Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012 - Some Literary Places To Visit

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past six weeks, you will know that the Olympic Games are being held in my home town, London, right now.  After a magnificently bonkers opening ceremony that appears to have impressed and perplexed in equal measure, the sport has so far been brilliant and my experience of the Olympic Park yesterday filled me with patriotic pride as the organisation was flawless, the transport system didn’t collapse and the various volunteers, armed forces personnel and police officers on duty were friendly and welcoming.  If you are here already or are visiting at some point over the next fortnight, you are in for a great time, despite London’s changeable weather.  As a Londoner, I’m incredibly proud of my city so far and have definitely drunk the Olympic kool-aid, even though, as a confirmed Olympics junkie, I needed little encouragement.

One interesting aspect of the Games is that London is simply not as crowded as everyone imagined it would be.  Walking along the South Bank earlier today, it was noticeably quieter than a normal summer weekend and, for the first time I can remember, there was no queue for entry to the London Dungeon.  I was reminded of the conversation I had with a taxi driver in Athens when I was at the 2004 Olympics.  He told me that the hype and expectation around the Games had put “ordinary” tourists from visiting the city both before and during the Games that year.  Although I have no empirical evidence to support it, I suspect we may be experiencing the same effect here – there are certainly hotel rooms to be had at non-extortionate rates and restaurant tables are nowhere near as scarce as I had thought they would be.  In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that this might, perversely, be a good time to visit London even if you aren’t a sports fan.
And, if you do, or if you are already here and have some spare time in between the sport, I thought I’d give you some suggestions for things to see.  So here are ten great literary places to visit in London this summer.  Please come and join us – it’s turning into a wonderful summer.

1.            The British Library.  A copy of every book published in the United Kingdom is required by law to be deposited at the British Library.  Consequently, if you can get a reader’s ticket (not actually too difficult), it is a treasure chest for the reader.  For the more casual visitor, there is a permanent gallery, the Sir John Ritblatt, which displays many of the most interesting items in the Library’s collections, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  There are also special exhibitions which this summer include Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands.  This examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate classic literature.  This exhibition features original manuscripts for woks like Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  A second summer exhibition , Collecting the Olympic Games, tells the story of the Games through memorabilia.  There is a good café and it’s a pleasant place to sit outside on a sunny day.

2.            The Globe Theatre.  It’s a bit obvious but it’s also unmissable.  The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre gives a real flavour of the Jacobean theatre-going experience and is a centre for the exploration of Shakespeare’s writings and world.  Even if you can’t get tickets, you can still tour the theatre and there are often special events which, this summer, include Midnight Matinees, a chance to watch Shakespeare under London’s midnight sky, followed by a post-play breakfast.

3.            221B Baker Street.  Elementary,  my dear reader.  Of course, there was never an actual 221B Baker Street during the period when Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the Sherlock Holmes stories but it is, nevertheless, one of London’s most famous addresses. When Baker Street was extended, the Abbey National building society inhabited 219-229 Baker Street and so ended up receiving correspondence addressed to the great consulting detective.  Indeed, they ended up employing a full-time secretary to answer his mail.  The Abbey National is no longer there and mail now goes to the fun but inauthentic Sherlock Holmes Museum, situated at 237-241 Baker Street.  It’s a fun visit anyway.

4.            The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, WC2.  Reputedly the inspiration for Little Nell’s home in Dickens’ novel, this shop, protected by a preservation order, is London’s oldest shop, dating from the 1560s, and is an interesting glimpse into how London would have looked in the 16th Century.  Unfortunately,  it is almost certainly not really Dickens’ inspiration.

5.            Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.  In the South Transept of the Abbey, this area contains the graves of British literary figures such as Chaucer, Spenser, Hardy, Kipling and Dickens, together with memorials to others such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Austen and the Brontës.  You’ll probably be in the area at some point anyway so you’d be remiss to miss it.

6.            84 Charing Cross Road.  Somewhat improbably, a book based on the correspondence between Helene Hanff, an American author, and the staff of a bookshop at this address was made into a hit film in the 1980s.  A plaque now commemorates this, although it is no longer a bookshop.  Never fear, though, because Charing Cross Road still contains a number of fascinating specialist and second-hand bookshops in which you can lose hours in browsing and could come away with a bargain in the process.

7.            Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street.  Although the journalists who used to populate Fleet Street, once the home of Britain’s newspapers, have long gone, this old pub, dating from the 18th Century, endures.  It still reputedly houses Dr Johnson’s chair and was a haunt of, amongst others, Thackeray, Dickens, Conan Doyle and Chesterton.  A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without supping a pint in a proper London pub now, would it?

8.            The Red Lion, 20 Great Windmill Street, Soho.  I can see a theme developing here but this pub, in the heart of Soho, was the place where Marx and Engels gave lectures in an upstairs room and, later, wrote the Communist Manifesto.  Funny to think that a piece that had so much impact on the world was written here by a couple of blokes drinking warm, English bitter!

9.            The Pillars of Hercules, 7 Greek Street, Soho.  Yes, definitely a theme here.  This tiny pub, tucked away in Soho has been a hangout of, amongst others, Casanova, De Quincey, Barnes and Ian McEwen.  It gets a name check in A Tale of Two Cities and, ahem, was a former drinking spot of yours truly.  Must be worth a visit.

10.          Foyles Book Shop, Charing Cross Road.  Within easy staggering distance of the Pillars of Hercules, Foyles is a massive, confusing, disorganised but brilliant bookshop.  I suspect there are readers who, having wandered in to the shop, fail to emerge for days, engrossed in the browsing opportunities therein.  If you want a specific book, it’s probably there, the trick is finding it without picking up half a dozen other books on the way.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten fictional worlds or setings

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the folks at the Broke and the Bookish asks us to list our top ten vivid worlds or settings from literature. I’m glad I actually re-read the topic before bashing out my list as I had mistakenly read it as my top ten favourite settings which would have given me a much different list!

Anyway, without further ado, let the list begin:

1.         Middle Earth. Come on!  If it’s not on your list, then you can’t have read the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit.  And if not, then why not?  After all, this is a world that essentially created the template for almost all modern fantasy novels.  Even the ones that are consciously non-Tolkienish often define themselves by their attempt not to be Tolkienish.  This is a world with immensely detailed geography, an obsessive attention to detail and several properly constructed languages.  There is even an argument to say that the novels and the world were created merely so the languages would have some place in which to be rooted.  I humbly submit that Middle Earth is the quintessence of vivid literary setting.

2.         The Multiverse.  I truly believe that Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle is one of the most underrated pieces of literature of the 20th Century.  Although a mixture of fantasy and steampunk novels, the underlying themes, thought and style go way beyond the pure “genre”.  The base concept of a warrior doomed to be endlessly reincarnated to fight for the maintenance of the cosmic balance between law and chaos (not good and evil!) is genius and the varied worlds he created stand comparison with almost any others in fantasy literature.

3.         Neverland.  Despite being darker than its Disneyfied cartoon representation, who amongst us would not like to fly off to Neverland and enjoy eternal childhood with Peter, the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell whilst battling Captain Hook and his sidekicks?

4.         Narnia.  Come, walk with me.  Let’s see what’s at the back of this wardrobe.  Oh look, a door.  Whither does it lead?  To a new world full of wonders – and Turkish delight!  Loved the Narnia books as a child.

5.         Airstrip One.  Orwell’s Oceanian province of Airstrip One (an avatar of London) is not somewhere I’d like to live or even visit but is an iconic dystopian setting.  Chilling and in many subtle ways prophetic, it’s a classic setting.

6.         Bookworld.  Jasper Fforde’s fictional book world is clever, fun and ever so slightly insane.  I could equally have included his alternative Swindon, Thursday Next’s other home but settled on Bookworld as its true “otherness” makes it a little more vivid for me.

7.         Discworld.  Oh yes, indeed.   Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has grown and deepened over the course of the 39 novels set here and it is now one of the most richly drawn worlds in fantasy literature.

8.         Lankhmar.  The main city setting for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fantasy series, this fictional setting brings back good childhood memories of reading his books.  Classic swords and sorcery pulp they may be but they were fun to read as a 12 year old.

9.         Callahan’s Place.  This is the bar I’d love to fall into, inhabited by friendly locals who are always willing to lend an ear to sort out the problems of other visitors even if they are vampires, aliens, time travellers or even mythological figures.  Spider Robinson’s quirky stories are really good fun and I’d recommend them as a light read.

10.       The Nightside.  In Simon Green’s fictional world, it’s always 3 o’clock in the morning.  The Nightside is a place where anything goes  - as John Taylor, the main character ion the series says, it’s "a place where dreams come true and nightmares come alive. Where one can buy anything, often at the price of your soul... or someone else's. Where the music never stops and the fun never ends".  The Nightside novels are a dark blend of PI fiction, fantasy and science fiction and are highly entertaining.  I wouldn’t want to go there but the Nightside makes for great light reading.

Monday, July 23, 2012

2,490: The Company We Keep by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer

I love a good spy story, I do.  I’m not generally bothered by whether it is a James Bond/Jason Bourne style action-fest or a George Smiley/Alec Milius paranoia splurge.  I’m also a bit of a sucker for a spy or military memoir.  So, The Company We Keep was, at least in part, right up my street.
What I am not, however, is a sucker for a love story.  Not generally my thing at all.  So, The Company We Keep was, at least in part, nowhere near my postcode, let alone my street.

You see, The Company We Keep is both spy memoir and love story.  Written by Bob Baer (the alleged inspiration for the film Syriana) and his spouse, Dayna Baer, it tells, in alternating chapters, the story of how each of them came to join the CIA, wreck their marriages, meet each other, fall in love, leave the Agency and marry each other.  Given that it’s a pretty slim volume, this means it is crammed full of content.
Dayna, the younger of the two, was a Southern California native who had never lived outside the state when, bored with her job, she applied to join the CIA.  Having been stuck in a dull admin role, she was chosen to become a “shooter”, an expert in firearms, unarmed combat and high speed driving.  After completing her training, she was assigned to a deep cover team, travelling the world to carry out surveillance on persons of interest to the Agency.
Bob, by contrast, had a cosmopolitan and well-travelled childhood and had made a successful career as a field officer in the CIA, specialising in being stationed in countries undergoing political upheaval.
The two meet for the first time in the course of an operation in Bosnia and the book describes how their relationship grows, including a rather memorable drive from Bosnia to the south of France for dinner, which all sounds rather glamorous, as do some of the other episodes in the book.
But the glamour is deceptive and the book reveals far more about the corrosive nature of spying and the effect it has on the character and lives of its practitioners.  Dayna had, to all intents and purposes, deserted her first spouse, a judge in California, when she was assigned to work outside the USA by the CIA and Bob’s marriage had, according to the book, been in trouble for some time when he first met Dayna.  To cap it all, Bob admits to having a very distant relationship with his kids and Dayna is upset when she goes home to spend time with her father, only to find that he has found an “adopted” daughter, another woman with whom he has a paternal relationship and prefers to spend time that with Dayna.
Both, and Bob in particular, appear to take a very cynical view of human relationships.  In one episode, Bob uses his own mother, a charming and sociable individual, to entice a KGB officer to become an agent for the CIA and strikes up a friendship with him for just this purpose.  He then arranges a meeting for the potential double agent with another CIA officer.  Unfortunately, this officer turns out to be the treacherous Aldrich Ames, who betrays him to the KGB.  For her part, Dayna doesn’t even know the real names of her work colleagues, as they use aliases even with each other.
The world of espionage that the Baers paint for us is one of deceit and isolation, where agents cannot engage fully in the world around them for fear of discovery or betrayal.  It’s a world where friendships aren’t given but are bought and where paranoia is a constant.  It doesn’t seem a particularly salubrious place, even for someone like me who would quite liked to have been an intelligence agent.  It certainly seems closer to the le Carré end of the spectrum than the Fleming end
Eventually, there is a happy ending of sorts.  The Baers’ relationship deepens and the pair, becoming disillusioned with the CIA, retire and settle down together.  But even here, the happiness isn’t unalloyed – their relationships with other family members don’t appear to improve and they continue to be paranoid about the appearance of strangers in their new hometown.
As I read the book, I was at first quite hostile to Bob and Dayna, finding them self-aware and seemingly flippant about the effects of their lives on their existing families.  By the end, however, the hostility had faded to be replaced by a kind of pity at how their chosen profession had played havoc with their ability to lead the kind of personal life that most of us take for granted.
The Company We Keep was kindly sent to me by Random House, the publisher, for which I am, as ever, grateful, is an intriguing read for anyone with an interest in espionage and should be of interest to a far wider readership.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

2,491: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Michael, the 11 year old narrator of The Cat’s Table, is leaving 1950s Ceylon (the colonial name for Sri Lanka) to be reunited with his mother, an earlier migrant to the UK, and to start senior school in England.  Boarding the Oronsay, the liner that will take him up through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean, he finds himself installed for mealtimes at the cat’s table, ship parlance for the least favoured table and the furthest from the captain’s table.  Also seated there are two other boys, the rebel Cassius and the physically frail, Ramadhin, with whom Michael will form a tight knit gang, exploring the ship and treating it as their own private kingdom.

The ship’s other passengers make up a colourful and varied bunch, each with their own stories, which Ondaatje tells us largely through the medium of the boys’ observations.  The Cat’s Table also cuts back and forth from the ship’s journey to the adult life of Michael in London, in which he clears up some of the loose ends of the episodes that take place on board and shows how their experiences on the Oronsay continue to affect the lives of the three boys long afterwards.

My only previous experience of Michael Ondaatje was The English Patient and, although I largely enjoyed it and found the writing to be wonderful, I found the ending a little unlikely and was slightly put off by his take on racism and imperialism.  It may be because The Cat’s Table doesn’t really seek to address issues like this (although there are, inevitably some references) or it may be simply that it is a book that appealed to me more, but I thought it was simply wonderful and a compelling read.

At one level, The Cat’s Table is a fantastic picaresque novel, almost a collection of tales about the characters that inhabit the Oronsay, from the “gentleman” burglar, the Baron, who uses the boys as his accomplices by oiling them up and sending them through narrow window gaps to open the doors of passenger rooms, to the tycoon, Sir Hector da Silva, who lies in his cabin, on his way to London to seek a cure for his mysterious illness.  There is Mr Daniels, who keeps a secret garden of poisonous plants hidden away in the ship’s bowels and the elusive Max Mazappa, jazz pianist and purveyor of wise advice.  Using the closed society of a ship at sea, Ondaatje creates a profusion of fascinating characters whose stories increasingly interlock as the novel progresses and they form alliances or reveal relationships.

At the same time, the episodes told by the adult Michael reveal just how much the events on the ship affect not only the boys but also some of the other passengers and counterpoint the innocence and fun of the shipboard episodes with a more mature understanding of the world and a sadness brought on by more experience of life.  This deepens the book and turns it from a story about a journey across the sea into a story that is as much about Michael’s journey from child to adult, from joyous innocent to a wiser but sadder man.

On top of this, we are also given something of a mystery story.  Early on in the novel, the boys, lurking in a lifeboat at night, spy two guards taking a shackled prisoner for a walk on deck.  As the book progresses, the boys speculate on the identity of the prisoner and the reason for his being on the ship.  The pieces of the puzzle are gradually revealed and the links between him and certain of the other passengers, including Michael’s cousin, Emily, are drawn together, culminating in a shocking but uncertain conclusion to the sub-plot. 

Ondaatje himself made a similar journey by ship to the UK from Sri Lanka in the early ‘60s and there is a great temptation to focus on the extent to which The Cat’s Table is autobiographical but, frankly, I’m not sure that this kind of focus has any great point and actually detracts from the overall experience of the book.
This is a book that explores loss, growth, the impact of journeys both physical and emotional and the effect of childhood events and experiences on the adult psyche.  It’s also warm, funny, fascinating and a highly enjoyable read.  Quite simply, I loved it.  I don’t rate books but, if I did, this would be a five star effort from an author with whom I am not always in sympathy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop

Unfortunately, one of the winners of my giveaway for the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, theonlymrsjo, didn't leave any way of getting hold of her and has not read my post announcing the winners. As over a week has passed since the announcement, I am exercising my blogger's right to reaward the prize.

The random number generator has now decided that the new winner is........Darlene of Darlene's Book Nook, who will be receiving a copy of the Code of the Woosters!