Category Archives: Books

Famous writer pinches things in Regents Park


From Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On

I was given this book for Christmas and am now on page 361 out of 753. Quite a bit to go which is great as I won’t want it to end.

Also reviewing another book at the same time and the temptation, with KOKO, is to pick up a pen and make notes. Fatal. I’d be making notes all the time.

Here’s one anecdote out of many: he cycles through  Regent’s Park every day for the exercise but one day it’s raining so he walks.

“Almost out of piety and a respect for a tradition I filch a couple of  branches from the base of  a balsam poplar  on the north side of Regent’s Park. The buds are hardly open  and thus are briefly heavily scented.  Now in a glass on the sitting room mantelpiece they bring a flavour to the room as they have done every spring for the last forty years.”


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Books my mother gave me

It was a chance remark overheard on a train, someone recalling a book given to them by their mother, not one I recognised.

Mine were The Hound of Heaven and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The first has a blue cover and the other a soft leather cover, smooth to the touch. I can feel it now. But wait – they have long since disappeared, shoved into battered cases and pushed under the bed. Or stowed in black plastic sacks and carried from one Earls Court bedsit to another and then lost on the momentous journey that led to married life.

Lost but not gone for they were treasured gifts from my mother to my teenage self in the days before teenagers were invented, categorised as YA, isolated in bookshops  a month and cut off from the chequerboard of poetry.

And so, some years,  I give myself a treat by swearing faithfully to read  a book of poetry a month.

Last time I did this, about ten years ago, I kept my New Year’s Resolution for three or four months and then forgot….

I may do better this year though then again I may not.

I can’t recall how I heard about Portadown poet Sam  Gardiner. Perhaps it was his marvellous witty poem  Protestant Windows for it was this one that made me buy the book – published by Lagan Press in 2000.

Here’s the poem:

Protestant Windows

They come at sunset peddling daylight, two

Salesmen wearing glasses through which they view

His shabby sliding sashes with disdain.

“Wood?” they suppose and feign

Dismay. “Yes, comes from trees.”

And he raises the drawbridge ten degrees,

a hurdle to reservists

but child’s play to frontline evangelists

with news of paradise

in earth ( at this address to be precise)

in whitest white PVC.

“Think of all

the blessings. And if economical

heavenly comfort isn’t what you need,

think of our Earth,” they plead

and their plastic-rimmed, double-glazed eyes glow

with love for generations of window

salesmen as yet unborn.“If I were you,

I’d save  my CO2

For atheists and papists. I doubt

They even know about King Billy.” “Who?” “William lll to you,

Brought sliding sashes to

Britain. Fetched in pure air and sanity.

Without him we’d still be in the dark.

“Sorry, we must go. It’s late,” they say

And beat a retreat to the gate,

And pause. Quick as a flash

He raises an effortlessly sliding sash

For a parting shot. “Plastic heretics!”

He shouts. The window sticks.

He lugs, a sash cord snaps. The window  drops

On his head, where it stops.

Latimer and Ridley know how he feels

As bloodied, martyred for his faith, he reels

Towards eternity,

Where planets, the  latest novelty,

Are looking less and less

Like being a success

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Always the bridesmaid?

Went last week  to see Pinter’s No Man’s Land at London’s Aldwych Theatre, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

Patrick Stewart had lost his voice and so his understudy took over.

At the end of the play. Ian McKellan came forward and praised the performance of the understudy. And quite rightly as it was excellent.

Two points: as the cast were taking their curtain calls ( there were three) McKellan kept the understudy’s hand  in his – a brotherly gesture or an attempt to prevent the understudy from stepping forward to take a well-earned applause of his own? Still, that’s the theatre for you.

And the second point? McKellan got the understudy’s name wrong so here it is:  Andrew Jarvis.

If you’re interested in the plight of the understudy – always the bridesmaid never the bride – have a look at David Weston’s excellent book Covering McKellan. He spent a year as understudy to Ian McKellan when the latter was touring Lear.

