More book stuff:In Search Of A Past (Ronald Fraser): Although I’d never heard of him before reading this book, Fraser is an internationally renowned oral historian. In this book, however, he turns his attention to his own origins. He grew up in a manor house outside London and this memoir gathers the recollections of the servants who worked for his parents (an American mother and a Scottish father) who learnt to “embrace the lifestyle of the idle local gentry”. Fraser (he died in 2012) paints a vivid picture of his life at the manor house from the age of 3 to 14 (1933-1945). It was a life he hated: “English class rigidities and inherent superiorities”. Fraser had very few friends and wasn’t allowed to play with the village children. I found it an illuminating but rather depressing book. His parents hunted twice a week and seemed to lack any interest in anything beyond their horses. His father never greeted his son; never spoke to him during meals; “not interested in my child until he can go out shooting with me”… you get the general idea! It’s an honest, revealing book of social history (with staff knowing their place).
From The Land Of Shadows (Clive James): A book of literary-critical essays from the late 1970s/early 1980s by one of my favourite writers. Funny, pithy, intellectual… even if some of James’s essays were well beyond my comprehension (eg. the fourth section entitled “The Giant in the East” – featuring writers I knew nothing or next to nothing about, such as Nabokov, Voznesensky, Pushkin, Zinoviev and, oh, not forgetting Bukovsky!). But, as usual, I found the book hugely entertaining (and illuminating!)… James clearly doesn’t particularly rate Lord Longford, Malcolm Muggeridge and Richard Ingrams, for example, and Gore Vidal, Anthony Burgess and John Le Carre don’t emerge unscathed either. On the other hand, he’s a massive fan of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. One of the funniest pieces, however, is reserved for American author Judith Krantz (“who writes in the romance genre” according to Wikipedia). He completely dismantles her book “Princess Daisy” in a hilarious and thorough, academic way… but brilliantly funny. James is one of the cleverest writers I’ve ever come across (and his depth of knowledge is quite staggering)… but I do find some of his assumptions completely over-the-top. A typical example appears on P149: “Most of us have scores of Larkin’s lines, hemistiches and phrases in our heads, to make us smile whenever we think of them, which is as often as the day changes”. Well, actually Clive, I’m afraid you’ll have to count me out. Despite this (and other similar sweeping statements), I still very much enjoyed the book.
The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan): Strangely, I hadn’t come across this short novel before (first published in 1977). It’s an unsettling, dark story told in the words of a 14 year-old boy of how he and his three siblings (older and younger sisters and a younger brother) retreat into their own world after the death of their parents. The abruptly orphaned children – fearing being put into care or up for adoption - fend for themselves through a long hot summer. Their lives are in turmoil and their “instant adulthood” is played out against a backdrop of filth and chaotic isolation. It’s a compelling, uncomfortable tale.
The Mistress’s Daughter: A Memoir (AM Homes): Author AM Homes (apparently known for her “controversial novels and unusual short stories”) was adopted at birth in 1961 (her parents were a 22 year-old woman and an older, married man). She was contacted over 30 years later (via her adoptive parents via their lawyer) by her birth mother… and this book tells “what happened next”. It’s a raw, unflinchingly honest book of Homes’s somewhat frustrated journey to discovering more about her roots – her selfish, arrogant birth father, Norman, and her overbearing birth mother, Ellen, (referred to as the “dragon lady” by her father in his subsequent conversations with Homes!).
From Bow to Biennale (David Buckman): Moira+I went to an exhibition of work from the East London Group of artists at the Old Nunnery, Bow last year and subsequently bought this book (which I’ve only now got round to reading properly!). Although now almost forgotten, the ELG was a remarkable collection of artists - starting up from classes by the inspirational teacher John Cooper at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute in East London from the mid-1920s and comprising two basic groups: first, aspiring East Enders; secondly, a smaller contingent who were Slade School of Fine Art-trained, like Cooper himself (Brynhild Parker was one of my favourite artists). An early mentor was Walter Sickert, who addressed the Bow classes and showed with the Group for a short time. The last annual Group exhibition was in 1936, although some painters remained active well beyond that. One of its artists’ most important legacies is their probably unmatched visual record of inter-war east London (Cooper had encouraged his artists to paint things “around them” rather than copying from other works of art). The paintings from the working-class East Enders were quite crude in character and technique, but have a haunting beauty - I particularly like some of the work by Harold and Walter Staggles, Elwin Hawthorne and Henry Silk. An extensive, fascinating, well-researched and very enjoyable book.