Tag Archives: book

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


Art Book of the Month, April 2016

Spine. The Costume of the Russian Empire, by C W Müller, 1804Costume of the Russian Empire, by C W Müller

Illustrated by a series of seventy-three colour engravings, with descriptions in English and French

William Miller, London 1804

A pictorial history of costume in the Russian Empire as it was at the beginning of the 19th century. An empire

“of an extent unknown to other modern nations…it touches the Frozen Ocean and borders upon the warm climates of Persia, Japan and China on the south.”

Not surprisingly, these costumes range from furs and ‘the skin of their rein-deer’ (Yakouti) complete with hair, to the skins of fish (Ostiaks), and – as in the case of the Tschutski of Siberia – ‘Men and women puncture their arms and faces in a regular manner’.  Eat your heart out Lady Gaga.

The elegant engravings are accompanied by hilarious descriptions, obviously from a more urbane explorer viewpoint, of the lifestyle of these people, long gone and long forgotten;

“The most part are satisfied with one wife” (Samoyed)

“Their manner of living, with respect to their food, is disgusting to the greatest degree.  They use no salt, and all their food is simply boiled”

“Their dances are pantomimical, and are not free from indelicacy” (Kamtshatka).

My favourite descriptions are of the Tungoosi, from the Lake Baikal region:

“ignorant of falsehood, treachery and robbery of any descriptions; they possess a gaiety of temper and openness of heart to the greatest degree; They will, with pleasure, divide their last morsel with their almost unknown guest; They fish and hunt with great skill; embroider in a very neat manner and – last but not least –  they are generally supplied with brandy, of which they are very fond.”

A priceless and utterly fascinating insight into primitive ethnicity and cultures that have pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth.


You can view this book in the Art & Design Collection at Westminster Reference Library.

Ten Days into thirty

April is here again, and that can only mean one thing if you’re a library member in London: Cityread!

Cityread LondonEach April, Cityread asks London’s citizens, workers and visitors to pick up a book – the same book – and read it together. Taking the chosen novel as a starting point, a month-long programme of book groups, film screenings and other events takes place across all 33 London boroughs in libraries, bookshops, museums and other venues.

This year’s book is Ten Days, a newly published and gripping thriller by Orange Prize-shortlisted author Gillian Slovo:

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo‘Ten unpredictable days of violence erupt from a stifling heatwave. And, as Westminster careers are being made or ruined, lives are at stake. Ten Days is about what happens when politics, policing and the hard realities of living in London collide.’

Here in Westminster we have a programme of special events including historical talks and a walk around key ‘rebel’ points in Westminster’s streets. Our many reading groups will be joining in and discussing the book at meetings throughout the month – pick one and come along!

Click on the book cover above to find copies of Ten Days available in your library. It’s also available as an ebook and we have limited numbers of free copies to give away – ask in your library.

We’d love to know what you think of the book. If you can’t get to a reading group to discuss it, let us know your views in the comments.


Reading Agatha Christie on her 125th birthday

Book by Agatha ChristieOutsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie (15.9.1890 – 12.1.1976) is the best-selling novelist of all time.

She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap.

Described as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie was born in Torquay, Devon in September 1890. Educated at home, she taught herself to read and was soon writing poems and short stories.

It was during the First World War that Agatha turned to writing detective stories. Her debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles took some time to finish and even longer to find a publisher. She started writing partly in response to a bet from her sister Madge that she couldn’t write a good detective story and partly to relieve the monotony of the dispensing work which she was now doing.

It was not until 1919 that a publisher, John Lane of The Bodley Head (the fourth to have received the manuscript) accepted The Mysterious Affair at Styles for publication and contracted Agatha to produce five more books. She chose a Belgian refugee detective, Hercule Poirot as her sleuth – Belgian refugees were a common feature in England during the war.

Subsequent books introduced new characters – Tommy and Tuppence and Miss Marple who were to feature in many further titles.

Endless Night by Agatha ChristieRecommendations from Westminster library staff:

“The Agatha Christie novel I remember most clearly is the one-off Endless Night. Part romantic gothic, part murder mystery, the story is unlike most other Christies I’d read and I can still remember my shock and disquiet at the ending.
To say more would ruin the mystery!
– Maarya

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie“I love Murder on The Orient Express. The plot is so well organised, so many red herrings, you could not possibly work out who the murderer(s) are. A complicated homicide as the murder depicted here would never happen in real life.
The book was made in to a stylish film with a glittering array of high end actors which is a joy to watch.”

A Murder is Announced, by Agatha ChristieA murder is announced – our family listened to it in the car on talking book cassette (borrowed from our local library of course) on a very long drive all the way down to the Pyrenees. Despite it being very sunny and French outside we were all enraptured by the rather old and stuffy villagers of Chipping Cleghorn. It is the first Agatha Christie I came across and do to this day prefer Miss Marple to Poirot.”
– Amy

Lord Edgware dies, by Agatha Christie“I love Lord Edgware Dies because it’s the perfect example of Agatha Christie’s skill in creating a murder mystery which seems utterly impossible, but once explained feels so simple you can’t believe you didn’t solve it yourself.”
– Grainne


Christie’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1928. She travelled to the archaeological site of Ur where the following year she met Max Mallowan who was to become her second husband. Several books were influenced by their travels in the Middle East such as Death on the Nile and They came to Baghdad.

