Tuesday 28 December 2010

Patti Smith

I cannot now recall where I read about 'Just Kids' by Patti Smith but I requested it from the library partly because Julie bought me a copy of 'Auguries of Innocence' for my birthday and I was curious to read about her background. My first thought was 'Oh Patti Smith wrote poetry too', when in reality she was a poet and artist who just happened to get into rock music, not that I know anything much about her music either, she's just one of those iconic figures who's name is familiar.

While this book is an autobiography it is also a homage to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The book begins at age 20 when she has an illegitimate child and then leaves her quiet home town in search of a new life. She and Robert meet when she is living rough after moving to New York and fall almost at once into a mutually reliant and closely trusting friendship that endurs the rest of his life. At some points during their lengthy cohabitation they seem to consider themselves a couple but Robert's ambiguous sexuality meant that this was not a vital part of what bound them together. The story follows them from the late 60's through to Robert's death in 1989. They end up living at the Chelsea Hotel, which was the hub of cultural creativity over a period that extended into the 80's, many well known artists, writers and musicians making camp there. So her story is also their story; anecdotes of chance encounters and developing friendships with some of the 60's most iconic figures are scattered though the book, but so unself-consciously, because at the time she was quite wrapped up in her own work and supporting Robert that she seems almost unaware of what she becomes part of:

"I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumours of Oscar Wilde's trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed though hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can't Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight.
So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars." (p.112-3)

She seems to me to represent in many ways the changing attitudes to sex and relationships of that period. She relates honestly, without romanticising, the years they spend in relative poverty, struggling to provide for themselves and how she then chooses to support Robert financially, working mainly in bookshops, because she is so passionate about his creativity. They live together but are often drawn into relationships with other people, with no hints of possessiveness or feelings of betrayal. She writes here unsentimentally of her brief relationship with Jim Carroll:

"Jim and I had some very sweet times. I'm sure there were downs as well, but my memories are served with nostalgia and humor. Ours were ragtag days and nights, as quixotic as Keats and as rude as the lice we both came to suffer, each certain they originated from the other as we underwent a tedious regimen of Kwell lice shampooing in any one of the unmanned Chelsea Hotel bathrooms.
He was unreliable, evasive, and sometimes too stoned to speak, but he was also kind, ingenuous, and a true poet. I knew he didn't love me but I adored him anyway. Eventually he just drifted away, leaving me a long lock of his red-gold hair." (p.167)

She must have kept diaries during this whole period because she writes in such detail about their lives, specific items they owned, how they dressed for special occasions, conversations held and events witnessed. The book has a wonderful atmosphere, recounted so informally as if you are just sitting talking about things that happened quite recently, as if you are discussing shared acquaintances. She is both unpretentious and at the same time very reverential towards people she considers to be cultural 'greats', and duly appreciative of their influence on her life and career. Her writing and performance of her poetry eventually leads her towards music, and her and Robert's lives begin to take different paths, though he is the person she comes back to for the important events:

"There was never any question that Robert would take the portrait for the cover of Horses, my aural sword sheathed with Robert's image. I had no sense of how it would look, just that it should be true. The only thing I promised Robert was that I would wear a clean shirt with no stains on it.
I went to the Salvation Army on the Bowery and bought a stack of white shirts. Some were too big for me, but the one I really liked was neatly pressed with a monogram below the breast pocket. It reminded me of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet wearing a white monogrammed shirt with rolled-up sleeves. There was an RV stitched on my shirt. i imagined it belonging to Roger Vadim, who had directed Barbarella. I cut the cuffs off the sleeves to wear under my black jacket adorned with the horse pin that Allan Lanier had given me." (p.249)

What an interesting book, and not what you might expect from a rock legend. Patti Smith is a totally fascinating person, intellectual and self-educated, interested in everything. Someone who lived through, benefitted from, and became part of a cultural revolution, and yet is very down-to-earth and ordinary in many ways. I loved the book because it lived up to some slightly romantic notion that I have of the 60's, a nostalgia for something that I missed out on, and she paints a very vivid portrait of the times, allowing you an intimate glimpse of a world that no longer exists.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Christmas Knitting

Christmas 2008 I knitted socks for my family's Christmas presents, it was a marathon session that left me mere hours to finish the last pair before the close of business on the last posting day:
This year has been very hectic, but I decided at the last minute to go back to home made gifts and did hats for my sister and mum and dad. These were all done in Stylecraft Signature Chunky, a soft wool/acrylic blend in these lovely deep colours. The patterns were all from Ravelry.
Dunk had been dropping hints about the jumper I promised him long since so I hid in the bedroom a couple of evenings and did him one too, which is keeping him cosy in the study cos the radiator is rather small and it's not keeping the room very warm.
Last but not least I did a scarf for Tish (she recently crocheted herself a hat anyway) in King Cole Riot, which is only a DK so I used it double to make it thick enough, it just has a simple basket-weave pattern on it. The colours did this rather neat thing where the stripes repeated backwards, which works brilliantly on the scarf so the ends match.

Friday 24 December 2010

Reading Roundup

This time last year I wrote out a list of all the books I had read over the year with links to the reviews, so here is the list for 2010. I was not doing any marathon challenge (see the 52 books challenge) but I seem to have read *more* books this year. I did not make much progress with my Kurt Vonnegut Challenge but I have read a couple more of the Orange Prize winners (see list in the sidebar). Best reads of the year: in terms of novels probably 'Housekeeping' and 'Bel Canto'; so much poetry so little time (I have bought far more and not given them enough attention), my favourite was definitely Billy Collins; non-fiction was definitely 'Howards End is on the Landing':

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Home made Christmas tree

Christmas has become distinctly low key since the offspring have been spending the holiday with their dad for some years now, though this year Tish will be here, staying over because her housemates are all going home. I was not in the mood to spend £35 on a tree ... so we have improvised. I had planned on a lovely sheet of dark green satin for the background but it turned out that I had used it all on Sadie's duvet cover. The lights and tinsel are staple-gunned, the other decorations are held in place with pins. The up sides are that it is free, takes up no room and there are no needles to hoover up ... the down side is the lack of christmassy smell.

Sunday 19 December 2010


So for people who like their mince pies full of fruit rather than brownish sugar syrup it is easy as pie to make your own, you just chuck everything in a bowl and stir thoroughly:
1/2lb of sultanas
1/2lb of raisins
1/2lb of currants
glace cherries, chopped (if you like them)
one large cooking apple, peeled and then grated
1/4lb of suet (you can get vegetarian if you prefer)
1/2lb of dark soft brown sugar (definitely not demerara sugar as it is crunchy but light soft brown is ok, dark just has more flavour)
zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
juice of 2 oranges and 1 lemon (I also tend to add more orange juice if it seems a bit dry, the whole thing should be 'shiny' with juice)
2 teaspoons of mixed spice (you can add extra cinnamon/nutmeg/ginger or whatever is your favourite)

This is half remembered from when we used to make it at Guides for sale at the Christmas Grotto. Feel free to add things like nuts if you like them, or just use what you have in the cupboard, we had no raisins so I used more of the other two fruits. If you make a lot of pies you can easily multiply up this recipe. Mix in a large bowl and cover and allow the fruit to absorb the juice. I usually add some more juice the following day. It will keep well for a week or so if you put it in nice clean jam jars. This quantity will probably do 4/5 dozen mince pies. I am not so keen on lots of pastry (am also a very poor pastry maker) so I bake them without tops (cover with foil to stop the fruit burning) and top with a thick layer of water icing (that's just icing sugar and water). Enjoy.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Anniversary of sorts

Today is my eighth anniversary of working for Royal Mail. On my first day I rather foolishly thought that since the manager said the shift was 5.30am to 1.30pm that I would be home and dry by 1.30. I think we got back to the office at around 4pm, and the day was finished with Rich buying me a bacon and egg sandwich at Ali's snack bar in the lay-by on the A429 just north of Moreton.
Today I am nearly as knackered. It snowed overnight so I did not risk the bike but walked the two miles to work. Then I walked my duty, about 4 hours, then I walked the two miles home. Then I walked up to the south west office to do an overtime indoor shift and walked home again four hours later.
After a lovely dinner of casserole and dumplings Tish phoned, a bit upset, so I went over to see her, which involved a bus to town then a walk down to her house ... then the same in reverse some time later.
So here are my feet ... well and truly **up** ... with cup of tea and home made mince pies. Tomorrow I may post the recipe for the mincemeat. We went into Unicorn and even their supposedly wholesome mincemeat seemed to be mainly sugar syrup and apple pulp, so I made my own.

Friday 17 December 2010

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
It is encouraging to read inside the front pages of my somewhat battered second hand copy of 'A room of one's own' that it was first published by Grafton Books in 1977, and then "reprinted in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 (twice), 1982, 1983, 1984 (twice), 1985 (twice), 1987, 1988 and 1989 (twice)". Having been first published by the Hogarth Press in 1929 it is nice to know that such a book was still in demand throughout the 80's. I have to confess I thought this book was going to be about women writing, when it turned out to be a feminist treatise that uses the example of creative writing to say something about the changing position of women within society. The book is an expansion of two lectures on the subject of women and writing given by Woolf in which she argues her (much quoted) point that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Woolf puts herself into the character of an unspecified woman who is pursuing her curiosity on the subject of the historical background of women writers, discovering that there are so few of them and why this might be so. The book takes the form of simply following her thoughts and musings that are forthcoming from the discoveries that she makes along the way. As she points out at the beginning Woolf is not trying to express some grand 'truth' but simply to explain why she came to hold the opinion about the money and the room. She has this very symbolic moment early on in her travels which bought a wry smile to my lips as I read:

"But however small it was (this thought of mine), it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind - put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man's figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was a path. Only Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face resumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession, they had sent my little fish into hiding." (p.7-8)

A few paragraphs later she is ushered from the library because she is not accompanied by a Fellow of the College, but then, being Virginia Woolf, she proceeds to waffle on about luncheon and poetry and the war until you loose the thread of her argument a little. She goes on to examine some of the writing done about women ... by men, most of which is utterly dismissive of their talents and abilities, demonstrated by their lack of contribution to human progress and culture, she quotes several pieces that to a modern woman just feel quite unbelievable. Yet this is contrasted by the appearance of women within literature written by men; female characters who are strong and forthright and who's choices and decisions have influence on the outcome of events. She sums it up quite concisely thus:

"A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband." (p.43)

But she goes on to make the argument that it is not just the contempt in which women are held by intellectual men that holds them back, coupled with their relative social isolation that affords them such limited worldly experience, but also the practicalities of putting pen to paper. In order to write you must have somewhere to write. Even educated women did not the privacy and solitude necessary, their lived being subject to domestic and social duties that would continually interrupt the thought processes necessary for creative writing. And even if they were of a social class that meant they had some education this would be geared towards enhancing their marriageability. On the subject of the need for money she says this:

"Next I think that you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men." (p.101)

Except of course she goes on to say that this is not a true accusation. She makes a list of poets, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth and so on, and points out that all of them were university men, educated and therefore from affluent backgrounds, only Keats was truly a poor man:

"It is - however dishonouring to us as a nation - certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog's chance. Believe me - and I have spent a great part of ten years in watching some three hundred and twenty elementary schools - we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born." (p.102)

Having established firmly how human society and culture has conspired to keep women in a subjugated and controlled position she then proceeds to berate women about all the changes that have occurred and how they should have jumped at the chance to enjoy their new freedoms; two colleges have been open to women since 1866, since 1880 married women have been 'allowed by law' to possess their own property and since 1919 (nearly 9 years) women have had the vote! It's as if she expects 40,000 years of being downtrodden to be brushed aside almost instantaneously:

"When you reflect on these immense privileges (!!!) (my exclamation) and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you would agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good." (p.107)

This sentence exposes the privilege she lives with and how remote she is from the lives of ordinary women. She goes on to admit that her motives in wanting to stir women to write are quite selfish and makes this call for women to go out and write:

"Lately my diet has become a trifle monotonous; history is too much about wars, biography too much about great men; poetry has shown, I think, a tendency to sterility, and fiction - but I have sufficiently exposed my disabilities as a critic of modern fiction and will say no more about it. Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, i hope you will possess yourselves of enough money to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter on street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream." (p.103)

What I like about the book is that it is very polemical and uncompromising. But it is very much a period piece, written in the optimism of the post WW1 years, before the economic problems of the 30's, and also reflects Virginia Woolf's social class, her expectations and experiences. It is stylistically very like her prose, she wanders off at a tangent at the slightest excuse, though thankfully the sentences were a little more easy to digest (linking back to my review of Mrs Dalloway). It is very short, you could read it in one sitting. It is definitely a book to go to for a little inspiration, to remind yourself what life used to be like for women. When she quotes a book entitled "The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex", you get just an inkling of what women were up against at the beginning of the last century. It is always important to remember how far we have come.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Work Perk of the Week: Local Knowledge

One of the things I liked about my job was people stopping at random and asking me to help them find their way; it is not in the job description but local knowledge seems to be part of what the public expect from their postie. I know all the back roads and all the addresses between Stretton to the north, the Greedy Goose (on the A44) to the east, Oddington to the south and the Snowshill estate to the west. In fact I once directed someone all the way across town to a remote house on the road between Paxford and Aston Magna.
Since we have been in Manchester I have had to continually apologise to anyone who stopped and asked, explaining that I was new to the area and could not help ... but today someone stopped and asked for a road that I knew, so I feel finally like a real Manchester postlady.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Family stuff

Our new home has had it's first visitor, M's young man called Joe has been to stay for the weekend. They went to see Arcade Fire at the Manchester Central last night (her friends were jealous but M was distinctly underwhelmed), then we made them hang out with friends this afternoon since he has been the object of much curiosity. So curiosity satisfied and I approve:-)

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Yarn Bombing

This lovely mug with a knitted warmer really made my day today ... it is part of a yarn bombing project by a lady who calls herself Loose Yarn, and has been using her knitting to brighten up parts of Manchester, including bus stops, phone boxes and swings. I was just out on my round this morning and I found it sitting on someone's wall, with a little card attached that read, "Here is a little present from me, Loose Yarn. If it is not too much bother I would love to know where, how and what you think about finding your present by contacting me on one of my sites. Thank you!" I feel quite inspired now to spread a little knitting out in the real world.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Hunger Games III

Just a quickie to say I finished Mockingjay, the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy this morning (yes a very busy week). You can read reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire that we (I mean me and the girls) read back in March. After having a bit of a Twilight binge they were seeking some new reading and I read about this series, and we were hooked (much better written than Twilight they tell me.) We then had to wait till August for the final part, and I had to buy two copies because M was at her dad's house when it came out. It sat in my TBR pile much to M's annoyance as she wanted to discuss the plot and it's many failings with me as soon as she finished it. Since we moved my TBR pile is all wrong as most of them are now on the bookcase downstairs but I pulled Mockingjay out the other day and have alternated it with the more serious reading.

So our heros Katniss and Peeta survived the Games in the first two books and now have to survive a real war. There is a lot of politics, double-dealing, emotional manipulation, death and destruction. Set in a distant future on this world, partly back in the middle ages but with weird bits of futuristic technology, suspension of disbelief a definite prerequisite. They don't have a very nice society at the beginning and I'm not convinced the one they get after it's all over is going to be much better. Collins has a very negative view of human nature, although some of the characters have good strong qualities, loyalty and integrity, there is a great deal of shallow superficial self-serving behaviour, quite often from Katniss too. It did annoy me that she kept getting injured and going unconscious and missing bits and just waking up back at the hospital. She was a bit of a victim of circumstances in this book, much less of a driving force, she was not as clever and resourceful as she was in the other two, but maybe the author was trying to make some point about the emotional trauma suffered by the participants in the Hunger Games. And Gale, the other main character, just kind of drifted off at the end, which seemed all wrong for how important he had been throughout the story. Teenage pulp fiction really but an enjoyable read if you like that kind of dystopian fantasy writing.

Beside the Sea

It's been a bit of an intense week reading-wise as I picked this little novella up from the library and read it in two sittings. I read it reviewed on someone's blog recently and was intrigued, not sure what I expected but a very interesting book.

This is a picture of quite frightening paranoia and the fine line that we all tread. It is one opinion that there is no such thing as mental illness, that we are all somewhere on the spectrum of what might be considered 'normal', but reading a book like this makes you appreciate that some people are not. The narrator is a young woman who is describing a journey to the seaside with her two young sons, on the surface just trying to do something fun, to take them out of their everyday lives and inject a little magic. But nothing about this woman is easy and as you read her inner monologue you find yourself sucked into a surreal place where she is fighting a continual battle to stay in control of her fears and to make sense of an apparently hostile world. She is afraid of everything, constantly worried that people are noticing her and thinking things about her, worried about doing the wrong thing, and I found myself wanting to tell her to stop being so pathetic , but the more you read the more you get drawn in to her way of seeing the world. Everything does seem to conspire against her; she has obviously planned this trip for some time, saved money she could ill afford, making decisions that obviously cause her much anxiety, and nothing seems to work out the way she planned. She has this image in her head of what 'normal' families do, and a trip to the seaside is supposed to be an enjoyable adventure, she just wants to make her boys happy, but every setback sends her into a spiral of stress that makes her withdraw from the situation. Her coping mechanism is to go to sleep, though even sleep seems to be a place where she is tormented by fears.

So they take this endless bus journey, they arrive to find themselves lost in a sea of mud, find a hotel but must climb an insurmountable six flights to a room so tiny the door will not open properly, it rains interminably and the sea is more frightening than exciting. They have hardly any money left for food and are cold and miserable. Each encounter with other people adds to her anxiety, even the process of going into a shop to buy some biscuits is loaded with frightening possibilities. And all the time we have her running commentary from the inside of her head, a mixture of her desperate longing to make her sons happy and a terror of people judging her ineptitude as a parent. They go to a cafe and to the funfair, still in the rain, she is trying so hard to create something for them, but it all falls apart:

"Stan stood himself in front of me, I couldn't see the white light any more, I came back down in freefall, my head spinning while my body stayed still, Stan was shouting that we had to go back and go to bed, that Kevin was tired, that Kevin had been sick, that Kevin was crying, that Kevin was coughing, Stan was blocking the big wheel from view, with his wet hair and his huge mouth, I hardly recognised him. I looked over at the littl'un, he was sobbing, his shoulders shuddering, snot running from his nose over his mouth, and his legs kicking in thin air. The fun was over." (p.88)

And yet sometimes the hostility of the world is quite palpable and you are not so sure it is all inside her head. In the cafe they become the object of curiosity because her money consists of a tin a very small change with which she tries to pay the bill. The hotel staff and shop keeper are irritated or indifferent, and you can understand how someone so emotionally vulnerable would perceive this negatively. She refers at one point to a broken collar bone and you are left to assume abusive relationships have been part of the damage done to her. She has no-one to trust or rely on, her sense of the world is so very fragile and she is trying to protect her sons. It is a strong portrayal too of Stan, the older son who is far too worldly wise and weary of his mother's illness, a boy whose childhood has been dominated by it, burdened with responsibilities much too early and yearning for his mother's comfort and support. Even without the not so subtle comment on the back cover you could predict where this spiral of craziness was headed.
A thoroughly disturbing book, very convincingly written.

Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997. My copy has sat on the bookshelf for several years, I think I may have started then abandoned it as impenetrable, and it certainly is a very difficult book to read. It is a book of layers of story, at times confusing, so you have to take it in a little by osmosis rather than expecting it to be straightforward. It is the story of Jakob Beer from a point in his wartime childhood after the murder of his family when he is rescued by a man called Athos who hides him in Greece until the end of the war, until his accidental death at age 60. It is about a life haunted by memories and experiences, it is about human history and the impact that it has not only on individuals but on humanity.

The story traces Jakob's childhood life with Athos, whose intellectual curiosity about the world rubs off on him and their joint passion for knowledge and understanding forms a strong bond between the two. After the war they move to Canada where Athos works at the university and Jakob becomes a student, forging new lives for themselves, but Jakob remains locked in to his memories of his family, most strongly of his sister Bella and her piano playing, and mourns their loss, and is resistant to forming new bonds of friendship with others. He earns a living by translating, and makes this interesting observation about the work (lots of quotes coming up as there were so many beautifully observed passages):

"Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another. You can choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude. The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both, like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what's between the lines, the mysterious implications." (p.109)

Then he falls in love with Alex, a relationship doomed to be short-lived, almost because it highlights his lack of a sense of identity, a feeling of not fitting in (I love the final sentence here, a perfect metaphor):

"She went on intellectual benders, arguing all night, leaning against men in crowded bars, stuffing herself with ideals. She was stunning. She was a political debauchee. I didn't have the confidence to argue Canadian politics with her blue-blood Marxist friends. How could I discuss their upper-class communism with them, those who shone with certainty and had never had the misfortune of witnessing theory refuted by fact? I felt maggoty with insecurities; I had European circuitry, my voltage wrong for the socket. (p.132)

But she is so full of life and the future and he is so wrapped up in the past and his losses, and the losses of so many others:

"That they were torn from mistakes they had no chance to fix; everything unfinished. All the sins of love with no detail, detail without love. The regret of having spoken, of having run out of time to speak. Of hoarding oneself. Of turning one's back too often in favour of sleep.
I tried to imagine their physical needs, the indignity of human needs grown to extreme they equal your longing for wife, child, sister, parent, friend. But truthfully I couldn't even begin to to imagine the trauma of their hearts, of being taken in the middle of their lives. Those with young children. Or those newly in love, wrenched from that state of grace. Or those who had lived invisibly, who were never known." (p.147)

Later he meets Michaela, and their relationship can be summed up in this description of their first encounter:

"Standing together on the winder sidewalk, in the white darkness. I know even les than lamplight in a window, which knows how to pour itself into the street and arouse the longing of one who waits.
Her hair and hat circle her quiet face. She's young. There are twenty-five years between us. Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it's almost like joy. Her hat, the snow, remind me of Akhmatova's poem where, in two lines, the poet shakes her fist and then closes her hands in prayer: 'You're many years late,/ how happy I am to see you.' " (p.177)

The second part of the book is about a young man, Ben, who comes into contact with Jakob and eventually is entrusted to go to his home to find journals that he was working on at the time of his death, and how he becomes caught up in Jakob's life and memories. His parents, also post-war immigrants to Canada had endured similar hardship and trauma as Jakob, and his story flashing back and forth into the past, to his own growing up and back again to his parents early years. Ben recounts this (self-imposed) childhood experience of facing his fear of the dark:

"My task was to walk through the woods with the flashlight off until I reached the road, about a quarter of a mile away. If my father could walk days, miles, then I could walk at least to the road. What would happen to me if I had to walk as far as my father had? I was in training. My flannel pyjamas were clammy with sweat. I walked with useless eyes and heard the river, modest knife of history, carving its blade deeper into the earth; rusty blood seeping through the cracked face of the forest. A fine mesh of insects on the heavy breath of the night, the slap of ferns weirdly cold against my ankles - nothing alive could be so cold on such a hot night. Slowly the trees began to emerge from the undifferentiated dark, as if embossed, black on black, and the dark itself was a pale skin stretched across charred ribs. Above the far surf of leaves, a dark skirt of sky rustling against skeletal legs. Strange filaments from nowhere, the hair of ghosts, brushed my neck and cheeks and would not be rubbed away. The forest closed around me like a hag's embrace, all hair and hot breath, bristly skin and sharp fingernails. And just as I felt overwhelmed, sick with terror, suddenly I was in a clear space, a faint breeze over the wide road." (p.220)

