The battle of the backlands

I have been woefully neglectful of this blog and of other aspects of life this week, having spent the majority of my time in an overheated council chamber in Wood Green, listening to a planning inquiry. This was a lot more interesting than I imagine it sounds – in fact it was great fun. For the last ten years my neighbours and I have been fighting to prevent houses from being built on a small strip of land behind our back gardens, and this was the latest battle in an epic war which has seen more twists, setbacks, victories and defeats than your average international conflict. It’s been the David of our little residents’ group against the Goliath of this particular developer, and so far we’ve won. Although who knows what the Government Inspector at this inquiry will conclude.

I’ll spare you the details, but one tiny aspect of the case has caught my attention. During the course of the inquiry the developers consistently mispronounced the name of one of the roads involved in the case. The road is ‘Cecile Park’; everyone calls it Cecil, as in Cecil Beaton, SES-ul. The opposition have been saying the more feminine se-SEAL, which to be fair is more true to the spelling, but is unbearably pretentious when said out loud. Plus it’s simply wrong.  They have bent reality in a lot of ways, wrongly drawing the site to fit their own purposes, fudging details and making outrageous unsubstantiated claims, but nothing rankles as much with me than this mispronunciation.

This may seem like a tiny point, but after hearing the two pronunciations clash across the council chamber for three days it seems to have become, to me, the heart of the matter. One of the battles won in the past has been over whether the site itself is called ‘Cecile Mews’, as the developers kept saying. The site has no name; it is not a mews, it’s a row of garages behind our homes. Calling it seSEAL Mews was the developer’s way of claiming that the tiny site is a proper road, suitable for housing.

Once we won that battle – no one calls it a mews anymore – the wrangling over names seems to have become a more subconscious part of the overall war. The main clash in this inquiry was over two realities – the developer’s version versus the council and the residents’ versions, SESul versus seSEAL.  We have each staked claim on the land by naming it, but the difference is that ours is the true name whereas the opposition’s is a skewed, pretentious mistake.

Ours is one of the few undeveloped sites left in the area. We may yet have seSEAL Mews imposed upon us. It would be a loss of more than a precious open space; it would be the triumph of a mispronunciation, an alien reality. And that would be a great shame.


Paris Peasant

I’ve been reading Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant in small doses for the last couple of days. I’ve delayed posting about it because I haven’t had anything to say yet – except for the obvious ‘it’s very odd’. Walter Benjamin describes having a dizzy sort of feeling when he read it, to which I can now relate. I get a dizzy feeling reading Walter Benjamin sometimes – a cross between a maze-like sensation and a sort of vertigo – so when reading the surrealist novel that gave WB this feeling the effect is amplified.

It’s an exciting feeling – the sensation of possibilities opening up – but it doesn’t leave much room for a more rational, coherent response. That will have to come later.

An unfortunate oversight

I realised a while after I posted on illustrated books that I forgot one rather obvious thing: graphic novels. Grown up comic books, in other words. I haven’t read many, so as yet I have rather ambivalent feelings. I like Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco and I really enjoyed the graphic novel version I have of Kafka’s The Trial (David Zane Mairowitz and Chantal Montellier). And when I was growing up I really liked Tintin.

When you read a graphic novel it can bring about that childlike state of concentration I described badly below, when reading becomes a physical sensation as well as a mental process. But some, in their effort to be seen as ‘serious’ works of literature, are constructed in such a way as to dampen this sensation, which is a shame, as it is this difficult-to-describe, hypnotic effect that I think is the real power of graphic novels.

I saw the film version of Persepolis the other night, which was fantastic, although I still haven’t read the book. Pictures open up other dimensions in texts, and graphic novels are perhaps the best exploitation of this. I can’t believe I forgot about them when I was writing before.


I’m an enormous fan of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, which I read in one go – I think they worked very well together. But then while I was reading Joseph Roth’s ‘What I Saw’, a collection of his descriptions of interwar Berlin, I read a sneering comment in the introduction about Isherwood’s being a fantasy Berlin, and how you should only read Roth, the ‘authentic’ document of 30s Berlin.

When I read this I felt a little smaller for having my taste for Isherwood corrected, but then, a while afterwards, I thought: but that’s the point of Isherwood. He’s not trying to document the authentic Berlin; his is a world of over-the-top characters, of excess, of fantasy. It would be wrong if he was trying to set himself up as the impartial eye of the times, the outside observer, but that’s not a claim I think he makes. Isherwood’s Berlin is about consciously turning a blind eye to the chaos, or celebrating the chaos, somehow both at once. Roth is about confronting, analysing, documenting.

I loved Roth’s feuilletons because they are extremely rich and evocative, and incredibly clear-sighted considering he was writing in the middle of it all. But I love Isherwood too, and I don’t see why there isn’t space for both on a bookshelf. And Berlin Alexanderplatz too, except I haven’t read that yet.

