Saturday 31 July 2010

Travels with my Aunt

I picked up 'Travels with my aunt' by Graham Greene a few weeks ago on a book buying splurge, coming home with seven books that set me back about a tenner. I took it off the shelf because I read 'The Power and the Glory' and 'Brighton Rock' for A level and reading the blurb this one sounded less dark and much more entertaining.

Set in the 60's it is the tale of an unlikely hero, Henry, a retired bank manager, who lives a quiet life tending his dahlias until it is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of his Aunt Augusta, who turns up at his mother's funeral. She seems to have a lived a somewhat wild and bohemian lifestyle, spread across Europe and Latin America, but is currently residing above a pub, with a man who may or may not be called Wordsworth (and who may or may not have mixed pot in with his mother's ashes). Everything about her is mighty suspicious, and she catches Henry's interest with some surprising information about his birth, that his mother was not in fact his mother but had married his father and agreed to take on another woman's illegitimate child. The true identity of his mother is never revealed, though various hints are dropped, and she certainly seems to retain a certain fondness for Henry's father, so you are left to assume that his aunt was in fact his mother. At first Henry longs to escape back to his quiet life, but her stories gradually draw him in, and starting with a tame journey down to Brighton he soon finds himself on the Orient Express across Europe to Turkey and gets embroiled in gold smuggling, spies and war criminals.

I liked Henry so much because in spite of the often strange and disturbing situations he finds himself in he keeps his calm, and manages to handle it all just as you imagine a decent respectable bank manager would. He is very thoughtful and caring, and as his life is turned upside down by his newfound relationship with Aunt Augusta he weighs up with due consideration the advantages and disadvantages of his former quiet life over this new and exciting one she is offering. Aunt Augusta you like because of her exuberance and zest for life, and her slightly melancholy longing for the mysterious Mr Visconti, who has come and gone from her life over the years but remains the object of her affection. She is an eternal optimist, and strangely things always seem to work out for her. It is as if she has taken pity on Henry (maybe feels guilty for her abandonment?), sees his life as shallow and empty and is determined to inject some joy and adventure into it before it is too late.

So after some jaunts across Europe Henry returns to his home and is left bereft for nearly a year, a period punctuated by visits from the nice Sergeant Sparrow, who is very suspicious about his aunt's whereabouts and contacts.

"I feared that my aunt had left me for good. She had come into my life only to disturb it. I had lost the taste for dahlias. When weeds swarmed up I was tempted to let them grow." (p.163)

Eventually a letter arrives and Henry ends up travelling to Paraguay, his only instruction to bring a somewhat anonymous photograph of Freetown Harbour. He finds his aunt almost destitute, but reunited with Mr Visconti, and with her usual bravado she sets about restoring their fortunes, by less than conventional and less than legal means. In the end, you could kind of see it coming, Henry abandons all interest in his quiet life and decides to immerse himself completely in their new business and environment.

The books is wonderfully fast paced, enough descriptive detail to give the tale atmosphere but it is the characters and the action that carry it along. The journeys are peppered with interesting minor players who tell their stories in turn and add to the richness of the book. You can see why some authors will stand the test of time and are considered an important part of our country's literature. I will end with this lovely quote which made me smile because it is about the postal system:

"The afternoon post arrived punctually at five: a circular from Littlewood's, although I never gamble, a bill from the garage, a pamphlet from the British Empire Loyalists which I threw at once into the waste paper basket, and a letter with a South African stamp. The envelope was type written so I did not at once conclude that it had been sent by Miss Keene. I was distracted too by a package of Omo propped against the scraper. I certainly had not ordered any detergent. I looked closer and saw it was a gift package." (p.139-40)

Friday 23 July 2010

Been away in the rain

Our trip to Wales was cancelled by a hurricane that destroyed Julie and Al's tent, added to which our tent was also wrecked by a storm at HES FES, so it looked like it was going to be a sad and boring week off. However Julie was undaunted and she fitted out an old tent and found us a lovely site at Bishop's Castle. I dug a *very ancient* possibly-three-man-tent out of the loft and we all congregated at the site at Foxholes farm. Blazing sunshine was swiftly followed by lots of rain .... and then more rain. Wednesday we took our lives in our hands and walked to The Devil's Chair (this is me and Tish clinging to the triangulation point at the top).
And here is the whole gang, just before it started to rain on us again (including M in her pyjamas ... she changed her mind about coming as we started the car!). We adjourned to the Bog Visitor Centre for tea and home-made cakes and ice-cream and rhubarb and ginger jam.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Work Perk of the week: the great outdoors

a tiny handful of sweet wild strawberries,
blackberries gathered at Ditchford Far Hill
the refreshing scent of lavender, everywhere
the rose garden at Northwick Park
the stream at Blockley,
tiny fish flitting and so tempting to paddle
the view across to Barton on the Heath,
with the mist haze in the distance
a pair of buzzards circling down the Evenlode road
a young hare on the drive to Upper Rye farm,
and, once, a badger.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

A Wedding in December

Alongside 'Arcadia' I have had some light relief and have been reading 'A Wedding in December' by Anita Shreve. You tend to find her books in charity shops a lot, I think it says that she is well read, but that people don't feel the need to keep them on their shelves. She has been churning out nice readable stories regularly for the last 20 years, many of which I have read.

This is the tale of a group of school friends who are reunited for the wedding of two of their number, Bridget and Bill, high school sweethearts who went their separate ways and then re-met years later. It is a story about stories, how they have all gone their separate ways and lead their separate lives, but are still bound together by events from their youth.

I found myself drawn to the story of Nora, recently widowed after marriage to a renown poet and who is hosting the event in her newly refurbished inn, and Harrison, on the surface happily married but still carrying a torch for Nora after all these years apart. They spend the weekend dancing carefully round each other, not saying things, with Harrison simply waiting and watching her in the same way he was forced to as a teenager, when she was dating his best friend Stephen. As usual with these kind of books things are not as they first appear on the surface and as the weekend progresses it is Agnes, with a secret of her own, who brings it all to a head. The truths are told and a kind of peace restored, and they all go back to their separate lives, older and wiser we hope.

I think maybe she was not totally sure what she was doing with this book because alongside the main story is scattered a story that Agnes is writing, about the Halifax Explosion, a real event that took place towards the end of the First World War, where a munitions ship exploded in Halifax harbour causing massive damage to the town and huge numbers of deaths and injuries. I think she is trying to make some point about how random external events affect the course of people's lives, but I am not sure how well it works. I liked the little 'story-within-a-story' but it felt somewhat superfluous. She does make a neat little point at the end about 'not-stories', the things that didn't happen but might have/should have, and the prospects for going back, or rather coming round in a circle and making them happen. Nice light holiday reading, undemanding but enjoyable.


I took my life in my hands last night and went along to a book group that has been meeting in Moreton for about six months or so, to discuss 'Arcadia' by Tom Stoppard. I had actually seen the notice with enough time to acquire and read the book that they were reading. So, it was quite an experience (the word 'themes' was used on more than one occasion!) but great, because they had all read the book, and not only read it but really thought about it and had interesting opinions and reflections to share.

Anyway, Arcadia is a play, set partly in 1809 and partly in the present day (it was first staged in 1993) in a large country house inhabited by the Cloverly family. I am still not to sure about the whole 'themes' thing as in conversation with my sister's partner Geoff on sunday he said it was all about quantum physics and I should look up Fermat's Last Theorem on wiki and make myself sound very clever. Although there are conversations about mathematical ideas in the play it was not the way I read it at all. The play has the two parts which are played out in separate scenes but within the same stage setting, a large room furnished primarily with a large table, the contents of which form an integral part of the plot. It jumps back and forth between the two separate but interlocked stories: the first story concerning Thomasina and her tutor Septimus, the remodelling of the gardens and a not inconsequential sexual indiscretion in the gazebo; in the second part Hannah and Bernard are separately researching events at the house, and trying to figure out who the elusive hermit might have been. The presence, or not, of the poet Byron, and his part in the events concerned, is a cause for much debate. In the final part of the play you have characters from both parts of the story on the stage together, crossing over each other and drawing together the strands of the tale.

