One benefit of a more attentive approach to time and media management is the sudden release of seemingly days of spare time. Using an app to block other apps has been helping to create a habit of putting down the phone and starting something else instead. Pens, paper, making music, and a return to reading.

Earlier this year I started making space on shelves, thinning a book collection. Most of the volumes were already in a stack of boxes in an attic space, with the remainder in piles two deep on the upper shelves. The lower reaches have been annexed, now a junkyard jumble of jigsaws, card games, noisemaking toys, pebble collections.

The aesthetic improvement of the remaining rows of double-stacked books took the form of boxing to donate – mostly to St Michael’s Hospice shop – and boxing to keep, until some ill-defined event horizon beyond which the Book Collection might be returned to the shelves in all its glory.

The process culminated in a kind of at least half-engineered Damascene instance, where I was sat looking round the room at the books now on shelves, knowing that it was all the ones I hadn’t read… Some of which have been with me round the block at least twice.

It prompted a reforming bibliophile’s reevaluation of the amount of rubbish one carries around (metaphorical interpretation also available, in fact I think I have the hardback version of that as well…)

I also commenced a reading programme. So far this year I’ve gone through:

I Will Never Write My Memoirs – Grace Jones

Nina Simone:The Biography – David Brun-Lambert

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (on ereader)

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd

The Atrocity Archive – Charles Stross

Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny

The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

Neuromancer – William Gibson

All Tomorrow’s Parties -William Gibson

The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson

Make Room! Make Room! – Harry Harrison

Some of these have been well worth the wait. No doubt some will not. Still, y’know… the books all represent something that resonated, at least once, on some frequency or other. There’s a connection, I mean, although with what is perhaps another matter. It feels like a relationship I understand a bit better, anyway.

Now, better post this before the app block comes on…

Tomorrow: Current Affairs.

Recently I have been mostly digesting media second and third hand. This mulch comes to you via Warren Ellis. He writes about an account of a Tinder account where a user set a rule that any male contacting her had to name five books by female authors.

You’ve got to have standards, though! This is being written at some remove from that context, so let’s just see it as a bid to prove my feminazi party line adherence. Anyway, top of the head, straight off, no messing about, here is just such a list.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively
A ‘low fantasy’ novel, this is a complex and deceptively slender book for younger readers. I first read it when I was about 10, I think, so it was a few years older than me. It’s about a boy trying to keep a diary while moving house and being plagued by the poltergeist of a grumpy 17th century wizard, with the parallel story of the diary of a 19th century boy also troubled by the maleficent mage. Possibly seismic effect on youthful psyche?

Bad Blood – Lorna Sage
Not a sororal slap-down in the manner of Taylor Swift, but a crafty anti-misery-memoir. The cover of one paperback print made it look like ‘A child called it’. Subsequent versions have amped up the piratical femme fatale aspects of a different author photo.
a child called Lorna


“She lifts your spirits even as she hurts your heart.” Allison Pearson.
Same words, different meanings. Discuss.

Sage’s autobiography, as you would expect from someone who edited The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English (1999), shows she was neither and both. It’s deliciously written, and by the by worth pairing with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit if you’re teaching or studying A level Lit.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
First read as a queasy undergraduate scratching my pimples, this one is quite excellent on altered states of perception, “madness”, and perspective. “The leaden circles dissolve in the air.”

The Secret History – Donna Tartt
On the way back from, or to, Liverpool, to look at the university in 1992, or 1993, I forget which or when, I met a fellow prospective undergraduate on the train. We talked and compared notes, bonding over a shared love of Suede (the band, who I think were between Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate, and so VERY exciting). She commended another Brett, Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt to me. I had Douglas Coupland and I forget what else to offer. There were lists, bands, etc. I was impressed and intimidated by her studied maturity, and fresh off the train scampered to the shop to pick up a copy of The Secret History. It has of course stayed with me, from youthful bookishness to mature (well, more mature, anyway) bookishness.

Far Away – Caryl Churchill
I only encountered, then taught, this play for the first time last year, but I think that only goes to show how well-organised words, on the page or as drama, can always change your viewpoint, widen your parameters, blow your gaskets.

There you go then. EASY. Me and women writers go way back.

Today, remembrance services in Europe mark the 70th anniversary of “D-Day”, June 6th 1944.

D-Day was quite an undertaking. It marked a decisive moment in the Second World War, the history of Europe, the world.

There was – and remains – no doubt in the minds of the people taking part that they were engaged in something important.

I bought this book second hand some years ago:


Among its pages, this note and inscription:


Such finds are one of the reasons I enjoy and love “real” books.

The language used by Eisenhower is unequivocal: “this great and noble undertaking”. It has been a powerful experience watching the veterans on the footage today. Even the youngest of them, 15 at the time according to some accounts, are nearing 90. They’re still standing up for the prayers.

Of course, the date in the book is intriguing. I will do my best to find out who W Beecham (?) is or was, and provide an update on them.

The choice of book is intriguing as well. It confirms a thought I was having earlier, that it is important also to have an understanding and respect for imagination and human creativity as ways of making sense out of a sometimes brutal world.

1st January 2014! A very happy new year to all Mortal Bath readers using the CE calendar.

It’s nice to be living in the future. 2014 sounds very advanced. Well, it does to me and all the other remnants of the 20th century I know/meet/am aware of. This used to be the near-distant future. I suppose that’s 2036 now. This year I think I will have quite a lot to say about cultural hangovers, and I apologise now for what may be the first of 10,500 references to temporal equivalence and nostalgia during the solar sojourn. “This is like people in the 1980s banging on about the 1960s,” sort of thing. I was 19 in 1994 – insert the 20-year cycle of your own experience.

Lots to do, lots to write about, lots to get on with. It would be – here’s one thing I’ve learned – foolish, a repeating history doom, to make the usual start-of-year manifesto claims, the sorts that leave one high and dry and looking only semi-dedicated in July. However, I am happy to note that this was the first second new year’s day in my recent memory that I wasn’t nursing some sort of monster hangover of fear… and the day was very productive… ending in Triumphs 3 Disasters 0: glass of wine, take-away curry treat and the grand return of Sherlock on the BBC. Sherlock will feature in The Mortal Bath next week.

But THIS week… well, here’s one of the presents Santa’s little helpers left under the tree:

S-book cover

The idea of S., J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s tribute to the printed word, had me dribbling from the moment I first read about it somewhere, I forget precisely where, probably Boing Boing. Regular readers of the Mortal Bath will be aware of my bibliophilia and a fannish admiration of Abrams’ work. What I’ve seen of Dorst’s work seems appealing also. Happily, regarding the book, the fat man in the red suit obliged…

I have yet to read the text, busy with some Xmas hols library books what I shall mention at a later date. It may prove to be a bit of a disappointment, but… O! The excitement as I slit the cover tape and had a reverent moment handling the Object.

Made up to look like a library book!

Made up to look like a library book!

Napkin map inserts!

Napkin map inserts!

Annotations and postcards!

Annotations and postcards!

Dear me. Reader, I combusted.

Thusly… that’s what’ll be keeping me occupied this first week in January 2014 (claps hands with excitement). Hope you have something pleasant to be getting on with also.

Glorious summer sun in York, about 10.30am, as I arrived for day two of the book sale at St Edward the Confessor Church in Dringhouses.


Regular readers of The Mortal Bath will have an idea of the extent of my bibliophilia, but to those dipping their toe in the waters here for the first time, my book lustings are extensive and entirely incorrigible. Nothing sets my nostrils twitching like a second hand book sale, and if you throw in a bit of church architecture as well… you had me at ‘book sale in a church’.


St Edward’s is a building I have passed often enough but never made time to pop into as I’ve toiled along Tadcaster Road on cycle or in car. Taddy Road, the A1036, is not really conducive to passing trade. Often absurdly busy at rush hour, it turns into the A64 (river of death) shortly after the Askham Bar park and ride, which abuts one of York’s growing number of superTescos…

Yet there is a fair bit of green belt/garden suburb here as well. A lot of leafy and pleasant (Valley Sunday) residential streets vein off the slightly furred arterial road. Those on the south side, by St Edward’s, back on to the Knavesmire, York’s racecourse. Away from the main thoroughfare it is a delovely locale for a walk or jog, and there are cycle routes around and about the place, leading to Fulford, Bishopthorpe, Selby. And, to counter my passing trade mumbles, there is a Co-Op, a petrol station (both massively undercut by Tesco, of course) and two pubs here that seem to do quite well, in particular The Fox and Roman, for ale and food. I cannot speak for the The Cross Keys as I’ve not been in, but it is currently being refurbished.

The pubs form a triangle with St Edward’s, framing the junction of the A1036 and St Helen’s Road. The Church was built in 1850, all in one go, unusually, and under the watchful gaze of Frances Barlow, local dignitary and recent widow to Edward, one of the church’s namesakes. She then got remarried in 1851, which seems to be a sensible approach to the grieving process.

The building has been extended in more recent times, with an extra aisle space screened with a movable partition, for meetings, societies, band practices and so on. Apart from the primary school a short step up the road, Helen the book sale organiser told me, it is pretty much the only community resource in Dringhouses – not vending ale or BOGOFs, of course.

Today’s book sale was not in aid of the worthy cause church fund, however, but the worthy cause Feed the minds, a charity aimed at promoting education and literacy. I did say you had me at ‘book sale in a church’.


My intention had been to bike to the book sale across Hob Moor and along one of the aforementioned cycle paths, but I got me bike out to discover an aggravating slow puncture. With such a lack of compunction it pains me, I drove across town, radio tootling Classic FM to amp up the ponce factor, and parked outside the church, thereby adding to the furring and, book fever’d, giving not two shites about it.

Hey, the roads are quiet at that time. And look! Books! In a church!


Entering the cool of the building, I spent a few minutes getting some snaps before settling down to the serious business of splurging my daughter’s inheritance on inessential tomes.



Purty! Being the second day, there was a feeling that one might have missed a few bargainous volumes, although I imagine that Saturday will see some new leaves turn up. There was a good selection of paperbacks. I was strictly budgeting, however, and I forced myself to forgo some Will Selfs with scarcely a whimper.

The pricing system was colour coded stickers, as seen on the large sign at the door, reproduced in miniature on pretty much every table, handily, for every time I looked up trying to keep a running total of the teetering pile in hand.


The books were mostly yellow stickers, or the ones I picked were, anyway.


Complete works of Saki, and a selection of pre-Shakespeare English plays (‘Ralph Roister-Doister’ ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ &c) are the two hardbacks in the middle. Third title down is heading for J.C. Greenway at ten minutes hate, to make up for a previous second hand literature event, from which she enjoyed a complete absence of any booky goodness.

Any road up, as no one says here: Feed the Minds benefited to a moderate extent, and I had an edifying chat with the volunteers staffing the cash tubs, about books, buildings, bikes and balmy weather. Then it was out in the sun to tootle home, via a brief stop to procure a puncture repair kit in Tesco. Very well, I am a critical mass of contradictions. Blame it on the book fever.

The ‘Feed the Minds’ book sale continues at St Edward’s on Saturday 8th, and throughout the summer in York.

May the days be as glorious, sunny and packed with reading as today.

To my considerable delight, a day off just coincided with a giant book sale beginning at York Library Explore.

We got there just after 11.00am and it was rammed with browsing bibliophiles, many heaping teetering piles of tomes into cardboard boxes. Librarians with belted satchels marshalled a brisk trade. What we might have missed, I groaned inwardly, although without much vehemence. There were still some great volumes on offer.

One shelf unit catching a number of bargain hunters’ eyes held an extensive collection of Loeb Classical Library editions of your big name Greeks and Latins, at an astonishing 50p each. I started chatting in a jocular manner with one guy about needing some sort of wheelbarrow, and we both had a mutter about the mark-up applied by second-hand booksellers to items in the same condition. The jocularity was partly a function of me having mistaken his ‘mine’ pile for still-available books, eagerly snatching the Juvenal out of it. He saw my crestfallen expression and offered me a choice if there was anything I really particularly wanted, magnanimously, which I wasn’t about to start disputing. He staggered off eventually with as much of a cheery wave as he could manage under the weight of 14 volumes of Livy plus the same again of assorted others.

I managed to restrain myself to the Juvenal and another of my favourite dirty dog Latins, Petronius, plus an Herodotus:


…and an entertaining history of the British beat pop groups of 1962-67, which I was tickled to pick up having spent the morning reading about Robbie Williams’ intemperate musings on the Britpop beat-ish groups of 1990-1999. Ride indeed, Williams, you fanny. The set is made up with two “Oh, looky here!” last-minute Huxley spots. I do like a bit of Aldous…

An appealing little selection, I am sure you will concede. £4.00 the lot – you can’t say fairer than that.

I am a bit sad that no room in the library can be made to keep the books, when it is clear there is plenty of room for a cafe selling giant milky coffees and burning cheese toasties, but, yeah, at least it’s still open. Many localities are not so fortunate.

Here’s the York Library bookplate from the front of the Juvenal:


…which is kind of completely sexy.

The Giant Booksale continues Saturday and Sunday, finishing on Monday 25th.

It is the 50th anniversary of the first Bond movie adaptation (Dr No), and what with the forthcoming new James Bond movie, Skyfall, it has become a rather inescapable Celebrating Bond Month, in the UK at least. Articles everywhere, covering the franchise, the books, Bond’s sex life… MGM and the Estate of Cubby Broccoli, for two, thank you for your continuing interest.
Much earlier this year, the exciting news of Skyfall prompted Julia at ten minutes hate blog to a review of the source material. Now nearing the 60th anniversary of the publication of the first one (Casino Royale), Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels have been a source of comfort and excitement since my first discovery of them at some tender age or other in the 1980s… I agreed enthusiastically to join in. For me, it’s a barely-needed excuse to revisit the books and cast over a critical-but-loving eye.
In the interests of labour division, we have split the novels roughly equally. Next up on my list is ‘Live and Let Die’. And sorry, JCG, for the delay!

We are examining Ian Fleming’s books, not the film adaptations, but any discussion of LALD requires perhaps rather inescapably a brief mention of Sir Paul McCartney’s live and let deathless theme tune.

It doesn’t seem to fit with the visuals particularly well, but it was recently voted ‘Best Bond Theme’ by people interested in such matters. As one of a number of memorable Macca moments, one would have to say at least Top 5 Bond themes. Foreshadowing: the cod-reggae stylings in the middle bit are important.

LALD was the second of the Bond novels, originally published 1954. It is the first book in which Bond goes to America, and provides opportunities for Fleming to toss about his quasi-urbane opinions on food, culture, people, in the USA. The plot concerns a treasure trail of looted gold coins, SMERSH’s money man in New York turning out to be a negro gangster called Mr Big, who rules his turf with a mix of brutality and voodoo for the extra fear factor. Bond blazes a messy trail from New York through to Florida and then out into the Caribbean, where the big showdown takes place.

On initial reading, Fleming’s view of the States is as shallow as this overview would indicate – a nervous skirting of the East coast and then off as quickly as he can. It seems quite one-dimensional, perhaps playing on notions of Americans being known to the general British public at the time largely as an admixture of ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ memories of GI war billetteers and impossibly glamorous Hollywood stars providing escape in matinees and double features. The Yanks, for they are ALL Yankees to the Brits, have garish and extravagant tastes. They are not at all like the British in the way they speak, eat and dress. Also, in America, there are many, many black people.

The thematic involvement of “colored people” has dated in many ways, and in fact was probably dated in many ways when LALD was published. As with Macca’s clunky ranking roots referents, it’s a musical thing that sticks in the book. Principally, Felix Leiter’s down-wit-duh-negroes jazz conversations, which rely on Duke Ellington as a cultural signifier. This is fair enough to a point. Leiter, a straw-haired Texan in the books, is a Dixieland aficionado, and he leads Bond on a whistle-stop tour of Harlem for “local color” en route to a meeting with Mr Big. They take in nightspots such as the Savoy, Sugar Ray’s, Yeah Man… all of which were real, and historically/culturally significant, but as featured on maps of Harlem from 1932.

(Check out the excellent Strange Maps blog, where I found this helpful cartographical curiosity.)

Surely a jazz aficionado, or anyone familiar with clubs in 1950s New York, would have had at least a passing awareness of the hipper happenings at Minton’s? Fleming reveals something of the cultural snob with the what-to-say crib sheet, alluded to in my overview of Casino Royale. It could be argued that he’s not really talking (through Leiter) about jazz music so much as indulging in vague political theorising about “the blacks” in Harlem, and the impact on the middle classes that an exploitative character such as Mr Big might have…

Something about wolves and sheep, bastards and Our Bastards, anyway. And this is one example of the difficulty in distinguishing authorial and character voice that one finds with Bond and the Bond novels. Fleming-the-writer works in the chapter ‘Nigger Heaven’ (renamed ‘Seventh Avenue’ for the American version) in clear reference to Carl van Vechten’s 1920s novel, which offered a similarly controversial insight into cultures (black/white) firmly divided from each other, while bringing massive cultural tensions/influences to bear on each other. Fleming’s take jerks a knowing head backwards towards Harlemania while acknowledging the “advancement of colored peoples” to ultimate criminal achievement when let to develop “on their own”. His characters are disparaging, and glibly so, about this, while also offering a certain level of grudging respect that comes from “tough men” for their counterparts. Mr Big does at least have some gravity in his caricature role as “first of the great negro criminals,” with some decent descriptions and lines. Some…

What Fleming-the-Brit-conservative is doing with Mr Big as a subtext in the Carribean sequences is presumably some sort of “don’t let the Windies go the same way as Cuba, or they’ll all be doing the Stalin One-step in Nassau by Christmas” domino theorising. Even so, Fleming’s metaphoric exploration of post-colonial politics could be developed more effectively, with less of a broad brush. I mean, “Mr Big”, for fuck’s sake. The climactic scenes, in a sub-aquatic grotto filled with gold, gramophone voodoo drums and oiled negroes pliantly doing the chieftain’s bidding… it is absurdly cartoonish, to put it kindly. There is an uneasy sense of facetiousness, of the ‘flippancy’ Elisabeth Sturch referred to in the TLS (thanks Wikipedia!). Still, in kindness: Fleming was developing as a writer, and developing an eye for his market… a scant six years after the Empire Windrush made port I’m sure there were many readers in Britain slurping down this part-informed pulp like conch chowder.

Later Bond excursions to the Caribbean, and the US, are more assured, though still cynical; supporting characters more developed, less one dimensional, though still flat. We’ll come back to those. Turning our attention to the surface appeal, the little details of sex and food and violence, as in Casino Royale, Fleming’s violence is casual, his dialogue dry as a waft of Kina Lillet. Bond’s little finger is broken as a punishment by Mr Big, Leiter is fed to sharks… Fleming’s own arched eyebrow at the typewriter is telegraphed with “He disagreed with something that ate him (we have plenty more jokes as good as this).”

The food porn is amusing, both in menu content and in its condescension:

‘Soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch and as good a Liebfraumilch as you can get in America. Okay?’
‘It sounds fine,’ said Bond with a mental reservation about the melted butterscotch.
They sat down and ate steadily through each delicious course of American cooking at its rare best.

“American cooking at its rare best”!

There’s actually a kind of double reverse snobbery here, with such a menu today coming across as pretty commonplace, although I am talking about Western cultural norms, of course. Yet the meal does actually sound pretty good as well… at a time of rationed meat and just re-introduced sweets, to a half-famished Brit-in-the-street such bounty would have been as exotically unattainable as a Caribbean treasure cave. Fleming knows this: it’s already an obvious part of the appeal, the sniffy dismissals of greasy spoon diner food in other chapters, extolled hearty breakfasts, and label Mabelry in the usual areas such as cigarettes and alcohol.

Fleming does also, on occasion, do an admirable job of absorbing some tougher moments from thriller fiction, while sustaining a depiction of enduring British importance in global affairs that is as exciting and endearing as it is wholly implausible. Revisiting LALD, I was struck by how uncomfortable a book it is to read in many ways, and not just with regard to race, music and menus. As a Brit, seeing one’s cultural past through the lens of pop novels, films, etc, can be instructive. It both preserves and diminishes. I look forward to reading the Andy McNab books in thirty years to see what they say about our just-post-millenial continued need for action tools.

Note, not “re-read”… this is part of that discomfort. Something that perhaps should be bourne in mind when talking about thrillers is that they are generally popular but critically unloved. If the films hadn’t turned Bond into Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, globally recognised and archetypal, it is entirely possible that the books would have fallen by the wayside a little, later ones perhaps even going unwritten in favour of more journalistic non-fiction exercises like The Diamond Smugglers. Hypothetical, of course, but it would be interesting to consider worlds – fictional and actual – where Bond dies at the end of… well, we’ll come back to that one too.

Bond is also an uncomfortable character to read in LALD. Something that many writers have picked up on in recent Bond retrospectives and analyses is the idea that Fleming was writing Bond as much as a critique as a celebration of the secret agent, man as blunt instrument, thug with a gun being pointed at the bad guys, whoever these are deemed to be. In LALD as a straight thriller, Bond is reassuringly tough. His laconic style can support this reading. “Don’t be seen… Wear a veil or something,” he suggests to Solitaire, Mr Big’s erstwhile pet psychic and Bond’s burgeoning love interest, as they escape New York.

However, even though Bond’s reward is food and sex, Fleming makes it clear that Bond is not invincible. He is damaged, and damageable. It is the thousand cuts of coral scrapings, pistol whippings, beatings and little finger breakings that whittle at the Bond of the books and make him such a compelling character as the series progresses. In LALD, the climactic scene where “the first tears since his childhood” well in Bond’s eyes is an odd, touching moment. It is one of a number of such episodes throughout the novels that show us glimpses of the more human Bond, rather than Bond the Cold War style template anachronism, suave cinematic superman.

Fleming stayed home for the next novel in the sequence, Moonraker, set entirely in Britain. Here is a link for Moonraker as discussed in the piece that kicked off this project at Ten Minutes Hate.

James Bond will return in JCG’s The Mortal Bath’s review of Diamonds are Forever!