Friday 30 September 2022

Goats and Sheep

What another lovely cup-of-tea book this was, a huge nostalgia trip for me, being a child of the 70s. Julie lent me 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' by Joanna Cannon, and it follows Tilly and Grace as they try and get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of their neighbour. It brings to the surface the historical tensions between the residents of The Avenue, and ease with which people judge by appearances. There is lots of product name dropping and period details that take us through the long hot summer of 76 (that to be honest did not feel significant at the time to me) as the residents peer from behind their curtains, or their sunglasses at each other, until Jesus brings them all together. 

I know some people don't, but I like books with child narrators. I think it is a test of an author, because it is not easy to do well. I think Joanna manages pretty well and she captures the naivety and also vulnerability of Grace beautifully. Here she overhears her parents:

"My mother's voice continued to cut through the floorboards. The words were splintered and incomplete, which somehow made it worse. If I could hear what was being said, I might be able to find a pocket of reassurance, because I knew my mother was sometimes perfectly capable of embroidering a whole evening of arguing out of absolutely nothing at all. I wanted this to be one of those times, and so I held my breath and tried to make sense of the pieces, but they struck the ceiling like gravel." (p.156)

And then on the next page, this lovely portrait of people coping with the weather and then of Mrs Morton who regularly looks after Grace while her mother is 'having a lie down':

"July had found its fiercest day. The sky was ironed into an acid blue, and even the clouds had fallen from the edges, leaving a faultless page of summer above our heads. Even so, there were still those who nurtured mistrust. We walked past cardigans draped across elbows and raincoats bundled into shopping bags, and one woman who carried an umbrella wedged into her armpit, like artillery. It seemed that people couldn't quite let go of the weather, and felt the need to carry every form of it around with them, at all times, for safekeeping.
Mrs Morton managed to speak to everyone she met without ever stopping. My mother would pause in shop doorways and at the edge of pavements, until the carrier bags ate into her fingers and my feet scraped impatience on the concrete, but Mrs Morton seemed to be able to have a conversation as she walked, giving out small samples of herself to everyone without ever being anchored by their questions. She did however pause outside Woolworth's to stare at a stack of deckchairs propped on the pavement near the doorway. Tilly and I pointed to things in baskets that we felt we needed - lawn darts and Stylophones and badminton rackets wrapped in cellophane. There were even towers of buckets and spades, and a chimney of sandcastle moulds, which reached all the way up to Tilly's chin. The nearest beach was fifty miles away." (p.157)

It's a story with much unsaid, people's prejudices couched in euphemisms, even the solution to the mystery is only implied, but it is all neatly tied up with the coming of the rain, and nobody dies. Safe and unchallenging, but a satisfying read.

Yesterday Julie invited me to use her bring-a-friend-for-free ticket and we wandered the garden at Dunham Massey for an hour in the lovely September sunshine, admiring the trees and sniffing the late blooms in the rose garden.

Stay safe. Be kind. Have a rest from the taxing stuff occasionally.

The Postal Service A to Z Challenge

I confess I have no real understanding of how the internet works. It's like magic to me. I have come to realise, over the years, that for most people the postal system is like the internet. They drop something into a big red box somewhere and, like magic, it appears in the place they want it to be (or sometimes not, but we'll get to that later). Prior to the Christmas rush I usually post some advice for the public to help them get the most from the service we provide. This year I thought I would extend this advice and try and point out some useful information about the functioning of the postal system and some of the pitfalls that mean packets don't reach the person they are intended for. About 15 years ago (or so) Royal Mail sent out a little leaflet about the change to the system of stamps, introducing 'large letter' stamps. I personally think it would save us a fortune to repeat this and remind the general public about how to use the system. I will try and keep the sarcasm to a minimum because for many of the students calling in at the Customer Service Point this may be the first time they have ever posted anything, so I smile sweetly and point them in the direction of the Post Office. But to the young woman who couldn't be bothered to walk that far, and when D told her it could be paid by the recipient (failing to point out that only 10% of people pay for surcharge items), decided to drop her student finance application into the post box without a stamp, tough luck pet, you won't be getting any money any time soon. So between October and December (rather than pressuring myself to do it in one month) I will be posting regularly on subjects of postal service interest.

Stay safe. Be kind. Post early this year.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Apex Hides the Hurt

'Apex Hides the Hurt' by Colson Whitehead (my goodness he has won a shitload of awards) was picked up as a charity shop find, his name recognisable because he had been on the Booker long-list. It concerns a (I suddenly realised, presumably ironically) nameless hero, who's job it is to come up with new names for things, or names for new things; a really unpromising scenario for a novel, but I have so enjoyed it. When not much happens a book has to be character driven and what a wonderful collection of vivid people Colson has created here. 

So, he arrives in the town of Winthrop because the local council is having debate about the town's name; whether to retain the name Winthrop, return to the town's original name of Freedom, or to change it to New Prospera. Each of the three members of the town council is championing one of the options, and they each take turns making their case to him, while he spends time to get to know the town and its people. Here he has just arrived at the Hotel Winthrop (he's limping because he has just had a toe removed, this is relevant to the back story), I love this whole description, a good example of his writing:
"He limped around the room. He was on the top floor of the hotel and had a nice view of the emptied square. He pressed his palms to the sill. People had umbrellas now, not the compact-click found in major metropolitan areas but favourite umbrellas they never lost, and they made a break out of doorways for their cars or homes, confident now that this was not a brief sudden shower but a rain that was going to hang around for a while. It was a bad cough that had turned into something that showed up on X-rays. The leaves fled one way, then another. From the window, the river along the square was a brown worm without head or tail. The wind changed, and he was startled by a gust that threw spray against the panes for a few vicious seconds. The bed was safe, well-pillowed, and he made his retreat." (P.13)

He goes in search of some local history (he takes his job seriously, he's not just here to pick a name out of the hat), and I also loved this description of libraries (the local one is unfortunately being replaced with an 'Outfit Outlet'):
"On the rare occasions that he entered libraries, he always felt assured of his virtue. If they figured out how to distill essence of library into a convenient delivery system - a piece of gum or a gelcap, for example - he would consume it eagerly, relieved to be finished with more taxing methods of virtue gratification. Helping old ladies across the street. Giving tourists directions. Libraries. Alas there would be no warm feeling of satisfaction today. The place was a husk. The books were gone. Where he would usually be intimidated by an army of daunting spines, there were only dust-ball rinds and Dewey decimal grave markers. as if by consensus, all the educational posters and maps had cast out their top right-hand corner tacks, so the their undersides bowed over like blades of grass. Nothing would be referenced this afternoon, save indomitable market forces." (p.91-2)

I loved the picture of small town life, it's politics and history, that although they disagreed they all liked and respected each other. Here is another little snippet that I noted, where he just goes for a walk in the woods, something, I get the impression, he had never down before:
"At first it was quiet. Such was his frame of reference that he likened it to the deep silence that follows when a refrigerator stops humming. Only him and the apartment, alone, the end of the fridge's hum the departure of a guest he hadn't even known was present. He continued down the path, which terminated at the lip of a gloomy, mottled marsh. He heard the words of the woods. Animals, insects, small branches disturbed by unseen creatures. The more he listened, the deeper he tumbled into the noise. For a few minutes he allowed himself to be swayed by the sales pitch of nature." (p.152)

Regina, Lucky and Albie vie for his attention, each in their own unique way, though it was his relationship with the surly barkeeper and the overly pugnacious housekeeper at the hotel that I found most entertaining. The whole book was just a delight, and had a suitably delightful denouement. Our hero's personal existential crisis seems to have been helped by his stay too. (By the way, Apex is the name he gave to a brand of plasters.) Names in all their complexity play an important role, in life, in society, in consumerism, and maybe you do have to live with a name for a while for it to come into its own.

Stay safe. Be kind. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet.

Saturday 17 September 2022

David Beckham, the young, the elderly ...

... and I have come to the conclusion that we must reintroduce curtseying lessons to the curriculum because ... well ... just go watch for a few minutes (it's on the BBC site, I won't bother with a link because it'll be gone on Monday). It is like some kind of weird fascination that brings me back to the live stream of the people queueing to pay their respects to a wooden box with a flag over it (we only have their word for it that the queen is in there), it is the ultimate in people watching.
We mused briefly yesterday on what would have happened if the queen had died during lockdown but mostly I am trying to avoid thinking about the abominable carbon footprint of this whole shebang.
Tish lifted the mood distinctly last night with this brilliant Twitter thread (I never share twitter stuff but this is entertaining without being in any way 'disrespectful'):

Also yesterday (somewhat too late I felt) Royal Mail decided to add to the carbon footprint of the mourning period by sending out black armbands for all employees ... I thought I might acquire one for an occasion when I might find it appropriate.

Stay safe. Be kind. God save the queue.

Friday 16 September 2022

Train books and some ...

This much procrastinated post will be a race through the books that I have read over the last two months because the pile is now so tall it teeters. 'Girl, Woman, Other' by Bernadine Evaristo won the Booker in 2019 and has been on the TBR list since then. It is a tangled tale of many women, their lives, and how the world changed around them and with them. It was very readable and the characters engaging but I was not bowled over by it, but what I did appreciate was that it managed to be political and thought provoking without being self-conscious with it. Here, Carole (and I kind of liked her lack of punctuation, it was stylistically interesting and informal):

"she's used to clients and new colleagues looking past her to the person they are clearly expecting to meet
she will stride up to the client, shake his hand firmly (yet femininely), while looking him warmly (yet confidently) in the eye and smiling innocently, and delivering her name unto him with perfectly clipped Received Pronunciation, showing off her pretty (thank-god-they're-not-too-thick) lips coated in a discreet shade of pink, baring her perfect teeth as he adjusts to the collision between reality and expectation, and tries not to show it while she assumes control of the situation and the conversation" (p.117)

A charity shop unread copy of 'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke (which won the Women's Fiction Prize in 2021) was an utterly different kind of read. In a strange hidden world that consists entirely of vast rooms of statues lives Piranesi; he lives off fish and seaweed and things brought to him occasionally by the 'Other'. How does he come to be here, and who is this person who comes and goes? All will be revealed, as his own curiosity it piqued by strange occurrences that force him to rethink everything he thinks he remembers about his own life. A clever book and intriguing... but it reminded me so forcefully of something else I have read that uses a similar scenario, and I cannot remember what it is. Frustrating.

"The World (so far as I can tell) does not bear out the Other's claim that there are gaps in my memory.
While he was explaining it to me - and for some time afterwards - I did not know what to think. At several points I experienced a feeling akin to panic. Could it really be the case that I had forgotten whole conversations?
But as the day went on, I could find no evidence of memory loss to support the Other's claim. I busied Myself with my ordinary, everyday tasks. I mended one of my fishing nets and worked on my Catalogue of Statues. In the early evening I went to the Eighth Vestibule to fish in the Waters of the Lower Staircase. The Beams of the Declining Sun shone through the Windows of the Lower Halls, striking the Surface of the Waves and making ripples of golden Light flow across the Ceiling of the Staircase and over the Faces of the Statues. When night fell, I listened to the Song that the Moon and Stars were singing and I sang with them." (p70-71)

What a varied selection I realise I have read as I list them. Next up, 'Doggerland' by Ben Smith, set in a not-so-distant future where there is a lot of sea, and life seems to be controlled by a 'company', and the boy has been sent to work maintenance on an offshore windfarm (the title made me assume it was a reference to Dogger Bank in the shipping forecast), obliged to take on a job abandoned by his father. It is grim and meaningless and his only companion is the old man, who does little work and disappears regularly on mysterious fishing trips. It has much of the atmosphere of 'The Road'; the greyness, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the sense of hopeless helplessness and powerlessness, though there is less drama, the boy and the old man exist in a timeless vacuum. But the boy is obsessed with what happened to his father and the old man drops hints, but in reality has his own agenda to which the boy is irrelevant. And it manages something similar in that you root for the boy, you want him to win, he tempts you to hope for the future, and again, I'm warning you ... don't. 

