The sot-weed madness

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I’m still struggling through The Sot Weed Factor at an embarrassingly slow pace. All my usual reading habits have gone out the window and I’ve taken to browsing the internet on my phone at all my usual reading times. Obviously this has to stop or I’ll never finish it. It occurred to me today that maybe if I blog as I go along it might help me stay motivated. It’s worth a try I reckon.

I didn’t know a great deal about this book before I began and I’m not sure I’m much the wiser yet. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Ebenezer Cooke, who wrote a satirical poem of the same name about the colonisation of America in 1708. Since starting we’ve heard all about Ebenezer’s education (under his beloved tutor Henry Burlingame III), his unsuccessful years at Cambridge and his time as an unhappy clerk in London. Most recently his father has become enraged by reports of Ebenezer’s behaviour in the taverns and brothels of the capital so Eben has been ordered to depart for Maryland at once so he can prove his worth by taking charge of the family tobacco plantations. Since then he’s blagged a commission to write an epic poem on his travels (the Marylandiad!), attempted unsuccessfully to purchase a notebook in which to write said poem, and been happily reunited with his long lost tutor (who’s been having some adventures of his own in the meantime).  I’m currently on Chapter 6 of Part 2 and at last reading the two men were on their way to Plymouth to begin their long voyage to the New World.

Of course this all takes place in the seventeenth century so along the way we’ve been treated to quite a bit of bawdy drunkenness and whoring, made all the funnier by Ebenezer’s fierce defence of his virginity in the face of some trying temptation.

“…What am I? Virgin, sir! Poet, sir! I am a virgin and a poet; less than mortal and more; not a man but Mankind! I shall regard my innocence as badge of my strength and proof of my calling. Let her who’s worthy of’t take it from me!” 

This has more than made up for an unbelievably looooong treatise by Ebenezer’s patron on the province’s complicated history. It’s only nineteen pages long but in all truth it took me 4 days to read. FOUR. DAYS. And I’m not convinced I’ve remembered any of it.

Although published in 1960 The Sot Weed Factor is written entirely in a sort of mock eighteenth century style which I quite like, although it took some getting used to. I’ve understood most of it and the bits I haven’t understood have started to make sense the more I’ve read. There have been some wryly funny moments so I’m not too sure why I’m dragging my heels with it so much. Perhaps I just need to keep persevering until eventually something (hopefully) clicks.

84 Charing Cross Road (1971) by Helene Hanff

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I’m kicking myself for not being able to get hold of a second hand copy of this book. As a book about the love of books, old books especially, it really calls out to be read second hand:

“I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to…”

I bought my copy in Waterstones last weekend for a whopping £7.99. I know that’s not really a lot but it occurred to me afterwards that I once bought six second-hand books in the Oxfam shop for a similar amount. Oh Waterstones. The real problem, I think, is that I’ve never really forgiven them for doing away with their regular 3-for-2 deal a few years ago. I just need to get over it. Anyway, I nearly didn’t buy 84 Charing Cross Road at all but while I was reading the blurb for the third time and ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ in indecision a nice lady came up and told me how much she loved it. “I grew up in London in the 60s”, she said. “This book describes it exactly as I want to remember it.” So I bought the book.

84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters rather than a memoir. In 1949 Hanff was a poor New York writer “with an antiquarian taste in books”, books that she couldn’t find in libraries and bookshops at home. In desperation she wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers, of 84 Charing Cross Road in London, supplying a list of books that she’d be interested in purchasing. Her letter sparked a twenty year long cross-Atlantic correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel, Marks & Co.’s head buyer. She and Frank discussed books (of course), as well as dentistry and sports teams and their families. On several occasions Hanff sent him food parcels for doling out between staff in the shop who were still subject to post-war rationing. In return she was sent linen tablecloths and Yorkshire Pudding recipes along with her constant supply of antiquarian books.

I imagine Helene Hanff would have been a wonderful person to know. Her letters are funny and thoughtful and completely disarming. In one letter she’d be gushing about the wonderful tomes she’d been sent, in the next she’d be mock berating Frank for his failure to find an exact volume she wanted.

“I could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. I oughta run straight down to brentano’s, which I would if anything I wanted was in print.

You may add Walton’s Lives to the list of books you aren’t sending me…. “

I suppose the informality of it all must have been quite alarming for poor Frank at first but you can tell that he took real joy from these letters. I love the contrast between this warmhearted, brash New Yorker and Frank’s very British stiff-upper-lip reserve.

