Nonfiction November #NonFicNov23 – Week Two, Choosing Nonfiction

I am excited to be hosting Week 2 of Nonfiction November this week.  The other hosts for Nonfiction November are fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), , Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction).

  • Week 2Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: That would be me, Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you find yourself wandering around bookshops – that is if  you are lucky enough to have access to a real bookshop these days – thinking that you fancy reading something ‘different’ but you’ve no idea what it is?  I used to often feel this way.

We are peddled a relentless diet of best-sellers and known names, books which may or may not answer a need, and nowhere is that feeling stronger than in a high street bookstore.  Where is the opportunity for that quirky discovery with the battered binding?

Since I have discovered the blogosphere and all my bookish friends online, I don’t really have a problem in finding books to read any more, quite the opposite.  But I do miss just wandering around the shelves and picking up a book here or there just to see.

When browsing, I avoid footballers, celebrities and disgruntled royals.   I look for good biography, memoir, art, art history.  I mentioned in my post last week the occasional guilt complex at not reading more widely in other categories.  Probably in 2024 I will try and address that.

In terms of a favoured cover I’m pretty sold on this one which is from my current read, Jackie Wullschlager’s Biography, Monet: The Restless Vision:


I love colour.

I think human beings are attracted to bright colours.  Maybe Monet thought so too.  Here is some colour courtesy of the net.

Geordanna Cordero on Unsplash

I’m also a fan of the new nature writing, usually a blend of authoritative essay style writing on the natural world, combined with autobiographical details from the life of the author

Little Toller Books have an excellent if a somewhat pricey array of these books. Here are three that have caught my eye.

.  My

An allotment is a utopia. It is a green place where anyone can occupy a piece of land, and grow with freedom of expression.

I don’t know whether people that use allotments would agree with that idea, or how you grow with freedom of expression – or without freedom of expression unless you’re entering for Chelsea.  I’m not really a gardener in any way shape or form but my brother in law has worked an allotment plus a garden for decades.  I never quite understood how anyone manages all that work!  I suspect he may not wish to read about the history of them though, so passing swiftly on.

Richard Mabey was maybe one of the first writers to write about mental health and natural world issues combined in his book Nature Cure which I have read.  In my review I wrote:

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing. It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker. These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression, Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls, birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’. But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare

Mabey has written many, many books including a biography of the naturalist and author Gilbert White whom wiki credits with ‘shaping the modern attitude of respect for nature’ which seems a rather extraordinary claim.  I didn’t realise there was a modern attitude of respect for nature judging by the ecology crisis we have on our hands.  But I think I will put this one on my TBR.


Does anyone else find themselves drawn to a particular theme or topic?  Style of writing? Titles? Covers? They say you can’t tell a book by one, but hey, a good cover certainly helps.

If you are taking part in Nonfiction November Week 2,  don’t forget to add your link below.  I’ve been so happy to help host this challenge but the only thing I’ve been panicking about is the link party.  Despite the kindness of Rebekah at (She Seeks Nonfiction) and others showing me what to do, my link party looks worryingly unlike anyone else’s.  Therefore please if you have any problems, just leave the link to your post in the comments below.



You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter





AI and The End of the World: Book 4 of my 10 Books of #20BooksofSummer2023

Title: The Silmarillion: An Epic Masterpiece of Myth and Magic

Introduction: If you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s richly imaginative world of Middle-earth, then “The Silmarillion” is an absolute must-read. Published posthumously, this remarkable book serves as the foundation for Tolkien’s legendary legendarium, delving deep into the ancient history and mythos of his meticulously crafted universe. Prepare to embark on an extraordinary journey through the ages, as “The Silmarillion” unveils a tapestry of epic tales that will captivate and enthrall readers seeking a profound exploration of fantasy and myth.

Review: “The Silmarillion” is a true testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s unparalleled storytelling prowess. In this awe-inspiring work, he weaves together a collection of interconnected narratives that span millennia, from the creation of Arda (the world) to the events leading up to “The Lord of the Rings.” This ambitious undertaking may seem daunting at first, but the rewards for those willing to dive into Tolkien’s intricate lore are immeasurable.

The depth and scope of “The Silmarillion” are astonishing. Tolkien’s attention to detail and his meticulous world-building make for an immersive reading experience. He treats readers to a vivid pantheon of Valar (divine beings), Maiar (lesser divine spirits), Elves, Men, and numerous other races. Each chapter uncovers hidden histories, the rise and fall of empires, and the struggles of heroic figures. The tapestry of characters is vast, and their stories resonate with themes of love, courage, betrayal, and redemption.

One of the most captivating aspects of “The Silmarillion” is Tolkien’s prose. His language is lyrical and evocative, creating a mythic ambiance that envelops the reader. The writing style differs from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” in that it assumes a more elevated tone, mirroring the ancient texts and sagas it emulates. Tolkien’s ability to infuse his narratives with a sense of grandeur and significance is truly remarkable.

While “The Silmarillion” may not have the same accessibility as Tolkien’s more popular works, the depth and complexity it offers are a treasure trove for those willing to invest their time and attention. It rewards readers with a profound understanding of Middle-earth’s origins and enhances the overall appreciation of Tolkien’s other writings.

It is worth mentioning that “The Silmarillion” is not a conventional novel, but rather a collection of interconnected stories, akin to a mythological chronicle. Some readers may find the abundance of names, places, and genealogies initially overwhelming. However, perseverance is rewarded as the pieces of this vast puzzle slowly come together, revealing a cohesive and awe-inspiring narrative.