"The old man's hand hovered over the tin on his left, then switched sides and picked upon from his right. He took a penknife from his pocket and scraped round the rim, clearing away the rust and dirt. He blew off the power residue, then got up, went to the sink and came back with the tin opener. He sat back down and fitted it to the top of the tin, jolting it around until the wheel bit into the lid.
The boy watched the old man closely. He was turning the handle too fast, so that the wheel kept slipping off the tin; and then he would mutter something, fit it back on and start again. There were streaks of power rust on the table and on his hands.
The old man turned the handle again but it didn't move. He tried to take the tin opener off but it stuck. 'Bloody thing's broken.'" (p.88)

'When we cease to understand the world' by Benjamin Labatut is a fictionalised version of the lives of a selection of the world's most astounding mathematical minds. Not traditionally fodder for a novel, but just go with it. Some I had heard of, Schrodinger, Neils Bohr, Heisenberg, some not, Grothendieck, Louis de Broglie, but what they had in common was their utter obsession with their subjects. The book sank periodically into descriptions of how they worked so hard they forgot to eat and sleep until it drove them out of their minds. I felt like I learned quite a lot from it, about physics and mathematics, and about the pursuit of esoteric knowledge.

"Most nights he fell prey to insomnia. In his delirium, his mood would establish strange connections that allowed him to achieve direct results, foregoing intermediate steps. He felt his brain split in two: each hemisphere worked on its own, without needing to communicate with the other, and as a result his matrices violated all the rules of ordinary algebra and obeyed the logic of dreams, where one thing can be many: he was capable of adding two quantities together and obtaining different answers depending on the order in which he proceeded. Three plus two was five, but two plus three might be ten. Too weary to question himself, he continued working until he had reached the final matrix. When he solved it, he left his bed and ran around his room sorting, 'Unobservable! Unimaginable! Unthinkable!' until the entire hotel was awakened. Frau Rosenthal entered in time to see him collapse on the floor and recoiled at the stench of his soiled pyjama bottoms. When she managed to calm him, she put him back to bed and ran off to fetch a doctor, paying no attention to his complaints, as he was passing in and out of his hallucinations." (Heisenberg, P.104)

I read most of this book on the train south and then abandoned it in favour of lighter reading that I found on a table in Claire's living room.
What I found most interesting about 'An Unequal Stillness' by Francesca Kay was the striking contrast between the life of her 'genius' artist and that of the scientists in the previous book. The men in Labatut's book were free to do nothing but pursue their obsession, real life barely seemed to exist for them, the practicalities of existence were provided by the women around them, but in this book Jennet must juggle her family and domestic responsibilities, snatching time for her real work where she can. I find myself annoyed by stories of women who pander to and continually forgive alcoholic husbands, but to be honest he was not that important to the story, she got on with things in spite of him. While I found the descriptions of her paintings rather annoying, because I was visualising them and wanted to see them, the writing was engaging and had some wonderful moments:

"Scouring out a cast-iron pot at the kitchen sink, Jennet stops to watch the reflection of a light above it glinting in the greasy water and her own hands submerged. Out of nowhere a wave of fear crashes over her and she is suddenly quite sure she will never lift her hands out of the water or unglue her feet from the floor. Only her wildly pounding heart is evidence of life. Otherwise she might as well be paralysed, like Lot's wife trapped in salt. Somewhere in the distance there is a baby crying, but Jennet cannot go to it. She cannot move at all. She must stand there forever with her hands beneath the water in the blackened pot."

'Ice Cream' is a book of short stories by the inimitable Helen Dunmore, read on the train on the way back north, in one sitting. Her writing is always so perfect, little vignettes of people's lives, capturing something that is essential to being human. Here, a lighthouse keeper's wife:

"The bed was too big when she lay alone in it. He was an off-shore lighthouseman and she knew that when she married him. If the lighthouse tender couldn't land to change the crew on relief day, Nancy might be waiting for him another week. Often the weather was bad when it came to changeover. He'd watch the wall of white foam crash against the glass and know he wasn't going to get off. But Nancy stood it. She had her little garden. She didn't flinch. She knew the fishing boats and would stand to watch them go out around the point, her skirts blown back against her legs, moulded to them by the wind. He was glad there was no one else to see her like that. She fed her garden with fish-meal and rotted-down seaweed, and when the salt-storms burnt off the leaves of her spinach and lettuces, she planted again. He would see her kneeling on the path, skirts bunched under her, tamping the seedlings in with her quick fingers." (p.56-57)

Then I came home and picked 'Where'd You Go Bernadette' by Maria Semple from the TBR pile in my room. You'd think I was sick of books about geniuses ... and yes, I think I am now. I have read lots of wonderful, well written and still engaging stories that are about ordinary people, living mostly unremarkable lives, but some writers just can't resist making their characters over-achievers, and I find them much less relatable. And this is a book with emails and hashtags and all manner of 21st century social media stuff, but I managed to get past that and just enjoy the mystery. So Bernadette is a genius who has plainly had a mental breakdown and her husband just seemed to have ignored it for a decade. That kind of trope annoys me to. Do people really just live so far up their own arse that they don't notice someone they love fall to pieces? (Turns out he is a bit of an arsehole so no surprise). So there was a lot to forgive in the book but I still managed to enjoy it, because she writes about the breakdown in a very real way and gets inside Bernadette's head so well, so we give her brownie points for that. Here, Bernadette's thoughts:

"What you've heard about the rain: it's all true. So you'd think it would be part of the fabric, especially among lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here's what they'll say: 'Can you believe the weather?' And what you want to say, 'Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can't believe is that I'm actually have a conversation about the weather.' But I don't say that, you see, because that would be instigating a fight, something I try my best to avoid, with mixed results.
Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race! I'm lying in bed when the thumping arrives, like a foreign invader. It's a horrible dark mass, like the monolith in 2001, self-organised but completely unknowable, and it enters my body and releases adrenaline. Like a black hole, it sucks in any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain and attaches visceral panic to them. for instance, during the day I might have mused, Hey, I should pack more fresh fruit in Bee's lunch. That night, with the arrival of The Thumper, it becomes I'VE GOT TO PACK MORE FRESH FRUIT IN BEE'S LUNCH!!! I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy like a battery-operated racer grinding away in the corner. This is energy I will need to get through the next day. But I lie in bed and watch it burn, and with it any hope of a productive tomorrow. There go the dishes, there goes the grocery store, there goes exercise, there goes bringing in the garbage cans. There goes basic human kindness. I wake up in a sweat so thorough I sleep with a pitcher of water by the bed or I might die of dehydration. (p.129-130)

So that was the pile, though I have already finished another, that I think might get more than two lines. All enjoyable in their own way and a nicely mixed bunch.
I left behind in Devon some unfinished business, but Claire managed to complete it ... and then take it back to the charity shop:
Oh yes, Monkey is home:
and we have been stepping over the suitcase in the living room for a week, but then we are experts at that, having lived with two bags of compost in the kitchen for a month (you stop noticing them after a while):

Stay safe. Be kind. Step around life's obstacles.

Friday 9 September 2022

The Queen's Green Canopy

What comes to mind today reading the BBC news was this image from St Anne's Square in Manchester following the Arena bombing, and all I can think about is the mountain of rotting flowers (that have been mostly flown across the planet) and the countless tons of plastic waste that somehow seems necessary for the people of this country to express grief, and how massive the scale is going to become over the coming days.
We spent an interesting breakfast time discussing the history of the monarchy, and who married their second cousin (almost all of them, unsurprisingly). Elizabeth lived a long life and had a peaceful death, what more can a human being ask for. I am a republican (as mentioned earlier this year) and as such have little interest in joining in with the nation's mourning, but Tish and I walked home from the gym this morning and this tree had been dumped by someone next to the communal bins at the end of the street:
and so, in lieu of flowers, and as a token contribution to The Queen's Green Canopy I rescued it, dragging it the full length of the Cowesby Street and round the corner into our back lane and down to our yard. It may at some point make its way inside the yard but I will prune it and water it and hopefully next summer it might be a little less straggly.
Other delights in the yard yesterday; corn salad seedlings:
self-seeded borage in the crack in the concrete:
self-seeded sunflower in the pot with the acer:
Stay safe. Be kind. Express your grief as you will, but don't forget that queenie did care about the fucked up planet (her preferred method of transport was apparently by train), so, as with everything, maybe consider the environmental footprint.

Sunday 4 September 2022

beside the sea

There are a multitude of delightfully tiny and equally delightful slightly larger coves along the south coast of Devon, where the sea drifts in and out, bringing large quantities of seaweed. This did not spoil my enjoyment of floating in the water, and then getting out and lying in the sunshine. All through the heat wave I dreamed of doing this, and it has lived up to expectations. 
As well as climbing up and down the steep paths to tiny coves we have pottered around Claire's garden, which also contains many delights.
Meanwhile in Japan ... the East China Sea:

Stay safe. Be kind. Soak up the sun.