Monthly Archives: December 2013

Bear Island Book Exchange

Remember when the best bit about the days between Christmas and New Year was spending your book tokens? We do. Let John Maguire take you for a stroll to a literary garden in our latest wander around our favourite bookshops…

Books wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life. In Cardiff, the city that brought us Shirley Bassey and the Doctor Who re-boot, you will find, or indeed stumble upon, a fabulous book store that will revitalise the soul.

bear island

Described simply as ‘the real deal’ by its proprietor, BEAR ISLAND BOOK EXCHANGE in Cardiff Market is sandwiched between a sweet shop and a deli. A commixture of smells combust in the air, fresh fish from Ashtons, the fishmongers (tenants in the market since 1866), strong coffee, Mediterranean spice and the leafed pages of worn and well-read paperbacks.  Books that have been lived in, crammed with notes and the odd coffee-stained pages that almost tell a tale in their own right.

ashtons cardiff

True Detective, Vintage Comics, Commando Action magazines, a heavy laden, almost cascading, mountain of Mills and Boon, rare and Antiquarian books crowd the shelves. The books are haphazardly organised by genre, this forces you to look at new authors, instead of opting upon tried and tested writers. I always feel like a literary pig, sniffing out new creative truffles in amongst the written foliage.

true detective

This little overgrowth of literature is like a well-loved piece of garden, blooming throughout the year, ever-changing. A tiny literary paradise where I  always find at least one book to buy, one I may have read before and want to revisit or pass to a friend, like Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, or books that I have for one reason or another not got around to reading, like my latest acquisition Bald Twit Lion by Spike Milligan.

true crime

Either way, it is a magical place to visit. A relief from the chain book stores that pop up in every city high street, like literary McDonald’s. BEAR ISLAND BOOK EXCHANGE is thankfully a blot of individualism on a piece of town planning parchment paper that has become the same everywhere, a blueprint of monotony.

Here is to the real deal! Happy hunting!



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A dolly for Christmas

Settle down for Christmas Eve as John Maguire follows the Victorian tradition of a creepy tale…

Light the candle, perhaps cradle a mug of fiendishly delicious hot chocolate, or a generous measure of an Islay Malt throw a log on the fire, baton down the hatches and settle into your reading chair.

Pick up a ghost tale this Xmas eve,  just like Dickens, just like M.R James, perhaps pick up: Dolly by Susan Hill.


With this story, the writer comes along and totally blows all other ghost story writers to hell and back, with her simple scare fest of a tale. The simplicity of the story is what makes the story. There is no need for superfluous character backlogs or divisions, her tale, does exactly what it should do, tells the tale.

Set in the damp and desolate landscape of the English fens. An unforgettable summer at Iygot house sees Edward Caley and his brat of a cousin share experiences that have a deep effect on them.

Every piece of syntax is necessary, every detail, reference, in order to lead the reader on a quest, to try to solve the ghoulish puzzle. Her writing is a rarity in that you can be reading and completely immersed without realisation.

Hill allows the reader to dive in to her words, swim calmly and before they realise almost drown, frantically come up for air and realise it is not real, it is in fact just a story.

John Betjeman boldly proclaimed, ‘M.R James is the greatest master of the ghost story, Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu and H. Russell Wakefield are equal seconds.’ I would like to suggest that Susan Hill indeed needs to be put into this pantheon of terror.

susan hill

Her recipe for a chilling ghost story,

Start very quietly and go: one, two, three, jump. Or start with a jump and make it jumpier. But with a long story, it must have rises and falls. The Turn of the Screw describes it perfectly: you keep, turning and, just before the end, let go a bit so your audience relaxes and maybe have a description of scenery….for a false sense of security.

There is a word for this kind of artistry and it’s not one that can get thrown around too easily, in this case though it is true and the word is genius.
You must convey that you’re on the side of the innocent. Fighting malevolence…….the eternal battle between light and dark.


So this yule time perhaps give the family a gift they will never forget, after all everybody loves a dolly.

victorian xmas

Sweet dreams.


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Festive footle

John Maguire brings you an alternative Christmas story…

No Santa Claus, no reindeer flying on magic dust, no Christmas tree and no brightly wrapped parcels, Paul Auster’s Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is an unconventional tale for the holiday season. A welcome relief from the yuletide overload!

auggie wren

In a modern world brimming with commercialism to the point of annoyance, the retina is force-fed a blizzard of stock images, roasting meats, joviality and merriment from October (sometimes even mid-September) onwards. A load of festive footle some may say!

Yet there can be an undercurrent of melancholia to the whole festive holiday, packaging itself neatly as perfect family unity and love for all. To put it plainly, anyone is bound to fail if measuring their world against the idealised lives bombarded and shoved in our faces through the electronic plasma 36 inch teat that flashes advert after advert in the corner of the cold dark living room.