I so enjoyed reading this play and will jump at the chance to see it on the stage some time. It is not something you can sum up easily but everything about it was so clever. The writing is just wonderful, every exchange is important, the characters are all real people, it is very witty and made me laugh out loud several times. The thing that strikes me the most though is even just reading it I could visualise how it would look on the stage, and how it makes perfect use of the medium. Many plays are just people telling a story on a stage, this play uses the stage and the coming and goings of the actors to it's fullest effect. The importance of the props is one example, the book that Thomasina writes in, the plans for the new garden, letters tucked inside a poetry book, and most importantly the tortoise, and also music playing in the background as a link between the two time periods. Even to turn it into a film would be pointless, because it has only one setting, if you tried to move the action outside for example, into the garden, you would gain nothing and lose something essential to the play. It is just a perfect piece of theatre.

Friday 9 July 2010


Tomorrow I will be driving down to HES FES, the Home Educators Summer Festival. It is a wonderful event that has been run by the wonderful Andy for the last twelve years. The few times we went years ago I loved being surrounded by like-minded people and wild children who made me feel that the way we lived was not so outrageous as it sometimes seemed. M is spending the week ... I am coming home to go to work. Maybe next year:-)

Wednesday 7 July 2010


I have been following the 'Postsecret' blog for a while now and look forward to the weekly postings. This blog started out as a community art project, but has become something much bigger. Basically people send in anonymous post cards and share a secret with the world. You are encouraged to personalise the postcard with an image that represents something about your secret. They vary from the utterly ridiculous to the absolutely heartbreaking. So many of them were about people's deep unhappiness that the project took this to heart and now also supports a suicide prevention phone line. I like it because it speaks volumes about the human condition, the things that concern us and the things we do to each other. It takes you to the extremes of exuberance and the depths of despair. There are also Postsecret books, one of which I recently got from the library. Apparently people often go to bookshops and leave their secrets in the books too. I have snatched a couple of images to show you:
the exuberance
how much we pretend to be something to appease others
how much we hide our unhappiness

Monday 5 July 2010

"A good term's work"

I got a letter this morning from the Local Education Authority home education lady asking for an 'update' on my daughter's educational progress. She has now been out of school for a year. I am tempted to write her a one line reply. It would say,
"The other day my daughter M told me she was happy."
A good term's work in my book.

Wide Sargasso Sea

'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys has been in the TBR pile for some time now. For anyone not familiar with the premise of the book it is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, from Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre'. In that book she is a shadowy, somewhat threatening presence, who sparks the dramatic denouement, but we don't know anything about how she came to be there. 'Wide Sargasso Sea' recasts her as Antoinette, a vibrant beautiful young woman who's troubled isolated childhood combines with the disruption of an arranged marriage to Rochester upsets the precarious balance of her sense of reality.

The first part of the story is told by Antoinette and is her childhood, living an isolated life with her somewhat disturbed mother and disabled brother on the beautiful estate at Coulibri on Martinique. Her only consolation is Christophine, a loyal servant who has cared for her since infancy, and who has stayed with the family through their descent into poverty and neglect. Her story is coloured by the political situation which is based on it being set in the early 19th century, immediately after the emancipation of the slaves, and the fact that her father was a slave owner. The perfect Caribbean atmosphere is marred by the sense of distrust and uncertainty in the relations between the white former slave owners, the former slaves and local population, it's as if nobody knows how to behave any more. It gives Antoinette a sense of dislocation, not feeling as if she belongs there any more, but not knowing where she does belong. Her mother who has drifted into mental illness since being widowed, pulls herself together and marries again to Mr Mason, but it does not solve all their problems as she hoped.

"In some ways it was better before he came though he'd rescued us from poverty and misery. 'Only just in time too.' The black people did not hate us quite so much when we were poor. We were white but we had not escaped and soon we would be dead for we had no money left. What was there to hate?
Now it had started up again and worse than before, my mother knows but she can't make him believe it. I wish I could tell him that out here is not at all like English people think it is." (p.16)

The rising tension comes eventually to a confrontation which ends in their escape from their home as it is burnt to the ground. Antoinette finishes her story while still young, living with her Aunt and attending a convent school.

The second part is related (without any preamble) by Rochester in the immediate aftermath of their wedding. We have no idea of how they came to know each other nor how the wedding was arranged. Following the apparent death of her mother, Antoinette has been left wealthy from the estate of Mr Mason and this match has been arranged, passing, as was the law at the time, all of her wealth to her new husband. Things seem to start off reasonably well but their relationship is undermined by interference from a 'half-brother' (an illegitimate son of Mr Mason) who is trying to blackmail Rochester and destroy the relationship. He plants a seed of doubt in Rochester about Antoinette's mental health, and her family history, and it is almost as if it is his suspicions and subsequent withdrawal from her that drives her over the edge.

In the third part she is forcibly taken to England and imprisoned at Rochester's house, and being cared for by Grace Poole. Her descent into madness is exacerbated by her isolation and loss of identity. Rochester inexplicably renames her Bertha, further dislocating her from her past, until she eventually dreams of her own death by fire and on awakening she realises that this will be her only means of escape.

The whole book is pure atmosphere, the descriptions of the island and their decaying home, Antoinette's dreams and imaginings, the slightly creepy background presence of Christophine. It is very much a story of it's time, containing all the troubles of the post-slavery world and the powerless position of women. It is the story of the destruction of a woman, how she could do nothing to protect herself, that she did not even think she could help herself. Rochester is like a fish out of water living in the Caribbean, and his sense of alienation adds to his lack of trust in his wife and accepting the rumours and accusations against her. All in all the social, political and environmental factors all weighed against there ever being a future for them.

It is rare for a writer to tackle such an objective; to take a minor character, but at the same time a significant player, in a renown story and make her real. To imagine for us the world in which she lived, and that made her what she was, and to take us on her journey, that lead to her untimely and tragic end. I have not read Jane Eyre, though I am familiar with the story from TV dramatisations, and after reading this I think that I will read it in a whole different light and view the dark and brooding Mr Rochester a little less sympathetically.

Friday 2 July 2010

Life as we knew it

I read about this book somewhere, 'Life as we knew it' by Susan Pfeffer, and requested it because I had been looking for something to keep the girls happy while we wait for the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy (which is due out next month some time). Anyway, I picked it up only because I was making lasagne the other night and it was the only thing to read on the kitchen table and I didn't want to let the onions burn by going off upstairs to find something else. With horrible fascination I ended up spending the entire evening and following afternoon reading it, unable to abandon it in disgust because I just had to know how she was going to end this pile of complete twaddle. I am only writing about it because it made such an interesting contrast with 'The Road' (if you are a new reader do pop back and read this review, it was the best book of last year).

It is written in diary form by a teenage girl, telling about what happens to her family as their life is transformed by disaster. So we have this scenario where an asteroid hits the moon and causes unforeseen disruption to the tides and weather and volcanic activity on earth (well for a start they would have seen that coming!) In the immediate aftermath it is as if half the people have not noticed anything while within days the other half are wiped from the face of the planet. There is some panic buying as they stock up with food ... and strangely kitty litter. They carry on going to school and spend time queueing for petrol. The community is obviously quite isolated and initially appears unaffected by what it going on in the outside world. The older brother makes it home and they spend some time hacking down a local forest to provide themselves with fuel. Quite what other people are doing to prepare we don't know. Then the 'nuclear winter' sets in, temperatures plummet and they are snowed in. The electricity finally fails, though somehow a postal service is still operating, and the family ends up all bedded down in their sun room that has a wood burning stove, living off tinned vegetables.

The whole story just drove me round the bend. I could not believe that in such a situation people would behave as they did. It was as if they were in total denial about what was happening. For a start there would be migration of people from areas affected by volcanic activity and tsunamis. Nothing. There would be mass panic and violence and troops on the street. Nothing. After the summer 'holiday' they try and start a new school term. Why? They are barely keeping themselves alive with the cold and lack of food and they are pretending that life will go on as normal. The girl expends inordinate amounts of time and energy and water washing their clothes and bedding. Why? The mother becomes obsessed with them carrying on with their school work, as if there will be a college to go to in the spring. When their food finally runs out, after this huge struggle for survival, and nursing her family though illness single handed (one of them should definitely have died at the very least) she decides to sacrifice herself and walks off into the snow. She knows from a trip to the hospital (which was still staffed!) that most of the population have died from the flu but they make no attempt to go out and scavenge for food or fuel from other houses. The whole thing just made no sense at all. It was just a nice little tale of a family bonding and struggling together for survival. It is peppered with family rows and then warm cosy moments of togetherness as if all the author is trying to do is moralise about the importance of family.
I won't spoil it for you by giving away the ending:-) Read 'The Road' instead, desolate as it is, I think even teenagers would get more out of it, it speaks volumes about humanity and survival where this book has nothing meaningful to contribute.

The Harpole Report

'The Harpole Report' by J.L. Carr.
I picked this up at the library when random browsing, mainly because I read 'A Month in the Country' about two years ago, it was the book for my first meeting with the book group in Stow.

This is an amusing anecdotal tale of George Harpole and his first term as acting Headmaster at a small rural primary school. It was published in 1972 and by the atmosphere seems to be set during the 50's or early 60's. It is told by way of extracts from the school log, Harpole's personal diary, correspondence between members of staff and the local authority officials, and from parents, so there are a huge variety of voices contributing to the story, each giving their own perspective on the running of the school. Although fictional I am guessing it is based on Carr's own experience of teaching during this period.

At the school many of the staff have obviously been very long standing and Harpole's attempts to change their ways of doing things are met with not inconsiderable resistance, while at the same time he is having to deal with interfering local councillors, obstructive officials and overly demanding parents. He heart is definitely in the right place in terms of trying to make the school a better place for his charges. We also follow his developing relationship with Emma Foxberrow, an opinionated new arrival and Cambridge graduate who has some more unconventional ideas about education. I liked the bit where Harpole decides all the classes should go on an educational outing, and asks the staff to list their proposed outing and what the purpose of the outing would be. Emma decides to take her children to "the confluence of the Elver and the Alder" (two local rivers), and defines the purpose as "to have an exciting time", so I liked her right from the start. She then proceeds to organise an extremely successful sports day that even enthuses the older staff members.

Along with the everyday stuff you have some interesting politicking going on in the background. Firstly Harpole's abandonment of the class entitled 'The backwards' (they were not so subtle in those days), after an acknowledgement that once a child was in this class they were there for the duration. Following the 'Eleven Plus' results Harpole tries to take on the education authority over what he sees as unfair access to the grammar school when he discovers that 'borderline' children from his school have a negligible chance of gaining access compared to children from more 'middle class' areas. He struggles to avoid accepting a known 'troublesome' (and very large) family of kids when they move into his catchment area, but then when he admits defeat he takes them on wholeheartedly, tackling their literacy problems with determination and then forthrightly tackling their feckless parents. There is also some not so subtle criticism of old style teaching (Emma Foxberrow, letter to her sister, Felicity):

"For instance, my door happening to be ajar I heard him going on at Mrs G-J in the corridor. 'Now,' he was saying furiously 'I've had enough of this. I want these children treated a children not as Victorian scullery maids. They are not here on sufferance to provide the Grindle-Jones's with a double pension - they are your raison d'ĂȘtre, between 9 and 4.'
'I've never been spoken to like this before in all my thirty years experience,' she wails.
'You have not had thirty years experience, Mrs Grindle-Jones,' he says witheringly, 'You have had one year's experience 30 times.' " (p.128)

All in all an interesting and enlightening picture of schooling of a certain era. It can almost make you feel nostalgic when you look at the level of government interference that happens now. The book is lent and edge of authenticity by a lovely selection of period photographs scattered throughout. In the end Harpole rejects the offer of another headship and he and Emma run away together to Africa to start a teacher training college, though she refuses to marry him. An amusing diversion from current reading.