Friday, 30 December 2011

I Find It Again

I found my three rules for surviving Christmas (below, 23rd December 2011), again.  The third one, "Everything can be mended" proved to be true.  Younger daughter and I are reconciled.  I apologised to her (having discussed the matter with older daughter) without leaving it too long to do so, and after some prompting, she accepted the apology.  She did not hug me, or apologise for HER behaviour, but there, what can you expect.  Her frontal lobes are taking an awfully long time to fill out properly, but then both my daughters were very late developers.  Younger is now 24, and has improved over the teenage years (by 400 per cent, I estimate), but still exhibits signs of teenage behaviour from time to time.  So it can only be a good thing that we have moved on, and she offered me her brand-new "Adele" CD to listen to before she had even listened to it herself.  Older daughter and I agreed that this constituted a gesture of reconciliation.

Also, Granny is forgiven after her inimitable series of recollections presented at the dinner table. As well as the one about music (see Christmas Day post), she also entertained us with memories of two little boys who were sent for a holiday from the Elephant and Castle in London to the Yorkshire countryside directly after the War and stayed in Granny's family home.  This was before she married. She was still living with her parents.  My two daughters were utterly enthralled.

I have managed to keep to rules one and two since that episode.  I have added a fourth.  It is important to go to bed at your normal time.  Staying up too late aggravates all issues in much the same way as a hangover or over indulgence in rich foods.  Ascetic, true, but I need all strategies to cope with a houseful of visitors, of all varieties, staying, staying far too long, and just dropping in, which has now gone on for over a week.

And it's not over yet.  Tomorrow night we host a New Years Eve Dinner Party for eight. 

Thursday, 29 December 2011

I Lost It

So, it's happened.  After a week of non-work, inactivity, no company other than relatives, heightened food levels (although, thankfully, no alcohol except a glass of champagne on Boxing Day), I have lost it, big time.  I cracked last night when I ate three champagne truffles (Oh, just realised, maybe that is the connection), in quick succession and then felt cross with everyone, went to bed feeling unhappy with myself and all close relations.

This morning, managed to keep calm through minimal conversations with husband, hour-long phone call with brother in New Zealand, until younger daughter arrived in the kitchen.  She refused to help me switch the TV back on (she turned it off last night and left it in a state from which I could not rouse it even by pressing every button on the remote).  I called her a B**** and  a c** (animal with udders). I am  a terrrible person.  This is what Christmas does to you.  I have been unable to keep to my three rules, and the very worst of me has emerged to the surface.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Good Things Happen in Threes

We opened our porch door this morning to find a Christmas card in the letter box.  Nothing unusual you might think in that.  "We have received all the cards we normally do from our neighbours," I told hub.  "Then who can this be from?"  It was from the Muslim family who moved this year into the end house.  We were so touched.  That they could find the time and interest to remember OUR annual celebration.  (We barely know what theirs is - something in November?)  That they wanted to. Their generosity of feeling.

After Christmas lunch, elder daughter fetched out her violin and played some Christmas carols in the dining room.  What joy. 

When we had the sitting room redecorated two years ago, we got rid of the piano, and since then there has been no  music at Christmas. 
Now, daughter has brought music back into the house.  I am overjoyed.

Next, mother-in-law adds another layer of emotion to the mix.  She reminisces about the day that elder daughter first showed an interest in music, asking to learn the recorder.  This was in a holiday cottage twenty years ago, when both parents-in-law used to come on holiday with us.  I do remember the tune I taught her was "Bee, bee, Busy bee, busy, busy, busy bee" - all on one note, the note B.  It was indeed the date that daughter first started to learn music. Being one of the parties, I don't have a picture of the scene in my head.  Granny does, and tells us.  I am moved by her recollections, and dumbfounded that she can still see it as clearly as the day it happened.  Wish we had a video-camera.  But Granny has the picture locked in her memory.

The books I gave for Christmas have given delight and interest.  Two of them were second-hand but didn't look it.  Elder daughter received "Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me" and read it for hours.  I gave younger daughter a book about the Peak District, but it was Auntie (hub's sister) and her partner who pored over it.  They live in Manchester, and have done many of the walks pictured, and even met one of the famous walkers who opened up Kinder Scout and started the Rambling Association.  No-one said anything about the books being less than absolutely pristine, although I think they might have suspected something.

Hub received his own version of a "pre-owned" book.  Some old person in Granny's circle was given a Nigella cookbook.  No longer interested in cooking, she donated it to a raffle.  Granny's best friend, (90), won the raffle, and being too old to cook, passed it to Granny, who passed it to Hub.  I love it - appears to be a mixture of "Express", "Comfort Food" and "Cakes".  Have looked at every recipe and even my jaded and worn-out attitude to cooking has received a jolt of inspiration.  Particularly interested in the vivid green marshmallow pie.

So, three good things have happened today, and three books have brought pleasure.  Ending on cake and books, just as it should be.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Christmas Letter

Sarky journalists have been making a few shillings these last years by writing annually about how naff the Christmas letter is, and how boring.  This year, a Times reader answered back, and published a letter asking if she was the only reader who feels devastated if there is no "news" attached to the Christmas card.

I am with that reader.  If I haven't seen the person during this calendar year, I send a letter.  No matter how recently I saw them, I love to read whatever they choose to include in their letter.  Perhaps, the sentence should stop after "I love to read".  The longer the better, and two closely typed A4 pages about all the holidays taken will keep me enthralled.

I have had  feedback from time to time about my letters.  One friend of my husband's (dating back to 1972) expressed surprise that there was so little about hubby in the letter.  Well, as he doesn't play any musical instruments, or take exams, and his only sport is golf, that is hardly surprising, is it!

Another friend of my husband's (now an ex-friend), complained that all we did was boast about how wonderful our girls were.  I, on the other hand, am always happy to read about the successes of other people's children (now moving on to their adorable grandchildren!)

One year, I wrote two Christmas letters.  The official one, about how wonderful everyone is, and where we went on holiday.  Then the unofficial one, which included details of some of the more epic marital rows, and household problems that year (the only one of which I can recall is that nine different plumbers crossed our threshold).  I think I sent that to one very close friend.  She thought it was funny, which is about the best one can hope for.

What that taught me was that in every aspect of life, one can present two different faces.  The public, cheerful one, which emphasises the positive, which looks smart and well-kempt,  and remains upbeat.  The other face, the deep, dark and troubled one, exists in every life, but is better kept in a dark cupboard.  As I grow older, I find that even with one's closest, nearest and dearest, there is little sympathy for the dark side, and it is better not to bring it out for inspection.  And then, as my mother said about grumpy faces: "If the wind changes, you'll stay that way!"  So, if I keep looking smart and cheerful, I will grow to be that person more and more, to everyone's benefit, especially mine.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Rules for Surviving Christmas

This is what I posted last year, just after the festive season ended.

1. Cut everything you eat by 50%
2. Cut everything you say by 50%
3. Remember that everything can be mended.

I managed to follow my own rules more or less. I cut what I might have first thought of putting on my plate by one-third on average, although overall because I didn't have ANY Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, or mince pies, it probably averaged at half. This meant that my digestive system kept to its normal schedule, and liverish discomfort, groaning intestines, did not cause bad temper.

I did try to limit what I would say. However, by the fourth day (my husband's relatives stay for five days, my ONLY relative stays for five hours -you can see my problem), my resolve was cracking.

My determination not to elaborate on any point was broken down by the fact that after four days, there is little left to talk about. I would rather have kept silent about my new job, (well new on 1st December 2009), and not put it out for dissection and criticism. However, in the face of relentless company, I described the not-for-profit organisation I work for, and how wonderful it is. My mother-in-law's immediate, and more or less only, comment, was: "But they ARE paying YOU?"

I felt sick. Why do I let myself fall for this family's incredible materialism, time after time? I am not exaggerating when I say that money is my mother-in-law's almost sole topic of conversation. If you come into a room where a conversation is already going on, it will almost always be about a divorce, some unreasonable ex-wife, a will, or house-prices.

This leads me to my third rule. "Keep thinking that everything can be mended." I was thinking about kettles, the outside tap, a flat car battery, when I wrote that down. But some wounds never heal. Her remark reminded me of the occasion when she sent a seven-year-old child's birthday card by second class post, and it did not arrive in time. Not everything can be mended.

This year:  update

The relatives will arrive this evening.  I will try to keep quiet and be polite.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Nancy wins through

Today is my first-born's birthday.  At about this time, 27 years ago, a midwife dragged her out with forceps and life was never the same again. I sent her a text this morning first thing, and waited all day for a reply.  Couldn't concentrate on my work.  Told the factory manager about it, and we chatted about his two daughters, son and five grandchildren.  One of his daughters has just written off to audition for X-Factor 2012.  That cheered me up.

Eventually, at about six pm, she called.  It seems that the book I sent, Nancy Mitford's classic, "The Pursuit of Love" is her favourite of all the presents I sent.  Hey! Yey!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson

I remember a few years ago, this author brought out a second book, twenty odd years after the above, and the critics all raved about it.  Their praise was such that it seemed that this author must be a sort of hermit, a recluse who ventures out once every quarter of a century with seminal words which are of inestimable value.  That book, "Home", (uncanny resemblance of title), moved with the same stately, almost soporific pace as does "Housekeeping". 

This one is even more drifting and distant in pace.  The one great theme running through the entire book, and appearing on virtually every page, is of water.  The book appears as if one is reading it through the surface of a pond.  Still waters run deep, but I found it difficult to get to the bottom of the story.

On the surface, it is a story of abandoned sisters, their mutual dependence as children, and their eventual split as they reach puberty.  All the most powerful scenes revolve around water - the death of their grandfather in a train which went off a bridge into a lake, the floods which entered their home, the suicide of their mother in the same lake. All the themes are brought together when the eccentric aunt, Sylvie, takes the writer, Ruth, out in a boat to view the spot where the train hit the waters, and then initiates her into the life of a vagrant, by taking her on a freight train back to the home which they are soon to abandon altogether.

The front cover quotes the Observer, "One of the Observer's 100 greatest novels of all time".  This  merely awakened a thirst in me to find out the other 99.

I can't say it would be in the top 50 of my favourite novels. Not a favourite at all, in fact, more a "duty read", as others seem to think so highly of it.  It is a mystery to me why this book and its author have attained iconic status.  Could anyone enlighten me?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Can TV Make You Cry?

I read in The Times last week that watching the Antiques Roadshow makes Ed Balls cry.  What, bully-boy Balls?  Surely not.  This led me to ponder the effect of other soaps on the emotions.

I'm rapidly reaching the stage where watching old re-runs of "Friends" is liable to make me cry.

Now the golden girls and boys  are receding farther into the depths of history, well, the last century, anyway.    "Golden boys and girls all must, like chimney sweepers come to dust..."

The guys have all aged terribly, and look, well, old.  The girls, at some cost, have maintained their appearance of 10 years ago.  Reputedly, Jen has had work done on at least three major areas of her body, and that excludes skin and hair colour.  Sadly, both Jen and Courtney have a broken marriage behind them.  CC managed to give birth, but Jen is showing signs of increasing desperation in the husband and baby departments.

It's the innocence, though, that creates the pathos of those early episodes.  The actors were as young as their characters, and none knew what lay ahead.  Beautiful girls thought that it was the norm of life to have young men hanging on their every word, and behaving like lap-dogs.  Little did they know that this was just a short-lived phase in life, and that it would get harder.  Little did they know, when they threw tantrums or displayed unbelievable insensitivity and self-centredness, that eventually, these behavioural characteristics would only bring refusals and obstruction, not the desired goal of their own way.  The bank of tolerance gets spent up.

I find it hard to analyse what makes me want to cry. Is it because I have just about exhausted the bank of tolerance, but find myself still hanging in there?  Is it because much of the credit is due to my long-suffering husband?

Is it because my life hasn't shaped up that badly, after all, though not an international star?  Or is it because that golden time is even further back in my past than it is for the cast of "Friends"?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Barbara Wootton "In a World I Never Made"

So, back to my book that almost no-one else has heard of.   I picked this book up in a National Trust second-hand bookshop on my holiday in Norfolk.  When my friend arrived to join me, complete with Kindle, I showed her my trophy.  She thinks second hand books are tacky and doesn't like to touch them.  Later on, she asked me if I'd heard of Barbara Wootton.  Seems my husband isn't the only one who doesn't listen to me!

Her question arose from the Ilkley Literature Festival.  Seems someone has written a biography of Barbara Wootton and was due to attend the Festival for a talk and book-signing.  Someone else then, has seen interest in this hitherto forgotten person. Maybe she will develop a following.

Barbara Wootton was born in 1898, to upper-middle class parents. Against her mother's wishes, she fought for the right to study a subject of her choice at University.  She lost her husband (of a day and a half's standing) in the First World War.  Are you following the drift of this?  Yes, it is because of my interest in Vera Brittain that I was first drawn to look up BW.

At that point most similarities come to a full stop.  Barbara was a very different person from Vera.

Barbara led, to all intents and purposes, the life of a single woman, even though she had in fact married her first love.  She also married a second time, although she eventually left George and they never had children.  The latter fact was because of the unsatisfactory character of George. 

BW led an exemplary life in public service, and was a career woman throughout.  This, in fact, was probably due to her mother's influence.  Her mother, a classics don, instructed young Barbara on her wartime engagement, at 19, that she must continue her education.  "My mother was ....adamant that the engagement should make no difference to my academic career.  No one knew what might be ahead, or when I might need to earn my own living, so I must at all costs equip myself with that essential prerequisite to independence, a university degree."

After taking an exceptional first-class degree, BW continued to be an academic and to serve as a magistrate, a BBC Governor, and on many public committees.  She was honoured to be one of the first four women admitted to the House of Lords. Her work pioneered the "Social Sciences".

You read a book of autobiography, not just to find out the dates and the facts.  You long for the emotion, and the nuggets.

Here are the nuggets.

BW wrote scornfully in Chapter 2 of the difference between her own reaction to multiple bereavements by the time she was 21, and the reaction of VB.

"Indeed, what infuriated many of us, when Vera Brittain published her "Testament of Youth" was the impression she conveyed that she alone of the nurses with whom she worked had to endure the anxiety of knowing that her beloved was at the front." 

Sorry, BW, impressive though your credentials, you are completely wrong.  VB conveyed no such thing.  What she DID do, incomparably well, was to convey every nuance of emotion, every stage of apprehension, bereavement and grief, in such a way that millions the world over could understand.  This is because she is a writer.  BW, an academic and social scientist, stated a few bald facts and, shocking though they were, never touched a nerve, in me at least.

Later on in the book BW comments on the journey of all those women born in the 1890's, who were brought up without any expectation of ever getting the vote, and lived to see women enter Parliament and begin to influence far-reaching changes in the law which would eventually lead to the Womens' Movement of the 1970's.  A further nugget is related below.

Her close associate in the journey towards independence, a school-friend called Dorothy, became a leading doctor, "renowned throughout the world for her medical researches.  When she was about to receive an honorary degree from an overseas university, a newspaper man, looking down the list of honorary graduands, was heard to remark that he had not previously realised that Dorothy could be a man's Christian name."    I still laugh when I re-read this.

Finally, though, BW will be remembered, not for her writing, but for her contribution to society and her place in the pivotal years between the First World War and the 1960's

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

An Inspector Lynley Mystery, by Elizabeth George

I don't normally read genre fiction. I haven't admitted this before, for fear of being thought a snob.  At last, however, I must come out. I am a raging literary snob.  I don't read crime fiction, science fiction, detective fiction or Chick Lit.    I am not even sure whether there is generally seen to be a distinction between crime fiction and detective fiction.  I hazard the theory that in crime fiction, the vile deeds are the central focus of the story, whereas in detective fiction it is the character and relationships of the key detective which are the main theme, and the crime is just a scenic backdrop against which these relationships are played out.

