The Baltic

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Over Easter weekend, I went on a whistle stop tour of three lovely Baltic countries; Latvia, Estonia and Finland, all of whom used to be part of the Russian/Soviet Empires and have absolutely fascinating and quite turbulent histories. Latvia and Estonia are very newly independent countries, having only been separated from the USSR in 1991, and Finland became independent in 1917, but all three have a strong Russian heritage that survives in their culture, architecture and cuisine, which was something I found very interesting and evocative as we travelled around.

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Latvia and Estonia share similar landscapes and architectural styles: unsurprising as they have been so closely linked for centuries. Endless lines of birch and pine forests spread across their horizons and the cities are characterised by their medieval buildings and tall church spires. Both are fairly recent entrants to the EU and are experiencing exciting change and progress as the impact of this on their economies develops. Tallinn in particular is thriving; known for its technology industry, there is a real feeling of rebirth on its streets, and the younger generation are enthusiastically converting former industrial spaces into quirky shops, high end restaurants, wine bars and coffee shops.

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Finland is much more Russian in its appearance; its central square reminded me very much of St Petersburg, which is no surprise, as it was largely remodelled by Alexander I in the early 19th century to make it feel more a part of Russia. It is also distinctively Scandinavian in its watery surroundings, pale colours and emphasis on outdoor life, with loads of parks, islands and walkways around the waterfront, which were a delight.

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My highlight of the trip was definitely Tallinn; I found its medieval old town breathtakingly beautiful and fairytale like, and I also loved its more modern, up and coming industrial side, which is filled with loads of fantastic shops and restaurants, such as the delicious F-hoone. Riga has a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau architecture, which is worth visiting the city for alone; it’s concentrated around Alberta Iela, and the museum on the street, which recreates an authentic Art Nouveau interior, is brilliant. The Museum of the Occupation is also a really eye-opening experience, revealing the treatment of Latvians under the Soviet regime. Helsinki felt a little quieter, and its proximity to the water made me feel entirely relaxed and hardly like I was in a capital city at all. I loved its art museum, the Ateneum, as well as its incredible Art Deco station. All three cities are easy to travel between in a short space of time and offer a fantastic range of cultural, historical and architectural sights to enjoy. I’d highly recommend a visit!

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London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

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London Belongs to Me is an enormous doorstopper of a book that looks rather overwhelming when you first pick it up, with its almost transparently thin pages, tiny text and a vast array of characters who you initially feel you might need a family tree to keep track of. But, as soon as you’ve read the first chapter and are immersed in the colourful, lively, hilarious and often touching world of the inhabitants of 10 Dulcimer Street, any trepidation falls away, and you become lost within the streets of prewar London.

10 Dulcimer Street is owned by middle aged, straight-laced widow Mrs Vizzard, who, anxious not to touch her capital, has let out the various floors of her Georgian terrace to fellow Londoners in order to make ends meet. Ever conscious of frugality, she herself lives in the basement, where she focuses her interests on spiritualism, leaving the best part of the upper floors to be rented by the Jossers, a couple in their sixties.Mr Josser has just retired, and is looking forward to using his life savings to buy a country cottage for he and his wife to live in, away from the smog of London. But now it’s come to it, Mrs Josser isn’t quite sure she wants to leave London, especially as their daughter, Doris, has decided to get a flat with her hoity-toity friend Doreen from the office, and thinks she’s too good to stop at home with her parents. Much family distress ensues. Upstairs lives quiet, devoted Mrs Boon, also a widow, who lives for her son Percy. Percy is quite the young man on the up, making a name for himself as a successful mechanic, with dreams of owning his own garage one day. But the thing is, making enough money to buy the smart house and top notch car Percy desires will take time, and Percy isn’t sure he wants to wait. He’s got his eye on Doris Josser, and when a friend offers him the opportunity to dabble in a little bit of car thievery on the side to make a tidy sum very quickly, Percy jumps at the chance. Getting up to no good comes naturally to washed up, elderly actress Connie, who lives above the Boons with only her canary for company. Her face perpetually made up in a doll-like mask, she forces her way into the lives of the inhabitants of Dulcimer Street, never one to miss the opportunity for a gossip, or a free meal, living hand to mouth as she does since the boards have given her up. Facing her own destitution, Connie could be forgiven for her fits of tears and melancholy as she lies in her lonely bed, but she always manages to find a reason to carry on, especially when it involves sticking her nose in where it’s not wanted. Above Connie is Mr Puddy, a lazy middle aged widower, who lives for his food and a quiet life. He tries not to get involved in the lives of the others, and instead focuses his energies on making sure he can get the most for himself by doing the least work possible.It’s no surprise that he’s forever at the employment agency after a fall-out with a boss who had the cheek to ask him to do more work than he ought by rights be asked to do.

