october 2019 books…

Looking To Heaven (Stanley Spencer): This lengthy, hardback book (priced £30, but bought for £2.50 at The Last Bookshop) is Spencer’s autobiography (put together by his grandson John) compiled from his many notebooks and letters from roughly 1906 to 1936 – but concentrating on letters from 1911-1918. The book contains relatively few illustrations, but his words inform us of the forces that were to affect his art in later years and his love of his home village of Cookham is abundantly clear. The war years were clearly a frustrating time for Spencer (1891-1959) in that they largely interrupted his artwork (he attended the Slade School of Art 1908-12). At the start of the war, Stanley was persuaded by his parents to join the Home Hospital Service (Royal Army Medical Corps) rather than volunteering for active service. He worked as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital, Bristol from July 1915 until May 1916 (formerly a lunatic asylum and part of Glenside Hospital – now UWE’s Glenside Campus) and, it seems, had an awful time there – being bullied by a sergeant major and some of the senior nursing staff. Interestingly (for me), our Drawing Group frequently meets at Glenside, in and around the chapel, which now forms a mental health museum. Spencer seems to have had very little opportunity to paint or draw during WW1 – apart from lots of ‘head sketches’. He served with the Field Ambulance Service in Salonica from September 1916 before transferring to the Royal Berkshires as a Private from Autumn 1917 in Macedonia and spending some testing days serving on ‘the front’. Much later, in 1935, he wrote of the treatment ‘metered out’ to him during the war and of his disdain and loathing for officers and their behaviour towards the lower ranks. An impressive and revealing book.
Coming Back To Me (Marcus Trescothick): I bought this book (published in 2009) for £1 at Somerset’s secondhand cricket bookstall during the last game of this season. The game (although he only featured as a twelfth man substitute on the final day) also marked Trescothick’s retirement from first-class cricket at the age of 43, after 27 years in cricket. Trescothick had a hugely successful career as an England opening batsman, but was forced to retire from international cricket in 2006 after struggling to come to terms with chronic depression. On two occasions in 2006, when representing England on tour, he was forced to return home from India and Sydney. This brave, honest autobiography tells the harrowing reality of what he struggled with over a number of years… the sheer unrelenting pressure of almost constant international cricket, the tours, the mental anguish and the effects on family life… and combating what he originally felt was an awful weakness in him as a person (and those who were simply suggesting he should just “pull yourself together”). An impressive, revealing book.
A Winter Book (Tove Jansson): First published in 1968, I first read it in 2007 (I read Jansson’s wonderful ‘The Summer Book’ in 2003 – she died in 2001, aged 87). This is a collection of short stories (semi-autobiographical) about winter on her small island in the Gulf of Finland. She grew up a bohemian artistic child, a daughter of artists and bohemians. These odd little stories are beautifully crafted and strangely powerful. I read them quite slowly and enjoyed the simple rhythm of their words. There’s a gentleness and quirkiness to them and I found re-reading them a really rather wonderful, rewarding experience.
The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock (Imogen Hermes Gowar): This historical novel is our bookgroup’s next book. It’s nearly 500 pages long, so I wonder how many of the group will have actually finished it by the time of our next get-together (not everyone has the luxury of retirement!). It’s set in 1780s London and a merchant discovers that one of his ship’s captains has sold the merchant’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. So begins a complex, multi-layered tale of ambition, power, exploitation, privilege, class and poverty – where men of position and wealth feel they have the ‘right’ to do and act as they see fit (which frequently involves self-gratification at the expense of young women who are ‘employed’ to serve their needs). Despite it being set nearly 250 years ago, the book frequently echoes situations that we can recognise in our 21st century world – the privileged (and rich), selfish male who has the ability to dominate others; the treatment of women (#MeToo movement); the haves and the have-nots (the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer) etc etc. Gowar’s writing style is compelling and authoritative (and her ability to use language that seems appropriate for the times she’s describing is uncanny - without needing to resort to ‘ye olde English’!); her characters are engaging and believable. Frankly, historical novels aren’t my ‘cup of tea’, but I was certainly impressed (and almost enchanted?) by the fantasy and invention of the author. Given the complexity of the story, I can readily appreciate the need for a lengthy novel – but, even so, I feel that it’s 100 pages too long. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely… although I was left feeling a little ‘flat’ at the end (*no spoilers* - I’ve subsequently seen reviews extolling the way the book was ‘rounded off’). As ever, it’ll be fascinating to hear the views on the bookgroup.
Counting Backwards (Helen Dunmore): I’d read a number of Dunmore’s novels before ever reading her poetry. The first of these was her final collection ‘Inside The Wave’ (published in 2017, just before she died). This is a retrospective covering ten collections written over four decades (I know!). I’ve purposefully read them slowly over a period of several months and have enjoyed them enormously. ‘Inside The Wave’ remains my favourite collection (probably because it’s the one I’m most familiar with… and probably because I know she wrote it in her final year of life), but I was touched by several of her other poems (eg. ‘If Only’). As always, when I read poetry, there’s part of me that wants to ask the writer to explain some of the background or context for the individual pieces so I can understand them more readily. I share a number of things with Dunmore: she was born just 3 years after me; she lived in Bristol for much of her life; and she had a love of St Ives! I’m not sure just how many poems the book contains in total, but it runs to well over 400 pages – so I know I’ll be dipping into this book again and again over future years.