The Birmingham Art Book

In this post, I’m featuring a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves, a Christmas gift no less. The book is the Birmingham Art Book: The City Through the Eyes of its Artists edited by Emma Bennett (who also created the cover art and wrote the preface). Joe Lycett has contributed a foreword, setting the tone for the book by declaring, ‘Birmingham, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the best city in the world. And the art here is the best in the world too.’

Front cover of The Birmingham Art Book, showing an image of the Council House by Emma Bennett

This book is the seventh title in a series of city art books published by UIT Cambridge Ltd. I hadn’t come across this series before, but I notice that Dublin and Edinburgh are included, so I might have to explore further. If you remember, I did a post some while ago about the Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, so I am following a favourite city theme here. It could build into a whole new sub-collection (as if I needed another one).

The Birmingham Art Book features the work of sixty-one artists, some having more than one piece included creating a collection of wonderful images of the city. The views included here are depicted in a wide range of styles and media, giving the collection a very vibrant feel. It’s a book for dipping into over and over again as each time you browse the images, another detail from the Birmingham landscape is revealed. I’m a Brummie born and bred and despite having moved away years ago, I do go back to visit regularly. This book is a lovely souvenir to have, a reminder of all the myriad buildings, parks and features that make up the city. It’s also a very nice addition to my Brummie collection. I haven’t added to it since buying This is Not Your Final Form, a poetry collection from Emma Press.

Back cover of the Birmingham Art Book, showing some images from the book and other titles in the series.

But of course, I never get chance to mooch around the city as much as I would like. I therefore found that the book’s city depictions had a huge nostalgia value for me. I kept spotting things that made me exclaim, ‘Ooh, I remember that!’ However, I have also been scratching my head at other images, not being quite able to place something that I feel I ought to remember. I’m also reminded of places that I haven’t re-visited in ages, such as the Barber Institute and the Electric Cinema.  

It is nice to see that the suburbs get a look in too. More nostalgia here; Cadbury’s, Kings Heath, Moseley and Cannon Hill Park. There are so many great images in this collection that it would be hard to pick out a shortlist of favourites. I will just name check a few though I could easily end up listing the entire contents:

  • I smiled at the close-up depiction of the gargoyles on St Martin’s Church looking with what seems to be an expression of amazement at the Selfridges Building (Graham Leonard King).  
  • Robert Geoghegan’s picture of Cannon Hill Park full of Canada Geese. The tagline on the painting reads: ‘Today:Cannon Hill Park. Tomorrow: The World’. I also like his portrait of ‘Old Joe’ at the University of Birmingham, The Owl and the Clocktower. I love the owl!
  • Alexander Edwards (Brumhaus) has a graphic-style view of the Jewellery Quarter, especially pleasing to me, as I was around that area for the first time in ages before Christmas.
  • I include in my picks a couple of city centre views, as I was busy spotting buildings that I recognised: Bird’s Eye New Street by Chris Eckersley and Memories of Birmingham by Martin Stuart Moore.
  • And finally, a mention for the travel poster/Art Deco inspired peices by Milan Topalović. The view of China Town is gorgeous.
  • And finally, finally let’s not forget the differing depictions of the Library of Birmingham, the Rotunda, the canal scenes, the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, The Bull and the Grand Central.

Highly recommended to Brummies past and present! Go out and buy one (and no, I’m not on commission).


Ireland Reads Day: Squeezing in a read (or two)

Today’s Landing Tales post is written in support of the #Ireland Reads day, so I want to talk a little about my memories of my early reading life (once upon a time in Birmingham) going back to where it all started, with a quick delve into the Landing Book Shelves. I hope to give you a little insight into what started me off on a lifetime love of books and reading. And of course, today I will certainly be squeezing in a read. Though in fairness, it’s more a case of trying to stop me squeezing in a loooong read…

My relationship with books goes back a long way. Like many people, I can trace that love back to all those old familiar nursery rhymes and songs, many of which will never be forgotten. Then it’s a short step onto children’s poems such as those of AA Milne, whose ‘The King’s Breakfast’ was one of my early favourites. Nowadays, just like the poor old king, ‘I do like a little bit of butter to my bread’ in the mornings! Although, I am also of the view that ‘marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread’, so I’m at one with the Dairymaid on that issue.

Now, as Paddington Bear afficionados know well, he is also a confirmed marmalade fan, usually keeping a spare marmalade sandwich under his hat for emergencies. Apparently, it’s a well-known fact that bears who come from Darkest Peru like marmalade,

“Where was it you said you’d come from? Peru?”
“That’s right,” said Paddington. “Darkest Peru.”
“Humph!” Mrs. Bird looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then I expect you like marmalade. I’d better get some more from the grocer.”
“There you are! What did I tell you?” cried Judy, as the door shut behind Mrs. Bird. “She does like you.”
“Fancy her knowing I like marmalade,” said Paddington.