However, life begins to change for the inhabitants of Dulcimer Street as Doris moves out, a mysterious Mr Squales moves into the spare room in Mrs Vizzard’s basement, Percy’s criminal doings catch up with him, and the war starts to become an ever likelier possibility. Though they are all separate family units with entirely separate lives, their changing circumstances begin to demonstrate that the bonds between the residents are stronger than they may have realised.  When tragedy strikes, the house must come together to fight, with the true characters of the residents being revealed as they struggle and make sacrifices to try and keep their Dulcimer Street family together.

The novel flits back and forth between the viewpoints of the different characters, bringing them thoroughly to life with their own distinct voices that often had me laughing out loud with their freshness and vivacity. I felt utterly steeped in the murk and dinginess of pre-war London, and the period details of Lyons’ Corner Houses, trams, and the depictions of London’s once very distinct neighbourhoods were a delight to read. I felt utterly involved in the world Collins created, and cared desperately for each of the characters. By the time I closed the pages, I was bereft at the thought of leaving them all behind, so real had each of them become, and I wanted to know what had gone on to happen to them beyond the events of the novel. How I wish there had been a sequel! This is one of those books that truly sweeps you away, and though it is by no means high literature, I would say it is very well written and one of the most entertaining and absorbing books I’ve ever read. I was delighted to find that the novel was adapted into a film quite quickly after publication and is available on youtube – I already can’t wait to absorb myself back into the world of Dulcimer Street! This is a book that you really can’t let pass you by – it’s pure reading indulgence and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Mudlarking

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Last week, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of being a mudlarker on the Thames. When I was at primary school, a man came in to talk to us about the treasure that could be found on the banks of the river, and showed us some of his haul. Clay pipes, pottery, even Roman coins; the thought that all of this was just floating about in the Thames, ready to be picked up by an eagle-eyed passer by, was incredible. Obviously I went home and told my mum all about it, and begged her to take me mudlarking so that I could find Roman coins of my own. My mum, unsurprisingly, was less keen on the idea, and so my dreams of discovering treasure amidst the detritus of centuries worth of rubbish slowly died. Over the years I have often seen people pottering about down on the river banks, but I never felt that I could join them. I wouldn’t know where to look, or even what to look for. The whole concept of mudlarking seemed silly and fanciful, and so it merely remained a wistful and much treasured memory of my childhood, destined, I thought, never to see the light of day.

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Until I taught my current Year 7 class about Roman Britain, that is, and I happened to tell them about the man who came in to talk to me when I was at primary school, and who showed me the Roman coins he had found on the banks of the Thames. My students, with eyes like saucers, demanded to be taken to find their own Roman treasure, and I thought, why on earth not? Finally, I would have the chance to fulfil my own dream, and get a day out of the classroom to boot! So, I looked into our options, found a wonderful tour run by the Thames Explorer Trust in conjunction with the Museum of London, and promptly booked us on. Trussed up in wellies and waterproofs, we went to the museum for a workshop, where we learned all about the different types of objects we might find on the river bank and how we could tell the age of the most common things we were likely to come across. It was absolutely fascinating; the bits and pieces of broken pottery, masonry, clay pipes, oyster shells etc that are scattered across the muddy banks are a window into the social history of London, revealing the habits of the people who walked the same streets I do every day, as well as the changing make up of London and the significant events of its past. I had no idea that it was still possible to find roof tiles that were thrown into the Thames after the Great Fire, or that there are so many clay pipes in the river because they were the equivalent of cigarettes. I also had no idea that oyster shells were the equivalent of our fast food wrappers, and that so many have holes in them not because they’ve been eroded in the waters over time, but because Victorians used to use them to make spare buttons. It’s amazing to think that so much of this history is still here, and in plain sight, too. It’s just lying there, waiting to be discovered.

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And that is exactly what we went on to do. Just a few yards from the museum are steps down to the river bank, and as soon as we set foot on the rocky slip of sand beneath the Millennium Bridge, we started finding treasure. Without even needing to dig or move any stones, we could pick up clay pipes, pieces of pottery, old glass and tiles. We were amazed at the ease in which we filled up our little bags with colourful shards of pottery, some of which was medieval, as well as 17th century glass and a very impressive collection of clay pipe bowls. I was thrilled to find a lovely selection of bits of white and blue pottery, as well as my own clay pipe, which was the only thing I really wanted to find, having been so amazed by the ones the man who came to my primary school had shown me all those years ago. We trooped back to school feeling like archaeologists, and though we hadn’t found any Roman coins, we had discovered so much about the history of our city and how much we can learn from the rubbish we leave behind. It was such a remarkable adventure and one I plan on repeating again soon. There’s nothing like a spot of mudlarking to connect you with the history of London and make you feel like a character in a Dickens novel. And best of all, it’s completely free! Just make sure you check the times of the tide before you go.

ps. mine and Simon’s latest podcast is now live – you can listen here!

Various Pursuits

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Sorry for disappearing for a while there. I’ve got no real excuse other than just being busy!

I’ve just come back from a few days in Paris, which was lovely; it was a work trip, so I didn’t have masses of free time, but I did manage to sneak in a visit to Musee d’Orsay and the Petit Palais, both of which have wonderful examples of 19th and early 20th century art, a cake and chocolat chaud at my favourite cafe, Cafe Angelina, and a night time stroll that took in Notre Dame and Shakespeare and Co. Plus of course plenty of steak frites and vin rouge. Unfortunately I always seem to be in Paris when it’s grey and miserable, so I’m looking forward to this summer, when I’ll actually be there when it should be sunny…though as you can see from the picture above, it is still pretty even when the sky is glowering!

I’ve been up to a lot in the last couple of months in London, too. I’ve been to a few exhibitions – Two Temple Place’s new exhibition on Ancient Egypt is very good, and as always, it’s worth a visit just to look at the building, aside from the objects on show. I really enjoyed the Artist and Empire exhibition at the Tate, though I thought Frank Auerbach was everything that I find incomprehensible and infuriating about modern art – if anyone is a fan, please do enlighten me about what I was supposed to see in his work, because I failed to see anything! The Vogue Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is enormous and worth seeing, though personally I could have done with far more on the early days of the magazine and its design and photography than the stuff from the 70s onwards. I thought Lee Miller’s war photography was the all too limited star of the show, and I must get to the exhibition of her women in war photographs at the Imperial War Museum before it closes. Cinema-wise, I’ve been doing my best to see the Oscar nominated films, and I have to say my favourite of the lot so far is Spotlight, which was shocking and compelling in equal measure.  I expected my favourite to be The Danish Girl, but in fact, I was largely annoyed by it. It was beautifully shot, and Alicia Vikander in particular was marvellous, but overall I found the story very reductive and lacking in any actual substance. I thought that everything that really mattered was completely glossed over, and it’s a shame, because it could have been a brilliant and quite daring film in bolder hands.

And finally, reading. I’ve not managed to read a lot of late; there’s just not been time. But I’ve just finished re-reading Marghanita Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music, which I found just as shocking yet compulsive as the first time I read it, though this time I could not find as much sympathy for Deborah, the protagonist, as I did when I was a younger reader. It’s a fascinating novel set in London during the Second World War, but rather than the plucky, can do spirit seen in many wartime novels, this takes a very different tack, looking at the war from the perspective of those who used it to their advantage. With husbands and wives away, the characters that populate Laski’s wartime London can’t wait to play, and Deborah, initially determined to not be unfaithful to her husband, soon finds herself irresistibly drawn into the glamorous whirl of life as a mistress to a variety of rich and handsome men. I think I was almost the same age as Deborah – 24 – on my first reading, and I could appreciate her youth, her naivety, and her selfishness from the perspective of being that young myself. I could see how she could have been led astray, seduced from the comforts of hearth and home to live a life of excitement and glamour that she had never really had the chance to enjoy. However, on this reading, I only saw her as a selfish, shallow woman, whose only aim in life had always been to secure the best for herself, regardless of anyone else. However her husband is no better; in fact, almost everyone in this novel, male and female, comes across as being incredibly self-centred and weak, and Laski paints a very unpleasant view of the world, suggesting that, by and large, people are incapable of fidelity and only motivated by their own desires. As such, even though it’s a very well written book, and brings the seedy streets of wartime London very effectively to life, it does leave a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Another book that I wouldn’t call an enjoyable experience, but was an interesting and compelling read nonetheless, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I found it incredibly hauntingly and powerfully written, with Capote’s customary elegance and style, but the portrayal of events was completely not what I had expected. The family, made out to be types, examples of those who prospered from the American Dream, became unreal, the tragedy of their deaths undermined by the saccharinity of their depiction. Homecoming Queen Nancy, science fair winning Kenyon, tee tolling, God fearing Herb and his shy, anxious wife Bonnie felt like caricatures, and though the gruesome manner of their deaths was certainly graphically described, I felt I was not encouraged to grieve for them as people. The real sympathy in the book is given to their killers, Smith and Hickock, who are painted as lost souls failed by the system, products of abuse and poverty and lack of opportunity, who killed out of a frustration and envy that the world had not offered them what it had promised. Capote’s fascination with and romanticising of the killers bordered on the disturbing for me, and I found his decision to turn the murders of four completely normal, innocent people into some sort of modern day fable, almost excusing their deaths as being the inevitable result of inequality in American society, actually rather disrespectful. Therefore, as much as I enjoyed the quality of the writing and was intrigued by the subject matter, I found it a very unsettling book. I’d be very interested to hear what other people have made of it.

So that’s me caught up. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time! In the meantime, do make sure you go and listen to mine and Simon’s latest podcasts – you can access them through Simon’s blog or on our iTunes page here. We can’t promise professionalism, but we can promise you will be entertained!

Books of 2015

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I feel like I didn’t get an awful lot of books read just for my own pleasure this year. The majority of my reading, when I look down the list I’ve kept, is made up of books I’ve taught, books I’ve read for school book clubs, and books I’ve read to learn things from that I then had to teach. Of the handful of books I chose myself, not many made a lasting impression. I was particularly disappointed by Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; as an adoring fan of her Gilead trilogy, I was very surprised and not a little deflated to find that her first novel left me so cold. I’ve dabbled in a fair few of the British Library Crime Classics reprints, but none have matched up to the first one I read, Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay (what a name!) and unless someone fervently recommends another title to me, I don’t think I’ll read any more of them next year. They might have ridiculously pretty covers, but I can’t help but think there was probably a good reason none of those writers became another Agatha Christie.

So, negatives out of the way, what books did light my fire this year? Well, in actual fact, there were quite a few, and they are a very random selection that, when I think about it, does sum up my year uncannily well. The first is a book I have just finished, and am yet to review. It’s been sitting on my bookshelves for probably a good decade, ignored and unappreciated, and I feel quite ashamed for having abandoned it for so long. Rosamund Lehmann is a novelist I went through a binge read of just after I left university, and I found her a refreshing, interesting and beautifully lyrical writer whose words just danced on the page. For some reason, I decided to save Invitation to the Waltz for another day, however, and sadly that day took an absurdly long time to come. Never mind, because it has come at last, and I was absolutely enchanted by this brilliantly poetic, wonderfully atmospheric account of a girl’s first ball, and all of the attendant hopes, dreams and emotions that come with it. It’s exactly the sort of book I love – absolutely nothing happens, but within that nothingness contains everything that life is really all about. You must read it. I’m currently reading the sequel, The Weather in the Streets, which is just as marvellous, and I’ve fallen in love with Rosamund Lehmann all over again.

The second and third are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – no need for me to tell you what they’re about, I’m sure – only that they’re amongst the best written books I’ve ever read, and absolutely compulsive reading material. I was utterly sucked into the world she created, and the characters possessed my mind for weeks after I’d finished. If I could write like Hilary Mantel, I’d die a happy woman. If you haven’t tried her yet, you need to! Fourth on the list would be The Chateau by William Maxwell – a beautiful account of a long summer spent in post war France that is fully representative of the stunning prose and empathetic heart of Maxwell. He is such a fantastic writer, and though my favourite of his books will probably always be They Came like Swallows, The Chateau is superb, and a real treat for the mind.

Fifth and Sixth are two books about the First World War – the first a contemporary novel, The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray, reprinted this year by Persephone Books. Not actually all that much about the war, as it turned out, but instead a very powerful book about regrets and hopes and learning to be content with what life hands you, and it has a stunningly written portrayal of a childhood home that took my breath away. I haven’t been enormously enamoured with Persephone’s choice of new books of late, but this one really reminded me of how superb their selections can be. The second book about the war was Pat Barker’s modern take on the war, Regeneration, which I inhaled over the course of a few days and found absolutely compelling. Barker’s writing style is so fresh and readable, and she chose a fascinating angle to explore in this account of Craiglockhart war hospital. If you’ve never read it, you must!

Two historical books take seventh and eighth place. I loved reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst after watching the powerful and moving Suffragette at the cinema. It is preachy and hyperbolic in places, and certainly not an unbiased account of affairs, but still an eye opening and passionate revelation of the hideous treatment of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it really should be required reading for those who think that feminism is unnecessary. I was also amazed by what I learned from reading Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – I may have had to read this for work, but I loved every moment of it. Who knew how sophisticated Stone Age Britons were? I certainly didn’t, and it gave me a real education. Neil Oliver writes with such zest, and he really manages to bring history to life. I’ve already got more of his books lined up to read.

Finally, my ninth book of the year is a YA novel, read for work, but again, a surprising delight and one that actually moved me to tears. I’d never read any Neil Gaiman before, and fantasy most certainly is not usually my cup of tea at all, but The Graveyard Book is a wonderfully imaginative, inventive and emotive exploration of a boy’s journey to young adulthood, in a very unusual setting, and it’s most definitely not just for kids. I’d really encourage you to give it a try.

So that’s my books of 2015. I have no reading plans at all for 2016, because I know from experience that there is no point, as I won’t stick to them anyway. I shall simply read whatever I feel like. Hopefully I’ll get through a fair few of the books I’ve had hanging around on my shelves for years, but with Oxfam’s biggest second hand book shop right next door to where I work, I wouldn’t bet on it…

Happy New Year everybody, and thank you once again for reading! See you in 2016!