Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Roy Porter's Enlightenment, at the Samuel Johnson Reading Circle


On Tuesday the 19th of January the intrepid souls of the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle sat down to talk about The Enlightenment. Luckily they were aided in this mammoth task by Roy Porter’s mammoth book Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. 

The book is an expansive look through the long eighteenth century, focussing on the scientists, writers, talkers and doers of the period to make an argument that there was an English Enlightenment, even if it didn’t look much like the version spread by continental philosophes.

With such a large topic, and each of the 22 chapters able to generate a few hours of discussion in itself, the conversation moved quickly from one place to another and rapidly switched back from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. (I apologise for the ridiculous). One of the key factors of the book is that it is lazy to say The Enlightenment, as there were many different projects all with broadly Enlightenment ideals, creating many kinds of Enlightenment. Whether this was from the rationalisation of Anglican Christianity, the hundreds of different protestant groups or the full atheism of Hume - all held a certain optimism that life, society and human nature may all be understood, and improved.

The book explored the life and thinking of many English people, focussing particularly on the influence of Locke, Bacon and Newton as opening up new vistas of thought; from the improvability of human-kind and society, techniques for exploring the material world and the simple laws of motion - then it explored lives of people like Thomas Day.

Thomas Day was a bit of an all-rounder; hanging out with Erasmus Darwin and the rest of the Lunar Society, writing a bestselling novel, campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade and … training up a wife. Day, unable to find a perfect woman, decided to create one. To do this, he adopted two young girls from orphanages, one for a wife and one as a spare, and tried to train them into the perfect woman. He tried to encourage them to be stoic by dropping hot wax on them and firing blanks at their petticoats. Unsurprisingly, the experiment didn’t work and neither became Mrs Day, lucky for them.

There was an interesting discussion about whether Day was manipulating the women, or whether they were playing him. The contract they signed allowed the women a comfortable life if the experiment didn’t work out and could it have been possible that both were holding out not to have to be his dearly beloved? 

Day’s attempts at experimentation ended in disaster when he decided to test out a theory that horses didn’t need to be broken to be ridden, he was kicked and died soon after.

In Porter’s book, Day’s story is almost played out for laughs and many sitting round the room wondered whether the book, in trying to argue his case, was rather too optimistic about the whole Enlightenment. We thought he could have included more about how individuals took on enlightenment ideas for themselves. Samuel Johnson being a very good example, a man whose Christian Humanist tendencies struggled with fully accepting the Enlightenment thoughts but whose rational nature couldn’t let him abandon them.

Afterward we all went for some pizza and discussions continued. Is the long eighteenth century a useful time period? When did people start using it? (We reckoned the 1920s) And how many of us had jaunted up to the Isle of Wight at some point? 


The waitress told me, with some element of surprise, that the Venezia was the most favoured pizza on our table. Her tone suggested that it was not a particularly popular pizza in general, what is it about Johnson-ites that are attracted to sultanas on pizza? - Now that is the big question.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Under the Glass... Five: Writerly Diligence


I’ll admit, I’ve fallen off the wagon. 

The wagon in question being writing. I’ve barely written a sausage in three months. (Indeed, the log on my computer tells me that it has been 101 days since I last had a ‘proper’ go at my Death of a Dreamonger revision.) 

Samuel Johnson, on his tour through Scotland gave some of his typically useful and kind advice.

"A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it."

Not sure why I haven’t been quite so dogged of late; it’s not been through lack of ideas, nor has it been any kind of crippling self-confidence thing - I’ve just been…lazy.

I may blame it on shorter days, or the fact I am trying to have earlier nights; or that after I have worked, cooked, cleaned and read a few chapters, I’m just not in the mood.

This causes me a bit of a problem - because I’m not sure what else what else I am meant to do with my life. I work, but I only do that to fund my writing life. I read, but that’s not producing anything. I go to museums and theatres, I drink with friends and eat with family - but without writing I feel I am doing nothing. I start to wonder if I am just a burden on our fragile natural resources and London’s limited cheap(er) living space.

Samuel Johnson himself went through great swathes of his life without writing anything, sometimes for years at a time, and he produced a body of work that could be described as ‘not too shabby’.

And, typically for him, Samuel Johnson also offers some genuine words of sympathy for the lazy writer.

“Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”

I sometimes wonder what Johnson would make of our world now. I have the suspicion that he wouldn’t have made so much of himself, he was almost chronically prone to distraction in the life he led; what would he do in a world where youtube offers millions of easily digestible nuggets of information, there’s just one more personality quiz to decide ‘what kind of house-elf are you?’ and there are another 50 hilarious lists of auto-correct fails.


My own diligence may be very, very slow, but I do also persevere. Maybe I should make a resolution and drag myself back to it…after the next youtube video of course.


Thursday, 31 December 2015

Books of 2015


I enjoyed compiling my best 15 reads of last year, so I thought I would do it again. Like last year’s list, this is a compilation of my favourite books I have read, rather than books that have come out.

Reading this back to myself, I seem rather down on many of these books but I promise each one of the books on this list gave me a great deal of pleasure. So, here we are...


In at number 15…

The London Spy - Ned Ward

It started off brilliantly, Ned Ward can whip a character sketch and tell a dirty joke with great vivacity and pleasure. His delight in jotting down every disgusting thing Londoners in 1700 did and said to each other in various low-down, dirty dives was initially fascinating. It’s just that 300-odd pages of people throwing ‘sir reverence’ at each other and putting things up each other’s bottoms did get a little dull. 

Full review coming shortly-ish.


Number 14

The Sound of Coaches - Leon Garfield

Set in the world of coachman and coaches, this novel shed light on an area of eighteenth century life that I had never read anything about. Halfway through this became the more usual Garfield trope of the travelling performer, this was saved from being boring due to his very interesting reflections on the nature of performance and identity - especially as it pertained to the protagonist’s inner turmoil between the sturdy coachman part of his life and the flibbertigibbet actor side.

This conflict was resolved in a surprisingly low key and mature way, which endeared the book to me more. While it is good to have mad axe-murderers running rampage around London, sometimes it is also good to end up with compromise and growing up.

At number 13…

The Book of Werewolves - Sabine Baring Gould.

I did pick up this book with the hope that it was going to start with the assumption that werewolves were real and that werewolf stories were indeed history but it was a more layered work than all that.

Baring-Gould’s position is that werewolf (and other shape-changing animal) stories point to a certain mental illness, or even demonic possession, in common. The book was a mish-mash, taking in legends from all around Northern Europe, comparing and contrasting them. The book finishes off with a tour-de-force description of Gilles de Retz, a 15th century French nobleman who did horrible things to small children.

One of the most interesting elements of the book was a reflection on how much the werewolf myth has changed in the hundred-odd years since its publication. There is no mention of silver bullets, no war with vampires and no full moon. Werewolf transformations are the result of potions, curses, magic animal pelts and other witch-like magics. The older werewolf stories in this book are more vicious and more earthy. Most often the werewolf chooses to be that way in order to feel the thrill, the bloodiness of the wolf state is just a reflection on the bloodiness of humanity in its own pure form.

This was the kind of book I like, it told me slightly more than I wanted to know about a topic I hadn’t much considered. 

In at number 12…

Grub St Stripped Bare - Phillip Pinkus.

I bought this the same time as Pat Rogers book ‘Grub Street’. I read that a few years ago and now finally got around to this. The two could hardly be more different.

Rogers’ book is a painstakingly scholarly description of how a real street was used as a term of denigration for hack-writers, and the social and critical ways this metaphor was used to despair of the direction literature was taking. Phillip Pinkus’ book is more a miscellany of vibrant Grub street writings put into broad context by some pretty perfunctory text in-between.

Though I respect the Rogers’ text more, and learnt more from it, the Pinkus book was far more enjoyable. His selection of texts focus on the vicious, bitchy and endearing aspects of the Grub Street Persona. There was a lot of life and the texts themselves and the sketchy biographies that surround them and I had a good ol’ time.

Definitely less incisive or authoritative than Pat Roger’s book but more entertaining and probably more in line with the rough and tumble spirit of Grub Street.

Number 11…

Anatomy of Melancholy (Third Partition) - Robert Burton

I finally did it! Got to the end of this beast. 

The third partition was the most entertaining of the three. 

Burton is very funny talking about love, he is obviously a man of affections and humour and it shines through very well. Like Johnson, I prefer it when he writes in his own voice because you get a true sense that Burton would have been a great person to spend a bit of time with.

One thing that struck me was his tolerance of women. In the love melancholy section, he made use of a great many misogynistic texts, damning woman in every conceivable way. He merely laughs at the pettiness of those writers, points out that most of them changed their mind eventually and says that everything said about women could just as easily be applied to men. The conclusion to the love melancholy section was that while marriage could cause unhappiness, if the match was sensible, not too guided by money or looks, then it was the best route for happiness there was.

I particularly liked his ‘cure’ for a man wracked by sexual jealousy, marry a strumpet and at least he’d know he was being cheated on.

The religious melancholy bit was very interesting, a lot of the comments he makes that were directed to the extremes of the christian factions in the run up to the civil war could just as easily be applied to the extremists that abound now. On a historical note, it was interesting to see how knowledgeable he was about Islam, more than Donald Trump certainly.

The very last bit on despair dragged though - too Bible heavy for me and even more repetitive than usual. I could read about melancholy for page after page but despair, which is the particularly biting sense of melancholy that leads to suicide, is not an easy subject to read much on.

At number 10…

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris - Benjamin Harris (sort of).

This was a vivid, exciting and authentic account of one rifleman’s peninsular campaign as dictated to a local writer. 

We get the personal details, the weight of the backpack, the petty worries of the solders and most strangely, the causal and blasé attitude to the carnage. I imagine part of this tone was the time that had elapsed since the war and its telling and Benjamin Harris’s wish to look brave and cool in the face of danger but part of it did also seem to be a general acceptance of the blood and guts of fighting in an era that had powerful firearms but very little personal defence. 

His account of the retreat after Vigo and the Walcheran sickness was very moving and really painted the picture of a desperate march. It also revealed a little about the soldiers, that they were happiest fighting. 

The description is plain and clear and it is very easy to put yourself in his position and to ask that most pointless but interesting question. ‘what would I do?’


In at number 9…

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - Robert C O’Brien.

You may have seen the film, I hadn’t but did straight after - it’s a good adaption. This book is probably the American equivalent of Watership Down. Decidedly more domestic, Mrs Frisby is a widower who would go to any lengths to save her children, especially her sickly youngest.

It’s a moving story of the strength she finds in herself and there is also an interesting mystery in there about the titular rats of NIMH and their relation to her husband. I recommend this as a very involving and emotional journey played a little more subtly than the film.

(Just after this I read ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, that would be the top of my ‘worst of’ list if I had one).


At number 8…

Updike Willow - Christopher Soul.

I almost wasn’t going to put this book on the list as it was written by a friend of mine but I did anyway. It’s about the rocky and peculiar life of Updike Willow in the first 20-odd years of life.

I was utterly gripped for the first half of the book, there was so much in it I could connect with. I recognised characters from life, I knew many of the locations and some of the events had a deep resonance within me. 

It also revealed the difference between myself and the author - in this book, every drunken episode is followed by a hangover, there is a punishingly grittiness to the book that makes the moments of sweetness shine all the better.


In at number 7…

Unspeakable Curll - Ralph Strauss.

Wonderfully written, it presents Curll as a pretty loveable rogue with a definite sense of principles - even if pretty twisted ones. The tone is fantastic, full of brash love for its brash hero. I have reviewed it in full so read more there, or find a copy of the book.

Number 6…

Marginalia: Readers writing in Books - HJ Jackson.

Fascinating book about writing notes in books. It included history, the psychology and purposes of writing and gave examples of cases.

One of the things that most thrilled me were the number of marginalia from the notes of people I am interested in, writing in the books of other people I am interested in. It really opened my eyes to why people mark in books, those who use it as dialogue, as argument or even as a way to chat someone else up.

 It made me think of why I mark books when I do and what I’m trying to say. Any book that opens a new thing to think about suits me.

At Number 5…

Cloudstreet - Tim Winton.

I was challenged to read this as it is relatively modern. It’s an Australian, broadly magical realist tale of the life of two families who share a large haunted house in Perth.

At first I was irritated by the style. There was a little too much of the modern writer’s malady - trying to sound clever. The writer tried a little too hard at times, the obsfucation in the writing was sometimes off-putting. He also had a way of conjoining words that seemed irritatingly mannered. Like pointing out a ‘skyblue boat’ or someones ‘hammy crotchstink’.

Though as I read it, I began to be taken out of the text less and less, I started rooting for the characters, longing them to be happy and to find a place. Much like ‘A Hundered Years of Solitude’, the book used the magical elements (a ghost, an aboriginal man, the air of luck) to illustrate the character’s inner lives.

It’s a book about belonging to something. It frequently makes you feel very gloomy or smile out loud. Ultimately it makes you long for a Cloudstreet of your own. The moments were always well chosen, the main characters winning and the texture and emotion of the book kept you flowing.

Number 4…

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackery.

Written in a brilliantly Fielding-esque style but darker, more sinister and generally sourer. Too sour sometimes. 

I liked Becky and Amelia at first but as the book carried on and their positions in it were set, they became less interesting and my focus pulled over to the secondary characters. I grew to like. the Crawley lot especially, particularly the cantankerous old woman who held the purse strings. It was noticeable that by her death, she had withered away and become pathetic, which was sort of the case with all the characters in the book. It really does make you feel the time that is passing and the changes to everyone in that time in a way books very rarely do.

I would have put it even higher were it not for the fact that the last 50 pages seemed completely extraneous.

At number 3…

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte.

Strange and full of passions, this book really hooked me. I was lost in the characters and the deep dark and moody atmosphere of the piece, it had me galloping through it.

Although, every now and then a little voice in my head would complain that no characters in the book acted like real life people. Most of the time I was too engrossed in the driving emotion of it all for this to really bother me but if kept niggling.

I came to the conclusion that had I read this book when I was about 15, I would have utterly adored it and would regard Wuthering Heights as one of my favourite books ever. That was the problem with it - the characters didn’t think, act or feel like ‘real’ people but like teenagers. 

I would heartily recommend this to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, it’s deep and involving read.

In at number 2…

Black Jack - Leon Garfield.

I read so much Garfield this year that it was statistically likely he would turn up more than once, but had this been the only Garfield book I read, it would be up here. This book marries Garfield’s goofy set-pieces, vivd description and skilful wordplay with his best characters and most intriguing plot.

I’ve written more about it in my Leon Garfield reviews, so no need to blether now and get onto - 

Number 1….

Orlando Furioso - Ludovico Ariosto, translated and abridged by David Slavitt.

This translation really asks questions about the nature of the art. How much of this book is Slavitt’s and how much Ariosto’s?

Slavic takes a Princess Bride approach, chopping out whole cantos to make a ‘good bits’ version. The comparison to Princess Bride is furthered by his fondness for bad puns, silly rhymes and some anachronistic humour.

In some ways it doesn’t matter who’s book it is, as long as I enjoyed it. Which I did enormously. It is such an epic, daft story with sea monsters and hermits and fair maidens and knights who care more for the rules of chivalry then their lives.

Each knight is described as unbeatable, each horse is the fastest, each weapon or piece of armour is enchanted and each maiden is the most beautiful than all the rest. 

We have four main hero knights. On the Christian side is Orlando and Rinaldo and on the Muslim side is Rodomonte and Ruggerio. 

Then there are the lesser knights, Astolfo, Gryphon, Sacripant, Marisa and Bradamante - the last two being women.

Rugger was my favourite, and he was probably the main character. This was because out of all the hero knights, he was the least likely to succeed. His girlfriend had to save him from at least three enchanted castles; he lost battles with dog-faced men, giants and a sea monster - but he came through at the end and killed Rodomonte.

Rodomonte was a prick. He killed most of Paris single handed and then did some weird thing with the bridge. Rinaldo was a tad boring and Orlando netted a sea monster and then went mad, stripping naked, punching donkeys and tearing people in two.

When the book is full of action or silliness, Slavitt delivers. He loves the coincidences, the improbable action and the ‘boys toys’ element of the knightly adventure.

The translation really does get questionable when he translated Ariosto’s views on chivalry, or Christianity, or the virtue of pure womanhood. Those medieval sentiments do not work with his modern tone.

If the aim of the book was to entertain and introduce me to the world of Orlando Furioso, then the translation did very well. But if it was supposed to be an authentic translation (rather then retelling) then I am very sceptical. 

The shish-kabab jokes were funny, but ultimately unsettle the authority of the piece. 







Saturday, 17 October 2015

According to Queeney at the Dr Johnson reading circle.


Last Tuesday was the first of a series of reading groups taking place Dr Johnson’s House in London and led by Dr Jane Darcy, who has written a lot about biography in the late 18th and 19th centuries - of course, I had to check it out.

The first book under discussion was Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘According to Queeney’.


A few years ago on this blog, I looked at representations of Samuel Johnson in fiction (this being before I discovered the ‘Samuel Johnson, Detector’ series). In that post, I had this to say about the book.

‘What Beryl Bainbridge does is take all the original material and use a roving omniscient narrator to give new angles to the scene, usually close ups instead of the original text’s habitual use of a long shot. This is done with such skill and grace that the reader forgets the fictional element of what they are reading and it feels as if they are sitting in the room alongside Johnson, Hester and the rest. Although this is done very well, I wonder what the point of it is.  Most of what she is doing in the books can be performed by a good reader reading the original accounts. I suppose I find the original cutlets nice enough without the need for extra sauce.’

I have to admit, I didn’t much enjoy the book on my re-read. Johnson was presented as old, tired and annoying. If there was any affection for him in the book, it seemed to me to be the kind of affection you may have for a dog which may have been loveable once but now was an inert, panting, lump.

I found all the characters to be rather unlikeable - but I was intrigued by how that unlikeability seemed to stem from hurt, upset and misunderstanding. It was not until the end of the book, with an image of Mrs Desmoulins sitting at home, pining for the dead Johnson and roasting chestnuts, that I felt rather touched - and wondered whether there was more to the book that I had missed. I was hoping the group would point me in the direction of those things.

When I left the group - I did have a greater appreciation for the book. Johnson’s life was often a struggle between reason and emotion, whereas Boswell focusses on the ‘sword of reason’ battling the forces of unreason in a gladiatorial arena, Bainbridge focusses on the emotion, the domestic and the fleeting. 

It was pointed out how many scenes happen in stairways, doorways and other liminal spaces, neither wholly private or personal. These were the little, unseen moments that had huge impacts. This was the Johnson pining for a home, Hester Thrale searching for love and Queeney, longing for the love of her parents. This is the small rubs of life, the accumulation of bruises and hurts that can shape an existence. I can’t say it’s a view that makes me feel very good, but it’s certainly Johnsonian.

Also, where Boswell focusses on the lofty, Bainbridge goes for the squalid. There are enemas and vomits, worms and pills and the constant shadow of pregnancy and infant mortality. It was also pointed out how many animals litter the book. Johnson takes a great interest in dogs, cats and even the nobility of a rat trying to eke out a life for itself.

 I had underestimated the importance of the body, and Samuel Johnson’s body in particular. His whole life was shaped by the effort of negotiating his twitching, dribbling, aching body through the world and that this shaped his character as much as his intellect. 


I also had a great time. It was wonderful to be able to talk Johnson without people rolling their eyes and mouthing ‘here he goes again’. A few of us also went to the Cheshire Cheese afterwards and had some lovely Sam Smith beer and a good chat - so I went home a very happy bunny and look forward to the next one.



Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Leon Garfield -Trips into the 18th Century.

This month I’ve been focussing on a slightly forgotten children’s author from the 60s called Leon Garfield. He’s interesting to us because he sets many of his works within our favourite century, it also helps that he is very, very good.
I wasn’t intending to spend a month reading the guy but they say one good book deserves another and I got hooked. We’ll go through them in the order he wrote them rather than the order I read them.


Jack Holborn
Be prepared, we’re going to meet a lot of Jacks and Johns on this journey. 
Jack Holborn is an orphan, apprenticed to a cobbler (a fact that puts him off shoes for life) who runs away and stows away on a ship called The Charming Molly. Unfortunately for him, it’s attacked by pirates and he is discovered. 
This starts a journey all around the world, taking in dangerous swamps, strange natives, incredible treasure and a trip to a slave market - where they have to buy the captain back.
But there is a twist at the end - and the twist is bloody stupid. I won’t give it away but it is the worst, schlocky kind of nonsense. 
What’s more, the characters aren’t all that. Jack Holborn himself is rather bland, to the extent that even the narrator points out how unextraordinary Jack is. The Pirate Captain is sort of mysterious in the most normal way and Morris is your typical sturdy first mate. Only the character of Trumpet is interesting, he is a tricksy man, out for his own self but ultimately good at heart.
…So why did reading this book make me want to spend a month reading other Leon Garfield ones? It was the writing.
Usually, a person’s writing by itself is not enough to reel me in but Leon Garfield is a wonderful writer. He has this wonderful way with similes, often giving an over-the-top comparison that is a little cartoony. He also has a lovely way of slipping in wonderfully sharp jokes - here’s an example.
‘For a half of the tempest, my stomach must have thrown up every meal I’d had in my whole life; for a worse half, I prayed for I don’t know what: and for the worst half of all (a storm cares nothing for arithmetic and haves as many halves as it chooses)…’
I wanted more of these gems and I hoped he’d be able to match this to a better plot.


Devil-in-the-Fog
The second he wrote, though not the second I read, this did have a better plot.
George is a member of the Treets, a travelling acting clan of self proclaimed geniuses. The only problem in their life is The Stranger, who comes twice a year and gives them money, leaving the usually ebullient Mr Treet down in the dumps.
When the strange stops coming, it is revealed that George is not a Treet at all but the long lost son of the Dexter family. The father Dexter had been shot by his brother, the man considered responsible for snatching George at a young age.
George than has to find out who he is, how to fit in higher society and what secrets lurk within the pale, sinister Dexters. 
Though starting a little slow, things get very good in the middle. The fog is not only a literal one rolling off the South Downs but the question of who to trust becomes the real fog. Garfield builds up a genuine sense of confusion and dread. The solution to the mystery isn’t that bad either.
This taught me a valuable lesson about establishing group dynamic. The Treets are wonderful bunch, convinced that they are geniuses and affirming it to each other. There is also the word ‘we’ which is used judiciously in the first section - making George being taken away all the more poignant.
This book had one of the best protagonists in any of the Garfield books, George’s sense of himself keeps him strong throughout the story.


Smith
The third I read.
This one is about a pickpocket who steals a piece of paper from a gentleman who is then killed, for the paper Smith now has. Unable to read, he needs to find out what the paper says and what he can do about it.
A slower start than some of his other books, but it truly picks up once our hero, George, is lost in the fog. Throughout the middle of the book nobody is clear, all actions and intentions are murky and trust is thin and sparing. Even the book's final chapter, where the mystery is laid out, is interrupted by multiple interpretations and viewpoints. 
Smith started out as a stronger Garfield protagonist, his street smarts and skill at weaving in and out of 18th Century London’s mazes and warrens made him a character of true agency. His teeth were rather pulled out in the middle when he was practically adopted by the Blind Judge Billings but he got it back a bit when imprisoned in Newgate.
His Newgate escape is particularly good, taking in some choice Jack Shepherd tropes and ratcheting up the tension with real skill.
Again, the mystery of the stolen paper was a little weak but we’d had enough fun on the way to forgive that.


Black Jack
Absolutely brilliant. I said about Jack Holborn that his style needed to be married to a decent story - this was it.
It starts evocatively with Mrs Gorgandy the ‘new mint widder’. She spends every day pretending to be the wife of the recently executed so she can sell the body to the atomists. At the beginning of this book, she was obtained the corpse of Black Jack, a man so huge she uses young Tolly to help her carry him in. She then leave Tolly with the body while she goes to drum up custom.
This is when Black Jack awakes, having swallowed a metal tube to keep his airways open. He bashes about, complaining that he is ‘weak and helpless as a babe’ and not reached his ‘full strength.’ As he bashes about he pulls the metal bars off the wall and abducts Tolly.
Tolly and Black Jack find themselves in a moving carnival, shacked up with a mounteback who’s face promises great things his brains can’t deliver. Told falls out with Hatch, his hate-worthy apprentice and they also find Bella, who was displaced in a carriage accident and on her way to Bedlam. 
This is where the story gets strange,
Tolly and Belle start to fall in love and Belle gets better, but Hatch has plans that will lead to Bedlam after all….
It is gloriously schlocky. There’s a scene with a mad axe murderer chasing a character through London, but being a rather aged mad axe murderer, runs out of puff. There are the keepers of Bedlam, this being a wonderful description of Mrs Mitchell’s favourite phrase, ‘you never know’;
‘Mrs Mitchell knew what she was talking about. She’d a great long experience in not knowing. In her competent, assured way, she was something of an expert in ignorance.’
The villainous Hatch is described thus;
‘Hatch, when he stepped in another man’s shoes, did so with the object of stealing them.’
There were quotables throughout this book, from a description of a body washed up on by the sea with ‘an air of ‘is this yours? I don’t want it’, to the scar of a hanging denoting that the recipient was being ‘returned to his Maker with a complaint’.
It’s a brilliant book and, in reading this one second, I was hooked on the quest for another.


Mister Corbett’s Ghost and Other Stories
This is a collection of three short stories and they all show that Leon Garfield is a very good writer.
I was particularly impressed by his use of repetition. He knows how to repeat words to make them funny, moving, serious and more. I can't think of any writer who can use repetition with such keenness and finesse.
The first, Mr Corbett's Ghost, was about a boy who so wished for his master to be dead that when the master did so, his ghost followed him around. The phrase mainly repeated was 'heart and soul' - the master wanting the boy to put those into his work. In being haunted by the lost, lonely soul of his hated employer, young Benjamin learns what is in the employers heart and soul and it touched him greatly.. 
The second story was about a great painter embarrassing his apprentice when he goes to paint a sea battle in-situ. The painter is a real dingy, cowardly man but good with a brush and the story makes a point about what glory may actually be, and how great talent can be wrapped in dingy packages.
he third, another story with soul selling, was about love getting the main character both in and out of character. He was sentenced to transportation and unwillingly becomes part of a mutiny after he falls in love with one of the free passengers on the ship.
This also included scenes I've never read in a sea story; such as being locked in a hold with a bunch of loose fetters flying about and a marvellous description of a ship with its sails furled being like a house with the roof opened.
These short stories were probably my second favourite Garfield books after Black Jack.


The Book Lovers
A very, very unusual book.
Unlike all the other Garfield books I read, this one is not about a young boy in the 18th century but about a young man in the 20th.
The man falls in love with a librarian but unable to speak properly to her, hands her an extract from a 19th century novel about love. She later hands him a different extract back and so it goes, the 20th century love story only proving as a frame for love extracts from 19th century novels.
I very much enjoyed most of the extracts (only having read Madame Bovary in the original novel) and it added a few more books to the list of those I would like to read…but the frame story was a little weak.
The extracts chosen seemed to highlight how opposite the young man and his prospective lover were, they duel through extracts, they so not woo. It’s amazing how un-loved-up this book of extracts of love scenes made me and it left me feeling that the young man and the librarian were not going to be together for very long. If anything, it would all go to pot the minute they opened their mouths and actually spoke to each other.


The Sound of Coaches
The best of his later books and maybe my second favourite overall. The Sound of Coaches uses the familiar Garfield tropes of the child of low social standing and mysterious parentage trying to decide his loyalty - but its done very well.

First of all, this in the only novel set (at least partly) around the life of the coachman. That whole eighteenth century subculture of roads and constant movement was one I hadn't considered before and seeing it through Garfield's evocative eyes was very enjoyable.

This is also one of his most adult books, there are lots of moments of reflection. The whole second half of the book is set amongst touring actors and asks quite interesting questions about how we live in reality and in dreams - and what an actor's life, where the dreamworld of the stage has so much vigour than reality, does to a person.

There are other lovely touches, like a few character where the main character, Sam, is drunk and lordly refers to himself as 'one' in his own internal monologue. There's another part which is narrated from the baby Sam's viewpoint - not in terms of language but in terms of understanding (where he frequently gets irritated that all his attempts to communicate are followed by being fed).

Finally, the ending is very different to the usual one - no axe murders or gunfights here, things just shuffle themselves into a new status quo. It's not a climactic ending but it manages to be a satisfying one.


John DIamond
By far the weakest I read. His protagonists have all been a little see-through compared to his other characters, but William Jones is particularly ineffectual. What's more he is narrow, a little cruel and extremely stupid. I didn't like him very much at all. Unusually, the book was narrated by William in a very self-conscious way. There was plenty of direct addressing to the audience and intimation of what was to come, it made the book seem a little tawdry.
Also, the usually sparking squibs the other books have been peppered with fell flat. Partly this was because of the direct narration and partly it was because they were more like dad-jokes than proper jokes. There was one part where William narrated that someone threw a bucket of water at him - then clarifies that it was only the water that was thrown and not the bucket. This is a long way from the discussion of a storm's poor arithmetic in Jack Holborn.
Finally, the mystery didn't really change anything. When it was solved, the characters were much the same, and in the same positions as they had been before. I couldn't really understand why two of the characters had made it mysterious in the first place.
I wouldn't recommend this particular Garfield novel, but it's the only one I have read so far that disappointed.