End-of-year reading meme

January 2, 2021

Oh hello.

How many books read in 2020?
122. Probably a bit above average, but not as many as I might have expected given I was effectively under house arrest for much of the year. That said, the total does include the two longest books I’ve ever read, A Suitable Boy and War and Peace.

94 to 28. The fiction definitely gaining ground in 2020, reversing the trend of previous years. No complaints from me.

Male/female authors?
83 M, 33 F, 2 NB, 4 mixed. My reading more phallocentric than ever.

Favourite book read?
I did love John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, as mentioned in my previous post, but considered as a whole I can’t see beyond Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which will become part of my personal canon. I can imagine boring people about it for years to come.

Least favourite?
Not that I loathed it exactly, but I can’t imagine wanting to read Live and Let Die again in a hurry. Or ever.

Oldest book read?
Shakespeare as usual, this time his King John, my reading of which was motivated by Penelope Fitzgerald’s lovely theatrical novel At Freddie’s. ‘When I strike my foot / Upon the bosom of the ground, rush forth, / And bind the boy which you shall find with me.’ (John Mortimer’s father: ‘Rush forth and bind the boy? Sounds like the name of a rather undesirable firm of solicitors.’)

Newest book read?
I don’t seem to have read any books published in 2020, but there were several from 2019: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe, The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, Lanny by Max Porter, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Operation Rattlesnake by Count Arthur Strong, My Last Supper by Jay Rayner, Heartstopper: Volume 1 by Alice Oseman, The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories edited by Jessica Harrison, and The Peanuts Papers edited by Andrew Blauner.

Longest book title?
The above-mentioned Library of America volume called, to use its full title, The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life.

Shortest book title?
Coda by Simon Gray.

How many rereads?
Fourteen, namely Pride and Prejudice, Barchester Towers, Our Mutual Friend, The Diary of a Nobody, The Weirdstone of BrisingamenPsmith in the City, The Go-BetweenThe Flying Classroom, Goodbye, Columbus (Roth), Flannelled Fool (Worsley), Ravel (Echenoz) and the first three Tales of the City books.

Most books read by a single author?
Anthony Powell leads with 13, followed by Olivia Manning (6), Penelope Fitzgerald, Simon Gray and Charles M. Schulz (5 each), David Nobbs (4), and Patrick Hamilton and Armistead Maupin (3 each).

How many books were borrowed from the library?
I didn’t have access to libraries for quite a bit of the year, so this year the total was only 40. Add to that 40 print books of my own, and 42 Kindle books. Weirdly even figures.

I had no clue what was going on.
The toughest book to get a handle on was probably Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s slippery. Worth it, though.

Any in translation?
Only a handful this time. Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, Tove Jansson’s The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree, Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Favourite character encountered this year?
Oh, tons. I suppose Widmerpool takes the laurels, but I’d could name any number of Powell characters, plus Prince Yakimov from Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (a curious connection between the books being that Manning’s Yaki and Powell’s X. Trapnel were both based on Julian Maclaren-Ross). Also Tarquin Winot from The Debt to Pleasure, Mildred Lathbury from Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and the likes of Septimus Crisparkle, Hiram Grewgious and Mrs Billickin from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And Charlie Brown, as usual.

What next?
A lot of dick-swinging, which is to say I resolved at the start of October to read Philip Roth from beginning to end. Only one novel read so far, and I won’t get through the rest of them by 2022, but I hope to make some headway. The good almost always outweighs the bad with Roth, and I’m cautiously optimistic.

Also, given the success I had with Anthony Powell and Olivia Manning, I’ve been thinking about other series of books. Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, that sort of thing. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Mervyn Peake, A.S. Byatt, etc. etc. May try.

Looking over my bookshelves before Christmas I decided to reread a few old favourites, some of which I haven’t touched since my teens. Life’s too short not to reread great books. Here’s the tentative ten:

Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility (last read 2007)
Charles Dickens – Bleak House (2016)
George Eliot – Middlemarch (2014)
William Golding – Lord of the Flies (c. 1999)
Thomas Mann – Buddenbrooks (2011)
Herman Melville – Moby-Dick (2011)
Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire (2014)
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (2008)
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (c. 2000)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (2009)

Lots to do.

