Still – William, by Richmal Crompton
Published by George Newnes, 1925
For all I know, this is a first edition – there’s no date on the copyright page. But it won’t be worth much, as it’s in a shocking condition. I believe my grandmother bought it for me at a jumble sale in about 1968, which would mean I’ve owned the book for half its life, and must carry some of the responsibility for its physical collapse. There’s no sign of the original cover:
– but the contents are all present and correct, complete with the sublime Thomas Henry illustrations. Still – William sees the arrival of Violet Elizabeth Bott, William’s Truthful Christmas, and a thoroughly unacceptable (to modern sensibilities) account of William’s restaging of the Wembley Empire Exhibition. (Though probably no less unacceptable than the original.) Crompton was an adult writer who happened to write children’s books, so they can still be re-read with pleasure – or you can let Martin Jarvis do the work for you.
Anyway, this was my first “Just – William” book. I was immediately hooked, and was swiftly buying new paperbacks of William stories for 3/- a time. I wish I’d stuck to jumble sales, as editions like this had been shorn of chapters, with the illustrations smudgy and the cover art reprehensible.
Original dustjacket art: childrensbookshop.com
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape 1997; this edition Vintage 1998
I arrived late at Great American Novels, and hit gold with American Pastoral. I’ve read a fair amount of Roth since, but this was my first, and it’s quite simply one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Seymour Lvov, alias “The Swede”, the man who has everything – and deservedly so. But he doesn’t deserve what happens when his daughter turns against him in the mid-1960s. The old certainties are tossed aside, prosperous old Newark becomes a hollow shell, and the horrors of Vietnam and racial/generational unrest pull the Swede’s world apart.
“We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares.”
Baldwin by Roy Jenkins
This came from Hay, in a curious C-format edition. Since Baldwin, I’ve read several of Roy Jenkins’ elegant and informed political biographies, but this was the first. At 166 pages, it’s really more of an extended essay, which is probbaly aboput right for an enigmatic man who took Prime Ministerial office three times, after emerging without trace in the early 1920s. Today, Baldwin is remembered for:
- Appeasement. Prudent or cowardly?
- “The bomber will always get through.”
- “Power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
There was rather more to Baldwin than that, and to some extent he has been a victim of Churchill’s dictum about the history being written by the victors (precisely!).
Roy Jenkins had more hinterland than a modern cabinet. He was also a great liberalising Home Secretary, and was indirectly responsible for the eventual creation of the Liberal Democrat party. It is hard to imagine where he would have sat in today’s restricted political sphere, but I’d recommend any of his biographical works.
What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
Viking 1994; this edition Pengin 1995
What a Carve Up! was my first Jonathan Coe, and it was his breakthrough book. A curious, mad story, based on a dreadful sub-Carry On film, Coe uses the movie plot as a springboard for a satire on the State Of England from World War II to Gulf War I.
Coe is an immensely likeable author and (which always works for me) a Powell/Pressburger buff. Each novel creates a new, oblique viewpoint on the world of by-passes, confused marriages and post-industrial uncertainty. Judging from my choice of bookmark, I first read What a Carve Up! on a flight from Columbus OH to Chicago Midway.
Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
The Bodley Head, 1969; this edition Penguin, 1971
This week’s theme is First Books. Not first books written, or published, but the first work I read by an author. Travels With My Aunt is the most extreme example. It was my first visit to Greeneland, aged about 14, and in all honesty, we didn’t click. Aside from a desultory adolescent canter through Brighton Rock, I turned to other things, and didn’t try Greene again until my 40s.
And (of course), they’re brilliant. Our Man In Havana, The End Of The Affair, The Heart Of The Matter – sublime grown-up books. The Confidential Agent, England Made Me – mad 30s tales. I’ll read a Greene a year, so that there’s still plenty to look forward to. Now, however, it’s time to have another go at Travels With My Aunt, in which septuagenarian Aunt Augusta takes her retired bank manager nephew on a wild ride around the world’s hotspots.
Afterword: A few days later, and I’ve now re-read Travels With My Aunt, and it’s been a great ride. Greene described TWMA as a novel, but surely this is an entertainment? Indeed, what with Brighton, the Orient Express, Istanbul and Paraguay, it has overtones of Graham Greene’s Greatest Hits, but it really is well-worth a read. Now, I must go and check my dahlias…
Common Ground, edited by Marghanita Laski
We have no shortage of poerty anthologies in this house, but Common Ground is the shared favourite. Laski was a novelist and critic who sought to compile “Everyman’s commonplace book” – it contains all the verses you think you know, organised not by author or date, but by theme: “Loves”, “Beliefs and Doubts”, “Home”, “Time Passing” etc. It finds room for everything from The Song of Mr Toad to the Book of Common Prayer, and from John Donne to Dorothy Parker. It’s a thoroughly worthwhile, quality collection.
Selected Cautionary Verses by Hilaire Belloc
Originally published by Duckworth; this edition, Puffin 1950
Properly cruel verse and satire for children, with plenty for adults to enjoy as well – indeed, the effect is not dissimilar to a DreamWorks cartoon, working on different levels for all the family. With a little practice, I could still recite Matilda, Who Told Lies And Was Burned To Death, from memory, but you’d have to buy me a drink first.
Some of Belloc‘s beliefs were pretty obnoxious by modern standards, which is one reason why the rest of his voluminous output is now little read. He was a “man of letters”, like Chesterton or Jerome. Do they still exist?