Thursday, 1 August 2019

One Hundred Good Things About Growing Old Number 31

# 31. 

As you age, you realise that not all the authors you were taught to revere are actually worthy of reverence.
Two good examples of this now follow:

(i)  The Mitford Sisters

This is a Fun Biography which makes the Mitfords seem like a great laugh, and worth all the media attention they've enjoyed over the hundred years since the youngest one was born (Deborah, late Duchess of Devonshire, 1920 - 2014).  

This is a very different work, edited by the daughter-in-law of Diana Mosley (née Mitford).

It's hard to get past the copious and serious notes explaining who all the characters are. Many, if not most of them are labelled with ridiculous nicknames, like Bobo, Boud, (Unity, daughter #4), Nardy, Honks,  (Diana, daughter#3), and Dawly (Deborah, #6, known even to the public as Debo).

The sisters, beside their silly nicknames and childish secret languages, communicated in wildly over-elite phraseology, calling each other "darling" at all times, and sprinkling superlatives, italics and capitals liberally.

What's more disturbing is the political allegiances of the two fascist daughters, Unity and Diana.  Now that we are seeing the resurgance of political movements we had considered consigned to the dustbin of history after the defeat of Germany in 1945, it is particularly distasteful to read of these privileged girls using their positions and connections to influence public opinion in favour of Hitler.

It ended badly for poor, impressionable, silly Unity, who shot herself in Munich on 3rd September 1939, the day that Britain and France declared war on Germany.  She was brought home by her mother and Deborah. With the mental age of a 12-year-old, brain-damaged and unpredictable, she became a severe burden on her mother who cared for her for the rest of her life.

Diana, who left her first husband to live with the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, was imprisoned for 3 years as an "exremely dangerous and sinister young woman", (in the words of the Home Office official who signed her detention order).  Mosley had already been imprisoned as a threat to the country.  Both were released in November 1943, and kept under house arrest for the rest of the war.

The biography somehow manages to make it all seem rather a jolly jape, the letters give a true indication of the nature of the personalities.

Simone de Beauvoir

I never particularly liked this woman, but felt that, as she was a famous feminist and the author of the renowned "The Second Sex", I should read her.  I never got far with "The Second Sex", finding it, exactly as with Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch" terminally depressing, to the point where, I felt, anyone who truly believed these things would probably commit suicide.

So no copy of it exists on my bookshelf.  However, I have a comprehensive biography.
Biography of Simone de Beauvoir, published 1990

I also have a book about Simone and her sister, and ten assorted works including stories, memoirs, and novels.  I've read all the fiction works and memoirs, but can't say they added to the sum of my happiness in life.

All display in varying degrees the self-obsession, stridency, selfishness, and manipulative characteristics of this famous feminist.

Volume 1 of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography

This first volume is followed by two more tomes all about herself and her feelings about everything and her thoughts.  Unfortunately, the "novels" are all cast in much the same mould, intensely self-absorbed, and almost devoid of interest in anyone outside the narrator/heroine and her immediate circle.

This is a sinister-looking woman.  The picture credit states that it is "Yvonne in Green Dress", by Guy Pene Dubois, held in The New Britain Museum, Connecticut.  The high cheekbones and cropped dark hair give the depiction a striking similarity to  young woman called Olga Kosakievicz.  She was a White Russian emigré, nine years younger than de Beauvoir, and, as an emigré, was lacking in confidence and vulnerable.  She was de Beauvoir's student at the lycée in Rouen.  The simplicity with which the biography (published 1990) tells the story is hardly credible today. In our era, seduction of, and sexual relationships with, any student by a teacher, confer prison sentences.    De Beauvoir groomed the girl and introduced her to Sartre, her own lover, who began a sexual relationship with her.  The "novel" is a thinly disguised account of this three-way relationship.

It was not just Olga.  The biography states that "this was the first of a succession of intense friendships Simone de Beauvoir formed with her students, all of whom subsequently acquiesced to sexual liaisons with Sartre".  'Acquiesced!'  A subtle, nuanced word, indicating that the author, Deirdre Barr, was well aware that the relationships had a coercive element.  The force of Sartre's personality, and that of his mistress, would have provided an irresistible current of force.

Another student, Bianca Bienenfeld, also vulnerable because she was Jewish, wrote a memoir years later in which she fully acknowledged modern sensibilities of the criminal dimension of these teachers and their relationships with students.  It all looks very different when you strip away the hero-worship of the feminist icon.

Now that I am older, I realise that my initial distaste, which I could not fully analyse, was well-justified.  My existentialist collection, consisting of ten fiction works, two biographical, and three works by or about Sartre, is no longer of interest to me.  I have earmarked it for a clear-out.  The Mitford books will also be part of a clear-out.  No more time for these flawed heroines!

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Little Gidding

A tiny chapel, hidden deep in the Northamptonshire countryside, famous for its piety, for being a religious retreat for nearly 400 years, and as the subject of a twentieth century poem written by T.S.Eliot.