2020 threesomes

December 31, 2020

It’s been an unusual year in some ways, hasn’t it? Liverpool winning the Premier League, bizarre.

Top 3 theatre
Sometimes I have a separate section for student theatre, but (a very good production of The Boy Friend at the Menier notwithstanding) all the best things I managed to squeeze into the first two and a half months of the year before everything shut down were student productions at the ADC in Cambridge. Firstly, My Fair Lady, a production whose handful of innovations, some of them welcome, mainly served to reinforce the indestructibility of the show, as much a masterpiece as ever despite the perennial problem of its ending. The principals fine, the ensemble often superb (the whistling chorus of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ one of many highlights). All sorts of inventiveness in the staging. Then Angels in America – Part 2: Perestroika, mainly remarkable for its being staged at all, such an ambitious undertaking for a group of amateurs. Some lovely performances from the likes of Joe Pieri (Prior) and Vee Tames (the Angel), and I thought lighting and costume were particularly impressive, making much of little. The last thing I saw before lockdown was the sadly curtailed Guys and Dolls. A great shame the run shut down a week early, as the first night was a thrill, with Tom Baarda’s Nathan and Mabel Hoskins’ Adelaide especially good. ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ was brilliantly staged, and a perfect fit for the vocal range of Arthur Roadnight as Nicely-Nicely.

I hope some of the names above belong to people who will be seen on the professional stage sooner rather than later. One thing I’ve really missed has been having a corpus of student actors I see week in, week out in different productions, knowing that one of them will turn into the next Olivia Colman (say). This year Emma Corrin broke through as Princess Diana in The Crown. I haven’t seen that; for me, she’ll always be Martirio in The House of Bernarda Alba. I want to get back to the ADC and Corpus Playroom at the earliest opportunity. Streaming just isn’t the same.

Top 3 Edinburgh
I didn’t go to Edinburgh this August, and nor did anyone else.

Top 3 new films
I went to the cinema a handful of times early in the year, and my favourite things were the predictable awards contenders/winners: Sam Mendes’ 1917, an exciting piece of work, maybe especially exhilarating because the many thrills never overwhelm the pity of the situation, the sacrifice of these young men; Bong Joon-ho’s dazzling comic/horrific satire Parasite, which made me wince quite a lot; and Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, which I loved without reservation, its mix of races and accents, much remarked upon at the time of its release, giving it a vibrancy and joy that other adaptations miss. I especially loved Morfydd Clark as Dora, so intolerably drippy on the page, made poignant here. I might praise another twenty actors. Daisy May Cooper, Benedict Wong, Hugh Laurie, Ruby Bentall, Darren Boyd, etc. etc.

Top 3 old films
Or, ones I watched on the telly. Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Bait probably counting as too new (2019) to qualify, I’ll name the following three: Ermanno Olmi’s vital, compassionate masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a study of a year in the life of four peasant families in Lombardy; Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, full of wonderful performances and gratifyingly cool and knotty; and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, which I watched late in the year. The later films, with their stronger occult influences, didn’t appeal so much, but the early ones (Rabbit’s Moon and Eaux d’Artifice, for instance) are full of bewitching beauty and poetry.

Top 3 books
Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels A Dance to the Music of Time kept me company in the first half of the year, and provided one of my happiest reading experiences ever. I was so immersed in the books, and since finishing the last one in June I have often found myself wondering how long it will be before I read them again. Not that long, I suspect. Silly to choose a favourite volume, but perhaps The Kindly Ones, with that wonderful flashback to the eve of the First World War and the infamous lunch scene where General Conyers takes charge to avert disaster. The single book that gave me most joy all year was John Lanchester’s novel The Debt to Pleasure, probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. Lanchester’s egotistical narrator Tarquin Winot recalls some of the monstrous protagonists of Nabokov, and Lanchester shares Nabokov’s delight in playing games with the reader. So much fun. Mouth-watering too. Lastly, I could pick any of several books, but let’s go for Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. I loved Woodson’s Another Brooklyn last year, and this is another queer story of human relationships, full of rawness and tenderness and cautious optimism, set on the day of 16-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in May 2001 but moving around in time. Its gentleness brought to mind Barry Jenkins’ films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. I’d love to see Jenkins and Woodson working together.

