Friday, July 27, 2007

The Book Depository and ReadySteadyBook

Did you read Mark Thwaite's comment on Wednesday's blog about The Boy Who Loved Books? If you didn't, he wrote -

"I'm not a fan of Sutherland but, still, I'm disappointed that this isn't wholly about the "books he read from early childhood to his late teens." Surely, we don't need another misery memoir? And, surely, a book by a literary critic about the books that shaped him as a young man would appeal much more to what you would gather was Sutherland's target audience."

Clicking on Mark's name above his comment, I was taken to The Book Depository where, on the About Us page, I learned that the business was founded in 2004 "with the aim of making "All books available to All" through pioneering supply chain initiatives, republishing and digitizing of content. It is a continuing project, still in its infancy and one of the most ambitious ventures in the Book Industry."

"Currently The Book Depository is able to ship 1.3 million unique titles at keen prices from our fulfillment centre in Gloucester, United Kingdom (within 48 hours) and this figure grows and grows everyday. Apart from publishers, distributors and wholesalers we even list and supply books from other retailers! Amazingly we are also able to arrange the reprint of over 300,000 out of print titles which again we can dispatch from Gloucester within 48 hours."

Further down the page, I read – "Our Managing Director and Founder, Andrew Crawford was part of the start up team at Bookpages which in its time was the fastest growing online bookstore in Europe. When Amazon purchased Bookpages in 1998, he subsequently moved and helped to start up Amazon in Europe. Andrew looked at different ways of achieving his personal ambition of making as many books available as possible - and the result is The Book Depository!"

Mark Thwaite [see photo] is TBD's Managing Editor. A librarian by profession, he spent five years with Amazon UK before founding "the acclaimed literary website His writing has appeared in many journals including the TLS, Context and PN Review. If you have any interesting book-related news and/or you are a publisher wanting to suggest books for review, please email"

Later I discovered that Mark has an online literary journal at ReadySteadyBook.

Both these sites are packed with interesting articles and interviews I haven't had time to explore fully yet.

Looking for a photo of Mark, I came across an interview with him at
Simon Owens' Bloggasm
. Here's an extract -

"Simon Owens: You’ve said in a previous interview that you’re falling away from modern literary fiction. What is it about the genre that turns you off?

Mark Thwaite: Its lack of perspicacity, skill, wisdom, depth, relevance and artistry. I keep my eyes peeled for good, modern fiction (I’m always desperate to read a new, relevant voice), but, sad to say, there is very little new good stuff out there. Certainly, few British writers are up to much (there are some, of course: Tom McCarthy has started well; Gabriel Josipovici is a vital, ongoing presence; Dai Vaughan is vastly under-read), but mediocrity rules. I do see some fine modern works in translation, however. But British writers? Who are our most vaunted? Monica Ali and the war-apologist Ian McEwan? Please …"

If you're curious about the breed of Mark Thwaite's puppy - I thought she might be a very young husky - her name is Lola and she's a German Spitz (Mittel).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Antidote to all the depressing books around

If you're interested in art, check your public library's catalogue to see if they have a copy of High Relief, the autobiography, illustrated with more than 60 photographs, of sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler.

I came across a forgotten copy on our sitting room bookshelves and have been re-reading it as an antidote to the gloom and doom, in both fiction and non-fiction, coming my way recently. High Relief was published at 45 shillings for Country Life Books by The Hamlyn Publishing Group in 1968. I think I must have spotted it in Bibliophile's catalogue about 20 years later.

Although there is nothing about him on the Academy's website, Sir Charles Wheeler was the eighteenth President of the Royal Academy and the first sculptor to hold that office. But, more importantly in my view, he fell in love with his wife while still in his teens, was engaged to her for five years because they were too hard up to marry, and loved her all his life.

He writes – "I met Muriel Bourne first when I was 16 and when we were art students together at Wolverhampton… She had artists as forbears, I had none that I knew of."

And, on the next page – "Muriel and I studied in the Antique and Life rooms and in the same modelling studio, often working back to back. Sometimes we would collide in stepping back to look at our models. This was the beginning of a life long devotion which has been undimmed and undivided from then until now... The £100 [prize money] was about all I possessed and she married me on that in St Peter's Church, under the torture of whose practising bells we had sat many examinations together in the adjacent Wolverhampton Art School, and in whose lovely interior we had together made many drawings, labouring to improve our art. With what care and calculation we had to order our affairs few couples in these more affluent days can conceive. However, with pinching and her courage and care we got through some very lean times."

A little further on, we read – "I was often tempted then to vacate my studio, save the rent and take a safe teaching job. I was well qualified for that, but when I spoke of it she would never listen. 'The last thing you do,' she would say, 'is to give up your studio.' And so I held on till after about two years of Spartan living there was a knock one morning at the door of my Justice Walk studio. When I opened it I saw a short man standing in morning dress and wearing a tall silk hat. My first thought was – here is someone selling encyclopaedias, and then he handed me his card. On looking I was so astounded that I handed it back to him. It read 'Rudyard Kipling'. I've ever since regretted my stupidity for his card would have been a thing to treasure as it brought relief, not before it was needed, and from that day to this I have never lacked commissions."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not the memoir I was expecting

I'm beginning to wonder if publishers are pressing authors – the literary ones as well as commercial writers – to include best-selling elements in their books.

The thought occurred to me because Professor John Sutherland's memoir, The Boy Who Loved Books, is so different from the book I was expecting. I thought it would be largely about the books he read from early childhood to his late teens, but in fact it is more of a fashionable misery memoir.

It isn't until page 38 that he mentions having Wind in the Willows (sic) read to him by an American admirer of his war-widowed mother.

On p 44, Sutherland writes, "I recall my mother in London spending six shillings she could ill afford (or was not keen on parting with) on a book for me at the Marylebone W.H.Smith's. I must have been around eleven at the time. It was They Died with their Boots Clean by Gerald Kersh. I was at the station to be sent off to some relatives in Nottingham and nagged her for the book. It was, as she would see it, a sacrifice – but I was being discarded. And, now I think of it, the subject of Kersh's docunovel – patriotic guardsman undergoing basic training and preparing to be posted abroad – had a certain significance. He was not otherwise a writer I was interested in."

John Sutherland was born in 1938. In 1942 his father was killed in a Royal Air Force flying accident in South Africa. You might think that a four-year-old would quickly get over the loss of a parent. But his mother, whom he adored, put her interests before his. He was sent to live with relations in Scotland, ostensibly because of doodlebug air raids, but actually so that he should not witness "her intimacy with a man to whom she was not married."

There's a lot about class in this memoir. From the author's perspective, working class people were admirable, upper class people were not. Of the Rt. Hon Alec Douglas-Home, he writes, "He probably passed a dozen historical replicas of his vacuous, overbred physiognomy when he ascended the stairs every night to his four-poster."

I have no political leanings but was put off by that contemptuous reference to a man I thought totally trustworthy, more than can be said of many people involved in politics.

So, on several counts, the book is a disappointment with, at least for this reader, too much about the author's time as an alcoholic and not nearly enough about the books he read.

However, as I said at the beginning, it may be that his editor at John Murray pressed the professor to concentrate on the aspects of his life which would appeal to those who enjoy misery memoirs, and to cut out a lot of the bookish stuff he had intended to include.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Boy Who Loved Books

Last Friday I showed the jacket of The Boy Who Loved Books by John Sutherland.

It seems unlikely that any bookish person will not have heard of him and enjoyed his books
Is Heathcliff a murderer?
Can Jane Eyre be happy?
Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?

But in case you have not, read an article by him, published in The Guardian just over three years ago and headed -

"As John Sutherland prepares to leave the halls of academia, he reflects on the - good and bad - changes in higher education over the past 40 years"

When I read about his memoir The Boy Who Loved Books, my first thought was "Must buy that."

Second thought, on noticing the price was £16.99, was, "Chances are the G-A will have it so might as well wait for the paperback."

G-A is my mental shorthand for the Guille-Allès Public Library founded by Thomas Guille and Frederick Allès, two young Guernseymen who were apprentices in New York in the 1830s. Their experience of using the apprentices’ library in NY made them determined to provide something similar for Guernsey. In 1882 the two men realised their dream when they purchased the Assembly Rooms in Market Street in St Peter Port.

Checking the G-A's online catalogue showed that the book was in stock and borrowable. The blurb on the front jacket flap reads "This is the story of how books saved one man's life – twice" and, further down the flap, "…the story of one man's, often desperate, love affair with reading, with drink and with an adored, but absent, parent. Books in many ways changed John's life, propelling him to university, and sustaining him in the dark times that were to come. It is also a personal account of the shifting twentieth century and the profound changes that shook society, as well as what it was like to be a grammar-school boy, a national-service man and a redbrick graduate during this period."

My reaction to the book tomorrow.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Alfred Wainwright, Hunter Davies, Beatrix Potter

On Friday evening we watched Wainwright : The Man Who Loved The Lakes, a profile of the fell walker Alfred Wainwright.

Afterwards, on the sitting room bookshelves, I spotted A Walk Around the Lakes by Hunter Davies, hardbacked in 1979 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson at £6.95 which now seems dirt cheap for a book with maps as endpapers and 12 pages of illustrations.

Hunter Davies [see photo] was in the TV film about Wainwright but, when I opened the book, my attention was caught by a photograph of Belle Isle, built in 1774 and said to be the only circular house in England.

I was also interested by a reference to The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter being turned down by seven publishers.

As I've probably mentioned before, the Beatrix Potter books were among the delights of my early childhood but somehow I haven't got around to reading any of the biographies of their creator. I was sorry to learn from A Walk Around The Lakes that she had difficult parents.

They disapproved of her first engagement to Norman Warne, the son of her publisher who had changed his mind about her book after she had published it herself. Norman died of leukaemia soon after they became engaged.

Her parents were also against her engagement to William Heelis, a Lakeland solicitor, but eventually, in 1913 when she was 47, she married him.

I'm looking forward to reading The Tale of Mrs.William Heelis: Beatrix Potter by John E Heelis. A second paperback edition was published by Sutton in 2003. The Amazon UK synopsis reads –

"Much has been written about the life of Beatrix Potter, the celebrated children's author. Yet one area of her life that has been relatively undocumented is her relationship with Willie Heelis, to whom she was happily married for nearly 30 years. In this account of the Heelis family, which draws on a wealth of anecdotes from family and friends, the author, Willie's great-nephew John Heelis, casts a welcome perspective on this relationship - as well as tackling such controversial questions as whether Beatrix really did like children. Among the strengths of this edition are first-hand reminiscences of family and Lake District friends of the couple, including extensive extracts from some previously unpublished letters. These with the correspondence between Beatrix and Miss Louie Choyce written in the 1920s and 1930s, add to the information about Willie's and Beatrix's life together in Sawrey."