Reading the Classics

It always amuses me to see the classification systems that bookshops use for their stock.

I dislike some of these. It always irritates me to see Science Fiction and Fantasy put together; I feel they are distinct genres.

A while ago there was a trend for ‘misery memoirs’: real life stories of harrowing experiences. These were very distressing, but I felt that they were being trivialised by being categorised as “Tragic Life Stories” or something similar.

These now, thank goodness, seem to have fallen out of fashion. One category that never seems to fade away is that of “Classics”; it is often called “Classic Literature”, but can then become just “Literature”.

What do these labels mean? Off the top of my rather bald head, I see classics as being of a certain age, somewhat distinguished by time. I have big problems with Literature. Why is one novel Literature, another just…. a novel? (And by the way, just how patronising is “Chick Lit”? Is it literature for chickens?)

Like many people I was amazed and astonished to see that Morrisey’s memoirs had been published under the Penguin Modern Classic imprint. Surely a Modern Classic is one that has stood the test of time, just not such a length of time as a classic. Oh dear, this is more and more confusing.

I have a fairly clear idea in my head of whether a book is a classic or not. Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy. I know, they are all dead (and were all white), but that is possibly the point. Perhaps you have to have died before living memory to be a classic author.

I have recently re-read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but have also tackled some classic novels unfamiliar to me. ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell was one. I have read ‘Cranford’, probably her most famous book, but one I found a bit thin, and ‘Wives and Daughters’, which I find thoroughly enjoyable and should probably have featured in my Re-reads and Re-rereads blogpost. (Why is she often referred to as “Mrs Gaskell”, as if she had not been not a person in her own right but a wife?) I came to it after hearing it dramatised on the radio one winter when I was ill in bed (at the age of 39, newly married, with mumps- don’t ask).

Here’s a sub-theme: coming to classics through film, TV and radio. I used to have a rather puritan view that it’s better to read them first, but now I’m not so sure. If adaptations get people to widen their reading, fine. This was the case for me with ‘North and South’, following a fine BBC TV dramatisation some years ago. However, I found reading the book a bit disappointing. There are so many long interior monologues and authorial discussions which make it hard going for a plot-driven reader like me.

At the moment I am reading ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, inspired by a Sunday supplement article about her. Again there was a good BBC dramatisation, which I have largely forgotten. The book is (so far) rather more fun than I had anticipated, although again spoiled for me by some long discussions, for example of 19th century medical trends. It appears to have a large cast of characters and so I have taken to using a diagram of them and their connections, as I have done with Dickens and Tolstoy. (See ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ by Charles Dickens and War and Peace.)

Ah, Dickens. I am happy to say I still have some of his novels to read and hope to do so before I’m finished. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘Dombey and Son’ come to mind. Dickens is very readable, as long as you can keep track of the characters.

Oh dear, as so often this has become a ramble. In the hope of spreading some enlightenment I would recommend Anthony Trollope as another accessible classic author. I’ve never quite got to grips with the chronology of his ‘Barchester’ novels but I live in hope. Austen of course is thoroughly entertaining: just ignore literary criticism of her work.

In fact, that’s a general rule: don’t read literary criticism. A good edition of a classic novel with footnotes can be very helpful, but they are often sadly lacking in Kindle versions.

Now I have reached the point in my life where I read what I want to, because I think I will enjoy a book, and sometimes also because I think it will, in some nebulous way, benefit me. And, dear reader, unless you are studying for a qualification, I suggest you do the same.

Reading the Classics


10 Most Influential Albums

You have MSC to blame for this one. He did this list on Facebook and (sort of) challenged me to do it. So I have, but on WordPress. Pure self-indulgence……

These are not necessarily my favourite albums…. Although some are! They are the albums which I think have most influenced my musical taste. They are roughly in order of how they occurred to me. So……

Swing ’35- ’39 by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France

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There are probably more representative albums by the quintet. There are probably albums with better sound quality. All their work was originally recorded on 78 rpm shellac discs; I only have this on vinyl.

It starts with ‘Limehouse Blues’. They play the main tune sedately, twice. Then they’re off, ripping into some of the most brilliant solos ever, played by Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grapelli. I won’t go on; look them up, but listen to them. Jim Hodgson, our music teacher, played this to us one Christmas. I’m eternally grateful.

Master of Reality by Black Sabbath

Sorry, I can’t find a copyright free image.

I bought this purely on spec; I think I must have seen it advertised. It starts with the guitarist coughing on a huge spliff (so I have read); then there are two LP sides of definitive heavy metal riffs. It was the first time I had really heard music which was out of the ordinary; a rebellion if you like. It was my entry into what was then modern music. However, I never, ever played it loud, which probably resulted in a very different experience to most heavy metal kids. Then I sold it. I still don’t know why.

Live ’92 by The Orb

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Again, I bought this purely on speculation, along with ‘Trance Europe Express Vol 2’. It totally changed my perception of music. It introduced me to samples, drum machines, sequencers and, I suppose, ambient music.

Angel’s Egg by Gong

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There’s a theme emerging here. I bought this without hearing it after reading an article about Gong in a music magazine, on the same day as I bought ‘Swing ’35-39’. It totally changed my ears, changed the way I heard things. I suppose I first loved the fantastic musicianship: the Steve Hillage guitar solos, the Pierre Moerlen drumming, the Didier Malherbe sax playing (the first time I’d ever really got a saxophonist); then the incredible mythology and indefatigable positivity of Planet Gong; not forgetting Tim Blake’s futuristic synthesiser sounds. It started a love affair with Gong that has lasted more than 40 years.

Pick a Dub by Keith Hudson


I just picked this up at a record shop in exchange for some old albums, including ‘Master of Reality’ (exclamation mark!). Again it was utterly revolutionary for my ears, introducing me to a genre (Dub Reggae) which I had never before heard. It has to be heard on a decent sound system to appreciate the bass/ drum foundation, on top of which and around which the producer (Keith Hudson) makes his magic, dropping instruments in and out, applying deep echo, generally creating a sound world like no other. My original vinyl copy (for some strange reason attributed to the 2nd Street Dubs) was nicked but I now have it on CD.

Water Music/ Music for the Royal Fireworks by Handel, played by the London Symphony Orchestra

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This was the very first. They played it in assembly at my junior school and it has stuck with me ever since. The original LP was two suites, one on each side. I now have the complete Water Music on a CD, played by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It’s music that makes me feel I can deal with anything; I may go down, but I will go down to glorious sounds.

Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

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I had heard quite a bit of Bob Dylan before this, mostly from two ‘Greatest Hits’ collections. This made me realise how creative he can be; here he produces a coherent two LP set of songs with that “wild, thin, mercury sound” and evocative lyrics. Besides, it’s got ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on it, which totally changed how I saw love songs.

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley

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This is again a different way of listening. It’s one of the first big minimalist pieces. It’s very melodic; the melody is repetitive, soothing and uplifting. You could meditate to it, listen to it while chilling, or just have it as a beautiful background.

The Essential John Renbourn by John Renbourn

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Magic. Lovely, skilled guitar playing; he is incapable of producing anything that is not pretty. Still underrated in my very humble opinion. This made me realise how great guitar playing does not have to involve pyrotechnics. (I just listened to this again and confirmed my opinion.) I saw him play three times and count myself very privileged.

and finally………

Bird’s Nest by Charlie Parker

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Charlie Parker, children, was a jazz alto saxophonist. I bought this in a spirit of adventure. I’ve read that Charlie Parker was a “towering personality”; a totally distinctive voice; a genius. I’m sorry to say that I JUST DON’T GET IT. I’ve tried and tried and given up. It has the same effect as opera: I can admire the skill and genius, but don’t enjoy it. I put this one in to point out that influential albums can be a negative influence as well as positive. No more bebop for me. (So why do I love the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and not this? I suppose I find it easier to follow the tune with the quintet.)

