Category: Books and Writing

World War One: Isaac Rosenberg – Poet and Painter

Isaac RosenbergAsk anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with 20th century literature about the poets and poetry of the First World War, and I can guarantee that the names ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Wilfred Owen’ and ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ will be mentioned at some point. All three are rightly-reknowned poets (especially Owen), but they weren’t the only ones to be creatively inspired by their war experiences. In today’s World War One post, I’ll be looking at the life and death of another Great War poet – one who came from a very different background, and whose work is still perhaps not as well-known as it should be.

Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the eldest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who had originally come over from Eastern Europe. When young Isaac was seven years old, his family moved to the East End of London in search of work. Settling on Cable Street, in the heart of the area’s large working-class Jewish community, the Rosenbergs found it difficult to make ends meet and Isaac, although intelligent and artistically talented, was forced to leave school at 14 in order to earn some money for the family.

He was apprenticed to an engraver, a job he apparently hated, but he was already beginning to write poetry and also started attending evening classes in art at Birkbeck College. He lost his job in 1911, but a lucky chance meeting led to his artistic talent being recognised by a patron, who agreed to fund his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Art. At the Slade, he studied alongside a number of young artists who went on to be very successful (and who also later reflected the impact of the war in their work), including Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler.

Moving in the well-connected circles associated with this creatively charged atmosphere obviously had an impact on Isaac, as he was able to get a small book of his poetry privately published in 1912. A year later, he met Edward Marsh, the editor of the influential Georgian Poetry volumes and one of the most important people on the British poetry scene at the time. This meeting seems to have been very positive as the two men corresponded right up until Rosenberg’s death.

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Quotes of the Day: Maya Angelou on being yourself – and respecting yourself

Here are a few words of wisdom from the pen of a very wise woman:

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

The writer of these words, Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86, was most certainly an amazing person (and, incidentally, she was quite right about “trying to be normal” – there’s no such thing…). Best known as a writer, academic, award-winning poet* and civil rights activist who worked with both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, she was, at various times and amongst other things, also a successful actress, singer and dancer. Described by her family as “a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace”, Maya Angelou was certainly a woman who lived her life with passion, compassion, humour and not a little style. She will be missed.

* Two of my personal favourites from among her many poems can be found here and here.

UPDATE: The 2014 Diagram Prize

At the end of last month, I wrote my annual post about the Diagram Prize – which is probably the oddest, and certainly my favourite, literary prize of the year. The winner of the 2014 Prize was announced yesterday after a public vote, with top spot going to the very weirdly-titled (and possibly a little pointless?) How To Poo On A Date: The Lovers’ Guide To Toilet Etiquette by Mats & Enzo.

In a statement, the publishers of How To Poo On A Date drily commented:

We are very happy and honoured that the public thought our book worthy of first place in this much sought-after prize; we’d have been disappointed to be number two.

Oh dear

The 2014 Diagram Prize: More Odd Books

Well folks, we’ve reached that time in the literary calendar again. The nominations have been announced for the 2014 Diagram Prize, which is awarded annually to the book with the oddest title of the year – and just so happens to be my favourite book award for that very reason (you can read about previous Diagram Prizes here).

So, as usual, here are this year’s prestigious nominees (and yes, these are all real, published books)…

Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City by Chris Balsiger and Erin Canning

Are Trout South African? by Duncan Brown

How to Poo on a Date by Mats & Enzo

Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography by Jo Packham

How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God by Ian Punnett

The Origin of Faeces by David Walter-Toews

I’m not sure what my choice would be yet, but I’m currently leaning towards the South African fish for some reason. If you’d like to cast your vote for this year’s prizewinner, visit We Love This Book here. The results will be announced on March 21st and I’ll be reporting back on the title of the victorious volume…

Charles Dickens and the Story of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…

Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.

All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.

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National Poetry Day 2013

Today is National Poetry Day. Since this year’s theme is water (and since I often write about London), I thought I would share with you this sonnet by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd 1802

Earth hath not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William’s sister Dorothy (1771-1855) was also a writer, and she kept a journal. It is this entry, recording a journey taken by the siblings through an early-morning London in July 1802, which is said to have inspired him to write this sonnet:

… we left London on Saturday morning at ½ past 5 or 6, the 31st July (I have forgot which) we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.

Weird Words of the Day

Broaden your vocabulary with Another Kind Of Mind! I’m fascinated by words and where they come from – and the English language is full of some seriously weird examples of words describing and defining some incredibly random concepts you probably never knew existed. Researching this subject out of curiosity, I came across quite a few of these words which I had to share with you all.

So, every once in a while I’ll be defining a couple of these words for you – and here’s today’s…

Desire Path:

A desire path (or desire line) is the name given to a concept you would never think actually had a name. You’ve probably seen plenty of desire paths in your own neighbourhood – they’re those shortcut tracks across grassy areas made by walkers and cyclists repeatedly cutting through from one place to another (you can see plenty of examples in this fascinating post over at the excellent Spitalfields Life).

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The Diagram Prize 2013: UPDATE

Back in early March, I posted about The Diagram Prize, a literary award which exists to celebrate the oddest book title of the year.  After a public vote, the 2013 winner was announced a week ago, with the prize going to Reginald Bakely’s Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.

Horace Bent of The Bookseller magazine (which runs the annual prize) obviously approved of this year’s winner, commenting:

In Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop the public have chosen a hugely important work regarding the best way to protect one’s fowl from the fairy realm’s most bothersome creatures.

The award was accepted on behalf of Mr Bakely by the book’s US editor Clint Marsh, who was clearly delighted at the prize:

Reginald and I take this as a clear sign that people have had enough of goblins in their chicken coops. Our campaign against the fairy kingdom continues.

Consider yourselves warned, fairy creatures all….

The Diagram Prize 2013: The oddest book award of the year

It’s that time of the year again. Forget the Oscars, bypass the BAFTAs, and just ignore the Grammys and the Brits, because the Diagram Prize has returned once more for its annual celebration of all that is literary and odd. Yes, the quirkiest literary prize of the awards season is back and celebrating its 35th birthday…

Awarded by The Bookseller magazine since 1978, the Diagram Prize exists to honour not the book of the year, nor even the oddest book of the year. Instead, the prize goes to the oddest book title of the year; a concept that greatly appeals to me (as you can probably see from my posts on previous Diagram Prize nominees here and here).

So, without further ado, here’s the nominations for this year’s oddest book title:

Was Hitler Ill? – Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle (Polity Press)

Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts – Jerry Gagne (Foy’s Pet Supplies)

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis – Tom Hickman (Square Peg)

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop – Reginald Bakeley (Conari)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World – Loani Prior (Murdoch)

How to Sharpen Pencils – David Rees (Melville House)

I’m still debating my choice of favourite title, although I’m wondering how you goblinproof anything – and I’m singularly curious to know how a whole book can be written about sharpening pencils…

If any of these bizarre titles have piqued your curiosity too, you can vote for your favourite here – the winner will be announced on 22nd March.

Library Cuts: The Facts

In March last year, I wrote about the impending cuts to our library services and why it’s just so important to save these vital community resources from closure and ‘rationalisation’. Recently, I was interested to note that the Public Libraries News had put together a list of library closures – and of those libraries still under threat from government policy.

This threat is very real, as a spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) explained to The Independent:

[W]e are seeing a reduction in opening hours, book stock spending and staff in many library services. Local communities, families and individuals are more than ever facing a postcode lottery when it comes to the quality of library services they can expect to receive.

And good quality library services are a crucial aspect of any healthy community. I’m a regular user of my local library – and not just in order to borrow books, although I do that frequently. The libraries in my local area also offer everything from local history services and access to education information, newspapers and the internet, to storytime sessions for the little ones and book groups, family history tutorials and craft workshops for the grown ups.

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