In conclusion, “The Silmarillion” is a masterpiece of myth and magic that stands as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s extraordinary imagination. It is a book that demands patience and dedication, but for those willing to embark on this literary journey, the rewards are immeasurable. Prepare to be immersed in a rich tapestry of ancient lore, where heroes, gods, and legends shape the destiny of a world. Whether you are a die-hard Tolkien fan or an avid lover of fantasy, “The Silmarillion” is an essential addition to your bookshelf.


If you immediately recognised the above as not being the work of the usual author of this blog, well done – the robots won’t be coming for you!  Yet.   If you didn’t, welcome to the brave new world.   The above review was written by ChatGPT in a matter of seconds as a result of the prompt ‘Write a review of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Silmarillion suitable for a blog’.

It’s not bad eh?  Ok the ‘legendary legendarium’ is a bit much – and the mythic ambience is mis-spelt;  maybe it’s a bit generic. But so what?  It’s still accurate enough to be terrifying.  And the robot is right. Tolkein’s book is epic and a masterpiece.    The Silmarillion is not a conventional novel.   The story is not told from the point of view of any one character as were the The Hobbit and LOTR but is in fact related as a history of the elvish races and languages where Tolkien’s interests truly lay.

On the other hand, these facts can be easily gleaned from other reviews of this work.  AI has amassed everything it could find that was relevant to my query, but without having actually read the book.  Because the text is not available online, the report AI has generated is, I suspect, an amalgam of hundreds of other reviews of this work.

What follows is my own review, honest!

The Silmarillion is the 4th book of 10 books I am reading for #20booksofsummer23 hosted by Cathy @746 books

The Silmarilli themselves were unparalelled jewels fashioned by an elven smith known as Faënor.  In these three supreme jewels, Faënor imprisons the Light of Valinor, from which is derived the light of the sun and moon.  Needless to say, the existence of three such powerful and unique gems in the realm awakens the darkness of the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness in Valinor, a place where they had not previously existed or had been controlled by the gods. The rise of the darkness empowers the evil Melkor, or Morgoth, a forerunner of Sauron.

Tolkein writes:

“The fall of the elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Faënor and his seven sons to these jewels.  They are captured by the enemy, set in his iron crown and guarded in his impenetrable stronghold.  The sons of Faënor take a terrible and blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance against all or any, even of the Gods, who dares to claim  any part or right in the Silmarilli.’

The resulting war casts the entire of middle earth into catastrophe.

In case anyone was planning to panic, I do not intend to be handing over Volatile Rune to an I, Robot style VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) anytime soon.   My readers may rest assured that all future posts will be slaved over in normal (and normally late) fashion by yours truly.

But this experiment came about as a result of a conversation we had at a garden party yesterday about the use of AI in art graphics, writing, in fact all areas of life.  An artist present at the conversation reckoned that AI is the beginning of the end of humanity, and certainly many of the great SciFi writers such as Isaac Asmov and Arthur C Clarke may not have disagreed.  However I found a very interesting article online today basically saying that such concerns are a distraction from the real issues of the abuse of AI which is surveillance and data misuse.  For example,  police abuse of facial recognition technology and so on, is taking place now and on a daily basis; of this it seems there is little or no oversight.  These matters need dealing with first, surely, before we start worrying about androids running amok in the streets with people’s handbags.

Nevertheless AI software capability is here and it is not going anywhere.  In April 2023, the German photographer Boris Eldagsen refused a prize in the prestigious Sony world photography competition, admitting that he had generated his winning entry using AI.  He did it, he said,  in order to raise a debate about the increasingly diaphanous borders between AI generated work and human produced art.  Did it fool the judges?  They said not, that he had warned them that the work was “co-created”.

While I have partially terrified myself with this post, I am also encouraged.  There is no real depth to the AI generated report, at least at the moment.  Who knows what is coming.  Is our own middle earth about to be encased in non-climate related catastrophe?

I always welcome comments on my blog and would be particularly interested to hear what others think of this.  Don’t forget AI is out there writing science reports and deciding legal points, precedents and judgements or will be soon, so it’s not only artists who are affected.


This is #Book 4 of my 10 Books of Summer.


All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley and (scroll down) Classics Club Spin 18, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

All The Beauty in the World

Patrick Bringley writes of art as foundational to the need for human solace and the need for creativity.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Museum Guard,  standing there for hours and hours with crowds streaming past, constantly on the lookout for some idiot using flash photography, or damaging the paintings or climbing over barriers that are evidently there not to be climbed over? I suppose my answer to my own question is that  if I had  wondered what it was like, I would have assumed it would be quite boring.  Patrick Bringley will answer this question.  In fact, Patrick Bringley will answer most people’s questions about everything in this wonderful book All the Beauty in the World : A Museum Guard’s Adventures in Life, Loss and Art. (Vintage)


Above all this is a personal journey, starting with his being taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fondly known as the Met) by his mother as a child,

“In my memory, it was so still in the museum that the statues appear to have fallen under a recent and sudden enchantment.  It was so silent, we could hear our footfalls on the pale stone floors.  We climbed a stairway toward a gold Diana statue, her weight forever on the ball of one foot, her hand perpetually adding tension to a bowstring.”

and leading on to his taking a job there as a guard after the death of his older brother, Tom.  It was the only way he knew how to deal with his grief.    All the Beauty is a book about standing still both in work and in life. Bringley already had a great job – but  felt that he could no longer cope with the pressure of having to rush forward.  He just needed time to be still.   And where do you find that time but in a Museum, a place which is wholly representative of time?