I enjoyed doing this, even if you didn’t enjoy reading it. It’s interesting that I bought most without having heard the artists first.

Thanks, MSC, who said he was sure most of the list would be albums I’d heard when I was young. That’s true, apart from The Orb and John Renbourn. How sad that more than half of the main makers of these albums are dead.

There are some omissions that might seem strange; but this is, as I have said, a list of influences rather than favourites. The Beatles? They were always there. Steve Hillage and System 7? They crept into my consciousness through Gong. What about God’s house band- The Penguin Café Orchestra? God’s composer- Bach? Hawkwind? Richard Thompson? The Moody Blues? I love them, but they perhaps did not rearrange my ideas in the same way. (The Desperate Bicycles did, but that was through a single.)

I’m looking forward to reading your list…..



Re-reads and Re-rereads

Having last week discussed unfinished books, I thought I’d turn my attention to books I have re-read. I’m not even going to call them favourites, but they are books I keep coming back to time and time again.

Reads and Rerereads 2‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

I have lost count of how many time I have read this. It’s comforting- I know what’s going to happen- but I do find fresh insights every time I read it. Most recently, a little of the dialogue seemed a little stilted to me, but this is not to say I will not be reading it again and again. However, I avoid all the critical notes in my battered Penguin edition. I am not reading as an academic and they detract from my enjoyment.

Reads and Rerereads 5‘Truckers’ by Terry Pratchett

In fact, anything by Terry Pratchett; but I feel I should stick to one book. In this, aimed at children but so enjoyable for adults, a tribe of nomes (sic) are living in the spaces between humans, in the countryside and in a department store. It sounds ludicrous and fanciful, and it is, but Pratchett makes it playful, logical, and deeply insightful into our world and our condition; as he does more extensively with his Discworld books. I read this many times to children. Again, I now find some of his later work less fluent and enjoyable than when I first read it; but the invention, as ever, is always entertaining.

See also “It should have been me.”

DSCF0586‘Stolen Journey’ by Oliver Philpot

This is one few people now will have read. It is the true story of the “Wooden Horse” escape from Germany in World War 2, written by one of the three escapees. I suppose this is again a repeat read because it is comforting; I know he always escapes. It is from my grandfather’s collection and it is precious.

See also My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man

Reads and Rerereads 1‘No Highway’ by Nevile Shute

Again I could pick anything by this author. He is now deeply out of fashion, but I read him again and again because he is very strong on the virtues of common men and women, triumphing because of their humanity. I wish I could persuade others to read his work; in fact I plan a future post on him, as I do with the next author….

Reads and Rerereads 3‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ by William Gibson

I picked this book out of many I could choose by William Gibson because it has a great title. He is apparently the originator of cyberpunk. I reread his entire output every few years. His language use, plotting and invention are what keep me coming back. His novels repay rereading in that you start to understand just what is going on…..

Reads and Rerereads 4‘The Village Cricket Match’ by John Parker

This is a delightful tale of…. of the village cricket match of the title. It reminds me of watching village cricket in a village much like this one in Sussex, when I was a boy. (And I went to school with the author’s son, who was eventually the captain of Sussex. And was outstanding at all sorts of sports. And Oxbridge.)

dscn6090‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens

I like just about all Dickens, and this used to be my favourite. I used to read it when things were really bad. If I haven’t re-read it for some time, perhaps that’s because things haven’t been so bad.

As so often, by writing this post I found some new insights. I discovered that it was authors I reread, not individual novels, apart in the case of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Stolen Journey’. Of course, there are others, but Shute, Gibson and Pratchett are the writers I keep coming back to. (There is some non-fiction I re-read: ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and others; but mostly I dip into it.)

And your choice is?

Káva Café, Todmorden

At first sight, Todmorden looks unprepossessing, especially on a grey, damp, misty day. However, a visit to Káva Café cheered us up hugely and made us appreciate the attractive nature of the town.

Oh dear, this is beginning to sound like one of those dreadful advertising reviews. But it’s true.

Káva is a real café, not a chain. It looks the part, with fairy lights and birds, as you can see in the photo. When we went, it was deservedly busy, as other folk obviously needed cheering up too. It has really good coffee, served on a little tray with a glass of water, something we have only experienced before in Croatia. It has an interesting, rather Middle Eastern and vegetarian menu, with meze, soup, salads, huevos rancheros, koofteh, mousaka….. You get the picture. We only had cake. I say only, but they were delicious: coffee, chocolate fudge and chocolate and orange.

Opening times are on the website; it also does interesting looking evening meals.

Link to Káva Café

The staff are extremely welcoming and hospitable, very willing to help. The toilets are clean (very important). It has the indefinable feel of a friendly place.

Todmorden is interesting: it has a canal, a viaduct, shops over the river and obviously a thriving life. If only we lived nearer Káva Café.

In Praise of East Enders (BBC TV)

It may come as a surprise to you that I like East Enders and watch it regularly…

Well, my mother-in-law, a lady of great discernment and taste, was also an avid watcher; but it was only recently that I discovered the pleasures of this TV programme.

For those who don’t know, it’s a UK “soap opera”, set in the fictional Albert Square, in the East End of London, and has been running for many years. It has a fictional borough (Walford), a fictional pub (the Queen Victoria) and even a fictional London Underground station. It chiefly features members of fairly close-knit but intermarried families. It may be that some of the settings, storylines and characters are stereotyped, but well… it’s a soap opera. Isn’t that the point? Given that it’s on for two hours every week, it maintains high standards. It’s quite astonishing that it stays fairly fresh.


Again for those who do not know England (yes, excitingly, there are some among my readers) the East End is a traditional dockland and working-class area, now largely taken over by businesses and expensive housing. The programme portrays a community still largely rooted in the working-class history.


Watching it over a period of time gives some insights. Firstly, I would mention acting standards. These are variable, but I think generally good. There is one actor who steadfastly plays him or her self (I guess) but we’ll let that pass. In some cases- like a half-hour confrontation between a father and a son- there is real class and conviction.

Next, I am particularly interested by the overlapping story arcs, of varied lengths, that a soap opera can use- the stories within the story. It is possible in a soap opera to have really long plot sections and it’s fascinating to see how they develop and interact. Some of these story arcs are years long. Characters leave, return and have existences off screen. For a relative newcomer, like me, this can sometimes be disorientating but fun. Who is Mo? Who is Jean? What do they have to do with Stacey? Why does Phil shut the door on Mo? Looking these questions up leads me to a wealth of information, for example on Wikipedia. I love the idea that these fictional characters somehow do exist, in a strange alternative reality. What I really want, however, is an East Enders character/ family tree guide. It can be difficult to understand and remember relationships.

The morality of East Enders is complicated, or perhaps it would be better to say that the moralities are complicated. There is a surprising acceptance of criminal activity at varying levels, although baddies do often get their just desserts. Recently we have witnessed the foiling of plots by the dastardly Willoughby-Brown to buy up large parts of the Square, and by the dastardly Aidan Turner to use the Queen Vic as a drug dealing centre, among other things. We cheered when they finally were defeated.

If that sounds sarcastic, or ironic, it’s not meant to be. I genuinely like it. Perhaps there’s an element of escapism in my pleasure. My middle-class background in leafy Southern England has given me little knowledge of the East End, so I could not with confidence say how accurate the portrayal is; but I will be watching with interest how the latest twists and turns turn out.

