Commonplace Book: Ronald Blythe on Laurie Lee

Here’s a bit of a beautifully done TLS review of books by Laurie Lee, the British walker and writer who would have been 100 this year.

Read the full review at:

And so it would go on all through his life, the writing down of his vision of things, the careful affair he had with prose, the mapping of his territory. And also the shifting on from idyll to terror. A Moment of War (1991) finds him in the death cell at Albacete. There is always an element of “walking into it” as well as walking out of it with Lee. Neither politics nor religion provides a reason. The only permanency he feels – and is determined to hold on to – lies in the intensity of “going on”. He was ill and he could have walked away from the war (as some did). But reading him now reveals someone on endless journeys for subjects, from belated parenthood to the firing squad, from wayside flowers to flying visits to Mexico and Barbados. Anywhere, everywhere, and always fresh words to describe them. Lee doesn’t so much wear well as not wear at all. He is prime mid-twentieth century, writing with huge care but also with passion, a very English word-painter.

All around him were those who were sickeningly grateful to be in work but before long a boiling anger would make Lee drop tools and walk off the building site. His descriptions of London in the 1930s, the digs and the back streets, are cinematic and supply a counter-balance to what he found in urban Spain. He couldn’t bear to part with all this for the sake of security. It would be insecurity that would make him thrive. He tried to see London with eight-year-old eyes.

“This London, with its hollow, drum-like name, is neither England nor abroad but something on its own, a walled fantasy of remembered tales . . . . A roar is heard, as of a great pot boiling, chimneys pour sulphur into the heavy sky, banners and gory heads droop from the walls . . . . It is neither night nor day there, but a rouged perpetual twilight, during which notable calamities are all happening at once.”

Writing for Lee was very much about recognizing life’s traps and getting out of them. He is relentlessly observant and original. His first readers would have been nowhere and so he takes enormous trouble to pass on to them unforgettable accounts of his foreign adventures. These began at home when he was a child, when the gooseberry and rhubarb garden became the wastes of Africa. With Lee not a step or mouthful of life must be forgotten. He clings to everything he has touched or seen or heard, hoarding it like a grateful miser, fixing it to the page. His captured small talk is often part of the story which he never ceases to spin about his life. In it he is always unheroic and in his twenties – and rarely at home.

Here he is in Ireland: “The pub in Ireland is still a kind of chapel of ease and shows the Irishman on top of his time. The television, for instance, will usually be kept in a small back room and will be killed when a man is talking”. When Lee played his fiddle in one, “an old man struck the bar with his cap, ‘Englishman’, he said, ‘we forgive you’”. If Lee has a message for today it is to make the most of everything and write it down. Also to read a lot. And to make it up, for some things should have happened but did not have time to. And whatever you do, don’t get old. There is no need to if you are a writer.

The review is by Ronald Blythe, just 9 years short of 100 himself, and still writing his weekly column, termed a treasure by the Guardian. Blythe’s collection of diaries is also a gem. berries

Reasonable Words: The Linotype

Just finished Keith Houston’s informative and droll Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a book teeming with a lot of news about such creatures as the pilcrow, interrobang, octothorpe, and the surprisingly complicated history of the hyphen.

This last is of course related to the rules for word division, which once upon a time, long before computer word processing programs relieved us from this task, writers (even mere typers, like myself) were supposed to master. I took typing in high school and I doubt ever correctly applied the 10 rules for word hyphenation–not sure I even learned them.

While illuminating the hyphen, Houston takes us on a side trip to the Linotype and Monotype machines, nearly mythic to me–as both my parents started in journalism in the era of hot type. These wildly complicated contraptions automated the setting of type, but they still left hyphenation up to the operators. This was least of their worries, as Houston relates:

A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.
A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

“For all the speed gained over hand composition, there were dangers inherent in the machines that required their users to work beside bubbling crucibles of molten lead. The joy of mechanically setting line after line o’ type came with the added frisson that a “squirt” might occur at any time: any detritus caught between two adjacent Linotype matrices would allow molten type metal to jet through the gap. And aside from the immediate dangers of seared flesh, operators of both Linotype and Monotypes ran the more insidious risk of poisoning from the (highly flammable) benzene used to clean matrices, the natural gas that some machines burned to melt the type metal, and the fumes emitted by the molten type metal itself.”








Makes my regular carping about the annoyances of WordPress seem a little silly! Updating versions has not, as yet, required me to dodge squirts of molten lead, but God knows what they are thinking up for the next release.

BTW, Houston has a blog on the same topic–also charming, but somehow this topic seems to really twinkle in book form.

A little song: Cherkassky plays the Albeniz-Godowsky Tango

tangoThis little Tango by Isaac Albeniz was something I discovered as a kid–it is one of the first pieces  in “59 Piano Solos You Love to Play,” and I strummed through it many times. But a few years back, I discovered that the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky made an arrangement that refracted it through something that almost seemed bi-tonal. The main tune is there, but there are other voices murmuring away in other rooms, a wonderful effect.

There are many fetching performances, but Shura Cherkassky’s may be the best.


Poetic Words: The Adirondacks

Can’t resist one more shot from our Adirondack weekend:

Blue Mountain Lake, Labor Day weekend 2014.
Blue Mountain Lake, Labor Day weekend 2014.

Adirondacks: Late Summer 1948

The spruce are dense above the lake.
A thick, gray driftwood, sharp and bent,
Margins the shore with heavy lines.
The overhanging aspens shake
Their dry, deciduous sediment
Into the cool, reflected pines.

There is a limit here of tree
And water: form has gained its end,
Lost in the continual reflection.
Through shade the glossy visions flee
And in a darker calm distend
Downward in shadowy perfection.

Across the lake at evening, wild
And distant, like unhallowed ghosts,
The loons converse. Rotten and dank,
The logs jut rudely: split and piled
They slant into the dusk like posts
Unearthed and cast against the bank.

W. Wesley Trimpi

Surprising Words: Fact Checking in Books

When I was a news researcher, it was surprising to me that you were allowed to cite a fact previously reported in our own pages to resolve a query. But at least the effort to get things right was serious; if this Atlantic piece is correct, book publishers don’t bother now, and never really did.

One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece...fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most  editorial "gatekeepers," the few that are left, don't attempt all three.
One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece…fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most editorial “gatekeepers,” the few that are left, don’t attempt all three.

“When I was working on my book, I did an anecdotal survey asking people: Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?” explained Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, a book on media accuracy, and founder of a blog by the same name. Almost inevitably, the people Silverman spoke with guessed books.

“A lot of readers have the perception that when something arrives as a book, it’s gone through a more rigorous fact-checking process than a magazine or a newspaper or a website, and that’s simply not that case,” Silverman said. He attributes this in part to the physical nature of a book: Its ink and weight imbue it with a sense of significance unlike that of other mediums.Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong

tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. “Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,” he said. “Arguably, they slow it.”

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.

Commonplace Book: E.B. White

Back from a Labor Day weekend in the Adirondacks (highly recommended, particularly including a little time on the water, and the Adirondack Museum).  A selection from lots of photos I took, including–that deep blue one–the view from the porch of our lodge looking out onto Blue Mountain Lake on a late summer evening.

To complete it, a bit from E.B. White’s 1941 essay, “Once More to the Lake.” He was talking about Maine, but the spirit is the same. 


Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the post cards that showed things looking a little better than they looked. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were “common” or “nice,” wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken.

Perhaps he seems a bit-old fashioned, even Norman Rockwell-esque now, but it’s hard to overestimate what an influence White’s prose had over Americans who tried to write a sentence in English in my generation.  He’s still a lodestone to me.

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