Honorable mentions to the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Anne Tyler, Charles Dickens, Rebecca Mead and Andy Miller. More on my 2020 reading shortly.

Top 3 albums
I’ve bought several Hyperion albums this year (Martyn Brabbins’ Walton and Pavel Kolesnikov’s Chopin both excellent), but the one I’ve listened to most has been Marc-André Hamelin’s album of the first six piano sonatas by Samuil Feinberg. I’d been awaiting this for some time, having heard a wonderful live performance by Hamelin of the first on the radio some years ago, and it didn’t disappoint. Gorgeous music. I read Roger Nichols’ biography of Maurice Ravel late in the year and bought a Warner box set of his complete works to compliment it. Good to reacquaint myself with some of the chamber music I hadn’t listened to properly for years, and to discover new treasures, including the sonata for violin and cello and the Prix de Rome cantatas, which are uncharacteristic but often sweet. Lastly, Margaret Bonds’ lovely 1954 Christmas cantata to a libretto by Langston Hughes, The Ballad of the Brown King, which I’ve been listening to since the summer. Christmas began in July for me.

Top 3 other stuff
In a year of staying in (and I’ve done more staying in than most, as per the orders of the estimable Matt Hancock) we have had to find new things to do. I’ve loved playing and writing quizzes for WikiQuiz, and a time-consuming and absorbing albeit undeniably pointless vanity project has been the cataloguing of 85 hours’ worth of audio cassettes recorded during my brothers’ and my shared childhood.

But three things that have given me particular pleasure have been firstly Classic Coronation Street on ITV3. I started in 1995 and now I’m somewhere in the middle of 1997, by which time I was a casual viewer at best. Nice to fill in some gaps. I keep saying, I’ll give up when Derek collapses, I’ll give up when Mavis leaves, I’ll give up when Anne Malone dies in the freezer cabinet at Freshco’s, and I truly believe that I can quit whenever I want, but for the time being I’m going to stick with it. So much to enjoy. Joseph Gilgun was brilliant, I’d quite forgotten. And was there a more beautiful human on the planet in the mid-1990s than Angela Griffin? Secondly, No More Jockeys. It’s the most on-brand thing ever for my favourite YouTube channel to consist of videos of three ex-Footlights playing a parlour game, but honestly nothing all year has made me happier. Give it a go. And thirdly, the best podcast around at the moment is Into the Archives with Peter Fleming. I struggle to think of any piece of creative work that has harnessed so successfully the potency and poignancy of old media, especially in the sixth and seventh episodes. I’d put it up there with Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past.

Job gloves in action. Image of Michaela Tabb by DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0

Finally …
While I’m here, I’d like to mark two cruelly premature deaths that have affected me this year: those of the soprano Erin Wall, who died in October of breast cancer aged 44, and the songwriter Adam Schlesinger, one of the founder members of the band Fountains of Wayne, who died in April of COVID-19 aged 52. I was lucky to see Erin live twice, as Jenifer in The Midsummer Marriage at the Proms in 2013, and as Ellen in Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall last November, and loved her very much each time, and Adam’s music was one of the constants of my teenage years. I’ll miss them both.