By some strange co-incidence, 45 years after I first came upon this poem, I visited yesterday, in a strangely apt "midwinter spring" - a brilliant, blinding sunny afternoon in February.

Here is a picture of

"the hedgerow ... blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden than that of summer, neither budding nor fading...."

And here is the picture of what the poet says you will find later in the year:

"If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness..."

I knew nothing about the place when the "Collected Poems of T.S.Eliot" appeared on a college reading list when I was 20.  As far as I was aware, the title of the poem meant nothing, the whole thing was an arid intellectual exercise by a brainbox who bemused everyone, even the academics.

Now it makes sense.

The "broken king" is Charles I, who, escaping after defeat at the Battle of Naseby, took refuge with his friends, the Farrar family who owned the chapel and manor house.

The "rough road" is still very rough, a country track, literally at the end of the road - there's nothing else there except the farm-house, (now a religious retreat). The pig-sty is gone, but the tombstone is still in place, right in front of what Eliot calls the "dull facade".

My picture shows the facade, rather dignified, in my view.  The tombstone is in the bottom right of the picture, it is the tomb of Nicholas Farrar, died 1637.

Inside, there is an atmosphere of calm, serenity, and deep reverence. 

We are told very clearly that we should not come to gawp as tourists - this is a place of prayer:

The above is piece of embroidery, in which has been laid out some lines from Eliot's poem:

The poet has laid down his strictures.

But as a visitor I do want to "inform curiosity" and "carry report".

I do want to verify, and instruct myself, and the information leaflets in the chapel give assistance, explaining the stained glass, for example:

"Dieu et mon droit" - a nineteenth century rendition of the Royal Coat of Arms in memory of the visit of Charles I.

England, at its richest and most inspiring.  

Friday, 22 February 2019

Book Repositories, Old and New

A new book store for the University of Cambridge copyright library has been built at Ely.  This has 65 miles of shelving, each "the height of two giraffes" (what an unusual measuring device!).  Books here are given their due respect and saved for posterity.

The site also gives a virtual tour of the Library Tower. 

The tower, a hideous but iconic building, was, until it became totally full,  a previous repository of books not in huge demand day-to-day by readers.  The tour gives many beautiful images which satisfy and soothe my need to see books, unusual books, and books being cared for properly.

Who would have thought of retaining this pamphlet, of the sort one's great-granny had lying around in her dusty cupboards!

This little book from 1840, "Grammar Made Easy and Amusing", holds a secret compartment at the back, in which are found what we would now call "Visual Aids" to learning.
I remember fabric books like these.  I am sure we had one exactly like "dog".  We called them rag books.

This is a trick pamphlet, which opens to a skein of wool.  The website author notes the following below this image:

"Ephemeral literature of this kind is highly valued by researchers, and today the Library actively seeks such publications, particularly those with local connections, as well as illustrated children’s books."

That sentence is absolutely music to my ears.  It calms my urgent need to feel that there is order amongst chaos.  That there is rational behaviour, and planning for the future, and that public servants are still carrying out tasks that may not seem vital, but have a function for the maintenance of civilisation.

All pictures from University of Cambridge, digital resources free to public access

Monday, 11 February 2019

Book Piles

Last year nearly rocked me off my axis, for a time.  Two joyful weddings outweighed all else, and for a time, even books could not compete for my attention.

A particularly shocking experience occurred when I visited Blickling National Trust, in Norfolk.

The exhibition was intended to focus on differing attitudes to books, and boy, did it jolt my perspective.
Inside Blickling Library (original volumes safely behind cases)

The curators had collected from pulping depots thousands of unwanted books.  People like me were bending down to examine individual items more closely, to give them the attention we thought was due.  Some visitors tried to rescue one or two, offering to take them home, disorientated and disgusted by the symbolism,  books that were not valued.  Most of the books were glued or fixed in the display, which meant that rescue was impossible.

My attitude hitherto has always been that if a book exists, it should be given respect.  Copyright libraries, like the British Library and the great university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, perpetuate and reinforce this view, since they demand of all publishers a copy of each new book to store for posterity.  In some cases this means building miles of underground tunnels, such is the pace of new book production.

The idea that not all of these books are of equal value is self-evident, but to just toss them to a pulping plant was visceral.

One book I managed to pick up had been someone's Sunday School prize for attendance and good behaviour, inscribed as such.  It contained wholesome and instructive nature watercolours. I recognized the genre from my 50's childhood.

For a time, I reviewed the contents of my bookshelves with different eyes.  I have piles and piles of unread items, acquired from book sales and charity shops because they chime with interests old and new, or complete a collection on a particular theme or by a particular author.

Suddenly I thought -"Why am I hoarding these books that I may never read, that no-one else wanted?  Will I ever get around to reading them, and what is the purpose of all this time spent ticking items off my to-read list?"

For a time, my existence seemed purposeless.

Then, a new year began, a new cycle of aims and lists.  With two daughters married, and waiting for the longed for next step, I mark time by going back to my old habits.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

100 Good Things About Growing Old - Number 30 (wow, one third of the way through!) Weddings!

Two outings as Mother of the Bride - I will never be the Mother-of-the-Bride again, or if by some chance a second marriage occurs, it of course would lack the same significance.  Loved having my hair and make-up done, simply ADORED wearing a hat, and loved the whole build-up to the events.

Now we have two new sets of in-laws to take into account as we plan for the festive season.  As younger daughter reported after a social event with the four new cousins and their spouses, "It's great to have a new, bigger family".  That's so positive.

I really like both our new sons-in-law - they are very different but seem to get on well with each other - suddenly the generation below has doubled from two to four - and maybe will expand even more in the next couple of years. 

There is more to think of in every way - not least having to make more of an effort with social occasions.  I recently had to book an extra hair appointment to ensure I look nice for the New Year's Eve dinner to be hosted by one set of in-laws - it's important to show respect.  Also, I am only too aware of the old saying, you only have to look at her mother to see how your girlfriend will turn out.  So far the spectacle of me has not put them off - long may this continue!

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Martin Amis, "The Rub of Time"

A Collection of Essays written between 1986 and 2016

I confess to never having read a novel by Martin Amis.

I did read (possibly) a couple of novels by his father, Kingsley Amis, in my extreme youth (before the age of 24), but I didn't enjoy the masculine tone, or the misogyny, and stopped after "Lucky Jim", and (possibly) "Take a Girl Like You".  I followed the progress of the senior author, via newspaper reports, until the publication of "The Old Devils".  This marked, on reflection, the emergence, within my reading persona, of the habit of taking from the reviews of a much talked-of new novel sufficient information to decide that it would be a waste of time to read the novel itself.

I did like Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kingsley's second wife. I've read almost all her novels.  From her own autobiography, I sensed that Kingsley was an unlikeable man, and after I dipped into a double biography of both Kingsley and Martin Amis, this was confirmed.  However, the latter book included some sharply incisive quotes from the work of both father and son, which whetted my appetite.  This led me to order some books from libraries, to find out more about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from bite-size chunks of the authors'  output.  No need or desire existed to read even one novel by either, but each seemed in his own way to have put a finger on the pulse of his times.

I'm still waiting for a copy of Zachary Leader's (leading) biography of Kingsley, but a different county library has provided me with Martin's "Experience" and "The Rub of Time".   "Experience" is almost unreadable due to the author's habit (it's almost like he has just undergone colonic irrigation, and can't wait until arrival at a place where voiding would be appropriate) to thrust very lengthy footnotes onto almost every page, intended to illuminate - or perhaps cast a smokescreen of small grit over - the labouring brain of the reader.

"The Rub of Time", however, was easy and rewarding to read.  It was like being handed a potted history of much of what I missed over the last 30 years. This loss, due to the combined demands of working and parenting, resulted in my having little or no time or energy to read beyond the book reviews in the Sunday papers.

The essays confirmed that I don't need to bother seeking out any novels by either Vladimir Nabakov or Philip Roth (who died yesterday).  I've learned all I need to know.

On Philip Larkin,  I remain torn.  He was a much-loved poet of my schooldays, but I never read his novels.  Martin Amis often refers to him, in both the books I've mentioned here, largely because of his childhood memories of Larkin's visits to the family home.  Larkin was a friend and contemporary of Kingsley.   Martin hasn't succeeded in encouraging me to read Larkin again, but he does provide a good summary of the poet's 35 year relationship with a woman called Monica Jones.  I was aware of this (from reading the Sunday Times book reviews over the years) and aware that the affair reflected very badly on Larkin, but knew no details.  Martin's essay, reprinted from The Guardian, (2010) provides all the detail one could desire, without the effort of reading any full-length book.  The essay can be read in full here, and reading it gives a scintillating glimpse of the full Martin Amis range: wit, verbal dexterity, self-confidence, and simultaneous grasp of both the detail and the whole picture.

Here's part of a quotation from Larkin's "Letters to Monica" which Martin helpfully singles out as "the most memorable letter in the book".  Thanks, Martin, it saves me the bother of going through them all.   This letter endorses advice I have been given myself. The full quote can be read in the Guardian article linked above.

"It's simply that in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it . . .do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. "  

Yup, and I say that to myself frequently as well.

 I will look out for more by Mr Amis junior.  In newspapers, of course.

Friday, 16 March 2018

100 Good Things About Growing Old - Numbers 25 to 29

Following the path through sunshine and shade, a little bit steeper, but still beautiful.

25.  I'm still here.

26.  After a brush with the Big C, and an anxious period of waiting for biopsy results, I've had good results which indicate no spread of malignant cells.

27. Friends and family have shown their true worth and goodness, and I do NOT mean that in an ironical way.

28. I don't worry about unimportant things, like what people might think about that awful coat I wear in cold weather.

29. Every day seems like a gift.