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.