Apr 2013 TBRI’m barrelling through the TBR at the moment now that I’ve managed to arrange my work schedules a bit better so I have time to read. I also read a whole book the other day while recovering from a dentist appointment. Hooray for long swathes of reading – it was almost like being on holiday (apart from the wonky mouth …). Here are reviews of two excellent non-fiction reads. Expect more of these as I am entering a wodge of non-fiction on the TBR now (you can see them all after the Virago on the front of the TBR shelf in the picture).

Charles Madge & Tom Harrisson (eds.) – “Mass Observation: First Year’s Work”

(26 June 2012)

This is one of those charming Faber reprints with the squiggly pattern on the front and the interesting contents. I found out from who knows where that they were republishing some of the early MO books, and as a Mass Observer myself (we’re allowed to tell these days as it’s all about observing ourselves – and I’m proud to be Editor, 41) I have a particular interest in these, so I picked up this first one. They’re quite expensive for what they are, but I have never found any of them in a bookshop, so it’s worth the treat.

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1938, with some charmingly slightly po-faced reports from early MO studies on smoking, pub-going and the pools. There is a long and interesting essay on MO by the sociologist, Malinowski, at the end, which bulks it out a bit and makes for a good read. The reports are full of statistics that go into such detail – at that stage they had full-time Observers who were able to collect huge welters of data which was turned into tables that reminded me of my exam-proven previous ability to create a table with borders and aligned figures, using a typewriter!

Anyway, I found it fascinating that the early emphasis was on observation rather than self-reporting, and this is why it is perhaps unsurprising that their careful review of newspaper coverage of MO finds criticism around spying! There are some event and monthly day diaries, one of which records the impressions of a variety of people involved in the Coronation, but we find neither the questionnaires or guided essays of the present day or the longer journals of the WW2 era.

It was also fascinating to read about the early impetus for MO and particularly the quotations from early Mass Observers on their reasons for joining the movement, which seem very fresh and reminiscent of today’s members and their own reasons for taking part. This will hopefully inspire me to complete my own reports in better time, especially since they don’t involve going to my local pub and counting the punters and how much they drink every night for a week!

Wyatt Thompson & Petronella McGovern – “Trailblazers”

(9 September 2012 from my friend Bridget)

The penultimate in a marvellous collection of books passed along to me by Bridget – thanks again! This is the fascinating story of the Australian 1956 Olympic equestrian team, the first such team to compete for Australia, and oddly competing at the Melbourne Olympics, six months before the Games and in Stockholm, owing to issues with quarantine in Australia at the time. So committed were the team to their cause that they came over to the UK 15 months before the competition as they were inexperienced in classical riding, especially dressage, and needed to gain experience they just couldn’t get at home.

There’s plenty of information on how and what they learned and their experiences in three-day eventing over here, good and bad. The story of the selection and the Olympics themselves is told in detail, and then the book fills in the story of equestrianism in Australia up until the early 21st century, with the characters we’ve met taking a strong leading role and giving real meaning to the term “legacy”. It’s also nice to come across iconic British riders like Pat Smythe in the story, and the horses are as important as the riders, with real sympathy for injuries and losses for other teams, and detail about the different mounts of the Australian team and their rivals.

A lovely bit of social and sporting history, well and competently put together for the novice or expert reader (I mean novice or expert in things equestrian, of course), with plenty of primary materials and photos and some lovely reproductions of paintings. I’ll admit that this is not for everyone, and I wonder how many people I lost at the second sentence, but this was a real treat for me!

Currently reading – well, I have a couple of novels to share with you next time, and I’m currently reading two very interesting memoirs, one set in India in the last days of the Raj and one set in the glittering aristocracy of the early 20th century.

And of course, I’d love to know … what are you reading at the moment?