Sorry about the long quotes but I just found her writing to intense, so much of it made me want to say to someone, 'just let me read you this bit'. It's hard to put my finger on quite what is so wonderful about this book. The writing is just beautifully acutely observed, the history so meticulously researched and her empathy for her character's experiences is deeply felt. It's that she seems to really understand how some experiences don't just stay with you but continue to affect your life and echo down through history into future generations, and that this is the way it should be, recording and remembering them is vital. This is a novel that does two things, it is in intimate personal story of one man's life and at the same time speaks about all of human experience, never sentimental but essentially life-affirming. Not a read for the fainthearted.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Snow day

So we've been in Manchester exactly month and we have snow. I carried my bike outside this morning to find the thinnest of coverings twinkling in the streetlight, just enough to make things a little treacherous.
At work I was issued with a set of these fabulous shoe 'snow chains', which felt a little weird to walk on to begin with, but I was very glad of them. Anyway, walking up a path I turned and saw that they were leaving these strange slightly delicate looking prints, rather as if a large bird had just hopped across the snow. And it reminded me of this poem, which I just had to go hunting for to share with you (nothing to do with snow, and I cannot find any info about the author).

traces, fine bird prints
above the tide line

do the grains of sand recall
compressing tight to make that shape

or loosening in the new arrangement?

even after waves, somewhere,
my cells remember how it was

your track etching

-- Lilian Mohin

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Work Perk of the Week: The Fallowfield Loop

I have been in my new office for just over three weeks now and having walked some and driven some I have finally taken the plunge and got my bike out of semi-retirement. Dunk put new lights on it and bought me a new bike lock so I am all organised. The photo above shows the way onto the Fallowfield Loop, one of the off-road cycle tracks all over Manchester, the path here coming down from Withington Road. From here is it about two miles straight along to the office, going under all the main roads and well away from the traffic (and the potholes and the traffic lights that ignore bikes), it is a pleasure to use. This lunch time the journey home took me a mere 12 minutes and 56 seconds, in spite of having a cold coming on and feeling pretty crap.

Monday 22 November 2010

Notes from an Exhibition

'Notes from an Exhibition' by Patrick Gale was a much better book than the previous offering. Patrick Gale has lots of interesting observations about all sorts of things, from mental health to art to family life, this books really packs it in. I really liked the format, even though the story jumped about and I sometimes wondered for a sentence or two where we were. The chapters are each begun with a little 'note' such as you find next to a painting in an exhibition, describing the object and it's relevance, and they became the means to take you to the different part of the story he is telling.

In Rachel Kelly we have a really beautifully drawn woman, vivid and alive, and tortured by manic depression. I liked the fact that although we finally learn stuff about her early years there is no attempt to try and explain away her mental problems, they are just part of her personality, shaping her life and experiences and most importantly her art. We start the story with her death and the purpose of the exhibition is to tell her life story, to try and bring together the events that shaped her and her family. It is also very much a book about family relationships, her slightly strange and mysterious relationship with her husband Anthony, through to the more fraught and ambivalent ones with her four children, and the impact that she had on all of their lives. Although Rachel is the central character of the book she does not dominate it, in fact she is quite shadowy and secretive. Her art is an all consuming passion that is central to a life that has been very turbulent. As a young woman we discover that she resisted diagnosis and although she does for some time appear to accept the label of 'bipolar' and the treatment that accompanied it when Hedley (her second son) is clearing her possessions he finds a drawerful of medication. It seems that she had been pretending to take it but not, preferring, it appears, the emotional turmoil that came with her illness but that seemed vital to her artistic inspiration to the muted stability that the tablets provided.

The book is however about the whole family not just her: Anthony, her husband, also slightly enigmatic, rescues her by chance after a suicide attempt and his quiet presence becomes her solace and salvation, taking her back to his home in Cornwall where she discovers a world that suits her needs. Garfield is the oldest son, slightly distanced from his mother but seeking approval, who discovers on her death that Anthony is not his father and there is a slightly strange interlude where he goes off to find another 'family', but returning to find himself more secure in his real one. Hedley, second son, spent his teenage years struggling with his sexuality but is really the most emotionally secure of all the offspring. Morwenna, the only daughter, is mysteriously absent from the funeral and has obviously been gone some time. It is later in the book that we discover she is blighted by the same mental health problems as her mother and has chosen to lead an itinerant life and keep her distance from people, her family included, to spare them from feeling responsible for her wellbeing. They only know she is still alive because occasionally they hear that she has sold one of the birthday cards her mother had painted for her. As if by the quirk of fate she ends up returning home some weeks after the funeral and finally allows her family to care for her. Petroc is the baby of the family, beloved and mourned, having been killed in an accident when still a teenager. The book weaves their lives together, telling their separate stories but bringing them all back to the home and history they share.

There is also the issue of Quakerism, not something you come across in novels very often, very spiritual without being overtly religious, and used I felt as a stark contrast to the emotional turmoil of Rachel's problems, and also something that binds the family together as a shared experience. And then there is a wonderful cameo appearance by Barbara Hepworth, that just anchored the story a little more in the real world, making Rachel part of a real artists community. I enjoyed the pieces about her art and I was left wishing I could actually see some of the paintings described.

Rachel's history is deliberately mysterious and Gale gives an interesting twist to her story and leaves the reader mostly, I felt, with a message about the importance of family, that blood links are important, but that family is also what you have created with the people who share your life. The book is clever and thoughtful, the characters are beautifully created and you feel drawn into their lives. I liked this book very much and will definitely be reading something else by Patrick Gale.

Sunday 21 November 2010

One Day

One Day by David Nicholls
I think that it doesn't bode well for this book that I am not left with much of an impression of the writing or events. I had to give the book back to the library because of the move so cannot refer back to it. I have also read 'Starter for Ten' a couple of years ago, the story of a young man's obsession with University Challenge, but it was only a passing entertainment. So 'One Day' is the story of Emma and Dexter, told in chapters that each tell the story of a single day over twenty years, following the ups and downs of their lives and loves from the end of their student days through to middle age.

I was left totally unconvinced by the whole thing. Their relationship seemed to have very little basis; Emma having had a crush on Dex for some time and they end up together very briefly at an end of year party. After spending an uneventful day together they start up a casual correspondence, Dex writing monosyllabic postcards from his exotic jaunts and Emma responding with long missives about her terrible job in a fast food restaurant, desperately trying to hide her growing feelings for him in the face of his apparent disinterest. Dex's life is on a roll, quickly moving into being a celebrity television presenter with a glamourous lifestyle and girlfriend to match, while Emma slogs it out with the Mexican food. In some of the chapters they meet, in others we just catch up on what has happened to them, sometime several years go by without them seeing each other. Dex goes into decline with the drinking but then finds the girls of his dreams, marries and has a daughter, while Emma trains to be a teacher, works in an inner city comprehensive and settles into a long term relationship with a man she appears indifferent to. As Dex's life goes further into decline with the breakup of his marriage, Emma's finally takes off as she starts writing children's books based a young girls she encounters while putting on the school play.
So predictably they finally get together, Dex treating Emma like some kind of 'fallback' when his life has really gone down the toilet, turning up out of the blue and just assuming she will fall willingly into his open arms ... which she duly does. I sort of liked Emma but she was such a doormat, the kind of character that many male authors create to serve as a foil for the bloke who the story is really about. Dex is just such a tedious, self-indulgent, self-absorbed egotist that I wanted her to finally see through him and be happy with someone else, when really all she was doing was apparently waiting for him to 'grow up' (which in my opinion he never did). I only stuck with the book because I kept hoping that he was going to do something interesting with their relationship. Nicholls tried to redeem Dex by making him a half-way decent father to his daughter and making him start up his own business and actually do some real work for the first time in his life but I was not convinced, he is all charm and no substance. And then he kills Emma off! And just to prove my point Dex goes right back to his old ways and drinks himself into an oblivion of self-pity, only to be rescued by his ex-wife and his elderly father (why the man inspires such devotion remains a mystery to me) and we end the book with him settling down with the manager of his shop a few years later.
What can I say ... it was just plain irritating.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

What is the world coming to!

All sorts of things have happened since my last post but the thing that left us speechless at the weekend was the eviction of Aiden from X Factor. Well, I say speechless, but M was shrieking at the telly in disgust.

So here we are in sunny Manchester.
I won't bore you with the trauma that is moving three people, a cat and their possessions over 100 miles using only a small van and our own blood sweat and tears, needless to say I am glad it is all over. In between moving furniture, carrying boxes, cleaning (and yet more cleaning) and going to work I have done a bit of reading, so I will try and write something later about David Nicholls 'One Day', which was much hyped but left me a bit cold. Am currently reading 'Notes from an Exhibition' by Patrick Gale.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Bye for now

We are moving house tomorrow and will be offline for a couple of days. It is all very scary now, too much to do and too little time, but at least I finally have a confirmation that I have a job to go to on Monday. Am going to be concentrating very hard on not getting tearful on my last day tomorrow, I have been in this office for nearly 8 years and am more fond than I care to admit of all those infuriating blokes.