Chipperfield / chapel / check / chocolate

January 28, 2020

26 February
Really quite angry at the weekend while contemplating the Mars bar. I think if I were given the opportunity to go back in time, I would return to 1990 and eat several Mars bars. It’s not just perspective that’s skewed my impression of how good they were back then, the familiar idea that things seem bigger to children, they really were more substantial. The vertices were squarer, the chocolate thicker, the lettering on the logo more stylish (it really does make my blood boil what happened to the logo), there was a sense of occasion to the eating of one; and there were individual occasions, just once or twice, when I bit into one and it tasted faintly of ginger, which might have been my imagination but I’m convinced wasn’t. And what made me angriest of all was the knowledge that time travel isn’t possible, that I will never have the experience of childhood Mars bars again. It’s been months since I ate a Mars bar, maybe over a year, more by apathy than design, and yet the next one I eat won’t have the effect of water on a man finding an oasis in the desert as it should, it’ll just be another Mars bar that isn’t as good as it used to be.


9 March
In the waiting room this morning, the receptionist turned on the radio and it was playing ‘The Locomotion’. I became instantly aware that my right leg, crossed over my left, was doing that involuntary tapping motion that one has no control over. Not in time with the music, though, which reassured me: it meant that if anyone saw me tapping my foot they would realise it was unrelated. Alternatively, they might think I loved the song but had no rhythm, which would be worse. Except that I do like ‘The Locomotion’.


9 April
I know I used the phrase ‘off his mash on mary jane’ last week, but I can’t remember the context.


20 April
A revisit of Simon and the Witch Series 1 Episode 5, in which Cuthbert is given one by Hopkins (as it were), demonstrates that the modern Mars bar is considerably smaller than the Mars bar of 1987, which confirms my testimonies of 26 February.


27 May
Next to me at chapel this morning: bald-shinned, safari-trousered old buffer with vespine hosiery.


30 May
Weird memory of making esoteric puns at school in 1999 on the name of circus trainer Mary Chipperfield, convicted at that time of animal cruelty, and the Merychippus, a proto-horse who presumably came up in a biology lesson.


31 May
Tonight I went to evensong at St John’s, which happened, unbeknownst to me, to be a special service attended by the St John’s College School Parents Association. It was basically a Dominic convention. I sat between two Dominics and had a chat with the one on my right (actually called Dominic), who was the father of a chorister. He had been a chorister at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and a choral scholar at Oxford, where he began studying music and ended up with a degree in philosophy and theology. He talked enthusiastically about Welsh rugby and told me I must go to the Millennium Stadium to see an international. Be still my beating trousers.


31 May
Evensong at Trinity was somehow consoling, though I found myself resenting Christians generally for all their concerns that aren’t mine. The phrase ‘Voices tell me I’m the shit’ occurred to me a lot during the introit.


8 June
Last Friday D, S and I all wore check shirts, and today we’re all wearing the same shirts. ‘Our cycles have synchronised!’ I said, to some amusement. S didn’t immediately get it. ‘I’m talking about menstruation.’ That set D off somewhat.


16 August
A nine-year-old Scottish girl on the train last night, talking to her grown-up brother or stepbrother and an older man who might have been an uncle. Polite conversation about how much she loved dogs, what she would call her own dog (Lexi or Dexter), 101 Dalmatians, the appetites of chihuahuas, what breeds of dogs are used for guide dogs. Then ‘Have either of you ever seen Adventure Time?’ Discussion of various characters, ‘I think you’d like it’ to the older man. For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about his own childhood, I don’t have a great deal of affection for children, but for a brief period I felt like one of those young men in Salinger.


21 October
‘Siblings are better than parents,’ says W, ‘because parents die.’


9 December
Felt a bit anxious. Went into the office and changed an illustration of a name badge on some packaging from ‘Schwartz’ to ‘Schwantz’, which cheered me up a bit.

End-of-year reading meme

January 2, 2020

You again.

How many books read in 2019?

80/35. A healthy ratio.

Male/female authors?
73/42, give or take a few genders. I’d like less of a gender gap, but for as long as [unnamed female acquaintance] persists in doing the same thing in reverse, only with a wider ratio and far worse books, I will continue not to worry too much about it.

Favourite book read?
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Least favourite?
There have been a few contenders, but Ritual by David Pinner, the book on which The Wicker Man is said to have been based, was particularly dire, lapsing only occasionally into so-bad-it’s-good territory. (‘Her curved breasts were tense with concentration.’)

