Lockdown reading

Well although I have been able to carry on working, during the lockdown period, there has been much more time spent at home during the spring and summer than usual. At least part of that time has been spent ploughing through some fairly substantial books. Normally I turn instinctively towards fiction from the past 100 years or so. Oddly of the four books I’ve recently read, only one of them falls into this category. I guess it’s good to change some old habits from time to time.

DOLCE VITA CONFIDENTIAL - Shawn Levy

I’d picked this up a month or two before lockdown, in the excellent, “The Last Bookshop” on Park Street in Bristol. A veritable goldmine of brand new books at ridiculously low prices. This hardback beauty set me back the grand total of £3, which amazingly is the top price in the shop. Not that long ago, Park Street was overflowing with book shops and records shops, it was a street that was designed to separate me, from my money, yet it provided so much in return. Sadly, The Last Bookshop is exactly that (although Radio/On a few doors sells a fine selection of books, in what is primarily a music store. The staff in these two outlets tend to flit between either location, which can be a little confusing sometimes) on this much changed street.

Anyway, back to the book. Another use of my time during the enforced period of staying at home, was to catch up with some classic Italian films, the likes of La Dolce Vita, L’Eclisse. La Strada, I Vitelloni and 8 1/2 and, from more recently, La Grande Bellezza (which is a perfect counterpoint to La Dolce Vita from 55 years earlier). The book charts the rise of the post World War Two film industry, as Italy dragged itself out of the disastrous effects of the war. It’s also incorporates, the almost unstoppable rise of the Italian fashion industry and the links between these two potent creative forces. Somehow, thanks in-part, to these influential enterprises, the Italy of the 50’s and 60’s became one of the coolest places on the planet.

There is much talk of the legendary Cinecitta, the Rome studio complex that was the epicentre of film development in post war Italy. Heavyweights such as Fellini, Mastroianni and Loren rub shoulders in the book with the sleazy, cut throat world of the paparazzi and less talented actors and directors, willing to do anything to achieve fame and fortune. If you have any interest in Italian cinema or Italian culture in all it’s forms, then this book is, much like the Lambretta scooters that weaved around the streets at the time, a fun, noisy, chaotic ride through a country that is changing at an incredible speed. It is though a book that cares deeply about cinema and the legacy that that was formed from those golden years.

ABIGAIL - Magda Szabo

The lockdown was fairly recent when I read a piece in The Guardian by Catherine Taylor. It was on books that could broaden your horizons, at a time when everything had become very, very local. There were several interesting suggestions and after some email chat with the people at Max Minerva’s, our local bookshop, I plumped for Abigail, the one work of fiction on this list of my recent reading. A couple of days later they had delivered a copy to me. I’d never heard of Magda Szabo before and that was part of the attraction. Often, I’m guilty of having preformed ideas in my head about certain writers, musicians, artists and the like after years of reading about them. Sometimes these are good guidelines, on other occasion they can restrict what I engage with. Sometimes I keep persisting with things that I feel I “should”like. Also I reject some things that don’t sound “very me”. Only to find out much later than I really enjoy them.

Magda Szabo was a Hungarian writer and this book from 1970, is apparently her most widely read book in her native country. The book takes a risk by having central character who is far from pleasant or sympathetic for large chunks of the novel. It’s set in 1943 and as war is surrounding the country, Gina, the central character, is sent away to a boarding school by her her concerned father. He is in the army and is aware of the way things are developing. The daughter is furious about this turn of events.

The journey here is us watching her development, we wonder if she will ever be able to move on from her arrogance and entitlement. The school is a very tightly controlled environment, in some ways mirroring the seldom mentioned fascist controls that are hovering around Hungary at the time. Compliance and the rejection of the value of the individual are as important in the school and they are in the developing situation outside. It’s a novel that builds a tension as we wonder how people can change themselves when faced with overwhelming odds. An interesting read and I will look out for the other novels by Szabo.

BROKEN GREEK - Pete Paphides

Pete Paphides has been a music writer and broadcaster, that I have been aware of for as long as I can remember. It would be wrong to call him a music critic because he makes a point of sharing things that he loves with us. Whilst some people who write or talk about music, want to make themselves the focus of any piece, he is the complete opposite. He sense of love, awe and respect for the people who make the music that he enjoys, is always palpable.

This autobiography about the early years of his life, had been getting some excellent reviews and feedback before the lockdown was something we had even contemplated. The book emerged with a dreadful sense of timing, for those of us who like to head to a shop and pick up a book. Luckily though, those lovely folks at Max Minerva’s sorted me out and got it to me in quick time.

You may have already guessed from Pete’s surname (and the title of the book), that his family are Greek. This book talks with a beautiful honesty, about the difficulties he encountered as a child of parents who were desperately trying to make their way in their adopted country.

It’s a book that is often fantastically funny as we see the world through Pete’s eyes, trying to make sense of the world and the differing lives that he see’s around him. It’s staggering to read of his difficulties with communication, given his wonderfully conversational broadcasting style. He captures brilliantly the dilemmas of a person who choses not to speak, whilst being intensely aware of the problems that this causes for those around him.

Given what we know about Pete now, it’s no major surprise that music plays a huge part in opening out his world. He was fantastically obsessive about music and completely baffled by the fact that some of the music he would was not widely admired. There is so much to enjoy in his writing about the overwhelming importance of music in his world during those teenage years.

There are also wonderful sections on his mum and brother. His relationship with his father is more complex and is covered is a very honest away. There are, eventually, some friends. Through them the world opens up though there are, inevitably, some mishaps along the way.

The writing is so evocative, that the personal story becomes universal, we thrill at his triumphs and are hit hard by his setbacks. The writing about music is incredibly good. I was never a fan of Abba, but his unbridled enthusiasm, almost won me over! Another band they we both love though are Dexys Midnight Runners and one piece on them, almost gave me the physical sensation of being at one of their unique gigs.

It’s a book that deals with confusion, alienation, inspiration and obsession. It does so in such a captivatingly inclusive way that you are placed right that in the centre of those confusing young years of his life. A wonderful read. I hope there is a follow up volume planned.

WALTER GROPIUS - Fiona MacCarthy

Recently there has been a great deal of coverage of the Bauhaus design school, as the centenary of this remarkable institution was celebrated last year. This is an excellent biography of it’s founder Walter Gropius. It’s actually nice to read about his life both before and after those Bauhaus years. He was only directly involved with the Bauhaus for ten years of his life, so there is much else to learn about.

Given his now legendary status, it fascinating to hear how volatile and financially challenged his life was. Up until his move to America, his professional and personal life was often in various degrees of chaos. The supporting cast in life is overflowing with fascinating and volatile characters. Often those that you would hope, to be the most supportive of him and his work, were actively undermining him. The turmoil in Germany following the end of the first world war is well captured. Political affiliations come and go, leaving him and his work very exposed to changing loyalties of civic and national authorities. His first wife Alma, is a remarkable individual, it pretty safe to say that their relationship provided a huge number challenges to him during and after their marriage. There was greater stability with his second wife, Ise. She undoubtedly, was a crucial part in his success . This relationship was not without it’s stresses either though.

It was interesting to read in some detail of his time in London, as he tried to forge a professional career here. Sadly it seems that Britain was not quite ready to fully embrace the modernist approach that Gropius took. So despite some very enthusiastic support from a few individuals here, he time here would ultimately be a frustrating one.

Some of the greatest figures in 20th century culture pass through the book, resulting in a journey that is never dull. All in all, Fiona MacCarthy does a brilliant job of pulling together a complex story in a very readable way.

THE MACHINE STOPS - E.M. FORSTER

This is something rather extraordinary, a short story by E.M. Forster that eschews his normal style of witty and literate dissections of class and manner in early 20th century. This is, as far as I am aware, his only work of science fiction. Written in 1909, it provides a ridiculously accurate portrait of the the world that we live in now.

The sense of isolation experienced by so many during the lockdown provides the story with even greater relevance. The future that the story is set in, see’s people there own bubbles with audio and video on demand, even a form of video calling features. Amazingly prophetic. It’s available in a collection called Twentieth-Century short Stories and is well worth tracking down.