Two Memoirs: ‘The Argonauts’ and ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore’

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson ** 9780993414916
I really enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, and was quite keen to get to another of her non-fiction books; thus, I borrowed The Argonauts from my local library. From the outset, the writing here is intense, far more so than I was expecting. Nelson gives a series of short reflections or memories, along with sections of philosophical musing on her part. These are interspersed with more critical work on feminists and gender; yes, there is a lot of Judith Butler here. Whilst some of these short paragraphs continue their threads for a while, others are quite fragmented, and seem almost to have been randomly pieced together.

One cannot argue that Nelson is not a highly intelligent writer, but I must admit that I did not find The Argonauts an overly approachable book. It felt more like a piece of criticism which I would read for my thesis, rather than one which I could relax with in the evening. It took me quite a while to get into, particularly as the narrative voice jumps around so much: parts of this are addressed to Nelson’s partner, artist Harry Dodge in a second person voice; other sections of it use a critical, omniscient voice; and others still use the first person perspective.

The Argonauts is certainly an important memoir, but overall, I feel as though it was not quite to my taste. What appears in the book is not at all what I expected; The Red Parts felt far better put together to me. Some parts of The Argonauts appealed to me far more than others.


9781565124752Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman ****
I came across Ilene Beckerman’s quirky autobiography, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, when browsing through my Goodreads homepage. I had never heard of the book, or of its author, before, but was immediately intrigued, and set off to find myself a copy. Here, Beckerman’s memories are woven in with her own illustrations of what she wore at a particular time of her life, or for a special occasion. We see her Brownie uniform, rag curls, a ballet outfit, her confirmation dress, a circle skirt which she made with a friend, ‘typical underwear’ which she often wore on dates, the bridesmaid’s dress for her best friend’s wedding, and a dress she wore during each of her six pregnancies, amongst many others.

I loved the approach which Beckerman makes here, with a short body of text and an accompanying illustration for each essay. I found it a really interesting, and quite unusual, way in which to present a memoir. Along with her own outfits at given points in time, she focuses upon the people who shaped her too – what her elder sister wore to a wedding, for example, and her grandmother’s chosen hairstyle. Love, Loss, and What I Wore is quite a quick read, but a very thoughtful one, and I appreciated the dry humour which Beckerman has sprinkled in.


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‘Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home’ by Malachy Tallack ****

Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home immediately appealed to me, and has been on my radar for such a long time.  In it, the author charts his own journey as close as he can get to the sixty degree line – or sixtieth parallel – beginning his journey in his home on Shetland, a place which the line also passes through.  This sixtieth parallel ‘marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds.  Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half.’

9781846973420Robert Macfarlane calls this ‘a brave book… and a beautiful book’.  The Scotsman believes it to be ‘so original, and so compelling’.  Kirkus Reviews writes: ‘A memoir remarkable for its intimacy, wisdom, and radiant prose…  an enthralling meditation on place.’  For me, the idea is quite an original one.  I have read rather a lot of travelogues and travel memoirs, but no author whom I have come across to date has approached their journey in quite the way that Tallack has.

In Sixty Degrees North, ‘Tallack travels westwards, exploring the differing landscapes to be found on the parallel, and the ways that different people have interacted with these landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.’  On beginning his journey, Tallack ruminates thus: ‘Shetland lies at sixty degrees north of the equator, and the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look out from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing.’

Of his decision to travel around the sixty degree line, Tallack writes: ‘It was curiosity, first of all.  I wanted to explore the parallel, and to see those places to which my own place was tied.  I wanted to learn about where I was and what it meant to be there.  But finally, and perhaps most potently, it was homesickness that made me go.  It was a desire to return to somewhere I belonged.  My relationship with Shetland had always been fraught and undermined by my own past, and somehow I imagined that by going – by following the parallel around the world – that could change.’  Woven throughout his travels, and the conversations which he has with those who inhabit the sixtieth parallel, is a dialogue about what home means, and how one can define it.

Tallack’s writing throughout is rich and informative, and this is particularly so with regard to the descriptions which he weaves in to his narrative.  He has such an understanding of, and an appreciation for, the natural world around him, and this comes through strongly in Sixty Degrees North.  When beginning his journey in Shetland, he writes: ‘Soon, the lavish green that had fringed the shore gave way to this heather and dark, peaty ground.  The land flattened into a plateau of purple and olive, trenched and terraced where the turf had been cut.  White tufts of bog cotton lay strewn about the hill. Shallow pools of black water crowded below the banks of peat and in the narrow channels that lolled between.  I hopped from island to island of solid ground, trying to keep my coat dry…’.

Tallack also has an awareness of the history of each place which he visits, and the importance and impact which it still has.  ‘Shetland,’ for instance, ‘like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape.  Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them.  They are the islands’ memory.  From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling craft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly.’  He realises not only the positive aspects of the places in which he finds himself, but also the negatives; he does not sugarcoat anything.

There is such a purpose to Tallack’s travelogue, and he recognises just how unusual his choice of journey may seem to a lot of people.  He writes: ‘The journey north – in history, in literature, in the imagination – is a journey away from the centre of civilisation and culture, towards the unknown and the other.’  Indeed, suggests Tallack, the north is often at odds with the south: ‘The north is all that it contains.  It is a place capable of change and diversity, a place immeasurable.  It holds the preconceived, yes, but also the unimagined and the unimaginable.’

I have been lucky enough to travel to the majority of the countries which Tallack’s journey covers, and it was fascinating to compare his experiences of each place with my own.  I very much enjoyed Tallack’s reflective writing style, which is layered with the details of geographical and personal history.  He is insightful and fair as an author, and Sixty Degrees North is measured and immersive.

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‘Insomnia’ by Marina Benjamin ****

Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, published by Scribe in November 2018, is described as an ‘intense, lyrical, witty, and humane exploration of a state we too often consider only superficially.’  In her memoir, Benjamin has ‘produced an unsettling account of an unsettling condition that treats our inability to sleep not as a disorder, but as an existential experience that can electrify our understanding of ourselves, and of creativity and love.’

9781911344926Its blurb points to the way in which Insomnia crosses genre boundaries: ‘At once philosophical and poetical, the book ranges widely over history and culture, literature and art, exploring a threshold experience that is intimately involved with trespass and contamination: the illicit importing of day into night.’  Lauded in several reviews on the book’s inside cover is the strength and beauty of Benjamin’s writing.  Olivia Laing compares it to Anne Carson’s, and says of the book: ‘Every insomniac knows how sleeplessness warps and deforms reality.  Marina Benjamin anatomises its endless nights and red-eyed mornings, finding a sublime language for this strange state of lack.’  Francis Spufford calls Benjamin ‘the Scheherazade of sleeplessness, spinning tale upon tale, insight upon insight, in frayed and astonishing and finally ecstatic leaps.’

Benjamin’s prose is raw and honest, and there is an impressive amount of polish given to the whole.  Insomnia has been pieced together using a fragmentary style.  Some of Benjamin’s entries span a long paragraph; others consist of a single sentence.  Each entry provides a rumination which is, in some way, related to sleeplessness.  The central thread which runs through the whole connects each of the fragments together, and it feels almost as though it comes full-circle.

Benjamin’s writing is both sensual and provocative.  At the beginning of Insomnia, whilst she is describing her own experiences with the inability to sleep, she talks of the voluptuous quality of being awake whilst everyone around her is sleeping.  She writes: ‘When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue.  It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to.  I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static.’  She goes on to describe one of the main effects which insomnia has upon her: ‘At the velvet end of my insomniac life I am a heavy-footed ghost, moving from one room to another, weary, leaden – there, but also not there.’

Benjamin is always aware of herself in time.  She is candid about her experiences with sleeplessness, and is able to give weight and importance to the very early morning, which many of us miss.  ‘These days,’ she tells us, ‘my prime time is 4.15 a.m., a betwixt and between time, neither day nor night.  At 4.15 a.m., birds chirrup, foxes scream, and sometimes, when the rotating schedule for landing and take-off from Heathrow Airport collides with my sleeplessness, planes rumble overhead.’  She gives thought, too, to the spaces we share when we sleep: ‘To share a bed with someone is to entertain a conversation played out in the language of movement and space.’

Benjamin’s ideas feel rather profound at times.  She asks, for instance, ‘If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself?  And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence?  This is the trouble with insomnia.’

In Insomnia, she probes what insomnia really means, and traces such things as the word’s origins, and its interpretations throughout history.  She examines different ‘cures’ given to those suffering with insomnia, and draws connections between women sufferers, thought to be mad, being sent to live in asylums.  Benjamin moves fluidly between such subjects as religion, mindfulness, nightmares, and ancient folktales, to alchemy, psychology, and representations of the night.

Of the collective experience of insomnia, which she points out is little discussed, she writes: ‘Like travel, insomnia is an uprooting experience.  You are torn out of sleep like a plant from its native soil, then shaken down so that any clinging vestige of slumber falls away, naked confusion exposed like nerve endings.  Sleep, in its turn, is a matter of gravity.  It pulls you down, beds you in the earth,  burrows you in.  In sleep you connect back to the bedrock that provides nourishment and restorative rest.’

Benjamin’s book is rich and layered.  Despite covering only 122 pages, she has managed to create a measured and well-structured approach to a condition which needs more attention drawn toward it.  Her ruminations are always of interest, and feel rather thought-provoking, particularly when they draw together feelings which those of us who are not insomniacs are so aware of, and can connect with: ‘Insomnia makes an island of you.  It is, bottom line, a condition of profound loneliness.  And not even a dignified loneliness, because in insomnia you are cannibalised by your own gnawing thoughts.’

I have never, thankfully, suffered with insomnia, but Benjamin’s memoir has given me a real insight into what the experience involves.  I had never before thought that losing sleep would have any positive qualities, but Benjamin’s musings have made me reconsider this.  I found Insomnia surprisingly moving at times.

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Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.


Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
bare trees
above a snow glaze.


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‘Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital’ by Franz Hessel ****

I adore books about flaneurs; I find them absolutely fascinating.  Thus, I was thrilled to come across Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital whilst browsing in a bookshop, and purchased a copy immediately.  First published in Germany in 1929, it was not until 2016 that Walking in Berlin was translated into English by Amanda DeMarco.  Hessel grew up in Berlin, and DeMarco is currently based there, which I feel is a nice and considered touch.

The book promises ‘a walk around 1920s Berlin with one of its greatest luminaries’.  Since its original publication, Hessel’s ‘timeless guide’ has been highly praised.  In her introduction, DeMarco notes that the book was ‘a critical success upon its publication… [but was] largely forgotten after the Second World War.’  Walter Benjamin, a great friend of Hessel’s, declares it ‘an absolutely epic book, a walking remembrance’.  The Independent writes that it ‘captures a portrait of a city on the brink of irrevocable change’.  The Observer calls it a ‘love letter to the city’, and the Times Literary Supplement states that it is ‘not only an important record of old Berlin; it is a testimony to its enduring spirit.’ 9781925228359

Hessel takes his readers on a walk around much of Weimar-era Berlin, splitting his observations into essays relating to particular districts.  He takes in ‘some of the most fascinating sights the city has to offer, many of which still exist in some form today’.  Many of these sights are seen on foot, as Hessel wove through one street after another, but the odd one was conducted whilst in a car, or on a day-long tour with a lot of Americans.  DeMarco writes that ‘Hessel’s knowledge of city history was extensive, gleaned from an art-history education and an avid personal interest in the cultural sediment that had accumulated around him.  It is evident in these pages that history was alive and present for him, visible in the architecture.  All it took was a glimpse of a statue or bridge or gate to send Hessel conjuring up the figures and era that produced it.’  Despite his knowledge of the city, Hessel wished to present his findings here as though he was coming to Berlin for the first time.

Of course, Berlin, like many other cities, was going through a period of rapid modernisation during the 1920s.  Thus, the city which he describes notes the changes which are occurring, as well as the way things used to be when Hessel was a child.  Of this, DeMarco writes: ‘… the breathless pace of his descriptions reveals the new heartbeat of a populace that was cathartically shaking off the trauma of the First World War, while frantically grasping for economic stability.’  Of his city, Hessel tells us of Berlin’s ongoing metamorphosis: ‘I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.’

The first essay, ‘The Suspect’, begins with Hussel observing people at work, and young girls at play.  From his position as a flaneur, he writes of the suspicion which the observed sometimes felt toward him: ‘I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.’  Throughout, Hessel’s voice is chatty, and almost playful.  As he continues his journey, he comes across many different people – stocking menders, architects, factory workers, shopkeepers, the rich and the poor, upperclass partygoers, and tour guides, to name but a few.  As Hessel makes his way around, he discusses art, literature, culture, and fashion, as well as streets already lost to the annals of time in the 1920s.

Throughout, Hessel’s writing is layered and sumptuous.  In the extended essay entitled ‘A Tour’, he joins a sightseeing buggy, intending to try and see Berlin through the eyes of a traveller.  During his experience, he weaves his own childhood memories of the city in with what he observes: ‘Now we’re gliding past the long facade of the library, its sunny side.  Silks, leathers and metals entice from the marquees of elegant shops.  The lace curtains at Restaurant Hiller awaken distant memories of happy hours, the nearly forgotten fragrance of lobster and Chablis, the old porter who led you so discreetly to the cabinets particuliers.  I tear myself away – I’m a foreigner here, after all – only to be caught up again.  Travel agencies, mesmerising displays of world maps and globes, the magic of the little green books with red notes, seductive names of distant cities.  Ah, these blessed departures from Berlin!  How callously one leaves our beloved city.’

I love Berlin; when I visited some years ago, I found it a vibrant and hip city, filled with so much history.  Hessel’s book has made me want to book plane tickets to explore the city once more, with his notes in hand this time around.  Pick up Walking in Berlin, and expect that it will inspire a great wanderlust in you.  Hessel describes it, quite rightly, as a city filled with treasures.  It was a sheer pleasure to be transported to a Berlin which I half-recognised, and seeing it through the eyes of another brought a delightful freshness.

Walking in Berlin is a lovely and often quite touching rumination on the many things which are needed to make a city, and has wonderful asides which discuss the experience of being a flaneur: ‘The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces… [and they] become letters that yield the words, sentences and pages of a book that is always new.’  It seems fitting to end this review with something which Hessel writes in his afterword.  ‘Now, dear fellow citizens,’ he says, ‘please don’t reproach me for all of the important and noteworthy things that I’ve overlooked; rather, go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery.  You don’t have time?  That’s false ambition speaking.’

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‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger *****

I had not read anything of John Berger’s before reaching the thirtieth book in the Penguin Moderns series.  The Red Tenda of Bologna, which was first published in 2007, is a ‘dream-like meditation on memory, food, paintings, a fond uncle and the improbable beauty of Bologna, from the visionary thinker and art critic.’

9780241339015The Red Tenda of Bologna opens in an intriguing, even a spellbinding, way, when Berger depicts the relationship which he had with his uncle Edgar: ‘I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.’  The way in which he describes his uncle is quite lovely: ‘When he first came to live with us, I was about ten years old and he was in his mid-fifties.  Yet I thought of him as ageless.  Not unchanging, certainly not immortal, but ageless because unanchored in any period, past or future.  And so, as a kid, I could love him as an equal.  Which I did.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is comprised of a series of untitled vignettes, some of which are only one sentence long, and which together form a wonderful fragmented memoir.  These vignettes follow one another in their content; a rumination in one about Berger and Uncle Edgar sharing affection for one another by giving small gifts leads to a list of some of the things which they exchanged, ranging from ‘a map of Iceland’ and ‘a pair of motorbike goggles’, to ‘a biography of Dickens’ and ‘one and a half dozen Whistable oysters.’

Berger fittingly brings his memories of his uncle to life on the page.  It soon becomes quite possible to see Edgar sitting astride his upright bicycle, with its pile of books strapped to the luggage rack, ready to be exchanged at Croydon’s public library.  Edgar was clearly a huge influence upon, and comfort within, Berger’s life.  He writes: ‘Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or literal sense – I felt reassured.  Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.’

Indeed, Berger decides to travel to Bologna quite some time after his uncle’s death, as it was a place which Edgar held dear.  The scenes which unfold on the page are both sumptuous and observant; for instance, Berger writes: ‘I notice that some people crossing the square, when they are more or less at its centre, pause and lean their backs against an invisible wall of an invisible tower of air, which reaches towards the sky, and there they glance upwards to check the clouds or the sky’s emptiness.’  Thus, the history of his uncle, and the history of Bologna, begin to converge.  Berger writes about a singular relationship, as well as the relationship which he has with Bologna.

The ‘tenda’ of the book’s title is the name of the red cloth used to make window awnings in Bologna, all of which are in varying shades of red according to their age.  Berger wishes to buy a length of it, as a souvenir of his trip.  He writes: ‘I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe I only need it to make this portrait.  Anyway I’ll be able to feel it, scrumble it up, smooth it out, hold it against the sunlight, hang it, fold it, dream of what’s on the other side.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is a tender, thoughtful rumination on life and love.  It is a small but perfectly formed book, artful and intelligent.  The prose is best savoured, written as it is with the all-seeing artist’s eye.

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One From the Archive: ‘London War Notes: 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

First published in 2015.

The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945.  First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’.  These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’.  In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.

Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston.  He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.

The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’.  Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War.  Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.

Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why.  She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered.  One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation.  Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything.  Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large.  She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.

London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.  It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list.  As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.

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