Bringley is highly knowledgeable about the collections he is guarding.   Museum Guards are constantly asked questions –  not just ‘where are the loos’ or ‘where’s the cafeteria?’.     Many other questions too.  Like, where is the Mona Lisa?   ‘At the Louvre in Paris’, he replies.  Oh, not here then?  No, not here.  Once he was excited to be posted for the Met Ball but found himself miles from the event and saw nothing.

Of course there are negatives too: punishingly long shifts;  sore feet and legs; no week-ends free; only the most senior guards are given holiday allowance over the Summer.  But Bringley evidently loved his time there.   To the author the long stretches spent standing and looking  were not in the least boring.  By the end of his time at the Met he knows every collection, every route, every gallery, pretty much every work of art.  There is a fascinating piece on the Gee’s Bend quilters and far too many other collections to list here.

He says, not only does he like his job but “it would be an indecency, a stupidity even a betrayal to find fault with such  peaceable, honest work. No, I prefer to be grateful, grateful for the soft wood floors and thousand year old art, grateful for all the stuff I don’t have, like a product to sell, lies to tell, a ditch to dig, a register to ring.”

Patrick Bringley worked at the Met for 10 years and by the time he feels ready to move on he is married with two children, has made loads of friends and has written this great book.    So although he took the job at the Met because he was tired of having to push forward all the time in a previous high profile career, interestingly his life has moved forward anyway. Just in different and more profound ways perhaps.

On the front cover is a quote from Hope Jahren (whose book Lab Girl I adored) saying that this made her:

‘yearn to have Patrick Bringley at my side at every Museum I will ever visit for the rest of my life’.

His engagement with art is so fresh, so unacademic and completely unsnobbish, yet so knowledgeable.

This is such a lovely book  I can heartily recommend to any art lover or simply if you are curious about people who stand still for a living or the connection between our greatest art works and mental health.  I do not mean that in a woke or politically correct way.  Sadly there is is too much slinging around of terms relating to psychological distress that are little or barely understood by the people doing the slinging.

Bringley writes of art in a way that is foundational to solace and the human need for creativity.


Classics Club Spin XVIII – The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

#ccspin #whatimreading

And talking of psychological distress, here is one from my Classics Club List, Henry James The Turn of the Screw (Penguin Classics).  There was a classics club spin recently which I missed but the number came up as 18 so I have chosen number eighteen off my main list as a belated way of taking part in the challenge.

So to the plot.

Bly is the setting, a house to which a young governess (who has led a sheltered life), comes to look after two children Miles and Flora at the behest of their guardian. I mention the sheltered life bit because that is pretty much all we know about her.  She does not even get a name.  In this she shares a relationship with Maxim de Winter’s second wife in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Although the two characters have little else in common.

James’ heroine speaks as though she has swallowed several dictionaries.

How about this from the beginning of Chapter VI:

“It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we now had to live with as we could, my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified,  and my companion’s knowledge henceforth – a knowledge half consternation and half compassion – of that liability.”

Does a young governess – even one from the 19th century –  really think or speak like that?  I don’t know because, dear reader,  even I am not that old.

It’s difficult to talk about any of the plot points of Turn of the Screw without giving something away.   According to the introduction to this edition,  written by David Bromwich, James himself described his ghost story as being ‘meant for readers he hardly supposed to be ready for his major fiction.’  In other words, just a conventional ghost story aimed at those who like the genre.

I heartily wish that were the case for at least then we might have had a thumping good ghost story.  But this is not that.

Yes there are ghosts, and we are told by the good housekeeper Mrs Grose (who never actually sees them) that they could be the ghosts of people who during their lifetimes worked at the house and behaved in a reprehensible manner.  Nothing is ever specified.   Can it be assumed that in death these deceased servants are equally up to no good?  That is an assumption which is made – not by the author but by the narrator – and it is one on which it seems to me that  the entire story turns.

The governess comes to believe that the children are possessed.  But are they?  Whose reality are we dealing with here?  It is in any event an assumption that will lead to dire consequences.





Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (French Painter & Portraitist (1755-1852)

History’s Forgotten Artists

“The canon of art history is global, however, with the male Western narrative being so unjustly dominant at the expense of others, it is this that I unpack and challenge.” (Katy Hessel)

When I picked up A Story of Art (Without Men) by Katy Hessel I thought I would find within its 520 pages sad stories of women artists who almost made it if only they could have got the right breaks such as investment in the appropriate art training; or ladies for whom art could only ever be a ‘hobby’ because of those burdens society places upon women which it does not equally place upon men.  I thought in other words it would constitute some sort of lengthy eulogy for lost opportunities and missed vocations.

Not a bit of it.   This book is a celebration, although if you listen carefully it is not without its soundtrack of ground teeth!  Within the covers of this minutely researched book are hundreds of biographical accounts and pictorial reproductions of the work of established artists – many successful and even famous in their own times – who have simply vanished.    They have vanished from the history books, from galleries, from scholarship, from the curatorial mind.

What has caused this extinction?  In one sentence it is this:  Western cultural histories have focused on a single race and gender and ignored the contributions of any who do not fit that mould.    We are not talking here about art criticism –  but rather the exclusion of the woman artist from art history, scholarship and curatorial policy.