The correspondence between Helene and Frank and their various friends is touching and, in places, just downright funny. I got a little choked up at one point which I swear almost NEVER happens when I’m reading. Maybe the difference here is that these were real people, not fictional ones. But either way I was genuinely saddened.

My shiny new fresh-from-Waterstones copy of this book includes its sequel, The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street, which was published three years after 84 Charing Cross Road became a hit. It takes the form of Helene’s diary, published in 1974 but written in 1971 when she finally made her long awaited trip to London. She was able to meet some of her long distance correspondents, visit the now empty Marks & Co. shop and tour the old haunts of her favourite writers. I liked this almost as much as 84 Charing Cross Road, mainly because it’s so nice to see London through the eyes of someone who had never been before. Her love for a city that she’d never visited is kind of lovely.

Sometimes at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.”

This book made me feel stupidly nostalgic and almost patriotic (which isn’t something I experience often). How nice it would be if the art of letter writing was alive and well (the only person I ever write to is my grandad) and we were still happy to invite strangers into our homes for strawberries and cream in the rose garden. Sigh.

It’s impossible not to like this book. I’m so pleased I finally got round to reading it.

Go Set A Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee

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I’m going to be blunt and state right now that in the run up to the long-anticipated release of this book there were a few things that really got on my wick. Firstly there was the early release of the first chapter, the abundance of spoilers lurking everywhere I looked, the mass of misinformed rumours spreading over the internet… Combine this with the hazy details about how the book came to be published and the troubling suggestion that a frail old woman was being exploited and I was starting to get a nasty taste in my mouth before I’d even handed over my money. By the time I finally sat down to read it, yesterday lunchtime, I was already a bit irritated, already making judgements, already convinced I’d be disappointed. It’s a shame really because there are few books that I’ve looked forward to reading so much.

I know many people will have a rough idea of the plot already. It’s set in the 50s and follows  Jean Louise Finch (Scout to you and me) as she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a short visit after a year in New York. She finds the town of her childhood changed beyond recognition and the people she loves clinging to some disturbing and backward ideas. Racial hostilities in the south are at their peak, the county is on the verge of violence, and Scout is horrified by the change in her home and in her family.

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

I think if you go into Watchman expecting a sequel or a direct follow-on to To Kill A Mockingbird you’ll be mightily confused. The dates don’t really add up, the same events are described rather differently and some of the characters we grew to love in Mockingbird are dealt with very cursorily (such as Dill, for example). The ‘shocking’ revelations about Atticus are pretty well known by now but there was one other very brief scene with Calpurnia about mid-way through which damn near broke my heart. It’s unsettling and feels a bit out of character, as if these figures are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

When I looked into it I realised that the key is probably to consider Watchman a standalone novel. It was Lee’s first draft, a very early attempt at the book that eventually became Mockingbird. On the advice of her publishers she took it apart, kept the characters and the general theme, but reimagined the plot, gave the narrator a new voice and reset it twenty years earlier. Watchman was the first attempt; Mockingbird the final product. Maybe I’m a coward but I found this reassuring and it helped me make allowances for some of the dramatic differences in character, tone and style.

Go Set A Watchman isn’t a bad novel. I enjoyed some of the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood and admired her ferocious defence of her own beliefs in the face of (some pretty passive) opposition from the man she loves most in the world. She’s the hero. Lee’s publishers clearly thought the manuscript showed promise but there were some good reasons behind the substantial changes she later made. The narration in Watchman is clunky, the dialogue sometimes heavy handed and the ending unconvincing. I thought the final scenes, in which Scout confronts her father and uncle, felt rather hurried. It certainly doesn’t have the warmth or the innocence of Mockingbird but that’s probably something to do with the third person narration. I suspect that if it had been published in this form back in 1957 it might have been forgotten pretty quickly. Thank Christ she rewrote it.

Judging Go Set A Watchman as a completed novel in its own right seems a tad unfair when that’s not really what its author intended. It is, however, how it’s been marketed. I was desperate to love it and that didn’t happen, but I definitely don’t regret reading it. All I can say is that I don’t hate it, not by any means, but I’m not a fan either. If anything it’s made me appreciate To Kill A Mockingbird even more than I did before. In fact, I kind of want to reread it (for the millionth time) right now, just for comfort.