Terrible things are going on at my office in Cambridge.  The Board have literally cut the staff salary budget in half at a stroke, without any consultation, and the staff are still waiting to be told exactly where the axe will fall.  My daily trip to the Charity Shop at the end of the road has become an even more essential lunchtime therapy than before.  I HAVE to buy something each day.  It assuages my pain.  Previously I have only bought books, but in these difficult times I have started hoovering up bric-a -brac as well.  It provides a brief moment of anodyne pleasure, compounded by the knowledge that it is all in a good cause. I've bought three brooches, a calculator, a plant pot holder, a cream jug and matching sugar bowl.  I have had to physically restrain myself from buying a mantel clock and some faux pearls.

In this new spirit of abandon, I moved away from my ususal choices -the classics and Booker prizewinners - in the endless cornucopia of the book section, and ventured on a prize-winning detective author, Elizabeth George.  Apparently, many of her Inspector Lynley stories have been made into television series.  I wouldn't know, as I am a terrible TV snob as well, restricting my viewing to those well-known classics "Downton Abbey" and "The X-Factor".

The book was good train reading, being 550 pages long and easy to pick up and put down.  I don't think I'll read another, though, even if things go from bad to worse at the office.  The overall effect can be compared with eating a large, cheap meringue.  It's nutty, crunchy, and full of things to chew on.  At the end however, it all just crumbles away to nothing, and I was left with a dry, dusty taste in my mouth.

The characters were many and varied, albeit given the most ridiculous names.  This author is American and set "Careless In Scarlet" in Cornwall.  She gives her local, working-class Cornish characters names like "Cadan", "Madlyn", "Kerra", "Benesek", "Dellan" and "Santo". 

The characters all have something major wrong with them, and a theme running through the book is that of parents finding it difficult to connect with their adolescent offspring.  This is so common that it almost seems like a cliche by the end of the book.  The murderer is never caught, at the end, which left me unsatisfied.

So, back to my preferred area, books that almost no-one else has heard of.  My next book, dinner-table reading as it is an old hardback, and therefore not to be taken on a train, is a memoir by Barbara Wootton, called "In A World I Never Made".

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Mitford Girls Again

Spent a lovely weekend with elder daughter.  We had such fun.  Went shopping in Guildford on Saturday, had lunch in Jamie's Italian, watched the X-Factor in the evening.  Went for a walk on Reigate Hill Sunday morning.

I took with me "The Mitford Girls" by Mary S Lovell for elder daughter to read.  As posted below, this was on the basis that she enjoys watching "Downton Abbey", and would probably recognize some of Julian Fellowes' themes loosely drawn from life, namely the eccentric aristocrats called the Mitfords.

She was only a few pages in before announcing that she did, indeed, love it, and was enthralled.  Great, because I have lined up "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford as a stocking filler for her this year.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

One of my favourite books, if not my all-time favourite book, since I was 21. Recently I bought the DVD of the BBC adaptation first broadcast in 1979.  I couldn't believe it - 1979!  That means I first saw the series only four years after I discovered the book, a second-hand hardback copy passed on by my university flatmate.  I was then the same age as Vera was when she learnt of the death of her fiance in the trenches of WW 1.

I am patient.  I have waited 32 years, until 2011, to see the final episode.  I missed it the first time round, which was before there was any such thing as recording equipment.  The repeat was broadcast sometime in the early 80's, when video cassette recording was the only option, and pretty primitive.  The clocks changed the day of the final episode, and it ended after two minutes of recording.  This was the occasion of one of the really furious, marriage-damaging rows in our life together.

I am patient.  I waited 32 years.  I bought the DVD online, and watched the last episode first.  It was moving, but I was disappointed not to see more of "G", the husband, the "Daisy" who replaced the dead "Passion Flower" in Vera's life, always to seem second-best, both to himself, seemingly, and to the discerning reader.

Then I started again from the beginning.  I still cry when these scenes are played out before me.  The story has the power to move me even now.  Vera lost her fiance, two close male friends, and her only brother in the First World War.  Her father later committed suicide.  Her best female friend, the writer Winifred Holtby (author of "South Riding" recently produced with Anna Maxwell Martin in the lead role, on BBC1) died in her thirties of a kidney complaint, unseasonably young and in great pain.

Recently I heard Vera's daughter, Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams, interviewed by Mariella Frostrup on BBC Radio 4's Book Programme.  Shirley had an interesting insight about her mother, and why she wrote.

"It was her reaction to loss.  Her whole life was about loss.  Writing was an attempt to bring them back to life...." 

TV does an even better job.  As far as I am aware, the 1979 BBC production  is the only adaptation of "Tof Y" that has ever been made.  Even in my own lifetime, "South Riding" has been aired twice. The last one about 25 years ago with Dorothy Tutin in the lead.

Surely it is time someone went back to the life story of VB?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Charles Morgan again

I went to "The River Line" matinee on Saturday.  It was sold out, with hopeful people queuing for returns.  Lovely little theatre, down some steps in Jermyn Street.  A dive, in all senses of the word. It was like being in Ronnie Scott's without all the hype and oversold commercialism.

I started chatting during the interval to a lady in the row behind, and it turned out she was the mother of one of the leading actors!

The play was good, and the foreword in the programme was written by Roger Morgan, the author's son. Since CM died in 1958, this person must be very old now.  I showed my new friend my hard-back copy, which is dedicated to Roger Morgan, and she was very impressed and said she and her husband would look for a copy on Amazon.  They didn't know the story, surprisingly, and felt it would repay reading, to which I agreed.

This evening I finished "Sparkenbrooke" and was disappointed.  It went on for far too long at 550 pages, and was so wordy that I could not imagine many people actually reading the whole thing seriously even in 1936, when it was published.

Interestingly, two elderly men coming out of the theatre behind me were complaining that the play was "Very wordy".    Written in 1949, about wartime Resistance in France, the book was faithfully adapted by the author for the stage, and many sentences and passages of dialogue appeared intact in the play.  Only the descriptions were missed out.  There were some  meaty moral passages which I suppose is what struck the complainers.

"Character and Destiny" was a phrase which struck me, but when I looked in the novel on the train home, I couldn't find it.  It was a phrase which appeared in "Sparkenbrooke" though, so clearly a theme close to the author's heart. 

Roger Morgan wrote in his foreword to the programme that "His novels have themes .... if one cannot accept that men may have spiritual lives beyond those of their daily concerns, one will not gladly enter the world with which Morgan is concerned." 

Having said that, wordy and spiritual or not, the play created mounting dramatic atmosphere, and in the last scene, the audience were spell-bound, not a murmur, rustle or cough was heard. 

An afternoon well spent.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Nancy Mitford "The Pursuit of Love"

So after posting about the mysteries of two apparently incompatible people managing to keep a relationship going for over 30 years (hubby and me), I've come across two references to the subject in the last week.

One in a book by a now almost-forgotten author, Charles Morgan, born in 1894, the same year as Phyllis Bentley and J.B. Priestley.  Charles Morgan was interned in Holland during World War 1 (during that war, Holland was a neutral country).  Based on his experience, Morgan wrote his most successful work, "The Fountain" which won the Hawthornden prize.  I wrote a lengthy review of this on my old blog, which is now lost, but I might be able to find the draft in Word and re-post.  This afternoon I am going to London to watch a play called "The River Line", which C Morgan adapted for the Edinburgh Festival of 1952 from his own novel of the same title, which I proudly possess in hardback. 

Another Charles Morgan book I have picked up in hardback is "Sparkenbroke" and this is my train reading of the moment. As I am only half way through this  550 page work, I cannot at the present time categorically conclude what it is actually about.  From evidence so far, I would say it is about love.

Last week I came across the following:

'Once, as they came away from a house where lived together a man and wife seemingly incongruous but deeply in love, she said: " I wonder what it is that holds them to each other," and he began to answer that the woman had been very pretty when she was young and that they had common interests.'  

The male character goes on to follow this up with quotations from Stendhal and Goethe, which would put off the average girl, though not this one.  Finally he sums it up thus: "...though love may have a thousand originating impulses, thrown out almost haphazard like a handful of seed, it doesn't take root or grow into a consuming love unless the two people have the same intuitive direction of their subconscious minds."

I think that pretty well sums up what I have found to be the answer to one of life's perplexing questions.  However, almost no-one now reads this long-forgotten work, so it is not as well known as Nancy Mitford's "The Pursuit of Love".  A book on this theme, accurately forecast in the title,  but far better-known, a success from the moment of publication, which sold 200,000 copies in its first year and has hardly been out of print since. 

Nancy Mitford's work is lightly ironical, terribly witty in an understated sort of way, and much shorter at only 205 pages in the current Penguin paperback edition.  Not surprising that it is more popular.  Chapter Seven begins with the words "What could possibly have induced Linda to marry Anthony Kroesig?  During the nine years of their life together people asked this question with irritating regularity, almost every time their names were mentioned." 

Like many an avid reader who over-identifies with characters in books, I thought, "Yes, people have said that about me!"  Further analysis, however, seemed necessary.

Only two people have intimated over the last 27 years that they did not know why I married my husband.  One of them actually said it out loud.  On the iceberg theory that for every one showing there is nine-tenths more below the water-line, I wonder if about twenty people have asked themselves this about me and hubby.  Not that great a total, after all.

Later in the book, Linda explains what went wrong with the marriage.

"The really important thing, if a marriage is to go well, without much love, is very very great niceness - gentillesse - and wonderful good manners.  I was never gentille with Tony, and often I was hardly polite to him, and very soon after our honeymoon, I became exceedingly disagreeable.  I'm ashamed now to think what I was like.... It was my fault from begnning to end."

This was food for thought.  However, the overwheming thought that went through my mind on reading this advice was, that it didn't apply to us.  When we married, there was enormous love, which lasted really for well over twenty years, much longer than the honeymoon period.  We really did love each other, as far as anyone knows what love is (to misquote the Prince of Wales).  Passion outflanked gentility, but passion leads to stormy arguments and reconciliations.  Gentility took a back seat until much more recently.

Nowadays, being calm and quiet seems to be a strategy for successfully sharing a home together.  Whether this can carry on without passion remains to be seen.  One thing is certain, "It ain't over yet!"

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Booker Prize Won by Julian Barnes

Here's an example of breakfast-time conversation in Bookblog's house:

"The Booker prizewinner this year is Julian Barnes."

"Who's Julian Barnes?"

"I'll never forget Julian Barnes.  He came to give a talk in our local library, in 1985.  Our elder daughter was just about a month old.  I went to the talk, sat down in the front row, and immediately fell asleep.  I went up to him afterwards and apologised.  'It's not you - I've just had a baby.'

Complete silence and lack of response.

This dialogue unfortunately revived many bad memories for me.  Instead of thinking about the (then young and handsome) author, whose early semi-autobiographical novel "Metro-land" had charmed and beguiled me with its recognizable picture of my teenage years, and congratulating him on his hard-won success, (at the fourth attempt), I thought about the early days of motherhood.

The apparently complete lack of any understanding of maternal exhaustion and sleep deprivation.  Insisting on going out on New Year's Eve, taking a two-week old baby to friend's house, so that instead of going to bed at 8.00pm, I had to stay up until the small hours.  Moving out of the marital bedroom until the babe started sleeping through the night, on the grounds that "My needs are more important than yours.  I have to go to work - you don't".  Never once making me a cup of tea during a night feed, unlike the famed "other husbands" in the neighbourhood.

I am sure that his side of the story would be different.  However, there is no doubt that the birth of this first child stuck daggers in the sides of both of us, and the relationship was never the same afterwards. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Mitford Girls

Today I visited Chatsworth House.  Of course, the house tour ends with the shop.  I bought some biscuits for my next-door neighbour, and, naturally,  a book. I bought a new paperback copy of "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford.

It is hardly credible that Nancy, who was born in  1904 and died in 1973, the year I was twenty, still has a sibling surviving.  This is Debo, otherwise known as Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. She is 91, and lives somewhere nearby on the Chatsworth estate, since her husband's death in  2004.

Debo is largely credited with the enormous success of the Chatsworth brand, and with saving the house and estate from the tax-man.  It has been turned over to a Trust to keep it safe in perpetuity and the present Duke and Duchess (Debo's son and his wife) pay rent to live there, so the notices are careful to inform us.

Debo has written several books, some of which were on offer in the bookshop.  I sneaked a quick glance, and was impressed by her lively style, and sharp wit.  However, sticking to the classics, I bought Nancy's book, not her first, but the first to gain widespread acclaim.  It was published in 1945, a different era. 

What we love about the Mitfords is their eccentricity, and their effortless class.  I explained to my elder daughter, that a Dowager Duchess was the "Maggie Smith character in Downton Abbey".  This was immediately understood.

I also told her that she would love to read anything about or by the Mitford girls, on the basis that she enjoys Downton Abbey, and found my last-year's Christmas present, a book on etiquette, "hilarious".  I am half-way through the second-youngest sister's memoir "Hons and Rebels", and debated whether to buy my daughter a new copy for Christmas, or lend her my second-hand hardback edition picked up in a charity shop for £5.00.

This sister, Jessica, known to the family as "Decca" was as eccentric as the rest, and an equally good writer.  Her sardonic, tongue-in-cheek comments on her family and early life are laugh-out-loud funny.  You do have to have an appreciation of  the family as a whole to understand the truly shocking behaviour which saw her run away to Spain with her cousin, Esmond Romilly (a nephew of Winston Churchill, although some gossips said he was the illegitimate son) in the 1930's. 

The pre-war life of hunting, shooting and fishing, house-parties, home education for girls, news stories about napkin rings, is the background against which this honourable deb rebelled.  You have to love it.

I started my new book whilst sitting in the restaurant with my husband eating lunch at Chatsworth. I know it's rude to read at the table, but somehow, the whole Mitford family's grand reputation for eccentricity, rudeness, but overall charm, seemed to prevail, and hubby didn't mind a bit! 

Monday, 3 October 2011

A Very Dry Season

Have hardly posted anything since the early summer.  Not surprising, perhaps, in view of the fact that I have been on holiday five times.  Whilst I have read books on holiday, I haven't had time to review them, archive them, and place them in a context.  Too busy clearing the decks at work before holiday, catching up with work after holiday, and doing all the pre- and post-holiday cleaning, fridge-management, washing and ironing.

I went to:

Somerset in April, joined for part of the time by husband and elder daughter
Lake District in June, with husband and both daughters
Canada in July, with work colleagues for a conference and then a short holiday
Norfolk in August, together with a  book-loving friend (she brought her Kindle).
Italy in September, with husband.  This was an exhausting holiday. Husband doesn't read books.  Clearly some of the others in the group (it was an accompanied tour group of 40) found it somewhat odd and thought we were mismatched.  However, many of them were on their second marriage, and I was proud to point out that we have been together over 33 years.  Sometimes things are not as they seem.  There is some very deep bond between us that nothing so far has been able to break.  And there have been some epic moments in this relationship.  As there are in all relationships.

The dry season continues.  It hasn't rained here for weeks.  I haven't written a proper blog-post for months.  This week the weather is due to change. I will start to write again. It would be fruitful to write a history of our relationship. However, a list of books I have read on holidays is more relevant to this blog.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

August Ends At Last

God, it's been a long month. It seemed like it would never come to an end.  Let's hope September turns over a new leaf.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

And More Obsessive Behaviour

Only just realised the significance of this, and the symmetry.  Had not been home 18 hours, went to shopping centre for groceries (fridge bare after hub left alone for a week) and came back with a second-hand book and a second-hand teapot from the Age Concern shop.

My excuse is that both are early Christmas purchases. Both will be presented to elder daughter.  Book is a mint hardback copy of "Things I Wish My Mother had Told Me" by Lucia van der Post, style writer for The Times.  Lots of style and manners hints.  She will love this, as last year I gave her a tiny little book on table manners for business women, and she loved that.  Her friends all wanted to borrow it and they "Found it Hilarious". The teapot is a pure white designer shape from Maxwell Williams, petite and chic.  I know she will enoy the humour, and since she has discovered the "soothing" powers of tea, she may even use it.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

And more of my self-indulgent activities on holiday

Two visits to Felbrigg (National Trust) second hand bookshop, two visits to Blickling (National Trust) second hand bookshop.  Dropped in on two second hand book shops in Norwich.  Bought four books in all. 

I Indulge My Obsessions

First, the cottage in the country.  An obsession for at least 15 years, shared with many of my friends, just to get away from everyone, the house, the kids, the husband, and live alone with a woodburning stove, roses outside the door, endless piles of books to read, and no interruptions.  Thank you, Norfolk Country Cottages for bringing my dreams to life.  Including the cups of tea outside the back door early in the morning.  (At home, our back door is in full view of the entire road, so not a place one can sit outside barely dressed catching the early morning sun.  I've asked to have  a new door built from our kitchen into the garden which would be private, but even my best friend agrees that this is not practical).

Second, my harmless delight in drinking tea.  I took four different kinds, and all were used.  Including the leaf tea, for which I took my tea-strainer.  I drew the line at taking a teapot, reasoning (correctly) that any self-respecting cottage would have a teapot. 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

End of Any Hope for My New Phone

Younger daughter has departed, without finding time to help me understand my phone.  In her defence, she has had a headache since Monday, and feels rubbish.  Now I have to wait for elder daughter who is visiting over the Bank Holiday weekend, in two weeks' time.

I am not optimistic.  Originally she had promised that we would go to see Harry Potter together, but has already back-tracked on that, as a more enticing social offer has come up.

When we got our upgrade notification, I suggested to hub that we should have the same model, as we could then "Help each other".  Some hope.  Yesterday he left his phone at home all day, so couldn't answer daughter when she called him to ask for the alarm code.  (She could see the phone through the window, it was  lying on the kitchen table).  Today he has left his phone at work, and needs it at home this evening.  What can you do with him.

I briefed my neighbour this evening that I would be away next week, and hub would be on his own.  She needed no further instruction.  "I'll keep an eye on him," she promised.  Last time I went away, she fetched the  milk in when he left it out all day, and watered my plants when he forgot.  She and her husband are both retired and at home all day. She says he has more than once come home at lunchtime without his key, and they have rescued him. (They keep a key all the time.  Such great neighbours!) So he isn't a prospect for phone help, either. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


Younger daughter is sulking on the sofa.  Her phone ran out of battery when she was calling me to ask for our alarm code. So she had to wait in the garden for an hour until I got home from work. She blames me and has already shouted at me.  I pointed out that it was not my fault her phone ran out of battery, and I was not in the mood for being shouted at.  Strange how I always hope for a lovely time when she comes home to visit, and how so often she is in a foul mood.

So I dare not raise the idea of her helping me to find out how to use my new phone.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

New Phone

Arguments, controversy, three trips to phone shops, where assistants vary  -  some helpful others not so.  I now have new phone and, of course, I can't work it properly.  Oh, yes, I can send and read texts, and I've found the alarm clock (essential for one who gets up at 5 am), but internet?  Totally lost.  And how annoying is this touch and stroke screen.  Fortunately younger daughter is coming home next week for a couple of days.  I hope she is in a patient mood.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Typical Family Holiday

Stress packing up to set off- not because of toddlers, nappies, high-chairs and travel cots.  Twenty years later the stress derives from the girls' work schedules - both were due to check in to the family home the evening before we were to set off.  One did, but late in the evening.  The other texted to say she had to work late, and would we pick her up from the railway station in our home town at 08.50 the next morning.  We were due to be in Manchester for lunch with mother-in-law at 12.30.  And the daughter who had managed to get home was still in bed at 08.15.  The stress was considerable, but we made it, had lunch, and arrived at the holiday rental by early evening.

As with almost every family holiday I can remember, the day we travelled, cooped up in the car (and in the lunch venue) was our best day weather-wise.  Glorious, 100-watt sunshine and 26 degrees.

The following day the temperature dropped 15 degrees, and in the next week it rained almost every day for varying periods of time.

We even went to Ambleside to buy water-proof trousers for the girls, just as we did 14 years ago.  The difference was that this time they paid for their own water-proof trousers, and they enjoyed the longish walks we went on, instead of moaning the whole time that their legs were tired and that it was boring.

One member of the family party is ill or suffers from some health problem on nearly every family holiday - this time it was younger daughter, whose digestive system rebelled.  We think it was sheer exhaustion from having been under continual stress at work since Christmas, and the sudden complete relaxation.

We did home cooking in the holiday rental five nights out of seven.  The difference was that husband did all the cooking, and I did not feel one iota of guilt.  I had told him I didn't mind eating in as long as he did the cooking.  My new, much more high-powered job is the reason for this. (No longer can I be typecast as silly old mum who does a poxy little part-time job, more of a hobby really, and can always be treated as the family doormat).

This sense of empowerment extended to standing up for myself later in the week when younger daughter tried her usual trick of rudeness, laziness and completely selfish behaviour.  I told her she was a little bitch.  I am not proud of this, but neither did I feel the shame and guilt I would have all the time I was just a home-mummy, as she called it.  I stuck by what I had said, and I think she got the message.  Her behaviour improved.

So - some aspects the same, but some changes for the better.  We may well book another self-catering family holiday next year.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


Delving into my lunch box yesterday, I was puzzled by the following deeply interesting mystery  ....
Why is a courgette different from a cucumber?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Something I've Learned

I cleared my shelves and rails to wash and iron winter things before storing them away.  This time of year is always a bit tricky - you find that just as you've packed away your last woollie in a heat wave, suddenly a chill comes over the air again.  Still, I've learned how to balance the cold with the warm and keep a few of each into the new season.

Something else I've learned, as I reviewed my clothes and noted what is never worn, season to season.

Never buy clothes on holiday. Invariably those are the ones which turn up, at the bottom of the pile, still washed and ironed from last year, and never worn. What looks good on holiday somehow doesn't fit ANY normal situation at home.

Thank goodness I never had a holiday romance!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Thought arrived this morning

Just realised, while in the shower. Three practitioners have told me, over the last 20 years, "You are very tense".  The chiropractor, the herbalist, and the dentist. They were all looking at different things (slipped disc, varicose veins, teeth grinding making them sensitive).  Odd that they all came to the same conclusion.  Odd that I don't notice it most of the time. I blame my husband, of course.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Scott and The Antarctic: Readings celebrating this as the Centenary Year of 1911-12 - the dates of the Last Expedition

Several books are worth reading.  The diaries and memoirs of those who took part are much more interesting than any books by armchair philosophisers who came later.

The Diaries of Robert Falcon Scott (Scott's Last Expedition Vol 1) This I read first and it was right to read this first. The tragedy lurks there from the first entries - a heavy emphasis on luck, or lack of it, and frequent notes to self of the kind: "We ought to get through".  References to bad luck started as early as the ship journey from New Zealand.  One can't help thinking that this is "moaning" of the worst kind - that planning should have taken mishaps into account, and that trusting to luck was too chancy when so much could go wrong.

And so much did go wrong, at every stage.  Bad weather on the journey put stress on the ponies and dogs, bad weather on landing finished off more ponies, and bad weather on the Polar journey itself held them up in camp and wasted time and provisions.  However, one can't help thinking that bad weather in Polar regions is surely inevitable.

Other disasters affected the plans for the Polar journey itself.  The motor transports failed very early on, and the dogs were not used as effectively as they could have been.  The ponies sickened and died.

Throughout, however, the hand-picked team of volunteers worked hard and did their absolute best to overcome difficulties and pull through. This perhaps, is the source of the great heroic myth - these men did things that should not be asked of any man. Some died, others went mad, many were marked for life. 

The thing you have to keep remembering, though, is that Scott wrote these diaries each day, not at the end of the expedition.  He didn't know how it was going to turn out, not until the last month, when the writing was on the wall.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is all the more poignant, all the more tragic.  The last entries, written lying starving and frost-bitten trapped by a blizzard in the tent, really tear the heartstrings.

Two survivors wrote their memoirs as soon after the debacle of the First World War as was possible - Scott's second-in-command Edward Evans, in 1921, closely followed the following year by the expedition's second-youngest member, the gentleman amateur Apsley Cherry-Garrard.  "Cherry" as he was known, paid £1,000 (about £100,000 in today's money) to be allowed to take part in the expedition.  Even so, he would not have been accepted, (others had offered as much), except that he was connected to the expedition's lead scientist, Edward Wilson, and recommended by him.

Cherry was one of the three members of the "Winter Journey", a three-man mini-expedition to find Emperor penguins eggs, which, because of their nesting habits, could only be found unhatched in the middle of the Antarctic winter.  It was thought that these eggs might supply important scientific evidence about the links between birds and earlier forms of life.  His book, "The Worst Journey in the World", does include a chapter about the winter journey, but much more of it is about Scott and the final tragedy.

Cherry's lasting personal legacy from the trip was that it took out of him "an overdraft on my vital capital, which I shall never quite pay off..."  His health was compromised for life, both physically and mentally.  More than that, it left him with a guilt that he never shook off.  He was the leader of a two-man dog-party sent south in March 2012. His trip was, with hindsight, the last realistic chance of anyone finding the returning Polar party alive. However, due to lack of sufficient dog-food to progress further, and due to conflicting orders regarding what his trip was actually supposed to achieve, he obeyed the clearest available instruction, which was not to risk the lives of the dogs. After waiting at One Ton Camp (eleven miles from Scott's last camp) for six days, he returned before the dog food ran out.  At the time he turned back, the party were about sixty miles away.  Had he known where they were, and been free to make the judgement to risk the dogs, he might have been able to save them.

The whole Polar expedition, as Cherry himself so aptly judges, "...Simply bristles with 'ifs':  If Scott had taken dogs and succeeded in getting them up the Beardmore; if we had not lost those ponies on the Depot journey; if the dogs had not been taken so far and the One Ton Depot had been laid; if a pony and some extra oil had been depoted on the barrier; if a four man party had been taken to the Pole; if I had disobeyed my instructions and gone on from One Ton, killing dogs as necessary; or even if I had just gone on a few miles and left some food and fuel under a flag upon a cairn; if they had been first at the Pole; if it had been any other season than that....... But always the bare fact remains that Scott could not have travelled from McMurdo Sound to the Pole faster than he did except with dogs....."  All those words are Cherry's, and no revisionist book debunking the hero myth has ever been able to sum it up better.

The biggest mistake of all was not to rely on dogs. Dogs pulled better than men, who wore themselves out completely. Dogs could start earlier than ponies, who pulled heavy loads but could not cope with the severe weather in order to start earlier.  Starting late meant returning late, when the Polar winter was again approaching.  The extremely severe cold encountered on the return journey was undoubtedly a very considerable factor in the Polar party's demise.  Parties returning earlier, (the support parties), had not suffered as much from cold.

The second-biggest mistake was, to my way of thinking, to take five men to the Pole at the last minute.  As Cherry, again, analysed it:   "The final advance to the Pole was to have been made by four men.  We were organised in four-men units; our rations were made up for four men for a week; our tents held four men; our cookers held four mugs, four pannikins and four spoons.  ...He (Scott) changed his mind and went forward a party of five".  Scott soon admitted in his diary that it took considerably longer to cook each day for five than for four.  This took time which was needed for covering ground fast before winter approached. The rations were all out of kilter, as well, of course, but it was the time taken which was the factor Scott wrote that he "had not considered when reorganising".

There were many other "if only" clauses, but those two were most weighty.  For both, only Scott could be blamed.  Therefore, it is not really necessary to plough through the revisionist text "Scott and Amundsen, the Last Place on Earth" by Roland Huntford.  This is a most unpleasant book.  I have reached half-way through and have only just come across the first faintly flattering phrase about Scott.  The rest of it reads like propaganda.  Every last little fact related about Amundsen hammers home his superior qualities, every last little fact dug up about Scott emphasises his total weakness of character, which underpinned every bad decision he made.  There is a nasty flavour to it.

Anyway, we don't really need it.  Cherry and other survivors analysed the reasons for defeat 90 years ago.  Huntford's book caused a sensation when it was first published, because prior to that all the public statements, news reports, films,  had been about the heroism of the Scott expedition.   You had to read quite carefully and between the lines to find the criticism in Cherry and Evans' respective books, but the criticism was there all the same.

Cherry noted that in the last double-team marches, prior to the return of the Last Supporting Party (which was that of Evans), with the Pole now within reach, Scott forced the pace too hard.    "Surely and not very slowly, Scott's team began to wear down the other team  .....  What did not appear until after the Last Returning Party had turned homewards was that the first team (Scott's) was getting worn out too."  The price was paid on the return journeys.  Evans fell victim to scurvy, and nearly died.  Scott's team, in Cherry's words, "broke up unexpectedly and in some respects rapidly from the 88th parallel onwards".  This was before the Pole.  Nervous energy and grim ambition kept them going.  They reached their goal to find that Amundsen had been there first, and all that had been buoying them up was now deflated.  "We have had a horrible day .." wrote Scott on 17th January 1912, after finding that he had been beaten.  "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.  I wonder if we can do it."  All the bounce had gone out of him.  They were all feeling the cold, and had nothing to hold on to in the way of an ideal.  "Well, we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging - and good-bye to most of the day-dreams!"  So wrote Scott on the same day, 17th January.  Day-dreams are certainly not the best foundation for such an expedition.  Now they were gone, and it was all slog from now on.

They might have made it, if they had marked their cairns better, and not had to waste so much time looking for their next food depot.  If the paraffin canisters had been effectively researched prior to setting off from England, so that the fuel did not evaporate, leaving them crucially short as they struggled back.  If they had been four not five, if they had not hauled half a man's weight in stones and rock samples, if they had not wasted an afternoon collecting rock samples, if Cherry had come back to look for them.

Much has been made of whether the sickening of two of the team, and in particular Captain Oates,  held them up unduly.  It is not possible to tell.  Only one man, it appears, was not suffering from any injury at all on the return journey, and this was "Little" Bowers, ( a Homeric epithet often used by Scott, unwittingly belittling perhaps the strongest man in the expedition).  Dr Wilson strained a tendon in his leg, Seaman Evans (not to be confused with Officer Evans who succumbed to scurvy on his return journey) lost morale, fell into crevasses repeatedly, and died, perhaps of poor morale, but more likely of hypothermia and malnutrition.

The story of Captain Oates is so well-known it has passed into legend and cliche.  What is less well known is that by the time of the last camp, Scott had also lost a foot to frost-bite and could hardly walk.  The reason was that, starving and desperate for nourishment, he made an error of judgement.  "Like an ass I mixed a small spoonful of curry poweder with my melted pemmican - it gave me violent indigestion.  I lay awake and in pain all night; woke and felt done on the march; foot went and I didn't know it.  A very small measure of neglect and have a foot which is not pleasant to contemplate" .......The next day he wrote "Amputation is the least I can hope for now, but will the trouble spread?" On this very same day, he was "within 11 miles of depot" but trapped in the tent by a blizzard which prevented his companions from setting off for fuel without him. The rest is history.

Analysts and polar historians have pored over the letters and diaries left behind by those who died. Much nearer to the events, Cherry tried to find an explanation.  He wrote in his book:

"There was something wrong with this party: more wrong, I mean, than was justified by the tremendous journey they had already experienced.  Except for the blizzard at the bottom of the Beardmore and the surfaces near the Pole, it had been little worse than expected. .... There seems to be an unknown factor here somewhere."

Although no records state that Scott's team had scurvy, they had gone without fresh food  longer than any other group.  The second-longest trekking team (Lt Evans' party) developed symptoms, and Evans nearly died of it.  It seems likely that Scott and his team were also succumbing.  This would explain why they felt the cold more, why Seaman Evan's wounds did not heal, and why their morale was suffering.

Was there another unknown factor?
Lt Evans "the last to see Scott alive" wrote his own survivor memoir, "South With Scott".  He made a great success of his later life, attaining medals in war-time and a high rank in his career with the Royal Navy.  He was undoubtedly a man of character.

His book does not critcise Scott, but when Scott criticised HIM (for not keeping up, as referred to above in the last stages of the last double-march), he stood up for himself robustly. " I had a long talk next morning after breakfast with Scott. He was disappointed with our inability to keep up with the speed of the main party, but I pointed out thhat we could not expect to do the same as fresh men - the other eight had only put on the sledge harness for the first time on December 10:  Scott agreed, but seemed worried and fretful..." Evans was not the man to be disloyal, but neither did he conceal material facts.  His team had been with the motorised sledges, which had failed very early on, and consequently, as he pointed out, they had been man-hauling for 400 miles already, when others had been leading ponies or driving dogs.

On Christmas Day, 1911, there were only two teams left - Scott and Lt Evans.  They were now 8,000 feet above sea level, and were  feeling the cold far more than when marching earlier stages. Evans describes the scenery as "magnificent, though lonely and awful in its stillness.  One would very soon go mad without company down here."

After striking camp on Christmas Day, ..." in an incredibly short space of time both teams swung Southward, keeping step, and with every appearance of perfect health.  But a close observer, a man trained to watch over men's health, over athletes training, perhaps, would have seen something amiss.  The two teams, in spite of the Christmas spirit, and the 'Happy Christmas' greetings they exchanged to begin with, soon lost their springy step, the sledges dragged more slowly, and we gazed ahead almost wistfully.  Yes, the strain was beginning to tell, though none of us would have confessed it."

On 4th January 1912, exactly one year after their ship came to the end of its journey and they landed at Cape Evans, Lt Evans' party turned back.  The long journey home, with only three men (Scott had taken their fourth, to make his party up to five for the Pole), was tough.  "I soon realised that the ceding of one man from my party had been too great a sacrifice .... the three of us literally stole minutes and seconds from each day in order to add to our marches, but it was a fight for life..." (Scott, meanwhile, with further to go, was losing half an hour a day to extra cooking time).  These factors add to our understanding of the disaster in waiting for the Polar party.

One further aspect struck me - the loneliness of being a party without any running mates.  "Day after day" (wrote Lt Evans) "we fought our way northward over the high Polar tableland.  The silence now that we had no other party with us was ghastly, for beyond the sound of our own voices and the groaning of the sledge runners when the surface was bad there was no sound whatever to remind us of the outer world."

Evans had good rapport with his two team-mates, who saved his life, and to whom his book is dedicated.  Scott, the leader, the founding spirit behind the entire expedition, must have felt the loneliness even more, and the responsibility.  Perhaps one of the things that was missing, on that journey home, was the reassuring presence of another team, with its own team-leader, sharing the responsibility. Lt Evans, Scott's second-in-command, was highly capable, practical and intelligent, and would never give up.  Perhaps the moral support of another group,  in which one could find companionship, encouragement, and pacemakers, outside one's own team, was the last missing link in the chain which Cherry, struggling to discern the causes, observed when he wrote those poignant words: "There was something wrong with this party. "

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan

Gosh, it's more than a month since I last posted.  I have been SO busy at work. And flat out exhausted when I got home.  Then we had a week in Somerset in a holiday cottage, no internet access.  However, it was not all hard work, on 9th April I met my old friend in London and we went to the Saturday matinee at the Haymarket Theatre. 

This year is the centenary of Rattigan's birth.  It's odd, how some people have a centenary absolutely plugged to the limit, and others pass almost unnoticed (here I am thinking of Elizabeth Gaskell, born 1810, whose 200 year milestone was unmarked last year, as far as I could see).

Anyway, Rattigan was a playwright, not a novelist, so it is down to theatre owners, producers and directors rather than the BBC, to mark the occasion, and mark it they have, big time.  Trevor Nunn, a very famous and distinguished director, mounted this production, which stars the famous-for-being-phone-tapped Sienna Miller.  She was good, actually. Better than I expected, for a movie actress acting on stage in a large old theatre without mikes.

My friend, Sheran, is exactly a year younger than me, to a week, and we met at York in 1974, when we were both studying English there, and shared a flat for one memorable year.  We still share our love of books and literature.

We both agreed that this was a beautifully written old-fashioned drama, replete with emotion, completely transparent in that there was no subtext, no obscure symbolism nor Pinter-esque subterfuge, silences or any nasty business.  It was heroic and poignant and ended happily.  We absolutely loved it.

At the end of the first act, the auditorium is deafened by the sound of  bombers taking off overhead, with a shadow picture of them projected above the stage.  This brought tears to our eyes.  We didn't actually live through World War II, but our fifties childhoods were absolutely saturated with it.  I was born in May 1953, she in May 1954.  Total baby-boomers, both of us, spoilt blue-eyed daughters of returning servicemen, we grew up surrounded by little boys playing soldiers, and listening to our elders recalling the bombs, the ration-books, the fear and uncertainty from day to day.  No-one knew how it would end.  Victory from our view today looks inevitable, but as they lived through it, our parents had no idea what was going to happen.

We grew up listening to air force slang, and didn't realise that it was slang, thinking that was how our fathers and uncles talked, and it was plain English.

Electrifying, this production recalled it all.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The End of an Era

The last independent shop, not part of any chain, in the town centre, has closed.  When we moved to this town, 29 years ago, the centre was full of small family businesses, all of which fell victim to extortionate rents and council tax, and the pressure of huge mulit-million dollar international businesses, which could afford to take a hit here because they would make it up in some other city centre.

I really, really wanted to cry when I (ironically) cycled past the bike shop.  Here we bought our children's first bikes, here we took their bikes to be repaired, here our children, now independent teenagers, went for advice on lights, helmets, cycle locks.  And were always received by the proprietor with time, courtesy and a range of products to choose from, backed by expert advice.  Only two months ago, I took my bike to be serviced, and it came back like new, with a new front light already fitted, and a free straightening of the front handle-bar which we only noticed was crooked as I was wheeling it out of the shop.

Now the window shows a pile of old second-hand televisions (overspill from the semi-pawn shop next door) and a sign reading "For Sale".

I really wanted to cry, but I found that my policy, developed over the last ten years or so, of never letting any person hurt to me that deeply, has had an unexpected side effect.  My tears have dried up for others, as well as for myself.  I wanted to be tougher, and now I am so tough, I can't express my sorrow for others.

This is perhaps not the result I wanted.   Is there a way back for me from this place, I wonder?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

"Started Early, Took My Dog" by Kate Atkinson

Nearly all the books I buy are second hand (or much older than that). I get them from charity shops or from Amazon, both utterly inexhaustible treasure-chests of delight.

Occasionally, though, I can't wait for the latest best-seller to turn up in the Salvation Army shop. 

Last week I bought the latest novel by Kate Atkinson, whose first book, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" was set in York, my alma mater.  That was prize-winning literary fiction, a one-off and hard to repeat, and in fact the author has never been able to repeat that strange, deep and eccentric genius, so this talented writer has more recently turned to detective fiction.

I bought this book from Sainsbury's on a "two-for £7.00" offer, and I paid for it with my Nectar vouchers so effectively it was free.  I don't know why I feel compelled to share that information.

Just like the last four books of hers that I've read, I found this a completely compulsive page-turner. I read it in a little over 6  hours.  I can be specific, because I read it on three return journeys by train, plus a few pages at the end finishing off at home.

Just like all her other books except the first, which was really quite mystical, this one left me feeling like you do after you've compulsively gobbled your way through a box of medium-quality chocolates.  Stuffed, slightly depressed, and somewhat sick.  Cheap chocs you don't finish, very expensive ones you can take in small doses and they don't leave you feeling any the worse.  This is the range in between. 

You feel sick because there are so many murders in the book, and so many really quite ridiculous co-incidences.  Why keep on reading?  Because of the story, you really want to find out what happens next.  And because of  the throw-away lines about modern Britain throughout the book, which keep you engaged, keep you waiting for the next one.  This is really what it's like in UK in 2010, you think, I so recognize that.

Almost all KA's books have the murder of a child at the heart of the story.  You would like to think that's unrealistic, but oh, no, it is all too easy to see echoes of so many real-life child victims ..  dead children and lost - little Madeleine McCann and Shannon Matthews as well.

Quite a few deaths in this story, oh, no, not too far-fetched at all. I heard a real-life story from the factory manager at work today which matched one of the characters almost exactly - a man strangled his awkward ex-lover.  In the real life case, the children had already lost their father to cancer, so they are now orphans.  Just like the book.

KA leaves a marker for her next book at the end, as a third lost child is never explained, and we will have to wait to find out her story.  I will no doubt buy this one new as well.  Some books are worth it.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Astonishing Splashes of Colour" by Claire Morrall

Shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize and published by the Tindal Street Press, a small independent company based in Birmingham which also published the 2008 Costa winner, "What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn.  (The latter a simply amazing book about which I noted in my book diary "Best book I've read for years - comparable with JD Salinger".)  Claire Morrall is not quite so good, but clearly in the same vein.  The book is original, local (set in Birmingham), very easy to read, looks into a  dysfunctional but very lovable loner's private inner life, and has an unhappy ending.

This is perfect entertainment reading.  You feel very strongly for the central character, and will forgive her anything, (including snatching a new-born baby, and abducting a child) because of her unhappiness and sensitivity.  There are some major plot surprises, too. 

The author has since written a novel about a female sufferer from Asperger's syndrome.  I will look out for that. 

Sunday, 27 February 2011

"The Lost Child" by Julie Myerson

This book raised a media firestorm when it was published a couple of years ago.  The author was widely reviled for writing about her own child in excruciating detail and honesty.  She and her husband were interviewed on TV and asked whether they thought it  was right to expose a living family member (and an immature one at that, who has a long way to go in life with this burden hanging over him) to public scrutiny in this way.  The gist of their response was, that, upsetting as it was, it was important to tell the truth about drug addiction within a nice middle-class family, including the effects on the child himself and the immediate family circle.  A further scandal was roused by the fact that the nice middle-class parents threw the child out of the family home. This was after his addiction became too damaging to the younger children, and his aggressive teenage attitude (recognisable to all parents of teenagers) moved one step further into violence.

At the time, I vowed not to buy the book, deeming that to contribute to coffers swelled by a public display of private misery was unethical.

I did, however hint to fellow-bloggers discussing the topic that I would not be above borrowing it from a library in due course.  This I have now done.

I've read several books by JM and this is her best so far. Her fiction, whilst readable and persuasive, always has an undertone of forced articifice.  Now you might say, that's fiction, but it works best if you are not aware of the fake.  It feels like she said to herself, "Oh, I have a holiday home in Southwold, so I'll set a story in Southwold."  Or, "I feel like a trip to Paris, so I'll go there, pick up some local vibe on expenses, and start a story about it."

Her best work to date, I thought, was "Home" in which she researched "The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House."  Some of the visits to record offices did become too detailed, and more severe editing would have been beneficial, but generally the story flew.  Where it really took off, and you just wanted to know more and more, was when the author extrapolated from the known facts and imagined more details, and events that might have happened.  Clearly this is her gift.

In "The Lost Child" the premise is that JM is asked to research and write about a young girl of the early 19th century, who died too young of tuberculosis, like many others in her family.  This time, however, the story never takes off.  Julie dutifully spends time sifting though boxes, uncovering documents in record offices and searching for inscriptions in graveyards.  However, her mind is always on the state of her own eldest son, on his descent from a bright and helpful young teenager to a surly sloth, and further down still to enslavement by a 21st century scourge - drug-taking.  This story takes over until the original theme fades into an almost superfluous backdrop. 

Her son's picture appears in "Home" as an adored new-born in the arms of an "ecstatic" father, as a toddler "blonde and dimpled and dungareed", under the eerily prescient words "Where did that small child go?"

Did Julie tempt fate?

Or was there something the family could have done differently?  Far be it from me to judge.  The reader is swept along in the narrative of the author's own lost child, all the time wondering how the book could possibly end. 

That's probably a question I am still asking.  What HAS happened to Jake now?  Did the spotlight that fell on him at eighteen redeem him from the crooked path he was following?  Did he stick out the college course he enrolled for, and was he welcomed back into the family home?  How are the parents coping now, with whatever has developed since his mother's final page?

Julie always wrote from the heart, or appeared to, in this book.  The only time she stepped back into discretion was when she described the process of helping her son's former "girlfriend" to abort her possible grandchild.  She was able to achieve remarkable detachment on that score, possibly for legal reasons.  So I totally believed that she was writing verbatim when she reported the conversation with Jake after he read the book.  He came across as remarkably rational and capable of analysing the situation dispassionately. "There is hope for this young man," I thought as I turned the final page. I hope I'm not wrong.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

They say that the average person waits 9 years before seeking help for OCD

Trouble is, I can't remember when it started.  All I do know, is that it started as a strategy so rational, so organised.  After discovering cat-pooh on the bathroom carpet, (and aware of the germs carried in pet faeces), it seemed so sensible to ban outdoor shoes in the house. 

After two bad doses of flu, it seemed so normal to wash my hands carefully after every visit to a toilet (even in my own house).

Somehow, I have morphed into a person who flies into a frenzy if anyone steps past the utility room in outdoor shoes, and provides visitors with indoor thick socks to wear (to their embarrassment).

I have morphed into a person who avoids touching any surface in public toilets with my bare hands.  I use my sleeve to open and shut the cubicle, my coat-tails to grasp the heavier external door, toilet tissue to hold down the flush lever.  And then I wash my hands three times and dry them with my own tissue kept in my coat pocket.

This all wastes a lot of time.  At work, I keep Milton Steriliser fluid in the kitchen cupboard to rinse my mug at the end of the day.  (It does a magical job of removing tea stains, too).  I grasp the door handles with hand towel papers to make my exit.  I turn up the bottoms of my trousers so that they don't touch the toilet floor.

Periodically, I clean my desk with Milton Steriliser fluid, which takes the shine off the surface.

Now that I've put all that down, it doesn't seem so bad, somehow.  I don't think I'll seek help just yet.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Today I realise something new

I realised today why I am happy being an accountant.  Some people might think a person who loves reading should be doing something more bookish - the books one does are not literary.  I'm happy because I NEVER have to pretend to be more stupid than I am.  Not for 40 hours of the week, anyway.

This revelation hit me after a visit to the breast cancer screening service.  Being over 50, I am invited every three years to be screened.  I missed my last visit, feeling that I was probably fine, the process was uncomfortable, and anyway, I'd read somewhere that the squashing might do more harm than good.

After a friend a year younger than me was diagnosed and operated on, my resolve was shaken.  Then I read a marvellous book about the Victorians by Judith Flanders.  The descriptions of the course things took when there was no treatment (other than the mastectomy without anaesthetic endured by Fanny Burney around the turn of the nineteenth century - she survived another 28 years) horrified me.  The pain, the long, slow, debilitating death.  Jane Austen's cousin, the delightful and fey Eliza de Feuillide, suffered the same fate.

I told the radiographer about the effect of the Victorian book. She looked at me as though I were mad.  I immediately dumbed down, and made some self-derogatory remark. 

It was later that I realised I never have to do this at work.  The cleverer the better, in accountancy.

And so for my first post

Sorry, I can't resist this.  I've found the perfect remedy for getting the sticky gunge from sticking plasters off my mobile phone!  (No, the phone didn't cut itself, I just left it too close to the spare plaster I packed in case I cut my finger at work).  Just wipe it with nail varnish remover!