Writers as protectors of freedom. A review – my thoughts on Ivan Klima’s biography – My CraZy Century.

I have been fortunate to live in “Free” countries. I was born in the UK and 30 years later moved to New Zealand in 1989 – a significant year in world events…but I’ll come back to that. Both countries have free and democratic elections and yet I have taken to the streets with thousands of others – in both the UK and NZ – to protest political policy – both domestic and foreign.

Although as a protester I came into conflict with the police – I was not arrested and was certainly not “disappeared” – a fate that befell many dissenters of political policy in other, less lenient, countries.

I have just finished reading Czech writer Ivan Klima’s biography titled My Crazy Century. On the cover of the book the C and the Z in the word Crazy are in red. A reference to the many years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone reads this book.

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The book gives us a clear insight into not only the conditions imposed on the Czech people under the Nazi’s……concentration camps and all….during the German occupation in world war 2, but also those enforced by their communist liberators – who in turn became their dictatorial masters during the post war era – right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Block in 1989.

The people in power, both Nazi and Communist, feared the influence (on public opinion) of intellectuals, artists, writers, anyone who held political opinions other than theirs, so did all they could to silence them. This was done – in the extreme – by killing them, imprisoning them, exiling them or putting them under constant fear of their lives by harassing them day in, day out. Writers like Klima and his contemporaries who dared to have ideals other than those of the ruling party were banned from publication. Their previously published works were confiscated and burned and their scripts for plays etc were not allowed to be performed. They would be subject to sudden searches by the secret police who would ransack their homes and take away any written materials….and then they would be taken away to be “interviewed”….interrogated.

Under the control of Nazi Germany they suffered the horrors of not only living in an occupied country but also of being hauled off to concentration camps for extermination. Their jubilation of being “freed” by Russian troops at the end of the second world war was short lived as they came under the rule of the Czech Communist Party – who were little more than puppets, controlled by Stalinist Moscow. Anyone who didn’t fully accept the new regime and tow the line were punished. In the case of Klima it meant losing his job, being put on a list of banned writers, being constantly followed and harassed by the secret police and more. His father was also imprisoned for several years under the communists. Others were tortured, murdered or simply disappeared. Their fate unknown.

This treatment and further threats and mind games did not stop Klima and his circle of friends, meeting to discuss the political situation, writing essays, articles, novels and plays expressing ideologies in direct conflict with those of the ruling party – and smuggling these works out to be published in the UK, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.

Being a writer – particularly one who does not tow the party line – as ridiculous as it seems in this day and age, was a very dangerous occupation. The fact that these writers persisted for so long in such restrictive and dangerous circumstances to continue to produce their work is admirable to say the least….and ultimately contributed to the overthrow of the Communist regime.

Only 3 months before he took over as president of the country, Vaclav Haval was still in prison, being persecuted for his political beliefs. It’s amazing how, after so many years of ruling with an iron fist, a dictatorial regime could be overthrown, so quickly and without bloodshed.

The whole “revolution” happened in a period of 6 weeks. It earned the name the Velvet Revolution due to the relative ease that the transition took place. It had been unthinkable that a former banned and imprisoned poet would become leader of the country – and yet….it happened. You should never under estimate the spirit of the people, the right action, at the right time, in the right place, by the right person/people, or the power of the written word.

Klima’s book spans six decades that include war, totalitarianism, censorship and the never ending fight for democracy. He looks at the way that “this crazy century” has led mankind astray and impacted not only Klima’s generation, but also today’s generations still struggling against totalitarian societies around the world.

Klima recounts first hand what it was like to be of Jewish heritage, confronting along with his family, the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the treatment dealt out by the Nazi thugs….who were replaced by four decades of Communist thugs….and finally after years of harassment, persecution and censorship, the sweetness of the Velvet Revolution – when the time was right for such an ideal to thrive.

Personally for me, the events of this book are recent history – having been born in 1959, I recall many of the main points in the book, but I did not at the time realise the full horrors of what was going on “behind the iron curtain”. The official channels and the media only provided a sanitised version of the news….and to this day continue to do so. As the number of independent news organisations disappear and are swallowed up by larger conglomerates – the easier it is to control the news. When the TV news comes on in the evening and the presenter says “Here is the news”…..what they really should be saying is “Here is the news that we want you to know about…and this is OUR version of it”. We are being digitally lobotomized.

Although the so called “Free World” was not directly responsible for the suffering of the Czech people, we were guilty of complacency….of inaction….of doing nothing but raising “an official protest” in the United Nations at the time of such atrocities. As Klima and his fellow banned writers proved, when governments fail to act it’s up to writers – ALL of us – to get the word out there, no matter what the personal cost.

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A visit to the library….

A visit to the library was called for after an on-line chat with an author friend of mine who lives in the Czech Republic. We’d been discussing the “Lost Generation” of writers – they include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Stein etc. and he had asked me if I had read anything by Max Brod.

Brod (1884 – 1968) was a prolific writer in his own right, but is mostly remembered as the friend of Franz Kafka, who, when requested by Kafka to destroy all his writings at his death….refused to follow the writer’s instructions and had the works published instead. So it’s thanks to Brod that so much of Kafka’s writings saw the light of day.

Brod was a German speaking Czech Jew – who later moved to Israel to escape the Nazi take over of the then Czechoslovakia. He died in Tel Aviv in 1968. He was an author, journalist, translator and a composer of music. A very talented man. He first met Kafka, at Charles University in Prague where they both studied, in 1902. The rest as they say is history.

Naturally my friend’s insistence that I read Brod had me intrigued so I set off for my local city library feeling for sure that they would have at least one of Brod’s books. How wrong could I be? Not a single book written by Brod on their shelves. Deciding to check out on-line book sellers when I returned home, I set about searching the library’s catalogue of books for anything at all mentioning Brod.

The only book I found at the library with any mention of Brod, was a novel by Australian based writer Marija Pericic called The Lost Pages – which is a fictional story about the relationship between Kafka and Brod. I picked it up anyway and will have a read of it later. I also picked up 2 other books. One about New Zealand writers who – although not as famous as the main members of “the lost generation” of writers – were New Zealand expat writers living overseas during the same period of time – called “The Expatriate Myth”, by Helen Bones.

The other book – the one I decided to read first – is by another Czech Jewish writer who went through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the short relief of the end of the second world war and the subsequent take over by the communists under Stalin – by the name of Ivan Klima. It’s his autobiography titled “My Crazy Century” – with the C and Z of the word Crazy highlighted in Red – giving you a red Cz – I assume symbolic of the many years that the Czech’s were under communist rule. I’m about a quarter of the way into this 534 page memoir – enjoying it, but horrified at how people were treat – first by the Nazi’s and then by the Communists. I will probably do a review of the book once I finish it.

Back at home I googled Bron’s books and was surprised at how few were available in English. It seems that the ones concerning the diaries of Kafka are available in English, but little else. The two main books of Bron’s that my writer friend recommended were only available in German. One called “Prager Kreis” (Prague Crisis or Prague Circle) printed in 1967 and the other “Streitbares Leben: Autobiographie, 1960” (literal translation being – Quarrelsome Life: Autobiography, 1960 – although there may be another meaning). I may try to get them anyway and struggle through with my basic schoolboy knowledge of the German language.

Whilst at the library, much to my wife’s dismay, I was perusing the discarded books on the “for sale” table. Four books caught my eye, so for the princely sum of $2, my own library has grown by 4…..even though – as my wife was quick to point out…..my shelves are already overflowing. Those books were – “Now and Forever” by Ray Bradbury which is a collection of 2 novellas – “Somewhere a band is playing” and “Leviathan ’99”. Bradbury is of course best known for the novel Fahrenheit 451. “Extreme Rambling” by Mark Thomas – a travelogue about hiking through troubled areas of the world. “New Scottish Writing” – which is a collection of short stories by writers from Scotland – printed in 1996, so not in actual fact all that “New”. The final book was “Afterlight” by Alex Scarrow which is a post apocalyptic/dystopian story – set in Britain in 2010…. after the oil ran out. I must say I do like a good dystopian novel….hopefully this one won’t disappoint.

So there we have it. The library failed to deliver on what I went for in the first place, but the books I chose – both to borrow and the ones I bought -should expand my knowledge and entertain me. I do love the library!

Please do make use of your own local libraries. In these days of belt tightening and reduced budgets, city councils will cut funding if they think the libraries are not being used by sufficient people. So please get out there and borrow some books. And I’d like to say a little thank you to all librarians and library volunteers who keep the libraries staffed and open. Well done, you are appreciated, and thank you very much.

Christmas is over for another year…

I’m not going to go into depth about what I do or don’t believe in about Christmas…..except of course that Santa really does exist….(cough cough). Christmas is a magical time of you have little kids to share that magic with……..otherwise, it does all seem to be a lot of work for one day of stuffing our faces and damaging our livers.

At our home, in the build up to Christmas, my wife had reeled off a list of things that “needed to be done before Christmas” and we sweated and toiled in order to get most of them done before the big day. We live in New Zealand so Christmas falls in our summer-time meaning that usually we can bask in sunshine with temperatures in the high 20’s or low 30’s Celsius. Christmas lunch is taken in the garden…..usually…..which is why a lot of the tasks tended to centre around the garden and lawns – making everything as neat as a pin and putting up an awning for a sun-shade and of course fairy lights – although with it being a lunch time feast, no one will see the lights against the bright daylight. BUT they were on the list so had to be put up and switched on.

So after a week of hard work and fraying tempers, completing our garden tasks, of course it absolutely poured down the day before Christmas and on the day itself. Oh JOY! As the front lawn gradually became a shallow lake, we dined inside and it was a bit of a crush squeezing 11 around the tables in the dining room. We had to arrange the tables diagonally – corner to corner – in order to fit everyone and everything in, as a rather large Christmas tree occupied much of one side of the room.

We all ate more than we should – naturally. AND one or two of “us” definitely drank more than was sensible….but we survived the day.

Honestly – next year I wouldn’t mind just disappearing to a Pacific island for the week instead – to chill out and recharge the batteries. My wife even suggested flying to Norway for Christmas…..about as far as you can get from NZ – where we would be completely off the radar….not to mention freezing cold.

It’s now 2 days later – the 27th and finally I am kicking back, chilling out. I’ve just had a coffee with a large chunk of Christmas cake and am contemplating either opening a beer…..or finishing off one of the many bottles of wine that were opened and left unfinished on Christmas day. Why do people do that? Why open a new bottle when there is already another one of exactly the same wine already opened and has only one glassful missing. Does anyone else find that frustrating or is it just me?

Anyhow…getting back to chilling out – I’m reading a book put together by a lady called Penelope Rowlands of 32 essays / short stories by 32 different writers, of a variety of nationalities, who have all lived, or been seduced to stay longer than they should have, in the European City of Lights – Paris. It’s called “Paris was Ours” and I picked it up second hand. It’s in very good condition and I was drawn to the book by the beautiful moody black and white photo on the front of a dimly lit, rainy street with people walking -mostly wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas – lots of shadows but also reflections and rain spattered glowing pavements. By reading the inside back cover of the book it appears that the photo is from flickr by a Julien Brachhammer. Who-ever you are Julien, I love the photo.

Awesome photo on the cover and an interesting and entertaining read inside.

Inside the book the essays range from 3 pages long up to a maximum of around 16 or 17 pages, so it’s very easy to pick up and put down when you have spare moments…..or you can sit and binge read the essays – much like I was trying to do until I had the urge to share my experience of the book with you all – on here…WordPress.

All of the writers had been seduced by “the city of love” and all or almost all profess to still love it although some also claimed to have a love/hate relationship with a city that they found both passionately alluring, yet also one that theft them feeling lonely and blue. As one writer put it “Paris is a good place to be young and melancholy.” Another says “Paris steals in on you like fog.” Others refer to it as “the world capital of memory and desire” or insist that they were seduced by …”that siren, Paris.” I just love all these quotes – most are so poetic and I wished that I had written them first.

But living in Paris even for a short time – as a resident rather than a tourist – has been beneficial to the inner writer in all these essayists. As one put it “to be a writer you MUST come back to Paris.”

In her introduction to the book, the editor Penelope Rowlands speaks for most of the writers in this enthralling collection when she professes, “We hated Paris and loved it all at once.”

As writer and journalist Walter Wells wrote in his essay “I knew already that living in Paris would not be like visiting Paris, but I hadn’t appreciated what that really meant.” OR as Marcelle Clements attested – “Paris is a great place to fall in love, to eat, drink, and be merry. But it’s also the perfect city in which to be depressed or, even better, melancholy……You don’t have to be French to smoke a Gitane and notice the falling leaves drifting by your window.”

More than half of the essays have never appeared in any other publications and were written especially for this book. Some are well known writers, others – if you’re like me – you will never have heard of before, but all are intrepid men and women writing about their personal encounters with a magical yet uncompromising place – one that changes them indelibly and will stay with them forever – PARIS!

Most of these essays left me wanting to read more by each writer – to delve deeper into their backgrounds – and of course made me yearn to live for a year or more in that seductive city of lights, love and melancholy.

I’m not really a giver of stars to recommend books, as a book is a very subjective thing – what I love – you may hate. BUT if pushed….I would give this at least 4 out of 5.

A Rhapsody in Old Bohemia.

According to the dictionary Rhapsody means –

  1. Music. an instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation
  2. An ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm.
  3. An epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.

For this post I’m going for meaning number 2, as I do get ecstatic and enthused about Cesky Krumlov.

Czech Pilsner beer is the best in the world. Little wonder, it was the Czechs who invented it in the town that bears it’s name (Plzen) and it’s amazingly cheap to buy here. But there are lots of reasons for visiting the Czech Republic other than for their magnificent amber Pilsner…..although that alone is reason enough.

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Most tourists when visiting the Czech Republic make a bee line for Prague and understandably so. It is the capital after all and has so much history and a whole heap of tourist sights including the castle and the Charles Bridge….and a really good tram network.
But I want to talk about another town in the south west of the country….Cesky Krumlov in the heart of southern Bohemia. It has all the history (built in the 1200’s) and architecture of Prague, on a smaller scale (population a little over thirteen thousand)….and a fairytale castle high on a hill overlooking the old town below – wrapped in the protective embrace of the Vltava river, which almost encircles it. It is compact, scenic and very walkable. It’s a gorgeous place, has UNESCO World heritage protection and has a lively arts and literature scene, which is to be the focus of this post.
We were very fortunate to meet with and stay in the home of Chilean born – Czech resident – writer Jorge Zuniga Pavlov – author of “La Casa Blů: historias del bajomundo latinoamericano” (Blue House: stories of Latin American Underworld). And “Stěhování a jiné po(c)hyby” – (Moving and other stories) – A selection of stories (some autobiographical) about how Prague was moved by the affect of communism on Chilean emigrants escaping from the agony of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But also about Prague in the nineties. Stories from the environment of the Chilean community in Paris. Stories about returning to the ocean and returns to Prague, traveling, meeting and passing.

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Jorge is one of the most welcoming, helpful, generous and humanitarian people I have ever met. I’m very proud and privileged to be able to call him a friend. He’s also a champion of literature….he has been very active in the promotion of writers and their work. Since 2014 he has been opening his home (Litera Krumlov) as a venue for writers to visit and read excerpts of their work to an eager and appreciative audience. There’s a bit of a tradition where authors who perform at his home sign in on the wall of the main room with their name and date.

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Writers and artists are also accommodated in his “Writers Residence” – where we stayed for the week – a lovely airy room on the lower floor of his historic home – built in the 1500’s. In fact as I write this, he tells me that he has Two Czech poets staying in the Writers Residence at the moment. His home is built on a hillside above, and overlooking, a bend in the Vltava river. It has two floors rising up from street level and another two lower floors – down the slope toward the river. It’s a quirky, wonderful old house with it’s own cave-cellar and a bathroom with walls made of books and wine bottles. The exterior walls of the house are over two feet thick and keep the house warm in the harsh Czech winters and cool in the summer.
Jorge is not only a writer and promoter of literature, he’s also a wonderful baker of bread which he served us fresh, daily at breakfast time. Just one of many items of food on our overloaded breakfast table. Like I said before he is a very generous man.
Under Jorge’s guidance we explored the “Arts” side of Cesky Krumlov.

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Firstly we’ll explore theatrical productions. Up the hill behind Jorge’s home is the castle garden. Formal gardens with fountains similar to those you’ll find in the grounds of most european stately homes, but uniquely here there is also an outdoor revolving theatre. Usually with revolving theatres it’s the stage that turns to reveal a new scene. Not here. In the castle gardens theatre it’s the audience who are seated on a giant turn-table. As each act unfolds, the audience are turned to face another part of the garden – another scene. It’s certainly a talking point and one to tick off anyones literary list. For more information about the theatre and the shows it puts on see link – https://www.otacivehlediste.cz/?&lang=en

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Speaking of theatres, there is also a Baroque theatre inside Krumlov Castle with a full set of scenery, props and costumes from the era. The decor inside the castle is a trip back in artistic time dating from the 1400’s in some parts and 16th, 18th and 19th century in others. It’s worth a visit.
https://www.zamek-ceskykrumlov.cz/en/about

The castle courtyard features a very ornate pink coloured tower.

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One of the claims to fame of the castle is that they have always kept bears in the castle moat….yes, bears. It’s a dry moat by the way…the bears aren’t swimming. It’s traditional and draws the tourists, but myself I’m not happy seeing animals in captivity. It was the only downside, for me, about the castle tour.

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On the plus side, just before entering the castle, from the gardens at the top end, there is a small cafe in a little courtyard which sells the cheapest glass of beer in Cesky Krumlov. It’s a locally brewed beer made in a brewery down by the river called Pivovar Eggenberg – which has been perfecting the craft, or should I say the art, of making beer since 1336. After wandering around the gardens on a hot summers day, it was just what the doctor ordered!
The old town its self is no less pretty than the castle. The main square is surrounded by pastel coloured buildings with a fountain in one corner.

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The narrow cobbled streets and alleys lead to an array of arty things to check out including sculptures, galleries and museums such as the one dedicated to artist Egon Schiele – Schiele Art Centrum. http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/en/exhibitions/1/
Not only is this gallery dedicated to the art of Egon Schiele it is also a museum of his letters, furniture, business cards, photos and geneology of his family. As well as the permanent Schiele exhibits there are also revolving exhibitions of other historic and contemporary art….and naturally there’s the obligatory gallery shop which is well stocked with Schiele memorabilia and art books of all kinds… “please exit through the gift shop”. The reason that there is a Schiele gallery in Cesky Krumlov in the first place, is that his mother was born here, was resident here for many years and Schiele himself lived and worked here on and off. In fact…to connect the dots…. Jorge Pavlovs house features in one of Schiele’s works.

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Although Schiele is lauded here now, in his heyday he was once run out of town, by the equivalent of the town council, as they didn’t appreciate his desire to paint and draw the young girls of the town in the nude. He returned several times afterward as, he claimed, he simply loved the town and wanted to be here. As well as the gallery you can also visit Egon Schiele Atelier – the garden house where Schiele lived and worked. It is once again an artists residence and is leased out as an artists retreat.

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http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/cs/zahradni-atelier/88/
If photography interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Dum Fotografie (there’s nothing dumb about it ) http://www.dumfotografiekrumlov.cz/en/home/ which is a gallery dedicated to photography – primarily by Czech photographers. When we were there this included several rooms of photos by Jan Saudek who seems to specialise in theatrically staged nude and semi-nude works. https://www.saudek.com/ They also sell books, prints and posters, relating to the exhibits, in their little shop at the entrance of the gallery.
Another must for photographers is Museum Fotoatelier Seidel

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http://www.seidel.cz/cz/museum_fotoatelier_seidel_cesky_krumlov/  The tradition of photography was created in this unique building…which was both home and photo studio of the photographic Seidel family. It is like stepping back in time into a 19th century photo studio complete with all the equipment, vast quantities of unique period photographs, photo postcards and glass negatives. The museum/studio is open year round.

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The entire old town of Cesky Krumlov is a living monument to art, sculpture and architecture. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner.

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Down an alley into a small courtyard we came across some odd looking sculptures….one, a little like a steampunk version of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movie (but with breasts), sits perched half way up the wall of what turns out to be a quirky looking bar owned by local sculptor Miroslav Páral…. Looking at his work he seems to have a thing about digits – fingers and toes – and indeed about hands and feet in general…and other body parts too. This is reflected in the sculptures dotted around both outside and inside the bar and includes a bench seat held up by huge metal human-like feet at either end.

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You can buy candles here in the shape of fingers. The bar is situated by the riverside and has a row of giant sized red metal chairs facing the river…again art work….and very hot to sit on on a sunny day.
Miroslav Paral (born 1955) is a very accomplished and highly respected sculptor who has exhibited his work all over the world and in 1993 received the Award for Culture of the town of Český Krumlov. http://www.ckrumlov.cz/uk/umelci/t_mirpar.htm and http://www.paral.cz/
This is only a snippet of what’s available in the historic town of Cesky Krumlov…..there is much, much more. Another theatre, live music, more writers retreats….And just one last thing before I finish…Behind the Schiele Art Centrum are a number of almost derelict buildings which are boarded up. Local artists have pasted works of art over the boarded up windows and doors….there’s also a bit of grafitti….it’s mostly interesting stuff and free to view!

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And I didn’t even mention any of the tourist activities such as rafting the river….or the churches, chapels and synagogue….food…drink and delicious icecreams….green solitude of the park

 

I hope you enjoy reading this. I enjoyed writing it as it combined my passions of writing, photography and travel. Until next post…..

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.

You never know what you’ll find…

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Second hand shops (not second hand Book Shops) can be a treasure trove of old books. Second hand Book Store owners tend to know their stuff and price their books accordingly, where as general second hand shop keepers are not always as well versed in the value of old books that pass through their hands.

I have amassed books, as opposed to “collected” books in the past. I select books that I like the look of the cover or the review or subject matter or author and I tend to rarely throw any of them away…..even the bad ones.

That was until I read a book called “A Pound of Paper” – (subtitled Confessions of a Book Addict) by Australian author John Baxter. It chronicles his book entwined life. How he became a writer – in his teens…as a protest to poorly written Sci-Fi stories in a magazine – and how, via working in the book trade he became a collector of books…..initially by Graham Greene. His collection is now a vast library of first editions and author signed books – probably worth thousands of dollars.

His work took him from Australia to the UK and the USA, but he now lives with his French wife, in Paris, on Rue de l’Odeon – in the same building once occupied by Sylvia Beach – owner of the original Shakespeare & Company book store. The building is steeped in literary history, having been visited by Gloria Steine, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to name but a few of the famous literary figures to have graced its halls.

John has written biographies about famous movie stars and directors including Woody Allen and Robert de Niro, but these days tends to write books about the love of his life….the City of Paris and it’s literary history. Indeed John also conducts walking tours of his favourite literary haunts in Paris – the tours ending at his apartment building where guests are invited upstairs for lunch and can view his vast collection of books.

To get an idea of Johns depth of knowledge about Paris and the famous writers who have lived and worked there I suggest reading either of his books “The most beautiful walk in the World” or “Five Nights in Paris” – a book about Paris after dark. These are just two of John’s books about Paris…there are many more.

It’s only a few months ago that I read my first John Baxter book – “A pound of paper” – which I thought was a very well written, knowledgeable book about books, the book trade and book collecting. He’s very easy to read and his writing flows in such a way that before you know it you’ve finished the book….and are looking for his next one. I’ve since read three others and am eager for more. He’s a treat to read.

It is his passion for collecting books that made me look more carefully at the books that I buy…..and to look for bargain investments in second hand shops. Just this month I acquired – a 3 volume set of Finden’s Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life & Works. Vol 1 and 2 printed in 1833 and vol 3 in 1834 – for the princely sum of NZ$15. On checking on AbeBooks.com the same books are currently selling for between US$250 and US$500. Although it is tempting, I won’t be selling the books, but will take my time in reading them and then who knows…they may be the first books in my “serious” book collection.

As I said, you never know what you’ll find in second hand shops. Happy hunting!

 

Featherston Booktown is now official.

I’m very pleased to report that as of October 2nd 2018 the small, lower north island, New Zealand town of Featherston has become a full member of the International Organisation of Booktowns (IOB). This makes Featherston the first Booktown in New Zealand and the 22nd Booktown internationally.

A Booktown is a small rural town or village in which second–hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Booktowns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty. They have usually had a hard time economically and have turned to the Booktown idea in a bid to turn around the economic downturn.

Gunnel Ottersten, President of the IOB said: ”The IOB has observed with great interest the successful growth of Featherston Booktown over the last four years. The Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees and the Featherston community have done a fantastic job taking Featherston Booktown forward to its current impressive stage – and the IOB voted unanimously to make Featherston Booktown a full member of the IOB.’

Peter Biggs, Chair of the Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees said that the whole of Featherston had been behind them 100% in their bid to become a Booktown and it is a proud moment to finally achieve their goal.  It will also give Featherston the opportunity to promote itself internationally as a Booktown and add significant value and innovation to all of the other Booktowns around the world.

Featherston is currently home to six bookshops and now it has become officially accepted into the family of the IOB, could well attract more potential booksellers.

The concept of the Booktown was initiated by Richard Booth in Hay–on–Wye in Wales. Hay has a population of only 1500 people, yet is home to around two dozen bookshops. In comparison, the population of Featherston is over two thousand so the potential to add more bookshops is not simply pie in the sky.

Booktowns have proved extremely popular with book lovers and tourists alike overseas. The Hay–on–Wye Literature Festival now attracts over 80,000 visitors across ten days in May-June every year. A phenomenal number when the usual population size is considered.

Similarly, Scotland’s Booktown, Wigtown – population of less than one thousand people, yet around a dozen bookshops, have benefited increasingly over the 20 years since being hailed as Scotland’s Booktown. The 10 day festival held in 2017 was said to have generated over 3 million UK Pounds. This years is just finishing and figures are expected to be up on last year.

I was in Featherston at the end of August this year to attend an authors event at which Wigtown’s unofficial Booktown Champion Shaun Bythell – owner of Scotland’s biggest second hand bookshop – was promoting his own book “The Diary of a Bookseller”. The book takes a look at a typical year in the life of a bookseller (Shaun) – recording the daily and often humorous exchanges between himself, his staff and customers.

I loved the book, met the writer and found him to be a charming, witty and intelligent human being, with the voice of a 1950’s BBC presenter, a very casual sense of fashion style bordering on “op-shop” and a mop-top of unruly orange hair. He’s a very likable sort of guy – self depreciating, yet confident. The event received an audience of over a hundred and twenty people eager to meet the man and to listen to readings from the book, listen to rib-tickling tales of book-shop life and to take part in a question and answer time. Bear in mind that this was on a cold winter Monday evening in a tiny rural town. The weekend before, he had been in Auckland and had a smaller audience. It goes to show that Featherston is ready to step up in literary circles.

Featherstons next literary festival runs from 9th to 12th of May 2019. I for one will make sure it’s on my calendar. Achieving the title of Booktown along with the upcoming festival and other events throughout the year should help to put Featherston firmly on the tourist map.

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Above photo – the writer (on the left) with author Shaun Bythell