It took me and M ten minutes to take all the magnetic poetry words off the fridge, but some bits have to be saved for posterity:-)

Sunday 24 October 2010


'My Name is Mina' by David Almond is a prequel to the much loved 'Skellig' published back in 1998. I remember being so excited to find a book that had a home educated character presented so positively and my children remain very fond of the story. As soon as I heard that he had written a story specifically about Mina I ordered it for M (and myself of course). I have not read all his books but have loved all the ones we have. David Almond is a brilliant writer and I like him particularly because he doesn't patronise children when he writes for them, nor does he moralise (like Jacqueline Wilson, who I really do not like), nor does he try to be funny. 'Skellig' is a wonderful magical realist story where Michael and Mina discover an angel in his garage. 'My Name is Mina' is the story of how Mina came to be home educated and the background to her slightly strange life, right up to the moment when she meets Michael.

This book is written in a diary form, with Mina describing how she spends her time (mostly up a tree), her relationship with her mum (both grieving the recent death of her father) and recalling the events leading up to her leaving school (the dreaded SATs day!) but also interspersed with 'Extraordinary Activities' and little poems and thoughts about words. Although the book is partly about home education, as an alternative approach to school, it is not preaching nor particularly taking sides. Mina paints a very unsympathetic picture of her time in school, she is obviously very bright and the teacher lacks any empathy with her unconventional learning style, and Mina is not prepared to compromise or jump through the hoops that are expected of her. Almond presents a very positive image of an autonomous, child-directed education that Mina's mum provides for her, giving her time alone to just think and absorb her experiences, and spending meaningful time together talking about things that interest both of them. He then puts the (boringly predictable) negative side into the mouth of the mum when she expresses concern about Mina not having any friends and maybe she will think about going back to school later.

I have to say that although I loved the book, and I hope people will read it and be provoked by the ideas, I was not totally convinced by the way it was written. I felt a little bit like he was trying too hard. It is a very difficult thing to do for a grown man to write as a little girl, even quite a precocious one, and I am not sure he pulled it off. Some of the time she came across much older than she is meant to be, not just precocious but more seriously reflective and mature than a girl of 12 could be. Then at other times I think he pitches it just perfectly. He has a scene where she tells the story of the day she runs away from school and goes down into a tunnel under the park, believing she is going down into the underworld to bring back her father, and it felt very real. A young child grieving might have all sorts of strange notions about their loss and what has happened to their lost parent, and the need to feel they can change things, and how vividly they can imagine something.

"Sometimes I think that Heston, the place where we live, is like ancient Greece, and that the Underworld is in the earth beneath us. I think of the King of the Underworld, Pluto, sitting on his throne deep down below. I think of his queen, the kind Persephone. Sometimes I think that I really did see something down there, something deep and ancient, and I wonder what would have happened if I'd kept on going, if I'd crossed the stream, if I'd walked towards the shadow in the shape of a man, if I'd said, 'My name is Mina McKee and I'm searching for my dad.' " (p.61)

I don't read much children's or young adult fiction any more so it was lovely to enter into this story, I am going to have to re-read Skellig now. I would highly recommend any of his books to anyone with kids 8+, definitely good for reading together as there are always ideas to discuss. Almond doesn't shy away from tackling challenging subjects, but without making you feel that the book is 'tackling a challenging subject', the story is the important part, the issues are secondary.

Uncommon Reader

Most of my books are now sealed in boxes but I left myself a select few to keep me company over the next week. I did end up at the library yesterday, 'One Day' by David Nicholls had finally arrived after a three month wait, plus 'Of Bees and Mist' by Erick Setiawan, so they may have to be returned by post.
'The Uncommon Reader' by Alan Bennett was a nice little treat. I recall reading 'The Lady in the Van' many years ago and so enjoying his wonderful observational skills. Where that one was a true story about a woman living in a van at the bottom of his driveway, 'The Uncommon Reader' is an imaginary tale who's central character is the queen. Pursuing the corgis one day she finds a mobile library visiting the back door of the palace and being habitually polite decides to take out a book. Over the next few weeks, following the advice of Norman, a young man from the kitchens who is the only other customer at the library, she begins to delve into the extensive pleasures of literature. Her new hobby begins to dominate her life, to the consternation of Sir Kevin, her private secretary. She takes less and less interest in her royal duties and engagements, secreting books in her handbag that are consumed ravenously at every available moment.
What is so lovely about this little book is the mixture of reality with fiction. The queen is such a public person, we know what she does, all her comings and goings, but we have no idea who she really is or what she really thinks about anything. Alan Bennett is taking literary licence here, creating a persona for her, and one that is totally believable, I found myself becoming quite fond of her, but also quite sorry for her, she seems to be quite lonely and isolated, insulated from people by her inescapable social position. You see both sides of her existence, the confined and quite rigorously controlled life of public duties, and the private side of life where everything is done for her, if something inconveniences her it is simply and efficiently dealt with by an almost invisible army of staff. You also get the politics, both within the royal household and the government, and her role within international relations. Her newfound passion for reading begins to have an impact on all these things, and on her attitude to her job, until she reaches quite a momentous decision.
An intriguing little book, well worth the reading, so short it could be a pleasantly spent afternoon.