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School’s out.

As the youngest member of the AHRB family, I inevitably face the rite of passage that Adrian, Jon, Ben, Lucas, and James have already experienced – graduation. I am soon to graduate (with, for those curious, a rather handy degree in English and American Literature), and leave education behind. This reluctant move into the ‘real world’ has left me curious of the educational and post-graduate escapades of some of our most beloved authors. And so, for your amusement and inspiration, here lies the success (and failures) of authors at graduation age.

Dr Seuss. Dr. Seuss (or Theodor Seuss Geisel, as he was known in 1925 when he graduated from Dartmouth College) spent much of his college education drinking, writing, drawing, and joining societies. If this sounds like the way you survived higher education, then congratulations! It seems you’re in good company. Geisel was part of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and wrote for the humour magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. His work was well received, and he was eventually he was promoted to editor-in-chief. But it was not to last. While at Dartmouth, Geisel was caught drinking gin with nine friends in his room – a typical student activity, but highly illegal under the Prohibition laws in place between 1920 and 1933. The infraction led Dean Craven Laycock to demand that Geisel withdraw from all extracurricular activities, including the college humour magazine. However, in a strange twist of fate, Geisel’s newly barred status led him to write secretly, under the pen name “Seuss”. Of course, Dr. Seuss came to be one of the most adored and quotable children’s writers of all time, and a household name. It seems that Dean Laycock did the young Theodor Seuss Geisel something of a favour.

Enid Blyton. After finishing school in 1915 as head girl, 18-year-old Enid Blyton moved out of the family home following continuing conflicts with her mother. She stayed with her friend Mary Attenborough, before moving on to live with George and Emily Hunt at Seckford Hall, in Suffolk. The house was a source of inspiration for Blyton, with its allegedly haunted room and secret passageway. Fans of Five or Seven will recognise these settings captured in her stories. Blyton made a friend in Ida Hunt, a teacher at Ipswich High School, who recognised Blyton’s natural affinity with children and spirited imagination. Hunt suggested that Blyton should train as a teacher, leading her to enrol in a National Froebel Union teacher training course in September 1916. As she entered higher education, Blyton’s relationship with her family had almost ceased completely. Whilst facing rejected manuscripts and criticism, Blyton gained her teaching certificate, with distinctions in zoology and principles of education, a 1st class in botany, geography, practice and history of education, child hygiene and class teaching, and a 2nd class in literature and elementary mathematics. Blyton’s formal education and passion for writing continued in a symbiotic relationship throughout much of her life. Indeed, when Blyton cemented her reputation as a children’s writer in 1926 (in her new role as editor of Sunny Stories, a magazine re-telling legends, stories and articles for children), the same year saw her presented with her own column in Teachers’ World, entitled “From my Window”.

J.K. Rowling. Rowling has stated in interview that her teenage years were not happy. She faced difficulty at home with her mother’s multiple sclerosis, and a complicated relationship with her father. One of her English teachers described the young student as “not exceptional” but “one of a group of girls who were bright, and quite good at English”. Although apparently unremarkable, Rowling was made head girl, and successfully completed A Levels in English, French and German. She was rejected by Oxford upon application, but chose to pursue a degree in French and Classics at the University of Exeter. Rowling recounts doing little work in these years, instead preferring to listen to The Smiths, and read. After graduating in 1986, Rowling moved to London for a career in research, working as bilingual secretary for Amnesty International. However, the period to come would be deeply challenging for Rowling, as she saw the end of her marriage, and unpleasant legal battles. In a TED talk, Rowling has revealed that seven years after graduating from university, she saw herself as a failure – her marriage had disintegrated, she was jobless, and with a dependent child. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide – indeed, her illness inspired the characters known as Dementors. Rowling signed up for welfare benefits, describing her economic status as being “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” Nonetheless, she persevered in creating perhaps the most iconic children’s character of all time, and in 1995 (the year I was born!), finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on an old manual typewriter. 21 years later, J.K. Rowling, OBE FRSL, is the United Kingdom’s best-selling living author, with sales in excess of £238m. But more importantly, Rowling has inspired and delighted millions of children, and has demonstrated a true devotion to charitable causes, losing her billionaire status in 2012 after donating so much of her fortune.

Stephen King. King studied at the University of Maine, graduating in 1970 with a BA in English. During his time at university, King wrote a column for the student newspaper, The Maine Campus, titled “Steve King’s Garbage Truck”, and undertook several odd jobs to pay for his studies – including janitor, gas pump attendant, and working at an industrial laundry. After leaving the university, King earned a certificate to teach high school but (like many postgrads) found himself unable to find a teaching post. The man who would become the 20th bestselling author of all time (and in only 43 years) began writing short stories in a desperate bid for spare cash. King supplemented his labouring wage by selling short stories to men’s magazines, and sold his first ‘professional’ short story in 1967. Throughout the 1970s, King continued to sell short stories and work on ideas for novels. However, this period also saw him develop a drinking problem (and later, substance abuse) which would plague him for more than a decade. King’s addictions to alcohol and other drugs were so serious during the 1980s that, as he acknowledged in On Writing in 2000, he can barely remember writing Cujo. Shortly after the novel’s publication, King’s family and friends staged an intervention; they dumped beer cans, cigarette butts, grams of cocaine, Xanax, Valium, NyQuil, dextromethorphan (cough syrup) and marijuana on the rug in front of him. King sought help in the late 1980s, and has remained sober since. Today, King lives with his wife, Tabitha King, and has three children, and four grandchildren. He continues to horrify and bedazzle readers every year with new publications, to critical acclaim.

It is immeasurably comforting to see the success (and even difficulties) of others, and know that every year, graduates may be one of a million, or one in a million. Perhaps cheesy, perhaps naïve, but evidently true.

I’ll let Neil Gaiman see us out:

“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”

From Mons to the Marne: A Diary.

This Diary was written from memory a year after the events occurred, all notes etc. having been lost when I was hit.

So begins the war diary of Major Beauchamp Tudor St. John of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

Major St. John was a professional soldier at the outbreak of the War, and quite well-connected. Nevertheless he records his incredulity at the thought of a great European conflict, even considering the intransigence of Serbia and the knowledge that Britain would indeed support France against Germany.

Shortly before war was declared, he was sent with a small detachment to guard Bedhampton water works from attack by foreign agents – a task he believed himself completely incapable of achieving considering the meagre resources at his disposal, not to mention the absence of most Staff Officers at the Goodwood Races. Then, following the general order to mobilise, it was discovered that the fighting efficiency of the regular army would be severely reduced by the massive influx of Reservists necessary to bring the numbers up to a respectable level for a continental expeditionary force. Finally, to crown this catalogue of errors, there was even a threat of strike action from the seamen of the Union Castle Line, which has been engaged to send the Regiment across to France. Once disembarked at Le Havre, the camp site was poorly chosen and supplies were unavailable. The war had not started auspiciously for Major St. John…

After just a few days the Colonel convened a council of war, and orders were issued to intercept the German advance in Belgium. The Battalion was to guard a section of the canal and railway west of Mons, which they quickly fortified before the Germans arrived. The ‘approach of the dreaded Uhlans’ was certainly met with some competent resistance by the British along Major St. John’s line of defence, but they were finally out-witted by a dastardly Hun ploy to release children onto the battlefield, creating a diversion which allowed them to cross the canal and flank the British positions. The inevitable consequence was an orderly retreat back beyond the town where trenches could be dug. In the morning, however, they discovered that their position had been compromised by a spy pretending to be drunk the previous evening, leaving their flanks dangerously exposed once again, precipitating yet another retreat. This action was quickly countermanded, sending the men back into the trenches, and then an hour later an official order arrived signaling a retreat once again. The Battalion then found itself trapped and exposed on a road behind a make-shift barricade in a village. Major St. John declares it was pure luck that they were not rushed and destroyed at once by the Germans, and that they saw an opportunity to leave their position and re-join the main retreat.

The Uhlans continued to chase them and, even as new trenches were dug,  it was decided to evacuate Belgium altogether. The retreat became progressively more chaotic, and the men’s feet were ruined by the rapid pace – Major St. John reports 62 miles in 48 hours. Shortly after this he was attacked by a nasty case of the runs and was sent off to see a doctor once the Battalion had crossed the Marne and passed through Meux. Near Le Maus, having escaped the hospital, Major St. John found a ‘luxurious life of eating and drinking, shooting and motoring’ at Chateau Chardonnieux for 10 days, before starting out on “Light Duty” at the base garrison in the town. During this time he noticed a brilliant example of German forward planning and thoroughness:

About Six or eight months before War broke out a commercial traveller came to Le Maus and proceeded to flood every sort of little shop with a patent boot polish called “Lion Noir”. This was planted on very advantageous terms to the middleman or retailer on condition that a sign, showing a black roaring lion on a yellow background with a tin of boot polish between its pads, was exhibited outside the shop… In some the head would be looking one way, in others the opposite way. Some had tails going straight, some had a twist in them, the legs of the beast were different in some to those of others and so on. The object of all this was a code for directing a rapid raiding party to every sort of place such as the Bank, the Cathedral, the Barracks, etc. I used to amuse myself following up the various clues to see where I got to.

It wasn’t until 13th of October that Major St. John was able to board a train the return to the front, by which time the general retreat had halted and skirmishing with the Germans had begun. After one final maneouver of the line trenches were dug and the Western Front as we know it best today began to take shape, albeit without the complex support trenches, dug-outs or reserve systems of later seasons. In just a week the Brigade lost 12,000 men.

On 1st November Major St. John was hit in the right arm and twice through the neck by machine gun fire as he tried to cross a short patch of open ground. Owing to a long series of lucky chances he was rescued, made it back to England, and made a full recovery, despite being given up for dead on a number of occasions. Like so many private unpublished diaries of the First World War, Major St. John’s is detailed, eloquent, astute and often brutally honest about the numbing horror of mechanised warfare. It is hard to say, though, quite how much store should be set by such a detailed account written entirely from memory a year after the events concerned – one might compare it with the questionable account written by T.E. Lawrence about his involvement in the Arab rising agaisnt the Ottoman administration in Damascus, which Lawrence famously left on a train just as it was ready for press.

This diary, and many other very special books relating the the First World War, will be available in our Summer Great War Catalogue.

James Murray, 08/04/16

Beyond the Great War

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The Great War in Europe was not the only prelonged conflict in the early twentieth century. War had been endemic between Mexico and the United States for decades, and in 1916, before the US officially joined the European war, it was very much business as usual.

In March 1916 the rebel Mexican General Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa attacked the US army near Columbus, destroying the border town in the process. President Woodrow Wilson sent out an expeditionary force to apprehend the General, which nearly led to another war between the two countries. Later known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, this was in many ways a pivotal moment in the Great War as well, since a full-blown conflict with Mexico would have prevented the much-needed influx of US troops on the Western Front in 1917. Indeed, the now infamous Zimmerman Telegram of January 1917 actually proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico, designed to keep the US out of the war in return for generous financial support for a Mexican reconquest of territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

In our up-coming Great War catalogue, due to be released in the summer, we have an intriguing scrapbook made by the family of one of the National Guardsmen sent out on this expedition.

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The brilliantly named ‘Hunk’ Hevenor left his family home in Albany, NY, in June 1916. Aged just 21, he was given a few weeks of basic training before being sent down to New Mexico to take part in the expedition. At this point his family appears to have started a scrapbook about the conflict and his part in it. There is a map of Mexico and a number of newspaper articles relating to the activities of ‘B Troop’ pasted in at the beginning, along with some photographs of Hunk and other soldiers in the troop. Later, letters and postcards sent home by Hunk appear, addressed to his sisters Edna and Margaret and his father, ‘Benj’.

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‘Hunk’ Hevenor

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Trench warfare in Mexico

Having survived the Mexican Border War unscathed, Hunk was called up once more with the 6th Division to fight in France in July 1917. By October the Division had been reorganised as the 27th Infantry Division under John F. O’Ryan, who leant his name to the design of the new shoulder insignia (see below). Hunk’s has been cut out and inserted into the scrapbook, along with his Private’s chevron.

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The 27th Infantry Division’s shoulder insignia, featuring the Orion Constellation.

Strangely, there are just two letters home from this period featured in the book – one from 1917 and another from 1918. Whether there were more letters which have now been lost, we shall never know. What is most interesting is that the Hevenor family clearly considered the Pancho Villa Expedition a far more significant event than the distant war in Europe.

Hunk’s discharge papers are here too, dated 2nd May 1921. He is listed as being wounded in July 1918 during an air-raid, but left the army in good health, returning to his regular employment as an advertising writer.

In sum, the scrapbook tells a compelling personal story from the Great War period, consising mainly of letters back home not from Northern France, but from the Mexican border, where the stakes were just as high.

James Murray, 05/02/15

Letterhead of the Greek Lodge,  © James Murray 2015

Masonic Lodges in Constantinople (not Istanbul)

Working with rare and valuable books has a tendency to make the extraordinary seem rather ordinary. You start to wonder how certain agglomerations of leather, cloth, paper and ink can be worth so much. These doubts are cast aside, however, when confronted with something which makes a personal connection with you. The truth is that books, letters and diaries provide the most direct links between individuals from the past and those living in the present. Although it is the messages they transmit which are invaluable, surely paper and ink are no less valuable as tangible markers of history than art or architecture?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I encounter a fascinating letter, pulled from a mass of mouldering legal documents. It is a personal missive, possibly wrapped up in a bundle of paperwork by accident, and now in my hands entirely by chance.

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The Letter in Question, © James Murray 2015

Dated 30th April 1921, the paper is blind-stamped with the Royal Arms and carries the stamp of the Office of the British Captain of the Port, Constantinople, to the top right. This context alone makes the letter an important historical document, having been sent during the Allied occupation of the Ottoman Capital following the defeat of the Empire in the First World War. It also belies the fact that the modern city of Istanbul has only been so-called since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Before that date, and since the city’s re-foundation on 11th May 330, it was known as Konstantinoupolis, ‘The City of Constantine’, by the Greeks, and then Konstantiniyye by the Ottomans.

When the British, French and Italians summarily occupied the city in 1918, much as the Allies occupied Berlin after the Second World War, it was quietly assumed that Constantinople would once again pass under Greek sovereignty. Indeed, at the time the letter was written Greek armies were at the very gates of Ankara, and had occupied most of Western Anatolia, where hundreds of thousands of Greeks then lived.

The writer, however, does not seem especially concerned with the political situation. Signing himself off as ‘Claude’, he addresses ‘Dear Uncle Paul’ – a Partner at Whitelock & Storr Solicitors, then based in Bloomsbury, London. Uncle Paul, it transpires, was also a senior Freemason at the centre of a web of contacts in business and government. Claude indicates that with the letter he also sent a manuscript copy of the ‘History of the Turkish-Greek Masonic movement’, written by a Greek brother in French, which he hoped Uncle Paul would be able to translate and send on to ‘Headquarters’.

