The December 2019 publication in The Cambridge Independent, of my feature on Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’, was a timely reminder that I should be promoting my new illustrated talk on this intriguing episode from the twentieth century. Below is the title and some blurb. If you would like to book a talk for your group or society, please drop me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org
The strange tale of Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’
Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, Norah James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929. The novel was swiftly ruled obscene, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place neglected in favour of more esteemed names including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, which led to the establishment of the Obelisk Press, banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience. Her first novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation after World War One, and the story of its suppression, seen as a conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action, is fascinating. James went on to write over 75 publications including romantic novels, radio plays, short stories and articles. During the 1930s, she had a weekend cottage near Cambridge and people still talk about her. She died in 1979.
In August I published a blog post entitled ‘Book Harvest’, in which I observed how much I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. Whilst this still applies, I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on my reading in recent weeks, due to discombobulation brought about by various happenings on the home front as we accelerate our longer-term plan to seek a new home and studio in Lincolnshire. Things have now settled down and I’m pleased to have completed my book club reading for this month; ‘My Sister the Serial Killer’ (2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite, ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ (2018) by John Boyne and ‘The First Men in the Moon’ (1901) by H.G. Wells. A broad selection, to say the least. I’ve now started ‘The Rapture’ (2019) by Claire McGlasson, a novel keenly anticipated since I attended an interview with the author at St Neots Library in September, facilitated by Jacqui from the town’s branch of Waterstones.
That restless feeling brought to mind a second-hand book I purchased in July entitled, ‘Rapid Reading’ (1964) by Geoffrey A. Dudley, B.A. (b1917), part of a haul from the wonderful Torc Books in Snettisham, Norfolk.
In his rather quaint and dated fashion, Dudley aims to equip readers with the ability to read material of any kind, rapidly and with comprehension, for business, for study or for relaxation. He lists the benefits of rapid reading e.g.
Rapid reading saves time: it enables you to avoid constantly having to renew your library books or being tempted to keep them beyond the allotted time and having to pay a fine when you do eventually return them.
(This is not a problem for me today but when the children were small I did take the liberty of stealing unauthorised extensions to their book borrowing. Violating the library code somehow seemed more acceptable when it came to the supply of reading material for the little ones. The fines, which I paid of course, were stacked up on THEIR library dossiers.)
Rapid readers keep up with the Joneses: it enables you and your family to keep up with the Joneses by showing that you are the equal of any other person who reads rapidly.
(Intellectual snobbery is an unbecoming trait, often exhibited by those who lack scholarly credentials and sometimes by those who don’t. I like to imagine The Two Ronnies practicing one-upmanship in rapid reading.)
Rapid reading gives you prestige and popularity: it gives you a greater opportunity to pass on what you learn to other people. You thus gain prestige and popularity.
(And a reputation as a smart alec.)
Dealing with distraction
Dudley says that before one can learn to read faster one must first learn to concentrate, and in order to do so one must deal with any distractions. These include ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ distractions, loss of interest in the subject matter and a conflict between imagination and will. His practical hints on removing obstacles to concentration include:
Satisfy your eating and drinking requirements and give attention to the call of nature before you embark upon a piece of reading;
Remedy excessive day-dreaming by arranging one’s life so as to achieve greater satisfaction in reality; and
Deal with emotional conflict, which interferes with concentration more than anything else.
Dudley took an interest in self-improvement and in dreams, writing several publications on these topics such as, ‘How to be a good talker: a practical self-instruction programme for effective self-improvement’ (1971), ‘Double your learning power: master the techniques of successful memory and recall’ (1986) and ‘How to Understand Your Dreams’ (1957). His book on, ‘Your personality and how to use it effectively’ (1996) appeals. Many of his books were published as mass-market paperbacks or pocketbooks, cheap editions sold in convenience stores, supermarkets and airports.
Dudley’s readers in 1964 would not have had the additional distraction of network tools online such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or indeed, email. The American academic Cal Newport admits that knowledge work (which is what I do) is dependent on ubiquitous connectivity which generates a, ‘devastatingly appealing buffet of distraction—most of which will, if given enough attention, leach meaning and importance from the world constructed by your mind’.
