I loved this novel by Francis Spufford. I knew of the author because of his non- fiction work, especially ‘The Boy That Books Built’. I was not sure what to expect from his first work of fiction but I was bowled over by the balance of fun and seriousness. The book had a lot of exposure on publication and it has done well on the literary prize front but, best of all, it was a book that made me smile… many times.
A young man from London called Mr Smith arrives in the New York of 1746 with a letter or a ‘bill of exchange’ entitling him to a large sum of money. There are 60 days for the Manhattan bank to honour the bill, written by a banking house in London. The owners of the bank are suspicious and demand assurances before they will pay out, especially as the young man in front of them does not fit their idea of what a rich young nobleman should look like.
The story follows the ups and downs of Mr Smith as he waits for the 60 days to pass and for the assurances the bank seeks to arrive from London. In the manner of an 18th Century novel the young man goes through many adventures, telling us many things about the society of New York at that time. Slavery, sexuality, politics and class prejudices are all themes explored by following the immigrant from London make his way on Manhattan island. The title refers to the location of the banking house in New York.
The best thing about the book is that the author keeps us guessing, right up to the end. We are not privy to the reasons for Mr Smith’s arrival or answers to the question of what he will do with the money when, or if, it is granted. There are clues, I realised once I had finished, but the impetus to keep reading is strong. The ‘answer’ when it comes is both serious and satisfying and places the comedy in sharp relief.
‘Golden Hill’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I first read Nigel Barley’s account of his early anthropology field work in the 80s, not long after it was published in paperback. I read it again recently; my new regime of picking books by random cards threw up ‘re-read a book from the shelf’ and this was the one I chose.
The strangest thing was that I remembered it as a very funny book but, on this re-reading, I could not find the comedy at all. It was still a worthwhile reading since most of the substance I had completely forgotten.
Nigel Barley entered field work among the Dowayo people of Cameroon in Africa. The book shows the reality of life in the field and the extent to which the very cultural differences being studied can, themselves, cause problems with conducting the research. He spent a year among the people learning about their culture, something which was built around the concept of becoming a man through circumcision. He also shows how hard it is to complete a study without affecting the community by his very presence. He writes well on the contradictions of ‘them watching me while me watching them’!
I was amused at the way Barley decided on the Duwayo people for his study. It owed more to the idea that other parts of the world were ‘already taken’ or tied up in war or strife. His ‘choice’ was a good one, though, since the differences were suitably remarkable from the tonal language to the extreme style of circumcision. His study of the people is less frustrating that his dealing with the state bureaucracy; he needs to stay on the right side of the law to obtain the permits and visas necessary to stay. After 18 months, leaving is also a bureaucratic process!
I was glad to re-read the book and was amazed that I remembered so little of the detail, remembering instead the theme and tone of the book. It made me wonder how many other books on my shelf would also stand a second go at reading them.
In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
In London at Tate Britain to see an exhibition so I took the opportunity to re-visit some of my favourite works of art on display in the ‘Walk Through British Art’ galleries. The room I love most of all, in this chronological arrangement, is Room 1900 where the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian age is celebrated.
There are many works here that I admire but, on this occasion, I was keen to see a sculpture by James Havard Thomas, a sculptor active from the 1880s onwards until his death in 1921. The particular work is called ‘Lycidas’. It is a life-sized nude sculpture of a young man. His model was Antonio, his Italian servant from the time when the artist lived in Southern Italy. The work was rejected in 1905 by the Royal Academy as being too life- like and ordinary. What Antonio made of this rejection is not known!
In London, so off to Tate Britain to see the exhibition ‘Queer British Art: 1867- 1967’, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of legislation to partially decriminalise homosexuality. The gallery was heaving with visitors heading for the major David Hockney show; somewhat telling that a gay artist drew bigger crowds than this attempt to show how being gay influenced the art.
I had a few problems with this exhibition, the largest being that not all the artists featured were known to be gay. The suggestion that he or she might have been is just a posh version of what the awful tabloid newspapers do when they want to ‘suggest’ a person’s sexuality.
Having grown up in the 70s when being thought to be gay by others was enough to bring around the abuse, it was a bit disappointing to see the same (but more refined) approach being used on people who are long dead and cannot speak for themselves. Lord Leighton’s work is here which seems to be enough to decide he must have been gay. I take the point, made by the curator, that many paintings were coded to convey messages that would have been picked up by gay people but that does not mean that all the Victorian artists here were gay themselves.
The two paintings I loved rose above the rest, with only the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell from Reading Prison of equal poignancy. Lord Leighton’s ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ and Henry Scott Tuke’s ‘The Critics’ were stunning.