Poignant but a story that has to be told. All part of the theatre canon.

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Hisham Matar and the lost father.

His latest boook, The Return, has just been broadcast on BBC R 4.

It is heartbreaking and for that reason I don’t think I can now read the book. On the other  hand, it is so heartbreaking that I know I must read it.

The Return is  a memoir about his search for the father he fears he will never find.

In the Country of Men, a novel, is about a child’s search for his father. It ranks high in my chosen books and I have always been glad I read it. I am now reading it again.

It is about a marvellous man – the father in the story – who disappears from his home in Libya, is sought in Cairo and disappears again.

Since writing the novel, Matar has gone in search of his father again and so found out more about him.  The memoir is about loss and also about the man who has  been lost.  Lost forever? Only the writer knows.

The final sentences in the radio broadcast were so powerful that I was left alone, in the silent kitchen, the only other person there with me Hisham Matar.



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Young Syrian has refreshing viewpoint

Seventeen year old Nujeen  Mustafa, a Kurdish Syrian asylum seeker. is a tough nut. With the help of her sisters, she fled Syria last yeat, negotiating the  3.500 mile sea and overland journey in her wheelchair.

Interviewed in the Guardian recently she offered a refreshing view on the Harry Potter book: “Harry Potter is such a lifeless book, there’s too little emotion and too much display of power… it makes every boy in the world think they are the chosen  one.”

Clearly,  the hype failed to reach  Manjib, a town in northern Syria.

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My reading group has chosen The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. To the 12-year-old protagonist, the world is her oyster and she prepares for her entry into it by changing her name from Frankie to F.Jasmine. She also takes time out to sign  herself F.Jasmine Esq. Why she uses the title Esq is unexplained by the writer which adds to the telling as we are left to work out for ourselves that F.Jasmine has probably seen letters addressed like this to her father who runs a jewellery business.

When I was 12, I wrote letters home from boarding school addressed to M.P.Russell Esq having observed that was how letters were addressed to my father. ( The Esq bit seemed fitting enough as he was a civil servant,  a senior civil servant as my mother always corrected me.)

“Why do you put Esq on the envelope,” a girl at school asked. “Does he own land?”

I was non-plussed. People in Dublin didn’t own land. Not the ones I knew. They owned houses alright, if they had the money, But of course, if you came from out of Dublin, in that place called down the country which was everywhere except Dublin, you most likely did own land, fields and fields of it. But those people didn’t have Esq on the envelopes, just plain Mr and Mrs. Of course, with the Esq business, my mother was left out of the equation altogether.


I am now half way through The Member of the Wedding and things are hotting up for our twelve year old heroine. She was, she knew, going to be famous. For what, she didn’t know. Reading the news or participating in a dramatic event of some sort. But definitely famous.

I recognised that almost-famous feeling from when I was her age which was why I practised my signature in different ways: neat and careful, artistic with lots of curlicues,wildly adventurous with enormous flourishes. I worked away on them all during one particular exam when I had finished early and had nothing else to do. Mary Russell  I wrote, over and over again. Mary Russell, Mary Russell Mary Russell. MARY RUSSELL!!!!  Then, calming down: Mary Russell


And when the bell rang to indicate the exam was over. I bunched up the sheet of paper and threw it in the waste paper basket. Except that I had been observed.

“What is this,” asked the head nun, known to us as Quack, holding out the A4 page she had retrieved from the basket and smoothing it out so that my sin of pride ( was it one of the seven deadly sins?) was revealed over and over again.

“Who is it written for and why,” asked Quack and I stalled. How could I possibly explain I was practicing my signature for when I became famous.

Yep, F.Jasmine and I had a lot in common. Though while she actually chose the Jasmine bit of her name, I concealed from everyone that my confirmation name was Fatima.That would have ruined the whole famous thing. Mary was bad enough. As the song went:

For she was Mary, Mary,

Plain as any name can be.

Maybe that’s why I never became famous – though I’m still practicing.



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What’s it like when your book is remaindered?


Mary Russell

My books, my homing pigeons

First you write a book and your publisher sells it. Fine. Then it’s remaindered or the publishing house closes. Happened to me twice – and on both occasions I bought 50 copies of each book, giving them later to unsuspecting relatives at Christmas or substituting them for those bottles of cheap wine you bring to dinner parties.

Fool. I should have bought the lot because now I’m forced to go cap in hand to second-hand booksellers – Amazon even – looking for copies of my own books to buy. Why? Because my most recent book – a travel book about Syria before the war – has reawakened an interest in my remaindered books and I get asked for them at book festivals and when giving readings.

A check of second-hand online booksellers reveals more than 50 copies on offer, which is great. However, closer investigation proves dispiriting. ‘Pristine condition’, trills the seller, meaning it’s never been read – though distinguishes between ‘gently-used books’ and, I suppose, those that have been hurled around like bags aimed at a carousel.


‘Some tanning’ means the book has been lying on a window sill among the dried up geraniums for aeons.’Ex-library’ means no one was reading it and anyway they needed the space. But at 0.01p per copy plus £2.50 postage you can’t complain especially if you manage to sell it at a reading, which is the whole point of the exercise.

So what’s it like, having your own book return complete with pages turned down or possibly a coffee-cup ring? One came winging back to me with a postcard inside  from one reverend person to another, describing his holiday in Scotland with  Hilda though glad to to be back home and hoping the recipient enjoys the enclosed book.

Another had, inside, one of those address stickers Oxfam send to encourage you to buy your Christmas cards from them – except the name was that of one of my neighbours. And he never said. Cheek.

Then there are the sellers.A hospice in Sussex badly needs  £3 million and all I’m buying is one book and, oh look, here’s one that’s run by an NGO that helps people facing discrimination. Then there’s Tree Savers who are committed to recycling books rather than pulping them which, in the second-hand book world is tantamount to stamping on butterflies. According to the Publishers Association, 61 million books were returned unsold to publishers in the UK last year and that’s a lot of trees but nevertheless, says the PA, pulping is a last resort.

The idea of pulping a book is so terrible that now I lie awake at night worrying about adding to the crime of deforestation and the effects on the environment. Up till then, I thought saving  my own books from pulping and wearing bamboo socks would do the trick.

However, take heart. No book is an unwanted book, a librarian in Killarney tells me. They’re simply redistributed or sold to readers.

The problem is space. At home, you can pile them up on the stairs or under the bed, but neither of these options is open to libraries. And no, no books are pulped, Jane Mason of Oxfordshire County Libraries says firmly. Instead, they circulate theirs among their 43 branches, which also hold regular book sales.

Where do they all come from, these pre-used though much-loved books? James Carruthers, who runs the Oxfam Bookshops, says many just come through the door as donations. Jake Pumphrey, responsible for The Last Bookshop – with branches in Salisbury, Oxford and Bristol – says he is in the secondary market not the second-hand book trade, which means he buys remaindered books from publishers at a reduced rate: ‘Publishers often print too many copies and with warehousing so expensive they sell on to us.’ Anything other than pulping.

Newspapers are usually awash with books. The Irish Times, for which I freelance, regularly holds an internal sale, the frenzy of which leaves the Harrods one standing. There’s also the case of the review copy. One of my books was self-published and my publicist – yes, that’s me as well – sent out review copies to all the reputable broadsheets and within two weeks some of those were being offered on Amazon. Cute hoors, those newspapers.

My recent trawl through the booksellers led me to one who advertised The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt quite poetically: ‘Unread, slight scent to mask damp smell: kept in an attic for 20 years.’ I emailed him and we chatted. ‘It was my mother’s,’ he said, ‘and I found it after she died. I’ll miss it but it really belongs to you.’

Reader, I bought it.


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