What I Read On My Holidays

The weather has been glorious for the last ten days. Bad weather’s always the biggest risk when you book a holiday in the UK, but we lucked out on our trip to Dorset. Those obscene 4 by 4 behemoths jam the narrow lanes but, otherwise, the county shows England at its most appealing. We had an Enid Blyton seaside holiday, interspersed with cream teas, long walks, fish suppers and trips to bookshops. This seems to be one county where the internet hasn’t yet closed down the majority of second hand bookshops. Browsing in them is, for me, one of life’s great joys. You never know what you’ll find. On our final day in Bridport, I got my hands on a book I’ve been after for 25 years, J.H.Prynne‘s first collection, “Force of Circumstance”, which he suppressed shortly after publication (I have a a thing about books suppressed by my favourite authors, for what they reveal). Prynne reputedly got hold of all the unsold copies and destroyed them himself. I could have bought this copy over the internet, but then I wouldn’t have been able to see for myself how clean it was, or bargain over the price. (“But what are the poems like?”, you ask. Let’s just say that they’re recognisably Prynne, but I can see why he doesn’t want them in the public domain. If you’re curious about the bloke who many think is our greatest living poet, you can now buy a revised, cheapish collected Poems that includes everything else.)

My summer has been dominated by funerals and it was a relief to get away. Regular readers will expect the holiday books round up, but the good weather meant I didn’t read quite as much as usual. That said, the holiday was bookended with two outstanding reads, a novel by Jonathon Smith called Night Windows and James Shapiro’s reconstruction of a crucial year in Shakespeare’s life: 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. The novel is a thriller about a London headmaster who is the victim of identity theft (something that evidently happened to Smith, a former head of English). A well written, thoughtful, intriguing page turner (Sue and I both read it in a day). I’ll be checking out his other novels. I’ve just reached the epilogue of Shapiro’s book, a superbly researched, revealing, absorbing recreation of Shakespeare’s life and career, showing him as a product of his time. I know this might sound worthy, but it’s a thoroughly engaging read, covering a year in which the Globe was built and the bard wrote my favourite two of his plays ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Hamlet’.

I’ve been reading Peter Porter’s terrific new collection of poems, ‘Afterburner’, Walter Mosley’s fine 50’s crime novel ‘Fearless Jones’ and Ellen Gilchrist’s story collection, ‘The Courts Of Love’ (somehow I’ve let myself fall two collections behind with Gilchrist, one or our finest short story writers, whose books are best read in sequence – I have the next two waiting on the shelf behind me). I also want to mention a fine book of essays that I devoured just before the holiday, Jonatham Letham’s ‘The Disappointment Artist’, one of those books that often had me silently shouting ‘me too, me too’. Particularly good is the title essay, about a writer I’d never heard of before, Edward Dahlberg, whose dyspeptic remarks include this one: “Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.”

I’ve got another few days off before I start marking MA dissertations and see if the novel I dreamt up on holiday has legs. But, finally, adieu to Martin. There’s been a busy burst of stuff on his website over the last couple of weeks (not least about Coleridge Cottage, which we visited on our way home yesterday – thanks to Derrick Woolf for his hospitality) but it’s now gone into hiatus. That’s because Martin, as I type, is on a plane to China, where he’ll be teaching English to university students for at least a year. I’ll miss him. Bon voyage, buddy.

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