Pleasures of 2015
Lesley A. Hall
As far as reading goes, the first few months of the year were devoted to books submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, about which the code of the Clarke judges imposes silence. As this was my second year of judging, I have now rotated off the panel, which is a considerable relief, as in both years the numbers of books submitted ran into 3 figures: and it was a perhaps closer look than one would entirely like at the way sff books have got a whole lot thicker since I first started buying them as slender paperbacks in the 1970s in the specialist bookshop in Soho, Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed. However, reading for this purpose did introduce me to some works and some authors that perhaps I would not have picked up spontaneously.
Among the non-award related reading pleasures of the year, 2015 was the year I discovered Vivian Gornick’s memoirs and personal essays (though I think I may have read one or two early essays of hers in anthologies of 70s feminism, back in the day) and devoured everything of hers that I could that I could get my hands on. I also embarked – partly stimulated by the sad news of her relatively early death – upon catching up with Tanith Lee’s rather dauntingly immense oeuvre, much of which has become a lot more accessible with the advent of e-books. This was also the year of the first two volumes of Jo Walton’s ‘Thessaly’ trilogy: The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, which were compelling reading. Also I was very impressed by Roz Kaveney, Tiny Pieces of Skull as well as the third episode in her ‘Rhapsody of Blood’ sequence, Resurrections.
Two wonderful books that had long been on my to-read list finally got read during the course of the year and had a curious resonance: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them (1948) about a community of nuns in medieval East Anglia, and Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree (2013) about Jonathan Edwards, the early eighteenth century Protestant preacher and theologian of Northampton Massachussets (possibly a figure better known to US than UK readers?): perhaps because they are both about small remote inward-looking communities, occasionally impinged upon by the wider world? Another book on religious matters in a very different mode that I very much enjoyed was Catherine Fox’s Unseen Things Above: set in a very contemporary indeed Anglican diocese (sequel to Acts and Omissions).
A major re-read pleasure this year was revisiting E. M. Delafield’s wonderful ‘Provincial Lady’ books, of which I have the compendious 1947 omnibus edition with a very good introduction by her friend the Irish novelist Kate O’Brien: it contains Diary of, Goes Further, In America and In Wartime. Lovely to be reminded of just how good these are.
In the realm of more serious reading, I particularly enjoyed Catherine Lee’s Policing Prostitution, 1856-1886: Deviance, Surveillance and Morality (2012), insofar as ‘enjoy’ is the word to use for a meticulous study drawing on a range of resources of women in the towns of Victorian Kent for whom prostitution was one aspect of the survival economy. I also read (at last) Gretchen Gerzina’s outstanding classic work Black London: Life Before Emancipation (1995).
In the perhaps rather niche category of the reading pleasures of the researcher, I finally made a visit to the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections, where besides being given an overview generally of their collections, I was able to consult some of the archives, which made me very eager to return with a rather longer period of time to spend in them.
Exhibitions that I enjoyed included: Spaces of Black Modernism at the Tate Britain – small but provocative of thought; From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World at Tate Britain; Sonia Delaunay and Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern (though I’m not sure it was a wise decision to take in exhibitions devoted to these very different artists on the same day); Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum.
This was also the year in which a curious British interwar organisation, the Kibbo Kift Kindred, was rediscovered, with a small but very intriguing exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred and two really excellent illustrated books placing it in wider historical context: Annebella Pollen, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians and and Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett, Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift. This is perhaps mainly exciting to one with my own particular research interests in 1920s and 1930s Britain and the fringey-er movements of the period!
One of my main pleasures this year has been retiring from my full-time job as an archivist, though I retain an association with the Wellcome Library as a Library Research Fellow: but I have been enjoying the pleasures of leisure and not having to get up to commute into Central London, a prospect made even less attractive at the moment by the extended closure for much-needed maintenance work of the nearest Tube station, the week after I had actually retired.
Perhaps as a result of this leisure, release of pressure, etc, a pleasure I have fallen into after many years during which it was sidelined is writing fiction: really, it was an accident, I certainly didn’t think that ‘now I am retired, I will write My Great Novel’ but just found myself writing something that started as a brief jeu d’esprit and then growed.