Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Literature’ Category


Want to Brush up on your History? Visit the Theatre!

Some plays have an obvious historical content, Shakespeare’s histories for example. But currently showing in London are some whose titles belie the history lesson you’re about to receive. And here are some examples.
First up, in chronological order, is 55 Days by Howard Brenton (whose drama often focusses on historical events) which is currently showing at the Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage. The title refers to the time in the 17th century between the demise of the Long Parliament and the beheading of Charles 1st. Of necessity partialy fictionalized to make good drama, it stars Mark Gatiss as the King and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell; one of the highspots in the play is a meeting between the two which never actually happened. Well, if the German playwright Schiller can invent a meeting between Elizabeth 1st and his eponymous heroine Maria Stuart, why can’t Brenton!
Adrian Lester

Adrian Lester

Move forward a couple of centuries and, for the next play, the audience finds itself in 19th century London, bookended by two short scenes that take place in Poland some 30 years later. Red Velvet is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring her husband Adrian Lester (Mickey of Hustle fame) it tells the story when the legendary English actor Edmund Kean is taken ill and his role as Othello is taken over by a black American actor, Ira Aldridge; his style is considerably more avant garde than that of the English cast, with their ‘teapot’ acting techniques (imagine the item and then the comparable actor’s stance), with the majority of the cast using this as a ready-made excuse to display their prejudices. And all this is set against the background of the Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the efforts of the radical French producer of the play, the English press is clearly not ready for this, and as a result of damning criticism of the play and his acting style, Aldridge never appears on the London stage again. A final note: Lester will be taking on the role of Othello at London’s National Theatre next spring.

Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham   Photo by Johan Persson

Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham Photo by Johan Persson

The final play I’m writing about is This House at the National Theatre. It’s currently showing at the flexible Cottesloe space with the downstairs seats arranged as in the House of Commons. The play tells of the five years of knife-edge Labour government between 1974 and 1979 – knife-edge because with wafer thin majorities, they only hung on by the skin of their teeth and by ferrying in ‘walking wounded’ and those almost at death’s door for crucial votes. The main focus is on the whips’ office, a topical subject in the ‘pleb-gate’ context, and the wheeler-dealer shennanigans necessary to retain power. As with so many productions at the Cottesloe, it’s currently sold out; however, the good news is that it’s transferring to the large Olivier stage at the National in the new year.

All three productions mentioned here come thoroughly recommended by me – if you do manage to catch one or more, I do hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did. And also, of course appreciate brushing up your knowledge of history.
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.

Really Inspirational Father’s Day Gifts

Why not plant a tree with dad?

Why not plant a tree with dad?

Most people seem to agree that finding the perfect gift for their dad is one of the least easy tasks of the year. Here are some ideas from our thoughtful team to inspire you:

Wine holiday in Oporto Built into the hillside of the spectacular Duoro Valley, The Yeatman hotel in Oporto is inspired by the celebrated wines of the region. Guests can seriously indulge themselves during the weekly wine evenings, tasting soirees and cookery courses. The extensive wine cellars hold 25,000 bottles alone and the in-house Michelin starred chef, Ricardo Costsa, is always on-hand to educate guests about food pairing. Even The Yeatman’s vinotherapy spa will be difficult for Dads to resist, as it offers a Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Bath or body scrub. Prices from €150 per night.

Failing that why not a bottle of Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2005, available from £13.79 at most retail outlets nationwide. Here is a link to information on the website

Or he might have loads of the stuff in the cupboard but may not have some luscious glasses to savour it – we would choose the beautiful Riedel Port Glasses available at John Lewis and Amazon.

Reidel port glasses

Reidel port glasses

How about a short holiday break for someone mad on fishing? Forget Salmon Fishing in the Yemen although a couple of tickets might go down a treat! – how about Fly fishing in the Maldives  All hard-working fathers deserve peace and quiet once in a while, and you would be hard pressed to find a more relaxing and tranquil outdoor pursuit than fly-fishing. On a secluded private island in North Maldives, Island Hideaway resort boasts deepwater channels and expansive shallow flats, ideal for whiling away the hours until that longed-for catch comes along. Prices from £1350 per week during low season, and £2300 during high season. OK, so that might be a bit over the top! How about The Ultimate Guide Book to Fishing? This Google page might give ideas.

