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Read an extract from Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus
19th March 2019

Read an extract from Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus

Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus by Fiona MacCarthy

Fiona MacCarthy’s latest biography is a tour de force that brings the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, to life on the page. One hundred years on from its founding, MacCarthy charts Gropius’ extraordinary life and the importance and long-lasting influence of his work. At the centre of European modern art and design in the early part of the 20th century, Gropius’ vision encouraged experimentation, creative freedom and joy, a position that meant he had to flee his home in Germany under the Nazis. He went on to live in London and America, where he played an important role in architecture and design. MacCarthy masterfully approaches her subject with insight and warmth—the extract below explains how she came to write about him.

 


Preface

The Silver Prince

 

How do you decide on your subject? This is a question people like to put to writers at literary festivals. I tend to answer that my subjects have always chosen me, the result of a long obsession, as with Byron, the fruits of a chance encounter, as with Eric Gill. They sit there in your mind, sometimes for years, waiting to claim you, like the start of a close friendship or inevitable love affair. In fact the starting point of my search for Walter Gropius was not an encounter with a person but a chair.

 

It was 1964. I was then a mini-skirted Courrèges-booted young journalist working for the Guardian. The place was Dunn’s of Bromley, a modern-minded furniture store in a London suburb. The chair was the Isokon Long Chair. It was not designed by Gropius himself but by his close Bauhaus colleague Marcel Breuer and it was created when they were both living in England, taking refuge from the Nazi regime in Germany. I may have been the Guardian’s Design Correspondent but this was like no chair I had ever seen before, made of laminated plywood, curvaceous, fluid and poetic. The original advertising leaflet, designed by another Bauhaus Master, László Moholy-Nagy, suggested that anyone reclining on the Long Chair would imagine they were airborne. I tried out the chair and decided he was right.

 

This was where the chain of coincidence that led me to Walter Gropius began. The occasion at Dunn’s was the relaunch of the Long Chair, production of which had been suspended in the war, when plywood parts made in Estonia could no longer be obtained. Among those present was Jack Pritchard, the modernist entrepreneur who had founded Isokon, commissioned Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead and supported Gropius and Breuer while they were in England. He came darting over and I was enchanted by his somewhat risky spontaneity of manner. Within the first two minutes he had invited me to come and spend a weekend at his house in Blythburgh in Suffolk. Over the next twenty years I went there often with my designer husband David Mellor and later with our children. It became a place we could escape to, almost a second home.

 

That house was like nothing I had ever known before. Jack and his psychotherapist wife Molly presided over a regime of the ever-open door, through which a wonderfully random mix of people – architects and scientists, artists and musicians, academics, surgeons, psychoanalysts, inventors – endlessly thronged. Conversations on art, science and politics raged non-stop. Children were treated as if they were grown up.

 

The mood, as I came to realise, was a throwback to progressive Hampstead of the 1930s. Jack never failed to emphasise that the house itself had been designed by his architect daughter Jennifer, the proud result of his liaison with the Hampstead nursery school teacher Beatrix Tudor-Hart. The layout of the building had a lovely flexibility which was later to remind me of Gropius’s own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The routine was self-consciously uninhibited. The early-evening sauna with a little birch-twig beating was followed by the obligatory naked plunge into a fairly freezing Suffolk swimming pool. Supper often consisted of Jack’s Ultimatum Salad, an amalgam of any food he could lay his hands on in order to feed the often unexpected multitudes. Conversation, which continued way into the night, included many references back to Gropius and Breuer and that whole lost world of pre-war European modernism. There was much detailed talk about the Bauhaus, its personalities, its ethos. This became familiar territory to me too.

 

Most memorably at Blythburgh art was all around us. The little Henry Moore on the side table in the dining room; the Calder mobiles in the children’s bunkhouse, almost asking to be kicked around. The curtains were designed by the Pritchards’ friend Ben Nicholson. Art was not treated as sacrosanct, not given ostentatious attention or respect, certainly not regarded as a commercial commodity. It was there to be enjoyed just as part of normal life. This was the driving force behind the original concept of the Bauhaus as envisioned by Gropius. Responding to the horrifying carnage of the First World War, in which technological advances had been harnessed to the weaponry of destruction, the Bauhaus – literally the House of Building, with its underlying sense of spiritual reconstruction – was Gropius’s attempt at a reversal of this process. Biography as I’ve come to see it is a slow-burning process of the making of connections. My original friendship with Jack and Molly Pritchard brought me in the end to Walter Gropius himself.

 

In autumn 1968 the Bauhaus exhibition arrived at the Royal Academy in London. It had opened originally in Stuttgart, sponsored by the German government at a time when the achievements of Gropius and the Bauhaus were being celebrated in a somewhat desperate attempt to obliterate the memory of their persecution by the Nazis, who had forced the closure of the school in 1933. The exhibition stressed the concept of democratic art as part of the German tradition of the past. For Gropius himself and for the remaining Bauhaus students and teachers, many of whom came to London for the opening, this was a highly emotional time. The exhibition and the catalogue had been designed by the former Bauhaus Master Herbert Bayer. Jack Pritchard took on a delightedly proprietorial role.

 

He invited me to come to dinner at the Isobar, the Lawn Road Flats restaurant designed by Marcel Breuer, to meet Bayer. In the 1960s, thirty years after it was first designed, the Isobar still kept its authentic period quality. We sat at Breuer’s plywood table, Jack and Herbert Bayer facing me as I perched on an Isokon plywood stool. Bayer was still handsome, debonair and charming. We talked about the past, about the Bauhaus and Berlin in the 1930s, about Bayer’s later years of working in New York. What I was only much later to discover was that Herbert Bayer’s passionate affair with Gropius’s wife Ise had been the one serious threat to their long marriage. One of the fascinations of working on biography is the way in which such submerged histories emerge.

 

The next day, at a special private viewing of the Bauhaus exhibition, Jack Pritchard introduced me to Gropius himself. He was then eighty five, small, upright, very courteous, retaining a Germanic formality of bearing, a reminder of how Gropius had once been the glamorous moustachioed officer in the gold-frogged dress uniform of the Hussars.

 

As he told me, by 1968 he had experienced three disparate lives: first in Germany as a radical young architect and then as the founder and director of the Bauhaus, the flight to England via Rome in 1934, followed by yet another emigration. He had now lived in America for more than thirty years. Gropius had experienced the long life of a wanderer, albeit an especially distinguished one. Though his English had obviously improved greatly since his nervously tongue-tied arrival at Victoria Station, he had never entirely lost his German accent. His face was deeply lined. He was by this time evidently ageing and he died a year later, in July 1969. But Gropius at this point was still valiant and impressive, with a flickering of arrogance. I could see why Paul Klee, one of the first Masters he appointed to the Bauhaus, referred to Gropius in his early Weimar days of authority and glamour as the Silver Prince.

 


A well-known broadcaster and critic, Fiona MacCarthy established herself as one of the leading writers of biography in Britain with her widely acclaimed book Eric Gill, published in 1989. Her biography of Byron was described by A. N. Wilson as 'a flawless triumph' and William Morris won the Wolfson History Prize and the Writers' Guild Non-Fiction Award. She most recently published Last Curtsey, a memoir of her early life as a debutante

Fiona is a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Hon. Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2009.

 

 

Read an extract from Akala's Natives, Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year
15th March 2019

Read an extract from Akala's Natives, Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year

Natives by Akala

In Natives, musician and political commentator Akala has written a fierce and necessary polemic on race and class. Now in paperback, our Non-Fiction Book of the Year, Natives stands out for its clarity, urgency and humanity. Akala uses his own personal experiences to explore how race and class intersect and how we’ve come to be where we are in contemporary British society. It’s eye-opening, challenging and, we believe, required reading. Now available in an exclusive signed pink sprayed edge paperback edition, and we have an extract from this vital book, below.

 


1 – BORN IN THE 1980s

 

I was born in the 1980s and I grew up in the clichéd, single-parent working-class family. We often depended on state benefits, we lived in a council house, I ate free school meals. I am the child of a British-Caribbean father and a Scottish/English mother, my teenage parents were never married and they separated before I was born. My dad spent a portion of his childhood in and out of the care system and my mum was pretty much disowned by her father for getting with a ‘nig nog’. The first time I saw someone being stabbed I was twelve, maybe thirteen, the same year I was searched by the police for the first time. I first smoked weed when I was nine and many of my ‘uncles’ – meaning biological uncles as well as family friends – went to prison. My upbringing was, on the face of it, typical of those of my peers who ended up meeting an early death or have spent much of their adult lives in and out of prison.

 

 

I was born in Crawley, West Sussex, but moved to Camden in north-west London before I had formed any concrete memories and I spent my childhood and teenage years living there. Camden is home to 130 languages and about as wide a divide between rich and poor as anywhere in the country. I went to school with the children of lords and ladies, millionaires, refugees, children clearly suffering from malnourishment and young boys selling drugs for their fathers. If there is anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place.

 

 

I was born in the 1980s in the ‘mother country’ of the British Commonwealth, the seat of the first truly global empire, the birthplace of  ‘the’ industrial revolution and the epicentre of global finance. What does this mean? What are the social and historical forces that even allowed my parents to meet? My father is the British-born child of two African-Jamaican migrant workers who came to the mother country as part of the Windrush generation. My mother was an army child, born in Germany, spending her infant years in Hong Kong and moving to the small town in which I was born in her early teens. In my parents’ meeting are untold histories of imperial conquest, macroeconomic change, slave revolts, decolonisation and workers’ struggles. I was born poor, by Western standards at least. I was born poor and racialised as black – despite my ‘white’ mother – in perhaps the most tumultuous decade of Britain’s domestic racial history.

 

 

I was born in the 1980s, before mixed-race children had become an acceptable fashion accessory. A nurse in the hospital promised to give my white mother ‘nigger blood’ when she needed a transfusion after giving birth; yeah, the 1980s was a decade bereft of political correctness.

 

 

The 1980s was also the decade of Thatcherite–Reaganite ascendency. The ‘golden age of capitalism’ had ended in 1973, and the 80s saw the start of the rollback of the post-war welfare state, increased sell-off of public assets and the embrace of an individualistic ‘self-made’ logic by the very generation that had become wealthy with the support of free universities and cheap council houses, and had literally been kept alive by the newly constructed National Health Service. The decade saw the most powerful military machine ever assembled spun into existential crisis by the enormous threat posed by the potential of a socialist revolution on the tiny little Caribbean island of Grenada, and the self-appointed captains of global democracy could be found backing genocidal regimes from Nicaragua to South Africa – though that could’ve been any decade, really. It was the decade Thomas Sankara was killed, the Berlin Wall fell, Michael Jackson started to turn white and the MOVE movement was bombed from the sky. The 1980s were fairly eventful, to say the least.

 

 

For black Britain, the decade began with the New Cross fire/massacre of 1981, a suspected racist arson attack at 439 New Cross Road, where Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her sixteenth birthday party. Thirteen of the partygoers burned to death, including the birthday girl, and one of the survivors also later committed suicide. Many of the families of the dead have maintained to this day that a) it was an arson attack and b) the police bungled the investigation and treated the families of the dead like suspects instead of victims. The community’s suspicion that it was an arson attack was perfectly reasonable, given that it came in the wake of a string of such racist arson attacks in that area of south-east London. The prime minister did not even bother to offer condolences to what were apparently British children and their families. Of course, Thatcher could not, in her heart of hearts, express sympathy for black British children while supporting an apartheid government rooted in the idea that black people were subhuman, so at least she was consistent. There certainly was not going to be a minute’s silence and most of Britain is completely unaware it even happened, despite the New Cross fire being one of the largest single losses of life in post-war Britain.

 

 

The same year also saw the passing of the British Nationality Act, the last of a series of Acts that were passed from 1962 onwards and whose racialised motivations were barely disguised. British Caribbeans had come to learn that they were indeed second-class citizens – as many had long suspected – but they were not of a mood to be quiet and keep their heads down about it. New Cross led to the largest demonstration by black people in British history; 20,000 marched on parliament on a working weekday and foretold of the harsh realities of the decade to come: ‘Blood a go run, if justice na come’ was the chant. It was to prove prophetic.

 

 

The rest of the decade of my birth was punctuated by uprisings and disturbances in almost all of the Caribbean and ‘Asian’ areas of the country, as well as the miners’ strikes of 1984–85 and the constant presence of the anti-apartheid struggle. These ‘disturbances’ included the infamous Brixton riots of 1981, set off by the sus laws – a resurrection of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, these laws allowed people to be arrested on the mere suspicion that they intended to commit a crime – and their manifestation in Swamp81, a racialised mass stop-and-search police campaign.

 

 

Brixton burned again in 1985, set aflame by the police shooting and paralysing Cherry Groce. Just a week later, the death of Cynthia Jarret after a police raid on her home sparked the Broadwater Farm riots, where a police officer was killed. I know members of both families personally, and grew up with the son of Smiley Culture, the reggae artist who died during a police raid on his home in 2011. I mention these connections only to point out that these people are not abstractions or mere news items, but members of a community, our community. Dalian Atkinson, the former Premier League footballer, was tasered to death by the police in 2016; it’s hard to imagine a former pop star or a retired footballer from any other community in Britain dying after contact with the police.

 

These 1980s reactions to state violence, racism, poverty and class conflict were by no means limited to London; there was the St Paul’s riot in Bristol in 1980, Moss Side and Toxteth in the north-west of England in 1981, Handsworth in the Midlands in 1981 and 1985 and Chapletown in Leeds in 1981 and 1987. How many millions of pounds of damage these outpourings of rage caused I don’t know, but now that they are sufficiently distant from the present, very few academics would dispute that they had very real socio-political causes. Indeed, entire books have been written on them, and government policy and police behaviour and training were reformed in direct response to these events, though what lessons the British state has truly learned from the 1980s remains to be seen.

 

 

It’s easy for people just slightly younger than myself, and born into a relative degree of multiculturalism, to forget just how recently basic public decency towards black folks was won in this country, but I was born in the 80s so I remember only too well. I was five years old when the infamous picture was taken of footballer John Barnes, kicking away the banana that had been thrown at him from the stands. I grew up routinely watching some of England’s greatest ever football players suffer this type of humiliation in their workplace, in front of tens of thousands of people, who for the most part seemed to find it entirely acceptable, funny even. I knew Cyril Regis personally (rest in power, sir), I know about the bullets in the post and the death threats received by black players from their ‘own’ supporters and apparent countrymen because they wanted to play for England. No one asked in public discourse where that association with black people and monkeys came from, because if they did we might have to speak of historical origins, of savage myths and of literal human zoos.

 

 

I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its prejudices forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early, as I stared at Barnsey kicking away that banana skin or when I sat in the dark and the freezing cold simply because my mum did not make enough money. I knew that these experiences were significant but I was not yet sure how to tease meaning from them.

 

 


Akala author photograph by Alexis Chabala

Akala is a BAFTA and MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist, writer and social entrepreneur, as well as the co-founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. He has been awarded an honorary degree from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Brighton. He's written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the Independent, and spoken for the Oxford Union and TEDx.

 

 

 

Philippa Perry's The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read
11th March 2019 - Philippa Perry

Philippa Perry's The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read is a breath of fresh air - to call it a parenting guide doesn’t do justice to the wise, compassionate and non-judgemental advice contained within its covers. Renowned psychotherapist Philippa Perry brings her trademark approach to the parent-child relationship to help understand the connection between one’s own upbringing and parenting style. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read will leave you with a better understanding of yourself and how to have a healthier, more honest and open relationship with your children.

Below, Perry talks exclusively to Foyles about accepting that mistakes will be made and the benefits of learning to apologise to our children.

 


Rupture and Repair

 

Parents may worry that they have ruined their children and think things like: “I saw so much of myself in her that I sometimes found it hard to like her”, “I was depressed for three years after he was born and I’ve ruined him.” As well as more trivial ones, “I snapped yesterday and he looked so shocked”, “I blamed her for eating the biscuits the dog had eaten.” Of course, we all wish that we never made mistakes, or we were never emotionally or physically absent when they needed us. Terrible or trivial, however hard we try, there will be misunderstandings, misses, messes and mistakes in our relationships with each of our children. Probably the worst thing we can do with these inevitable mishaps is pretend they don’t matter or didn’t happen. What we must do is acknowledge them and take responsibility for them. If necessary changing either our habits, or attitudes, or saying sorry to our children when stuff we’ve got wrong has impacted them. But despair and handwringing won’t help the parent and it certainly won’t help the child.

 

In psychotherapy, we have a phrase called “Rupture and Repair”. The mistake is the rupture and you putting it right is the repair.

 

Your kid needs to feel ‘got’ by you. They need to feel understood and seen. If your connection with your child has been compromised in any way, you need to get it back on track and this usually means realising we missed something or made a mistake and we need to put it right, or own our part in it. This might mean telling them how we were with them when they were very young if it helps them to make sense of their feelings now, or just saying sorry when we owe them an apology.

 

A parent once asked me whether it was dangerous to apologize to children. ‘But don’t they need you to be right, otherwise they won’t feel secure?’ she asked. No! What children need is for us to be real and authentic, not perfect. 

 

Also, we want our children to feel it’s not a big deal to apologise when they’ve been wrong. They learn this, not so much by being told to do it but by being shown. I wasn’t thinking of the results of my saying sorry when I was wrong, I just wanted a good relationship with my daughter. So, I was surprised when she said to me about aged four with no prompting whilst eating some cake, “Sorry I was grumpy in the car mum, I was hungry. I’m okay now.” Children, like the rest of us, tend to do as they are done to. Being sensitive to feelings and following rupture with repair is always better than stand-offs, battlegrounds and winning and losing.

 

Children are not projects - something we get right or ruin, or chores to get through, but people to relate to. A child needs a good relationship with you and if a relationship goes wrong, there are things we can do to put it right. Remember: Rupture and Repair. Even if the rupture happened years ago, it is better to attempt to repair it late, than never.  

 


Philippa Perry author photograph, credit Justine Stoddart

Philippa Perry has been a psychotherapist for the past twenty years. A faculty member of The School of Life, she has presented several documentaries including The Truth about Children Who Lie for BBC Radio 4 and Being Bipolar for Channel 4. Most recently, Philippa has worked on a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Age of Emotion (forthcoming), and contributed towards the radio documentary Humiliation. She lives in London with her husband, the artist Grayson Perry, and her cat Kevin. They have one grown up daughter, Flo.

 

 

Read an Extract from Horror Debut, Last Ones Left Alive
11th March 2019

Read an Extract from Horror Debut, Last Ones Left Alive

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive is Sarah Davis-Goff’s terrifying debut novel. Set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland, in a dystopian future where zombie-like skrake have overrun the population and human survivors are rare and constantly under threat. Davis-Goff viscerally depicts this brutal world through the story of Orpen, a young woman travelling across a desolate landscape in search of practical help, and as importantly, hope. Intrinsically feminist and ultimately uplifting, Last Ones Left Alive is a brilliant work of imagination. Read an extract below.

 


MY TOENAIL HAS BLACKENED AND I’VE TO PULL TO GET it off. You’d feel it, so you would; it’s painful enough. I douse my foot in water and I leave the nail by the side of the road and on we go.

 

This road, this hungry road, eating us up. 

 

We’ve been walking already for a long time, the three of us together. 

 

Where are the trees and stone walls? Where the abandoned cottages and burnt-out bridge, where the waterfall and the hidden skiff? Where the signposts to lead us back home? I mark them, scraping old metal with jagged rocks, an ‘X’ that’d mean something only to Maeve and me, one line a little longer than the other for direction. I go over it, making sure I’ll remember, while the muscles along my neck and in the small of my back swell and creak with pain. I keep watching all around me. 

 

The blisters I got on my hands from rowing to and from the island fill with fluid, burst, fill again. 

 

When we rest I take leaves of mint from the herb pouch. Mam’s herb pouch. My eyes are tired from the glare of the sun. My feet are sore from the too-hot road. 

 

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh, too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago but it is still beautiful. 

 

We are moving. 

 

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small – scrawny is the word. She never used be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed- up face with the sweaty sheen. 

 

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home. 

 

I do, I tell him. But I can’t. 

 

Maeve’s lined skin is being burnt by the sun underneath its greyness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend that she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so that she’s facing forwards, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway unless for a fight. 

 

I’ve a new pain then, the sun pounding down on one spot at the top of my forehead.

 

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

 

We pause to drink. I shadow-box to show that maybe we’re on the road now but I can keep to my training. I nearly feel that I’ve still some control over what’s happening to us, with my sts in the air. I stare at my map, guessing how far we’ve come from the beach, from home. My eyes and ears are strained long past comfort, waiting to catch the first sign of a skrake bearing down on us.

 

We get going and we keep going.


I keep an eye on her.


Our road joins a bigger road and that joins a bigger road again, a straight road, and we see more houses and the villages begin to clump together. The road curves upwards and the land thickens into hills. The trees are getting bolder and greener, the landscape transforming every few clicks into shapes and colours I've never seen before. leave Maeve in the barrow to walk off the road, my back giving out as I straighten, and pull some sticky pine needles to make the tea. It’s cooler in the woods, the air smells more the way it does on Slanbeg. Cleaner. I rub the needles in my hands and breathe in deep, letting my eyes stay closed a moment. 

 

Vitamin C, Maeve says in my ear, so clearly that I start, take in a sharp breath. I go quickly back to the road. 

 

Her body is prone in the barrow, her lips closed into a disapproving line. 

 

Every now and then there’ll be a tree growing right up in the middle of the road and I have to unpack the barrow and carry everything round. Food, blankets, the chickens squawking. I try not to breathe when I lift Maeve. I try not to feel her bones. 

 

Progress is slow, slower even than I thought it would be. Danger lies down to watch me and pant in the shade of a stone wall standing all on its own. He waits till I’ve slogged past him and then he gets up and shakes himself and lollops along again. 

 

It’s viciously hot till the sun starts to sink, then suddenly it’s cold. The clouds come down on us, obstinate and dour.

 

When the storm comes it lights up the darkening sky with violent intensity. I stop and lift my head to watch, my hands in the small of my back to stretch it out. It feels dangerous, pausing, but I linger and even let my stinging eyes close, and when it starts raining I take the hand-wraps off and hold my palms up and offer them to the deluge. 

 


Sarah Davis-Goff Author Photo

Sarah Davis-Goff lives in Dublin and works in publishing – she is one of the co-founders of Irish independent publisher Tramp Press, and is a 2018 Bookseller Rising Star. Last Ones Left Alive is her first novel.

 

 

Read an Extract from Lucy Mangan's Bookworm
6th March 2019

Read an extract from Lucy Mangan's Bookworm

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan's Bookworm is a warm and witty journey through her own childhood reading, which is sure to strike a chord with all fellow bookworms. Read an extract from the book, below.

 


 

Ladybirds


There was one other very important carousel in the school library. It was full of hardbacks, yet they were the size of paperbacks and even slimmer. I had a couple at home but they were learning‑​to‑​read books about Peter and Jane that were now in use with my sister. These were different. They seemed to be about everything. There was one about computers. One about a man called John Wesley. One about knitting. These I did not go a bundle on. The one about John Wesley in particular haunted me. It seemed to have more words per page than was physically possible. And although I could literally read them all – ‘ Me‑​th‑​od‑​is‑​m’ – I could not make sense of them. I could not hold the sentences in my mind. By the time I got to the end of one, the beginning had vanished like one of those tracing games where you press down with a stylus and then lift the top sheet to erase everything and start again. Or like shaking an Etch A Sketch, if you come from a home slightly better stocked with basic contemporary entertainments.

 

Better – much better, put‑​in‑​a‑​request‑​to‑​the- parents better – were the ones full of princes (in funny trousers), princesses (in lovely gowns), flaxen/ ebony- haired children, brave hens, foolish chickens, lively gingerbread men and talking pancakes, who variously became embroiled with wicked witches, evil stepmothers bearing poisoned apples, furious goblins, menacing bears, hungry villages, wily foxes, murderous wolves and enchanted spinning wheels against a backdrop of dark woods, shining castles, thickets of thorns and doorless towers.

 

They were of course Ladybirds, the little books that emerged over seventy years ago at Wills & Hepworth, a small printing firm in Loughborough, and swiftly achieved iconic status. To keep their presses rolling during the war, the firm devised a storybook for children that could be printed on just one sheet of paper. When one of their employees, Douglas Keen – a committed educationalist and believer in self- improvement – came back from the war he saw the format’s potential, sat down at his kitchen table and laid out the first factual Ladybird, about birds. It was the beginning of the longest series – Nature – Ladybird would run, and the genesis of the brand as we know it.

 

The measure of the love and esteem in which the multiple series that eventually made up Ladybird’s output were held can be seen in the number of letters that appeared in various newspapers after Douglas Keen’s death in 2008. One correspondent remembered checking out the Ladybird Napoleon Bonaparte from the library to get him through his history A level. A minister wrote to the Guardian to say he still dishes out copies of – ahem – the Ladybird John Wesley as the perfect primer for anyone interested in Methodism. To which I can only say, God be with you. I tried again recently and still couldn’t get through it. Though this time possibly because my brain shut down as a protective measure after reading that he was one of nineteen children. Imagine giving birth nineteen times. Hundreds of years before epidurals, pethidine or anything other than a ‘Just say another prayer, Susanna, if it’s starting to sting!’ That’s one of the few things more exhausting and painful than ploughing through a primer on Methodism.

 

Another person wrote in to say that the Ladybird Book of Printing Processes had been required reading on his design course, and the one about English spelling and grammar went on at least one university lecturer’s reading list for freshers. And the rumour persists that the Ministry of Defence put in a covert order for copies of The Computer: How it Works – to be delivered in special plain covers – when it came out in the 1970s.

 

The application to my parents for more of these delicious, tiny books that felt so right in childish hands yielded over subsequent weeks and months the publishers’ gracefully filleted versions of Bible stories, Aesop’s Fables and, a touch more fancifully, the adventures of the Garden Gang, a series of short stories (really short – two per Ladybird) about Percival Pea, Bertie Brussel Sprout, Colin Cucumber and assorted other produce invented and illustrated by a twelve-year-old girl called Jayne Fisher. They, and the age of their author, transfixed me. I held the gang’s efforts to supply Polly Pomegranate with the ballet clothes she needed and solve Oliver Onion’s lachrymose problems in exactly the same esteem as Aesop’s finest and ancient Greece’s best efforts to limn the human condition. A good story is a good story is a good story. They were followed by Gulliver’s Travels, The Swiss Family Robinson and a number of other literary and folkloric – Stone Soup ! – classics distilled into fifty-six pages a time.

 

I ploughed my way through as many of the classical titles on my reading list as I could at university, but still all I will ever reliably know of Hercules and his labours, Andromeda and her rock, Perseus and his Gorgon comes from the 102 small pages comprising the two Ladybird volumes of classical myth and legends – thrilling text about minotaurs, moving cliffs, men holding up the earth, golden fleeces and goldener apples on the left, on the right pictures destined to live for ever in the mind’s eye. Baby Hercules strangling a snake in each hand, people. Each hand. Snake. Strangled. I note that these days, ladybird.co.uk offers you the chance to narrow your book choices by age range. Ignore it. How safe do your children really have to feel?

 

While I was accumulating fairy tales and other filleted fiction, a boy 200 miles away unknown to me but whom I would one day, slightly against my better judgement, marry was industriously amassing with the zeal of a born fact-seeker and completist a complementary collection of the History and How To series. Looking at his collection now gives me a new and even deeper respect for the mighty minds behind the books. There is almost literally nothing of even the most fleeting interest to a child that they did not cover. There is the Story of the Cowboy, of Oil, of Houses and Homes, of Ships of Clothes and Costumes and everything in between. Want to learn about the history of the British Isles in 102 titchy pages? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a brace of volumes called Our Land in the Making. They aren’t books, they are nuggets of pure knowledge that still glitter in the man’s mind thirty years on. It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person. My other hope – that Ladybird would revive the non-fiction series in order to fill the ever-growing gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary world – was fulfilled in 2017, with the publication of the first books in a new Ladybird Expert series, including volumes on climate change, quantum mechanics, evolution, the Battle of Britain and Ernest Shackleton. This is a good start, but I need much more. I need ones on Syria, Brexit and Putin’s Russia, along with new additions to the old How It Works series; Mortgages and Pensions, Antidepressants, Maintaining Your Sanity on Mumsnet Given the Impossibility of Staying Away from Mumsnet.* Could someone see to it, please? Ta.

 

* Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the pastiche series. The page in The Ladybird Book of The Hipster – ‘Hipsters think plates are very old-fashioned. They prefer to eat from planks, tiles and first-generation iPads. This tofu self-identifying cross-species is being served on a spring-loaded folder that contains the script of a short film about a skateboarding shoelace designer’, alongside the picture from The Gingerbread Man of him on a baking tray – is the only thing that can still make me laugh sober.

 


Lucy Mangan Author Photograph

Lucy Mangan is a journalist and author. She is a columnist for The Guardian and Stylist, and has written for most of the major women's magazines. Her bookworm status is attested to by the fourteen double-stacked Billy bookcases at her south-east London home.

 

 

What Would Boudicca Do?
5th March 2019

Find Inspiration From Some of History's Greatest and Fiercest Women in What Would Boudicca Do?

What Would Boudicca Do?

Modern life is rubbish. It's time to stand up and take inspiration from some of history's greatest and fiercest women. Let the likes of Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker, Hypatia and Cleopatra, Coco Chanel and Empress Cixihe be your guide to killing it at work, figuring out who you are and conquering everyday life in What Would Boudicca Do?

Read Dorothy Parker's advice on how to handle jerks, below.

 


Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks

 

Dorothy Parker credit Bijou KarmanIt is a truth universally acknowledged that, at the exact moment you fully invest in a relationship, the object of your affections turns out to be an emotionally immature sociopath.

Experience tells us that there is no point attempt­ing to change your beloved jerk’s behaviour if you make this distressing diagnosis. But just think of the material it gives you for bitching with your friends, moaning to your mother and penning venge­ful WhatsApp messages to your crew. And there’s one spiky sister from history who took her painful romantic experiences and transformed them into the most cracking copy. Dorothy Parker was a literary alchemist who turned her dejection into profession­al comedy gold. No one remembers her husbands or the names of her negligent paramours – but her words are etched onto our psyches as the best retorts ever committed to paper. How could one possibly better ‘It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard’ (about the man who knocked her up, resulting in an abortion), ‘Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both’, or ‘Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.’

 

Dorothy Rothschild was the fourth child of a moder­ately prosperous couple who lived happily in Manhat­tan until Dorothy’s mother died. Her father remarried a devout Catholic whom Dotty did not take to, refus­ing to address her as Mother, Stepmother or even her given name, preferring instead ‘the housekeeper’. Ouch. Dot had a keen eye for turning personal tragedy into great stories, so it’s hard to know how much of her family myth is just that, but we do know that in 1917 she married Edwin Pond Parker II, a quietly alcohol­ic stockbroker. The marriage was unhappy, and it’s said she had several affairs, notably with the writer Charles MacArthur (he of the eggs and bastard). She also began to throw herself into work.

 

In 1918 Dorothy became the theatre critic of Van­ity Fair, replacing none other than P. G. Wodehouse, and she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most vicious voices in journalism. She was a regular at the daily lunch of the infamous ‘Algonquin Round Table’, where the most loquacious scribblers, actors and wits of the day would meet to verbally scrap it out. In 1920 she was fired and went freelance, pub­lishing poems and stories, and in 1927 landed a gig as a book reviewer for The New Yorker. She would be its ‘Constant Reader’ until the end of her life.

 

Dorothy lived at a time when the hedonism of the 1920s was revolutionising life for middle-class wom­en: they cut their hair short, smoked, drank, embraced the sexual revolution, took pride in backchat, drove cars, indulged in consumerism and listened to jazz. The respectable older generation viewed them as a dangerous, reckless force for evil. There was also plenty of handwringing from old-school feminists who had campaigned for political equality and questioned the flappers’ self-absorption and wondered if the pur­suit of having-it-all would in fact result in having-not-very-much – and a life that felt lonely, disappointed and bitter. Sound familiar, O woman of the twenty-first century? For Parker, though, the freedom to write the human condition – painful, heart-breaking, but often very, very funny – was paramount.

 

Her marriage to Edwin ended in divorce in the late 1920s, and in 1932 Parker met Alan Campbell, a much younger actor who had published a few short stories. They married in 1934, and soon after were approached by an agent who told them they could make it big in Hollywood, baby, and they did indeed become successful scriptwriters, even being nominat­ed for two Academy Awards. In LA, Dorothy became a political activist; she opposed the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, and was investigated by the FBI. Her second marriage failed but her activism endured, and on her death she left everything in her will to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, with her estate even­tually going to the NAACP (see Rosa Parks on p. 25).

 

She had written her own epitaph, ‘Excuse my dust’, yet another masterclass in devastating brevity, but in a strange twist concerning an argument over her will, the urn containing her ashes languished in her attorney’s filing cabinet for seventeen years, until the NAACP insisted it be interred at their HQ in Balti­more.

 

So the next time you get ghosted after the third date, or find yourself baffled by the fact that your partner is incapable of expressing emotion, think of Dorothy Parker and her exceptional, unforgettable ability to turn even the most embarrassing romantic rejection into a pithy, polished putdown. Yes, there’s despair in her writing about the misery of a woman’s lot, but her defiance, vicious wit and superhuman cocktail-swilling capacity for partying shines through. She was the enemy of the boring and mundane, a sis­ter of sass with a razor-sharp mind.

 

Illustration by Bijou Karmen

 


E.Foley-and- B.Coates_credit_Noor Sufi

E. Foley and B Coates are editors based in London. Since working on this book they have begun to channel Elizabeth 1's famed public-speaking skills and taken tips from Mrs Beeton when battling imposter syndrome. Bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups and Shakespeare for Grown-Ups, they are anything but imposters when it comes to writing.

Bijou Karmen is an artist and illustrator from Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

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