Ah yes, Professor Newport. Knowledge workers, or ‘edutainers’ like me, do indeed spend much of our working day interacting with these ‘shallow concerns’.
My son, George, a bona fide knowledge worker, does not use social media at all and introduced me to Newport’s writing by recommending, ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ (2016). Like Dudley, Newport declares that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill which must be learned and regularly exercised. He recognises that undistracted concentration is treated as a habit, like flossing, ‘something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation’. This implies you can easily switch from distraction to focus, thereby ignoring how difficult it is to focus properly and how much you need strengthen your ‘mental muscle’ through practice.
Dudley suggests we try ‘negative practice’ developed by the American psychologist, Dr Knight Dunlap (1875–1949). This involves setting aside say, five minutes at a time for twice a day, in which you deliberately practice the undesirable habit you want to overcome. When applied to day-dreaming or worry, you should sit down and deliberately let your mind wander or force yourself to worry. As you observe doing this you should tell yourself that you are doing it with the aim of breaking yourself of these habits which impair your concentration. You’re likely to find that if you keep on with this practice you will eventually realise that day-dreaming and worry are not in your best interests.
Dudley says we can break the vicious circle of day-dreaming or worry and turn it into the straight line of positive thought and action. Newport recommends we practice ‘productive meditation’ by focussing our attention on a single well-defined professional problem such as outlining an article or writing a talk, whilst undertaking some physical activity; walking, jogging, showering and even driving. This could perhaps be an alternative to negative practice, by simply turning your attention to a more constructive topic no matter what you’re doing.
For me, as a period of intense work progresses, aspects of the project constantly percolate in my mind, no matter what else is going on. Even with a longer-term venture such as the part-time doctorate I finally completed in 2015, eureka moments were somehow distilled from the mash of daily existence.
It’s some time, however, since I’ve had a spell of regular intense writing, the last of which resulted in ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). Having a tight schedule set by the publisher helps to focus the mind. This year I’ve instead been using the extended writing time for reading, and have finished 71 books to date. Although, as we fast approach the beginning of NaNoWriMo, the annual writing fest open to writers everywhere, I’m seriously considering signing up as an excuse to focus on a particular non-commissioned project. I’m booked on the Cambridge Writers HQ Retreat, 9 November, and I’ve listened to a few ‘Preptober’ podcasts on how to approach NaNoWriMo, including advice from the best-selling ‘authorpreneur’, Joanna Penn. I appreciate it’s going to take more than that to reach the standard NaNoWriMo 50,000-word target.
Who am I kidding? No way am I going to write that many words in one month.
Still, at least for the next few weeks I’ll have a better chance of shutting out any distractions caused by the prospective relocation and de rigueur family bickering about arrangements for the season of goodwill.
Good luck to all those participating in NaNoWriMo 2019.
Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.
Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.
Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.
There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’. Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.
There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.
The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton
Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.
The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.
Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,
“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.
As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn. Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
The first modern ghost story?
Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.
Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.
Haunted places or people?
The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’
Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.
I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. I also like to have my dear husband close at hand. Wherever we go, I have something to read and Trevor has his sketchbook. Trevor works on a drawing as I read. That is, if he isn’t carrying my books.
Choosing which book to read can be tricky, although unlike people, books that disappoint are easily discarded. As Proust proclaimed, with books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with books it’s because we really want to.
I do read a lot in my spare time, which is also taken up with writing, learning French, running, visiting art galleries with Trevor, helping out the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History and (more recently) participating in Extinction Rebellion activity. But mainly, I read and write.
Having joined one book club in January, and formed another of my own, some of my reading material this year has been chosen by others. For an entertaining piece on book clubs, see ‘Book Club Bust-Ups’ by Stuart Heritage.
At the end of each month I compile a collage of the books I’ve read, alongside a selected quotation from one, which more often than not relates to my writing. The themes are easily discerned. You will find January to August 2019 below.
These are not reviews of course, and I do need to be more active on that front. A page turner for me is a well researched biography such as John Hunter’s life of Samuel Smiles.
It’s interesting to see what others like to read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges.