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12th January 2023

During the January doldrums we are very much cheered by the gloriously-scented blue hyacinths which we buy fresh every other week to have in the shop.

Otherwise, over the holidays we treated ourselves to a) It’s a Wonderful Life b) Love, Actually c) Four Weddings and a Funeral d) Notting Hill (the last is our fave). These four were interspersed with a harrowing but unmissable programme about the war in Ukraine by Olly Lambert, here, and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Brussels at the BFI which has just been voted the greatest film of all time by Sight and Sound but we (admittedly a sample audience of only two) found totally depressing and dull. It is about a woman in Brussels in 1975, a widow with a teenage son, who lives in a small flat and entertains men in the afternoon to make a living. She is both mad and depressed. Well, wouldn’t one be? Of course we weren’t callous enough to shriek at the screen 'get a job in a shop, get out more, move to the country and grow vegetables', and, yes, we do understand that people are clinically depressed. But to watch this for three hours plus was TOO MUCH. We’d love to know what other people think (apart from film critics who adore it, eg. here).

On the political front (turn away if you are one of our readers who find the word ‘political’ upsetting) we are so worn down by the événements of 2022 that we have decided there is nothing for it but to go into political hibernation until the next election in two years time. Like a child asking ‘are we nearly there yet’, we keep asking plaintively ‘but why can’t an election be sooner?’ No one has an answer. Although, slightly cheeringly, Jonathan Freedland reminded us here that the British political system is not in fact a complete disaster. First ‘Johnson was ejected from power in disgrace, ousted by his own party. Then it dispatched Liz Truss with even greater alacrity. Conservatives behaved appallingly of course – electing Johnson in the first place, indulging Truss even for a month – but in the end, however belatedly and self-servingly, they did what had to be done.’ Which is true. But it’s still exceedingly painful to watch.

And to continue the sombre theme: we mourned far too many marvellous people in the last few weeks. Firstly Vivienne Westwood. We liked this from her Guardian obituary, which added after surveying her glittering career: ‘Westwood had always been a protector, standing against fracking and atomic weapons and championing the causes of bees and human rights.’ How wonderful to be remembered for championing bees and human rights! We also mourned John Bird, one of our greatest satirists: the sketches he did with John Fortune were literally amongst the funniest things we have ever seen, for example ‘Banker’ here. But perhaps it’s not funny… Then there was Dame Clare Marx, a surgeon who was the first female chair of the General Medical Council, and Marilyn Stafford the photographer, cf. her website here. This is her photograph of Edith Piaf.

(The twenty of us who were there are still reminiscing about the incredible Edith Piaf performance Susan Black gave just before Christmas in our upstairs room.)

Also of course we mourned Fay Weldon, cf this piece by Jenny Colgan. Fay once chose The Hopkins Manuscript for her Summer Reading in the Observer, calling it 'spectacular, skilled and moving and supremely and alarmingly relevant to our life today’. Coincidentally, The New York Times last week wrote about The Hopkins Manuscript, which has just been reprinted in the US. 

Oliver Roeder wrote an excellent piece in the Financial Times here about the importance of libraries. As well as providing books they are ‘English teachers,  job hunters, after-school administrators, technology trainers and citizenship educators.’ Indeed. And actually bookshops too do more than ‘just’ sell books. Apparently there are now more than 1000 independent bookshops in the UK. Nevertheless, all small bookshop owners are worried about energy costs, postal strikes, the soaring price of raw materials and thus books, etc etc. 

Daniel Barenboim is resigning as the general music director of Berlin’s State Opera due to ill health; happily, he will still conduct the occasional concert. Do watch this excellent documentary on Youtube in his honour. (And also remember Jacqueline du Pré.) 

There has been much discussion in the office as to whether we should do more audiobooks. The most recent is Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple read by Susan Wooldridge. We have now done six audiobooks ourselves but others have also done a few e.g. Spiracle have done The Squire by Enid Bagnold read by Juliet Aubrey, and Isis have done Miss Buncle's Book read by Patricia Gallimore. 

This week the shop window has a vintage suitcase, a vintage coffee pot, a picture of the chalet at Montana where Katherine Mansfield wrote the stories in The Montana Stories, and a little notice saying that we are paying tribute to her because on Monday 9th January it was a hundred years since her death.

We went to Montana when the book was published and unearthed this photograph in the local archive. Alas, this lovely building was pulled down and a modern version built instead. Katherine's lavabo (basin) was preserved and is kept in the hall for people to wash their hands on their way to the dining room.

In New Zealand flowers were laid for Katherine in Wellington, details here

Another friend in New Zealand recently alerted us to a moving and extraordinary video about Nushu, a secret language invented by women in China 400 years ago. Here is the video about the discovery of the language, and its significance for us today.

Historic England has published a new historic buildings list. It includes two cab shelters, one in Pont Street in Kensington and one on Chelsea Embankment, as well as an Arts and Crafts house, rebuilt in 1887 as a doctor’s surgery to serve the poor of Ancoats in Manchester. This is where Elizabeth Myers, author of A Well Full of Leaves, grew up, so presumably if she needed a doctor she saw him in this building.

Helen Lewis’s series about gurus, and people’s need for them, has been riveting and the novelist Tom Crewe mentioned 'our novelist' Mrs Oliphant. He said: 'I have just been on a huge binge of the writer Margaret Oliphant, who I am evangelical about because I think she is the most underappreciated Victorian novelist there is'; who knew that Sally Rooney was huge in China, apparently, the Economist tells us, her work ‘resonates with young Chinese in distinctive ways, in particular because of  her portrayal of migration from the countryside to the big city’; there is an Edward Hooper exhibition at the Whitney in New York; and our treat in April will be going to the Bristol Hippodrome to see Ian McKellen in Mother Goose.

Finally, let's all take to heart this piece called 52 Acts of Kindness: ‘Whether fostering kittens, donating blood or delivering boxes of biscuits to striking workers, there has never been a better time to help out. And it will improve your life too.’ If only kindness could be the buzz word of 2023. (But isn't it the leitmotif of Dorothy Whipple's novels? They are all about kindness – or the lack of it.)

Nicola Beauman

Persephone Books

8 Edgar Buildings





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