The commercialist campaign appears to have spread to the theatres too. This year Liverpool is stuffed with Pantomimes like a gargantuan three bird roast. You may shout ‘he’s behind you’, but you wouldn’t really be able to tell, as there are so many Dames and token stock stereotypes fighting for ticket sales. The winter darkness is illuminated, bedazzled by a number of coloured lights with musical numbers blasting out from the stores and markets making the grey streets look like a perpetual MGM musical. It may detract from the double-dip recession and debts a-piling for the time being, that is until the hangover from hell in 2014.

Perhaps it won’t be the hair of the dog that’s needed then but the whole hound. You can almost hear the licking of the lips of the companies like Wonga and the rest, ready to claim their succulent prize after the New Year fizz has indeed fizzled out.

Alas, there are thankfully alternative variations of festive celebration, take The Pogues romantic tune, Fairytale of New York, for example. And there are dynamic theatres like The Lantern Liverpool with Take a Hint’s ZAGMUTH and The Unity’s collaboration with Action Transport Theatre, THE PIED PIPER, to offer a creative antidote.


An hour of time well spent over the holiday period would be to dip into Paul Auster’s utterly charming, opuscule fable, Auggie Wren’s Xmas Story.
Paul Auster was born in 1947 and studied at Columbia University, spending four years in France. A true Renaissance writer, he pens novels, poems, screenplays and translations.


Auster was challenged to come up with a short story to be published in The New York Times on Xmas day. Thus, the Auggie Wren story was born and it begins with the age-old artists’ dilemma, ‘the writer’s block’. How to write an unsentimental Christmas story? He confesses this challenge to his friend, the proprietor of a local cigar shop in Brooklyn, Auggie Wren, who boldly brags,

A Christmas story is that all? If you buy me lunch my friend, I’ll tell you the best Christmas story that you ever heard. And I guarantee every word of it is true.

Auggie Wren not only personifies the savvy New York spirit but that of all those type of characters with a passion for life. His cunning adaptability and survival instincts varnish his character with a verisimilitude that is emblematic of NYC, (and indeed Liverpool) he is a somewhat everyman figure.

As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.

And Auggie delivers an unsentimental but heartfelt tale, involving a lost wallet, a blind woman living in poverty and a Christmas dinner. It all gets turned upside down and nothing is what it seems. What’s stealing? What’s giving? What’s a lie? What’s the truth and how much of a story is real and how much is not?


The tale features in the cult classic SMOKE with Harvey Keitel playing Auggie Wren.


Paul Auster’s phenomenal simple story echoes the sentiment uttered in that other great American writer DR SEUSS in How The Grinch Stole Christmas,

Maybe Christmas the Grinch thought doesn’t come from a store.

grinchThis little tale embodies the true spirit of what Christmas should be and the values that should not just be for one season but a state of mind.

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Literary treasure that packs a Punch

Literary pirate John Maguire hunts for a treasure trove in Liverpool’s academic archives.

Situated in the middle of Liverpool, nestled away in the Aldham Roberts Library is a literary pirate’s version of buried treasure. Amongst the many precious documents, there is  the Willy Russell Archive, the Everyman Theatre Archive, England’s Dreaming Punk Archive and now a back catalogue of Victorian periodicals and most notably PUNCH.


The esteemed magazine of satire, humour and wit, ran from 1841-2002. P.G Wodehouse and Sir John Betjeman are just two of the greats that showcased work in this publication.

An accompanying exhibition explores PUNCH and the evolution of comic journalism rooted in this periodical (principally focusing on the period between 1820 and 1850). The very term cartoon stems from this renowned British Institution.


What is striking in the exhibits on display is the attention to detail in the periodicals. Now, in an age of technological advances, it is quite humbling to see the level of expertise and pure craft illustrated in these historical papers. The work was also produced to an extremely tight schedule. Today, we can send out so many emails and deliver presentations that are all-singing and dancing with multiple effects, but how many of us can write a basic letter in a font that is from our own hands.


The Exhibition itself consists of four cabinets of artefacts and twelve A1 posters reproducing the front covers of early magazines such as The Puppet Show and the Pickwick Songster. The pieces demonstrate the development of a very particular jocose and amusing style.

The organisers commented,

Punch was for long a household name, found on many a coffee table and in dentists’ and doctors’ waiting rooms across Britain. Its origins in comic journalism from the 1820s and 1830s are less well-known, and this exhibition seeks to situate the development of Punch within the history of periodicals. Showing earlier examples of comic periodicals that influenced Punch offers a very different and informative perspective on the magazine.

The catalogue is being published online as well as in printed form in order to make the exhibition internationally available to the widest possible range of readers.

The Exhibition is open until 20 December 2013.

Organisers Photo

The exhibition has been organised by Brian Maidment, Professor of the History of Print at LJMU, in collaboration with Valerie Stevenson, Head of Academic Services, Library Services, and Dr Clare Horrocks from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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The Charming Depravity of Tennessee Williams

North and South meet as ten minutes hate‘s guest writer John Maguire considers Tennessee Williams.