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Looking over Galata Bridge from Büyük Valide Sultan Han, © James Murray 2012

Claude was employed in the administration of the British sector (the north of the city, including Galata, Pera and Şişli), working a ‘very strenuous’ seven hour day in the office, as well as overseeing the harbour and occasionally supervising the dawn opening of the Galata Bridge, which spanned the Golden Horn, linking the most important districts of the city. He goes on to explain that he misses his wife, ‘Uncle Paul’s’ niece, Iris, and that he hopes the authorities will grant her a free passage to join him before too long.

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Istanbul, from Caroline Finkel’s ‘Osman’s Dream’, John Murray 2005.

Besides this rather perfunctory note, there is another scrap of paper. It is a form produced by a Greek Masonic lodge, probably based in the French-controlled central district of the city, Constantinople proper. Although Greeks, Jews and Armenians lived all over the city at this time, making up about one third of the total population, the Greek community was strongest in the Phanar district (now Fener), where the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Greek Church can still be found today. This location is all the more likely given that the paper states that the lodge was ‘In the name of, and under the protection of Greater France and Greece’, while the motto of the French Republic, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, is reproduced in Greek.

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Looking over modern Balat and Fener from the Greek Patriarchal School, © James Murray 2012

The form has scrawled onto the back of it a ‘confidential’ note for Uncle Paul, in which Claude describes his initiation at this Greek Masonic Lodge. Having been taken to a black room covered in Skull and Crossbone symbols, surrounded by brothers wielding swords, the unsuspecting Claude was compelled to drink vinegar, among other rituals, before being treated to a formal dinner including fawning toasts in French to Merry England and the Mother Lodge.

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Letterhead of the Greek Lodge, © James Murray 2015

Despite a history of repression in the Ottoman capital, Masonry had clearly firmly established itself in Istanbul by this time, since Claude also expresses his intention to visit other lodges, namely the English and Armenian, on future occasions. Occasional Masonic symbols dotted around the city, as well as the unmistakable Masonic architecture of the Sapuncakis Köşkü on the island of Büyükade (built 1904), are testament to the fact that the movement had a strong underground following well before the Allied occupation of the city.

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Sapuncakis Köşkü, © James Murray 2012

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Masonic symbols? In Fener, © James Murray 2014

With evidence of British, French, Greek and Armenian friendship and collaboration via Masonry, it is perhaps unsurprising that Masonry was again suppressed when Istanbul was returned to Turkish sovereignty. Whether or not the influence of the movement was instrumental, Greeks, Jews and Armenians had managed to win concessions at the expense of the predominantly Muslim population from the Allied authorities, thereby destabilising the delicate politics of the heterogeneous city. Over the next forty years these very significant and wealthy minority populations would be subjected to intimidation, seizure of property, and even organised pogroms, leaving the city almost exclusively Turkish and Muslim by the late 1960’s.

Claude’s letter, then, was sent from a city on one of the most significant thresholds of its 2500-year history. From Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire –  still neatly defined by the great walls built in the early fifth century by Anthemios, city prefect of Emperor Theodosios II, and home to Christians, Jews and merchant communities from all over the world – it could have become the New Rome of its Byzantine past, capital once more of the Greek diaspora.
In the event the city was retained by Turkey, and it has since grown into the largest city in Europe, fuelled mainly by mass migration from the poor Eastern regions of the country. It is also one of, if not the most vibrant, prosperous and culturally rich cities in the Muslim world, where East really can be said to meet West.

James Murray, 30/11/15

Bibliography:

Clark, Bruce, Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, London, Granta Books, 2006.

Cornucopia Magazine, issue 53, 2015.

Finkel, Caroline, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923, London, John Murray, 2005.

Layiktez, Celil, The History of Freemasonry in Turkey, 2001. http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/layiktez.html

Review: The Globe’s production of the Oresteia

Confusion reigns as a winged phallus steals the show...

Confusion reigns as a winged phallus steals the show…

This review has taken a long time to finish because I found it genuinely difficult to decide exactly what I thought. In the end, it was a production of a few sublime individual moments and performances, incoherently smooshed together into a mess of a play. A little of the problem was down to the original play itself, which assumes a knowledge of all sort of prior events which a modern audience may lack. The atmosphere of high tragedy may have been easier to maintain if Agamemnon’s brutal sacrifice of his eldest daughter Iphigenia had been staged at the beginning as a kind of Prologue. As it was, the chorus briefly explained the back-story in the course of the opening scenes. Unfortunately I can’t say this was entirely successful because rather than focusing on the nature of Agamemnon’s earlier crimes, or the development of Clytemnestra’s character as the mother of a murdered child, the script focused on the politics. Agamemnon was portrayed as a kind of Hellenic Tony Blair; a warmonger with innocent blood on his hands. This kind of reference would work brilliantly alongside Aristophanes’ satirical treatment of the Peloponnesian War in plays such as Lysitrata, but in this case it felt forced and was ultimately distracting. Similarly, the script made a lot of the misogyny inherent in the cycle, but without much finesse or any obvious point.

