herald

Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Big Read: David's secret diary

Take note: Englishwoman Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) keeps a diary
Take note: Englishwoman Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) keeps a diary

The journal kept by a gay young man in Swinging Sixties' London is a delightfully formal read

Becoming A Londoner: A Diary by David Plante Bloomsbury (2013) €28.99 ****

KEEPING a diary is as old-fashioned as it goes – a private diary, that is. One is quite relieved, in a way, that David Plante's expatriate experience in London happened when it did, and not in these days of blogging and tweeting. There's something deliciously formal about this presentation of the daily life of a gay young man in the Swinging Sixties, that it would have been missing if it been Instagrammed.

There are pictures, though – photo booth snaps, drawings, colour plates; some entries are short, some are longer; all add up to a kaleidoscope of memory that is evocative of a time and place in a way that, while name-droppy, feels authentic and awfully vulnerable. Being 'out' in England back then was to be part of a sub-culture that was criminal. As much a story of rubbing elbows with the likes of Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney, and the gift of having been taken under the wing of the influential Stephen Spender, it is also a tale of the negotiation of identity.

This is very personal, and it doesn't stretch itself to comment overtly on the times or the place beyond his own world. You won't know who Stephen Spender is unless you know, and then you have to turn to Google to figure out why he was so influential. Not knowing who he is is probably a faux pas of the highest order; lucky for Plante that he was in the In-Crowd.

Plante's tone is rather languid overall, making it feel as though he was seated next to you on a comfortable sofa, both of you with drinks in hand.

Without making any silly generalisations about the glamorousness of being a gay man then, it sounds pretty darned fab. As an emigrant wave surges once more, here are some books from across the water.

An Englishwoman in New York by Anne-Marie Casey Michael Joseph (2013) €8.99 ***

Seemingly packaged as an entry into the chick-lit stakes, Casey's voice is at odds with the presentation. Instead, we get an acerbic displaced heroine who is hard to like, who introduces us to a group of friends whose life challenges are fairly familiar.

Their friendships don't move much beyond the "keep our enemies closer" school of female bonding, and while there are some razor-sharp, spot-on observances, this felt like neither fish nor fowl.

English for the Natives: Discover Grammar You Don't Know You Know by Harry Ritchie John Murray (2013) €21.50 ***

IF Mr Ritchie hadn't said, straight out, that I know all the rules and regs that are stuffed into this elegantly designed book, I may have liked to swoon: he's throwing around language that I haven't come across since I was in elementary school. I admit to experiencing a tiny bit of PTSD when talk turned to present perfect tenses and the like. As it says in the tagline, we know a lot of stuff already, which is cool, but I'm not sure if it's all that helpful to know we know it. I'd say non-English speakers would benefit from a read, too. Regardless, it's full of the arcane kind of knowledge that word nerds like me simply adore.

Sorry! The English and Their Manners by Henry Hitchins Michael Joseph (2013) €5.99 eBook ****

I VERY much like knowing how things got the way they have, or did, and this is a clever and entertainingly written tome, very much in the chatty yet well-read vein of Alain de Botton. It's not exactly as witty and polished as de Botton, but it still manages to weave information from myriad disciplines – from history to anthropology, on topics as varied as sex and online behaviours – into an interesting whole.

How Many Camels Are There in Holland? Dementia, Ma and Me by Phyllida Law Fourth Estate (2013) €18.75 ***

I know that egregiously large point-sizing in books is my hobby horse, but here I am, back on it again. Law's memoir focuses on her mother's dementia – sort of. There are loads of luvvie reminiscences, which are great, mixed in with stiff-upper-lip recountings of her mum's decline. The staccato, eccentric delivery is the result of this combination, maybe, and comes across as an effort to laugh through the tears. Which is understandable, but doesn't really throw much light on the whole living-with-dementia situation. Charming illustrations from the author are very welcome, but in tandem with the huge type, make it look uncomfortably like a children's book.

The River Cottage Booze Handbook by John Wright Bloomsbury (2013) €21.45 ****

Beautifully photographed and written in a wry, straightforward tone, this makes you want to go live in a Merchant Ivory film. Except, if you were the one making the tipples, you'd not be one of the ones drinking them in the rose garden. Full of infusion recipes (which amount to sticking something in a bottle of vodka and letting it sit) to the sort of wines and beers it's legal to make in the kitchen, it's entertaining reading, and Wright mainly makes it seem not too complicated. My eyes rolled back in my head when it got to the beer-making, though, and not in a good way. Still, a fantastic gift for your wannabe artisan-brewing relations.

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