'm now reduced to piling them on the floor because there is no more room on the shelves. But it's been useful for collecting children's books I no longer own, and has in the past week provided fuel for the current craze.

Today, however, will be spent catching up on everything I've been ignoring of late, garden, baking, housework, preparing for a London week and, oh dear, overdue book reviews; and instead of sitting here metaphorically sharpening my pencils I'd better get on with it.

Oh, and the nature of the current obsession? Margery Allingham – I am determined to read my way through all the Campion novels in order.

Friday, 5 September 2008

August round up

August began with good intentions about writing lots of posts and really getting myself up to date but ended in failure, and with me seriously in need of cheering up, so I've signed up for the RIP Challenge (see my last post) in the hope that I can persuade myself to celebrate the arrival of autumn rather than mourn the loss of summer (what summer?). I'm sitting here watching yet another downpour, there is a soggy patch in the middle of my duvet where The Bolter, having come in from a game of ball in the rain, flung herself down, and I'm freezing because the mosquito bites on my shoulder (unwelcome legacy of our non-summer) overheat if I wear a sweater. And it's long past time for summing up August's books:
  • Blood Trail by Tanya Huff
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett - reread
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge - reread
  • Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
  • Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh
  • The Dig by John Preston
  • Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
  • A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle
  • And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
  • Still Life by Louise Penny
There's something of a L'Engle preoccupation here – I have been enjoying her books immensely; even when she isn't writing her own brand of science fiction I like her, and the first volume of her diaries, A Circle of Quiet, is thoughtful, candid and engaging. Much of her fiction is unashamedly drawn from her own life and she clearly identifies strongly with her young characters, particularly Vicky in the Austins series, or Flip in And Both Were Young. This last is set in a boarding school in Switzerland, reminding me immediately of the Chalet School stories and indeed, the young Flip goes through the same sort of transformation I remember as characteristic of Brent-Dyer's books, and the reason why I liked them. L'Engle complains in her diaries about her tendency to state the obvious, but I think it can take courage and conviction to do so, and it seems to me that much of the appeal of her writing is her willingness to do just that, to talk about those qualities that have become unfashionable – humility, compassion and charity (in its original sense). L'Engle was a Christian, and I'm not, but I find her universalism marries well with my woolly neo-Aristotelianism, and I spend a good deal of time staring into space thinking about what she has to say; it even prompts me, as I write this, to look at the rich shades of green outside the window, rather than the rain, and to notice that there is much coming and going of small birds in the ash tree opposite, and the swallows are wheeling against a grey sky.

I re-read What Katy Did and The Secret Garden so that I can start recording my thoughts about the individual books on my list of children's writing, so posts on both will follow. I found myself wanting very much to follow Katy Carr's later adventures in just the same way I did when younger. Next on this particular reading list, however, is Little House on the Prairie.

Ann at Table Talk recommended John Preston's The Dig, and wrote about it here, much better than I should do. It left me wanting to read up on the Sutton Hoo excavations, and grateful for the variety of information available on the web to satisfy these dilettante-ish wishes. I read Louise Penny's Still Life for the Second Canadian Book Challenge, so it will be the subject of a future post (must do it soon!). The first in a series of detective stories set in rural Quebec, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Finally, Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher, was another book that set me searching the Internet, this time for photos and locations of the statues who come to life in this first of a series. This book seems to have had a somewhat mixed reception when it was published a couple of years ago but it was nominated for the Carnegie medal, and I enjoyed it. It may be more fun if you know London a little: there's a good map at the start but, in the old days it might have been illustrated by someone like Charles Keeping, who would have provided wonderfully muscular images. The descriptive writing is good, though, and the multi-layered un-London, with its history which is accessible to Edie, because she is special – a "glint" – should spark curiosity among the book's readers. The first depiction that I remember of London's frost fairs was in Woolf's Orlando (where it rather took second place to my worries about the ambivalent sexuality of the protagonist – I was much too young to be reading it); here the event is chilling in every sense. Because Fletcher's London is simultaneously Dickensian, Elizabethan and modern the sense of place and timelessness is strong, while the impression of temporal dislocation is reflected in the insecurities of the two children, George and Edie, who are forced into premature independence by their dysfunctional backgrounds, and by the events George unwittingly triggers when he breaks a carving at the Natural History Museum. The book's conclusion is subdued, with the promise of an even scarier sequel. Apparently the film rights have been sold: in the right hands this could be a splendidly terrifying film.