Monday, 9 December 2013

Booker Styles, The Long and the Short of It

This year's Booker prizewinner, "The Luminaries", by Eleanor Catton, made history as being the longest yet, at 832 pages.  It also made headlines because she is, at 28,  the youngest author ever to win the prize.

It is indeed a weighty tome. I got it out of the library to preview, as one of the members of the book-group I have just joined was threatening, (others protested vehemently), to select it as book choice for her next turn.

Oh, the wordiness of it!  At a creative writing group I've joined, we are told to "Show Not Tell".  E. Catton persists in lengthy boring descriptions, both of the characters' external visage and their interior psychology.  We are supposed to show the latter by dialogue.  The former, as in Jane Austen, is supposed to be inferred by the reactions of others.  Here's an example of the verbosity, not to say pomposity, of the language.  (I've researched copyright, and a quote for illustrative purposes is all right if it is short in proportion to the length of the work as a whole.  My selection fits that measure).

"Balfour's will was too strong to admit philosophy, unless it was of the soundest empirical sort; his liberality could make no sense of despair, which was to him as a fathomless shaft, possessed of depth but not of breadth, stifled in its isolation, navigable only by touch, and starved of any kind of any curiosity."

A further three sentences of about the same length and density, continue the paragraph, which basically adds zilch, tiddly squat, to my mental picture of Balfour.  This is on page 32.  You are supposed to carry on for another 800 pages.  Life is too short.

Now compare a sentence from a book by Penelope Fitzgerald.  A friend, anticipating the new biography of this author (by Hermione Lee if anyone is interested), lent me a book by PF.  Fitzgerald won the Booker prize in 1979 with "Offshore".  Amazon reviewers praise this winner for being brief, incisive, elegant, if a little too short.   The book my friend passed on to me was called "The Bookshop", (a subject guaranteed to attract my interest). It was published in 1978 and made the Booker Prize final list.  It is a short book, subtle and sharp.

"The Bookshop", elegantly written but leaving ultimately a very sad after-taste, is set in coastal Suffolk.  A woman opens a bookshop.  Here is  a sample sentence.   "She was held back by an urgent hand, and addressed by a man, not young, in a corduroy jacket, smiling as a toad does, because it has no other expression."

I have time to read another book by this author!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book Groups (Dilemma Resolved)

I have now joined a book group.  Watch this space for more details.  Now I will have to read books chosen by other people, as well as following my fancy.  I think it will be good for me.

Monday, 11 November 2013

More About Wolf Hall

Recently, Hilary Mantel was the guest on Radio 4's Book Club.  Book Club is a lovely Sunday afternoon treat, ideal for those replete and resting off a large Sunday lunch indoors on a winter day, perhaps while ironing.  Jim Naughty (pronounced Knockerty, for any foreign readers visiting here), was the interviewer.  He kicked off with the question, "What inspired you to write "Wolf Hall"? 

Hilary, bless her, answered, in her tremulous, slightly squeaky voice, that she had been visiting an Elizabethan house.  It was the home, and was first built by, one of the protégés of Thomas Cromwell, by the name of Ralph, or Rafe Sadler (or Sadleir - Tudor spellings vary).  Ralph is a historic, real-life character in "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies".  He did well for himself, learning much from his mentor Cromwell, who in his turn had learnt much from his own mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.  Ralph built the house when he moved out from the Cromwell multi-generation and multi-occupancy household, to what was then a small country village three miles east of London.

Hilary said that she was so overcome by the Tudor brickwork, tiled floors, wood panelling and cracks in the plaster, that she burst into tears, and immediately started imagining her Tudor stories.

"And," she wound up, triumphantly, "It's still there!"

As soon as the programme ended, I looked the house up in the National Trust handbook.  As I suspected, it is a NT house, and open to the public all the year round.  Quickly, I arranged a meeting with my friend of longstanding, who shares just about all my interests, and we went down to London on Saturday to visit Sutton House, NT, Hackney.

It was pouring with rain, and we struggled along the High Street, deafened by traffic and police sirens.  Hackney is now an uber-urban environment.  We were disappointed that the café inside offered only one type of cake, and we were tired.

Unfortunately, beautiful though Sutton House undoubtedly is, we just could not access the atmosphere which had enchanted Hilary Mantel.  However, don't let that put you off.  It is well worth a visit if you are at all interested in the novels.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Nursery Rhymes

I've discovered a lovely new cake and baking blog.  See below.

 I found this via the blog of a reading and writing site, The Arvon Foundation.

As with another of my favourites, the Caked Crusader , the writing and the pictures are superb, and I totally trust the recipes. (I seldom make cakes these days, but the ones I have made from CC's blog have received universal praise and approval).

I haven't yet tried anything from GBL, but found his post on Yorkshire Curd Tart fascinating because it tells you how to make your own curds. 

As follows:

Make the curds by gently heating the milk, and once it reaches a steady boil add the lemon juice. Turn down the heat and watch the curds form, you can gently stir to help steady it along. Once you have lumps floating in liquid take off the heat and leave to cool. Drain the liquid (which is the whey) through a tea towel over a container so that you catch the curds in the tea towel and can keep the whey. Allow to strain in the fridge over night.

This is useful, because I have, on the few occasions when I have bought curd cheese, been disappointed with the results.

It is also interesting because it brings a new perspective on the old nursery rhyme, Little Miss Muffet.  (Who, it will be remembered, sat on a tuffet, "eating her curds and whey").

While on the subject of Nursery Rhymes, I had sudden insight moment this morning. 

I have been up since 5.30 am, and done washing, drying, ironing, stripping and remaking bed, plus emptying bins and sorting all recycling, all before 8.00 am.

I know who the elves were, in "The Elves and the Shoemaker".  It was the shoemaker's wife or his mum,  of course.  Who did all the work before the shoemaker got up.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Can We Talk About Book Groups

Since my almost complete retirement from work (I continue to work two mornings a week), I find I need to get out more and talk to people during the day.  My long hours of poring over books, while completely gratifying and absorbing, do leave me somewhat isolated. 

Should I join a book group?

I talked to two friends of similar age and background about this subject.

One has been in a book group for several years, but often complains about the poor choices of the other members. 

"I do find it a pain, to read some of the books," she said.  ""And sometimes I feel that they feel the same about my choice of book.  I feel a bit paranoid about that."

My other friend is not in a book group, but told me that she imagined that it would be a bore having to read other people's choices.  Much the same response, in fact, although envisaged rather than experienced.

My second friend (who has a degree in English Literature), also said that she worried that she would take too highbrow an approach, and that this might be a problem if she wanted to bond with other members. 

I agreed that it might, and thought that possibly it could be resolved by saying as little as possible.

The obvious consequence of that tactic would be to negate the purpose of joining the group!  ie to talk about books with other book addicts.

What do other people think about book groups?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips on How to Read Wolf Hall

I don't know anyone who has finished "Wolf Hall". Most of my friends (as you would expect) are avid readers, but all of them say things like: " I couldn't follow it", or "You didn't know who was who, or who was speaking", or simply "I found it unreadable".

Finally, four years after publication (Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009), and three years after I bought and stashed away my hardback copy, it has at last reached the top of my "to-read" pile.

First tip - Read "Bring Up the Bodies" first.  (Thanks are due for this tip to my young friend and ex-work-colleague who took a first in History, but still couldn't make it through WH).  She said that BUTB is easier, and I certainly agree with her.  I didn't have any problems with it and it eased me into the mind-set of the author's way of writing, and her intentions.  Also, I was disappointed when it ended, and therefore actively looking forward to reading WH.  Although WH comes first, of course, and BUTB follows on, both chronologically and in the author's order of writing.

Second tip- Watch "The White Queen" first, and read at least one of the four novels on which the series is based.  You don't need to read all of them because they each take a different character's point of view of essentially the same events.  Maybe not "The Lady of the Rivers", though, because that one is slightly earlier in time.  The best two books in my opinion are "The Red Queen" and "The White Queen".

The reason for my second tip is as follows:

Philippa Gregory's historical novels are much, much easier to read than WH or BUTB, and you can easily get into the period via these novels.  The period of course being the one immediately prior to the Tudors.  In fact Henry VIII's father, Henry Tudor, is a major character in the Philippa Gregory series.  You get to know him, and his extremely stubborn, single-minded and obsessive mother, Margaret Beaufort.  Don't forget she was H8's grandmother on the Lancaster, (or Red) side.  And they introduce you to his grandfather (on the York side, the white side of the Tudor Rose).  This was Edward IV, and once you have met him, you see how much H8 took after him.  Physically, both were very tall, very golden, very good-looking, very charming, and very athletic and strong - in their youth.  Both put on weight, ran to fat, and became more self-centred and ruthless in middle age.

A further crucial similarity is that Edward IV, controversially, married an English commoner, for love.  And even more interestingly, that particular woman refused to be his mistress, and held out for marriage or nothing.  And another similarity is that the existence of a "pre-contract" or earlier marriage (which happened before the one universally recognised), later emerged as a reason why the public marriage was declared legally invalid.  And when it did emerge, the children of the public marriage were declared to be bastards.  And someone else took the throne on that presumption.  (The infamous Richard III, but I am not going there). 

So all that sets the scene, and gives a background for the character and behaviour of H8, and the background of civil unrest and war which explains the ruthlessness of the Tudors in executing anyone who set up as a rival claimant to the throne.  The history of the "Wars of the Roses" and the "Princes in the Tower" also explain the Tudors'  absolute obsession with the production of adult male heirs. 

Third tip - Read and study the family trees which are laid out at the beginning of WH, and insert pencilled notes about the characters based on what you have learned from the study of the "Wars of the Roses" period.  Keep a bookmark in the family trees page, and refer to it as often as needed.

Fourth tip - Have some history books to hand.  My recommendations are as follows:

"The House of Tudor" by Alison Plowden.  This gives an excellent overview of each of the Tudor monarchs as they follow on from the Plantagenets, and has further helpful family trees.

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII" by Antonia Fraser.  The really excellent and meticulous fact-gathering of this work help you to navigate through the politics both national, international and religious.  You can use the index to help you sort out the many Thomas's appearing in WH. You can look up the differences between Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer (both churchmen) and Thomas Cromwell, (linked to both, and the central persona of WH and BUTB). 

In a similar vein, the last of the Plantagenets are confusingly called "The Poles", (descended from George Duke of Clarence, he who drowned in the butt of Malmesy wine), and the "de la Poles" (descended from a sister of Edward IV, also sister to Clarence and Richard III).  You can look these names up in the history books to clarify who is who, and amend the family trees with further information.

Antonia Fraser's chapters on Anne Boleyn herself recount many of the events described in Wolf Hall, in the same order, so you can go there for verification of what is going on.  And lastly, perhaps most importantly, Antonia Fraser gives impeccable reference notes, and lists her sources exhaustively.  So, for example, you learn that Wriothesley, an irritating minor character in WH and BUTB, has a cousin who is the author of a "Chronicle of England" and hence a source.  Likewise, the rather shadowy minor character George Cavendish, Wolsey's servant, turns out to have written a biography of Wolsey which is heavily used by AF as a source document.  This is heaven for a person who likes checking things.  Novels, of course, don't have an index!

Fifth tip - don't read it as a page-turner - it isn't. Take your time.  Savour the language, and the historic detail, which you will recognise from the history books.  Enjoy the "inside" knowledge which you are gleaning, ostensibly from the mind of the person there at the time, Thomas Cromwell, but in fact from works of history and the benefit of hindsight.  Enjoy this god-like feeling of both knowing what is going to happen next, and having an imaginative insight into the thoughts and feelings of those present at the scene.  This is where Hilary Mantel really excels.  Her imagination recreates scenes with such realism, but simultaneously with such emotion and feeling - the latter qualities of course are  completely absent from sixteenth century historical records.  It is this skill which, I think, is what makes people feel sad when they have finished the book, and thirst for more.

As I did after finishing "Bring up the Bodies".

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Reading for Information

A dear friend came to stay and we visited Belton House (National Trust, Lincolnshire).

Following the obligatory cream tea, and a stroll round the beautiful gardens, we visited the house itself.

We both like reading  captions anywhere we see them.

