Posted in Reading on Tuesday 11th May 2004 at 7:47am
I really enjoyed 'The Victorians', Wilson's last effort. It seemed to link the dominant themes of the Victorian era effortlessly - even when they seemed at odds (grinding poverty and the pursuit of culture for example). It avoided the 'lots of important men invented big things' mentality of many recent reviews of the 19th Century both in print and on television.
So, I had high hopes for this accurately titled little book. Its size certainly concerned me however. After the weight and authority of Stephen Inwood's 'History of London' and the sheer overwhelming emotional sweep of Peter Ackroyd's 'London - A Biography', one expects more pages from a history of London. From the outset however, it is clear that this is a different kind of book. Wilson's breezy dash through the accepted version of the history of London rarely digresses into the underbelly. Nods to Booth and Mayhew accept poverty as a given, and in a traditional 'history book' style the people of the city and the buildings and infrastructure are rarely related by Wilson.
By the middle of the book we are in the Second World War, and the book begins to change. From here in, Wilson becomes entagled in immigration, cultural diversity and modern architechture. He seems uncertain where he stands on any of the topics, and settles on padding out a variety of statistics on immigration, crime and transport with some pictures of buildings he deems 'silly'. In a sense Wilson is reflecting the quiet and rarely expressed ambivalence that British people feel here - wanting to accept a cosmopolitan society but terrified and misled by media representations of the 'unknown' of Islam for example. However, it seems to me that nowhere is this tension brought more to the fore than in modern London - and nowhere is it more often successfully resolved. Wilson, rather typically dwells on the incidents which have caused death and controversy, revisiting the crime scenes but drawing no conclusions. I sense that Wilson wants to say some controversial things here, but is very aware of the sort of people who read his work. He strikes a safe middle ground between Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, and besides a deep dislike for Ken Livingstone, doesn't give away any secrets.
Perhaps I expect more from a London book because I receive more from the city? In the closing chapter Wilson in fairness, does hint at the secret history of London, the dead who walk the ancient pattern of streets along with the living. Perhaps too, I'm far more prepared to accept the past as a rather closer neighbour than Wilson does, because I don't (indeed as Wilson justly points out couldn't afford to) live in modern London?
I am often accused of living in the past, which is a fair and accurate charge. This book however, by taking what seems a deliberately inconclusive position on the difficulties of a modern capital city, falls short of living in the present.
Posted in Reading on Thursday 1st April 2004 at 11:41pm
I took the opportunity during my visit to Wakefield yesterday to take some pictures of Gissing's birthplace at 60 Westgate. I've placed the gallery here
Posted in Reading on Saturday 1st November 2003 at 11:12pm
Reading voraciously this week. Still of course an increasingly tall stack of unread books, but I've managed to dismiss a few.
Firstly, finally finished A N Wilson's 'The Victorians' - something I'd be reading 'in the background' for some time. As it accelerated into the vortex of the fin de siecle it all began to make sense. Refreshing to read a book about the 19th Century which dwells more in the realms of personality and culture, than in the endlessly rehashed industrial achievements of the age.
Over a couple of days I read Peter Ackroyd's 'Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem'. As always, a new twist on old and familiar tales. I always learn something mysterious and interesting from Ackroyd's novels, and this was no different. Wasn't sure how I'd feel about a cameo appearance by a fictional George Gissing and Karl Marx, but surprisingly they survived the novel without being compromised by Ackroyd's characterization. Moving on to his new 'Clerkenwell Tales' now, which I've heard is poor, but shows (from my blinkered viewpoint) early promise...
Posted in Reading on Sunday 31st August 2003 at 5:20pm
As ever, rattled through Coupland's latest at a fair old rate. The strange sunny SSRI-induced sheen which has settled on all his other work is missing this time. It's all a bit bleak and unresolved. The story is told by four characters, in dated sections - reminiscent of William Faulkner's methods in 'The Sound and the Fury'. Each section documents the writer's life since a Columbine-like high school massacre for people who will likely never read the resulting letter or journal.
Like always, Coupland is an accurate cultural barometer - the span of the book (1988-2002) gives him scope to explore the decay of spiritual values over the past few decades. Perhaps the most optimistic transformation of the novel occurs for Reg - who starts out a repressed and repressing father with irrationally literal religious views, and ends up as a tired old man, full of doubt and fear but somehow far more human.
The beautiful descriptions of Coupland's native Vancouver are here as always, along with some acute and sentimental observations about how we lived in the recent past.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.