Agatha Christie writing as Mary WestmacottFrom 1928 Agatha also wrote non-crime novels under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. She continued writing through the war and post-war period, although now there was much time-consuming work with theatrical productions which limited the time Agatha could devote to writing.

On 3 December 1926 Agatha Christie’s life featured a real life mystery when she left her home alone. Her car was found abandoned the next morning several miles away. A nationwide search ensued. The press and public enjoyed various speculations as to what might have happened and why but no one knew for sure. It eventually transpired that Agatha had somehow travelled to Kings Cross station where she took the train to Harrogate and checked into the Harrogate Spa Hotel under the name of Theresa Neale, previously of South Africa. She was eventually recognised by the hotel staff on 14 December, who alerted the police. She did not recognise her husband when he came to meet her. Possibly concussed but certainly suffering from amnesia, Agatha had no recollection of who she was. An intensely private person, made even more so by the hue and cry of the press, Agatha never spoke of this time with friends or family.

Agatha Christie died in January 1976 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Cholsey, near Wallingford.

You can find out about events being held all over the country to celebrate Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday by visiting www.agathachristie.com. If you’d like to read books by Christie, take a look at our new Agatha Christie reading list.



Temper temper!

Sam's Pet Temper by Sangeeta BhadraOn Tuesday, Years 1 & 2 from Queen’s Park Primary School enjoyed a special Queen’s Park Library visit with Canadian author Sangeeta Bhadra. Sangeeta’s debut children’s book, Sam’s Pet Temper, uses humour and striking illustrations (provided by Marion Arbona) to tell the story of a little boy whose bad temper takes on a life of its own.

The children loved hearing all about the Temper’s naughty antics and finished the session by producing some very creative drawings of their own imaginary Tempers:

Sangeeta Bhadra visits Queen's Park Library

Fortunately there wasn’t any sign of bad moods during the visit; Sangeeta was impressed by the excellent behaviour of all the children and the very grown-up thoughts they had about the book. Sam’s Pet Temper is a charming picture book and perfect for ages 5+ who might be struggling to get their own tempers under control!


Longlist, shortlist, Winner!

More than this by Patrick NessHave you seen our Book Awards page?
We’ve gathered all the contenders and winners of the UK’s most popular literary awards in one place! So if you’re keen to read a whole shortlist, want to know what all the fuss is about a particular winner, or are just looking for a great book to read – take a look. All our book lists link straight in to the library catalogue, so you can find out which libraries hold copies of the book you’re after and whether they’re available (you can reserve from here too).

The book awards we feature include the Man Booker, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Specsavers National Book Award and many more.

Book Awards page on WCC library catalogue

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald won both the Costa Book of the Year Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It’s the extraordinary story of the author coping with her grief following the death of her father by acquiring a goshawk called Mabel and a year-long plan to tame and train her to hunt.

Jim's Lion by Russell hobanIn June we will find out the winners of the CILIP / Carnegie and CILIP / Kate Greenaway Medals (for children’s writing and illustration respectively). In the meantime, the always excellent shortlisted books for each prize are listed on the Book Awards page – including Jim’s Lion by Russell Hoban.

Each time a new shortlist is announced, the lists are refreshed – but we are gradually building a ’round up’ list of past prizewinners, so you can always be sure to find some great quality reading.

Borrow one today!


Rivers of London: A Hidden Chapter

Rivers of London (Westminster Reference Library, April 2015)Ever wonder how the London Met fends off supernatural criminals in the capital?
Or if ghosts are real?
If Rivers could talk, what would they say…?

All these questions and more were answered in Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch‘s supernatural urban fantasy novel and our 2015 Cityread London book.

But the story didn’t end there.

Westminster Reference Library, in conjunction with Cityread and LookLeft LookRight Theatre hosted an interactive theatre performance that ran on Saturdays and Sundays throughout April. The top floor of the library was converted into a special police department: the official training centre for new recruits of the Supernatural Sciences Branch!

Rivers of London (Westminster Reference Library, April 2015)

Anne tells us how she fared on her first day as a wizard’s apprentice….

“Unfortunately I did not have what it takes to become a new police apprentice studying magic at the Folly, but I had a really good time trying out for a place last Sunday.

Sixteen prospective applicants met at Westminster Reference Library, where the top floor had been transformed into The Folly – the training academy for the magic police division in the Cityread book Rivers of London. PC Peter Grant from the book spoke to us first and explained how we would be tested and then we were off in small groups to meet the different protagonists.

I saw Sir Isaac Newton first in a room where the Sherlock Holmes collection had been transformed into a 17th Century study to explain the underlying principles of magic. Then it was onto see Inspector Nightingale who tested our powers of observation in a crime scene, and finally we met with Mama Thames herself and her daughter Beverley Brook. Although a number of us had passed the tests up to this point we all failed to produce a werelight in the laboratory, so none of us made the grade… but we all had a magical time trying.”

Cityread London was a brilliant experience for all concerned this year. We hope that you managed to get involved in some way, either by reading the book, coming to an event, or taking part in discussions online. Roll on Cityread 2016…