What I have particularly enjoyed about this book is Hessel’s refusal to place these artists in the context of their more famous (male) peers.  It is tempting even for the most ardent feminist to consider, for example, Gwen John, as the sister of the more famous Augustus.    But within these pages there are few such references.    Brothers, husbands, lovers, all mysteriously vanish.  None of the artists included in these pages is a muse, a sitter or an inspiration for a better known man.  Instead Hessel has placed her women within the political and social context of their times; within the sphere of influence and the schools of art and thought in which they framed their work.  Exactly as would be done in a compendium of male artists.  By the way,  that compendium of male artists  is effectively the ‘art history bible’ that E.H. Gombrich wrote.  He omitted hundreds of artists simply because of their gender.


So who are we talking about.  There are hundreds of artists – far too many to list – artists from the 17th century through to the 21st.

I strongly advise reading the book.  But here are a few of the new-to-me names:

Judith Leyster, Dutch (1609-1660).  At the age of 24 Leyster was the youngest member of the Haarlem Painters Guild – she was running a studio complete with apprentices and three male pupils by the age of thirty).  Her career declined as a result of marriage, children, and having to manage her husband’s studio.

Rosalba Carriera, Venetian (1673-1757) earned a living painting portraits and miniatures, with an international clientele.

Katsuschika Oi of Japan (1800-1866) earned recognition as an artist of the floating world but lived in the shadow of her famous father, Hokusai.

Emily Mary Osborn, British (1828-1925) A great campaigner for women’s suffrage she used her paintings to critique the constant setbacks experienced by women.

Jacqueline Marval (French) (1866-1932) painted Les Odalisques, which was exhibited in 1902-3. Hessel finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (exhibited 1907) to be ‘strikingly similar in composition’ to Marval’s earlier work.


Hessel points out a number of potential cases of unattributed influence.  For example,  still famous and still at the forefront of the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York in 1957 with a suitcase full of drawings and “mountains of creative energy stored inside myself”. Her ideas for a sequentially printed wallpaper were created two years before Andy Warhol produced his ‘suspiciously similar’ Cow Wallpaper.

What joy to discover that from the 17th to the 21st century it is possible to travel through an entire history of every nation and every school of art (not only in painting but weaving, photography, sculpture, performance art) without looking at a single work by a man!

And no, that is not revisionist.  That is just rebalancing the scales.  All but a handful of these artists have been forgotten.  Now that Hessel’s book has won Waterstones Book of the Year Award, that sound you can hear is the sound of galleries scrabbling to catch up.  Look out for increasing representation and solo exhibitions in the coming years.


Up next, What July Knew, Emily Koch



Existential Blogging Crisis and Reading for Peace

Everytime I have an existential blogging crisis – on average once a week on a Friday  – I decide I cannot read fast enough nor get my thoughts in order to post every week.  I am thus in awe of bloggers who achieve this.   Sigh!  Onwards and upwards, as the poet didn’t say.

I only read three books in April so it doesn’t take long to wrap up April!   Nevertheless I enjoyed my three books greatly which I keep telling myself is most of the point.  And here I still am. So thank you, thank you, to my followers and those who persevere with my ramblings.


I am becoming a bit of a non-fiction addict;   also a ‘lives of the artists’ addict.   As well as  the two books by Celia Paul I reviewed in my last couple of posts, over the last year I have read a biography of Frida Kahlo and re-read my favourite epistolary work which is Vincent Van Gogh’s  letters to his brother Theo.  To my tally I have added a life of  Beethoven and the life and letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky written by his brother, Modeste.  Also an extraordinary autobiographical account of the life of (now exiled)  Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his poet father, Ai Qing.

I have worked my way through much of Paul McCartney’s two volume account of how he (and John Lennon) penned the lyrics to some very iconic songs.  I enjoyed finding out the inspiration behind these songs, but McCartney being such a private person  gives very little  away.   But there is the occasional telling comment such as how he wishes he could take his wife Nancy out for a bowl of pasta without someone photographing them.

They always say that most artists lead quiet lives and that you cannot discern the source of artistic talent from looking at biographical details.  On one level this must be true,  but from my reading it does not seem to me that artists have boring lives.  At the end of 2020 I read Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath Heather Clark’s momentous work which comes in slightly under 900 pages and reads like a thriller, also an autobiography of the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals.   Not to mention my recent and now most favourite read on the planet Story of a Life by  Konstantin Paustovsky

In contrast some of the fiction I have read over the last year has been quite disappointing, with my biggest frowns and sounds of gnashing teeth reserved for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Elif Shafak’s Island of Missing Trees!  For two such masters of their art I felt they should both know better. However I realise that many disagree with me (the very thought)!  These two books have had honours and awards heaped upon them so I must be wrong.

Exit stage left pursued by bear.


So where next?

I have decided as far as possible to keep on with my lives of the artists theme.  Rune Sister has given me a heads up about a book by Julia Copus about the poet Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) “a quietly heroic life lived in London’s Bloomsbury” says the blurb.  This chimes well with the Celia Paul books that I have just read as my current obsession with the idea of living in this part of London forever redolent of literary and artistic life.

Also I will be trying to do some reading around the situation in Ukraine.



I Stand for Peace Reading and Blogging Event which runs from 1st May to 1st September 2022 is an event hosted by Brona’s Books in which we try to unpick some of the horrific strands that have built up to the current situation. I have decided to take part in this event and will be talking about what I read – although gaining any in depth knowledge of the situation is a thin hope without some broader  connection but I have to try.