Oldest book read?
I read Dante’s (Divina) Commedia (c. 1308-1320), in the translation by Robin Kirkpatrick.

Newest book read?
As usual, a handful out this year:

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Tippett: The Biography by Oliver Soden, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More by Stephen Hough, Find Me by André Aciman, and March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley.

Longest book title?
As usual, the subtitle does most of the work. This year the subtitle belongs to Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot: Being a Record of the Early Life of St. Laura de Nazianzi and the Times in Which She Lived. I don’t imagine most people could take more than about a page of Firbank before flinging him across the room, but I think he’s worth the effort.

Née Victoria Gellybore Frinton, and the sole heir of Lord Seafairer of Sevenelms, Kent, Mrs Harold Chilleywater, since her marriage “for Love,” had developed a disconcerting taste for fiction — a taste that was regarded at the Foreign Office with disapproving forbearance…. So far her efforts (written under her maiden name in full with her husband’s as well appended) had been confined to lurid studies of low life (of which she knew nothing at all), but the Hon. Harold Chilleywater had been gently warned, that if he was not to remain at Kairoulla until the close of his career, the style of his wife must really grow less virile.

Shortest book title?
IQ by Joe Ide. Also the shortest author name.

How many rereads?
Eleven, which is about my average. Candide, Persuasion, A Christmas Carol, Billy Budd, Death in Venice, In Cold Blood, Riddley Walker, The Nine Tailors, La Ville dont le prince est un enfant, The Warden’s Niece, and So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Most books read by a single author?
This year I began systematically to read my Complete Peanuts collection, so Schulz is top of the heap with six (I’m up to the end of 1962), followed by Edward St Aubyn (five), Dante Alighieri and Andrea Dunbar (three each), and Thomas Mann, P.G. Wodehouse and Sally Rooney (two).

How many books were borrowed from the library?
40, which taken as a proportion is way down on previous years. This year my Kindle use has increased markedly (31 ebooks). I’m not one of these printed-books-or-nothing types, but I think the pendulum’s probably swung far enough.

I had no clue what was going on
Thanks to the copious notes and commentary I was mostly able to follow Dante, but I can’t claim to have got much out of it, it was so far out of my comfort zone, and all that remains in my mind is the occasional beacon emerging from the surrounding dimness – the delightful episode in the Purgatorio, for instance, where Statius talks to Dante of his love of Virgil, unaware that he is in Virgil’s presence, and Virgil gives Dante a look warning him to keep schtum.

Any in translation?
Quite a few. As well as the Dante and Voltaire and Mann named above, I read Mann’s The Magic Mountain in the sparkly translation by John E. Woods. I took a trip to Belgium for the New Year and read Dimitri Verhulst’s The Latecomer and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television in the spirit of complementarity. A couple of Proustian books, Józef Czapski’s Lost Time and Céleste Albaret’s Monsieur Proust. Ronald Reng’s biography of the goalkeeper Robert Enke, A Life Too Short. And Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman.

Favourite character encountered this year?
Annie Asra in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, Miss Roach and Mr Prest in Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, Laurel in Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, Keiko in Convenience Store Woman, and Shaw’s Saint Joan.

What next?
I don’t know at what point I realised that the division into twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time would make it the ideal reading project for any given year, but anyway I’ll be reading it in 2020, with a little help from Hilary Spurling.

I’d intended that would be it, but let’s rashly vow to wade through the Roald Dahl short stories, which in my Everyman collected edition (which omits some of the Henry Sugar ones but is otherwise exhaustive) number 51. One a week seems doable.

Sixth and lastly, I was given Andy Miller’s memoir The Year of Reading Dangerously for my birthday but wanted to hold off reading it until I’d read more of the books it discusses. Let’s earmark five of those for 2020 (only not Bukowski or Kerouac or Bret Easton Ellis, please) and then read Miller’s book. Plenty to be getting on with, then.