Posted by: billpurdue | May 8, 2012

I’m quite a fan of books about Britain, not necessarily specific aspects of Britain, but accounts of travels around the country, whether to random locations or a systematic tour of the whole. I can’t say that I have read dozens of them , but what I have read, I have, in the main, enjoyed. I’ve just been reading a few chapters of England’s Character by S P B Mais, a book published in 1936, a copy of which belonged to my parents.

I say ‘a few chapters’ because I avoided those about hunting- not just foxes, but cubs and even otters – which is not my favourite subject, but this just goes to show how old the book is. From what I can gather, Mais, as well as being a journalist and a prolific writer, was an expert on travel, not just in this country, but around the world. In this book however he tries to give a flavour of the character of different regions of England by observing and talking to local people.

This is a compilation of articles on a variety of locations and activities (mainly pastoral or agricultural rather than industrial) and ranges from visits to specific towns ( eg. Salisbury, Oxford and Monmouth ) to a potted history of Britain’s canals. There are two chapters entitled ‘By bus across England’ and ‘By Bus to Darlington’: I didn’t realise that there were ‘express’ bus services in those days. In fact what jumps out at the 21st century reader is the extent to which things have changed since 1936. For example, back then ‘men (and women) of the road’ were quite commonplace. In the chapter “Outside my Window’ he comments on the ‘wayfarers’ (called tramps by some) who frequented the seat on the side of the highway opposite his house, whilst on their way to or from the workhouse.

On his travels, often locally by bus or across the fields on footpaths, he reports on his quite brief conversations with local people and visits buildings of note. In those days it seems, the practice of visiting historic buildings, even privately owned ones, without prior notice and expecting to be allowed to view some of its rooms, was still the norm. He seemed to enjoy visiting livestock auctions and even goes to sheepdog trials on the South Downs where all the contestants are from way up north. He reports the conversations between observers from Scotland and the north of England and the comments from a local “stranger” who thought he knew what he was talking about.

If this book is anything to go by, reading S P B (Petre) Mais takes a little getting used to. Some of the chapters in the book are what I would call ‘bitty’. He seems to devote only a sentence or two to something and then quickly moves on. His writing style seems to vary – the chapter on the history of canals starts off interestingly enough, but then becomes rather textbook-ish. I began to get used to the variety of styles and ended up reading most of the book. It’s available from second hand book websites such as ABE Books.

For a full biography of S P B Mais, try and get hold of An Unrepentant Englishman: The Life of S.P.B. Mais, Ambassador of the Countryside by Maisie Robson. [King’s England Press £7.99 978-1872438177].

Have you ever thought that the way authors get feedback from their reading public could be improved? I have to admit that it hasn’t occupied my thoughts that much, although finding out what reviewers think about your latest novel is a bit haphazard to say the least. After all there are simply so many books being published, there’s no guarantee that every title gets the review(s), good or bad, which it deserves – or any review at all for that matter I suppose

Looking at reviews on Amazon for example is a very haphazard and unreliable way of finding what people think. Christian Wolmar, author of the excellent history of the railways of Britain “Fire and Steam” says in his latest newsletter:

I have noticed that a couple of very hostile reviews have appeared lately which I suspect come from dubious sources, as they are out of kilter with the others and the tone is particularly antagonistic. I don’t mind critical reviews – I even welcome them – but do not like misinformed ones which accuse me of things that I have not written.  Unfortunately, Amazon exercise no quality control.”

A new scheme called “Real Readers” could provide part of the answer. According to the website, Real Readers tries to bring readers, publishers and authors closer together by offering readers the chance to read and comment on selected titles before the publication date. Readers might be asked to comment on the appearance of the cover or answer specific questions from the publisher. Readers who sign up for the scheme are sent a selection of books to read and are expected to post reviews of them on Amazon or any websites they feel are appropriate and report back to Real Readers within four weeks of receiving the book. At first I was very tempted to sign up for the scheme and be supplied with a steady stream of pre-publication titles, but then I began to wonder what sort of commitment would be required especially how much time I would need to set aside for reading. But that’s me: if you want to know more, have a look at the website.


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