If I were to attempt to compile a top ten childhood favourites list, then Paddington may well be at the top. Not least because, as an adult of (ahem, mature) years I can still sit down and chuckle over one of his adventures, which really do stand the test of time. Take a bow, Michael Bond.

I think that I have probably mentioned on here before, The Treasury of Children’s Classics collection that I had as a child, which still survives, albeit in a very battered state, with the cover selotaped together. It contains a mixture of extracts from classic tales and several poems. It was my first introduction to the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Dickens, Shakespeare (via Lamb’s Tales) the Arabian Nights and Susan Coolidge, to name but a few.

book cover with Aladdin, Pinoccio, Don Quixote
A childhood favourite

But it was the verses that initially drew me into the book, when I was too young to appreciate extracts from Robinson Crusoe and the like. I enjoyed the humorous poems best, such as John Drinkwater’s ‘Washing’, which I am sure struck a chord with many a child. Here’s an extract:

What is all this washing about,
Every day, week in, week out?
From getting up till going to bed,
I’m tired of hearing the same thing said.
Whether I’m dirty or whether I’m not,
Whether the water is cold or hot,
Whether I like or whether I don’t,
Whether I will or whether I won’t.-
“Have you washed your hands, and washed your face?”
I seem to live in the washing place.

Of course, this poem seems particularly innocent and old-fashioned in our Covid era of required hand washing, when handwashing doesn’t just relate to a grubby child in from playing in the garden, who can’t see why a bit of dirt would hurt a jam sandwich.  Or in Paddington’s case it would be sticky paws from eating directly from the marmalade jar.

The themes of washing and general cleanliness link to my final choice for this post (though believe me, I could go on but I have to stop somewhere), which is The Family from One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett (1937).  The family is the Ruggles family, father Joe is a dustman and his wife Rosie takes in laundry:

Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

Mrs Ruggles has a sign outside their little terraced house proclaiming, ‘The Ideal Laundry. Careful Hand Work’ and the house is often full of clothes, steam and folded laundry. Joe and Rosie have seven children, the youngest still a baby so life is busy and full of activity and comic adventures. If you know Alan Ahlberg’s picture book Peepo!, then you would recognise these books as sharing the same working class world of the 1930s and 40s. Clothes drying by the fire, kids playing in the yard and the mother in her pinny doing the chores. Though in Mrs Ruggles’ case, working as we would now term it ‘from home’ as well as doing the family tasks. These stories could be sentimental, dealing as they do with a poor family whose children seem to be constantly taking boots to be repaired, yet who have a happy life. Yet, they aren’t at all saccharine sweet, merely very funny and thoughtful. And Eve Garnett’s black and white sketches speak volumes.

I’ll wrap it up for now, but I’d love to hear about your favourite childhood reads or what you’re reading for #IrelandReads, so drop me a line below if you’d like to do so. Now, I will just go and #SqueezeInARead!

Armchair Travelling: The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

This book was a Christmas present from The Bookworm, so it hasn’t been on the Landing Book Shelves for long. In fact, it is more of a bedside table guest, before taking up its final place as a bona fide Landing resident. I had never before heard of the author and illustrator Chiang Yee (1903-77), or his nom de plume The Silent Traveller, so it was a new discovery as well as a lovely Edinburgh souvenir. The colour plates of the watercolour views of Edinburgh are of very good quality, beautifully reproduced and certainly make me long to visit the city again.

My copy of the The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, according to a pencilled note inside the cover is a first edition (1948) with no name of any previous owner inscribed. It is without dust jacket, pale yellow cloth bound, in very nice condition, though my photograph probably doesn’t do it justice. I will just digress here to mention that I recently read Martin Latham’s The Bookseller’s Tale, which has a chapter called ‘Signs of Use’. Here, he talks about the various ways in which readers down the centuries have engaged with texts, writing in notes and comments. One thing I always look for in a second -hand book is the name of a previous owner or a dedication from the giver, perhaps; however, not in this case.

The first Silent Traveller book was published in 1936, when Chiang Yee brought out his book on the Lakelands, followed by London in 1938 and several more in the following years. The ‘Silent Traveller’ image was his own styling. He comments in his engaging ‘Unnecessary Introduction’ that, ‘It is perfectly natural to be silent when travelling alone’. But he went on to explain that the name originated with his Chinese pen name Ya-Hsin-Chê, which means Dumb-Walking-Man. He said that he chose this name for himself after spending several years as a civil servant and politician, which involved ‘talking night and day for five years or so’. However, I was amused to note that The Silent Traveller also mentions a Birmingham editor who once called him the ‘The Not-Too-Silent-Traveller’ so he obviously wasn’t averse to a chat at times.