Andrei Kurkov is a major Ukrainian author who landed firmly on my radar after I watched a remarkable interview  between him and Philippe Sands (best-selling author of East West Street) online.  What a courageous man and so dignified. He sat there during the first days of the Putin’s latest bout of Ukraine madness, at his desk in his apartment in the Middle of Kyiv talking to the camera, while the world went crazy outside his window.  Putin, he told us, was afraid of nuclear attack and was hiding in the Ural mountains.   I have just read Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries  which I will endeavour to talk about next week.  I will also read his fiction – Death and the Penguin – and Kurkov’s most recent book Gray Bees.  I understand this latter story concerns two men who courageously remain in their village – the only ones who do after everyone else has left –  as war rumbles around them.

Has anyone read any of these?

Timothy Snyder is a writer and academic whose expertise lies in Eastern Europe.  His book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is on topic, although it will be a far from cheerful book as it looks at mass slaughter of civilians by both dictators – but it seems to be a necessary starting point for trying to understand the current misery besetting Ukraine.  For example, Snyder posits that for Stalin, Ukraine was the fulcrum upon which Stalin’s ‘soviet construction’ would succeed or fail.  In order to achieve this his dictat was that  ‘Food must be wrested from the peasants by collectivisation and terror’.  This led to famine which caused the deaths of 3 million civilians.
















Creative Differences and The Artistic Life

Always a Beatles fan I didn’t realise how little I knew about the factors that led to the band’s break up.  Creative differences, yes, but not really any of the specifics.    In a set of contemporary interviews with Rick Rubin (on Disney+) Paul McCartney comments on this:  he was he says heartbroken when the band broke up, he thought he would be in The Beatles forever.

Forever is a long time but it is hard to imagine now that the Beatles were together for only 7 years.  All those iconic songs.    I have been fascinated to watch The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s documentary footage (Disney+) from 1969 about the band rehearsing for what would turn out to be their last live performance.

Even whittled down, this footage still amounts to three films, each two hours long, so watching is a time commitment, but I am taking it in sections.  The tensions between the fab four in Peter Jackson’s film quickly become apparent.

Beginning just after the New Year in 1969, The Beatles for some reason gave themselves only three weeks to rehearse an entire show including writing a dozen new songs.  It seems a crazy thing to do with hindsight or without it.  Under that sort of pressure existing cracks only deepened.   George says at one point: ‘perhaps we should get a divorce’.  To which Paul replies: ‘I suggested that at our last meeting’. Neither of them is joking.

Given that this is the post Sergeant Pepper era and the band is beyond famous  (John Lennon has managed to get himself into trouble with the establishment by saying that The Beatles are “more popular than Jesus”) the rehearsals are a muted affair.  I suppose those of us not involved in the industry only get to see the razzamatazz of a rehearsed and perfected show. But this is a fly on the wall view of what it takes to reach that point.   Rehearsing in a drab looking space in Twickenham Studios, along with George Martin and a couple of roadies, the band is searching for an 8-track recorder.  Where will they get one from!  EMI?  Apparently not.  They end up having to use George Harrison’s own 8-track recorder which is says is £10,000 worth of equipment – an unimaginable sum of money back then.  In fact it’s still rather a lot now!

I was ever a big McCartney fan and still am.  No amount of footage will stop me worshipping at that particular shrine.  The guy is a genius.    But here  he does come across as a bit bossy and a bit sarcastic with George.  At times the two of them struggle to agree the time of day.   John doesn’t help much by insisting on Yoko’s presence throughout these tense rehearsals.   There were no phones in those days, she just sits there.   Paul remarks that in fifty years they will say that the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.

But the greatest thing about watching this footage  is the chance to see and hear songs like Get Back and Long and Winding Road – songs that have now been famous for half a century – coming into being.   While we are watching try-outs I am telling them they don’t have the words right yet.  It should be Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona.   Is Tucson in Arizona? John asks.  Yes it is.  It’s where they filmed High Chaperral, Paul answers.

The first film ends with George walking out.  He writes in his diary.  ‘Rehearsed at Twickenham until lunchtime.  Left the Beatles.  Went home.’

What I’ve been reading

This week I have read Letters to Gwen John by the artist Celia Paul whose autobiographical work Self-Portrait I reviewed here.

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Gwen John (1876 – 1939) was a born in Haverfordwest in Wales.  The family later moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire.   Her mother Augusta, died when Gwen was a child.

Gwen’s life in some respect followed a similar arc to that of the author.  She too attended the Slade School of art (1895-1898) where she was somewhat overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.   Later she went to Paris on her own and lived alone to pursue her life as an artist.  Although the author has a son whereas Gwen had no children.

Gwen, like Celia Paul,  had a relationship with a more famous and much older man – another Auguste –  Rodin to whom Gwen remained devoted and somewhat in thrall her entire life.    Paul questions their devotion to the men in their lives that came at such an emotional cost.  Gwen she says was always associated with her brother Augustus and with her lover, Auguste Rodin.

“What is it about us that keeps us tethered?  Both of our talents are entirely separate from the men we have been attached to – we are neither of us derivative in any way.”  Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?”

Although I was not sure this book was quite as good as Self-Portrait Paul’s writing is very engaging.  Necessarily, since these letters are addressed to someone who is dead and cannot correspond, the book forms an extension of the first; from an exhibition in New York, up to the pandemic and lock-down.    Celia Paul writes like she paints – every word a carefully placed brush stroke.  I found myself endlessly fascinated by her descriptions of her flat opposite the British Museum which houses her studio and in which she still lives. Here she describes a painting:

“One is of my room at night: the shadows on the ceiling thrown by the streetlights forming a web above my bed, the cross-bar of the window magnified on the wall next to it, an eerie crucifix.  Everything is still.  The colours are rust, brackish-blue and gold.  In the painting of my room in the morning the gentle light washes in through the window, suggesting hope and peace.”