The autobiography of Thomas Lanier Williams, otherwise known as Tennessee, is almost written in his own blood, chronicling his creative and personal journey. He did not just make emotional, thought-provoking and entertaining drama, he lived it.

He wrote some of the most iconic 20th Century pieces of theatre, among them The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo.

Work!!the loveliest of all four letter words, surpassing even the importance of love most times.

Flirtatious, tragic, witty, annoying, all adjectives that can be applied to his character, Blanche DuBois, from the brutally raw triumph, A Streetcar Named Desire. Equally though, these very terms can also be applied to the late Tennessee, the very creator of this tragic heroine.

Behind every monster there is a Dr. Frankenstein working on the creation’s wiring, circuitry and emotive feeling. If  we are totally honest, we all have a little bit of Blanche in us, deep in the recesses of the human soul, there is that vulnerability, confusion and desperation. In the character of Blanche, Tennessee predicted how indeed his own life would eventually play out, he inevitably almost became her.

The 1977 musing on his life is a frank, to the point, tale. He is dangerously self-aware.

I was a writer, and consequently a kook

It is a welcome read at this particular period in the publishing calendar.  Traditionally, the book market will be awash with many a self-penned (or ghost written) reveal. The United Kingdom this week has Morrissey’s simply titled, Autobiography, Alex Ferguson’s imaginatively titled, My Autobiography and One Direction’s Where We Are, all in the Top Ten sales charts.

To open the proceedings of his own life dramas, the celebrated playwright does not try to disguise the reason he has decided to put ink to paper, it’s all about the coinage, he is solely in it for the money.

tennesse williams typewriter

With his plays and controversial short stories, The Inventory of Fontana Bella and Desire and the Black Masseur, he had always used the fictions to curtain his real life shenanigans. Now he does not just drop the mask, he peels it off literally.

The form he chooses to narrate his anecdotes is free association. Time is blended, present and past entwined, in the pages of this work. The enfant terrible of British theatre, Steven Berkoff, also used this structure in his excellent Free Association.

Life is made up of moment to moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions and, try as you may, you can’t commit them to the actualities of your own history.

The journey is decadent and depraved, taking in his childhood in Mississippi, to St Louis and New York. One thing that leaves the reader after being at this somewhat autopsy of Williams’ life is the ingenious way he poeticises the everyday.

I finished the work before 7 am, awaiting a bus, sometimes known as a ‘tramp chariot’ in these here parts. I immediately found myself seeing things  with a more poetic perspective. A hovering black raven over grass became a black piece of floating silk over a sea of shining green emeralds. The sky scape over the council houses now looked like a canvas of purple pink candy floss clouds.

READ this biography for the wit alone, for the poetry but we do not really need the shock tactics and graphic hints at his fookery.

Sexuality is an emanation, as much in the human being as the animal. Animals have seasons for it. But for me it was a round the calendar thing.

On the other hand it must be remembered, society has become a great deal more open and liberal in the last thirty years. That is in some countries, places like Russia need to really get with the programme. As Stonewall fantastically put it, some people are gay, get over it.

Flashback to 1977, to be overtly talking about same-sex relations and a battle with drugs and liquor takes some courage. Alas, his sad descent that can physically be seen in his writing style in these pages is quite unsettling.  He yearns for a companion as he is sick of promiscuous fast food sex; his friend suggests he picks someone up to which he honestly replies,

There’s nothing emptier, nothing more embarrassing….each time a little bit of your heart is chipped off and thrown into a gutter.

Mr. T.W’s Argentinian tango with Mr. Alcohol and Mr. Narcotics is revealed in the somewhat rambling and self-pitying, towards the final act of the book.

It can be difficult to follow and at times he is like a sizzled Uncle at a wedding, he can just go on and on, unpredictable, all around the park with his explanations sometimes not linked, only to then slap the reader with a treasure in his last phrase, or a gem of wit. He is at his most amusing when he is being catty without realising it,

She was a voluptuous piece and he was voluptuous too, and when you say a man, a bridegroom is voluptuous; it’s not a compliment to him.

By the time Tennessee was rewarded with fame and credibility for his craft, he had managed for years to keep running from the dogs of depression, they may have been consistently nipping at his ankles, but when he did start to slow down, they took a chunk out of his inner core, then the self-doubt and the lack of confidence managed to invade him.

Other creatives do manage to either realise the dogs can be tamed – or in the drastic cases put down – but unfortunately Tennessee Williams was a little blinded by the poisons discussed, so instead the hounds were empowered.

Sometimes I wonder if it is healthy for a writer to use their own emotional stock in his or her work. For I guess every time a play is performed, or story read out, the plaster is ripped off and the wound becomes more intense creating a deeper scar. Possibly the case with this Southern scribe.


The tale is entertaining, both comic and tragic with tragic a cast of glittering stars, including Andy Warhol, Tallulah Bankhead, Brando, Bette Davis…….on and on the list goes, just like a Tennessee anecdote.

williams warhol

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