What are you reading today?

It seemed like a good time to ask this again – your library staff and their reading habits have been left uninterrogated for too long. So here is a snapshot of answers to the question – a broad spectrum of themes and genres, as you might expect. Click on the links or the cover images to find out where they’re in stock in Westminster Libraries:

Calamity in Kent by John RowlandBritish Library Crime Classics

I’ve been working through the ‘British Library Crime Classics’ series – reissues of long out-of print crime novels from the Golden Age of crime writing 1920s-50s.  I have recently read Calamity in Kent by John Rowland and Serpents in Eden: country crimes edited by Martin Edwards (a collection of rural mysteries).

Theft by Peter CareyTheft, by Peter Carey

A book about fraudulent art and the love between two brothers who can’t stand themselves, and can’t live without each other.  It keeps me chuckling on the train.

Web series, by Mary Balogh
I’m currently re-reading Mary Balogh’s Web series, which covers the lives and loves of two families.
The older brother marries the sister of the other family (The Gilded Web), the twin brother meets and marries the widow of his best friend when that friend is killed and he is injured during the battle of Waterloo (Web of Love). The vegetarian by Han KangThe twin sister marries the brother of the woman that married his older brother (Devil’s Web).

The vegetarian, by Han Kang

It’s weird, beautiful, dark and intense. I can’t compare it to anything I have read in a while.

The girl with all the gifts by MR CareyThe girl with all the gifts, by MR Carey

This is a cross between Never let me go and 28 weeks later. A virus has turned the people of Britain and possibly the world into flesh eating zombies…
I don’t usually read sci-fi books but this is classed as fiction and really got me hooked – I love it.

Innocent Eréndira and other stories, by Gabriel Garcia MarquezInnocent Eréndira and other stories, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A book of short stories decorated with the vibrant and vivid images that are typical of Marquez’s novels. The book begins with The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother. The ease of reading these tales and the length of each makes this a wonderful collection to read alongside a longer and more difficult book, or to read with someone else.

Birdsong by Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, by Sebastian Faulks

This is my current book club read and I am near the end now. If you want a powerful sense of the insanity of WW1 and the way it broke just everything, this is the book for you. I will be cheering myself up with some Terry Pratchett.

The professor, the banker and the suicide king: inside the richest poker game of all time, by Michael Craig
This is a book about an American banker and entrepreneur called Andy Beal, who took it upon himself to challenge the best Texas Hold’em poker players to a series of heads-up/one-one-one matches in Las Vegas in the early 2000s. He ended up losing several millions after initially being ahead. It’s a great read as it gets into the psyche of the professional poker player, and demonstrates just how precarious a living being a professional gambler really is.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex RossThe Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

A very readable history of music from the early 20th century starting with Mahler, Strauss and Wagner, the development of classical music in America, music under Nazism and Communism etc.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I’m currently reading volume three (there are four volumes in total) of this trilogy. A masterpiece! An epic tale of two women and the powerful nature of their friendship throughout their lifetime. But it’s also the transformative story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country in its violent and intellectual political and historic contest.

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.


You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!


Paddington Book Festival and Silver Sunday

Paddington LibraryIt’s been a busy couple of months at Paddington Library! No sooner had the flurry of children’s activities for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge come to an end than it was time for all the many and varied regular events to build up again. But that was not all – there was the Paddington Book Festival to come, followed closely by Silver Sunday.

The Paddington Book Festival is an annual festival which has been has been running for several years. Instigated and supported by a local Westminster Councillor, it is a series of book and reading-related events in September with the aim of engaging the local community in cultural and literary activity. Events do not take place solely in Paddington Library, however – they are spread across four libraries in the north of the Borough.

Queens Park Library hosted Kiera Cohen who introduced her début children’s book Tilly McAnilly and the Rock Pool Adventure. Maida Vale Library hosted a splendiferous party to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Roald Dahl. Paddington Library hosted two events devoted to crime fiction: Elizabeth Flynn spoke about her novels which feature detective Inspector Angela Costello and there was a well attended panel talk given by authors Lisa Cutts and Simon Booker. Finally author MG Robinson visited Church Street Library to discuss her book Sledge: the Soul of Notting Hill, about the life and times of her father, the very first ‘Rasta man of Notting Hill’.

The first weekend in October is now the established date for Silver Sunday, an annual day celebrating older people. We have already reported on a couple of the other Silver Sunday events that took place in Westminster Libraries, but there were many more both on the day itself and the weeks before and after, including those at Paddington Library: For the first time this year, Owen arranged and led bespoke IT workshops on Online Family History and Online Shopping. Lots of people enjoyed chair yoga with Tim or took part in a play reading led by Kate and Laurence from Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’. Additonal taster IT sessions completed the programme.

Silver Sunday 2016 at Paddington Library

Will we be having a rest now? Of course not! Take a look at our events page or follow @WCCLibraries on Twitter to find out what’s next (tip: career networking, Black History Month and spooky Halloween half-term events are on the agenda so far).


A Bear of Very Little Brain

Commuters reading the London Evening News on Christmas Eve 1925 would have seen a new children’s story called ‘The Wrong Sort of Bees’, featuring the first appearance of a honey-loving bear. What the readers wouldn’t have known is that this wasn’t the last they would hear of this particular bear. Ten months later, on 14 October 1924, Winnie-the-Pooh was published and everyone’s favourite bear appeared between hard covers for the first time.

Opening page of Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne

Pooh’s creator, AA (Alan Alexander) Milne (1882-1956) grew up in Kilburn, where his father ran Henley House school. The school boasted HG Wells as one of its teachers and for a time Wells did teach the young Milne. He then went onto Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge where he made the right contacts and was able to get a job working on Punch. As well as writing comic essays and sketches he found success as a a novelist and as a playwright (The Dover Road was recently revived at Jermyn Street Theatre) but it was as a writer for children that he found lasting fame.

In 1921 Milne bought a teddy bear at Harrods for his baby son Christopher Robin which was soon named after Winnipeg, a Canadian bear in London Zoo. Winnipeg was a female bear which presumably accounts for the nickname Winnie. Young Christopher’s toys also included a donkey, a kangaroo and a piglet and later a tiger (but no owl). These toys, along with Christopher Robin himself found themselves appearing in Milne’s stories. The initial 1925 publication in the London Evening News was followed in 1926 by Winnie-the-Pooh, with The House at Pooh Corner following in 1928.

The books were instant successes. Christopher Milne found himself a rather unwilling celebrity and the subject of much teasing at school. Eventually he left London and spent many happy years running a bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon.

Incidentally, you can see Winnie, Piglet, Kanga and friends on display in the New York Public Library, where they are kept in captivity and much appreciate visitors from home… [see post script below]

Map inside cover of Winnie the Pooh, by A A Milne

For many of us, our enjoyment of the stories owes as much to the charming pictures as to the text. And these were drawn by another Londoner – EH (Ernest Howard) Shepard (1879-1976), who spent much of his life in St John’s Wood. He was born at 55 Springfield Road and in the 1930s lived in a splendid house in Melina Place with his son Graeme, whose own bear Growler was the model for Shepard’s drawings of Pooh. Shepard, of course, also drew the most famous set of illustrations for The Wind in the Willows (which AA Milne dramatised as Toad of Toad Hall) and he wrote a charming memoir of his St John’s Wood childhood called Drawn from Memory. This includes his memories of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the famous 1887 fire that completely destroyed Whiteley’s department store (then in Westbourne Grove) which could be seen from Highgate Hill. You can see a plaque to EH Shepard at another of his Westminster homes – 10 Kent Terrace, Regents Park.

EH Shepard illustration from Winnie-the-Pooh

You can find out more about AA and Christopher Robin Milne and EH Shepard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number). You may also wish to look at the splendid bound volumes of Punch held by Westminster Reference Library.

Christopher RobinWinnie the PoohAnd of course, you’ll find plenty of Disney DVDs in our children’s libraries though you’ll have to try to ignore the American accents and the incongruous Gopher – we all know the real Pooh was a true Londoner!


Post script: Catherine Cooke of the Sherlock Holmes Collection has paid several visits to Pooh and friends in their New York home, and sent these great pictures to share:

Winnie the Pooh and friends in the New York Public Library, January 2015. Picture credit: Catherine Cooke  Winnie the Pooh and friends in the New York Public Library, January 2015. Picture credit: Catherine Cooke

Free books for your baby!

Bookstart logoIf you have a baby under the age of one year old, did you know that you can receive a free book bag from Bookstart?

It’s never too early to introduce your child to books – it’s about more than learning to read, the sound of your voice is the best thing.

Sharing books with young children can help very new babies with focusing; reaching and grabbing the flaps and pages in board books helps develop motor skills; and stories are great to use at bed time or at any time of the day, for a quiet few moments together. Books are a good way to share one-to-one time between a child and their parent. It only takes a few minutes a day and it’s free.

Above all, it’s about having fun!

Bookstart Baby PackBookstart Treasure Pack

The pack content varies, but will include two board books,rhyme sheet and a booklet of tips and ideas for sharing books. You should receive a Bookstart pack from your health visitor sometime in your baby’s first year. If you haven’t received one by the time your child is one, you can ask for a pack at your local library. While you are there, why not see what the library has to offer babies and toddlers – rhyme times, events and of course lots more books for little ones!

For more information on the scheme, visit www.bookstart.org.uk


Lego at the library

Did you know there’s now a Lego Club at Pimlico Library?

Pimlico Library Lego Club display, September 2016The first of the monthly Saturday sessions was at the end of September. Once we’d decided to set up the club, we put out a call for any unwanted lego. To start with, there were no donations and we wondered if that might be the end of the idea! But in the end a very generous customer and a member of staff at another Westminster library saved the day – Lego Club was on.

Like any good club, there are proper membership cards and a few rules, such as:

  • Respect others’ creations
  • Help tidy up at the end
  • Have fun!

Each session has a theme and this one was ‘Robots’, which went down a treat. Future planned themes are ‘They came from Outer Space’ and ‘Mad Inventors’. There was some initial discussion, a good chunk of build time and a show & tell of creations at the end.

The kids, parents and I had a great time. They were engaged and had fun. They also loved the idea that there would be a display of their creations, for themselves and other children to see what they had made. So if you like the sound of Lego Club and your children are aged between 5 and 11, we’ll see you on Saturday 22 October at 10.30am!

Pimlico Library Lego Club, September 2016


From Summertime in Venice to Autumn in St John’s Wood

A musical lunch was held at St John’s Wood Library on Silver Sunday for members of the Home Library Service, along with other local residents.

Barrie spins the discs at the HLS Musical Lunch at St John's Wood Library for Silver Sunday 2016

From vinyl to digital: our resident vinyl expert and HLS staff member Barrie played vocalists from the past, from the well known Frank Sinatra to the lesser known Jerry Vale (“Summertime in Venice”). We then experimented with listening to music via the internet on our libraries’ tablets.

Silver Sunday“Fascinating old records and played like a professional DJ”

“Many thanks, it has made a great difference to my life, coming out to an event”

“Thank you for your imaginative organisation”

HLS Musical Lunch at St John's Wood Library for Silver Sunday 2016