I think the main reason absurdity crept in where there should have been pathos was that the relentless onward march of the plot offered no opportunity for any form of character development. A series of easily recognisable caricatures were presented, and the audience responded accordingly. Pylades, for instance, did nothing except stand around looking stupid, and carry the giant winged phallus at the end. I can’t decide whether this is more the fault of the play itself, or that of the production. When Cassandra made her dramatic entrance, the play suddenly began to change direction, gradually moving from weird modern opera towards Gilbert and Sullivan-esque absurdity. This was certainly an effective strategy for dealing with stodginess of the source material, but it also created extreme confusion. Despite all this, there was at least one excellent scene at the beginning of the third part of the play. A high priest admonished the audience for paying little heed to the ancient places of worship, with clear reference being made to the great churches of London in our irreverent age. This part of the script was well-judged, and the whole scene worked brilliantly.

Ultimately, Aeschylus’ tragic cycle is a difficult beast to square with modern theatre. A play by Euripides or Aristophanes would be a much simpler and easier affair to present to a modern audience. In the present case the archaic seriousness and simplicity of the narrative was increasingly undermined by the transformation of the final act of the play into a pastiche of ‘Trial by Jury’. Athena looked ridiculous in her reflective gold dress, and her trial was a farce. The resulting winged phallus parade wasn’t bemusing on its own terms; it was simply the crowning bathetic statement of a play which had fired off in all sorts of interesting directions, and resolved none of them.

Six winged phalluses out of ten.

JM, 26/09/15

Following de Botton: Know Thy Shelves

One of my favourite sections of Hall’s is the philosophy section, and not just because it is fitted into our broader “Science and Social Sciences” case alongside astrophysics, folklore, economics, sexology, and the Greek and Roman classics – in putting these together, we’ve returned philosophy to its eclectic roots. The first Greek philosopher, Thales, hypothesised that everything was not really, as it appeared to be, a series of solids shapes like human beings and guinea pigs and wood and so on, but that the primary substance of nature was actually a complicated and constantly reforming type of water. Obvithales_quote-462443ously we’ve modified his views somewhat since then, but equally, since we now believe that the primary substance of nature is an enormous cloud of up-, down-, and charm-quarks, amongst others, which we cannot directly observe without changing, it is not obvious that we have become any less unclear about the questions that he was originally asking.

Already a digression. To get back on point, in recent years a major movement has begun to return philosophy to another one of its lost roots as self-help. Chief in this regard is Alain de Botton, many of whose works we stock on a fairly regular basis. Founder of the School of Life (http://www.theschooloflife.com/london/) and a key architect behind a number of its initiatives, (for example the now sadly defunct newspaper and constant satire of The Daily Mail, http://thephilosophersmail.com/) de Botton has articulated a number of times the importance, not of forcingALAIN DE BOTTON people to pay attention to a distant and academic philosophy, but of bringing philosophy back into the lives of ordinary people, to speak to the concerns that we all share. As part of that project, here are a list of entryways into philosophy that I have found useful, and which will hopefully encourage you to see the philosophy section in a new and more positive light. There are of course lots of, as it were, philosophy books on the subject, but I’m assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that if you find those interesting and helpful already then you are already supplied with ideas of your own, and have your own recommendations. These particular recommendations are therefore non-traditional, highly parochial, and occasionally a little out of the box.

Firstly, for those who enjoy novels – and I think, at this point that’s 10959a fairly safe assumption – there’s the splendid Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie, the protagonist, finds a packet of papers and a misaddressed postcard in her letterbox one morning. This leads her to encounter the mysterious philosopher Alberto Knox, and to question everything. The novel hails from Norway, and was reportedly the best selling book in the world in 1995. That means there is little excuse for not having read it at this point.

Secondly, for those who enjoy film, I’d recommend Richard Linklater’s weird but beautiful rotoscoped film Waking Life, a remarkably calm narrative about the nightmare of never being able to wake up from a dream. Again reportedly, on watching this people sometimes come to fear going to sleep, which sort of negates the whole point of the film – which is that you might already be aslee51P24AAS71Lp. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give that away. Linklater has gone on to make a number of ambitious and brilliant films, including Boyhood, A Scanner Darkly, and Me And Orson Welles – which might also be good reasons to see this piece of fascinating cinematic innovation. This is also a step up from the more commonly recommended philosophical film, the Wachowski’s gun-toting blockbuster The Matrix – thought that is also quite fun, as is their very current Netflix series, Sense8.

Thirdly, out of a field of very worthy candidates, and a little deeper into the philosophical quagmire, is the podcast The Partially Examined Life (https://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/). PEL has the advantage of being philosophical in form as well as in character, as its a dialogue between four people who “were once set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it”. There are plenty of episodes to choose from, it’s not important to hear them in a chronological order and, though they break it almost constantly, two of the major rules are not to assume that the audience has read what they’re discussing, or to assume that they’ve read any other philosophers.

Finally, a book on ethics that people might want to read because it will actually help in day to day life is Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. Singer sets out to discuss one philosophical problem that has very serious implications – why should we give money to charity? Once he has (spoilers) argued that we should give money to charity, he goes on to discuss the interesting and practical question of which charities we should give our money too. This was also the subject of his follow-up book released earlier this yeasingerr, The Most Good You Could Do.

All of these recommendations are supposed to be interesting on their own – you don’t have to come away from them convinced of the value of philosophy in shaping your sense of eudaimonia, your vision of the good life. But on the other hand, they might make it more interesting in surprising ways, and if they do, the philosophy section is the middle shelves of the first bookcase on the right as you come in the main door. I may see you there, or you may be being deceived by an evil demon into thinking you see me there.

Life in Courts: Ten Reasons to Visit Vita Sackville-West’s Childhood Home

This is the first in a series of profiles of places of literary and historic interest within easy reach of our new home in Tunbridge Wells. Nestled in the heart of Sevenoaks, a couple of stops on the Hastings line closer to London, Knole is Britain’s largest private residence, and the architectural legacy of an Elizabethan courtier who wrote blank verse before Shakespeare.

The Eastern, friendlier side of Knole, seen from the Garden.

The Eastern, friendlier side of Knole, seen from the Garden.

Vita Sackville-West may never have quite made it into the premier league of English writers, but her love affair with Virginia Woolf did lead to the composition of the Bloomsbury novelist’s most accessible and influential novel, Orlando. Woolf was enchanted not only by Vita’s vital charisma, but also by the sprawling Elizabethan palace which remained an intrinsic part of her, even when she no longer lived there. Over the course of the novel the house and the character Orlando evolve together, at times parting, but ultimately meeting again just as intimately as they had at the very beginning. It is indeed ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.’ (Portrait of a Marriage, p. 201). More importantly, however, her son Nigel recognised that ‘the novel identified her with Knole for ever.’ (Portrait of a Marriage, p. 206). The house’s vast rambling romance inspired Vita as a child to write about her swash-buckling ancestors, particularly the Quixotic Cavalier Edward Sackville and his infamous duel with Lord Bruce at Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands, in 1613. (Knole and the Sackvilles, p. 84).

The forbidding North side.

The forbidding North side.

Surprisingly, Vita was not the first Sackville to make a contribution to English literature, and neither is she the chief literary figure associated with the house. Here are ten reasons why Knole should be regarded as a Mecca for Bloomsbury fans in London and the South East.

1. Archbishop’s Palace and Site of Heresy Trials. For those interested in the Reformation, the heart of Knole was originally built as a palace by Archbishop Thomas Bourchier from the 1450’s. Under William Wareham, it was also the site of a number of Heresy trials during the later Lollard period.

2. Thomas Sackville: Architectural Patron and Sometime-Poet. The man who made Knole House largely what it remains to this day was Queen Elizabeth I’s Treasurer, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset. As a much younger man, having studied law at the Inner Temple in London, Thomas wrote the first two acts of Gorbuduc, the first English Tragedy to be written in blank verse, and performed before the Queen in 1562. (Inheritance, p. 7). Although he had permanently laid his pen aside by the time he was thirty in order to concentrate on statecraft and politics, Thomas’ creative side saw a final dramatic flourishing at the end of his career, when he finally gained possession of the house he had coveted for decades. Between 1604 and 1607 he transformed Knole from a dusty old rented Archbishop’s Palace into a show-piece of Jacobean art and architecture, employing the King’s best masons, carpenters and plasterers.

3. Lady Anne Clifford. From 1609 to 1624 Lady Anne Clifford of Westmorland directed the

A wizened tree on the 1000 acre deer park.

A wizened tree on the 1000 acre deer park.

120 servants at Knole house, being the wife of the 3rd Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville. She is famous for the diaries she kept between 1603 and 1616, which juxtapose the joys and woes of family life with the bitter on-going legal dispute between Anne and her uncle, who claimed her father’s lands. The dispute set almost the entire realm against her, eventually alienating even her husband, who coveted the substantial cash compensation offered in lieu of the land in 1615. First published in 1922, the letters are an enormously important window into the life and thoughts of a highly educated, accomplished and determined woman of the seventeenth century. She left the house when her husband unexpectedly died in 1624, aged just 34.

4. Royal Steward furniture. Knole has one of the best collections of Royal Steward furniture anywhere in the world, having been taken as ‘perquisites’ by enterprising dandy Charles Sackville while Privy Councillor and Lord Chamberlain to William of Orange in the later seventeenth century.

5. John Frederick Sackville and Joshua Reynolds. In the later 18th century John Frederick Sackville forged a close relationship with the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, filling the house with portraits and personal commissions. Although many have since been sold, the collection remains significant, particularly the Ugolino, which documents a story found in Dante’s Divine Comedy concerning a man realising he must eat his own children to survive.

DSCN29746. Early cricket associations. Sevenoaks is home to the Vine Cricket Ground, one of the oldest cricket grounds anywhere in the country. As well as patronising Reynolds, John Frederick Sackville also found the time to play a fine game of cricket, reportedly hitting the ball aggressively like a Baseball player rather than in the modern defensive style.

7. George Sackville and Lord Byron. John’s only son, George Sackville, was briefly eulogised by Lord Byron, having fagged for the poet at Harrow. His tragic death in a riding accident in Ireland at the age of 21 plunged the family into a dynastic crisis which rendered their estates and status much diminished by the end of the nineteenth century.

8. Lionel Sackville and ‘Pepita’. Mirroring the scandalous relationship between John Frederick Sackville and an Italian dancer known as the Baccelli a century earlier, Lionel the second Baron Sackville had an illegitimate family with a Spanish woman, later disowning all of them except his eldest daughter Victoria. Victoria was a remarkable woman who first became the toast of society in Washington D.C., and then married her cousin, the heir to the Sackville estates and title. Her daughter Vita wrote a book all about her maternal grandmother entitled ‘Pepita’.

Yet another wizened tree.

Yet another wizened tree.

9. ‘The Edwardians’. Victoria and Lionel themselves were also immortalised in Vita’s barely-fictional adventure ‘The Edwardians’, which concerns the changing world of upper-class society in the early twentieth century, and is focused on an estate unmistakably modelled on Knole.

10. Virginia Woolf and Vita: ‘Orlando.’ ‘Orlando’ is the summation of Virginia and Vita’s relationship, giving Knole its best-known fictional outing. Among its many treasures, the house notably sports the original manuscript of the novel, dedicated to Vita.

 

James Murray, 30/07/15

Graves

Epitaph to Robert Graves at his home in Deià, Majorca.

Epitaph to Robert Graves at his home in Deià, Majorca.

Today we celebrate Robert Graves’ 120th birthday – a venerable age indeed. Just 30 years after his death, however, I suspect Graves himself would be the first to say he had achieved little as yet. The Roman poet Catullus said of Gallus, a man he clearly despised:

sed nunc id doleo, quod purae pura puellae
suavia comminxit spurca saliva tua.
verum id non impune feres: nam te omnia saecla
noscent et, qui sis, fama loquetur anus.

But now I despair, since the pure kisses of an innocent girl
Have been polluted by your foul saliva.
In truth, though, you’ll not get away with it: For Eternity
Knows who you are – and who you are, Old Lady Fame will tell.

(Carmen 78b, my translation).

Gallus might have dismissed this a vain and empty threat at the time, but over two thousand year later he only exists to us as a dirty old man. The potential power of literature in this sense has been echoed by many, including Shakespeare in Sonnet 18, though it is of course only a happy few who make it into the canon of Classic Literature.

Graves has made the first steps towards  this eternal recognition, but will he make it any further? While I was reading his excruciatingly introspective autobiography, ‘Goodbye to all that’, this week I was particularly struck by a conversation he reports between himself and a Charterhouse chum a week before the First World War:

“Do you realise,’ Nevill asked me, ‘that we have spent fourteen years of our lives principally at Latin and Greek, not even competently taught, and that we’re now going to start another three years of the same thing?”

The boys Robert and Nevill were at this time products of an educational system which began in Greece as early as the 8th century BC, when Homer and Hesiod reputedly wrote their compositions. Even the Romans in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC were conscious that their language and culture was heavily influenced by this already ancient tradition. The boys were painfully aware of its stifling power, and were justifiably appalled at the prospect of being swallowed up by it. For his career, then, the war was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Graves at that moment.

Our First US edition copy of Count Belisarius

Our First US edition copy of Count Belisarius

After the War the old world was chewed up and spat out by Graves and others, the Bloomsbury Group for instance, and in so doing they became immensely popular. For the first time all this ancient literature, taught verbatim for millennia, could be beaten out of the Victorian aristocratic shape it has taken on and made into candid translations or creative pastiches for the wider reading public. Graves’ best-known work, ‘I, Claudius’, has not become a Classic because it venerates his source, Tacitus, but because it encourages the reader to view such history as just another story, rather than the moral parable it was offered to Graves as. This approach is seen again in another of his novels about the Roman world, ‘Count Belisarius’, which is told entirely from the perspective of Procopius’ satire, ‘The Secret History’, and ignores his more sober historical tome, ‘A History of the Wars.’

The mosaics of the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, showing the only suspected image of General Belisarius, standing to the right of the Emperor Justinian, centre.

The mosaics of the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, showing the only suspected image of General Belisarius, standing to the right of the Emperor Justinian, centre.

In fact, Graves may claim to have established a monopoly over the way the Classics are studied and portrayed in Western culture today. Such texts are no longer studied for their moral values, but mined for historical information or salacious human interest. Recent TV series and films, ‘Rome’ and ‘Spartacus’ for instance, have been written entirely in the mould of ‘I, Claudius’, sprinkled with historically accurate costumes and sets. Even Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’, which explicitly recognises the Dream of Rome, has it butchered by Russell Crowe. Indeed, most Classics students today can trace their enthusiasm for the subject back to an early encounter with Graves or one of his spin-offs, proclaiming a firmly established self-enforcing cycle of interpretation.

In wider society, many today consider the Classics irrelevant, and very few children encounter them even in translations now, let alone in the original languages. This then is a far cry from the relentless Classical education Graves himself received, and it is in part at least his own doing. By knocking them off their pedestal, along with the moral authority of Christianity, Graves and his contemporaries simultaneously ensured a future interest in the Classics, and killed off their serious study, except from a historical perspective.

In my opinion, if any trace of Greek and Roman literature survives 1000 years from now, it won’t be Tacitus’ Annals being read, but Robert Graves’ novels.

James Murray, 24/07/15

IDLE THOUGHTS.

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This just happens to be my first blog. Yes, I have written several articles for magazines and been interviewed several times in my guise as Ian Fleming’s bibliographer, yet this still happens to be my very first blog. I face it with some degree of trepidation as well, treading new ground and trying to be cool and clever and witty and smart (and probably ending up slipping on a virtual banana skin). So I’m going to ignore all that and simply aim to be informative. It’s tried and tested, and after cataloguing around 15,000 books in my time I know I can at least do it to some extent. So here we are then, beginning with a little information about our business; we’re six months in to a Brave New World (see what I did there), which has found two established bookselling names in one big home: Adrian Harrington Rare Books, and Hall’s Bookshop.

We share premises at the revered book store on the corner of Chapel Place in Tunbridge Wells, with Hall’s occupying the ground floor and selling all manner of used books – recent and otherwise – well-presented but uncatalogued, and arriving and leaving with more bustle than the rush hour at Waterloo (Britain’s busiest station, railway fans). Adrian Harrington’s domain is the rare book room upstairs, stocking fine and collectible tomes in a host of different fields – mostly available online, and beautifully photographed by Ben for your perusal and wonderment. Each floor has its own website, and use various social media; a healthy element of competition has set in, taking the form of a raging inter-departmental battle for internet posts, trends and followers. Lucas is our in-house statistician and the key-man for all matters chart- and graph-related. Sometimes there aren’t enough colours in the Kaleidoscope for the tables he’s planning. At the last count, Harrington’s have a little catching up to do in the tweets-to-followers ratio; come on Tabitha, get posting for Adrian for a change!

Our lovely new premises also benefits from a gallery space in the basement, currently the place to be if you have an interest in Military History, as we have been holding a pop-up subject-based event downstairs this month. Also on hand for a little respite from this incredible heat (i’m writing this in early-July and it’s 86 degrees outside); it’s refreshingly cool down there. First advertised as a temporary event, this has proved to be rather popular and we are refreshing the stock on a regular basis. As a result, military sales are marching onward – as Lucas will attest – and are now only second in the league to our top-selling subject of literature. In consequence, we are continuing the current downstairs-set up over the course of the summer.

Both Hall’s and Adrian Harrington have been busy at book fairs of late, with Hall’s having just exhibited at the large PBFA Premier Fair in Bristol, revamped as a ‘Vintage Fair’ with groovy side displays, live music and merriment. In early August, we’ll be taking our regular stand at the Lewes Book Fair. The staff at Adrian Harrington are working through fresh acquisitions from our three major summer fairs: the Royal National in Bloomsbury, the ILEC fair in West London and, the daddy of them all, the ABA show at Olympia. We’re putting out regular stock lists and updates via email so if you’re intrigued as to what we have to offer please feel free to sign up at http://www.harringtonbooks.co.uk.

So there it is. Somehow I’ve reached my allotted word limit with a kind of rambling newsletter-cum-shameless advert. Nevertheless, I do think it contained some actual facts. More of a blag than a blog, but I think I got away with it. Goodbye.

– Jon

Allez Allez Allez!

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Count Tolstoy

How better to celebrate the start of the 2015 Tour de France than by going over the close link historically between writers and bicycles. Leo Tolstoy was an early adopter, procuring a English Starley safety bicycle, which he learnt how to ride in his mid-sixties, undoubtedly to the surprise of the peasant workforce on his family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Back in England H.G. Wells was a keen cyclist with the quote “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race” often attributed to him. He regularly managed to weave bicycles into his writings, perhaps most memorably in ‘The War in the Air’ with the novel’s hero Bert Smallways, who with his business partner Grubb, rented bicycles to the intrepid or the foolhardy as the following excerpt shows.

“The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles — indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency.”

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H. G. Wells

As on most subjects Arthur Conan Doyle treated bicycles with his trademark sound common sense stating that: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”, highlighting the bicycles’ ability to ease the stresses and strains of everyday life and rejuvenate the soul through the sheer unalloyed joy of cycling, the cares of the world slipping away as the miles tick by.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

At heart the connection between authors and bicycles is not at all surprising, the bicycle has always offered the freedom of self reliant movement and exploration, which is exactly what fiction writing is at it’s best. The best novelists let their imagination run free and attempt to escape the humdrum and quotidian reaching for the unfettered and the free. Happy pedalling to you all.