Those are commodities the world needs very badly at the moment.



‘Painting is the Language of Loss’: Self-Portrait by Celia Paul

This week, I have much enjoyed reading artist Celia Paul’s autobiography called, not unreasonably,  Self-Portrait.   The heading I have used for this post is a quote from her book and although the images of her work are necessarily grainy and poor (I was reading on my kindle) it is not hard to see where the statement comes from.    Her way of writing is engaging, intimate and totally honest and although I do not know her work as an artist I am delighted to have come across this book.

Celia Paul was born in India in 1959 before moving to England as a young child when an illness required her to be treated at Hammersmith hospital.    Her father was made Canon of Bristol Cathedral and later rose to become  Bishop of Bradford.   One of her sisters would go on to marry theologian and poet Rowan Williams who became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Celia was a devoted artist from childhood and was accepted aged 18 into The Slade Art school. Her bio says that she is considered one of the most important painters working in Britain today.  Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in London, Chichester and New York.

My Mother with a Ring

Given all that therefore,  it is a great shame – and probably drives Celia Paul quietly mad – that she is best known for having had a relationship with a more famous (male) artist, Lucian Freud.   In this Paul shares similarities with another female artist Gwen John who became romantically embroiled with famed sculptor Auguste Rodin.  In fact so closely does Paul feel that her life aligns with that of Gwen John that her newest book Letters to Gwen John is just published and I have already downloaded it onto my kindle and started reading it.

Celia Paul is very honest about the challenges she has faced being a woman and an artist stating openly that she hopes that the book will speak to others who face the same obstacles.  It is nearly always women who are forced to make choices between artistic gifts  or other career choices – and caring responsibilities.

She writes:

“One of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, loving someone,  yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way.  I think that generally men find it easier to be selfish.”


“I would like this book to speak to young women artists – and perhaps to all women – who will no doubt face this challenge in their lives at some time and will have to resolve this conflict in their own ways.  This seems to me to be an essentially feminine dilemma.”

And I think that those things that the author hopes for from this book will come to pass because her writing is powerful enough to remain the memory and convey the strength of her spirit.

Paul goes on to have a child by Freud.  They name him Frank after their artist friend Auerbach.  Frank will be raised by his grandmother to enable Paul to retain the silence and stillness she needs to work.

Lucian Freud bought her a pair of Java finches in a cage and a flat in Bloomsbury (in 1982) which she still occupies and which is her studio.   She writes that it overlooks the entrance to the British Museum.  And so if you are visiting the Museum,  look up when you leave the building at the building over the road.  Consider the 80 stairs which Celia’s mother used to climb regularly to sit for portraits.

Paul painted her mother and sisters constantly and refers to herself in the book not as a portrait painter but as “an autobiographer and a chronicler of my life and family.”



Story of a Life: A Novelistic Memoir by Konstantin Paustovsky

A Story of a Life, Konstantin Paustovsky

:  “… my generation was fated to experience enough wars, coups, trials, hopes, troubles and joys to last several generations of our forefathers. In the amount of time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun, we had experienced so much that just thinking about it makes my heart ache.”

So writes Konstantin Paustovsky in his memoir The Story of a Life (1945,1946, 1955, 1957) (English Translation, Vintage Douglas Smith, 2022), a work which takes the reader from the author’s childhood in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century,  through to the formation of the Soviet system, Paustovsky is likely to be the most famous Russian author you have never heard of.

This is not one single book, but three books in one volume written across decades: Book One, The Faraway Years, Book Two, Restless Youth and Book Three, The Dawn of an Uncertain Age.     There are three more books that have yet to be translated.  I hope it happens quickly because I am queueing up to read them.

This six part-memoir was originally published in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1963.



Konstantin Georgievich Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892, he died in 1968 at the age of 76.   It is hard to exaggerate Paustovsky’s stature in the 1960s.  There is a story told in the introduction to the book that  Marlene Dietrich alighted from her plane in Moscow for a concert tour in June 1964.  Mobbed by reporters, she said: tell me all you know about Konstantin Paustovsky.  A few days later she gave a concert for a gathering of writers which – unknown to Dietrich –  Paustovsky attended.  At the end of the performance he slowly progressed to the stage to meet her.   This was only a few years before his death and the  author was very ill.  Writing in her memoir,  Dietrich recalled that she was so overcome with emotion she was unable to speak.  All she could do to express her admiration was to fall at his feet and bow her head.  There is a photograph of this online.

It’s hard to imagine any contemporary writer having that effect on anyone.

The first three volumes cover the author’s childhood which at first is happy but later disintegrates, leaving him alone to fend for himself from the age of 16.  As a young student at the gymnasium in Kiev in the late 19th century be begins his story which ranges through the collapse of the Romanov dynasty to the Russian revolution and the First World war.

Paustovsky spent time serving as a medical orderly on Russia’s frontlines  in WW1.     Paustovsky did not describe anything which he did not personally witness so there is no general history of the revolution or the world wars.  Not knowing who was whom in the revolution it could be hard to follow some parts of the writing,  but that must have been what it was like to live through it.

On several occasions Paustovsky comes close to being shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When he describes these events what is striking is how little importance he seems to attach to who doing the shooting!  Perhaps at that stage it didn’t matter.   Each battle, each war, each faction, each gang as bad as another.