Illustrated books

When you are a kid there are a couple of huge reading milestones. The first is being able to read at all; then, after a while, there is the magnificent graduation on to ‘chapter books’ which look like grown-up books although thinner and with a huge font size; then there’s the final stage, the move to chapter books without pictures. This is the ultimate transition. All the kids I’ve looked after who passed this point have coming shuffling up at the time to show me what book they’re reading, proudly pointing out the thickness, the subject matter, the important absence.

child reading

After that stage you rarely pick up a book with pictures in it. I’m reading a biography of Virginia Woolf now and, as usual, the few pictures are confined to the inserts thrust together on shiny pages towards the middle; you look at them separately to reading the text. Books with pictures are coffee-table books or art books, enormous things you can’t read on the tube. Fiction – serious grown-up fiction – has no pictures.

The exception is W.G. Sebald, who shows how effective photos can be in fiction (thanks to Katia for introducing me to his work). Illustrations of what you are meant to think the characters look like would be terrible dictatorial things, and quite wrong, but the evocative photos Sebald uses is embedded into the text, enriching it.


Apart from this we’ve become a lot more sniffy about book illustrations than in the past. Once the transition has taken place, we seem to get stuck in the ten-year-old mentality that pictures are for younger siblings who can’t read proper books. I think it’s a shame; I keep almost buying the facsimile edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience which includes his original illustrations; it looks like treasure.


Medieval books – illustrated Bibles and Korans – are always a treat to look at. Not every book would suit illustrations, but many more would than we have now, and it would bring back more of the wonder of reading, that particular quality of concentration that seems easy for children but impossible for adults to achieve.

Free(ish) speech

Three stories in the news this week seem to be sort of about the same thing: the questions over having the BNP on Question Time, over allowing some Dutch nutjob MP into the country, and the stupid comments made by a hack from the Mail about the ‘unnatural’ death of Steven Gately.

My mum got into a tiff with someone outside a tube station who wanted her to sign a petition calling for the BNP to be banned from Question Time: she refused on Voltairean grounds. Extending freedom of speech only to those whose opinions you agree with seems an odd definition of the concept.

The problem isn’t that people give voice to their ignorant, ill-informed, reactionary opinions, it’s that they have them in the first place. Given that a small minority of people do spout dangerous bollocks on different subjects, it is much better that they do so in the light of day, where they can be answered, scrutinised, and mocked – especially mocked – than if they were to be hounded underground by a pack of illiberal lefties who seem mainly interested in displaying to the world the righteousness of their own anger than in combating the underlying problems that parties like the BNP exploit. A hidden organisation is a hundred times more dangerous than an idiot being tolerated on Question Time can ever be.

Free speech should not be entirely limitless, of course; it should not incite violence. But I can’t find a better example of the self-correcting nature of this freedom than the case of the Gately furore also in the news this week. No sooner had the hack in question aired her deeply suspect, not-so-thinly veiled homophobia than the complaints started flooding in – her stupidity has been broadcast all over the internet. What is best? If people don’t openly express their bigoted opinions, or if these opinions are challenged and confronted in public whenever they arise?

The only reason that the ridiculous Dutch MP has had any press coverage is because he was temporarily prevented from coming into the country. Now he has a national platform to broadcast his racist views. Trying to stop him from entering is a child’s answer to the problem – it’s sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling ‘la la la – I can’t hear you.’ Better for him to come, say what he thinks he must, get heckled, mocked and booed, and piss off again without many people knowing he was ever here.

I think that the best thing people could do to combat the BNP is to join it. I mean everyone in the whole country. Then at the next party conference, have an open and honest debate, vote Katie Price or someone in as leader, overturn their entire manifesto and then in six months’ time call for the party to be disbanded. Then every time another similar party pops up, do it again. Democracy in action, or something like it.

How to avoid lending books

In answer to the quibbler’s request for advice on how to avoid lending a book to an unreliable borrower, here is a list of possible excuses that can be employed in that situation. This is a fraught bit of book etiquette in itself.

Possible replies:

1) The white lie:  “I can’t, it’s not mine. I borrowed it from a friend.” This only works of course if the book in question doesn’t have a bookplate with your name on it in the front.

2) The honest (ish) approach: “I’m sorry, but I don’t lend books. I’ve had too many unreturned and it gets awkward so now I don’t do it at all. Not that I don’t think you’d take care of it, of course…”

3) The prevarication: “Yes, of course you can borrow it. I’ve promised X that they can have it next, but after that I’ll give it to you.” Then hope they forget about it; if they ask again later say “X has still got it: they’re terrible at returning books.”

4) The slightly confrontational approach: “Oh, so you’ve finished my War and Peace then? Could I have it back?”

5) The ‘I don’t care if I never see you again’ approach: “No, because last time the book came back looking like a hamster had nested in it.”

Can anyone think of any more?

The Rules of Borrowing Books

‘The World of Yesterday’ has a very fond description of Rilke, who comes over as a softly-spoken, beauty-loving man: “all that was vulgar was unbearable to him, and although he lived in restricted circumstances, his clothes always gave evidence of care, cleanliness, and good taste. At the same time they showed thought and poetic imagination: they were a masterpiece of unpretension, always with an unobtrusive personal touch, a little something additional that gave him pleasure, such as perhaps a thin silver bracelet around his wrist.” (University of Nebraska Press 1964 p. 142)

He goes on to say: “If you lent him a book with which he was unfamiliar, it was returned faultlessly wrapped in tissue paper and tied with coloured ribbon like a gift.” (p. 145) I read this and thought how fantastic.


Book borrowing is a funny thing. Many a friendship has been ruined by an unreturned volume; lifelong grudges form. For some reason people seem to think that different rules apply to book borrowing than to other forms of sharing, as if a book doesn’t entirely count as a real property. This is, of course, ridiculous. Borrowing a book is a good thing – keeping the book for a long time is a fine thing, especially if the lender has overstuffed shelves to begin with – but there must be limits. So here they are:

1) Always return a borrowed book.

2) Return the book in the state you received it. Maybe the Rilke thing is going too far, but don’t dog-ear, underline or highlight. I personally don’t like the spines of my books to be cracked by anyone other than myself, but I’ve been told that’s a bit extreme.

3) If some awful accident does happen to the book, replace it. Don’t just vaguely offer: the lender, unless they’re an unusually forthright bookperson, will demure when you hand over some forlorn cat-piss stained, coffee-ringed, shell-of-its-former-self novel. They’ll say ‘oh no, it’s fine’ then go off and stick forks into a voodoo doll of you.

4) Prolonged Retention of Books. The etiquette of books borrowed for prolonged periods of time is a minefield. If you’ve read the book but keep forgetting to return it, that’s one thing: usually nature eventually takes its course. The trouble starts if you haven’t read it.

Sometimes a book is forced over-enthusiastically upon you and your heart sinks: there are only so many books in the world and you have only so much reading in your life, and yet you’re expected to sacrifice some of that eyework to something in which you have no interest. In this case, you either have to grit your teeth and read it, or else keep the book a reasonable length of time, flick through it, look it up on Amazon to read a couple of reviews, then return it with a white lie. This second option can use up as much effort as the first, and leaves you with a nasty sensation of guilt at the lie and a lingering nag that you might have missed out on a lifechanging experience. Although sometimes you just know you’re going to hate something, so this is the only option.

On the other hand, you might have quite willingly received the book and fully intend to read it, but just not at the moment, for whatever reason: life doesn’t permit leisure reading, or it doesn’t fit with the theme you are pursuing. In that case, warn the lender at the time that you might not be able to tackle it for a while, then periodically mention the book to them so they know you haven’t either forgotten about it or absorbed it into your own library. If it’s getting ridiculous, and you’ve had it a couple of years, then return it, saying that someone gave you another copy as a present. Then, if in the distant future you still want to read it, buy the damn thing.

5) Don’t Chain Lend. Chain lending is when you lend out a book you’ve borrowed from someone else. If everyone did this the world would descend into chaos within a week: everyone would lose track of who owned what book. This might sound like a book-utopia of free access to everything but I suspect the books would just all end up in one place.

Anyway. Rilke sounds nice.

The semi-autobiography of a semi-prophet

New reading list: Signpost books, those with place names in the title.

I’ve finished Zweig’s ‘The World of Yesterday’ – he’s made several more guest appearances. It is a fascinating portrait of an era, or rather several eras, as Zweig points out: fin de siecle, war, interwar, war again.

You could make a strong case for this autobiography as an example of trauma writing, although I’m not particularly saying this because he committed suicide shortly after completing it. But instead of the usual fragmentation of the self that is seen as a mark of trauma writing, this book contains more of a submerged self, a self that is overwhelmed by history. As well as being a sign of his private nature, the lack of personal detail in the autobiography can be read as a sign of the impact of totalitarianism, where nothing is personal; although I’m on shakier ground here as he never actually lived in a totalitarian state, it can certainly be argued that he felt the impact of his century’s shift to totalitarianism.

He writes about having once been successful, having once had fame as a writer, before his books were burned in Nazi Germany; his identity as a writer is swept away, just as his prized collection of other writers’ manuscripts is dispersed before he goes into exile (which is, come to think of it, a fragmentation). The continuity of life is broken up: he writes about having had ‘lives’ rather than a singular ‘life’. His overarching struggle was an attempt at the cultural unification of Europe, at emphasising philosophical, artistic and cultural similarities over differences, at developing links between the writers, artists and composers of all countries on the Continent (not so much the U.K.) as a way of combating the destructive spread of nationalism which had destroyed the peaceful world of his youth.

Zweig strongly identified with the fifteenth century scholar Erasmus, who was condemned to see both sides of the argument and thus be vilified by almost everyone during the Reformation. Erasmus, he felt, saw the danger inherent in the religious territorialism which broke out after Luther, leading to war: his fate was that of an ignored prophet. Likewise Zweig at the beginning of the Great War could see the destruction that was to come, but was condemned as unpatriotic when he spoke out against it. Balint Abady from Banffy’s The Writing on the Wall is in a similar position at the end of that trilogy, and his character is said to be close to Banffy himself in terms of opinions.

It’s the fate of prophets only to be heard when they have been proven correct by history. But then, paradoxically, often if they were to be heard, the course of history would change, and they would no longer be prophets.

Plus, as it turns out, Zweig lived for a bit in Bath, so it’s no wonder I like him.