Books we love…

Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino

Book cover of ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino

As it’s Plastic-Free July, our book review blog will be the title ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino.

This week, Richard from Brompton Library will be reviewing Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino. Marcovaldo is a collection of Italian stories talking about the beauty and the ugliness of both the countryside and the city.

Over to Richard to tell us more!

“If you’ve ever seen the film, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, you might recognise a similar lyrical style that is both poetic and comical in Marcovaldo. The character of the title is an Italian redneck labourer from the provinces with a love of nature, who moves to a large northern industrial city with his family.

The book comprises a collection of stories/chapters that follow this family through the seasons of the year. In the Forest on the superhighway for example, the family go in search of firewood, only to find billboards on the edge of the city; in the night, the short-sighted highway police officer confuses snatches of the family sawing through the panels with the billboard images and assumes they are part of the advertisements. Another story captures Marcovaldo’s reaction to the city transformed by winter snow.2

If you want to try out this unique and compelling read, pick up Marcovaldo today from one of our branches or via ebook –

https://trib.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/rbkc/search/results?qu=Marcovaldo&te=

Plastic Free July logo

Summer Flowers

Summer is in full swing, and everywhere in gardens, parks, window boxes, and balconies, flowers are bursting with colour.  Flowers can be exciting, calming, awe inspiring – and somehow this summer they seem more wonderful than ever.  Of course, Chelsea has been home to the Royal Horticultural Society’s fabulous Flower Show for more than a century – this year it has been postponed to September, when I’m sure it will be the treasure trove we’ve come to expect. 

Our Biography Collection (Special Collection of Biographies) contains many books about famous gardeners and garden designers, plant collectors and those who developed the scientific understanding of flowers.  For this blog post I want to focus on three people who in very different ways have celebrated flowers and deepened our experience of them. 

Have a look at these exquisite flower pictures which date from the 18th century; it may surprise you to learn that their creator was a woman who completed almost 1000 of these images between the ages of 73 and 82.  You might be further surprised that they are not paintings, but collages.  Mary Delany was born Mary Granville in 1700.  Aged 17, she was married to a man of 60, as a way of consolidating the political aspirations of her aristocratic family.  He died eight years later, and she did not remarry until her early forties, when she became the wife of Irish clergyman Patrick Delany – they divided their time between Dublin and County Down.  Both Delanys were keen gardeners and Mary celebrated flowers in a range of creative work, including watercolour, embroidery and collages with shells.  Delany felt that delicate tissue paper could most closely evoke the texture of actual flower petals, and eventually perfected her original method which she called “paper mosaic”, building detailed flower images with tiny cut-out shapes meticulously layered, and mounted on black paper to dramatic effect (this was revolutionary, as botanical illustrations were traditionally given white backgrounds, echoing herbaria where plant specimens were always shown against white).  She was an expert botanist, and would dissect the flowers before depicting them, to make sure her work was accurate as well as beautiful. King George III and Queen Charlotte became huge fans, as well as friends.  She had a circle of other eminent friends, including Jonathan Swift, and the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was a key figure in the founding and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We are fortunate in having nine books about Mrs Delany in the collection, including a tiny volume of her letters from 1821 which is illustrated with a silhouette portrait of her at the age of 87 and a 21st century volume of recipes, remedies and etiquette tips gleaned from her letters.

William Robinson‘s career began humbly in Ireland, when he was employed as a teenaged “garden boy” by the Marquess of Waterford.  His precocious expertise with flowers led him to become one of the most influential gardeners of the late19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1861, when he was only 23, he moved to London to work at Regents Park, where he became an authority on British wildflowers.  He wrote a range of gardening books which were so successful that he was able to buy Gravetye Manor in Sussex, where he set about creating a magnificent range of gardens.  Robinson championed wild, natural styles of garden design, taking inspiration from the traditional English cottage garden – he railed against straight lines, “carpet” beds of monotonous bright colours, and the formality of topiary and statues (he was very critical of some of the contemporary plantings in Kensington Gardens, which he considered hideous). Instead he promoted the abundance of simple, often neglected, meadow flowers, blurring the boundary between garden and wild countryside, and bringing the Arts and Crafts aesthetic into the garden.  His were amongst the go-to books for millions of British gardeners up until the 1930s, when he died and his fame began to fade.

Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights is quite simply one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read.  A collection of essays written over a year, it is a catalogue of the small joys of everyday life, which poet Gay describes with lyricism, humour and an acknowledgement that delight co-exists with pain, and can be rendered more precious by it.  In his preface Gay lists nine themes that he traces coming up repeatedly over his year of “delights” – one of them is his garden, and I am including this book because many of its most incandescent passage relate to flowers, and remind us of their power to surprise us and to offer us joy in the middle of whatever else we are going through (in fact, flowers recur so often as a topic that as well as being classified on book websites as “Philosophy” and “Social Sciences”, the book may also be found in “Gardening”; Gay is a passionate gardener and founder of a community orchard in Bloomington, Indiana). Throughout the 102 essays, on a multitude of topics including friendship, loss, the African-American experience and the meaning of community, flowers make repeated appearances and are a recurring motif resonating with hope.  Many of the essays focus on the flowers Gay plants, cherishes, unexpectedly encounters and observes with what he calls “supreme attentiveness”.  The essay “Flower in the Curb” is a meditation on friendship, memory, loss, our relationship to public space and the serendipity of sudden beauty, all in three paragraphs, and though there is much more than flowers in Gay’s records of his “intense fleeting attentions”, flowers are a constant theme and some of the most memorable and uplifting passages are woven through with their scents and textures, and their profound redemptive meaning to Gay.

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

BioEpic – A podcast exploring The Biography Store.

Did you know that we have an insightful podcast exploring the Biography Store Collection?

A glimpse of The Biography Store Collection at Kensington Central Library

Over to Katie Williams to tell us more…

“Claudia Jessop and I wanted to seek new opportunities to promote the Biography Store Collection. With over 90,000 items in the collection it is very heavily borrowed by a wide variety of people and we wanted to shine a light more on the people whose biographies or whose lives are not celebrated as much. I have loved reading Claudia’s blogs about our collections and I thought that it would be good to get it out there into podcast form. So we formed a scooby gang, including Emma Marsh and Jackie Hastick, and we set about coming up with ideas for people who we wanted to celebrate and the logistics of how it could work.

We were very fortunate to get support from our Comms team and our first podcast was launched to coincide with our Black History Month 2020 programme. It was an absolute pleasure to celebrate the life of Claudia Jones, who was responsible for the Notting Hill Carnival and who shaped the cultural and social lives of so many people.

Our mission is this: to shine a light on those who have made an impact on our world.

Its been a really amazing experience not just discovering these people but crafting something which people will stream and enjoy. Episode 6 (about the wonderful James Baldwin) and Episode 7 (Lady Charlotte Guest) are now live “

Listen to BioEpic here:

National Bike Week

“Every time Iseean adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” said H. G. Wells, and I think I know what he means – there is something about seeing someone zooming down a hill, or stoically labouring up one, on a simple piece of machinery that uses only human muscle power to get them speedily from a to b, that is both reassuring and inspiring. Cycling is increasingly popular, and as we mark National Bike week from 30th May to 5th June, there can be no question that the more of us take to two wheels, the better it will be for our environment and for our fitness.    

   Our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library contains many books about professional cyclists, Olympians and Tour de France winners, but for this blog post I thought it would be interesting to focus on some people who didn’t cycle professionally, but in whose lives bikes played an important part in a variety of different ways. 

   The bicycle was vital to the clandestine work of resistance fighters and spies during the Second World War. It enabled operatives to make a quick getaway, travel anonymously, and blend into a crowd. Many heroes and heroines of the Special Operations Executive, responsible for covert operations behind enemy lines, made daring and essential use of their bikes, among them Australian Nancy Wake.  Parachuted into France in 1944, Wake’s mission was to liaise with local resistance fighters and distribute the weapons and funds sent to them from Britain.  When her team’s radio and codes were lost during fierce fighting with German troops, they were left with no way of updating and contacting the SOE in London; on a borrowed bike, Wake peddled a round trip distance of 300 miles to get access to the nearest means of communication.  Without the thousands of bicycles used for essential missions, the outcome of the war may well have been different.  Wake’s story and those of many of her valiant colleagues are told in Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott’s Heroines of the SOE from our Collected Biography part of the collection (biographies of groups of people – this is a 3,000-book sub-collection within the collection).

Bikes have been vital to less dangerous peace time missions – for decades the image of the district nurse and midwife was linked to the bicycle (viewers of the BBC’s Call the Midwife will be familiar with the cape-flapping leap onto the bike in response to urgent calls).  Joan Markham and Joanna Jones are two of the district nurses whose memoirs we have; both books’ dust jackets feature evocative illustrations of the women with their bikes. In Nurse on the District, Jones describes battling loneliness as a young nurse newly arrived in postwar London but never loses her sense of humour.

In My Little Black Bag, Markham describes her wartime work in one of the poorest areas of Manchester. “I had ridden a bike since the Fairy Cycle days [a popular inter-war children’s bike] and, as a good horsewoman is one with her horse, so I was with my old iron steed”, she says.  [pic 3 and 4] 

   Emily Chappell gives insight into the life of a bike courier in London – with the increase in delivery services, more and more people are earning their living on two wheels and her beautifully written book What Goes Around describes our city from the vantage point of a keen observer zipping through traffic on other people’s crucial errands.  This is a memoir about much more than the experience of this particular job, investigating memory, imagination, community, and what it is to inhabit an endlessly changing city. 

   Though she was briefly famous, Annie Londonderry began and ended her life in obscurity, and was a very incongruous person to take on the challenge of proving that a woman could circumnavigate the globe on a bike, in 1894. Born Annie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant to the USA from Latvia, 24-year-old Annie was the wife of a very religious man and mother of three young children  – and had never ridden a bike before she resolved on her outrageous challenge.  A brilliant publicist, Annie donned the still-shocking bloomers (see the March Biographies from the Basement blog post!) after the first leg of her journey convinced her that long skirts and a corset were just not going to be viable.  She covered her clothing with embroidered advertisements in return for sponsorship – she even rented out the spokes of her wheels to be adorned with advertisements in ribbon form.  Her major sponsor was Londonderry Water, which explained her change of name – also a safety measure, as riding under the name Cohen or her married name Kopchovsky would have exposed her to the antisemitism that was rife at the time.  Annie’s accounts of her trip fell on a spectrum between wild exaggeration and outright fantasy – she spun gripping tales of countries she never visited at all – and she is certainly one of the extraordinary eccentrics of our collection, who you can encounter in the wonderful biography Around the World on Two Wheels by her great nephew Peter Zheutlin.

   Bikes can play a part in journeys of a very personal kind, and have their fair share of romantic associations. The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J Andersson pretty much does what it says in the title, which is to trace the story of Artist Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia who fell in love with Charlotte Von Schedvin , a young Swedish woman whose portrait he painted while she was travelling through India in a van in 1975.  After two years of correspondence, the pair found that their feelings for each other had not faded, and Mahanandia resolved to join her in Sweden.  You can guess how he made the journey; the two married and had two children, and Mahanandia has enjoyed a successful career as an artist in Sweden.

   Another life changing bicycle ride was undertaken by Mike Carter, who in One Man and His Bike recounts how at the age of 45, while commuting to work on his bike, he made the decision to peddle around the whole of the coast of Britain, a distance of 5,000 miles (many cyclists claim to have their best ideas while cycling; indeed Carter reminds us that Albert Einstein claimed that the theory of relativity came to him while on his bike).  His life-affirming encounter with people and places is touching and humorous; recollecting how therapeutic hours on his bike have got him through emotionally difficult times since childhood, he expresses how the solitary contemplative cycle ride forms a connection between our own intimate emotions and the world that waits to be discovered at the end of an adventurous (cycle) path.

   Whether or not you are a cyclist yourself, I am sure you will find something of interest in these books and the 90,000 others in our Special Collection of Biographies.  Don’t forget to listen to our BioEpic podcast, available from Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Google, Breaker and Pocket Casts. 

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

International Women’s Day – 8 March 2021

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Choose to Challenge. Our Special Collection of Biographies is full of the stories of inspiring and extraordinary women who challenged the norms of the societies they lived in, and improved the lives of their fellow women in vital ways. I have selected three women from very different backgrounds, whose work changed the experience of other women for the better, in three different areas of their lives. 

Amelia Bloomer changed the way women dressed. Next time you put on tracksuit bottoms to go for a run (or just to relax on the sofa), spare a thought for Amelia Bloomer. Born in New York, she lived a life that spanned almost the whole of the nineteenth century, becoming the first woman to ever own and edit a newspaper specifically aimed at other women, in 1849. Amongst her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights, she is best remembered for her commitment to the cause of women’s dress reform. Bloomer felt strongly that the restrictive clothing women wore could only impede all aspects of their lives, cause them unnecessary discomfort, and operate as a form of oppression. Well off women were encumbered by elaborately decorative clothing and punishing corsetry. Even poor women were continually hampered by the length of their skirts. It seems amazing now that in the West, trousers for women were not really respectable until the middle of the 20th century, and their previous modes of dress made all kinds of activities from riding bikes to participating in sports to simply running for a (horse drawn) bus impossible. Bloomer championed the idea of loose gathered trousers worn under a shorter dress, allowing women to move more easily – these trousers became known as “bloomers”. A courageous group of like-minded women began to wear them in public, but were often harassed, mocked and even assaulted. But they had begun a century of slow progress towards the time when women could wear trousers without raising an eyebrow, and so be enabled to enjoy the same freedom of movement as men.  

Onnie Lee Logan changed the way women gave birth As Bloomer’s life almost spanned the 19th century, Logan’s did the 20th. In her farming community in Alabama, black women did not have access to clinical maternity care and they were helped to deliver their babies by “granny midwives”, who had no formal training but who were repositories of wisdom passed down for centuries. Logan came from a family where women had been practising as “granny midwives” for generations. Her heritage was both African American and Native American, and when she began to practise midwifery herself, aged 21, she drew on the traditions of both cultures. In 1949 Logan undertook formal training and was licensed by the Board of Health. She was able to give her patients the benefit of a new mixture of modern medical practice and family-centred care based on long experience and first-hand knowledge. These women benefited from as many modern medical safety measures as Logan could provide, while being reassured by the sensitivity of a woman who understood their community and cultural traditions at the deepest level. For a period of half a century, ending in the mid-80s, she is credited with delivering almost every baby born in two black neighbourhoods of Mobile, Alabama. She also delivered the babies of poor white women, and became a beloved figure throughout the community, though her autobiography does not gloss over the virulent racism she encountered. Logan emphasised practices that were still being seen as new and innovative by orthodox midwifery many years later, such as the participation of fathers, the use of relaxation and breathing techniques and the application of oils, and she encouraged women to give birth in different positions rather than flat on their backs, as was the conventional and often damaging expectation. Her autobiography is a fascinating record of a working life that spanned enormous changes – an unsentimental “Call the Midwife” of the Deep South, and a testament to an extraordinarily humane and expert woman.  

Caroline Norton changed women’s rights in marriage. Norton left her unhappy marriage in 1836, and her husband sued her friend, the Prime Minister and future close confidante of Queen Victoria Lord Melbourne for adultery, involving all of them in an enormous scandal. Although he lost his case, he refused to divorce Lady Norton, and refused to let her see her sons. At a time when women who left their husbands were generally condemned and when it was perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, Norton campaigned tirelessly to change the law relating to custody, divorce and property (married women were not allowed to legally own any property until 1870, when an Act of Parliament Norton had campaigned for was passed). A new biography of this courageous woman by Antonia Fraser will be published in May, and we have a clutch of books in our collection from Diane Atkinson’s excellent biography of 2012, to books from the 1940s and 1960s (see the cover illustration so characteristic of that period) – and Norton also makes an appearance in some sumptuous Edwardian collected biographies of “Queens of Beauty” and “Famous Women of Wit and Beauty”, where her celebrated beauty is recorded in wonderful engraved illustrations.  

Check out our monthly podcast BioEpic, where we delve into the lives of fascinating people through our Special Collection of Biographies.  Available on Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Breaker. 

 

Chelsea in Bloom

One of the highlights of the Chelsea year is the Chelsea Flower Show.  Chelsea in Bloom really brings an already vibrant area to life.  Here is Zveszdana from Chelsea library talking about her love of the show and sharing some of her wonderful collection of photographs from previous years. Continue reading “Chelsea in Bloom”

‘Big Brother is watching you’ – a tribute to George Orwell

Last month commemorated 70 years since the passing of a giant of English literature, George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair).

George Orwell display Brompton Library

Orwell was a man of contradictions who never seemed to fit in anywhere. Born in India in 1903, into a “lower-upper-middle-class” family, Orwell grew up in the English shires, was educated at Eton yet was shot in the neck fighting for socialism. He then curiously became famous for his critique of the Soviet Union and Stalin in Animal Farm.

His writing seems to be driven by a deep desire for fairness and a relentless pursuit of the truth, and his willingness to criticise those who abuse power and language, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, made his allies feel uneasy and his enemies squirm.

Indeed, Animal Farm was initially banned from publication for politically expedient reasons in World War II (at the time, Stalin’s USSR was a useful ally in defeating Hitler and criticism was censored in the suspended democracy of war-time Britain, a situation Orwell despised). These contradictions and hypocrisies, along with experiencing first-hand the bitter betrayals and cynical use of propaganda in the multifaceted Spanish Civil War (Orwell fought with renegade anti-Stalinist Marxist group the P.O.U.M, that was later repressed and outlawed by the Spanish Communist Party), certainly contributed to the overall themes in Animal Farm and 1984.  Ironically in the 1960s, over a decade after Orwell’s death, Animal Farm was challenged in some parts of the USA for being a “problem book” with ‘communist text’ for using such language as “masses will revolt.”

George Orwell display at Brompton Library

Orwell’s determination to tell the detailed, complicated truth and inform the reader using simple, layman’s language stands in contrast to much of today’s shallow political discourse and ‘journalism’, which deliberately misinforms, and is arguably often used to protect the status quo rather than attempt to expose the truth. It must be said these problems of course existed in Orwell’s day, but are they better, or worse now? Orwell’s writing can at least help us find out, as although he died 70 years ago, the clarity of his writing is more important than ever.

Although the dystopian totalitarian Britain of 1984 did not come to pass, one must wonder what Orwell would make of the country and wider world today. Even though I have an aversion to people (often wrongly, in my opinion) ventriloquizing his views for their own agenda, I expect much of it will fill him with horror. Orwell remains relevant because we can still understand the world with his words, which have changed literature forever. What would he make of government institutions like GCHQ’s illegal mass surveillance of UK citizens, and of social media giants harvesting data and selling our privacy, all with our apparent consent? The telescreens in 1984 are now not necessarily on the wall, but in our pockets, with the ability to listen, photograph and video our private lives. And whilst Big Brother may not order us what to do, algorithms made by corporate giants manipulate how we interpret the world on social media which is awash with so much ‘fake news’ it can skew elections and referendums. The language of 1984 can also easily describe any authoritarian ‘communist’ regime that exists today: “the party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the socialist movement originally ever stood, and it does so in the name of socialism”. 1984 can perhaps also explain the seemingly endless wars Western countries are entangled in in the Middle East: “The war, therefore if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture… It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs… The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”

George Orwell display at Brompton Library

Although mostly well-known for his novels, he was also a prolific writer of essays, literary critiques, reportage and even poetry. Beyond politics, he also enjoyed writing about nature in his diaries, and in 1946 wrote the essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. Orwell also dabbled in food writing; 1945’s In Defence of English Cooking led him to be commissioned a year later by the British Council to write an essay on British food to promote relations abroad. He described British cuisine as “a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet” where “hot drinks are acceptable at most hours of the day”. Further writing in 1946 instilled Orwell’s quintessential Englishness: that year he wrote an essay entitled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, within which he lays out an 11-point plan for making the perfect cuppa (yes, you really should put the milk in last).

David, Brompton Library

 

 

Inspirations from our Biography Collection

For this month’s special display from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, library staff were asked to nominate figures who had inspired them.

See what Steve Biko, RuPaul, Malcolm X, J. K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, Lauren Bacall, Tove Jansson, David Attenborough and many others mean to members of staff, learn more about them from their biographies – and see if we have a book about your own inspiring figure in our collection. With around 85,000 titles spanning two centuries of publishing, there is a good chance we do!

Mzu chose: Steve Biko

Bantu Stephen Biko…popularly known as Steve  Biko. Apart from teaching us that democracy is something to fight for, constantly, my inspiration,
Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), was known for his slogan ‘black is beautiful’, which he
described as meaning ‘you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ He fully understood that the foundation of any true
liberation is self-love.

Fani chose: Helen Keller

I would like to suggest one of my favourite authors, Helen Keller because this woman overcame her  dual disability and managed to live the life that she dreamt without barriers. I love the below words from her: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world  cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt  with the heart’.

Katie chose: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adventurer, polyglot, lover of people and nature, Leigh Fermor  explored the world and wrote about its beauty. His ‘Time of Gifts’  books feature his walking journey from the Hook of Holland to  Constantinople and he has written many delightful books on his  daring exploits and travels.

Nina chose: David Attenborough

The most inspiring man who seems capable of uniting the whole world. People from all over the globe have grown up to the sound of his husky voice telling them about the weird and wonderful things that exist in nature, and many were made aware of dangers that threaten them though watching his programmes. He is a man so universally liked that I have no doubt he would be chosen as the President of the World if such a role existed.

If you’re nearby, do pop into the library and take a look at the display – we’re sure you’ll be inspired too.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Chelsea Library’s special reading events: a recap

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers
who participated in Chelsea Library’s reading events in 2018 and this year. A big
thank you and here’s to many more in 2020!

Our next reading event is on Tuesday 21 January when we will meet Ruth Galloway and read from ‘The Crossing Places’ by Elly Griffiths.

What is so special about Chelsea Library’s reading events? Well, we  read extracts from the books aloud; we share favourite moments and discuss relevant issues and characters. But, if you just want to listen and comment, and do not wish to read, that is fine too. You do not have to be a book club member to join us either. Sometimes readings are linked with a film or a TV series, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Gerald Durrell’s The Durrells.

An Evening with Tolstoy, in September 2018, marked the 190th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday. That was our first such event and we focused on ‘Anna Karenina’ We watched a few remarkable moments from film adaptations, and then passionately commented about the right or wrong choices of actors in these films. We read in English, Russian. Italian and Serbian, completely oblivious that one of the guests present was one of Tolstoy’s descendants. Amazing!

In October 2018 we read from the Great War diaries and letters written by female doctors and nurses.

Last December we met to celebrate the 175th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Since that time, this Ghost story of Christmas has become an irrefutable symbol of Christmas, and Marley and his companions – ghosts of Christmas past, present and future –have become some of the most popular ghosts in literature. So, gathered enthusiastic readers took part in reading my abridged dramatized version of Dickens’ classic and we all had a great time playing Scrooge, Marley, Bob, Tiny Tim … and eating mince pies.

For this December I decided to stay within the supernatural milieu and we read extracts from the ‘Haunted house’. If you have not read it before, it is never too late. Please, read these paragraphs to give you a flavour what you can expect. It is funny, it is witty – Dickens at his best. Serve with mince pies and brandy cream, as we did. Delicious!

“It was a solitary house, standing in a sadly neglected garden: a pretty even square of some two acres. It was a house of about the time of George the Second; as stiff, as cold, as formal, and in as bad taste, as could possibly be desired by the most loyal admirer of the whole quartet of Georges. It was uninhabited, but had, within a year or two, been cheaply repaired to render it habitable; I say cheaply, because the work had been done in a surface manner, and was already decaying as to the paint and plaster, though the colours were fresh.”

After first few weeks of living there the narrator’s state of mind became “so unchristian”. “Whether Master B.’s bell was rung by rats, or mice, or bats, or wind, or what other accidental vibration, or sometimes by one cause, sometimes another, and sometimes by collusion, I don’t know; but, certain it is, that it did ring two nights out of three, until I conceived the happy idea of twisting Master B.’s neck—in other words, breaking his bell short off—and silencing that young gentleman, as to my experience and belief, forever.”

Back to earlier this year and to honour my French readers, I chose Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ for January 2019.

 

When I had ‘Hamlet’ in mind, the idea was to involve the Danish Embassy and talk about Helsingborg / Elsinore castle. For somebody like me, with English as a second language, the challenge of reading Shakespeare aloud (and not to kill the beauty of the masterpiece in the process) was a daunting prospect. That worry proved to be needless. Everyone present was reading Shakespeare with such ease, as if they were eating Victoria sponge cake and drinking English tea. Fantastic! (The Danish Embassy were too busy to spare anyone, but I had to go to Copenhagen and visit Hamlet’s castle. Could not find anything rotten there.)

Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ followed. We watched extracts from Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation, laughed at Mr Collins, argued as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy did, and even had heated discussion with a Jane Austen-expert who was in attendance. Marvellous!

Our June reading session was dedicated to holidays, to Corfu, to Gerald Durrell and his fantastic book ‘My Family and Other Animals’. Who could blame the Durrells for moving to Corfu after this kind of August in Bournemouth?

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach-huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, frothchained sea that leapt eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.”

So, the Durrells moved to Corfu, in 1935, ‘like a flock of migrating swallows.’ The lush green landscape greeted them on their arrival.

“Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.”

Talking about people and animals we discovered that one of the readers, Emina, featured in Maria Perry’s book ‘Chelsea Chicks’, with a story that involved her very social parrot.

In September 2019 we had a guest speaker, Sir John Nott, who talked about his book ‘Memorable Encounters’, in which he selected twenty famous people who made a distinctive impression on him, from Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, to Robin Day and Ted Hughes.

Sir Nott’s career in politics and business has given him a unique perspective on some of the key events in British public life. The gathered audience were obviously charmed by his witty comments.

In October I was so happy that Simon Brett accepted my invitation and included Chelsea Library in his busy and dynamic schedule. Simon is a renowned author of comedy thrillers, mystery who-done-it novels and has written to date 106 novels. He is best known for his Mrs Pargeter novels, the Fethering series and the Charles Paris detective crime series. In 2014, he was presented with The CWA Diamond Dagger and in 2016, he was awarded with OBE for his services to literature.

Simon talked about his career, his books and characters and we laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

Here is an extract from ‘Mrs Pargeter’s Principle’, which he read to the audience.
It is just after Sir Normington’s funeral.

“Helena Winthrop, in designer black, did not look prostrated by grief, but then she had been brought up in the upper-class British tradition that any display of emotion was unseemly and embarrassing. Also, her face no longer had the capacity for much change of emotion. Feeling the approach of age, she’d had some work done, which had left her with an expression of permanent surprise at how old she was.
She had acted as hostess at many public events for her husband and appeared to bring the same professionalism to this one as she had to all the others. The absence of Sir Normington on this occasion was not something to which she thought attention should be drawn… though her guests did seem to want to keep talking about him.
Mrs Pargeter, experienced in widowhood, wondered whether Helena Winthrop would fall apart into a weeping mess the minute she got back to her empty Mayfair home, but rather doubted it. Unshakeable stoicism was ingrained into women of Helena’s class. She had spent so long suppressing her emotions, Mrs Pargeter reckoned, that she wouldn’t recognize a genuine one if it bit her on the bum.”

Edited to add this part – Simon sent us this lovely quote  in response to this piece and we thought we’d share it with you.

I greatly enjoyed my visit to read and talk at Chelsea Library. The audience was acute and perceptive, a legacy of the series of events which had been set up to encourage reading in the borough. I remember, when I first started doing library talks, the plea ‘Has anyone got any questions?’ used to be followed by a profound silence and a lot of people looking at their feet. That, I’m glad to say, is no longer the case. The growth of book groups and events, like those set up by Zvezdana Popovic in Chelsea Library, have ensured a much readier and more informed response. As an author, I always find such sessions fascinating, because they always make me question – and sometimes even make changes to – the way I write. So, keep up the good work, Zvezdana.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed sharing this recap from our previous reading events. One of our future events is definitely reserved for the Brontë sisters. Tell me which book (or author) you would like to be included and we’ll go from there.

Once again, best wishes.
God bless us, everyone!

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library