Although he was not as famous a dissident  as, say, Shalamov or Solzhenytsyn – unlike them Paustovsky managed to avoid the gulag.  But this did not mean he remained silent. Time and again the writer spoke out for artistic and intellectual freedom. He helped to publish the works of other writers and poets who fell foul of Stalin such as  Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. Three times his name was put forward for the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize for Literature and three times the Swedish Academy backed down having been warned that this would be viewed by the soviet system as ‘provocation’.   Instead writers such as Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Sholokhov were seen as safer options.

The beauty of Paustovsky’s prose is startling.       It is only April and yet I know I will not read anything more outstanding than The Story of a Life, this year or possibly any other.  Thank you, thank you to the translator Douglas Smith without whose work I would never have been able to read this author.    I eagerly await the translation of the second set of three books


Undoubtedly I Should Have Gone Mad But For Music – The Most Beautiful of Heaven’s Gifts to Humanity Wandering in the Darkness

Thus was music described by the great Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.  I have stretched the metaphor a little to include the work of the impressionists – or at least the honorary impressionist Edgar Degas –  although I suspect Tchaikovsky would have stared blankly at his work and turned away.  The visual arts did not really register for Peter Ilich –  he was surely only ever about the music.

I begin with a review of Degas and Cassatt: The Dance of Solitude Salva Rubio (Europe Comics). Artist and colorist EFA

In 1873 at the Café de la Nouvelle Athenas the artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) invites a friend – a Ms Cassatt – to a special meeting.  She is not comfortable. She tells him:

‘A café, Monsieur Degas, is not an appropriate place for a lady.’ Which doubtless it is not.

‘Relax,’ he tells her, in unlikely 19th century parlance.

Ms Cassatt asks why she has been invited.  Degas replies it is because a very interesting meeting is about to begin.

This, history will record, is somewhat of an understatement.  Monsieur Degas’ ‘special meeting’ gave birth to a Society which included amongst others, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro.  Seeking freedom away from the restrictive judgement and gatekeeping of the Paris Salon, The Société Anonyme des Artistes was born. April 15th 1874 at the Boulevard des Capucines.

The new Society exhibited some 165 paintings by 30 artists.  But instead of bursting onto the scene as a readymade movement overturning all previous conceptions abourt art and sculpture, the exhibition was received by a public and critical yawn.  At this stage (despite strong requests from Degas, Edouard Manet was refusing to join the group) a journalist from the satirical magazine Charivari called the rebels ‘the impressionists’.

Degas did exhibit with the impressionists – they gave eight exhibitions in all and his work was present at all but one –  but he fell out with the others and was too fond of the idea of being recognised and receiving medals to be entirely a rebel: ultimately he succeeded in his aims, being awarded medals from the Salon and the Legion D’Honneur.

Unless reading Bunty and Diana comics count, this is my first graphic novel ever.  I was intrigued by the subject matter.  I’m always up for a lives of the Artists book, and why not talk and write about the life of a great artist using drawings as well as words?  It makes perfect sense.  The difficulty with this is, however well it is written and or drawn the original copy might be, the digital version is hard to read because of poor production values. Or something! I am not enough of an expert to know.  I only know that I am reading my copy   In black and white I am reading my copy on a reMarkable which has quite a large screen, larger than an ipad, a kindle, and certainly larger than a phone,  but I’m still struggling.

I don’t struggle with the themes, characterisation or ideas but the script is broken  because it’s a graphic novel  seemingly in odd places.   More for reasons of space, than flow or dialogue.  It all feels a bit plodding.


In this style of novel there is no room for linking narrative.

“Ah Mrs Cassatt.  As a young man in Florence I realised…”

“that sadness is the fate reserved for those who devote their lives to art.”

While Mrs. Cassatt, an artist in her own right,  unsurprisingly has laid her own work aside to help him.  She  gives us this aside:

“Truth to tell I awaited something else from Degas besides Chivalry.”

“We’d known each other for years, I thought that these days and nights might finally lead to something.”

Is this true?  I don’t even know.  Certainly Degas was reputed to be overly fond of some of the young dancers he loved to paint.    But I do not think I shall be able to finish the book because I’m not sure my eyesight would survive it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Europe Comics for approving me for a copy of Degas & Cassatt.


When Edgar Degas was six years old (the family name was de Gas) on the other side of the world a baby named Peter was born to a family in Votkinsk a remote part of the Russian Empire.  The child’s father  Ilia, was a mining engineer.  His Mother Alexandra.   This baby was one of seven children and would become known to the world as  Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).  While Degas the artist craved recognition and fame, Tchaikovsky the musician shunned it.

The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, compiled and edited by Modeste Ilich Tchaikovsky, Translated by Rosa Newmarch

Although able to play and read music from the age of 5, Tchaikovsky was not trained as a musician formally until later in life.  Originally he trained for the civil service, but then won a place at the nascent St. Petersburg Conservatoire from which he graduated in 1865.  He was then aged 25.

In a letter to his brother Modeste, the composer wrote: (January 6th 1875)

“….I worked my nerves to pieces over my First Symphony.  And even now I often gnaw my nails to the quick, smoke any number of cigarettes and pace up and down my room for long before I can evolve a particular motive or theme…. But even when we are not disposed for it we must force ourselves to work. Otherwise nothing can be accomplished.”

In a letter to his patroness N.F Von Meck he wrote: (December 5th 1877)

“Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness.  Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls.  It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge and comforter for whose sake life is worth living.  Perhaps there will be no music in heaven.  Well let us give our mortal life to it as long as it lasts.”

