All posts

Lewis Carroll An Illustrated Biography by Derek Hudson (1954)

Loosen your clothing and keep the airways free for this one.

In October 1950, Reverend G Edward Charlesworth was having his Croft Rectory in Yorkshire renovated.

When they pulled up the floor in what used to be Charles Dodgson’s [Lewis Carroll’s] nursery on the second storey, they came across a child’s secret stash of little bits and pieces.

Here are three of the treasures they pulled out. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Brandy balloon in reach.

One left shoe.

Holy cats.

Remember the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking-Glass?

And now if e’er by chance I put

My fingers into glue

Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot

Into a left-hand shoe…

Oh, Lordy. Fetch the smelling salts.

One white glove.

Lawks.

Remember the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, splendidly dressed, with a pair of white kid gloves in one hand and a large fan in the other?

Then he drops them. Alice picks them up and forgets about them until she finds, oddly, that she’s wearing one after she’s shrunk.

I can’t remember what happened to them after that, but do recall him looking for them, muttering, “Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!

I think one of the meanie queenie’s favourite punishments was to cut off someone’s whiskers. (Didn’t she threaten the Dormouse with as much in court later?)

Then the White Rabbit tells her to go to his house and get him some more gloves and she does and drinks that potion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and stuck. Or something.

One thimble.

Mercy. Back in a sec, running a cold bath.

Remember, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the prize-giving after that absurd Caucus-race and Alice gives them all a comfit and there isn’t one left for her?

“But she must have a prize herself, you know,” said the Mouse.

“Of course,” the Dodo replied very gravely. “What else have you got in your pocket?” he went on, turning to Alice.

“Only a thimble,” said Alice sadly.

“Hand it over here,” said the Dodo.

They they all crowded round her once more while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying “We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble;” and, when it had finished this short speech they all cheered.

Doorbell. That’ll be my therapist.

Thanks for being here.

Buy Lewis Carroll, An Illustrated Biography by Derek Hudson

(Illustration by John Tenniel.)

Follow my I’m reading… blog:

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A stupendous shit and an incorrigible cad.

Not the first sign of madness, but the protagonist Georges Duroy.

His blatantly ironic nickname, Bel-Ami, typifies the duplicity coursing through this deliciously unsettling book.

His secret to success in four words? Use your wily willy. Five? Erm. Get off to get on.

Well, well, old boy, I hope you realise you really do hit it off with the ladies? You must cultivate that. It could take you far… they’re still the quickest way to succeed.

And boy, does he slather on the ‘charm’. It’s a shame to see it abused so. And the trust that goes with it. Makes you shiver.

But before we look at some gems, let’s put down a marker and reflect on author Laurie Lee’s sense of pure charm (from his excellent 1975 collection of essays, I Can’t Stay Long).

Charm in a man, I suppose, is his ability to capture the complicity of a woman by a single-minded acknowledgement of her uniqueness…

of being totally absorbed, of forgetting that anyone else exists…

it’s what a man says that counts, the bold declarations, the flights of fancy, the uncovering of secret virtues…

[it] strikes deepest when a woman’s imagination is engaged, with herself as the starting point, when she is made part of some divine extravaganza…

a woman is charmed by what she hears...

So. Here’s Bel-Ami. Being cheesy about a lady’s earring.

It’s charming,… but the ear must take some of the credit, too.

Oh, please.

When I love a woman, everything else vanishes apart from her.

Sir Percy Squirm.

And here’s His Oilyness pecking hands.

He kissed them one after the other and then, raising his eyes, he said simply: “Heavens, if only I’d met a woman like you, how happy I would’ve been to marry her!”

Le beurre ne fondrait pas dans sa bouche. (Good, eh?)

But to be honest, they’re all it. Boys and girls, some astute enough to clock it in others.

Feel the venom in this riposte to Bel-Ami from one of his long-time tootsies, Madame de Marelle. Makes your eyes sting.

You’ve behaved like an utter cad ever since we’ve known each other… you go around deceiving and exploiting everyone and everybody [ouch], you take your pleasure when and where you like and money from anyone who’ll give you it and you still want me to treat you like a gentleman.

Yee-haw. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Must remember to do the dishes.)

Semi-Autobiographical of Maupassant? Perhaps. The pox boxed him.

Thanks for being here.

Buy Bel-Ami (free delivery, in cardboard)

Follow my I’m reading… blog:

A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (2014)

Wish I’d been intimate with Lynn Barber. Got in the offie queue by mistake.

Perhaps some of the how-to-interview magic might’ve rubbed off.

While we’re at it, let’s get that stunning run rate out of the way. From Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.

[Barber] “…I did sleep with an awful lot of people in about two terms…”

[Young] “… How many?”

“Oh, probably fifty.”

“Right.”

“It was quite good going.”

“And they’re quite short, those Oxford terms, aren’t they?”

“Absolutely. I was jamming them in.

Nicely done, Young, asking about the term lengths. So let’s have some tips from Barber. About interviewing.

I wish I’d read A Curious Career before the eyebrow-raising encounters in Mostly Men (1991) and Demon Barber (1998). [List of interviewees below.] I would’ve loved savouring how she does it before reading them.

If you don’t get to read A Curious Career first either – do read a copy when you can, it’s good fun – here’s why her interviews are so yummy.

Funnily enough, they’re mostly don’ts. So, six top tips to interviewing…

Don’t write in anything but the first person.

Don’t wing your prep (I used to do that all the time at school). Research to know what hasn’t yet been talked about before.

Don’t interview boring people, wives, husbands, lovers or victims. (Might be some tautology in there, somewhere.)

Don’t express your own opinion – in fact, try not to talk much.

Don’t always believe everything people say. If they say they’re not snobbish, not racist, not sexist, and that they love their children they’re probably fibbing.

Don’t forget that best interview question is always, ‘Why?’.

Don’t look at me, guv’nor.

Thanks for being here.

Buy A Curious Career (free delivery, in cardboard)

Buy Mostly Men (free delivery, in cardboard)

Buy Demon Barber (free delivery, in cardboard)

Mostly Men: Barber grills Richard Adams, Margaret (Duchess of Argyll), Jeffrey Archer, John Aspinall, Tony Benn, The Beverly Sisters, Ronald Biggs, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Bolt, Melvyn Bragg, Roald Dahl, Kirk Douglas, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Zsa Zsa Gabour, J Paul Getty II. Bob Guccione, Richard Harris, David Hart, Barry Humphries, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Sir John Junor, Barry Manilow, Howard Marks, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolph Nureyev, Ken Russell, Sir James Savile, Muriel Spark, Lord and Lady Spencer, Freddie Starr, Jackie Stewart, and Auberon Waugh.

Demon Barber : Barber barbecues Eddie Izzard, Alan Clark, Damien Hirst, Julie Burchill, Jarvis Cocker, Lord Rees-Mogg, David Hockney, Julian Clary, Kelvin MacKenzie, Neil Tennant, Major Ronald Ferguson, Gilbert and George, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Calvin Klein, Rachel Whiteread, Joseph Heller, Rupert Everett, Gerry Adams, Lord Rothermere, Alexander McQueen, Boy George, Micheal Winner, Jonathan Ross, Felicity Kendal, Redmond O’Hanlon, Stephen Fry, Lord Deedes, Dale Winton, Harriet Harman, and Richard E Grant. [This is the order of the book’s Contents.]

Follow my I’m reading... blog:

I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

We’re off to see the oracle, for Claudius to question Rome’s fate and his.

Before being permitted to visit… I had to sacrifice a bullock and ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively.

The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from solid rock: the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-black and full of bats.

Sounds like my bedroom.

I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs and saw… more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me.

Got it yet? No?

Okay, guess this seer’s name.

Sibyl.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Thanks for being here.

(Well-spotted: yes, Sybil and Sibyl – different spelling.)

Buy I, Claudius (free delivery, cardboard packaging)

Follow my I’m reading… blog:

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

It’s the hokey-cokey. (Behave, hokey-pokey is an ice cream.) And before you go there, Looking for Nookie lacks gravitas.

How apt that it should start with a chase.

“Child hunt tomorrow, Fanny.”

What a boring life I lead. Walked through the market in the rain today.

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. [aged about eight, I think] My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

Neat nest of nesses. And here’s another, more insidious.

“It is unfair” was a perpetual cry of the Radletts when young. The great advantage of living in a large family is the early lesson of life’s unfairness.

Linda Radlett wants so badly to love and be loved.

It starts with animals. When protagonist Fanny’s mouse Brenda dies, the family tiptoe around Linda.

… enormous tears were pouring… Nobody cried so much or so often as she; anything, but especially anything sad about animals, would set her off, and, once begun, it was a job to stop her.

“Where’s she buried? Linda muttered furiously, looking at her plate. Her mother, who lived in a perpetual state of surprise at having filled so many cradles, tries to change the subject, “Now, Linda darling, if Fanny has finished her tea why don’t you show her your toad?”

“He’s upstairs asleep,” said Linda. But she stopped crying.

Oh boy, only page ten and the charm’s kicking in.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plain, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in an world of superlatives.

I fiercely concur. I mean, here’s a later Linda on her wailing newborn.

“Poor thing'” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

The wails now entered a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must’ve caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

Which segues sweetly to the lordly lingo of the upper classes (known, don’t you know, to Nancy acolytes as the ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’). Makes it a fun and funny read (as well as a charming, sad, and lovely one).

Did you spot ‘glass’ above? If you’re U, you don’t say mirror. And notepaper‘s a no-no, perfume prohibited, mantlepiece damned. Lunch? No fear. Envelope is frowned upon.

Always wondered why I’m sent round the back.

Oh, and don’t, dulling, ever put your milk in first.

And, and, okay, okay, back to The Chase. If you’re still awake.

Two key passages for you. (Don’t panic: one can’t really egg a spoiler on a book entitled The Pursuit of Love.)

But first a funny. Linda again.

And they say we are an uncontrolled family – even when Fa [dad, to us plebs] has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that beater?’

So. Key passage number one on Linda’s quest for love.

… Linda had once more been deceived in her emotions… this explorer in the sandy waste had only seen another mirage. The lake was there, the trees were there, the thirsty camels had gone down to have their evening drink; alas, a few steps forward would reveal nothing but dust and desert as before.

Bummer.

Blow your nose over to key passage number two.

Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman.

Double bummer.

Look out, is that rock bottom looming?

Ha. You’ll just have to read it.

I’m off to luncheon.

Thanks for being here.

Buy The Pursuit of Love (free delivery in cardboard)

Have you read the sequel, Love in a Cold Climate? If so, is it as good?

Follow my I’m reading… blog:

Don Quixote by Cervantes (1605 – what!?)

There’s a line in this that absolutely kills me. Gets me every time. Perfectly pitched.

Well, they’re lotsa funnies, but this one takes the galleta.

It ain’t much good in isolation, so let’s get the giggle glands going with some also-rans.

But first a run-up. For those of you who think you’ve got better things to do than loll around reading an 800-pager written four hundred years ago, I say, oh yeah, what’s that?

If you aren’t going to tell me and you’re still not going to read it, here it is in a sentence.

Old dotty duffer decides to turn knight errant (a medieval knight wandering in search of chivalrous deeds).

redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to chances and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown.

To do this he needs a horse, a henchman and a helmet.

A bit of scrabbling and compromise and he has Rocinante, a be-donkeyed serf Sancho Panza and, eventually, something to put on his head.

Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to do this by the thought the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct and the debts to discharge.

What a classic set-up. The higher the highfalutin aspirations, the harder the fall down to earth with a bump.

From this height there’s nowhere to go but frustration, humiliation, embarrassment and ignominy.

And his first deed? To rescue a local farm wench he decides is a princess. Seriously, listen up. This stuff populates funny farms.

“…she is my queen and mistress; her beauty superhuman, for in her are are realised all the impossible and chimerical attributes of beauty which poets give to ladies; that her hair is gold; her forehead the Elysian fields; her eyebrows rainbows; her eyes suns; her cheeks roses; her lips coral; her teeth pearls; her neck alabaster; her breast marble; her hands ivory; she is white as snow; and those parts which modesty has veiled from human sight as such, I think and believe, that discreet reflection can extol them, but make no comparison.”

Lovely. Earth calling Don Quixote, will you come in, please.

Spanish readers all those centuries ago must’ve collapsed against walls clutching their sides, aching with laughter. They needed it. It was only a few decades after the Spanish Inquisition’s immolation, immurement and comfy chairs.

What do you mean get a move on? Okay, okay, five quick-fire ones.

“It is indeed clear to me that your visits to the wineskin require payment in sleep rather than music.”

“I say nothing about another blanket tossing, for such misfortunes are difficult to prevent, and if they come there’s nothing for it but to hunch your shoulders, hold your breath, close your eyes and let yourself go where fate and the blanket send you.”

“…either your worship is joking, or the gentleman must have rooms in his brain vacant.”

“Pray God, Sancho, I may see you dumb before I die.”

Ready? Nappy on?

Sancho says, on being bade to pick up Quixote’s famous head-piece

“It’s like nothing so much as a barber’s basin.”

Bump.

What a line. I always think of it when face-to-face with pride and pomposity, with or without a looking-glass.

Good book.

Also handy on hills if your handbrake isn’t working.

Thanks for being here.

Buy Don Quixote (free delivery, cardboard wrapping

Follow my I’m reading blog: