The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.


Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index



Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:



The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

If no more than background reading on the state of society in America and in particular NY in this period and the way in which it compared with Europe – and compared itself with Europe, a different thing again – The Age of Innocence is a splendid thing. I take issue with Paul Bryant’s complaints about her material descriptions of the world she describes – I believe they are supposed to be part of her ironic portrait her characters and their setting. She is revealing what is important to them, not to her. One wonders, however, if Pinterest will have an app some time where one can key in words and out come pictures. I’d do that with this book. I have read that interior design was very important to Wharton. I still don’t think that affects what the point of it is in the book.

But the book is, of course, more than this. There is the story and the morality of the situation she constructs. What Wharton does which is so diabolically clever is that she talks of the powerlessness of women – and this is through the eyes of an independent, single, wealthy young man, Newland Archer – only to make it clear as the story develops that it is the women who are in charge. It is almost comic to see the way the hero charges about thinking that he is affecting the course of history when in fact it is the women who are doing that. Well, it would be comic if it weren’t awfully sad. Every time he thinks he is going to do the renegade thing and take off with his true love, a women ‘stops’ this from happening. Obviously not literally for he could always decide to rise above that, but he is never brave enough to. In the end he cannot rise above the thing that he thinks he is above – ‘what other people think’.

And then when it is late enough in his simplified life that what other people think no longer matters – not just late enough in his life, but late enough in history, times have changed, we are told – he doesn’t have the gumption to see if reality will match his dreams. I don’t know how much of a coward that makes him: he has been sustained for decades by dreams built on the tiniest wisps of what he thought he could have, but is it pragmatism at work when he decides to let sleeping dogs lie, or is it the fear, which could turn out to be unbearable, that finding out will not only ruin the present, but will ruin his precious bank of dreams. To risk one’s memories. That’s not an easy gamble to make.

I cannot begin to imagine how a movie could have been made of this when what is important about the book is Wharton’s delightful take on the people who populate her pages. She’s hilarious. The book is a hundred years old but hasn’t dated, the writing having an elegant lightness that is easy on the modern reader’s eye and ear. I do not hesitate to recommend it.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

We went to see a Cambridge University production of this last night, set in a similar period to the production we saw of As You Like It we saw earlier this year.

Zak Ghazi-Torbatt was hilarious as the perpetually drunk aristocrat Sir Toby Belch (subtlety is not the long suit of this play), he worked well with his off-sider, Sir Aguecheek, ably played by Ryan Monk. Ben Walsh’s Malvolio was a object lesson in how to not overplay comic creepiness. Megan Gilbert looked like an old hand doing Maria: it’s the best of the female roles and she didn’t let it down.

The setting was not, in my opinion, important to the play, neither detracting nor adding, but fifties music and song – If music be the food of love, play on – worked a treat. However, the director decided, in that modern way that is being forced upon us, to do her part in denying gender. To this end two changes were made to the play. One is the role of Antonio, changed to Antonia and played by a girl being a girl. This was not only inexplicable in terms of the desire to mess around with gender – after all, Antonio is a boy in love with a boy – but makes the relationship with Sebastian ridiculous. There can be no explanation, of course, as to why Sebastian can’t accept the love of Antonia. Nor, in a play with a happily-ever-after ending is it sensical to have this one person inexplicably left bereft. Needless to say, if it is a male character in love with a heterosexual male, we at least understand why Antonio can’t be part of the happy ending. I do wish that we had not been denied the chance to watch that doomed love, instead of which we bemusedly watched a girl carting around a bloke’s suitcases for three months wondering who she was going to end up with.

In like vein the director changed the role of the fool to a female. Weirdly, a fool dressed as a man, but not to be confused with one, as in the case of Viola, of course. And the fool played the part as a man, had the gait and stance of a man, yet was referred to throughout as a female, the original language being changed to this end. For us this just didn’t work at all. It’s a great role which was wasted. True, it could be that the girl playing the role – Rosanna Suppa – failed, but our feeling was that she couldn’t have succeeded. It’s so not necessary to do this to Shakespeare. Write a play with a female fool. Were there female fools in the period? If there were, find out what they did and how they did it. But leave Shakespeare’s wonderful parts alone please! Turning a male role into a female one by a few strokes of the pen doesn’t cut it.

The play was performed in the International School of Geneva‘s Arts Centre. I’m baffled as to why an excellent production of a wonderful play with an admission price of 20CHF attracted about a quarterful house. I hope this is a reflection on the lack of publicity received rather than Geneva’s lacking the capacity to support such an event. The audience was enthralled, entertained and provoked by Gabriella Bird’s production and it deserves a packed house for its second performance here in Geneva tonight.

PS: It is impossible to go to see Shakespeare without being amazed at the things he writes that are still with us. This time it was ‘Westward-ho!’ Well, I never.

Love stories: Far from the Madding Crowd and The Castle

I happened to watch back to back the new movie of Far From the Madding Crowd and Hanneke’s take on The Castle. Was it just the watching of them in that order that made me wonder if Kafka had written a love story?

I’ve read neither book, but understand the film versions to be scrupulous renditions of the stories. Both of them place the development of a relationship based on romantic love in the midst of the social and economic conditions that play – or attempt to play – a determining role.

Each of them constitutes rather unusual output. For Hardy, a happily-ever-after ending is atypical. For Kafka to delve into the humanity of people, which it seems to me this novel does, is equally surprising. Or does he do so in other works but it is easier to see in this one? Or is it Hanneke who adds that element, which would also be, based on my experience of the director, unlikely.

I hope to get to the books soon and maybe I will find some answers.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

I’d been hearing about Megan Dansie for a while, so I was pleased to be able to see her splendid production of Much Ado About Nothing at Adelaide Uni during a recent visit. Talking with her pre-performance, I gained an insight into the setting of Shakespeare out of period. I’d always thought it was to satisfy the creative monsters inside directors, but she made the point – obvious, though I’d never thought about it – that it could be about budget. The trappings of Shakespeare in period cost more and for a small group like hers are out of the question. She had hers set at the end of WWII, the men in uniform, not inappropriate, given that the action takes place just after a military encounter.

I was really taken by the depth of acting, no weak points and some marvellous comic performances. It’s a fun play and easy to follow. My mother reminded me in the interval that we first saw it when I was about nine, and I’m the eldest of four. We sat in the front row of a Bell production and my parents, knowing that at some point Benedick would sit in the audience and pronounce his lines from there, made sure there was an empty seat next to my brother Bernard. Sure enough, come the moment, Benedick cast an eye around, spotted Bernard and sat next to him. My brother was completely chuffed, of course. The point is, if we could manage this at ages 5-9, you don’t really have an excuse for not delving into Shakespeare and this is as good a place to start as any.

Having just finished Contact, I note that if you want a good story about secret code, try this one about Shakespeare from the period. I hope it’s true!

Martin Birck’s Youth by Hjalmar Söderberg

Söderberg states at the end of this short work that it will probably prove more interesting to him than to others. It is certainly an unsatisfactory book from the reader’s perspective and this dissatisfaction derives at least in part from the very thing that makes it interesting to the author: as a young writer he started the story and put it away. Much later he came upon it and decided it was worth carrying on with. Consequently it is rather disjointed in tone and subject, rather confusing to this reader until I came upon Söderberg’s explanation.

The point of reading this might be as much sociological as literary, it serves to detail much about social life around the late nineteenth century in Sweden. It might also be used as a warning – and this will come as no surprise to those who have had close up experiences with poets – that the species is to be avoided at all costs. With the possible exception of Ted Hughes, what person has ever deserved the fate of being involved with one? I exclude from this general observation those like Roger McGough who think poetry should be fun, but Söderberg does not think life – or poetry – a laughing matter. He is – reading into the text of the story – a mere amateur poet, but no less to be avoided for that and parts of this make one cringe as he acknowledges without shrinking from the task himself, the ways in which Young Men of a Certain Sensitive Disposition think. Oh dear.

Certainly not in the class of Dr Glas, but worth a look all the same.