A disastrous and very short lived marriage caused him to have a complete nervous breakdown.  Away from his beloved Russia he spent years wandering round Europe (mainly Italy) trying to work and regain his health.  I have long loved Tchaikovsky’s music.  He was one of my mother’s favourite composers and so I grew up with the Pathetique and Swan Lake. But who knew how beautifully he could write? And he is always homesick, a condition with which I can empathise.  How horrified he would be if he could see what was happening now.

From Florence (1878)

“You amid winter snows, and I in a land where the spring is green, and my window stands open at 11pm!   I look back with affection to our seasons.  I love our long, hard winters.  How beautiful it is.  How magical is the suddenness of our spring, when it bursts upon us with its first message!  I delight in the trickle of melting snow in the streets, and the sense of something life-giving and exhilarating that pervades the atmosphere!”



1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. A Memoir of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei kicks off this memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows (Trans. Allan H. Barr)  with one of his father’s poems ‘Yarkhoto’ with its overtones of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

It’s almost as if a caravan is wending its way through town

A clamour of voices mingling with the tinkle of camel bells

The markets bustling as before

An incessant flow of carts and horses

But no – the splendid palace

Has lapsed into ruin

Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows

Not a trace can be found

You who are living, live the best life you can

Don’t count on the earth to preserve memory.

Ai Qing 1980

Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei was the son of Ai Qing, a famous poet who also happened to be part of Mao Zedong’s friendship circle,  before the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the subsequent Cultural Revolution turned just about everyone – including Ai Qing –  into an enemy of the state.

These tumultuous events brought to an end the relatively comfortable life that the family had been able to live.  Ai Qing the poet and lecturer was suddenly labelled by the regime as a ‘purveyor of bourgeois literature and art,’  exiled, and subject to years of forced labour and other indignities in a frozen wasteland known as ‘Little Siberia’.  Into such an extreme existence,  Ai Qing was accompanied by his now 11 year old son, Ai Weiwei.

Here, they were allocated a ‘dugout’ in which to live:

 “ a square hole dug into the ground with a crude roof formed of tamarisk branches and rice stalks, sealed with several layers of grassy mud.”


Perhaps after the Bird’s Nest Stadium he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or perhaps after he carpeted the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern with 100 million sunflower seeds – each individually made by hand –  Ai Weiwei  would go on to become one of China’s best known exports.  He is also one of their best known social activists as a result of which he has spent some considerable part of his life on a direct collision course with the authorities.

Ai Weiwei starts the main part of his own story around 1981 when it became possible for him to travel as a student to the US – where he subsequently spent 10 years –  before returning to China.   He writes:

“In many people’s eyes, electing to go to America for study was tantamount to defection.  From 1949 onwards, it had been virtually impossible for Chinese to undertake study abroad that was not state sponsored. The country had been isolated from the west for more than 30 years, and from the Soviet bloc for more than 20 years.  Now, with the resumption of relations with the United States and Europe, I was in the first wave of students going abroad at their own expense.”

It is not clear how much studying gets done during this period in the US – in fact the narrative becomes opaque at this stage.  Ai Weiwei tells us that if we wish to know more of this section of his life we should read his brother Ai Dan’s book (his brother visited him in the US).  But there seems little doubt that his social activist persona became crystallised during this phase of his life.

By the time Ai Weiwei returns from the US to China in 1993, that country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds but he says: “the things that really needed changing had not changed at all.” The artist finds himself on a one man mission to change that.  And if this book is about anything it is about a sense of mission.

There are some surprising announcements during the narrative, eg: ‘I had been married for 10 years at that time and…’ oh really? Must have missed the announcement.  But this is not a memoir about marital relationships, it is a memoir about filial ones: Ai Weiwei’s own relationship to his father and later on, his to his son Ai Lao.

Although he talks briefly about the conception of some of his art works, there is little description of the interior processes behind them and a sense that much is not being said; there is a sense that he is by nature a cautious man and that he has lived his entire life having to be cautious despite his comparative outspokenness and activism,  despite his world fame.  Or because of those things. He knows he puts himself at risk and yet keeps to his chosen course.

The book covers the Tiananmen Square massacre 1989; the arrival of the internet in China (1994); the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan; the death of hundreds of children when their junior school collapsed in an earthquake – Ai Weiwei conducted an investigation into the building’s poor construction; the Twitter Revolution, the Arab Spring  in 2011 and in April of that same year, his own disappearance by state police.

Blogging  – an activity that many (including me) take for granted – was a remarkable freedom. A method of communication which gained Ai Weiwei millions of followers.

“Authority couldn’t be everywhere at once… I glimpsed an alluring land of free expression”

Alas this glimpse was relatively shortlived.

“The full name for State Security is ‘Domestic Security Protection’; its operations are veiled in secrecy… State Security’s targets include political dissidents, non-governmental organisations and human rights activists.”

By 2003 the Chinese Government had already launched the Orwellian sounding ‘Ministry of Public Security’ which included internet monitoring,  and by 2009 Ai’s blog was shut down by the state.  In 2013 the NSA whistleblower and activist Edward Snowden would inform the world from the Mira hotel in Hong Kong, that the US had more or less followed suit.  Although Snowden is not (so far as I know) a visual artist he knows a thing or two about the personal cost of speaking truth to power.  He has endorsed Ai’s work as ‘a remarkable testament to the eternal power of the simple, daring, truth…’. .


1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary life, I can’t recommend it enough. I will shelve my copy next to Ed Snowden’s Permanent Record.  For they surely belong together.