Daily Archives: October 5, 2014

An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes (Oxygen Books, £8.99)

An EverywhereHeather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.

This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”

Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.

But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.

Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.

There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.

Ross Bradshaw

Voice and Vision: songs of resistance, democracy and peace (Topic CD, £9.99)

Voice_and_VisionTopic Records and the GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions) have released a double CD compilation of songs about working lives and struggles. Amongst those who appear are Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Roy Harris, Anne Briggs and a host of others. Twenty- nine tracks in all encompassing a wide range of traditional and modern songs all  performed with passion, honesty and integrity.

Highlights for me are Roy Bailey’s rendition of ‘Hard Times of Old England’, a song which always puts me in mind if The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Reading it many years ago the book stood as a condemnation of the world in which my grandparents had grown up; re reading it recently it is now a terrifying vision of a future that is not too far away. Roy Harris is here with a great performance of ‘Poverty Knocks’. Many of us will remember Roy singing this at clubs in the 1960’s. Then it seem that poverty was on the brink of defeat; now it knocks ever more insistently at the door.

One of my favorites comes from the incomparable Paul Robson. His version of ‘Joe Hill’ towers above others and it from him that many of my generation in the Labour Movement learned the song. I recall being told by one of the projectionists at the Odeon Cinema in Nottingham how Paul had performed there in the late 1950s and on being told that there was a large crowd outside who had been unable to get in went out on to the pavement and sang for them! This is the man who had his passport removed by the Champions of Freedom in the White House who more lately have turned our own Parliament into its poodle.

Paddy Ryan’s uproarious ‘The Man that Waters the Workers Beer’ richly deserves its place. Just as true now as when he wrote it in the 1950s ( £3.00 a pint for chemical garbage, we’d never pay that would we….but we do, we do and the landlords and brewers still have their cars and aeroplanes and with the convenience of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Camoron have managed to avoid the tax on meths and water!!) Join CAMRA and persuade them all to buy a copy of this CD.

Not all the tracks work completely for me. The version of ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’ by M.G. Boulter is not a patch on the magnificent and defiant version by Roy Harris which can be found on his Topic album The Bitter and the Sweet. The version of ‘The International’ by the Topic singers does not really come off. This is a big song and needs a choir of hundreds to do it justice; though at the other end of the spectrum Robert Wyatt makes a good job of it. The problem with things that are in the middle is that they tend to fall down the middle. These views are of course subjective and others will listen and make up  their own minds. Whilst we’re on with subjective views its a pity that room couldn’t be found for Dick Gaughan’s version of the ‘Workers Song ‘and/or ‘Revolution’. Perhaps this is the start of an argument for a Voice and Vision Volume 2! This would  be a good idea but will only happen if the current one sells well; do your bit brothers and sisters!

These slight criticisms aside overall the CD is a remarkable production and Topic and the GFTU are to be congratulated for having the vision to reaffirm the power of song and the role that it has, does and will play in the fight for a better future, a fight in which like it or not circumstances conscript us all! At £9.99 a copy it is also real value for money.

Like any good night out at a folk club or a concert the evening should go out on a high and this CD goes out on a bang and a whoosh! It starts with ‘Saltley Gates’ which combines oral history, real people from Birmingham talking about the impact of that historic day in real Birmingham accents (something which eludes the media community who can only conceive of working class accents as parody and for whom any ‘northern’ accent descends into a sort of Sheffichesterpool insult). I remember seeing the news of Saltley Gates on the BBC news just after I’d got in from work and literally leaping out on my chair. This track has the same effect. Then there is Norma Waterson with ‘Coal Not Dole’. Thirty years after the great strike and twenty-five after the criminal destruction of the industry this song raises the hairs on the back of your neck and is an eloquent reminder of the damage done to us all by a cynical government act for which they have yet to be brought to account. Peggy Seeger turns in an amazing performance with ‘If You Want a Better Life’. It rolls along beautifully and it obvious purpose and commitment puts the wind in your sails and takes you out into the  world to face and overcome any challenge that might be thrown.  I’ve never heard this track before and I’m wondering where I’ve been for the last fifty years. The final track, ‘War’. a reggae number, yes oh yes. What a way out.

Lawrence Platt

The Bookshop has this CD in stock and will shortly have a good range of Topic and ECM CDs on sale.


The Eitingons: a twentieth-century story by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Faber, £9.99)

The_EitingonsI read this book after reading Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina about her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers’ (MKW) family. Mary-Kay came across as so delightful I took the opportunity to find out more about her family history.

The Eitingons is a big book – 476 pages including the index and references. There are a few personal references but mostly this is a well-researched book about three figures in the Eitingon family who achieved fame or notoriety in very different ways: Max, a psychoanalyst and close colleague of Sigmund Freud; Motty, a fur manufacturer, who achieved great fortune; and Leonid, an important member of the Soviet Secret Service (latterly the KGB). From time to time, MKW tries to find connections between the three, and although none are documented, she allows herself a little speculation.

These are weighty stories of the twentieth century and I found out stuff I hadn’t previously known, including detail about how the assassination of Trotsky (in which Leonid was involved) was managed. This part of the book is thrilling – even though I knew how it ended. Perhaps there is too much detail in some parts of the book as a result of MKW’s extensive research and from time to time I had to check back to remind myself who some of the characters were but MKW’s intelligence and charm is always there in the background.

They sound a clever bunch these Eitingons – they all seemed to know several languages and to be pretty successful in their chosen careers. Mary-Kay herself studied Russian although she ended up not using it and instead ended up as longstanding editor of the London Review of Books. One of my favourite bits of the book is where she describes her role as “obsessively attending to other people’s English words – washing them, ironing them, preparing them for publication.”

 Myra Woolfson