Sunday, July 02, 2006

Two outstanding books

Also in today's blog

The Plimsoll Sensation
The Magic Bus
Remembering Evelyn Anthony
Laura Thompson's rant
Good stuff in The Spectator
Walking across England
Confessions of a French Baker
The future of publishing

This is my last blog until Sunday, 3rd September.
Bookworm on the Net is being suspended during July and August because I have a project in hand demanding my full attention and also because many people are on holiday, or spending more time out of doors and less time online, during those months.

Actually last Sunday's blog [25 June] was going to be the last one, but then Kirsteen Astor, Senior Publicity Manager at the Time Warner Book Group sent me a review copy of a marvellous book. I felt I must blog about it before the summer closure. A few days later I received another outstanding book.

The Plimsoll Sensation

The book sent by Kirsteen is The Plimsoll Sensation [subtitled The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea] by Nicolette Jones [see picture], published by Little, Brown on June 1st.

The author, educated at Oxford and Yale, is a journalist and broadcaster. In a Preface, she writes - "Once there was a cause that stirred a nation, nearly dislodged a prime minister and has since saved hundred of thousands of lives. It was taken up by parliamentarians, journalists, businessmen, trade unionists, novelists, playwrights, clergymen, caricaturists and music-hall performers. Its supporters flocked to meetings…It involved all classes…Florence Nightingale contributed money, Queen Victoria expressed sympathy…It is still commemorated in English idiom, in the names of streets and ships, in statues and plaques, in the logo of London Transport and in the gym shoes of British schoolchildren. And yet we hardly remember what it was all about."

She goes on - "This is how I came to find out. In 1995 I moved to a street of Victorian terraced houses, Plimsoll Road, in Finsbury Park, north London, a few doors down from a pub called the Plimsoll."

We then learn that when the pub changed hands and its name, the previous pub sign disappeared. But Nicolette Jones tracked it down and bought it for £20. "I wanted it because it illustrated the significance of the name of my street, but also, I think, because I knew it contained a story. I didn't know then how gripping and dramatic that story would turn out to be. Buying an ugly nautical pub sign launched me into research that revealed a tale of villiany and courage, of humour and surprises, of international consequences and contemporary resonance. It led me to a man who became my hero."

In the Introduction to the story, the author describes the appalling disaster that befell the London, an emigrant ship sailing for Australia in January 1866 with 220 passengers and 69 crew, plus a great deal of deck cargo. When she sailed out of the Thames, a seaman watching her pass Purfleet said, "It'll be her last voyage…she is too low down in the water, she'll never rise to a stiff sea." He was right. She sank in the Bay of Biscay. There were only 19 survivors.

What happened to the London befell many other "coffin ships". The sinkings and drownings, resulting from unscrupulous ship-owners not caring if ships were overloaded as long as the many disasters were covered by insurance, would have gone on much longer but for Samuel Plimsoll's crusade.

He was a remarkable man who, at 16, was left to support a mother and five younger siblings. Later he went from bankruptcy to ownership of a mansion in the space of nine years. I found the book absorbing on several levels, but the insights it gives into the behaviour of Members of Parliament in Queen Victoria's reign is particularly interesting at a time when many people have lost confidence in the probity of today's MPs of all parties.

It is also a handsome piece of book production, splendidly dust-jacketed and illustrated, with an appendix of songs and poems about Plimsoll and his campaign, a useful chronology and bibliography plus voluminous notes. This is a book to delight anyone who has been in the Royal Navy or the merchant service, or who has an affinity with the sea. It's the best "sea" book I've read since Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm came out in 1998.

Rory Maclean's Magic Bus

The email from Rory Maclean was headed Citadels of Light and read "Earlier this month John Updike spoke of "bookstores as citadels of light that civilize the neighbourhoods they are in". I ask you -- the good readers who have signed on to my mailing list -- to go now, to your nearest citadel, and to order a copy of Magic Bus.

I'm not asking you to buy it, just to help me to get it on to the shelves. Because of cut-throat high street competition and eroding profit margins, almost all UK bookstores now take few risks. Chain buyers want fast-selling titles with a celebrity tie-in or TV spin off. New orders of works by established writers are based on almost-religious submission to Nielsen BookScan, a data base which provides historical sales data. My previous book, Falling for Icarus, sold poorly in hardback in part because of distribution problems at Penguin. As a result, Penguin's sales reps have only been able to place a low number of copies of Magic Bus in the shops.

Your local bookshop won't loose out, even if you don't buy the copy. Publishers supply books on a sale-or-return basis. A book only succeeds if it reaches readers. Please help me to get Magic Bus on the shelves, to give it a chance to succeed, and to subvert an unimaginative and predictive system. yours ever Rory."

The effect on their authors of Penguin's distribution problems aroused a lot of sympathy, and I was sorry to hear that their reps have not persuaded many bookshops to take Magic Bus, sub-titled On the hippie trail from Istanbul to India. But word-of-mouth may succeed where they failed because this is a book of interest to everyone who has travelled, wants to travel, or is interested in the situation in Afghanistan. I wouldn't order a £17 book unless I intended to buy it. However, as I've had the good fortune to receive a review copy - which I've greatly enjoyed - I shall lend it to a bookseller in the hope that she will like it as much as I did and recommend it to customers.

Rory Maclean grew up in an era when it was normal for small boys "to climb trees, build camps and talk to strangers. The world felt vast, diverse and safe." Sadly that time has gone. "People became suspicious of unfamilar streets and lonely parks. We no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. We eyed our fellow men warily…"
But the adult Maclean writes that he "hungered for the perfect destination…then spring came, the great time of travelling, and I flew to Istanbul", the starting point for a 6,000-mile journey.

Until I read Magic Bus, I had forgotten about the Pudding Shop in Istanbul where, in 1992, I lunched with a group of walkers heading for southern Turkey and later used the restaurant for a scene in a romance called Turkish Delights. [Which might interest some readers of this blog because both the hero and heroine are publishers.]

The map at the front of Magic Bus shows the author's route from Istanbul to Kathmandu and it was interesting to compare my impressions of India and Nepal with his. But it's what he has to say about Afghanistan, and the people he met there, which makes the book special. How the hardback will sell remains to be seen, but I think it's a safe bet the paperback will do splendidly.

Remembering Evelyn Anthony

On the back cover flap of The Return [Hutchinson 1978] we read Evelyn Anthony started writing seriously in 1949 and before turning to espionage and psychological thrillers she wrote a succession of highly successful historical novels, all of which were widely translated and two of which became Literary Guild Choices in America. Married to the director of a mining company, she has six children and lives in Ireland."

By the time No Enemy But Time was published in 1987, the back flap text had been amplified. "Evelyn Anthony's books are translated into nineteen languages. She is married to the chairman of several public companies. They have four sons and two daughters, and live in a stately home in Essex. Her hobbies are gardening and listening to classical music."

Back in the Seventies, I sat next to Evelyn Anthony's husband at an East Anglian Writers' luncheon in Norwich at which she was the star speaker. He told me the huge red fox fur hat she was wearing was a present he had brought back from a business trip to Russia.

If any other EA enthusiasts should be reading this, I'd be interested to hear from them.

Laura Thompson on the repackaging of Jane A

On sunny Saturday mornings, we walk down to the Terrace Café overlooking St Peter Port harbour where I have a glass of wine instead of my usual bottle of spring water and read the Books section of The Daily Telegraph. Yesterday there was a splendid rant headed Austen's Power. It isn't readable online yet, but no doubt will be. At the Telegraph site, click on Arts & Entertainment, then Books, then type Laura Thompson in the search slot. Ms Thompson writes - "There is, in fact, a kind of epic wrongness about the recasting - reselling - of Jane Austen as a romantic novelist. It might have made her as popular as Helen Fielding, but it has led to a desperately etiolated perception of her books." She concludes her article - "But the landscape of what is seen in books is becoming increasingly impoverished. Indeed, it might be that the reality of literature no longer lies within its words. As Jane Austen flourishes, the literary sense that she possessed in its most refined form is slowly dying: the irony would have amused her."

Good stuff in The Spectator

On Friday I spent a happy half an hour with The Spectator in the Guille-Allès library reading room. Charles Moore was deploring the fact that when he attended the Samuel Johnson Prize dinner at the Savoy, four out of the ten people who should have been at his table were absent.

In a piece about book reviewing, Max Hastings wrote "This policy stinks, and debases the whole literary world." And Frederic Raphael was reviewing Enchantment : the Life of Audrey Hepburn. Sadly, I can't give you links to these pieces because most of the magazine's content is readable only by subscribers.

Walking across England

When I had finished reading Coast to Coast by Jan Minshull, Mr Bookworm, who has walked from St Bees on the west coast to Robin Hood's Bay on the east coast several times, also read it. He enjoyed the book but, like me, had reservations about the outcome of the story.

Confessions of a French Baker

I must mention the delightful little book which I spotted on the racks at the top of the imposing staircase in the Guille-Allès library on my way to the reading room. Confessions of a French Baker.

Surprisingly, considering the book came out on March 2, as yet there are no reviews at Amazon UK where I copied this summary - "In Cavaillon, there are seventeen bakers listed in the Pages Jaunes, but we had been told that one establishment was ahead of all the rest in terms of choice and excellence, a vertiable palais de pain. At Chez Auzet, so they said, the baking and eating of breads and pastries had been elevated to the status of a minor religion.' This was written in 1988 in one of Peter Mayle's notebooks as he researched A Year in Provence. And ever since his first visit, the Boulangerie Auzet has remained one of his favourite places in the world. Many more people came to visit the bakery after A Year in Provence was published, all wanting more than just bread. They wanted ingredients, recipes, tips - anything that might help them recreate Boulangerie Auzet in their own kitchens. Confessions of a French Baker will do just that. It will decribe how to make bread and pastries, the secret of handling dough correctly, the history of the shop, some anecdotes, hints and tips, in short, a way of bringing Boulangerie Auzet into your own home."
I'll post a review there when I have finished reading it.

The future of publishing

Finally, there's an excellent piece on this subject by Peter Collingridge at his blog to which I was steered by Grumpy Old Bookman.

That's all for now. If you'd like to be reminded when the blog re-starts, email me at with Bookworm reminder in the subject line. Meanwhile, the archives contain about 90,000 words of bookwormery, and you can use the search slot at the top of the screen to track references to subjects of interest to you. Au revoir - Anne