Monday, 17 December 2012

Poem by Edward Thomas

And You, Helen

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Switch Back

Now I am feeling depressed.  Not clinically depressed of course.  Just back to the negative feelings about younger daughter (recap, age 25,  had good job, has given it up to slave in a ski chalet for 65 euros a week, no holiday and one day off a week for five months).

At first we got no emails at all - a sure sign that EITHER
a) she was having a fantastic time or
b) they had been put to work as soon as they arrived and were working flat out from Sunday morning onwards.

It turned out to be (b).

Hubby and I read her ghastly descriptions when they were finally emailed, and told each other "She'll soon get this out of her system, no worries, after five months of this she'll be glad to go back to a professional job".

But no.

Today's email reported that she was getting the "boring accountant" out of her system, and was confident that she was well on the way to become a "fun" person.

I am sad.  Is this what I gave my all for, over 20 years of education, paid for, no debts, endless support, endless comfort and taxi service, home cooking, etc etc etc?

It appears that her sole ambition is to be a "fun" person and to have "fun".

I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart that never in all my 59 years has it ever been my ambition to have fun.

I wanted to do good in the world, to contribute something, to be part of a team doing something worthwhile, to communicate, to be intellectually stimulated.   Not altogether! In roughly that sequence.

It's still my ambition, even after being humiliatingly dismissed earlier this year from my main job, to contribute something to the household budget, to be as near as possible financially independent, to keep myself fit and intellectually occupied, and to waste no time watching daytime television.

So it was with some sadness that I read her words.  I still haven't decided how much to tell her dad, who is even more serious than me, who has slogged even harder than me, and longer, to give her the privileged start in life she so carelessly dismisses. 

Will she grow out of this?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Two insights and a revelation

I have now come down with a really ghastly cold and lost my voice.  For a person who loves talking next best after reading this is hard to bear.  Especially when a best friend came to stay overnight on Friday, and we drove down to London together on Saturday.   This is the friend with whom I have been on holiday twice, in holiday cottages in Norfolk and Dorset, and on each occasion we hardly drew breath in all our waking hours.  This weekend I just had to curb my enthusiasm.

Anyway, we were talking (of course) about her negative feelings about her husband and mine about younger daughter.  It made me realise, that of course this is just me being at a low ebb.  Of course I love younger daughter to bits, and want her to enjoy her ski season immensely, and wish her the best.

This is what made me realise that the problem was within me.  I was hearing my friend criticising her hub, and seeing that, actually, the poor guy is just the same as he has been for the last ten years (namely, not very exciting, has some irritating habits, etc).  I could see that the problem really is that she herself is completely worn out, from working full-time, having three adult children still living at home and trying to keep it all together.

So then I realised that I too, was quite low from being ill, and that was why I felt negative.

Fortunately, daughter and I parted on good terms at the bus station.  I helped her with her luggage, made sure that we stopped the postman as we drove up the road (he had the Foreign Exchange cash card in that day's delivery, which of course she needed for her trip), helped her find the place to wait, suggested she wrote her name on her luggage, and helped her with her sandwiches.  And of course I told her I loved her, and gave her lots of hugs.

So that was OK.

With my friend, I told her that you never know what's round the corner, and as her husband is ten years older than she is, it would be better to forget bad things that have happened and focus on the good in whatever time there is left.

She said she thought I was right, and would try to.

My last revelation was how much my husband was clearly enjoying me not talking all the time!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

I have to have a good moan

I've realised what's been pressing down on me for the last two weeks, stopping me from getting on with anything and making me feel drained and irritated.

It's the presence in the house of younger daughter, (aged 25).  This girl is now a grown adult, and yet when in the house she persists in behaving like a stroppy teenager, complete with swearing and personal abuse.

She gave up her well paid job in accountancy at the end of October, and rented out the flat we helped her to acquire.  She brought home every possession she has, other than equipment which must be left in the flat for the tenants. We had to help her with this, naturally, and find spaces to store what won't fit in her bedroom.

She spent the first week using our washing machine non-stop, and taking up every drying space in the house.  I pointed out that she could have done all this in her own flat before she left it.

Then she went to Nepal for two and a half weeks to "trek", so there was a respite.

Now she is back home waiting to travel to France on Friday to spend five months working in a ski chalet. 

This morning, I generously allowed her to include what she said were "whites" in my pristine white wash.  The whites turned out to be mostly a filthy grey, and also to include stuff with colours of all sorts, including black, in them. 

I told her that these could not be included in my white wash, but she totally refused to accept this, and started abusing me.  In the end, I had to take my washing out of the machine, as she just would not back down. 

After she shut her bedroom door in my face when I tried to discuss the matter, I had to communicate by text.  Here's what I sent.

"I have the right to make my own decisions in my own home about my laundry arrangements.  Do not interfere and certainly you do not have the right to abuse me."

Am I over-reacting?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Perfect Afternoon

Started at the Oxfam shop, where I was due to meet my friend after her Saturday morning volunteer shift ended at 1.00pm.  Any excuse to visit a charity shop is most delightful, and to add to the pleasure there was an Age Concern shop right next door.  I bought "My Dear, I Wanted toTell You" by Louisa Young, in the Age Concern shop.  This is a novel set in the First World War, by the grand-daughter of Robert Falcon Scott's widow, Kathleen, (from her second marriage), and was serialised on Woman's Hour on publication, so I am looking forward to reading it.

Passing next door to the Oxfam shop, I was delighted to find there a set of two cassette tapes of Shirley Williams giving talks to Woman's Hour (didn't realise the common link until this afternoon), in 1996.  She is talking about her childhood, about being the daughter of one of my favourite authors of all time, Vera Brittain, and then moving on to her life in politics.  Great listening- thank goodness we didn't throw out our last ghetto blaster in a recent clear-out, as it is the only machine in the house which I can play the tapes on.

Next I picked up a copy of "The Mitfords, Letters between Six Sisters" (published 2007), edited by Charlotte Mosley, a Mitford daughter-in-law (the surname tells you which one).  This, I nearly said, would add to my collection of Mitford books, but I don't actually have this collection.  I have passed every book on to elder daughter, and she has enjoyed them just as much as I have. Jessica Mitford's famous "Hons and Rebels", two novels by Nancy, a biography of all six sisters by Mary Lovell, and lastly, Debo Devonshire's memoir, "Wait for Me".

The last is very recent, and I purchased it following a visit by elder daughter and me to Chatsworth, which we both enjoyed very much.

I was about to leave with my friend, when I spotted  W Somerset Maugham's "Cakes and Ale", a very old book first published in 1930.  I don't find WSM interesting in himself, but having just read some biographical works about Thomas Hardy, I have come across a reference to this book several times.  Apparently it contains a descriptive parody of TH, which caused great offence to the latter's widow, Florence.

To my surprise, my friend told me her book group  had read this book.  As she is thinking of leaving her book group because they persist in picking boring books, this was not a great advertisement.  However, as I said, I have a particular motive for buying this, and may not read all of it.

My friend and I then went for lunch and spent the next three and a half hours talking non-stop.  This was most enjoyable.

Later, after I returned home. I was still in non-stop talk mode, and this annoyed hubby during "Strictly".  He put up with it for so long, and then could stand it no longer. "Will you PLEASE stop talking!"  He is, as I have said before, a man of few words.

However, nothing could detract from the pure pleasure of an afternoon spent with a very old friend, which included two charity shops, a kitchen shop, and much talk about books, our daughters, our holidays, families and a long shared history.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

My Library Book

So I now owned two copies of Thomas Hardy's "Life and Art", two copies of Thomas Hardy's "Life"  and two copies of "The Young Thomas Hardy" by Robert Gittings.    I had been searching for this last on Amazon, because our local public library had the companion volume, "The Older Thomas Hardy".  I read "The Older", and returned it to the library with a suggestion.

Would they like to accept my donation of the younger?  I explained my disappointment, on finding that only half the material was available.  "I feel that other people who are studying TH may wish to have both the volumes available".  The third person I spoke to (having been passed along a chain of command) agreed.

I was pleased.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Amazon Marketplace

Secondhand books!  One of the greatest pleasures of life.  I ordered 14 books about Thomas Hardy. Such was the enthusiasm with which I pressed "buy" that I later found out I had ordered the same book in different editions in three cases.  Never mind, three of the duplicates cost the enormous sum of £0.01 each.  I can scarcely believe that anyone finds it worthwhile to trade in books that they can only sell for one penny.  I suppose that they make a small profit on the post and package costs which are £2.80 per book.

The most expensive book in the collection was only £7.49.    Two are individually numbered copies of a book published in a limited edition of two thousand.  That feels rather special, even if they are both ex-library books, with the old date-stamps still intact.  The older of the two has date stamps going back to 1938. That is almost antique!  They are from university libraries.  One of these cost £3.99 and the other £2.49.

Another book cost £0.87.  How does that work? How did someone arrive at that figure for an out-of-print copy of TH's Notebooks? 

I am not complaining.  It has been like Christmas here for the last two weeks - exciting parcels arriving by almost every post, and an absolute feast of interesting reading.

Sunday, 28 October 2012


Friends moved house, a distance of about 12 miles: not far, but enough to unsettle the cat deeply. 

After urinating in the car on the way to the new house, it hid behind the kitchen cupboards and was trapped behind the washing machine after the latter was fitted. It marked its first week in the house by keeping everyone awake yowling all night long.

Then it disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

I was rather upset by this.

I told my husband that the cat had run away and was possibly dead.

This is how he comforted me.

"Well that's the cat's problem, isn't it. The cat decided what it was going to do, and did it."

I regret to say that this made me laugh out loud.

Here's One My Friend Wrote

Here's my friend talking about a book she wrote about William Cobbett

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Lotte Kramer: New and Collected Poems, Rockingham Press 2011

Everyone should have a look at this book.  See it Here

Every school should have a copy, and keep it in alive the curriculum.

There are many poems in this book, and all are incredibly accessible and easy to read.  Some are only three lines long, but all the poems I read left a mark.

Lotte Kramer does not pretend to be a modern, an intellectual, or anything with a big handle on its name.  She is a native German, who was born in 1924 and came to this country on a Kindertransport in 1939.

She writes from the heart about the emotions she still recalls connected with her lost family.  Nowhere else have I read any account of how it felt to run down the stairs for the post each day, hoping a letter would come re-assuring her that her loved ones had survived.  They did not.

She remembers her long dead grandmother each time she picks up the handwoven tablecloth her grandmother made, now darned and mended many times. Each year there is less of the original left.

In cold weather, she remembers how she sheltered behind her mother as they toiled up a hill in snow, then tries to imagine what her relationship with her mother would have been, had it continued through turbulent adolescence to adulthood and becoming a mother herself.

In the loft is the ancient suitcase her mother packed so carefully for that journey in 1939.

My mother was also born in 1924, and was evacuated during the war, from London to Sussex.  I have a little tiny inkling of what it was like to be 15 years old and uprooted,  in a time when no-one knew what the outcome was going to be.  Many of those 15-year-olds are now dead, and most of those that are left (my dear mother-in-law, is one) cannot express their memories of that time. 

Lotte Kramer's gift is that she remembers, and expresses with the simplest clarity, in a way that strikes to the heart.

Please read.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Electronic Equipment Seduces Me, but I Resist

I've commented before on the strange dissimilarity between myself and a very old friend  (32 years and counting), concerning her dislike of second hand books. Second hand books are one of the greatest joys of my life. She already has a Kindle (150 books on it waiting to be read, when I saw her last week), and has now bought an I-pad.  I asked her what she was going to use if for, and she didn't know.  You can read books on an Ipad, as well as play games and do emails.  She already has equipment to do all that, and I have to conclude that it was the aesthetic beauty of the I-pad which she could not resist. I thought the same myself, whilst waiting in PC World recently for the stock department to cough up a result for a new laptop I was considering purchasing. I was drawn to the display of Ipads, and picked one up.  It was lovely to hold, lovely to look at, and the clarity of the graphics was just so brilliant.  I was terribly tempted, but had to keep telling myself, "You cannot run Microsoft Office on this equipment, and the whole reason I wish to buy a new laptop is so that I can run the full suite of Office equipment and send documents electronically with ease to others using the same programmes."

The possibibility of reading books on an I-Pad was not a factor at all in my thinking.  I love the feel of old books, I love the colour of old paper, and the distinctive character of different type faces.  The physical weight of a real book tells you something about the contents.  After Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize a second time last week, I retrieved from my bookcase my copy of her first win, "Wolf Hall". It's a hardback, which cost £1 in a charity shop.   About eighteen months ago, charity shops were flooded out with copies of "Wolf Hall", presumably because people had found it to be unreadable, after being given copies for Christmas.  The heavy, solemn dimensions give a preview of what the book will be like to read - not light or frothy.

At the present time, I am reading a copy of "A Pair of Blue Eyes", by Thomas Hardy.  My copy, sourced in the excellent "Oxfam" Bookshop in Guildford, was printed in 1895.  It is not a "First Edition" (the book was published in 1873), but a first "new" edition of the version printed by the American publisher, Osgood, McIlvaine.

Well over 100 years old, the spine is weak, and bits of old brown paper drop out of the binding when I prop it up in my book stand to read over meals.

The paper is yellow, the margins wide, the cut edges of the paper uneven, and the typeface small,  hard to read without my reading glasses.

Wishing to find out more about the book,  I went to the local library and took out a modern edition, "The Oxford World's Classics"  version.  This gives two maps of Wessex, a preface, an Introduction, a Note on the Text, a reading list, other historical notes, and an Appendix.

This is a pristine paperback, with a colour picture on the cover, and only one borrower has taken it out before me. It is printed in the Oxford Classics typeface, exactly the same as that used in its companion, "Jude the Obscure", also in my library pile.

The book smells of nothing, and gives out no atmosphere.  I have read all the introductions and notes, but not the text (even though it differs slightly from the earlier, as TH revised it frequently during his lifetime, and this version has taken into account revisions later than 1895).

It does not stimulate my imagination.  Reading the yellowing pages of the older book conjures up a time when women wore long skirts, had no vote and little chance of any education, and had to rely on marriage for a chance to leave the family home.  Ladies, in particular, had to be shy, modest, able to play the piano and ride a horse, and had to have a spotless and unkissed past in order to impress a gentleman suitor.  It is easy to connect with that long ago time when the book connects you with it.  The new book, a uniform edition, has no such effect.

I do feel that a Kindle would have an even more dampening effect on my imagination. 

Not long ago, on one of my now frequent visits to the library, an assistant approached me and tried to interest me in attending a lecture by Miriam Margolyes on electronic books. This lecture was free, and apparently designed to stimulate interest.

I was shocked, and told her I had no intention of moving over to electronic.  This being in the actual library, I was rather worried that in ten years time there will be no books left on the shelves.

More encouraging was a small book I saw recently in the shop in the British Library.  It was by former Booker Winner Julian Barnes, and was a hymn of praise in favour of real books, and particularly of second hand ones.  I vowed to continue building up my stocks!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Thomas Hardy

Have just found out that the film title "Dead Man Walking" is actually a quotation from a Thomas Hardy poem.  Fancy, never knew that before.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Burnt Norton, the first of Four Quartets by T S Eliot

I still have my copy of the Collected Poems of TS Eliot, bought whilst studying English Literature  years ago.  I needed it last week.  You will see why.

Elder daughter and I were spending a few days' quality time together.  We went for a walk.  Normally, we have her Dad with us, and we just follow him blindly, chatting away effortlessly while he holds the map and navigates.

This time we had to work it out for ourselves.  We got lost.  We passed the most beautiful house, set in the middle of nowhere.  High up overlooking a beautiful view, lovely 17th century proportions.  Golden Cotswold stone.

I wondered what the name of the house could be, thinking that perhaps we could then identify it on our map.  Gazing about, I noticed a figure emerging from behind a hedgerow.

This was the helpful head groundsman, who told us we were trespassing.  He also told us the name of the house - "Burnt Norton".  Of course I asked if it was connected to the poem by TS Eliot, and he confirmed that it was, and that Eliot had also been trespassing when he roamed around the garden and found some dry ponds which appear in the first section of the poem.

It was rather exciting to feel that we were following in the footsteps, quite literally, of one of the most famous writers of the 20th century.

Now my experience of TS Eliot whilst a student was mixed.  I found some of it amusing and easy to remember .

"The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock", for example, still springs to mind from time to time when one is eating a peach, or feeling one's age ("I grow old,  I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled...").

"The Waste Land" is harder, but stuffed like a plum pudding full of quotations which other authors have purloined for their later work.  ("The Grass is Singing" to name but one).

I remember thinking how difficult the Four Quartets were, and I feel no different now.  Inaccessible, repetitive in beat, emotion and thought process, and depressing.

But I am glad I have the book, and could look up the reference to the dry pools the gardener told us about.  Here it is:

"So we moved ....
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool".

The gardener gave us permission to go and look into the drained pools likewise, but we felt that we had pushed our luck in trespassing quite enough already, and progressed on our way instead.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Running Out of Time - the Advice of Marcus Aurelius

There just doesn't seem to be enough time, and what there is, redefines itself with an elastic stretch and contraction according to how much one has to do.

When did I ever find time to see friends, write blog posts, and enjoy relaxation, when I had two jobs?

One of them has come to an end.  You would have thought that I would be feeling great.  (Well, aside from the humiliation, the anger and the loss of income stream, that is).

Thinking that I would have all the time I need to take up a creative hobby, or work towards a goal, instead I find that I am wasting most of it.

I take longer to eat my breakfast, do the washing, read the paper.  I now watch more than one hour of television a week (my previous allocation).  I am doing all the cooking, instead of only half of it.

This is no good.  I must get on with something.  Otherwise, what will I have to show for the extra three days a week now at my disposal?

Searching amongst the Ordinance Survey Maps in the bookcase, I came upon my ancient copy of "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius".  (Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD) .  The inscription on the flyleaf merely states "1917".  It is nearly one hundred years old.

Did this book accompany anyone into the trenches, I wonder?  This Emperor looked too good to be true, a soldier and  philosopher king - did he have the recipe for peace and the end to all wars?

Sadly not.  He was called upon to attend to war, and died after winning a victory.

However, he has this piece of advice:

"Wander at random no longer.  Alas! you have no time to peruse your diary, to read over Greek and Roman hisory, or so much as your own commonplace book, which you collected to serve you when you were old."  [Note to self - could this be an early version of a blog?]

"Hasten then towards the goal."

Sunday, 9 September 2012

On Top Of the World

So at last we had a full week of holiday, the first hubby has had in 12 months.  Both our darling daughters came with us for part of the time.  As one is soon to go to Brussels for a year and the other to a ski season in France for a season, this could well be the last time we are all together until next summer.

We went up Mount Snowdon on the miniature steam railway, and this is what we saw at the top.   We were really on top of the world.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

And So To Windsor and the Knights of the Garter

Taking with us the afore-mentioned book by the  ex-King, HRH the Duke of Windsor, KG, in order to look up references in the extensive index.  We were both fascinated to learn, in the great hall of St George, of the derivation of the Knights of the Garter, (KG).  Only in the mid-twentieth century was anyone not a Duke, Earl or Lord, or King of a foriegn land, designated with this honour. 

Round the walls of the hall are wooden panels, each listing, in numerical order, the name of every one of the  Knights since Edward III created the order in the distant past.  Each has his number. We have just reached the thousands, and I wanted to see who had the magic number 1,000.  It was Prince William, in 2008.  How lovely. We both think the world of the handsome prince.

As far as I could see, Stanley Baldwin was the first of common blood to be named KG.  Could it be a coincidence that he was also the Prime Minister who firmly blocked every avenue but abdication from the haplessly besotted Edward VIII? The designation is in the gift of the Sovereign. 

I had picked up from the book that the two brothers were very close, particularly in boyhood.  The popular story is that it was Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, wife of younger brother George (who became George VI on the abdication), who put the boot in for the Windsors and spoiled any chance of reconciliation. Who knows. 

Anyway, it was interesting to note how no-one except Montgomery of Alamein and a handful of Conservative Prime Ministers (among them Margaret Thatcher) had made it on to the list.  We both found it amusing to note that Tony Blair has not been honoured, nor Gordon Brown.

I remarked ruefully that it was far too late in life now to make it my ambition to be honoured with the title of Knight of the Garter.

Later, we walked over the river to Eton.  I spotted an Age Concern shop, and acquired my eighth small teapot of the year, this one being a striking 1950's design in black and white.  It cost £1.  Hubby spotted a Gary Rhodes cookbook for £2.50 and bought it.  This is an amazing breakthrough - getting my husband into a charity shop at all, and then him actually buying a book!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

"A King's Story", by HRH the Duke of Windsor

A Book for Every Occasion - that's me.  This year, I've followed all the big celebrations. 

The 100th Anniversary of the death of Scott in the Antarctic - I own a dozen books on this subject, the latest being the newest, published late last year in time for the Xmas market:  "The Last Photographs of Captain Scott", a Christmas gift from elder daughter.  The author is David Wilson,  great-nephew of Edward Wilson, Scott's close friend and fellow explorer.  So poignant.

The 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens - yes, I own most of the novels, and the latest biography, "Charles Dickens, A Life", by Claire Tomalin.  Again a timely publication ready for this anniversary.

I've been to two Dickens exhibitions and two Scott of the Antarctic exhibitions.

Then it was the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  Never one to do things by halves, I bought six Jubilee mugs and two Jubilee tea caddies.  I've also been to Sandringham twice and last week, (courtesy of darling elder daughter once more), to Buckingham Palace.  Darling daughter is an actuary and earns more than her father, although only 27.  She has bucked the trend of the Generation Y-ers as being lamented in the press this week and last.  She presented us with vouchers for Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle as Christmas presents.  Windsor coming up.

So I dug out my maroon-coloured dog-eared hardback, "A King's Story" by the late Duke of Windsor.  The book is dedicated  "To Wallis", but the late Duchess doesn't appear much.  When the book was written in 1950, it would have been highly inappropriate to detail the progression of the relationship from initial meeting to sexual obsession.

What is really interesting is the first two-thirds of the book, where we are given an intimate insider's view of life growing up in the Royal Family.  Having been to Sandringham, it was lovely to read of the author's childhood spent largely in that rural residence, whilst waiting for his father, George V, to inherit the crown and thus move to Buckingham Palace.

Another fascinating insight is the royal protocols and fancy dress parades, which really don't seem to have changed at all since Queen Victoria's time.  Not that I'm complaining, mind you.  I see absolutely nothing wrong with spending some of the nation's cash on things which will entertain and bring a smile and a diversion to our boring mundane lives.

Which brings me to the Olympics.  Marvellous spectacle, and didn't we do well!  A big hand for Great Britain, and let's hope that now we can stop being so miserable all the time, stop downplaying our achievements and instead celebrate our strengths.  The organisation was absolutely impeccable, and that alone is a skill we should be marketing around the world.  I haven't seen any books about the Olympics yet, but will keep a look out. Bradley Wiggins is due to bring a book out in October, I believe).

So, there is only one more anniversary this year that I am aware of.  This will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Emma Hardy, the first wife of Thomas.  As she inspired many of his greatest poems, I hope that we will be treated to some celebration of her otherwise quiet and unremarkable life.

Am keeping a look out.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Where to start

So, we went on holiday to the Peak District to a rented cottage.  I already knew that everyone else would be leaving on Tuesday evening, because they all needed to attend to work issues.  Two daughters could not spare any more holiday (obviously, they need to go on holiday with people their own age and we are just so lucky they want to come with us at all).  Hubby, who already cancelled our ten days in the Western Isles booked earlier in the year due to a work crisis, could only spare two days, Monday and Tuesday.

So what was my surprise, when younger daughter (25) announced during one of our five-mile walks: "Dad and I are going to go to New York for a week in November." 

I began to get a small inkling of what it must feel like if your husband has a mistress.  To be the less preferred person.  The other is the one he will make time for no matter what.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

So we will have two daughters abroad next year

Elder daughter working in Brussels for a year, younger daughter working in the French Alps as a ski chalet girl for six months.

This weekend, we will be staying in a cottage in Derbyshire for four days.  This will be our last time all together as a family until younger daughter comes back from her ski-season.  She is not allowed home for Christmas (obviously!)

I am sad, but happy we will all be together for a few days,

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Wimbledon - my Mother's Day Treat

Yesterday my darling elder daughter treated me to a day out at Wimbledon, with tickets for Centre Court.  WOW, we were lucky with the draw.  Three super matches one after the other.  I regret to say, though, that I left during the Roddick match and therefore missed the Murray one altogether.

