More Books For Christmas Part Two

Christopher Fowler
This selection pretty much sums up my appallingly narrow range of guilty pleasures, although there's not a good film book here as they seem to have fallen out of vogue, and there are no books exploring the back-alleys of British history this time.


First up in Pen Vogler's 'Scoff', a delightful look at foods so ubiquitous that we haven't really bothered studying them much in British cuisine, like potatoes, stews, high tea and roast beef. The author delves into the reasons why they occupy such positions in our diet, looking at their history and mythologies. Her section on the snobbery surrounding tinned food reminds us that consumers were suspicious because they couldn't see inside the tin, and had every right to be so because producers used low-grade meat intended for overseas troops that went rotten before it had even arrived. Her take on our former national fast food fish and chips (now replaced by curry) is enlightening, and the book is peppered with her personal experiences. Inevitably, class has much to do with what we eat, and Vogler provides a welcome antidote to the ghastly middle class reminiscences of cookery's simpering Nigellas.

Killer, Come Back To Me

If you only know Ray Bradbury from his beautiful fantasy fiction, especially the evocative 'Dandelion Wine', 'Killer, Come Back To Me' will come as a bolt from the blue. Collected together for the very first time are all of the early crime stories Bradbury wrote. The volume feels like Bradbury's bridge between pulp noir and gentle fantasy, and has been published for his centenary.

The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes

I don't know anybody who actually likes Gyles Brandreth, from his annoying name and his horrible jumpers to his smugly avuncular TV-friendly face, but we put up with him because he occasionally comes up with the goods. Here, with the power of the Oxford University Press behind him, he updates Ned Sherrin's earlier volume of 'Theatrical Anecdotes' to extend both forward and back, including a rich array of tales, some retold so often that they have ascended into the realm of myth. Starting with Shakespeare we move through theatre's finest period to low comics, high art and inevitably, the foot-in-mouth 'Gielgudisms' of John Gielgud - although I also enjoyed Ralph Richardson falling through the floor of Vivien Leigh's house. Some tales are not so much anecdotes as memories that haunted players, which makes the book richer and more evocative. It's a charming treasure house of theatrical history, more erudite than expected but nicely gossipy in places.

Oliver! A Dickensian Musical

One more book on the theatre, rather more unusual, an academic volume but a fascinating one. Marc Napolitano's volume on 'Oliver!', about the evolution of the project (for which we could read any theatre project) over the years, shows us the writer Lionel Bart adapting Dickens through the prism of English music hall, cockney argot and East End Yiddish theatre. From its inception as a pop musical to its massively popular screen adaptation, upsetting and dazzling the purists in equal measure, it remains one of the world's great theatrical hits. What's most surprising about seeing the adaptation of Oliver Twist now is that it managed to capture more of the
essence and authenticity than you remember.
The study shows how difficult creative choices evolved through the lengthy development process and how international markets received this extremely English production. How, for example, did it find an 'authentic' English voice, and why did the play become a success in Japan? Fagin's song 'Reviewing The Situation' was apparently based on a Hebrew chant - indeed, much of the music was informed by Bart's Jewish background, which goes a long way toward defusing traditional complaints about Fagin's character. At the time, it was noted that the representations of Jewish cultural influence in the musical play and film were deliberately heightened to reflect London East End life, where the project had originated.

The Artful Dickens

There are too many Dickens biographies and far too many about the man behind the words. How much do we need to know about any writer, beyond the fact that their formative years created their memories? So I welcomed John Mullan's 'The Artful Dickens', subtitled 'The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist' as a new chance to see how he mentally handled so much rich material, and how he came to create so many memorable turns of phrase. These are basically essays, so they lack a through-thread that would make the book more compelling to read, For example, I would have arranged the chapters according to the construction of a novel, but here the essays are thematically built around on hauntings, coincidences, names, tenses, breaking the rules and so on. Within the essays themselves, though, are plenty of fresh thoughts. The reminder that 'Bleak House' has opening paragraphs without a single finite verb in them is not lost on me; I consciously imitated them in the opening of 'The Burning Man'. Even my editor missed the joke. By giving every detail equal weight, though, Mr Mullan's volume is not for a casual dip-in. His reference range is enormous and darts from one modern author's similarities to another's, making it a far from fluid read. It's best enjoyed as a series of fireside chats with an eminently knowledgeable Dickens scholar, and that's no bad thing. The question What's so good about Dickens novels? is answered, but the larger puzzle
of how it was achieved remains a mystery, as it should. No amount of referencing and cataloguing can show you the shape of someone's mind.


Andrew Holme (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 09:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Many years ago I directed a pantomime for our local drama group. I chose to do Dan Leno's version of Mother Goose from the 1890s. Gyles Brandreth had published the script in the early Seventies. I wrote to him via his agent and got a wonderful reply from the man himself, giving us free reign over his script. He kept up a constant interest in our progress, and sent us a lovely good luck message. Four months later some of us laden with gifts, went to see his one man show at the Riverside Studios, and afterwards he entertained us with wine and even more anecdotes! He was an absolute gent.

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 10:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The annoying thing about Gyles B is that he knows so much about so many things. He might have been PM if Conservative politicians could tolerate having a leader who is smarter than they are.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 10:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If you like books on Dickens and books on the theatre try 'Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World'
by Simon Callow which claims that the most important influences on his novels were the melodramatic stage productions of his era and his desire to act which he channelled into manically energetic readings.

Brian Evans (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 13:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Andrew, I have just finished reading "Oh Yes It is!", a history of pantomime from its early roots, by Gerald Frow. He goes into a lot of detail about Dan Leno and Mother Goose. You may well have the book, but if not, I thought I'd let you know.
It is available on Amazon. They haven't half upped the hardback price since I bought it, but the paperback is cheap.

Barbara Boucke (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 13:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wow! Thank you for this - the list Part Two. "Howdunit" arrived over the weekend via Amazon. Not sure about the Ray Bradbury, but I will definitely add the other four titles to my list for 2021.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 14:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brian thanks for the tip. I haven't read Frow's book, so that will go on my list. However, I do have a copy of Dan Leno's My Little Bok. I have no idea of its provenance, whether it was written by him or not. Gyles' book on Leno is a rarity nowadays, so not too easy to get hold of. Leno was our first cultural superstar with a level of fame unsurpassed by anyone since. Even reading about the amount of money he was earning per week still staggers!

Brian Evans (not verified) Mon, 14/12/2020 - 18:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi again Andrew. Gyles' book is on Amazon at an outrageous price, I am getting another, recent, book about Leno instead which seems good.. And one about Grimaldi. I am interested in the social history as well. Thanks for the tip.

And thanks Mr F, I am getting "Scoff" and "The Artful Dickens". I'm not proud-I had to look up what a finite verb is. Could everyone now please resist suggesting more books. I have spent enough!