  • The title page of The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh showing a painting of the Scott Monument
  • Pale yellow cloth hardback cover of The Silent Traveller
  • Painting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
  • Painting of St Anthony's Chapel & St Margaret's Loch
  • Painting of Lady Stair's House, Edinburgh
  • Painting of Edinburgh Castle

The author was an artist, poet, writer and calligrapher from a city called Juijiang (written Kiukiang at the time) on the banks of the Yangtze in Jiangxi province. By the time that his Edinburgh book was published, he had lived in Britain for several years, having left China to study in London in 1933. This book is based on a few visits Chiang Yee made to Edinburgh, the first being in 1937, then 1943 and 1944.

The Silent Traveller records his walks around the city, describing his impressions of parks, monuments and buildings. He delights in the effect of the weather and different lights on Edinburgh’s notable features with an artist’s sensibility. One thing that features very frequently in his walks is (perhaps not surprisingly) the rain. It seems that The Silent Traveller must have frequently been ‘The Wet Traveller’, but that never diminished his enthusiasm or curiosity for Edinburgh’s beauty or its history. At one point he remarks that, ‘My affection for rain increases each time I behold a familiar scene take on a new and enchanting aspect through a veil of rain’.

Alongside describing visits to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens and so on, Chiang Yee discusses art, literature, philosophy and poetry from China and the West. He quotes verses from Chinese poets and includes a few short pieces of his own, inspired by a particular location. He also talks about the differences and similarities between Western and Chinese art; of materials, techinique and perspective. As he points out, ‘It [watercolour] is a point in common between our two countries’ going on to say that ‘Art is an international language which, unlike a spoken language can be understood by all peoples’.

Chiang Yee’s black and white sketches and his watercolour paintings of Edinburgh illustrate the larger tourist sites and beauty spots; also, odd corners and small incidents that he recalls. I look forward to being able to take it with me on a walk around the city and compare his views of the city with present day Edinburgh. And I definitely plan to track down a couple more volumes in this series, particularly his Dublin book. Chiang Yee also wrote several other books including children’s books and works on calligraphy and art. A biography came out in 2010, written by Da Zheng: The Silent Traveller from the East-A Cultural Biography (Rutgers University Press). I was delighted to discover that Chiang Yee has had the honour of a Blue Plaque on his former home in Oxford, where he lived from 1940-55. Something to look out for on a future visit.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has come across The Silent Traveller series, if so do drop me a line.

Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes) 


The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Benefactress front cover showing gilded title & decoration

The Benefactress

I have been searching around on The Landing to find ideas for a new series of blog posts. Obviously, at this stage my projected spring Renaissance has turned into a pre-Christmas Renaissance. So here goes…

As I was scouring the shelves, I once again realised that we have a nice selection of older books, quirky titles and interesting finds. Some of these are books for dipping into merely, others for a straightforward read. In the latter category I have picked out a book that I acquired many years ago and I am ashamed to say, that I have not got around to reading before now. This is a lovely 1911 pocket-sized edition of The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim.

For the sake of the honour of The Landing I decided that it was about time to remedy the omission and read The Benefactress. The snag with reading something so old (and to me rather precious) is that I felt that I dare not just shove it in my bag to read at lunchtime. And as for my fondness for reading in the bath…well some things are just not very wise. Not that I have actually yet dropped a book in the bath (maybe dipped the odd corner here and there) but there’s always a first time. Reading an older book does give a different quality of experience, due to the touch and feel of the book. I’ll just say a few words about this edition before telling a little about The Benefactress for those of you who don’t know the story.

This little book goes back to my Birmingham days, so I’ve had it for well over twenty years, but sadly I can’t remember what book fair or shop this volume came from. Its cover is very similar to that of a poetry chapbook that I have mentioned in a previous post, a sort of suede like texture but I don’t think it is actually leather. Maybe someday I will take it to an expert who will be able to tell me something about the material and how best to care for it (I may have mentioned before that dusting is not my strong suit). I love the elegant gilt swirl of the cover design, which is echoed on the end papers. Unfortunately, the ribbon marker has seen better days, but I still keep it out of a sense of completeness. The page edges have browned with age and there is gilt on the top edges but not the others. I don’t think it’s rubbed off; rather it looks as if they were never gilded in the first place. Judging from the publishing details this edition was published by MacMillan as part of its 7d series (1911), with the first edition being 1901.

But now to the story: The lovely and charming Anna Lestcourt is twenty-five when the story opens and should be full of all of the optimism of youth. However, Anna is financially dependent upon her rich sister-in-law (wife to her brother Sir Peter), a former Miss Susie Dobbs of Birmingham. As was not unusual at the time, there was a trading of new money for an ancient name and family home. All of this leaves Anna on Susie’s hands to marry off successfully, but so far to no avail. Anna remains resolutely unmarried, but not for the want of trying on Susie’s part. Anna’s fortunes take a turn for the better when her late mother’s brother comes on a visit from Germany and takes a liking to his niece. Subsequently he bequeaths her one of his estates, along with its income, which he hopes will secure her a good German husband.  Anna, however has other ideas, not being much sold on the good German husband idea. She forms the plan of opening up her new abode to several distressed gentlewomen, (who would live at her expense) much to Susie’s bafflement. Once in Germany, Anna makes the acquaintance of her new overseer, the local pastor and her nearest neighbour, Axel Lohm, with mixed results. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plan to fulfil the role of a benefactress does not go entirely according to plan, but I won’t plot spoil. Suffice to say that human nature will out. I will leave you to discover whether or not the marriage to a GGH comes to pass.

As I was reading the first part of the book, I found myself developing a certain sympathy for Anna’s sister-in-law Susie. Now this may have been a case of Brummie lasses sticking together, but I felt aggrieved on her behalf as Von Arnim portrayed her in a definitely unflattering light:

And the Dobbses were one and all singularly unattractive—a race of eager, restless, wiry little men and women, anxious to get as much as they could, and keep it as long as they could, a family succeeding in gathering a good deal of money together in one place, and failing entirely in the art of making friends.

Clearly, one could not come from the mercantile classes in Birmingham and be in any way cultured, socially adept or indeed philosophical (her husband was a philosopher). At the same time of course, her money came in very useful to save the aristocratic Lestcourt family from penury and to restore the family pile. Naturally too, Anna deplored Susie’s vulgar taste in furnishings. Thankfully Von Arnim did give Susie the occasional good line, “Really,” added Susie, twitching her shoulder, “you might remember that it isn’t all roses for me either, trying to get someone else’s daughter married.”

And she has a point; who would want to be trying to marry off a sister-in-law who doesn’t even want to be co-operative. It must have been particularly galling for Susie, since it was Anna who had all of the social cachet that she lacked.

Anna Lestcourt is however a far from heartless girl, who does come to understand that Susie’s position is not a happy one, seeing as she does that, ‘No one cared for her in the very least. She had hundreds of acquaintances, who would eat her dinners and go away and poke fun at her, but not a single friend.’ Yet at the same time, Anna resents been required to do the one thing that that might bring some cheer into Susie’s lonely life. Poor Susie would have loved a wedding to plan for and access to all of those elite hostesses who have so far snubbed her efforts.Front cover & spine showing gilded title & decoration

In The Benefactress, Von Arnim has given us a fascinating mix of characters with decidedly mixed moral standards, from whom Anna learns much in the course of her social experiment. It’s a long time since I read any von Arnim books, the most recent being The Solitary Summer, read a couple of years ago and this is a very different read. I did enjoy the story, possibly enhanced by the delights of finally reading my delightful little edition (despite my misgivings about Von Armin’s rather cruel characterisation of Brummie Susie) and I will no doubt read it again in about twenty years.

I’m not going to promise another blog post soon, though I will try to get back on track. But in the meantime, happy reading!

Picture credits: Chris Mills





A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Dylan Thomas

As the snow is falling on the blog pages (courtesy of WordPress wizardry) and was recently attempting to fall perilously near to the The Landing Bookshelves region, I hereby present a very snowy, Christmas themed post. I was rooting around upstairs for an idea for a seasonal offering and as the snow was flurrying (I didn’t think that was a word but my spell checker obviously does) by the window I spotted the wonderful snow filled A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Dylan Thomas, 1959). We have a version with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone (1973, 1993) that I added to The Bookworm’s Christmas collection a few years ago. I took a few scans to show you some of Ardizzone’s brilliant drawings (see below) of small schoolboys having seasonal adventures in a snowy Welsh village. I have also included a picture of the 1959 edition taken from Wikipedia, alongside our own illustrated edition. It’s enough to make anyone ready for Christmas, with or without the white stuff. Last week we attended A Night Before Christmas at The Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire and I was delighted to hear Michele Forbes reading from A Child’s Christmas as part of the cornucopia of seasonal stories.

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I began leafing through the pages of the book with a wodge of mini post-it notes in hand, so that I could mark my favourite bits to quote. Before I had finished doing this I realised that the book was already bristling with little paper strips. There were so many bits of the text and so many brilliant drawings that I had to give up my post-it notes before marking up the entire book. As I was doing this on the Luas one morning, apart from trying not to lose scraps of sticky paper, I was also smiling away and imaging it was Christmas already.

For this brief seasonal post, let us just concentrate on the snowy parts of the book:

One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

Such is the fascination of snow that we imagine that all our Christmases were snowy when we were young. The narrator of the book talks about several Christmases, that all meld into one big, snowy Christmas as he tells of childhood games and adventures.

Thomas describes the snow with a wide range of evocative descriptions. Snow was ‘shaken from whitewash buckets’ and then ‘it came shawling out of the ground’; on the roofs of the houses it resembled ‘a pure and grandfather moss’. The town was ‘bandaged’ and the landscape enticingly described as the ‘frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea’. It certainly sounded magical, as well as edible.

The reader becomes caught up in a white wonderland when anything could happen (at least in a schoolboy’s fantastic imagination) in between Christmas lunch with the aunts and uncles and a spot of carol singing:

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.
‘I bet people will think there’s been hippos.’
‘What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?’
‘I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.’
‘What would you do if you saw two hippos?’
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr Daniel’s house.

I love the thought of hippos charging through a snowy Welsh village, on the way to who knows where. The snowy scenes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales truly are scenes of the ideal Christmas that we all wish we had had or think that we have had. Much like the eternal sunny summers of our youth that you just don’t get any more. Or so we think.

Here’s wishing anyone who chances upon this post a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you want to browse a few seasonal posts from the archives, then have a wander around The Landing Bookshelves while you’re here! 

A Pre-Raphaelite Summer (Reading part 2)

As you will probably have guessed, this art-themed post is to be the second part of my belated round up of summer reading. Very belated, considering that Halloween is upon us as I write. Again, I propose a quick nod to three more of the books on my recently accomplished list, but just drop me a line if you want a little more information on anything. This blog post fails to do justice to some fascinating books, but I hope that at least by mentioning them, the inspiration to explore further may strike someone reading the post. I still want to mention the remainder of the summer reads, but I will pop those in here as and when I can, so that I may begin writing about my autumn reading (at this rate I will never catch up!)

To continue with the list in reading order (which again is also following a roughly chronological trajectory) I begin with Desperate Romantics: the Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites (Franny Moyle, John Murray, 2009). This I bought in 2009, having heard of, but not watched the television series loosely based on the book. I was curious to read it after having heard about the rollicking television series, but clearly my curiosity faded, as the book remained un-read until this year. I am glad however that finally I got around to reading Moyle’s book, which draws on the wealth of research available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). She explores the tangled relationships of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and their models, wives, lovers and artistic colleagues. The champion of Pre-Raphaelitism, John Ruskin; Rossetti’s one time teacher Ford Maddox Brown and later PRB members William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones all have parts in the painterly drama.

Desperate Romantics inspired a re-read of Lizzie Siddal: the Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (Lucinda Hawksley, Andre Deutsch, 2004, 2005). This is an excellent account of Lizzie Siddal’s life, but I think the subtitle was an unfortunate choice. As Hawksley makes clear, Siddal had her own artistic ambitions, both as a painter and a poet and was not merely Dante Rossetti’s model (and lover). Not surprisingly, the book jacket features Lizzie Siddal’s most famous modelling role, that of Ophelia for Millais’ painting of that name. However, Lizzie had ambitions for herself and renowned critic John Ruskin considered Lizzie talented enough to become her patron. I knew that Lizzie Siddal had painted (see below) but I had had no idea that she wrote too. Apparently, the poetic bent was not enough to endear Siddal to Dante’s poet sister Christina Rossetti who saw nothing to admire in her and disapproved of her relationship with Dante.

Ending my Pre-Raphaelite binge was Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Thames and Hudson, 1998). Manchester City Art Galleries originally published this book in 1997 to accompany its exhibition, which I saw in 1998 when it travelled to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Some of Lizzie Siddal’s work was on show at the exhibition, such as Pippa Passes (pen and ink drawing) and Lady Clare (watercolour on paper). For some reason I never bought the catalogue at the time so I was delighted to receive this copy as a Christmas present last year. Both the exhibition and the book highlighted women whose work was part of the wider Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As was pointed out in the book, Pre-Raphaelitism was a collegiate movement and female artists were able to benefit from support between men and women (Pamela Gerrish Nunn). Perhaps not surprisingly, several women featured came from artistic families and were able to count on that support to aid their artistic growth. Ford Maddox Brown’s two daughters Lucy and Catherine painted, taught by their father. Also coming from artistic families were Rebecca Solomon, Rosa Brett and Emma Sandys all of whom had brothers who became professional painters.

It was great to re-discover this book and to browse the artworks again. I will leave you with a sentence from Gerrish Nunn’s essay, which sums up for me the whole purpose of the exhibition and catalogue:

Woman – the object, icon, motif and motive of whom and from whom Pre-Raphaelitism is said to have been made – has perversely, masked the presence within the movement of women – active, executive autonomous subjects making Pre-Raphaelitism.

I hope you have enjoyed that snapshot of my Pre-Raphaelite summer reading. Do let me know if you have an interest in this area. I’d love to hear from you!

Vanity Fair and Queen Semiramis

Title page Vanity Fair

Original title page

I was all prepared to give the readers of The Landing blog my thoughts upon reading Vanity Fair, when one of the minor female characters, Miss Pinkerton, side tracked my intentions. I ended up delving into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Wikipedia for a bit of research into Thackeray’s historical allusions relating to the character. Finally, I came to the conclusion that this particular Thackeray creation bears a startling resemblance to a formidable maiden aunt in one of my favourite children’s stories.

Now read on….

Vanity Fair opens in the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies, when two of the main protagonists in the story are preparing to leave for the wide world. The two girls were Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, but for me, the redoubtable principal Miss Barbara Pinkerton (an ‘austere and godlike woman’ who was ‘as tall as a grenadier) stole the opening chapter. She is shown here parting from Becky Sharp, her least favourite pupil, who has the audacity to address the principal in perfect French:

Miss Pinkerton did not understand French; she only directed those who did: but biting her lips and throwing up her venerable and Roman nosed head (on the top of which figured a large and solemn turban), she said, ‘Miss Sharp, I wish you a good morning.’ As the Hammersmith Semiramis spoke, she waved one hand by way of adieu, and to give Miss Sharp an opportunity of shaking one of the fingers of the hand which was left out for that purpose.

Semiramis Regina

A no-nonsense kind of a woman…

That was the second time that Thackeray referred to Miss Pinkerton’s affinity with Semiramis, the first being at the opening of the chapter, where we are told ‘that majestic lady: the Semiramis of Hammersmith’ had been a friend of celebrated literary luminaries Dr Samuel Johnson and Mrs Hester Chapone. Now, I have to confess that I had only a vague recollection that Semiramis had been a queen or possibly a goddess of some sort, hence the dive into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The entry describes a legend about a woman who was the daughter of the goddess Derceto and an un-named Assyrian who went on to marry Ninus, King of Assyria. Brewer points out that this and many other legends grew up around a real Assyrian princess who lived circa 800 BC.

I assumed that Thackeray was comparing his redoubtable principal to the historical princess (who married King Shamsi-Adad V of Assyria), rather than the mythological Semiramis, but it is hard to say. Murder and suchlike heinous goings on were some of the activities of the legendary queen, so maybe it was a bit of a stretch to use her as a role model. However, the real Semiramis (ruled 810-806 BC) according to Vicki León in Uppity Women of Ancient Times was quite a strong capable ruler so perhaps she is a more likely source. The illustration from this book portrays the queen in soft woman-hood mode, so I can’t see her as an indomitable leader, but apparently she was. Apart from the questionable claims that she invented trousers for women and chastity belts for men, Semiramis achieved great things:Uppity Women of Ancient Times

Under her leadership, a new system of canals and dikes irrigated the flatland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the twin cities of Nimrud and Nineveh became the bright lights of Assyria. A true power player, Semiramis led military expeditions against the Medes as far afield as India, and forged tactical alliances as far west as Turkey.


Not a weapon in sight…

Perhaps we may safely assume that Miss Pinkerton ran her school with the authority, determination and majesty of an Assyrian Queen. The mythological Semiramis was rumoured to have slept with her son after her husband’s death, which would not have been at all a respectable thing for a principal of a select girls’ school, especially since Semiramis had put Ninus to death in the first place. I cannot help wondering if this was a joke on Thackeray’s part. Would his readers have been aware of the two aspects of Semiramis I wonder? She was obviously as proud as any queen, but I presume that contemporary readers would have been familiar with the Semiramis comparison.

I also gleaned from Brewer’s Dictionary that a couple of European female monarchs were honoured with the nickname ‘Semiramis of the North’. One of these was Catherine II of Russia, (1729-1796) whose deeds were a little murky; the other was Margareta of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (1353-1414) who seems to have been a capable ruler, without the vexatious tendency to murder her relatives. Clearly, Miss Pinkerton is one of a very select band of inspiring rulers whose achievements know no bounds.

Talking about inspirational, magisterial rulers, I will finish by bringing you a wonderful creation from

Aunt Fidget

Enough to terrify anyone…

Russell Hoban, brilliantly illustrated by Quentin Blake, called Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. This is the character I mentioned in my introduction. I am sure that you will see instantly her kinship with both the aforementioned school principal, Miss B Pinkerton and Queen Semiramis herself. As I was reading Vanity Fair, Blake’s drawing of  remarkable Aunt Fidget popped into my head and wouldn’t go away. Hoban describes her thus, ‘She wore an iron hat and took no nonsense from anyone’. She was as assured of the benefits of regular reading of the Nautical Almanac as Miss Pinkerton was of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. However, I do hope that Miss Pinkerton never said ‘Eat your mutton and your cabbage-and-potato sog’ to her pupils, or fed them with greasy bloaters as Aunt Fidget was fond of doing.

I seem to have come some distance from Thackeray, via an Assyrian Queen and Quentin Blake, but I hope you enjoyed the journey!

Credits: additional images from Wikipedia, with thanks.

The Chimes by Charles Dickens

I have The Chimes on The Landing Book Shelves, in two editions. The one that I have had for the longest time is an abridged version contained within The Children’s Treasury of Classics, mentioned in a previous post. A second version is in an edition of Dickens’ Christmas Books (Collins Clear Type Press) that I bought second hand in Birmingham. It has no publication date printed inside (Collins brought this collection out in 1906 but I am not sure if my copy dates from then) but there is an inscription dated 1967. Both versions of the story are illustrated with black and white sketches; the latter is by Arthur. A. Dixon and the former by an un-credited artist. I must have read the children’s story at one time but I didn’t recall it very well, when I came to re-read the unabridged version recently. The drawings of The Treasury did however stay in my memory, the daunting image of the ghostly figures made quite an impression on me as a youngster. Dixon did not do an illustration of the ghosts so I don’t have a comparison to make. You can check out the link above to see his work for the Christmas Books and other Dickens works in the Collins editions.The Chimes

Dickens wrote this story in 1844, after the publication of A Christmas Carol and a year before he wrote The Cricket on the Hearth. As I featured the first of Dickens’ Christmas stories here previously I thought that it was high time that I moved on to the next one in the series. Actually, The Chimes is more of a New Year’s tale as it is set just as the old year is preparing to give way to the new. People are settling their accounts so that they may begin the New Year afresh. However, The Chimes is similar to its predecessor in that it is also a seasonal ghost story. A series of spirits show the main protagonist Toby (Trotty) Veck the error of his ways in the manner similar to that suffered by Mr Scrooge. Unlike wealthy but misanthropic Scrooge, the likeable Trotty is a poor ticket porter who struggles to earn more than a few pennies a day. His crimes against his fellow humans are less than are Scrooge’s but despite this, the spirits from the church bell tower take him to task over the course of an eventful New Year’s Eve.

But what are Trotty Veck’s crimes against humanity? Trotty is judged to be guilty that day of losing all hope in the future, of believing that the poor must really be as bad as the newspapers and the paternalistic middle classes say they are, and of losing compassion for the desperate plight of others of his class. Toby was sitting reading the paper on New Year’s Eve and he came to a report about a woman who was so desperate not to return to the workhouse that she tried to drown herself and her baby (Dickens was inspired by a real case):

“Unnatural and cruel!” Toby cried. “Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re bad!”
The chimes took up the words so suddenly – burst out so loud, and clear, and sonorous- that the bells seemed to strike him in his chair.
And what was that they said?
“Toby Veck, Toby Veck, waiting for you, Toby! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, waiting for you, Toby! Come and see us, come and see us! Drag him to us, drag him to us! Haunt and hunt him, haunt and hunt him! Break his slumbers, break his slumbers! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, door open wide, Toby! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, door open wide, Toby-“ Then fiercely back to their impetuous strain again, and ringing in the very bricks and plaster on the walls.

The Chimes title page

First edition

The spirits of The Chimes show Trotty a glimpse of the future, or at least a version of it. They tell him that he has been dead for nine years after falling from the church steeple. The future presented by the spirits turns to out to be very bleak for Trotty’s family and friends. I don’t want to give any more away to anyone who has not read this story, so I will just hint that if you think about Scrooge’s prospects after the spirits have visited then you may reassure yourself before you read.

The story has been overshadowed by the success of that of Ebenezer Scrooge, though The Chimes was very well received upon publication. I can’t help thinking that the spirits were rather hard on poor old Toby, but Dickens was making the point that Toby shouldn’t give up hope and start to believe that the poor were not entitled to a better existence. Dickens was also satirising those who people claimed to be friends of the poor – as long as they stayed in their place:

Oh, let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.

This nineteenth century story still has something to offer us and gives us an apt lesson for the beginning of the New Year. Less a resolution than a philosophy of life.

Happy New Year!

Credit: Additional illustration from Wikipedia, with thanks.