Right, nothing so far appeals? What about a luxury wet shave? Harking back to simpler times when every man had a trusty barber to see to his beard and whiskers, in London the Spa at Dolphin Square offers chaps the rare chance to pamper themselves with a range of traditional Moroccan wet shaves. Choose from the age-old Savon Noir shave, which  cleanses by combining crushed olives, olive oil and Eucalyptus (£35), or go all out with a Moroccan Cleansing Ritual, incorporating a Hammam and Shea Butter Massage, followed by the relaxing shave (£104). This would appeal to many men I know so it could be a winner!

Dolphin Square Spa

Dolphin Square Spa

On a more basic level though why not a gift voucher from B&Q? Lots of us like browsing in DIY stores, especially new and improved gadgets!

 Or why not some Ogilvy’s honey – their Balkan Linden Honey is rather special. Gathered from colonies in the Danube region of Serbia. This honey was one of four varieties of Ogilvy’s Honey to win gold stars in the 2011 Great Taste Awards organised by The Guild of Fine Food. It is rather special – you can find more information on the Ogilvy’s website.

If you live in or near London then of course you could take him for a meal – Ping Pong in Soho is excellent, The Sanderson in Berners St  has a wonderful dining area as has the Lanesborough Hotel opposite Hyde Park Corner.  What about some tickets to a game at The Arsenal? A visit to the House of Commons to see Parliament in action and a meal in one of the boats on the river. Or a boat trip on the Thames? Of course you could just go for a walk in Hyde Park and have something to eat in one of the many cafes in the park.

The Arsenal

The Arsenal

Or how about an App for his iPhone or iPad – he doesn’t have one? There’s two more ideas!

Hope you might find one of these inspiring! Good luck – you have just three days left!

Val Reynolds Brown, Editor


Not as Lively as I would like, How it all Began

A traditional ‘who did what and what became of them’ story, How it All Began is an easy read that doesn’t really challenge the intellect. I found it only mildly amusing – a candidate for ‘pick up when bored’ book status. Definitely not on the compulsive can’t put it down list, I think it could be referred to as a pot boiler on a rating of 5 on the 1-10 scale. I have to say she is good at character studies, but I didn’t like any of the characters and found little pleasure in her artful descriptions.

Written much in the same style as Mary Wesley but not as memorable or engaging. My memory of Mary’s Jumping the Queue and subsequent books that continued the theme of an illicit love affair, still makes me smile, eighteen years later, and I know if I re-read it I would love it. So, would I be interested in reading more of Lively’s books, I’m afraid not, I’m seldom bored.
The Penelope Lively website gives details of her background and all her books.
How It All Began is published by Penguin
Val Reynolds, Editor

A Decent Read – suggestions for a quiet break

How often are you at a loss to know where to find a good book. What is a good book? To me it’s one I can lose myself in. All the angst of the day goes to the back of my mind. So a book at bedtime is a joy and pleasure. But I’m not prepared to read books that don’t satisfy my curiosity, don’t stimulate my interest, or from which I learn nothing new.

So we have decided to provide our assessment of books we have enjoyed, or not. Short, pithy asides and plaintive squeals of dismay are included, so you don’t have to waste time turning off at page ten. That’s the crunch time for us … unless page eleven beckons that tome is passed on to Oxfam, or some such charity shop where maybe someone will view our assessment with disdain and totally disagree with us!

Here are three books all read and finished and assessed by Les Tucker, our intrepid bookaholic.

A Small Circus  Hans Fallada* One of the Penguin Classics ISBN 978-0-141-19655-8 *Other books by Fallada

Do not read A Small Circus expecting a similar experience to the later Alone in Berlin.  Fallada’s portrait of life in wartime Berlin is a universal tragedy which is impossible to ignore.

A Small Circus, published in 1931, is just that: a much more parochial examination of politics in a small town.  It is a local eye’s view of the collapse of the Weimar Republic  (Germany’s first democracy) leaving a situation ripe for the rise of National Socialism, and subsequently, the promotion of Hitler.

The book is not a dry history.  It is full of sardonic humour, as pompous local officials tussle over bribes and ill-gotten gains.  Outside the little town, the country is spinning off its axis, but a greedy bunch of politicians and journalists seem not to care.

The greater proportion of the novel is written in dialogue, so there is no authorial voice.  In many ways, this worked to Fallada’s advantage, as his breakthrough novel received praise from both sides of the political spectrum. It appeared as if he was not taking sides, although a modern reader might beg to differ.

A Small Circus may not make you laugh very often, but it might have you nodding with agreement at the portrayal of human foibles and frailties.

  Noughties  Ben Masters  Published by Penguin ISBN  978-0-241-14526-5

Ben Masters’ novel is helpfully divided into three sections, entitled; “Bar”,  “Club” and “Pub”.   My advice to the reader would be to stay in the Bar !

Imagine a dodgy episode of Skins combined with a literary pub quiz and half an episode of Morse chucked in for good measure.

This is Oxford, but beyond the colleges, overheated young things are drinking themselves into oblivion, clumsily bonking each other, but then spoiling the whole experience by agonising about it!

Noughties is a Top Trumps pack of literary references and allusions.  Forget about the narrative, just play spot the disguised quotation.  The protagonist, Eliot Lamb (get it?) is trying to resolve the dilemma of his love life.  As his journey to the light includes such evocative meetings with the opposite sex as, “She places her warm breath inside mine..” one can only hope it is achieved speedily.

There are lots of topical music references and characters spend an inordinate amount of time texting.  You don’t need to join Eliot Lamb in his final days at Oxford to enjoy the richness of that experience !  Try the Open University.

  The Pale King  David Foster Wallace   Penguin   ISBN  978-0-141-04673

Did you ever read the one about the American Internal Revenue Regional Examinations Centre ?   No … and I wonder how many people will actually finish The Pale King.  The author didn’t, as he died in 2008 before it was completed.  This edition has been assembled and published by his editor, Michael Pietsch.

Try this chapter opening :

“Until mid-1987, the IRS’s attempts at achieving an integrated data system were plagued with systemic bugs and problems, many of these exacerbated by Technical Branch’s attempts to economise by updating older Fornix keypunch and card-sorter equipment to handle ninety-six column Powers cards instead of the original eighty-column Holleriths.”   Come on … keep up !

Wallace is feted as a truly great writer, especially in his love for precision and meaning.  This unfinished work is about boredom and sadness, but as it stands it is too great a challenge to the reader.  The tedium of the daily tasks of the IRS is plain enough.  It is detailed in well over 500 pages.  There are jokes, lots of jokes, strange observations, descriptions, and even characters, but this is still a novel about tediousness, and it is act of daring to leave the reader to extract from it the individual stories within.  For many, the doors of the tax return processing centre will remain closed. For the legions of Wallace’s admirers, this unfinished work may well achieve the status of an icon.  If you enjoy James Joyce, you’ll love this.  If not, then tax avoidance may be the answer.


Alexander McCall Smith – Short Stories – Train Related

The Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman

Long since a fan of Alexander McCall Smith and especially his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, we were delighted to find five short stories written on a promotional page of the East Coast train website.

Entitled The Flying Scotsman, Trainspotting, The way the world used to be, Classical Landscape with train, and Brief Encounter we consumed them slowly, savouring the turn of phrase and delectable irony. Hmm, more please!

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith


Vanished Kingdoms

This is an almost impossibly enjoyable volume, which purports to discuss fifteen past European states as the basis of a reflection on the impermanence of things, and the dangers of interpreting the past through the eyes of the present.

Such is the entertaining approach taken by Davies, showing no reluctance to quote from internet sites, guidebooks and secondary sources, that the central thesis becomes almost irrelevant  as he charges through a series of essays which are full of unexpected observations and stories.   How many spectators at an “Old Firm” football match in Glasgow would be aware of the Strathclyde Kingdom which founded their city ?  How many flag-wavers at this year’s Diamond Jubilee will reflect on the fortunes of the royal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha?  The Windsors have successfully airbrushed their German origins.   Do wine-lovers know that there  were at least fifteen versions of Burgundy?  (And that is not counting the fictional state in “Passport to Pimlico”!).

This is a work of great scholarship and strong opinion.  It is full of insight and no little humour.  If it remains the sum of its parts, who will argue?  For, where else would we learn, for example, that it once looked as if the empire of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would last for all time.  Norman Davies makes a convincing and thought provoking case for studying the fortunes of states which no longer feature in modern history.

Vanished Kingdoms written by Norman Davies
Published by Penguin – to read an extract go to the Penguin website

Reviewed by Les Tucker
Les enjoyed a teaching career in Further and Higher Education, moving from English to leading a Drama and Performing Arts Department. He studied Spanish History at University and still lists History as one of his main interests. He has never stopped being a trainspotter and wears his anorak with pride. His other sources of pleasure, if not profit, are the Turf, the British brewing industry and experimental theatre. Les is a scriptwriter and drama examiner. He describes himself as an omnivore where books are concerned.


The Girl on the Cliff

This is by no means lightweight romantic fiction.  The Girl on the Cliff  rumbles in at well over 500 pages, and what a well plotted piece of storytelling it is.

Novels, where the female characters sport names like “Aurora” and “Grania”,  and the man is known as “Matt”, usually carry built-in health warnings.  Lucinda Riley has, however, constructed an intricate plot, linking wartime London and contemporary Ireland.  The story largely revolves around a secret (which I may not reveal) from 1914, which is disguised until late in the novel.  Aurora, who is the narrator, has lost her mother, and Grania is a sculptor, and let us say that they discover a family connection.

There are familiar themes here: the triumph of hope over loss; romance; a foundling; a missing brother; but the writer skilfully steers her story between past and present with energy and freshness.

The narration is very occasionally irritating – it seems as if the reader is being told how to react or feel, but the only real weakness is some perfunctory characterisation of the minor players. Take the Russian dance teacher, for example.  Not only is she burdened with the title of Princess Astafieva, but she is also made to pronounce (a Sobranie to hand, of course): “Zen we shall put on some music and see how the leetle one respond.”    A minor criticism, I admit, and although the device of the past returning to invade the present may not be another Atonement, this novel is good, hearty storytelling.   If this is “Chick Lit” then count me in!

Girl on the Cliff is written by Lucinda Riley
Published by Penguin ISBN: 978 0 241 95497 3

Reviewed by Les Tucker
Les enjoyed a teaching career in Further and Higher Education, moving from English to leading a Drama and Performing Arts Department. He studied Spanish History at University and still lists History as one of his main interests. He has never stopped being a trainspotter and wears his anorak with pride. His other sources of pleasure, if not profit, are the Turf, the British brewing industry and experimental theatre. Les is a scriptwriter and drama examiner. He describes himself as an omnivore where books are concerned.


A history of the World in 100 Objects

Oh yes, this is dip in reading for at least a year!  With 100 historical objects to read about, from the earliest surviving object made by human hands to the 100th object – a solar powered lamp and charger it would fascinate anyone interested in man’s history.

The BBC wanted a series of talks about historical objects that previous civilisations have left behind them, often accidentally, as prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them. They collaborated with the British Museum and the chosen range of objects is enormous. Those talks were broadcast on Radio 4 and are still available via the web where you will also find a list of the objects, access to the programmes and other related and relevant information. Each day shows a different object.

In the book Neil MacGregor shows us the significance of each object, how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire.

Polished stone axe made from jadeite quarried in the Italian Alps found in Canterbury © Trustees of the British Museum

Polished stone axe made from jadeite quarried in the Italian Alps found in Canterbury © Trustees of the British Museum

Each immerses you the reader in a past civilisation accompanied by an exceptionally well informed guide.

This is truly a feast of information, well written, easy to assimilate and most memorable.

It is a family book too, not just for dad. I’m sure many a pupil will find the book a very good source of reference. It is a triumph of planning and dissemination.

Reviewed by Bob Beaney, social observer and guest contributor


My Scarf – An ironic short story

This story, written by Val Fief, a contributing author, has echoes of the kind of irony Roald Dahl included in many of his stories. 

I love my scarf. It is 72 years. I knitted it when I was 8. Those were very cold years and my mum gave me a woolly jumper to unravel so that I could have some wool to knit with. She taught me how to knit plain stitch, then purl stitch and how to pick up stitches that I had dropped.

I cut open all of the seams and set to work pulling out the curly wool and stretching it round the back of a chair. It was hard work undoing someone else’s carefully knitted work. I did this for a long time and when I had these big skeins of wool, I washed them hoping to straighten the wool out as they hung out on the line and I made balls of wool with them. At last I had something to knit with although the wool was still curly. We didn’t have washing machines and spin driers then – it was 1939 and the outbreak of war.

My mum taught me to cast on both with my thumb and with two needles. Metal knitting needles number 10s. I came home from school and knitted while listening to the wireless. I had finished by the end of November and was very thrilled to wear it to school. It was as tall as I am. I felt cosy and warm on the way to school. When it was very cold, I wore it over my nose.

As I wasn’t evacuated because we lived in Suffolk, we had other children come to live with us. We stayed friends with some of them throughout our lives. I was an early reader and read voraciously. In 1949 I went to University to study English. When I was a student I met another student, James. He was studying Maths. I was always baling him out with money. With the excitement of past war freedom, we got married. We had 7 children including twin girls. James studied and became a bank manager eventually but this made us move house often. Each time I had to find new schools and friends and houses. It was hard work but we managed with lots of challenges and laughter. We moved 14 times. I grew a garden everywhere we went. We managed it all and my scarf went with me to every location. It was like a baby’s comforter to me. A reminder of base. My original safe home.

The children grew up and had careers and interests. And we had a safe and permanent home and we would never have to move again. It was a lovely home in the middle of Cambridge with room for the children to come home. Until one day, James came home looking very serious. He said that it was time to leave home to be with a woman who always made him the most important person in her life. I was stunned. I blurted out “I suppose she has no children?”. “As a matter of fact, no”. He replied. “I will return tomorrow for my things” he said. “We will sell this house and you can have something small”. “You haven’t worked so you don’t deserve such a big house”.

Wow! He would simply return for his things, abandon me, and throw me out! I was shocked and unhappy and held tightly on to my scarf. Confused and frightened. I was distraught. Work? What does having seven children and moving 14 times to do with work? The next evening I took the bulbs out of the hall lights and left my scarf on the stairs and as he stormed out in great anger, he fell down the stairs and broke his neck. I retrieved my scarf, put the bulbs back in the sockets, and called 999 sobbing profusely.

That was all 20 years ago. My children come and see me in the house I love so much. My grandchildren too. There was accident insurance. I have had a wonderful life and I love my scarf.

Val Fieth, Contributing author

Knitting is becoming a more popular past time. John Lewis have kits for beginners on their website and a good range of funky wools to choose from. One of our favourite wools is Sirdar Squiggle Super Chunky Yarn, Pale Blue Mix at £3.80 per ball.

On the same website we noticed some cushion covers to knit, hmm with winter evenings coming up would be good to curl up in front of the fire and knit …

I welcome features to appear on the website. Do get in touch with me with your ideas.

Val Reynolds Brown Editor

%d bloggers like this: