While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.
I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.
This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’
I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.
When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.
I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.
The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:
And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.
I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?