Monthly Archives: September 2014

This is not a bookstore review

On a recent trip to Roma, I’d planned to visit an English bookstore to pen a review for this site, the Open Door Bookstore in Via della Lungaretta. However, I was caught up in the history of the Eternal City. I managed to conquer all the major sights, but ran completely out of time.

Fortunately, I came across a hidden find on a pilgrimage to the Spanish Steps. I headed to this area to re-trace the steps of the fictional character Mrs. Stone in the magnificent short story by Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone

The Steps are atmospheric and full of tourists and singing troupes of European school children. Think a punk version of the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. It is here that the poet John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of just 26, in a tiny room overlooking the steps.

spanish-steps

But alas, I digress. I stumbled into Caffe Greco for an espresso fix impressed by the charms of its shop front. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find a cove of autographed portraits, busts and statues. For the café has been a favourable haunt of writers and artists since 1760. It boasts a customer list that has included Goethe, Baudelaire, Casanova, Gogol and Hans Christian Anderson. The Piazza di Spagna has been a magnet for artistic souls, with Byron, Balzac, Wagner and Liszt also exploring this rich area.

Caffe Greco

I did need a literary fix during the holiday though, as I quickly got through Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, a kind of twist on the Lolita myth with a Mum having a complete infatuation on her stepdaughter’s 17 year-old boyfriend. Shades of Anais Nin and lush descriptions of the Mediterranean setting. So I visited the international book store at Termini, close to my hotel, where I picked up a copy of a Philip Roth that I had not read, Deception. (Had to pay a striking 15 Euros, but when in Rome and all that).

termini book store

A clever dialogue between two adulterers before and after their meetings, sheer debauched, intelligent and humane. I can always rely on Roth to challenge and entertain at the same time. The cashier, who served me without making eye contact, appeared to be engrossed in a book under the counter, hence her lack of acknowledgement.  Sadly she was busy texting. Damon Albarn sings it quite rightly in his latest offering,

We are everyday robots on our phones.

I found myself wandering around open book stalls that sold volumes of Italian novels. I recognised authors translated into Italian by their cover artwork. The little market-like emporium also sold vinyl LPs (long player records) and grossly explicit pornographic DVDs with front covers on full display. Bizarre indeed!

book stalls

I did chuckle to myself thinking, I may not have made it to the book store I had planned to, but I had managed to experience a literary café, a literary supermarket and fall upon an alternative type of entertainment centre.

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Etymology geekery

I am reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and it is so fantastic in so many ways that I can’t wait until I reach the end to write about it.

the _wake_paul_kingsnorth

Set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion, told in an ‘edited version’ of 11th Century English, these first few pages have been a daunting read. Reading a book like this on a tablet really lets the technology come in to its own, allowing for frequent looking up of the bits that have had me truly stumped.

To give you an idea:

of angland he saes i can tell thu naht. i colde tell thu of hams in wessex in the land of the golden wyrm and of the hwit clifs in the south where they locs ofer the sea in fear and i colde tell thu of the holtmen of the andredesweald who belyfs they is safe beneath the great ac treows… but i colde not tell thu of angland for this word is too lytel for all the folc of this land to lif within.

When I first began reading the book, I found that speaking the lines aloud helped, whereupon words like ac, treows, lytel, lif and the ever-present thu soon give up their meaning*. I could pat myself on the back for remembering from school that ham meant home, as it lives on today in many place names, Buckingham for instance.

Wyrm is obviously worm, or so you would think, but that is a false friend because really it means dragon or snake. The golden dragon of Wessex came from legend and appeared on their flag. Yet if some words are easy to guess, what is a reader to make of things like fugol – this was a bird – with the word having links to Proto-German (which could have been a rejected Kraftwerk song title), Old Frisian and Saxon. The word bird was used in Old English, but Kingsnorth’s storyteller is a Lincolnshire man, a well-bred and wealthy farmer and freeman, or socman, descended from a previous generation of invaders and so likely to use more Germanic words.

What we call ‘Old English’ was a blend of other languages, influenced by Latin, Norse and Celtic, with an array of local dialects depending on which tribe was doing the colonising. Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric and Norse would all have been spoken around the edges of the nominal boundaries of Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and the Viking-ruled lands of the North.

Some of these old place names are still in use or, as with the white cliffs in the south, can be guessed at. Only an internet search enlightened me that andredesweald is Kent and the holtmen the people who lived near the woods that covered that area before the Normans arrived. Following the 1066 invasion, England’s geography as well as her language would be irrevocably altered.

There are many ideas of England that are peddled around by those with agendas and ambitions of their own. And while I wouldn’t like to second guess where this remarkably crafted tale is going to end, this history, to me anyway, has a lot to tell me about my country today. Rather than multiculturalism being some recently introduced change that could or should be reversed, we have always been a mixed up group of people, ruled by ‘cyngs’ of other nations, with our language adaptable and fluid in the face of outside influences.

Perhaps a longer post for another day. For now, it’s back to my reading.

* Did you spot all of them? The words were oak, trees, little, life and you.

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Liverpool’s Little Eden

A rare thing happened this year in Liverpool: we have actually had a summer! For the first time in years, I have not re-read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book to cheer me up.  This year it will have to wait till the depths of winter, when everything goes a little Narnia-esque and the spring feels an eternity away.

One of the many great things about the city of Liverpool is its green spaces. I visit Calderstones and Sefton Park regularly on my bike. In the City Centre a lunch hour’s reading in St John’s Gardens is a pleasure, even if on occasion you are besieged by pigeons or vagabonds. I find that when friends visit from around the country they are generally taken aback at the good quality of the parks and gardens on offer. The media has not always been kind to the Pool of Life and so visitors expect to find only concrete, villainy and pollution.

I recently had the fortune of exploring a little piece of Eden in Woolton, the sumptuous grounds of Reynolds Park.

Sunlight in The Beeches, Reynolds Park

As I strolled around, the beeches were showered with sun rays, pushing down through the foliage onto the ground. The paths were flanked by rhododendrons. A composition that could have come straight out of the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel, so it seems appropriate that I was introduced to this space by my good friend – and Hardy aficionado – Giles Winterbourne.

It was quite a shock to find, particularly as I am an indigenous resident of this part of Liverpool. Although I must say Belle Vale is more Last Exit to Brooklyn than the Hardy-esque Woolton! Still, each has its own particular charms. As I heard one snob in a restaurant say, ‘Oh no, dear, it’s Woolton NOT Walton.’

reynolds_park_dovepark

A stroll around the 14 acres of open lawns, formal gardens and woodland is a great way to escape after a day’s toil in front of a computer screen. Far from the sadding crowd! A chance to clear the head space.  Reynolds Park lies within an area that used to be the estate of a series of wealthy local businessmen.  In the late 19th century it came into the possession of the illustrious Reynolds family, who had made their fortune in the cotton trade. James Reynolds was the last owner of the estate, and he generously donated it to the City Corporation in 1929.

In 1975 the mansion was decimated by fire, and was replaced by a housing scheme for the elderly. The grounds have a number of notable features, including: a wildflower meadow, a walled and sunken garden, a topiary (the only one of its kind in the city), a Ha Ha and a quarry (closed to the public but available for biological research).What is a Ha Ha, you ask? Let this picture be your guide.

Ha_ha_wall_diagram

I would urge you to take a little stroll through this little piece of Eden. I am looking forward to re-visiting through all of the forthcoming seasons.  Next summer, I may even take a picnic and read The Summer Book there one wistful mid-summer evening.

the summer book

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