Friday 22 February 2013

Girl Meets Boy

I am still reading from the TBR pile (until the end of March) and this one was picked up at a charity shop a few months ago. I really like Ali Smith and have previously reviewed The Accidental and There But For The. This one reminded me of when I heard her speak during the Manchester Literature Festival when she did the Manchester Sermon 2012 (pdf available here). The ideas come thick and fast and stream-of-consciousness hardly covers it; it is more like being able to read someone's brain working, memories linking one to another seamlessly then circling back round to the original thought.
It's about sisters, Anthea and Imogen. It is also about mythology; their family mythology surrounding the disappearance of their mother and then the disappearance of their grandparents. And for Robin, the graffiti artist, the myth of Iphis has become something of an obsession. It is also about political awakening, as Imogen discovers that the company she works for has some deeply questionable attitudes.  But mostly it is a book about emotions, quite highly charged ones, and the gut instincts that prompt people to make life changing decisions. There's not much to say about it really because not much happens and it is quite a short book. It has all the punch and originality you come to expect from Ali Smith. I only noted one quote so I will give it to you here, kind of sums the book up, it's about noticing the little things that are important:

"I went to stand by the window where the water cooler was. I pressed the button and water bubbled out of the big plastic container into the little plastic cup. It tasted of plastic. I'm dead, I thought. That's that. It was a relief. The only thing I was sorry about was troubling Midge. She had been sweet there, trying to save me.
I watched a tiny bird fling itself through the air off the guttering above the Boardroom window and land on its feet on a branch of the tree over the huge Pure corporation sign at the front gate of the building. The bird's casual expertise pleased me. I wondered if that group of people outside, gathered at the front gate under the Pure sign, had seen it land." (p.41-2)

Sunday 17 February 2013

Propriety - TBR pile challenge

I picked up this very ancient and yellowed copy of Howards End by E. M. Forster from a bargain box outside a charity shop. It is quite a long time since I read such an old book (the date in this copy is 1961), it was first published in 1910. It seems to me that this story is all about propriety, that the attempts or insistence on conforming to accepted standards of behaviour or morals, is the thing that both guides and constrains the interactions of the characters.

I have to confess that my approach to the book is coloured by my love of the film and so when I read I was hearing the performances of Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the conversations between the two sisters. I enjoyed the book even though it felt quaint and dated, in fact it many ways that is its very appeal. The very genteel way of life led by the main characters makes for a very stress free read. In fact all the drama in the book comes from this very life, the Schlegels preoccupation with cultural activities and socialising brings them into contact with Mr Bast, and the Wilcoxes just get all het up about Howards End, a house that none of them are particularly fond of in the first place. I felt that all the characters are in some way symbolic of different aspects of Edwardian society, different political and social attitudes, and the idea of culture, in the form of literature art and music, being more widely appreciated and understood by the less educated classes (I mean from the point of view of those genteel upper-middle class types). The divides between the classes and the rules about what was and was not acceptable are all so rigorously upheld; I realise that there are still divides and still rules, but they are somehow more flexible now and it leaves me glad to live in the 21st century:

"They had been left motherless when Tibby was born, when Helen was five and Margaret herself but thirteen. It was before the passing of the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, so Mrs Munt could without impropriety offer to go and keep house at Wickham Place." (p.14)

"Then listen! Her cab should already have arrived at Howards End. (We're a little late, but no matter.) Our first move will be to send it down to wait at the farm, as, if possible, one doesn't want a scene before servants." (p.268)

"That was Helen all over. The Wilcoxes, too, would ask a child its name, but they never told theirs in return." (p.279)

"Against the tide of his sin flowed the feeling that she was not altogether womanly. Her eyes gazed too straight; they had read books that were suitable for men only." (p. 228)

Then at the same time he is mocking these rules and regulations quite pitilessly, pointing out how much more simple life is for the free-thinking, liberal Schelgels:

"Charles stood by the riverside with folded hands, tragical, while the servant shouted, and was misunderstood by another servant in the garden. Then came a difficulty about a spring-board, and soon three people were running backwards and forwards over the meadow, with orders and counter orders and recriminations and apologies. If Margaret wanted to jump from a motor-car, she jumped; if Tibby thought paddling would benefit his ankles, he paddled; if a clerk desired adventure, he took a walk in the dark. But these athletes seemed paralysed. They could not bathe without their appliances, though the morning sun was calling and the last mists were rising from the dimpling stream." (p. 203-4)

Instead things that amused me, because of course writing at the time it was felt that society was so very modern. Here are some things they worried and complained about, that a hundred years later are still upsetting us:

"Margaret was no morbid idealist. She did not wish this spate of business and self-advertisment checked. It was only the occasion of it that struck her with amazement annually. How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop assistants realised that it was a divine event that drew them together...
'No I do not like Christmas on the whole,' she announced. 'In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But, oh, it is clumsier every year.' " (p.77-8)

"Month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human being heard each other speak with great difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky." (p.102)

"You young fellows' one idea is to get into a motor. I tell you I want to walk: I'm very fond of walking." (p.306)

Some wonderful moments of descriptive writing that warm the cockles of your heart. I loved this about the difficulties of appreciating the music at a public performance:

"It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen's Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of the hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap." (p.31)

And this tiny moment when Christmas shopping:

"The air was white, and when they alighted it tasted like cold pennies." (p.77)

Although there are extended passages of 'tell not show' where the characters are concerned (not to mention the excessive use of exclamation points!), there are some other more subtle character portraits:

"Aunt Juley, incapable of tragedy, slipped out of life with odd little laughs and apologies for having stopped in it so long." (p.257)

(Henry Wilcox) "With a good dinner inside him and an amiable but academic woman on either flank, he felt that his hands were on all the ropes of life, and that what he did not know could not be worth knowing." (p.124)

(Charles Wilcox) "He and Dolly are sitting in deck-chairs, and their motor is regarding them placidly from its garage across the lawn. A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly; a perambulator is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly. Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth." (p.173-4)

But mostly Margaret, I like her for her thoughtfulness and determination:
"Looking back on the last six months, Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and it's difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who is prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past." (p.101-2)

While ostensibly about the relations between the two families, it is a morality tale, about hypocrisy and double standards. It all left me a bit bemused as to why Margaret falls in love with such a man as Henry Wilcox; she seems determined to change him, even when she sees how stubbornly he resists her efforts. Even her final confrontation feels somewhat tempered:

"...Stupid, hypocritical, cruel - oh, contemptible! - a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he's not responsible. these men are you. You can't recognise them, because you cannot connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoiled you long enough. All you life you have been spoiled. Mrs Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told you what you are - muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a bind, so don't repent. Only say to yourself, "What Helen has done, I've done." '
'The two cases are different,' Henry stammered. His real retort was not quite ready. his brain was still in a whirl, and he wanted longer.
'In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can't. You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?'
Oh, the uselessness of it! Henry's retort came.
'I perceive you are attempting blackmail. It is scarcely a pretty weapon for a wife to use against her husband. My rule through life has been never to pay the least attention to threats, and I can only repeat what I have said before: I do not give you and your sister leave to sleep at Howards End.' " (p.287)

So what of Howards End, the house that is. It is about the idea that a home is more than bricks and mortar, more than a status symbol, more than an investment. It becomes a symbol for the 'finer feelings' of the Schlegels, for the subtle difference between ownership and possession, Helen here articulating everything she rejects about the Wilcoxes :

" 'Then because my life is great and theirs are little,' said Helen, taking fire. 'I know of things they can't know of, and so do you. We know that there's poetry. We know that there's death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the doorkeys, but for this one night we are at home.'" (p.281)

Am sure we have the film somewhere, I think a Sunday afternoon on the sofa calls.

Thursday 7 February 2013


"And their scattering has an air
of deliberate ritual, ancient and necessary.
Their great size, too, makes them the very
embodiment of grief, while the play of their trunks
lends sprezzatura." (from the poem 'A Scattering', p.38)
(meaning a studied carelessness, especially as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature) Is that not the most wonderful sounding word... and a quality that I love when reading. 

I ordered A Scattering by Christopher Reid the other day, second hand from Amazon, but am counting it as being from the TBR pile since it has been on the unwritten list in my head since it won the Costa Prize several years ago. It was reading Joyce Carol Oates's book 'A Widow's Story' that sparked the memory of this poetry collection because it is also a book that reflects on mourning the loss of a spouse. Partly I admit I was curious to read if men and women experience grief differently; the thing that struck me hardest is that we don't. This piece comes from the final section called 'Lucinda's Way':

"Genius of growth and overgrowth, you planned this small
London back plot
to be where a gardener, a lone Eve, could lose herself utterly.
When I came out to call you in to supper,
or to the pestering telephone,
often you seemed to have vanished until I spotted you
bent over or squatting in the midst of some urgent green handiwork.
Lost to sight for a different reason, you're still to be found there
if I look carefully." (p.60)

and it struck me how similar it was to a thought Joyce expressed when trying to tackle the overgrown and neglected garden that had been her husband's domain, that she could imagine he was working somewhere there, companionably with her, if only she were to turn round and look. And again, they both take solace in the occasional forgetting, a feeling that the person is still there that provides some small comfort: from 'Late'
"Of course I'd forgotten that she'd died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress,
I felt the mattress and bed boards
welcome her weight
as she rolled and settled towards me,
but, before I caught her,
it was already too late
and she'd wisped clean away." (p420

The difference in their stories is that Joyce was taken unawares, with no chance to prepare or say goodbye, where Reid suffers along with his wife through her illness and progress towards inevitable death. 

The first section recounts a holiday in Crete, remembering a precious time together. I loved several part of this section, particularly the contrast between himself as a bumbling tourist, and his wife as an intrepid explorer:
"Is there anything more absurd
than the Englishman abroad,
with his panama hat and his hay-fever
firing off left, right and centre,
and his scraps of misremembered Classical Greek
But is there anything more sublime
than the Englishman's wife,
who is willing to climb
the rockiest, thorniest slope
with abundant hope 
in her heart, and an illustrated
Flowers of Crete in her hand,
While he perspires
under that dapper
but ineffectual brim,
and sneezes loudly, and sneezes loudly again,
the Englishman admires
his intrepid wife
and , somewhere in his brain,
begins to compose
a snatch of holiday doggerel:
his humble, private hummable rap-rhapsody or hymn." (p14) 

And then thinking back to the walk from the beach, I found this so evocative of childhood seaside holidays, but it is the last line speaks volumes:

"All but overgrown,
the twist and tilt
of that path above the bay
permitted a wading,
occasionally snagged or stumbling,
single-file progress of two - 
in which, more often than not,
I followed you." (p.19)

The second section records, unstintingly, her illness and death; the bedside vigil, the attempts to pass the time, the frightening realities of it's effects. But where Joyce gave an incarnation to the fear of suicide and thus allowed it to stalk her, he rationalises the threat, an attempt to reduce it's power over them:

"No imp or devil
but a mere tumour
squatted on her brain.
Without personality
or ill humour,
malignant but not malign,
it set about doing - 
not evil,
simply the job
tumours have always done:
establishing faulty
connections, skewing
perceptions, closing down
faculties and functions
one by one.

Hobgobin, nor foul fiend;
nor even the jobs worth slob
with a slow sly scheme to rob
my darling of her mind
that I imagined;
just a tumour." (p27)

As he tracks her decline the words become more poignant, the fact that her true self, though often confused, remained there:

"Food and friends,
treats and surprises:
all that she deemed necessary
assumed the tragi-
comic form
of Chekhovian picnics
at our end of the ward,
which she directed, or conducted,
with frail, airy
emphases and flourishes
of her right arm - 
the one limb so far spared." (p.30)

The third part, 'Widower's Dozen' is 13 poems, looking at all the different ways she is constantly brought to mind, the things he missed about her and venting anger at the world. He laments the weight of his soul, asks the purpose of tears and in the market he comes to "sneak a taste" of the "feminine element/his life has lacked for too long." The one from this section I identified with most is 'About the House', because it speaks of the private intimacy of relationships, the little things that have passed between you, things that you own, everything you have shared, add up to what is lost:

"The fragments of rusted, possibly agricultural metal
that she found when digging and that became
Mother and Child, without the Child;

the elongated Wapping-mudlarked flint
that, from its tilt when stood on end, got called
Russian Peasant Woman Walking through a Snowstorm -

these and suchlike trouvailles-turned-knickknacks
keep their place about the house, though symbolically inert now,
their only function to be a bother to the cleaner with her duster.

Nevertheless, they will stay there until a decision has been announced
by the Senior Curator, Department of Private Jokes." (p.46)

The final part is more a eulogy for Lucinda, a celebration of the woman, someone who lived life with gusto, I would have liked her:

"Did anyone ever match your appetite
for plans and projects,
for doing two or three things at the same time?
You watched bad television, had me massage your neck, and sewed
lavishly beautiful patchwork quilts.
Two or three things at the same time.
Can't you now somehow contrive
to be both dead and alive?" (p.53-4)
"RADA accepted you. You attended classes. Made friends.
Splurged on adventurous recipes for dinner parties
but, totting up the pennies in the ruled back pages of a pocket diary,
survived the rest of the week
on cashew nuts and packet soup." (p.55)
"Controlled, melodious, your voice rises up
from you through your character
and reaches into the large listening darkness,
where I sit and hear again
the lines I helped you to learn." (p.56)
"You're wearing home-made
Turkish trousers,
one of your fearless
unfashion statements;
shirt loose as a tunic;
wild hair bunched
in an ikat bandanna,
for extra buccaneer effect." (p.59)
"When we sold the flat we had lived in for - amazingly - seventeen years,
you visited our few, small rooms in turn
and out loud said goodbye to the empty spaces." (p.61)
(and rather beautifully, and like Joyce, hopefully, finishing)
"While the innumerable air kisses
we exchanged in passing
remain suspended to this day,
each one an efficacious blessing." (p.62)

the human condition is private

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney was number 2 in my TBR Pile Challenge 2013. I have read it in bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, but it often not until you read them a second time that poems really sink in. While (in my relatively mediocre opinion) good poetry touches on universal themes, allowing readers to link with it via their own experience, much of this book is very personal, referring to memories and events from Heaney's life, essentially private to his own experience. He drops in clues and hints but often leaves you feeling a little bemused, as if he hasn't wanted to tell you the whole story. Also, keep a dictionary handy. 

Even when he was being obscure I still could appreciate the language and craft that went in to these poems. For example, in the first, 'The Turnip-Snedder' (whatever the hell a 'snedder' is), the last two lines: "as it dropped it's raw sliced mess/ bucketful by glistering bucketful"; why use the word 'glistering', it basically means 'glistening', and yet has this wonderful slightly old fashioned sound to it. In 'A Clip': "We'd go not for a haircut but 'a clip'/ Cold smooth creeping steel and snicking scissors"; 'snicking' has an onomatopoeic quality, not just the action but the noise of the scissors behind your ear as you sit. And in a blizzard in 'In Iowa': "Through the sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen/ And a wiper's strong absolving slumps and flits"; 'sleet-glit' is just one of many hyphenated made up words that he scatters liberally through his poems, but it seems to capture something, and again you have this lovely onomatopoeia with 'slumps and flits'. But I was completely stumped by "quid-spurt fulgent" (from 'Senior Infants'), your guess is as good as mine.

Many many of the poems are childhood memories, some of the war, like 'The Aerodrome':
"Wherever the world was, we were somewhere else,
Had been, would be. Sparrow might fall,
B-26 Marauders not return, but the sky above
That land usurped by a compulsory order
Watched and waited - like me and her that day."
And 'To Mick Joyce in Heaven', about a man coming home and having to readjust:
"A demobbed Achilles
Who was never a killer,
The strongest instead 
Of the world's stretcher-bearers,
Turning your hand
To the bricklaying trade."
Many others about Ireland, referring to places or events specific, that leave you with only part of the story. I liked this from 'The Nod', seen from a child's perspective and yet saying something perceptive about the relations between adults:
"Saturday evenings too the local B-Men,
Unbuttoned but on duty, thronged the town,
Neighbours with guns, parading up and down,
Some nodding at my father almost past him
As if deliberately they'd aimed and missed him
Or couldn't seem to place him, not just then."
(I'm just guessing with the link there as to what he means by B-Men.)
And others still are imagined stories, like 'Moyulla', tale of the river Moyola, or 'The Tollund Man in Springtime', imagining the thoughts of a ancient  preserved bog man after he has been dug up from the bog:
"... Late as it was,
The early bird still sang, the meadow hay
Still buttercupped and daisied, the sky was new.
I smelled the air, exhaust fumes, silage reek,
I heard from my heather bed the thickened traffic
Swarm at a roundabout five fields away
And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue."

Brief nostalgia moment for me was 'To Pablo Neruda from Tamlaghtduff', which strangely tells him about crab-apple jelly. Now while I don't remember ever making crab-apple jelly we did have crab-apple trees in our garden in Neston, and this description is just perfect (several more of those evocative hyphenated words here too):
"Contrary, unflowery
sky-whisk and brittle, more
twig-fret that fruit-fort,
as crabbed could be - 
that was the tree
I remembered."

This is quickly becoming a stream of quotes as the more I flick through the book I come to each one and recall why I liked it. Heaney just has this knack of quiet observation, the little things. This is just a perfect example, in 'Quitting Time', about a man just standing and admiring the quiet tidiness of the yard before he turns out the light and goes home, the notion of satisfaction at an ordinary job well done:
"And switches off, a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek."
And (yet more), in 'Home Help', an old woman, elderly housebound relative who spends all day just sitting and has to be carried up to bed:
"Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled
Upstairs every night in a wooden chair,
She sat all day as the sun sundialled
Window-splays across the quiet floor..."
Another of his created words, 'window-splays', creates this image in my head of the shadows from the window frame travelling slowly across the floor as the day progresses. 
And (last one I promise) from 'The Blackbird of Glanmore', just because it captures something lovely about blackbirds, and the imagined relationships that humans create with the wildlife they encounter:
"Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak - 
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave."

I ummed and aahed about which one to quote in full because there were so many exquisite poems, in fact the more I read it the more I like the whole book. I touches on so many things, human experience, admiration for nature ('Planting the Alder' is just perfect tree appreciation) but I came down to this one because it has a bit of Irishness in it (which is so essential to his poems) but also for the understated descriptions and how the whole story is just hinted at, you have a future history in the first two stanzas and then it takes you back to the beginning, but leaves most to your imagination:

Tate's Avenue

Not the brown and fawn car rug, that first one
Spread on the sand by the sea but breathing land-breaths,
Its vestal folds unfolded, its comfort zone
edged with a fringe of sepia-coloured wool tails.

Not the one scraggy with crusts and eggshells
And olive stones and cheese and salami rinds
Laid out by the torrents of the Guadalquivir
Where we got drunk before the corrida.

Instead, again, it's locked-park Sunday Belfast,
A walled back yard, the dust-bins high and silent
As a page is turned, a finger twirls warm hair
And nothing gives on the rug or the ground beneath it.

I lay at my length and felt the lumpy earth,
Keen-sensed more than ever through discomfort,
But never shifted off the plaid square once.
When we moved I had your measure and you had mine.