Summer at the Bookshop: it started with a sketch…

In honour of bookselling summers gone by (and fellow booksellers), I am re-posting an edited version of a blog article that I originally wrote for when I was working for Hughes and Hughes a few years ago. It was first posted on 31 May 2012 in the now discontinued Booksellers’ blog column. The post was inspired by the fun we had putting together a summer themed table at the front of the shop. The book recommendations from 2012 still stand I think, so if you are looking for ideas for the kids then read on…

If anyone had told me twenty years ago, that bookselling would involve playing with bits of coloured paper and cotton wool; I would have raised a gently inquiring eyebrow. These days I am more experienced in such creative matters. Indeed, there are times when it feels less like working in a bookshop and more like being back in primary school. Thank heavens for all of those Blue Peter watching years when I was being inspired by Val’s and John’s handiwork.

Like most creations, our summer themed table began with the merest sketch of an idea. The tricky part is usually translating the idea into 3D reality (and serving customers at the same time). That was where the cotton wool came into play as we attempted to create a model of an ice-cream cone (complete with flake) for our shop front display table. With the addition of yellow wrapping paper and some crepe paper in a lovely shade of blue, we were well on the way to bringing the seaside to a Dundrum shop floor.

The table was truly a joint effort: Claire, Maeve and Michelle were responsible for some very bijou beach huts and a shoal of little Nemos. And did I mention the fierce-looking pirates? However, the piece de resistance was Andrew’s larger than life ice-cream cone, which dominates the table, inviting thoughts of summer treats. Don’s original idea was very well realised by the team and we were very pleased with ourselves (she said modestly).

Summer Table

Our rather splendid summer scene

We have all had a great deal of fun cutting out shapes, but the serious purpose was obviously to make something a little more eye-catching than basic merchandising. We filled the table with stock aimed at parents and children, with a mixture of new summer titles, colouring and activity books and toys. We arranged some bright and cheerful gardening gear for kids, which include hats and gloves for any future ‘Bloom’ exhibitors out there. When I saw the little ‘Bug House’, I was reminded of Dick King-Smith’s enchanting ‘Sophie’ books. For anyone not familiar with the series, the plot of the first novel saw Sophie earnestly collecting garden bugs of all shapes and sizes for her mini farm. Not all parents would appreciate that one I suppose…

For parents travelling with younger children, sticker, activity and colouring books are usually a good idea. For example, the Airport Colouring Book will peacefully while away the inevitable waiting time. If not, there is always Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler to rely upon, with for instance the Tales from Acorn Wood Activity Book.

Usborne Books had the bright idea of bringing out a book made up of holiday postcards for children to colour. There’s no excuse for anyone not to send cards home to the grandparents then! We also have plenty of ideas for summer holiday reading. Gerry Boland’s new Marco adventure, Marco: Master of Disguise (O’Brien Press) is completely charming. Marco is an escaped tea drinking grizzly bear who is hiding out from the zoo authorities. Áine McGuiness’ illustrations are wonderful; you could just see yourself giving a home to a grizzly like Marco (always assuming that you had enough tea bags).

For children’s holiday reads, then look no further than to the winners of the CBI Book Awards, announced recently. For older readers, Celine Kiernan’s Into the Grey is a gripping and atmospheric story. Celine received the double whammy of the Book of the Year Award and the Children’s Choice Award. I’ll hazard a guess at which award she was most pleased to win.

At the other end of the reading scale, his delightful picture book Stuck will no doubt appeal to the many Oliver Jeffers fans around. Stuck won the ‘Honour Award’ for Illustration, beating off stiff competition. Jeffers’ new book, The Hueys in the New Jumper has recently hit the bookshelves, which promises to be another bestseller. I want a Huey of my own now please (complete with orange jumper). Mark O’Sullivan won the Judges’ ‘Special Award’, for My Dad is 10 Years Old; Paula Leyden won the Eilís Dillon Award for The Butterfly Heart, based on her own experiences of growing up in Zambia. Siobhán Parkinson had two titles in the shortlist and won the ‘Honour Award’ for Fiction with Maitriόisce, which explored five generations of a family. Last but by no means least, Roddy Doyle was lucky enough to win the schools’ ‘Shadowing Award’ for A Greyhound of a Girl, which is now out in paperback just in time for the holidays.

Congratulations to all of the winners mentioned above. I hope I have given a few useful ideas for the holiday season, but if you need a bit of help choosing, just pop in and ask a bookseller.

I hope the post has inspired you to either pop into a real bookshop for your children’s summer reads, or to grab scissors and paper and have some creative fun during the holidays! The Bookworm read A Greyhound of a Girl when it first came out and thoroughly enjoyed it and going a little further back, she was a firm Sophie fan. If you’ve never met Dick King-Smith’s feisty heroine then do give her adventures a read.

Picture credit: me (unfortunately I’ve lost the original jpeg file so the quality isn’t great) and also used on the blog post.