Title picture by Kelvin 101 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria pub by Matt Pearson (Flickr: The Queen Vic) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Running Girl’ and ‘Kid Got Shot’ by Simon Mason

These novels were two of the batch I recently received from the Ms O. #1 Lending Library. (See  The Ms Oblique Library )

Running Girl‘Running Girl’ was, to use a hackneyed phrase, a breath of fresh air. I suppose it’s a Young Adult detective story. The main protagonist (why do people seem to frequently say “chief protagonist”?) is Garvie Smith, a disaffected teenage genius. A former girlfriend of his has been murdered and he is, naturally, drawn to find the killer. Detective Inspector Singh has been assigned to the case; he is described as “stiff and uncompromising”. Their two paths intertwine; the story is told from both viewpoints, although Garvie’s predominates.

So far, so standard, and the plot is just that: a standard detection story, with characteristic twists and turns. Why then do I think it’s so fresh? To start with, it’s told well. There’s no gimmicky or attempt at unnecessary  novelty. It can be followed with no difficulty apart from the puzzle itself. Perhaps this is a function of reading a YA detective story after more convoluted adult versions.

Then the characters are involving; I think we always have to have a concern for what happens to characters and to feel some sort of empathy for them. Garvie and Singh are well drawn, rounded people, with their virtues and faults.

The language used, especially in descriptions, is nice and clear. (Yes, I do mean nice.) I like “black holly and pale beech trees darkening with rain” and “his short black hair stood up from his head in a layer of fine bristles”. The author avoids overdoing similes and metaphors or straining for them. The dialogue sounds accurate.

Kid Got ShotIn ‘Kid Got Shot’ we encounter the same principal characters in changed circumstances. The storyline again involves a teenager who is murdered. There is an interesting mix of racial backgrounds; the victim is Polish, and I forgot to mention above that Garvie is mixed Scottish and Barbadian, the detective Singh a Sikh. New characters include a comic but menacing gangster.

Once again the descriptive passages, which normally I skim through in my lust for a plot, are evocative and involving, making me read them more than once. Some noteworthy examples are the description of wire fences chattering in the wind, while “clouds tore  themselves to pieces and tossed the bits against the dark sky”; shredded cherry tree blossoms “like party-coloured fish flakes in the gutters”; and tower blocks like “vast grey Stickle bricks…. sequinned with satellite dishes, standing in a concrete pool”.

There is only veiled mention of sex and some limited violence. This may or may not please you.

There is more emphasis on Garvie and his peculiar, reckless personality than before, perhaps less attention to Singh and Garvie’s friends, less attention to school. There is more plot; is again rather involved and I’m not sure even now that I am completely clear about what led to the murder and the motives for it. There are some loose ends which could be tied up nicely in a third book: How does Garvie get on in his exams? What is the outcome for Singh? I recommend both books.

Did you notice I split an infinitive? Apparently that’s O.K. now. But there are some grammatical rules up with which I will not put. And that’s my last word.

‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab

Briefly. Another book from the Ms Oblique library. It’s fantasy, and I suspect Young Adult. Oh no, I just looked it up: apparently it’s not, as Ms. Schwab publishes YA books as V.E. Swab and adult books as Victoria Schwab. Come to think of it, I think it would be rather dark to be YA; but who knows nowadays. It does have a freshness that has the feel of a youngish readership.

Kell is a magician who has the rare ability to travel between three different versions of London: Grey, Red and White. In the past, Black London was uncontrollably magical and has been walled off from the other dimensions. Now it is a threat again.

There’s good consistency of invention in the book, with no implausible solutions. The contrasting Londons are nicely described and delineated. There’s a good action plot, with not too much introspection. Kell is a well-portrayed central character, a hero who is not infallible. Of course, there is a sidekick, Lila, a good action heroine, but the romance is very understated.

I started it with an impatience to be back to science fiction, but found it was one of those compelling reads which have you snatching a few pages whenever you can. Recommended.

(It’s the first of a series.)


Photo of Victoria Schwab: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons