Monday, November 21, 2016

november 2016 books…

Eric Ravilious: Memoir Of An Artist (Helen Binyon): I was given this rather lovely book (and the “High Street” book included below) by my very good ‘Drawing Group’/Saint Stephen’s friend David McLaughlin (we also both worked for Geoffrey Beard at The Oxford Architects Partnership in the mid-1970s!). I could generally recognise much of Ravilious’s work but, somewhat shamefully perhaps, didn’t know much more about him. This book, first published in 1983, is written by his friend (and fellow student at the Royal College of Art, from 1922 onwards). Ravilious, who tragically died in 1942 while on service as an Official War Artist, produced an extraordinary amount of work in his short career - including murals, watercolours, wood engravings, lithographs and pottery designs. Interestingly (for me, at least!), there was also a reference to Ravilious’s work for the Kynoch Press in Birmingham in 1932 (in connection with their prestigious annual “Note Book”)… my father was a compositor at the Kynoch Press some 40 years later, during the latter days of his printing career in the mid-1970s. The book is fascinating insight into the work of an outstanding artist… or, as its cover puts it: “a compelling account of a genius”. 
High Street (JM Richards and Eric Ravilious): First published in 1938 (and subsequently republished in 2012 by V+A Publishing), this book introduces the British high street – pairing Ravilious’s 24 illustrations with Richards’s text (I was very familiar with his “An Introduction to Modern Architecture”!). It was initially conceived and promoted as a children’s book, but soon gained a wider reputation with adult readers. The text is frequently hilarious – like this for the ‘Clerical Outfitter’: “A shop like this has one advantage over other shops: it can give any amount of credit as a clergyman can always be traced and so can never get away without paying”. It’s a wonderful, rather poignant, reminder of how things have changed in our local High Streets… and, needless to say, the illustrations are beautiful – albeit, “of their time”.
The Snow Geese (William Fiennes): I first read this book in 2003 and recently picked it up again (and realised how little of it I could remember!). Hence the re-read! At the age of 25, in the middle of his post-graduate studies, Fiennes was struck with a severe illness. During his long period of convalescence at his parents’ family home in the Midlands, he rediscovers an old neglected interest in ornithology, inspired by his father and readings of a favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose. He becomes fascinated by the bird and ultimately decides to follow the birds on their long migratory path from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. This lovely, beautifully-written, book tells of his journey, the people he met on the way and, of course, nature and the geese themselves. A very special, reflective and poetic book.
Oxford (James Morris/Jan Morris): We used to have a hardback ‘James Morris’ copy of this book (first published in 1965, as illustrated above), but must have lent it to someone (as you do!) and never had it returned. We subsequently replaced it with a revised paperback version in 1979 (published in 1978). As students in Oxford in the late 1960s/early 70s (spending more than a decade living there), it provided a wonderful backdrop to the city we came to love. I was ‘inspired’ to re-read the book following a recent television programme in which Michael Palin talked to Jan Morris about her life as a writer and journalist. It’s a truly magical book (I might be a little prejudiced, of course!) – crammed with fascinating insights and obscure facts. This is the third time I’ve read it (although I’ve referred to it on numerous occasions) and I’m so glad that I did. Oxford has no doubt changed dramatically over the past 40-50 years, but it’s still instantly recognisable through Morris’s perceptive, lyrical prose. It’s one of those books that people will still be reading in 50 or 100 years time and marvelling at its contents. In the light of June’s EU Referendum, the following extract is particularly poignant(!): “The University… vigorously supported British entry to the Common Market; and when in 1975 a national referendum was held to determine the issue once and for all, among the deciding factors may well have been the debate on the subject at the Oxford Union, addressed by passionate political leaders of both factions, televised nationally in a three-hour marathon programme, and ending with an overwhelming vote for Europeanness”. Ah, those were the days!! Yes, I might just have become over-nostalgic in my old age, but I can’t recall a book that has given me so much pleasure to read. A simply wonderful book.
The High Mountains Of Portugal (Yann Martel): This is our Book Group’s next book (I haven’t yet read Martel’s Man Booker prizewinning “The Life of Pi”!). It involves three inter-connected stories, set in Portugal over the course of the twentieth century – all have a common theme of grief and lost love (the men in each of the stories has suffered the death of a wife). I found all three stories somewhat haunting in character – at times intriguing and yet, ultimately, all of them irritating and frustrating. I found the first two tales tediously slow at times (in the first one, for instance, the author spends over 20 pages describing how our character learns to drive a car!) and any momentum that is established was ultimately unfulfilled. No doubt Martel felt he was being clever and mysterious but, each time, I was left with a sense of “damp squibs”! For me, the final part of the book was better in this respect (you realised that the three stories would be brought together in some way) but, again, I was left feeling disappointed and underwhelmed. I wanted to like this book but, sadly, I didn’t!

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