Friday, June 27, 2014

The Wonders of the Cheshire Library Stack

There are some very helpful librarians in Chester Central Library.  Since I am researching the history of my home town there is a lot of material on the local shelves, but sometimes I come across a book on the library catalogue that doesn't seem to be there.  The answer, apparently, is that they are retained in 'the stack' - some of this is accessible, and some of it not.  I like the idea of this stack.  I imagine it in the basement of the building nestling amongst Roman pillars and forgotten Medieval paraphernalia.  I think it must be in order though because the librarians come back surprisingly quickly with the book in hand.  Once, a particularly obliging librarian came back with a trolly full.  Literary treasure!

My latest request from the stacks yielded these:

They looked old and they hadn't been out of years, and hadn't held out much hope that they would be particularly entertaining, but they are.  In fact, they are quite fascinating.  Two of them are by Gervas Huxley, cousin to the more famous Aldous and Julian.  They concern a local family called the Grosvenors, and Gervas obviously knew two members of the family well because he has dedicated one of his books to them.  He had access to the diary and letters of Lady Elizabeth Grosvenor - a 19th century member of the family - and through them even dry events like the Great Reform Act become exciting. Lady Elizabeth adored her husband and because he was a member of parliament she became interested in politics too.  She was so interested she even made frequent visits to the 'Ventilator' a small uncomfortable viewing platform above the blazing chandeliers that had been consigned to the ladies (after they had been banished after refusing, with stamps and howls, to be turned out during an important debate of 1878).

The Grosvenors were fabulously wealthy - and still are.  At this time they were also in the centre of power, and so they were involved in the great events of the day - e.g.  the emancipation of slaves, the abolishment of child labour, the suffrage and acceptance of the Catholic church in England and Ireland.  The book also explains how they came by their wealth: the lucrative combination of land acquisition, the canny use of acts of parliament to allow their great swathes of land in central London to be leased out (rather than sold) to ambitious developers and further acquisition with the profits.

But it is their involvement in Chester that I'm interested in - and they were involved a lot.  For two hundred years they represented Chester in parliament with no one able to realistically contest them because the Grosvenors could always upstage any contenders with their generous hospitality during the canvassing and Hustings.  It was a situation that had to change: Lady Elizabeth's husband could see that.  There were signs of unrest and he wisely voted for the Great Reform Act even though it meant that he would lose out.  Interesting times - brought alive by Mr. Huxley's books - and thanks to the Cheshire Library Stack and the helpful librarians I get to read about them.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bats in the Garden

A few years ago I bought Hodmandod Senior a bat detector.  We sometimes go around the neighbourhood listening out for them - but last night they came to us (as they often do). They can be identified from the frequency of their clicks (there is an app for this, of course).  Hodmandod Senior identified this as a Pipistrelle - the common sort.

A bat detector reveals a different world: not just bats, but the rustles of all sorts of other animals can be heard as they shift in their sleep.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Box City

I went to London
Big Ben in the Houses of Parliament

and saw, inside this city of boxes,

London Cityscape

 a city-in-a-box,
Imaginary City by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin at Tate Modern

and then the remnants of another

Trading seals from the Indus at the British Museum

 unimaginably old.

Fertility statues from the Ancient Indus at the British Museum

And here, I came across another  box

Remaining tower of Christchurch Greyfriars designed by Christopher Wren 1677

blown open

Remains of the nave of Christchurch Greyfriars - bombed in world War 2

with plants instead of pillars

Garden of Christchurch Greyfriars

and inside another box

Lift from Selfridge's store now in City of London Museum

a box embossed - to deify Retail.

Queenhithe - last remaining Anglo-Saxon dock on the Thames in the city of London

A feckless god, that one, subject to whims

View from Queenhithe to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern

and the vagaries of the tide.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

An Interview with Debra Hamel to celebrate the launch of 'It was a Dark and Stormy Tweet'

On Monday, Debra Hamel launched her latest book: It was a Dark and Stormy Tweet.  It is both a compilation of tweets and a survey of what makes these particular tweets special, and it makes extraordinarily compelling reading.

As part of the launch I suggested to Debra that I interview her about her book and I am delighted to say that she accepted.  The result is below:

CD:   What is TwitrLit?  
DH:  TwitrLit is a literary site that I created back in April of 2007.  Twice a day, in the morning and evening, I post the first line of a book on TwitrLit. The trick is that I don't identify the book by author or title. I just provide the first sentence of the book's first chapter and a link to the book on Amazon. Readers who are sufficiently intrigued by the line can click through to Amazon to find out what book it's from. The lines appear on my web site,, and also on the site's associated Twitter account, @TwitrLit, which is how most people get my updates.

I've now posted more than 5000 lines on TwitrLit. Readers can find them all posted at There are also a number of Random 1st Line-Inators in the sidebar there: click on one and a random line will pop up in a new window. Then click the "see another" link, then click it again.... I find myself doing this more often than I should. It's somehow transfixing having them come at you randomly like that.

TwitrLit has also spawned two spin-offs, KidderLit ( and @KidderLit) and ScatterLit ( and @ScatterLit). As its name suggests, KidderLit is a version of TwitrLit that features books for kids, from board books through young adult novels. ScatterLit is a little stranger. Every night I post a line from some book or other on ScatterLit, but it's not the first line of the book. It's a line that
has something to do with, as I put it on the site, "bathrooms or the activities most usually associated with them." Now, that sounds weird, I know. But I'm not trying for disgusting here. Somehow, focusing on one subject (toilets in this case, but I bet any subject would work) and culling lines that refer to that subject results in a fascinating collection of random, intriguing, appealing sentences. Here are the first three lines I just pulled up using my ScatterLit Random 1st Line-Inator (

"But in case it takes a while, we might as well have toilet paper."

"We forgot about incinerating our excrements."

"The bathroom is right behind Jerry, who always liked to face the
front door, for obvious reasons."

CD:   In the book you have managed to come up with some classifications e.g. those that are variations on a famous first line - what is your favourite way of starting a book?
DH:  It's hard to choose a favorite, but probably the lines that I find most immediately attractive are those that surprise you. This, for example, is the first line of Colin Cotterill's Love Songs from a Shallow Grave:

"I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed to a lead pipe."

How could you not want to read more?

There is a certain type of line, however, which I think virtually guarantees that a reader will stick with a book at least for a little while. And that is what I liken to link bait--those cleverly worded links you can't stop yourself from clicking on when you're surfing the web. Here's an example:

"I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday."

That's from John Scalzi's Old Man's War. Again, I say, how could you
possibly put this book down before you find out what those two things

CD:   Is there one featuring snails?
DH:  Of course! What book would be complete without a snail reference? I include the first line of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey:

"In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing
down at the path, saw a snail."

I've included this one in a chapter titled "Simply Put," which includes lines that aren't meant to shock or surprise. They're simple declarative sentences which, however, can be unexpectedly charming.

CD:   Some of these feature first lines from children's literature - are there distinctive differences between adult and children's first lines?  Are there some that only feature in one and not the other?
DH:  I think it's probably easier to find a good first line in a children's book than it is to find one in adult books. At least for my purposes. Children's books tend to have shorter sentences, so a greater percentage of the first lines I come across when looking at children's books will fit in a tweet. But also there's usually a charming simplicity about the first lines of children's books. The first lines of adult books can be complicated and boring sometimes.

CD:   Have people come up with any good uses for these first lines - apart from the author's use in a book?
DH:  I remember discovering years ago that a blogger was using the first lines from TwitrLit as writing prompts. She'd I take the first line as a starting point and then write a paragraph or two from that. I don't
think she's doing it anymore, but it seems like a great idea.

CD:  As a writer yourself - how do you come up with your first lines?  Is there one you are particularly proud of?
DH:  I've got two I like. The first is from my book Trying Neaira, which is about a prostitute who was put on trial in the 4th century. It's a good line, I think, but far too long for TwitrLit:

"Neaira grew up in a brothel in Corinth, a polis in Greece's Peloponnese famous enough for its prostitutes that the ancient Greeks made a verb out of it: korinthiazein meant 'to fornicate.'"

I spent quite a while trying to come up with a decent first line for my most recent book, Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History. What I came up with was:

"Egyptian women urinated standing up."

I don't think I have any particular method for coming up with first lines, but I've always thought that they're very important in terms of making a good first impression on readers.

CD:  Do you think last lines would be similarly interesting?
DH:  Maybe so, but I would never publicize them as I do first lines. I'm one of those people who won't allow myself to look at a book's last page until I've gotten there by reading. You have to earn it. And hopefully, once you've earned it, the last line will be worth the effort of having got there. Come to think of it, I've probably put at least as much effort into my last lines as my first lines. So I do believe very much in their importance to the reader's experience as well.

It was a Dark and Stormy Tweet is available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon.