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Previous Reading

This is a list of books that have dropped off the bottom of my My 'Current Reading' list in the right hand column. Obviously this only relates to reading in recent years - it would be fascinating to be able to list everything I've read since Rupert Bear books and Eagle annuals, but I can't.

I've given everything a star rating: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2*  didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. The list below is roughly in star order. Most score highly because I try to avoid books I don't like.
Ian Jack
The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989-2009 (5*)
Paul Kingsnorth 
Real England: the Battle Against the Bland (4*)

Both books observe how Britain has changed during the last half century.
Paul Kingsnorth is concerned about the march of corporate consumerism and how it replaces all things distinctive and different with things uniform and meaningless, be they shops, town centres, pubs, canals, farms, orchards, the countryside or communities. He rejects accusations of nostalgia or being anti-progress. His concerns are about the replacement of the good with the not-so-good, and the loss of value and our identities.

Ian Jack is probably the writer I would most like to be. His collection of long and short pieces also compares then with now, evocatively merging fact with personal experience. I was especially moved by his analyses of the ideological changes that led to the Hatfield rail crash, the changes to Dunfermline high street, and the demise of the cinemas in Farnworth, Lancashire. There seems little risk of Ian Jack losing his identity - he maintains it through his writing - but in the end he exemplifies Kingsnorth's concerns. (2015)

L. P. Hartley
The Go-Between (5*)
Graeme Simsion
The Rosie Project (4*)

Leslie Poles Hartley's novel begins with the well known line "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." One might imagine I identify with the teller of the story, a man in his mid-sixties who remembers a particular summer in his childhood that had a profoundly damaging effect upon the rest of his life, but thankfully I don't consider myself to be very much like him at all. It's an impressive book though. Actually I identify far more closely with the protagonist of Graeme Simsion's highly amusing book, The Rosie Project, because I am pretty sure I fall somewhere well along the same psychological spectrum, as you might guess from my obsession with objects and details. (2013-2014)

Jacob Bronowski
The Ascent of Man (5*)
I give this 5* because I have indeed read it over and over again, possibly six times, since I bought it in 1975, through which it became of considerable personal influence. Reading it again now, perhaps it has lost a little of its freshness, but I remain in awe of Bronowski's encyclopaedic knowledge and ability to explain things. I keep wondering whether to buy the DVDs, or whether that would spoil it for me. (August 2015)
I have since written a post about this book

Michael Holroyd
Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (5*)
A big book and not one to hurry. I have read it at least four times, twice in the 1973 version and twice in this 1994 edition. You become absorbed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group during the period 1900-1930. Lytton Strachey was one of the most interesting members, in some ways quite inspirational. (October 2015)
I have since written a post about this book

Alan Bennett
Writing Home (4*)
Untold Stories (4*)

Writing Home is a miscellaneous collection of autobiography, memoir, diaries, book reviews, prefaces to published plays etc., mainly from the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. It includes the original, enjoyable account of the recently filmed 'The Lady in the Van', hilarious memories of Russell Harty and diary extracts from periods during filming. (June 2016)

Untold Stories is similar. It begins with a revealing and fascinating memoir of growing up in Leeds during the nineteen thirties and forties, followed by diary extracts from 1996-2004. The last third is a collection of pieces about the theatre, broadcast media, art and architecture, and three more recent experiences, including his treatment for cancer. Both books interest and entertain throughout. (November 2016)
 
Owen Jones 
The Establishment And how they get away with it (4*)
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (4*)

Explains how the powerful are able to ignore the electorate and manipulate things for their own benefit. You'll never watch the news in the same way again. Essential for anyone pissed off with how the wealth is being fracked out of society leaving only the shafted bedrock behind. It leaves little hope so long as things continue as they are. (February 2016)

Chavs is Jones's earlier book. If you only suspect that successive governments have gravely failed to look after the ordinary population as they should, this will confirm it. As someone from an ordinary background who prospered despite a false career start, I doubt I would be able to do the same again now that things are so stacked against those without the advantages of wealth and class. Even truer for Alan Johnson, below. (September 2016)

Alan Johnson
This Boy: A Memoir of Childhood (4*)
Please, Mr. Postman: a Memoir (3*)
Alan Johnson is well-known as a politician but these memoirs are far more social than political, and rather good. I wish we could be confident that someone from his ordinary and actually rather deprived background could still achieve similar things today. (2014)

Gervase Phinn
Road to the Dales (4*)
Gervaise Phinn’s entertaining books about life as a Yorkshire teacher and schools' inspector are best sellers. Here he no less amusingly remembers his early life in Rotherham. Some chapters about his relatives drag a bit, but the tales of his childhood in the nineteen-fifties have countless laugh-out loud moments and vivid contemporary memories. 

It is edifying to see how someone so accomplished handles this kind of material, and interesting to compare Gervase Phinn with Bill Bryson (below). Both are among Amazon's best selling authors, but apart from the difference that one writes mainly memoir and the other travel, both produce a similar kind of light humour. For me Phinn is much the better writer. He really is a fantastic story teller and describer of people, with a truly original gift for language - e.g. he describes taking a girl to see a scary film, throughout which she clung to him "like a Whitby limpet." The trouble is that if you Google that you'll see he has used that expression in other tales too. Bryson also outsells Phinn, probably because he paints on a broad canvas whereas Phinn is much more parochial. (July 2016)

Bill Bryson
One Summer: America 1927 (4*)
The Road to Little Dribbling (4*)

One Summer is an account of a summer when rather a lot happened, much of historical significance. You have to admire Bill Bryson for organising so much material in such a readable and entertaining way, but as an English reader I might have liked less about baseball. As noted above, it is interesting to compare Bill Bryson with Gervase Phinn. (May 2015)

Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling is a follow up to Notes From a Small Island published twenty years earlier, both based on travels around his "adopted country" of Britain. He has the ability to rant about all kinds of ridiculous and scandalous things in the most amusing way while revealing things about your own country you never knew, even about places you thought you did know. (August 2016)

Roy Hattersley
Goodbye to Yorkshire (4*)
Many will remember Roy Hattersley as a senior Labour politician from Sheffield. His intelligence and erudition radiate from every metaphor, contrast and description in this collection of twenty two essays about the fading concept of Yorkshire-ness, first published in 1976. I enjoyed some of them immensely, especially the more autobiographical pieces, but others seem in places rather forced or even maudlin. Worthwhile if you make the effort. (July 2015)

Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (4*)
Andrew Motion
Silver: Return to Treasure Island (3*)

I read these while putting together the 'Talk Like A Pirate' post. Treasure Island is exciting, despite being published in the 1880s. Andrew Motion has written a worthy sequel - the first half is impressive with the kind of suspense, imagery and mastery of language you would expect from a Poet Laureate, but I feel the story gets a bit tangled up in itself during the second half. (November-December 2014).


Alistair Cooke
Letter From America 1946-2004 (3*)
America (4*)

I used to love Letter from America on Radio 4 at Sunday breakfast, and always said "Good Morning" before him so it sounded as if he returned the greeting. But despite being intelligent, informative and beautifully phrased, the wordy and soft-focused style belies an intensity of detail. Perhaps these pieces are better heard, or dipped into rather than read all at once. (March 2016)

America is much easier. I acquired this soon after it came out to accompany a BBC television series in 1973, but never got round to reading it. Then someone borrowed and kept it. I now have another copy and what a super book it is. I skipped some of the stuff about the politics of the union, but the story of the explorers, settlers and entrepreneurs is riveting - with some incredible photographs too. (December 2016)

David Kynaston
Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (3*)
Family Britain 1951-1957 (3*)
Modernity Britain (Book 2) 1959-1962 (3*)
see below

Dominic Sandbrook
Never had it so good : A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (4*)
White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1970 (4*)
State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (4*)
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (4*)

I am gradually reading through the enormous Kynaston and Sandbrook tomes - not to be undertaken lightly as one of them recently took me most of the summer. They are worth the effort though. I find Sandbrook for the most part more entertaining, but Kynaston is arguably the more impressive, especially in the rich tapestries he weaves from disparate events all occurring on the same day. (2012-2015) 

Thomas Hardy
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (4*)
We recently went to see the new 'Far From The Madding Crowd' film (as good as the 1967 version with Julie Christie but why make it again?) and as 'Tess' is a free Kindle download I decided to immerse myself again in Hardy's rural nineteenth century England, one I hadn't read before. In 'Madding' whenever anything begins to go wrong it turns out right, but in 'Tess' it's the other way round - everything that starts to go right goes wrong. Outstanding novel but a sad tale. (June 2015)

Barbara Pym
Quartet in Autumn (4*)
This initially seemed a dull book about four elderly people who work in the same office, all approaching retirement. I picked it up during the process of sorting out books to take to the charity shop, began reading, and was hooked by the author's gentle humour. The author was a favourite of Philip Larkin. This was one of her last novels. It was published in 1977 and made the Booker shortlist.

Colin Thubron
In Siberia (4*)
His landscape descriptions, second to none, immerse you in this vast frozen, mysterious region (the statistics are beyond belief) to catch the imagination like an alien world. Some parts must be like Britain before civilisation, just after the ice age. Others sound like life after civilisation ends. This account of the author's encounters and places he visits is moving and fascinating, the ways of life often very different, but rather him than me. Perhaps I'm just not a traveller at heart. (November 2015)

Saroo Brierley
A Long Way Home (also titled 'Lion') (4*)
A remarkable true story, recently retold in the film 'Lion', about the search for his birth family by a man from India who years earlier had been adopted by Tasmanian foster parents after becoming hopelessly lost on the Indian railways at the age of five. The book tells the fuller and more accurate version of the incredible story. The writing is fairly artless, but I thoroughly enjoyed this uplifting tale.

Anne Brontë:
Agnes Grey (3*)
A couple of recent articles about the 'other' Brontë sister led me to look at this novel for the first time. Anne Brontë's 'governess' story may not have the raw power of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre but it draws attention to issues of class, the oppression and abuse of women, vanity and callousness as it pulls you along to a happy ending. A good read. (February 2017)

Christopher Evans
The Mighty Micro (3*)
In this 1979 book and associated television series, Dr. Christopher Evans predicted how life would be just twenty-one years later, in the year 2000, because of the forthcoming computer revolution. It is interesting to compare these predictions to what actually did happen, and to what has happened since, and reflect upon reasons for the differences. He definitely overestimated the pace of change, and was in other ways perhaps more wrong than right, but these are matters for a blog post. Evans did not himself live to find out how correct he was. He died even before the series was broadcast. Unusually for a second-time read, I can only now give this two stars - it does not stand the test of time well unless you are interested in making the comparisons I mention, in which case perhaps it scores a 3. (January 2016)

H. G. Wells
The World of William Clissold (3*)
If H G Wells could have written a blog, it might have been something like The World of William Clissold. It takes the form of a six-book novel, purportedly the story of how William Clissold and his brother Dickon became rich men of influence connected to just about every influential figure from the early twentieth century. However, by far the majority of the novel consists of didactic diversions into a world view, a “Wellsian philosophy”, which encompasses everything from politics to sociology, economics to education, sexuality to psychoanalysis, all pointing towards the development of a new world order, a corporate “open conspiracy” which gives rise to a self-organising, free-market “World Republic” independent of inward-looking national interests. It showcases the progressive ideas of its time, some of which would still be regarded as progressive today. It requires real perseverance to follow it all the way through. (April 2017)

P. J. Kavanagh
The Perfect Stranger: A Memoir of Love and Survival (3*)
I felt I should take a look at this acclaimed memoir which was first published in 1966 and then again on no less than three subsequent occasions, latterly this year. It hurtles rapidly through school, Butlin's, post-war Paris, Korea, Oxford, Barcelona and Jakarta, all within a relatively short time span. In places I found it absorbing and moving, but other parts were a slog. Perhaps its aim (as expressed in the 1995 foreword) of sharing the universal facts of love and death is too literary for my quotidian tastes (July 2015)

Milan Kundera
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (2*)
I feel a failure with this novel. It is said to be a brilliant modern classic which we should all read to reassess our own lives and attitudes. I gave up half way through. It is supposed to be deeply philosophical, challenging Nietzsche's idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum, instead contending that we have only one life which occurs once and never again. I've no problem with philosphical books, but this is bollocks. I found the characters robotic and degenerate. If I had any interest in them at all, it was to dislike them intensely. (March 2017)

Nicholas Crane
The Making of the British Landscape (2*)
I was so much looking forward to reading this book by the popular television geographer, but I am sorry to say I did not get on very well with it at all. The author makes reference to an enormous number of locations, frequently comparing different parts of the country, yet much of the time he uses archaic or local place names that leave you wondering where they actually are. It might help if there were maps, but there are none, not even of Doggerland, the region now submerged under the North Sea which had so great an influence on the making of what we now know as Britain. On top of this, the prose is difficult to read, some would say turgid, largely in the past passive voice with long lists. The book could have been lyrical and popular or thorough and academic, but in falling in between it is neither. He is no W. G. Hoskins. (December 2015)

David Lodge
Quite a Good Time to be Born. A Memoir 1935-1975 (1*)
Having previously enjoyed David Lodge's novels with their wonderful humour, I am sorry to say I found this tedious and gave up. Do we really really want to know the detail of the life experiences that re-emerged in his fiction? It might get better later on, but he's lost me. (April 2015)


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