This is because I prefer to travel home in relatively good time, and without queuing for a bus to get to the train station, then queuing to get on a train, and then finally arriving at home absolutely worn out.

Better to quit before the thousands of others make the same decision.

Having said that, darling daughter, although 30 years younger,  left after the first set of Murray's match. Years ago we would both probably have stayed much later (although not to 11.00 pm.  In those days, before the roof was put on, 9.15 ish was the latest that a match would extend).

She had a tennis match of her own to play this morning, and needed her rest to be in good form.

We have been to several Wimbledons over the years and this was our best yet, notwithstanding we missed part of it.  Twice I've been rained off, once our court ran out of scheduled matches after the first one ended 5 minutes into the match,  due to injury.  I recall that Venus Williams on that occasion offered to play a "friendly" with anyone else of like mind, because the crowd were sitting there expectantly, having paid huge sums to get there, and deserved some entertainment.  A good sport, Venus.

On other occasions, contestants have been so ill-matched that the sport was not entertaining, being very one-sided.  Yesterday the players were neck and neck throughout their matches for at least two-thirds of the time, and some beautiful tennis resulted.

Darling daughter and I had such a lovely afternoon.  She is the easiest company, and so ready to natter and chat between points.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

William Godwin and the Shelleys, by William St Clair

I've been reading this book for a long time now. It is a second-hand hardback from Amazon, and out of print, I believe.  Hence it is quite precious, and not suitable for train reading.  It is too heavy (physically) for bedtime reading. It's quite heavy intellectually, also, thus I naturally incline to take it in small doses.

It sits on the kitchen table, and I read it over breakfast (a page or two a day), lunch (weekends only) and evening meal ( a page or two a day). Thus I make slow progress.  I had intended to wait until I'd finished before posting a review (this is why my blog has had pictures of goslings and boats, instead of book-related subjects).  However, I have just reached the point where Percy Bysshe Shelley runs away to France aged 22 with the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 17, and her stepsister Jane Clairmont, a year younger.  This is pivotal. 

I've noticed a recent trend in modern novels for the writer to apparently end the book half-way through, by revealing some denoument, which seems to render the rest of the book pointless.  Then the book gains a second wind, and goes from strength to strength in the last laps.  I've even taken to lifting these novels up so as to measure the width of the section already passed through, to check whether the trend is holding, and have yet to be proved wrong. 

The turning point in WG & the Shelleys is actually two thirds of the way through, but then it is not a novel but meticulously researched historical fact.  What makes it even more unusual is that it is not written by an academic or professional biographer, but by a "senior official in HM Treasury".  He is described as such according to the end-paper, which also shows a beaky-nosed, bespectacled middle-aged man, exactly how you would imagine a Treasury official to look.

The book was published in 1989.  I am willing to bet a modest sum that no Treasury official in post today would have the time to research and write a lengthy tome of 572 pages, including extensive library research,  references to official records, quotations from out-of-print diaries and even original copies of correspondence between the major players.  People in all walks of life these days seem to work much, much longer hours and more intensively than a quarter of a century ago.  That's before we start on the strangely polymathic tendencies displayed here, in that a dry old stick in the Treasury would take up his pen to catalogue the events of two of the most turbulent female lives in history.

They are, of course, the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, nee Godwin.

Where to start on them! Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, one of several daughters born to an impoverished and violent father, abused at home, became a governess, travelled widely, including to France during the period of the Revolution, wrote the "Vindication of the Rights of Women", bore an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, attempted suicide, and finally, in 1796, met the political philospher William Godwin.  They became lovers, she became pregnant, they married, and in August 1797 she gave birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley.  Two weeks later, Mary Wollstonecraft was dead.  Godwin brought up both her daughters. Following a second marriage to a neighbour (credited with hanging over her balcony and propositioning him), he brought up that lady's two (apparently illegitmate children), and the new couple had one child of their own.  So Mary grew up in a very mixed family. 

If anyone reading this gets a chance to see the West Yorkshire Playhouse touring production of "Mary Shelley" I recommend it highly, and you can stop reading now, because the play details all the important things that happened after this point with a high degree of historical accuracy (as far as the documents turned up by William St Clair allow one to judge).   The play is also beautifully acted, genuinely dramatic without needing to embellish with fiction, and  introduces an idea which was new to me. This is the idea that the genus of Mary Shelley's classic "Frankenstein" was the patchwork family in which she grew up.  Five children, only one of whom knew both his mother and father, the rest cobbled together, led to unhappiness and a sense of loss partly responsible for the ugliness of some of the consequent lives, and ceaseless wandering of the globe in other cases.

Mary junior and her step-sister Jane (who later renamed herself Claire) ran off with Shelley, as I have described.  They behaved exactly like teenagers on a gap year - setting off without enough money and with romantic and unrealistic plans (such as to walk from Calais to Switzerland, taking it in turns to ride on a donkey).

Mary experienced at least five pregnancies, most of them prior to her marriage to Shelley who already had a very young wife, Harriet, at the time, and two babies by her, both under two years old.

Harriet was only 19 and  later drowned herself in the Thames when it became clear that Shelley was never coming back.  Following this tragedy, Mary and Shelley were married, and their one surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley,  became the legal heir to the Shelley fortune and eventually inherited.

In the intervening years, the stepsister Fanny also committed suicide, it is believed due to unhappiness at not knowing either of her natural parents and possibly also being in love with Shelley.

The other stepsister, Jane, now reinvented as Claire, having seen the exciting and poetic life led by Mary (although perhaps screening out the miscarriages and early deaths of her babies, and the suicides of those close), decided this was a good wheeze.  She threw herself at Lord Byron, a friend of Shelley and fellow romantic (this word now takes on a whole new meaning). Her mother had form in this area, after all.

Jane gave birth to Byron's daughter, Allegra, who later died aged four.  Jane never married, but spent  20 years as a governess, travelling the world and often vilified when her past came out.

It was thought to be during the runaway trip to France, Switzerland and Italy that the idea of "Frankenstein" was born.
Mary never  knew her mother, but as the child of two notable philosophers, she was always likely to develop an original and strong mind of her own.  Her book has become one of the world's most famous classics, and the name has become synonymous with "monster", although it is a lesser known fact that the name is actually that of the "doctor" who cobbled the monster together, breathing life into something that would have been happier had it never lived.

Watching the play "Mary Shelley", I have to admit that I turned to my companion and said that such total self-indulgence in matters of relationships and the heart, commonly described as "romanticism" seemed to me to be largely responsible for many of the ills of modern society. 

Should one place duty over passion, and accept the consequences of previous decisions as taking priority over new enthusiasms?  Or is that being too boring and stick in the mud?  My companion thought it was, and was all for a wider and more compassionate view.

I stand by my observation that the principle players may have experienced satisfaction and fulfillment, but many of those on the periphery were irretrievably damaged. And subsequent generations copying the template of self-fulfillment ( not too far away from pure self-indulgence), have seen the same results. A few high fliers have it all, but most get their fingers badly burned, when seeking the elusive goals of "the dream".  This phenomenon is  exemplified by celebrity culture, and finds  expression in TV programmes which encourage total unknowns, often without talent, to give up their everyday occupations and  "live the dream".

Did all this start with the literary movement known as "The Romantics", and the 18th century liberal notion that man is innately good, and only needs the right encouragement to become actually perfect? 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

An Exciting Day

Yesterday my work colleague announced she had been offered a new job and would be taking holiday and leaving on 6th July.  I was pleased for her, but will miss her a lot, as she is full of fun, and always ready for a chat about life and people and relationships.

Then, in the evening, my younger daughter texted to say she has been offered a new job and will be taking holiday and starting on 2nd July!

Very pleased and excited for both of them. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Jubilee Celebrations

Being a bit long in the tooth, I have tea caddies from both the Silver (1977) and Golden (2002) Jubilees.

Now I can add my Diamond Jubilee Tea Caddy to the collection.

And here is the tea towel.

Plus the mugs and the biscuits.

We have enjoyed the Jubilee celebrations altogether.

Monday, 4 June 2012

What I Did on my Holidays

Every day, I walk to the end of our road, to see how the goslings are getting on.  They are really growing up now.  Off the water, they look quite ungainly and adolescent.  If they were human, they would be acquiring spots and body hair, and becoming rebellious.  Still they obediently stay close to mum and dad, and do as they are told.

Soon those wings will be fully developed, and the goslings will fly away.  I don't know where they go, but each year the family departs and are seen no more through the autumn and winter.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Norfolk Coast

And here is the harbour at Wells-next-the-Sea.  It is still a working port. Although you might think you were stepping back in time several hundred years.

You see, not a person in sight, again.  Lovely for getting away from it all.  And, unusually, the sun is shining.

We went to Wells regularly when the children were small. Always I remember it being absolutely freezing cold, the sea a deep dark grey colour, most uninviting, and a chill wind blowing from the North at all times.  Norfolk, the country of the North Folk, unprotected by any shield from weather gusting straight from the North Pole. 

We always walked the long mile down the sea wall to the shoreline, in the teeth of the North Wind.  The children moaned and cried. Their legs were tired, it was too cold to eat an ice-cream, and it was not buckets and spades weather.

The sands were not golden, but hamster-coloured.  Sort of dun verging on grey.

Then, after a short spell on the so-called beach, we would have to walk all the way back again.  Strange that I never remember the sea being blue, or the sands golden. 

So today, it seems like a huge treat, and a delight.  Blue sea and sky, golden sand, and driving the mile to the end of the sea defences.  This is my alternative to the Outer Hebrides, and not a bad one.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Trying Harder With Pictures

So after cancelling our holiday, I went to the coast a couple of times this week instead.  I didn't feel I could motivate myself to go to work, so took my days off anyway.  Hubby went to his office, I went to the beach.  This is a nature reserve about 60 miles from our  home.  I was pretending to myself that I was, in fact, in the Outer Hebrides, and it was not that difficult.

This was on Tuesday.  Not a single person in sight.

Monday, 28 May 2012

More Surprises

All around the week of my birthday:

1. I won £25 Premium Bond prize.
2. Equitable Life Compensation Scheme sent me a cheque for £2,000.  I never even applied for any compensation.  I just assumed it was a lost cause.
3. Older daughter sent a wonderful bouquet of summer flowers by Interflora.

Not so bad, after all.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Footnote to Previous Post

Letter in The Times, Saturday 12th May 2012, from eminent person,  Dr Malcom Ogilvie, hailing from distant wildlife haven of Islay (pronounced "Isla").

Quoting statistics, Dr Ogilvie disputes the well-established theory that mute swans mate for life.

A study shows that there was a divorce rate of 3% among pairs that had bred successfully, rising to 9% for pairs that had not bred.  

"A lack of success definitely stimulated a search for a new partner.  However, comparisons with any other life-form, including human beings, are unwise."

OK, I have been told.  I will depart now from this line of thinking. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

What Does It Feel Like to be a Gosling?

I worked at home today, and did not speak to a single soul from 7.30 am to 6.30 pm.  For a break, I walked to the small field at the end of our road.  This patch of green has three medieval ponds in it, fed by a natural spring. Legend has it that they were built to breed fish, as Friday suppers for the monks at the cathedral, two miles away.

Two geese  have been sitting on a nest in turns for what seems like weeks.  They have hatched a brood of goslings, eight dusky yellow balls of fluff, each the same size, the same shape, the same swift, darting movements, the same little black beak and round, alert head.  They are never seen more than a few inches away from their parents.  When swimming, the goslings file along in a straight line, with one parent leading from the front and the other bringing up the rear.  At other times, they feed on water weed (as above), or peck energetically at the grass on dry land.

What does it feel like to be one of eight siblings, all born on the same day, identical, no names or quirky little habits to distinguish them?  They have no purpose in life other than to learn to eat and to swim, to stay close to Mum and Dad, and avoid being eaten by foxes, dogs, poachers or illegal immigrants.

Mum and Dad are model parents, teaching, protecting, and staying together.  The parents stand or sit on guard the whole time.  Neither wanders off, or seeks other entertainment, or flirts with the swan or the moorhen seen from time to time on the water.

Why have humans evolved so differently?  These goslings have no need to fear Shakespeare, Latin, French, algebra or quadratic equations.  They will not overfeed themselves to the point of mortal illness. They will not damage their livers with toxic chemical concoctions, or pounce ecstatically on a passing stranger goose, thinking that a new coupling will solve all their problems and drive away the fear of death. They simply live to feed and breed and start all over again next year.

No one will tell them they don't have to do this.  No goose has developed a contraceptive which will save all the trouble. None boasts of enjoying much more stimulating and fun activities without the responsibilities of bringing up young.  They don't have a choice.

I wonder where the human race is going next, with its control over everything but its own passions.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Cake Recipe

Since it is a holiday weekend,  I break my rule just this once, and post a cake recipe.

I do not hope to compete with, but as two people have recently asked for this recipe, here it is.

Chocolate Yoghurt Cake
(popular with extremely hungry children and teenagers, and useful for storing in the freezer and eating straight from frozen, in a cake emergency situation).

First find a largish square roasting tin, about 28 by 28 cm,  5cm deep.  Grease and line with baking parchment, leaving a "sill" at each end to lift the cake out.

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3. or usual electrical equivalents.

Assemble the following:
100 ml of  light vegetable oil
A 500 gram pot of natural full-fat yogurt
350 grams of caster sugar
5 medium or 4 large eggs
5 tablespoons of golden syrup and 5 tablespoons of demerara sugar
450 grams of self-raising flour
100 gm cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of salt.

Place oil, yoghurt, golden syrup, sugar and eggs in a mixing bowl and beat well.  Sift the flour, cocoa powder, bicarb of soda and salt into the bowl and mix well. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 1.5 to 1.75 hours.  Lift out using the paper edges and leave to cool before cutting into squares.

This is nice with creme fraiche or double cream.  Melted chocolate icing is an enhancement, but not essential.

Happy eating!

Friday, 27 April 2012

"On Old Age"

Here are encouraging words for us in an agist society, which punishes the non-beautiful, excludes the physically frail, the physically imperfect.  These words were written more than 2,000 years ago.

"Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement.  And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age."

"Some people never stop learning, however old they are."

"Age has to be fought against; its faults need vigilant resistance.  We must combat them as we should fight a disease - following a fixed regime, taking exercise in moderation, and enough food and drink to strengthen yet not enough to overburden." 

Cicero had a regime of study, which he called  "my intellectual exercise, my running-track for the brain", on a higher level than my modest reading programme.  (He was writing a treatise on Roman law, and studying Greek literature). 

At the end of the day, however, we agree on much - the need to:

"avoid drunkenness, and indigestion, and sleepless nights!": ...and to

"always find satisfaction in my reading couch..."

Thanks, Marcus Tullius Cicero, for telling me that my activities are good and useful!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

...Who is tired of London is tired of Life

I'm at a loss for words to give a title to this post.  It really sums up my whole blog, life and philosophy.

Yesterday went to London.  Elder daughter had given husband two tickets for Ronnie Scott's (one for him, one for me) as a birthday present. 

Ronnie Scotts.  This is a dive in Soho with subdued red-shaded lighting, hostesses in low-cut tops moving around noiselessly serving meals on trays, and a lot of alcohol being consumed.  In fact, it is the only place I've been to where the queue for the gents' is longer than the queue for the ladies'.

A large percentage of the female audience have dyed blonde hair.  Call me a snob, I don't care.  This is SO NOT ME.

We  had a wait of about 15 minutes before the main act commenced.  I could feel myself becoming more and more depressed.  Was it the darkness, the lack of any reading matter, the lack of any intelligent conversation, or the lack of any POINT to the proceedings?

My mind was dwelling on subjects like Sodom and Gomorrah, (was that the red lights, the drinking, the mindlessness?)  And on the reading matter in my desk drawer at home, the works  of Cicero, specifically his advice on how to handle old age. 

Before long, I was actually thinking "Well, if things get too bad, suicide is always a way out."  I do not exaggerate.  If there was no element of thought in life, or reading, or history, I would be suicidal.

Fortunately, once the main act (Georgie Fame) commenced, these gloomy thoughts receded.  G Fame is an intelligent and witty man, as well as very musical.  I lasted out the evening without upsetting my husband by articulating any of my thoughts.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Holiday Snapshots

I gave up taking photos on holiday when I realised that, not only was no-one else interested in looking at them, but that I myself never did so and on the rare occasion when I framed a photo, it did not look as good as I remembered it.

In latter years, true to my rubric, I copy down inscriptions and quotations instead.  I am very fond of reading memorial tablets in churches and cathedrals, and also the list of abbots or priests of the same.

Here is the quotation I copied down this week:

"A patient man is more excellent than a strong one; he who governs his mind is better than he who conquers a city". 

Aelfric (955 - 1022)  Abbot of Cerne Abbey, Dorset.

This I will take forward as I return to the stressful work situation which has made me ill.

Obviously my negativity was due to my illness

Just back from a short, reviving break in a holiday cottage, and watched the  last episode of "White Heat" last night.

I was moved, and the long silences seemed now to reflect thought going on behind the forehead, and words about to escape from the mouth, but then swallowed.  I enjoyed the last episode, and it made me reflect on my past 35 years, just as the characters did.

Friday, 6 April 2012

"White Heat" BBC Drama Series

Unable to read much, and feeling completely under the weather, I have watched more TV in the last week than probably since before I had children, 28 years ago.

I've watched some films, recorded episodes of "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Homeland."

Plus "White Heat".  This series is so boring that it is only tolerable if watching recorded episodes, so that one can fast forward frequently.  In fact, one could run the whole thing at double speed and miss nothing except the dialogue, what there is of it.  Long silences, people moving in slow motion, and people just standing or sitting doing and saying nothing, are the norm.

So why  am I watching it?  Oh, it's the settings, of course.  Starting in 1966, and moving through the 70's, which is the era when I was young.  It's about a group of flat-sharers moving through their, and British, history together.  Like the main characters, I left home to share flats with various people, in my case a little later, 1971.

How I remember those orange and brown colour schemes, the hideous kitchens, the mustard-coloured tea-cups, the dingy lighting and painted anaglypta wall-paper.  One of the really well-researched items of background is the use of the large brown earthenware teapot, slammed down direct onto a kitchen table, the centrepiece.  Yes, that is indeed typical of the period.  "Coffee", as in filter, followed by the discovery of the miraculous cafetiere, and later the capuchino machine, is not yet on the horizon.

I still have a blouse almost identical to the one worn by Lilli in last night's episode, white cotton with a frilled colour and pintucks down the front.  Mine has long sleeves, though.

The abortions, almost fatal drug addictions, kipper ties and early computers are also familiar territory.

If only it didn't move so slowly and painfully, and if only the characters were more likeable, instead of being handpicked archetypes.

I will persist, though, if only to revisit the decorating schemes of my own past.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Further Thoughts About the Antarctic

Texted my younger daughter to tell her I am now reading my ninth book about the Antarctic. (I've passed  on the first two to her, and she has read both).

Today I picked up a tenth from the library, although I haven't started reading it yet.  The public library is still open! AND it has a free book-finding service from the other local branch libraries.  When I wanted a book which was not available in these parts, the library sourced it for me, over 200 miles away, and the cost was only £2.50.  Libraries are simply fantastic.  I've always loved being in a library.

Trying to analyse why I like this subject so much.  Reasons I have come up with so far: it is all about building huts, dens and camps, and improvising wildly.  (They make an alarm clock out of a candle, a piece of string and a gramophone, and they make a cooker out of seal blubber and an old biscuit tin).  This is the sort of world a fifties child like myself grew up in.  Particularly if you had brothers.  Camping, making dens, building fires and the like. 

Another reason is that it takes me completely away from my humdrum life and my work problems.  Compared to the treks Scott's men undertook, all the crises at work pale into complete insignificance.

And finally, although these books are all about men and mostly by men,  there is absolutely NO SEX.  None whatsoever.  So they CAN take their minds off it and do without, so it would seem.

The Enemy Within

I have been a bit too overcontrolled about hygiene for the last three years. 

Successfully shielded myself from external germs, totally, apparently. 

Something had to get me, though, something was determined to undermine my pride and punish me.

So something has brought me down, and it is not an external germ, it has come from within.

I have Shingles, a virus which originates with Chicken Pox, and lies dormant in the body for years until a weakened immune system lowers the gate and it charges out, inflaming the nerve endings and roaring, "Ha! Got you!"

And to absolutely cap it all, the locality of the blisters and irritation is my left eye.  So I have not been able to work, and yet have not been able to rest at home with lots of lovely books, either.  (Even this blog post is really taboo, I shouldn't be doing it).

This is the supreme punishment for someone who loves to read.  To be stuck at home not feeling well, but not able to sink into the distant worlds of the imagination, either.

Truly, this is retribution.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"A Week in December" by Sebastian Faulks

Three years ago I wrote a blistering criticism of Faulks' "Engleby".  I posted it on a private blog, so could SF have read it?  Who knows.  My central criticism of "Engleby" was that it was formulaic.  To write a novel, I surmised, you just think of an event and work backwards.

Now whether Faulks ever knew of my criticism or not, he certainly answered it.  This book thinks of a non-event and works forwards.

The non-event is a terrorist attack on the London Underground.  The book takes you two-thirds of the way before revealing that the attack target is not the tube, but then the ending is different anyway.

The working forwards is in the title.  The week works as a time device unfolding a series of characters,each of whom is moving towards the end of the week and the non-event referred to above.

I didn't much enjoy "Engleby" because in that book the main character is a deeply repellant person.  Not everyone in "W I D" is repellant, only the bankers.  Faulks certainly nails the bankers and their role in the world financial crisis.  He has some witty faux banks to offer: "Lemon Brothers", "Bare Stern", "Goldbag" and "Moregain Sucks".  These are cleverly done.

Other characters are actually sympathetic, notably the impoverished lawer (I know, an oxymoron), Gabriel Northwood.  I was particularly intrigued by the failed novelist, R. Tranter.  Is this SF's alter ego, I wonder?

The book certainly crystallises a view of London during the late noughties, after the world banking crisis, and encapsulates many of its problems - psychotic drug use by neglected rich kids, the parallel world of the internet, and yummy mummies all get a look in.  It is enjoyable to recognize these pictures of life as we know it.

The book is let down by the author's inability to resist the opportunity to lecture.  He lectures (as in Engleby) on the failures of the education system.  If it were really as bad as he satirises, no one would read his books.  They would only read the £1 offerings that top the best-seller listings around World Book Day.

He lectures on the religion of Islam. After taking time and a sympathetic approach to get inside the head of a would-be suicide bomber, he then uses Gabriel's visit to his psychotic brother in a mental hospital to draw parallels between paranoid schizoprhenia and the origin of the prophet's teachings of Islam.

Finally, the ending is a damp squib.  It's interesting how many writers fail to deliver a resounding ending, after painstakingly building up a convincing world view.

Sharp and unforeseeable plot twists, and a satisfying ending, as exemplified by the works of Dickens, mark out the truly great from the work of the merely talented writer.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Alan Bennett "The History Boys"

I've seen the film twice, and the stage play once.  I bought the DVD in Sainsbury's about a year ago, and have never yet watched it.  I rarely get complete control of the remote, but this weekend Hubby has gone North.  Yesterday he watched Leeds play and today he is taking his mother out for lunch.  As he has never acknowledged Mother's Day in his own mother's case in all the 33 years I have known him, I was pleased with the plan, and did not utter about being left here on my own.  Actually, it has been a blessing. I am suffering from an acute eye infection, and feeling very sorry for myself.  I would rather wallow in self pity alone.

So, out of the drawer came the DVD, and I fast-forwarded to the private tutorial between old fat cultured English teacher and sensitive, loner, Jewish boy.

Each time I have seen the full production, I have wanted to dwell on this section and enjoy it in more depth, but because it is just part of a fast-moving whole, have never felt that I really got it.

Really, Alan Bennett is a genius.  To pack all that into a few minutes and to package the whole thing up and sell it as mass entertainment is nothing short of full-blown mind-altering brilliance.

The boy actor, stiff and mannered while reciting the poem, liquid with sentience as he absorbs the teacher's guidance, is masterfully directed.

The fat old man, who dismisses Hardy's life in two words., "saddish" but "appreciated", leads in the true sense, educating the youngster into the history of the plebs on the battlefield, (hitherto un-named, now for the first time given a memorial), the link forward to the First World War and Rupert Brooke, and finally, the magic of a communicated thought coming down the ages, like a hand reaching out of time, to touch you on the shoulder.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Fun Five Minutes

At lunchtime yesterday I went into the Amnesty International Bookshop on Mill Road, Cambridge.  Normally I try to resist the temptation, although it is  a mere three minute walk from my office.  I could probably buy up half the shop if I went in there every day.

Once I get in there, a feeling of intense excitement comes over me, similar to that which I feel on entering a large library.

All the books are beautifully categorised and each category is alphabetically ordered, so that it is easy to find a book one wishes to buy.

The till lady recognised me, and remembered that two years ago I asked to be notified when any book by Barbara Pym came into stock.

She pointed to a pile of Barbara Pym books which had just been donated, and were still sitting in a pile waiting to be shelved.  Since I made the request, I have bought almost all of her books, from various sources, but there was still one left I had not read, so of course I had to have it.  Next she showed me a biography of Barbara unknown to me, so I bought that as well, although it was a rather poor quality paper back.

We tried to remember the title of an edition of Barbara Pym's letters and diaries,  both of us failed.  We chatted about our reading habits, the relative pleasures of second-hand versus new books, and what might be the merits of the Kindle.  We agreed that, although all books look the same in the Kindle, and there is no pleasure in holding and looking at it, yet it has advantages.  Notably the free down-load of many classics and other out-of-copyright books.  I mentioned that a friend had downloaded some Dickens material which is unavailable outside academic libraries.

Via our use of libraries, we got on to the subject of HG Wells.  (I am currently reading David Lodge's recent and partly imaginary biography, on loan from my local library). "The man was obsessed with sex," was my verdict.  We were unanimous in our disparagement of HG.  She summed him up as "an unpleasant old goat!" which I thought completely apt.  Leading on from this train of thought, I spotted what is probably the only novel by Rebecca West which I have not read, so naturally that was also added to my purchases.

About to leave the shop, highly pleased with my haul, I suddenly remembered what I had come in for.  Ordnance Survey maps for my holidays this year.  Needless to say, there were none suitable for my planned journeys.  But I went out of the shop with a pile of books and a feeling of warmth, well-being, and the pleasure of having communed with a fellow book-addict.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is an almost perfect book.  Actually, I can think of not one thing to criticize, and much to praise highly, so perhaps it IS a perfect book.

Elizabeth von Arnim led a very interesting life.  She was born in Australia, and was Katherine Mansfield's cousin.  She married a German Count, and wrote her most famous book, "Elizabeth and her German Garden" (1898) about their castle in Prussia.  I have read that book, and could appreciate its charm, but frankly, it IS mostly about gardening, and I am not a gardening fan.

This book came along much later in her life (1922).  She had by this time lost the German castle to debts, been widowed, had an affair with HG Wells (more of him in a post soon), and married a second time, this time the elder brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her second husband was by all accounts mad, and the marriage scarcely lasted three years. 

So this book was the fruit of much experience.  Whereas her idyllic life as a Countess, young wife and mother in the "German Garden" was only faintly touched with darker shadows (the husband was referred to as "The Man of Wrath"), this book  represents an escape from husbands altogether.

Two unhappily married wives decide to rent a castle in Italy for a month's holiday.  This was an astonishingly radical idea for 1922.  Neither had any income of her own, but each had a small "nest egg" which they decided to supplement by advertising for two more tenants to share the rent. 

One of these, an elderly widow, is not a very nice person.  In fact, she starts off as decidedly unpleasant.  She provides a balancing act to the other, a young  aristocrat of superlative beauty, who merely wishes to escape from "grabbers" (men of any age, who, on encountering her, fall in love with her and become perfect nuisances).

All four are transformed and re-born under the magical and benign influence of the extraordinary castle and its remote setting, in the perfect climate of the Italian Riviera in April.  (It is thought that the book is based on the author's experience of staying at Portofino, indeed a wonderful location).

The old lady mellows and develops charm, the young beauty reviews her life, and decides that it has been rather shallow up to now, and she must do something with it.  The two wives are reconciled with their rather awful husbands, who both show up at the castle during the month.

The whole book is written with the most beautiful sense of humour. Almost everything described in it, except the scenery, is screened by an amused authorial irony.  Husbands of every description, the problems of beauty, loneliness, the Italian language, aging, selfishness (as exhibited by the two sub-tenants) are all pointed out as objects of wit with the very lightest touch imaginable.  On top of that, some really original insights into aspects of the female condition, which would not become mainstream until many decades later, are slipped in here and there as throwaway lines. 

A book to savour and enjoy,  although nothing much happens.  At the end, they all go home again.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Bad Books

Yes, I am in bad books at present, because I suggested that, as an alternative to spending so much money, we save more.  Thus we can plan to retire before we are too worn out to enjoy it.  Hubby discussed this idea with his golfing partner, (also his business partner, one and the same man).  Predictably the advice was to "Do what you like".  Which is, in both their cases, to enjoy expensive hobbies and meals out, and carry right on moaning about how stressful their business is.

That's not what this post is about, however.

I rarely pick up a bad book.  I can tell by the covers whether I am going to enjoy a book or not.  Anything that looks like mass-produced science fiction or detective stories or chick-lit or Mills and Boon just screams out what is inside, and is easy to avoid.  Misery memoirs - you don't even have to look at the cover design - it's all in the title.  I have never read a misery memoir and never intend to do so.

Occasionally, however, I am deceived.  I've been noticing a book coming beneath my radar three times over recent months.  It is called "The Last Dickens", by Matthew Pearl.  I've considered buying it both new and second-hand, but in the end got it out of the local library.  That's not something I do often, either.  I prefer to own a good book.  Something must have told my instincts that it was not a book I would want to keep.

This book was billed as an imaginative recreation of the last days of Dickens, an investigation into the "Mystery of Edwin Drood" (Dickens' last and unfinished novel) and maybe an uncovering of the secret of the intended ending of that last book.

This book was truly terrible.  I started off by reading every third page, having established before I was half-way through the first chapter that it was unreadable.  By about a quarter of the way through, this had given way to only looking at a page which had the word "Dickens" on it, and scanning it for anything of interest.  Half way through and I was reading a word or paragraph about every ten pages.  By the end I  knew that I had not missed anything, but felt that I had not wasted my journey to the library.  I had given the book a chance, but it had not lived up to the billing.

The only interesting thing about this book is that the main character is an American publisher called Osgood.  The author's note at the end indicates that this man is an actual historical character. 

I have an 1895 American first edition of Thomas Hardy's "A Pair of Blue Eyes"  (provenance Guildford Oxfam Bookshop).  The publisher is Osgood.  That made a connection.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

War Horse

I saw the film.

Lately, I've been seeing films because it's easier and quicker than reading the book. Sacrilege,  I know.

This is due to job changes I've posted about here from time to time.

The film left me feeling extremely cross.  I tried to analyse the reasons.

1.  I would rather have seen it with someone else, in order to share.  Because of my extreme working conditions I go to bed before 9.00 pm six nights out of seven, so if I want to see a film, I have to take an afternoon off.  Not many people I know are in this position, so increasingly I am seeing films alone (unless it is a Saturday, when Mr BB often gallantly accompanies me).

1.(a) I digress, but it annoys me that I am subject to these extreme working conditions, due to the whims of an all-female board who cut the staff budget by 50%, yes, by half. So much for female solidarity.

 I am doing the work of my ex-deputy, who worked a five-day week, as well as about a fifth of the work of my ex-boss, who worked a five day week.  I am doing all this in three days a week, because I have two jobs, and this is only one of them. Yes, work that out.  How many hundred per cent extra am I trying to do? 200%, so no wonder I am completely exhausted.

1.(b)     "Not many people I know are in this position" (ie able to take an afternoon off to see a film).
 I digress again, but check this out.   Mr BB, an old man of 57, who was brought up by the model 1950's stay-at-home mum, still believes that all women choose their husbands on the basis of looking for a meal ticket (god, that term is so offensive it is bringing me out in hives).  He believes, against all the evidence, that most women are enjoying a life of luxury while their husbands are out slaving away to provide.  Actually, the only women I know who are not working full-time are EITHER retired, because they have final salary pension schemes (whch they worked for themselves) OR are single and never had  children, so accumulated their money over a life of frugal work. Everyone else is working away, often supporting a husband who is either ill, has had a breakdown, a business collapse, or just doesn't earn much (often due to lifestyle choices, eg wishing to "escape to the country").  So it annoys me that the perception is so far from the reality.

1.(c) All this makes me cross.  Now back to the actual film.

2. I felt that the film was a poor compromise.  If you saw the play, you were enchanted and moved by the unusual premise of the puppets, and the enormous skill involved. The film just showed real horses.

If you read the book, you were taken right inside the minds of the horses, seeing things from their point of view.  A film can't do this.  You saw the horses, carefully trained to pretend emotion (eg, greeting each other, and showing affection by bumping noses), but in no way did it take you inside their minds and hearts.

3. Mr Spielberg, whilst a master of cinematic art, does tend to manipulate the emotions.  This started from the opening frames, and went on throughout. OK, this is why the guy is so successful, but from time to time a little subtlety would have provided variety and contrast.

Throughout, it was like

"See the horse show affection, show fear, show nerves and overcome them".

"See the nasty toff and his whey-faced weakling son.  Contrast that with the good-hearted sons of the soil."

"See the sweet French peasant family, and see the noble, kind-hearted upper-crust type who idealistically charges machine guns on horseback and is killed on his first day in the field."

 The music overdid manupulation as well.  It was non-stop brainwashing.

Then there was the cinematic cliche.

Do you remember this scene in Doctor Zhivago?  I mean the 1970's classic, David Lean version.  A group of young boys charge through a beautiful golden corn field and are mown down by machine gun fire.  We had this, but on horseback.  The corn was extremely high (to hide the horses). Perhaps it came from Oklahoma.

Tolstoy's classic story, in which a young man rides at a gallop up a blind summit, only to find a nest of enemies on the other side, was referenced also, by the young French peasant girl, temporarily owner of the horse, who does exactly that,  thus losing the horse to the Germans.

Then we had the horses recognizing each other in the heat of battle (Elizabeth Jane Howard used this motif in her "Cazalet" series, reputedly based on the experiences of her own family).

The horses worked to death pulling gun carriages was lifted from "Black Beauty".

The fraternization of German and English over the wire of No-Man's Land, one of the most enduring images of trench warfare actually took place at Christmas 1914 (before things got really nasty).  In the film,  Tommy and Fritz (Colin and Peter) bonded over cutting the wires in which the horse was terminally entangled, thus saving its life.

Actually, the depiction of the Germans is one of the outstandingly non-cliched aspects of the film.  The two young German brothers, shot at dawn for desertion, are movingly played against the type of the German trench soldier.  The German peasant, (honest-faced and stout) who later takes charge of the horses and tries to save them from being worked to death, convinces without sentimentality.

The final scenes trump everything, of course, as horse and boy are reunited at last.  However, this annoyed me more than anything else.  To work the plot, the boy needs to be blind, and to recognize his horse intuitively, calling him with a signal he trained the horse to recognize before the war in pretty rural Devon.

The blindness comes as a result of a direct gas attack in the trench. 

Wilfred Owen (died in the final days of the war, 1918), wrote the definitive first hand description of a gas attack, which has become a synonym and epithet for the hypocrisy and waste of war.  "Dulce and Decorum Est" is the title of the poem.  The Latin words hark back to an earlier era of heroism and nationalism when people really did believe that "It is Sweet and Fitting" die for your native land ... "Pro Patria Mori"

He recalls seeing someone who did not get the gas mask on in time.

 "I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,  -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria Mori."

I have read that poem dozens of times, and it still has the power to bring tears to my eyes.

Albert, the boy, rosy-cheeked and breathing normally under the eye-bandages after the gas attack, soon recovers his sight and walks around normally, after the miraculous reunion with the horse.  This infuriated me more than any other aspect of the film.

Vera Brittain, nursing gas victims in a field hospital near the front line, wrote a similar description and indictment of war and old men's incitement of it. She wrote the following words at the time, long before the poems of Wilfrid Owen were widely available.

"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on and on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case, to say nothing of 10 cases - of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally , sometimes permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closed and they know they will choke...."  Albert, however, without a mark on him, uses his unharmed lungs to whistle for the horse.

Above all, this was the Spielburgian euphemism and sanitisation which infuriated me.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Two Books

Like many addictive readers who don't always find the material they would like to read themselves, I always wanted to write a book.

I had two subjects in mind, both very dear to my heart and the product of life-long experience.

One was on the subject of how to lose weight, and the other on financial security for women.

Unfortunately, due to extreme conditions at work, (50% of staff made redundant, those left having to pick up all their colleagues' workload), there is no time to do anything.

My texts for each book now read as follows:

1. To Lose Weight - Eat Less

2. To Obtain Financial Security - Get into a Job With a Final Salary Pension Scheme.

Such is the distillation of my wisdom.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Dickens' House Museum, 48 Doughty Street. WC1

Get down there quick!  For some strange reason, the management of the Dickens House Museum has chosen this year, the bicentenary of Dickens' birth (7th February 1812) to close the museum for eight months for a complete refurbishment.

If you want to see the house he lived in with his wife Catherine between 1837 and 1839, almost as he left it, complete with bare wooden floorboards, stone steps to the basement and freezing basic toilet, please do make sure you go before the closure planned for April 2012.  After that, it will never be the same again.  There will be PC terminals, a lift and modern display boards (taking the place of the simple laminated sheet in each of the rooms open to the public).

 I visited yesterday, and was overwhelmed by the lack of pretension and the simple, effective displays, mostly consisting of wooden furniture, nearly all of it owned by Dickens, family portraits, framed copies of original letters, and many, many bookcases full of copies of old editions of the complete works.

A treat for literary types.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Film "My Week With Marilyn"

A very entertaining film.  I laughed a lot and enjoyed spotting the cameos by various celebrity actors - Emma Watson, Dominic Cooper, Zoe Wanamaker, Michael Kitchen, Toby Jones.

The stage was held by the three stars, two of them leading Shakespearean actors of their generation.

Dame Judi Dench, majestic as Dame Sybil Thorndike, played the Prince's mother in the film "The Prince and the Showgirl."

Michelle Williams was  mesmerising as Marilyn, a perfect piece of casting. The camera just licked her all over.

Kenneth Branagh was equally mesmerising as Sir Laurence Olivier, a part he was surely born to play, having followed in the maestro's footsteps by acting and directing himself as both Henry V and Hamlet.  His cut-glass accent slipped at times, but when on form, he was the very living image.  I recall seeing Sir Laurence acting on stage in "Long Day's Journey into Night" at the Aldwych in the early seventies.  Branagh brought him back to life.

The young Colin Clark was suitably well-brought up, naif, and helpful. 

It helped having seen the film "The Prince and the Showgirl" to appreciate the verisimilitude of the sets.

It helped to have read the biographies of Sir Laurence, his then wife, Vivien Leigh, and to have seen Marilyn's great film achievement "Some Like It Hot".

This created the background necessary to really enjoy the allusions.  It also helped to have read and seen at least three plays by Arthur Miller (M's then husband).  At first I thought that Jeff Goldblum would have been a better casting for the latter, but as the film went on, I realised the Jeff is far too nice.  The Arthur in the film captured the cold, analytical heart of the playwright.

Altogether, a delightful piece of artifice,  and one that captured all of life in the short space of 105 minutes.

Love, loss, fear, success, failure, aging, heartbreak, and some beautifully delivered lines of Shakespeare, which the Larry character is apt to quote at times of stress.

Made me go home worried that I have missed out on a lot of life.  Then I remembered Marilyn's early and tragic death.  Some stars burn too brightly go out too soon.  Maybe I will just keep plodding on as before.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cake goes with Tea

And, of course, the natural accompaniment to tea, is cake.

Because I have promised myself to stick to the main theme here, I decided against writing out a favourite recipe, or displaying a picture of one I have made (  does it so much better than I could ever do!).

I am instead displaying some pages from a favourite old book of mine.  This book was one of the first things I bought when I started out, forty years ago, as a student at the University of York,  in 1972. 

You can see from the stains on the pages how old and well-loved this book is.  Even though I have never actually made the recipes on this page.

Here is the cover....

Aforementioned Caked Crusader has an ambitious but worthy aim to publish a book of recipes one from each county in England, and specifies the City of York as a separate item.

 CC, if you would like the full recipe for any of the above, just ask, and I will copy it out for you!