Tag Archives: Bodleian

My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( http://www.maryrussell.info) .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home http://www.maryrussell.info which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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The Turner Prize 2014 disappointment

I first went to the Turner Prize Winner exhibition the year Damian Hirst won and it was brilliant. His take on isolation ( the dots) and separation ( mother and offspring at birth) got me thinking. Separation is something we  all experience and have to deal with.His bisecting of a cow, of course, drew criticism. He was trying to shock, people said. Maybe he was, shock us into thinking about this most primal moment when we are expelled from our mothers’ bodies into  an unforgiving world where we experience cold, hunger and instability. Shocking.

But this year’s exhibition did nothing to reach into the void. The winner is Irish-born Duncan Campbell who expounded his theories about capitalism in a leaden dull way. Videos dominated, accompanied by a monotone commentary. The commentary was sometimes too fast to understand and the superimposed text illegible. Marxist theories were offered which, unless you knew something of Marxist equations, meant nothing.Most Marxists I know are incapable of dialogue and deal only in monologues in which there is no space allowed for an outside contribution. This was no exception.

One theory offered was about the way in which icons are commercialised to the point at which they no longer stand for their original statement. But for Christ’s sake, anyone who has been around for a few years already knows that the ban the bomb sign or the black and white keffiyeh worn by Yasser Arafat have been reproduced as fasion items which have no connection to their original political statement. Are the judges of the Turner Prize that far removed from life that they themselves were unaware of this?

Campbell states that museums have now become, not simply the guardians but the owners of foreign artifacts. This comes from the refusal of the  British Museum to give him access to artifacts from Benin so that he had to use reproduced images of them rather than filming them for his video.

But Africa, the victim of colonialism and thereby relieved of its cultural treasures, is the easy option. Why did he not look closer to home. Not exotic enough, perhaps. Had he taken a trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, he would have come across plenty of illuminated manuscripts, from Ireland, which have been “acquired” by the Bodleian.

And so the viewer is left with the impression that Duncan Campbell has been living in an ivory tower where his politics have gone unchallenged. Think the Young Ones – remember them – and you get the idea.

No, the prizewinners exhibition has been a disappointment. Worse, it is boring.

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B.S.Johnson and the Dublin Unicorn

                                 Man with a hole in his book.

 Two top novelists are looking to find new ways of telling stories. Interactive ebooks are indeed one way of doing this but Will Self and Blake Morrison could also glance backwards over their shoulders at B.S.Johnson whose novel Albert Angelo, published in 1964, predated the idea of the interactive book by fifty years. The novel comes unbound, the pages loosely packed in a box so that the reader can shuffle them as they wish. 

The only two chapters that are static and not to be moved are those marked First and Last. How and when events pan out in between is up to the reader. A spyhole, cut through a number of pages, allows the reader to fast forward – without  recourse to a keyboard – in order to see what happens in the future.

 Taking  inspiration from all this,  I’m now experimenting with a two-version short story whereby both versions have similar beginnings and endings but totally different middles.

      B.S.Johnson’s death by suicide, in 1973, was a tragic loss to avant-garde literature but he is not forgotten. His poem, A Dublin Unicorn, crops up from time to time and the Bodleian Library, Oxford, has a copy of Albert Angelo.

 Mary Russell is a writer based in Dublin and Oxford. Her latest book is about Syria.Here’s the link: http://wp.me/p1Frlu-2k


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Graham Greene and a few tricks of the trade.

Ive just got a novel by Graham Greene out of the library. You know when you do that you’ll read to the end and enjoy every minute. The novel is The Confidential Agent and comes with an interesting intro by Ian Rankin. In it, he tells us that The Confidential Agent was written in 1938, over a period of six weeks, and published the following year. But if the six weeks bit gets to you, the next bit will slay you. While Greene spent the mornings of those six weeks writing The Confidential Agent, he spent the afternoons writing The Power and The Glory. Got that? Two novels at the same  time.

Well,this week, I’ve been in the Gladstone Library ( deep in the bowels of the Bodleian) working on a short story I’ve been incubating for about 10 years. In the middle of the story, the character moves into a family setting though somehow, the family seems wrong. Too big, too small, too dark, too transparent, too many people, not enough people. Just not right. But you never know how these things will turn out – so I pressed on seeking to get to the end.

Then, after reading about Graham Greene and his two novels, a light bulb flickered on. Why not make a run for it by writing a parallel story with a totally different family setting?  Now I can’t wait for tomorrow to see what happens when things collide. See you there?



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