Landmarks and word-hoards

20170717_090621“This book is about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place. … Landmarks has been years in the making. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the work of writers who use words exactly and exactingly when describing landscape and natural life.” (Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, Penguin Books, 2016, p. 1).

MacFarlane’s book is in the genre of ‘nature writing’ that seems to be enjoying a renaissance now – or perhaps it has been there but has recently become more mainstream. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is an early exponent of the genre (originally published 1788, my Folio Society edition is from 1994 – it was an unbound copy which I bound myself. However I haven’t read it!). Continue reading


Women’s destiny in the year 2000 (as seen from 1889)

Sir Julius Vogel (1835 – 1899) was a politician, journalist and newspaper editor who also wrote a novel, called Anno Domini 2000, or Woman’s Destiny (published in 1889), to expound some of his ideas. As a novel it is bad – I can do no better than to quote from some of the reviews of the time:

DSC00818 “In ‘Anno Domini 2000’ it is easy to detect the hand of a beginner. The plot, if plot it can be called, is not very ingenious, the dialogue is not very brilliant and the characterisation is decidedly poor. The whole story is moreover ridiculously improbable, not to say that it wears an air of caricature…. The whole thing is rather vapid…. There is a great want of anything like imagination and it must be confessed that Sir Julius Vogel’s world of 2000 is not a particularly interesting one.”[1]

“Sir Julius Vogel’s novel ‘Anno Domini 2000’ has met with much unfavourable criticism. It is cumbrous from the number of characters introduced, and sketchy from the number of occurrences only half described…”[2]

“There can, however, I imagine, be little doubt in the mind of anyone who has read the book through – and happily this is not a difficult task, the volume being one of very moderate proportions – that the general dullness of the dialogues and homilies will hardly be atoned for by the novelty of the guesses the author makes regarding the future…” [3] Not surprisingly, the book was a financial failure.[4]

Its only interest now is in the “prophecies” or how he thought society in 2000 might look.

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Banishing boredom in Ferrara

I have just finished reading Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be Both (Penguin). It is in two parts – one is narrated by a Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa (although Smith spells it Francescho) and one part by a contemporary teenage girl living in Cambridge, England. I read in a review that half the books were published with the artist’s part first and half with the teenager’s first (George, for Georgia, is her name). The version I read began with the artist’s story, which is the most challenging stylistically (and, at times, I found it a bit boring). I found the teenager’s story much easier to read and more interesting – I think I’d have preferred to have read a version with her story first! Of course, I’ll never know now. The artist is in our times, but it’s unclear (to me, at least) if he’s meant to be a ghost/spirit or is actually imagined by the teenager and her friend for a school project. That’s about all I want to say about the book – there are plenty of online reviews for those who want to know more. Continue reading

English country houses and gardens

DSC00700The online course I’m currently doing is called ‘Literature of the English Country House’ run by the University of Sheffield. I decided to read a few other books loosely on the theme, some of which have been on my shelves for some time.  Most of these relate more to English country house owners, houses or gardens rather than literature set in country houses; but I thought they would provide some useful background – and make me read some of my unread books!

The first, chronologically, is Earls of Paradise: England and the Dream of Perfection, by Adam Nicholson (2008). It was also published as Arcadia: the Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, which was the title I read some years ago. Having sold my copy, I had to borrow the library’s copy, under the ‘Earls…’ title.

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‘Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s’

book cover from TP press

This is the title of a book by Bronwyn Labrum, published in 2015 by Te Papa Press. Well illustrated, it brings to life what New Zealanders wore, the houses and furnishings they lived with (or aspired to), cars they drove, what children played with and did at school, and many other topics, arranged in ten chapters.

I recently went to a talk the author gave for the Friends of Te Papa about the book, which was followed by a ‘show-and-tell’ of objects from the period some friends had brought along. The book stems from Bronwyn’s personal interests. She grew up with Crown Lynn (a New Zealand firm) crockery – a particular cat plate featured prominently in her childhood and she also likes the ‘semi-Scandinavian’ modern furniture of the period, some made in New Zealand like the chair by Don Furniture of Lower Hutt that she showed an image of. Her previous research also touched on various aspects of these decades – the welfare state and the importance given to home ownership; the urbanisation of Maori in the post-World War Two period; and a previous book she wrote about clothing in New Zealand (Looking Flash: Clothing in Aotearoa New Zealand (2007)). Continue reading

Common People

I have just finished reading Alison Light’s 2014 book Common People: The History of an English Family (Fig Tree, Penguin Books). Someone recommended it on the family history course I did – and I would agree that it is well worth reading, whether you have ‘common’ ancestors or not! Most of her family branches had members who were poor, some who spent time in a workhouse – or its pauper equivalent, the lunatic asylum, as ‘pauper lunatics’. Some members of her ‘Light’ ancestors were wealthier – they built some of the buildings she grew up among – but they were Baptists and her grandfather had rejected them. He joined the navy and had nothing to do with his family – she knew very little about these ancestors until she did her research. This is a different kind of  history from the more common ones that discuss famous (or infamous), wealthy, or powerful people. Continue reading

Hobson Street, Wellington: Fred & Evelyn Page

Today I went on the ‘Hobson Street houses tour’ organised as a fundraiser for the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace.


One of the houses on the tour was formerly owned and lived in by Frederick and Evelyn Page. Fred was a musician and music teacher at Victoria University of Wellington. There is a short biography of him on Te Ara.

Evelyn was a painter, although she was also a musician, which is probably how they met – they had the same piano teacher for awhile. There is a short biography of her on Te Ara.


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