One of the portraits, of a lovely young woman circa 18th century, informed us that she died, at 23, of a "putrid fever caused by body lice".

We were absolutely horrified.  This was the wife of an earl, living in stately splendour, with many servants (41 in the house's heyday, to run the house and garden).

"Ah," we exclaimed in unison, "This is why we are so obsessed with cleaning!"

Both of us have visited adult daughters and been horrified by the disgusting state of their apartments.

Last time she visited her daughter, they went out for breakfast, because my friend couldn't face eating in the shared kitchen of the flat.

"So," we agreed, "This is folk history and inherited instinct passed down to us by our mothers, to keep things clean for the benefit of health."

We were kind of sad that, with antibiotics and other remedies available, the youth of today does not feel the same anxiety.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Deep Feelings of Unease, deeply snobbish, deeply forgetful of own youth?

Waterstones - different in every town.  Have peeked into windows and displays of Waterstones in Redhill, Altrincham, and Peterborough in last fortnight.

Redhill -inviting display of new books recently published,  and reviewed in last week's Sunday Times Culture magazine.

Altrincham - display of books on The Plantagenets to entice those who are gripped by "The White Queen".

Peterborough - nothing enticing in the window, so went into shop to see if History section has anything similar to Altrincham.

While trying to locate the history section, happened upon the most scary thing - a whole three bookcases, each floor to ceiling, each about a metre and a half wide, absolutely STUFFED with comic books.  Described as "Graphic Novels".  Took a peek, ghastly. All violence and mayhem.   Is this the future of reading (other than e-reading?)

Am I being snobbish?

Have I forgotten my youthful reading of a comic a week, and the occasional paper-covered short comic novel?   My choice was usually a girls' school story, replete with bullying hockey sticks, and midnight feasts in the dorm, plus the obligatory "bad" teacher (who always had black hair!)

Am I over-reacting?  Or am I right to feel that there is too much space devoted to this garish genre, space which just about equates to the whole amount devoted to traditional children's stories elsewhere in the shop.

And anyway, wouldn't the target readers be reading these things on their tablets? 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

"The Towers of Trebizond" By Rose Macaulay

For a review of Rose Macaulay's own life, see the link to her biographer on Amazon, below.

Sarah LeFanu 

I usually read the reviews first if it's a book I'm unfamiliar with, to get a good overview.  Only three customers have reviewed this biography of Rose Macaulay.  The third review is by me.

"The Towers of Trebizond" is perhaps Rose's best-known book, and is famous for its opening line:

"Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down form this animal on her return from High Mass.

I'd like to discuss the writing style.  I know it is supposed to be extremely dry and amusing, but really, you can go a bit far.

The second page is devoted to a lengthy, (maybe tongue-in-cheek), account of the Anglican family  history shared by the narrator and Aunt Dot.  It starts with the penal laws of Henry VIII and includes words like "disapprobation, Interregnum, schismatic, conventiclers, sacramental, and Tractarians".

Would this get past a publisher's reader today?

Yesterday I attended a local reading group in the library and we touched on grammatical errors.  The error of repetition was not among those mentioned.  I recall being taught at school that:

1. You should not link too many clauses with conjunctions like "and" or "but".

2.  It is bad form to repeat a word twice in close proximity.

On page 43, a seven line paragraph uses the word "and" fourteen times.

Is this creative rule-breaking?  Or taking the ****?

Saturday, 15 June 2013

How Do You Read?

A publisher's site,, asks for feedback about whether people prefer to read books electronically or in hard copy.

My friend bought a Kindle a couple of years ago, and initially was very enthusiastic about it.

Yesterday I went with this same old friend to have lunch at The British Library.  After lunch, we browsed in the shop.  However, I noticed that, in the actual shop, she was eagerly grabbing hold of the beautifully arranged books, smoothing her hand caressingly over the pristine covers of the paperbacks,  admiring the colours, and generally acting like the books were a box of expensive chocolates which she craved and coveted.

I asked her about her current feelings about books.

She told me she was becoming tired of the Kindle.  It is so easy to download books that she has about 160 waiting to be read.  They all look the same.  There are no distinguishing covers, you can't easily go back and forth or insert notes in the margins.  They don't have a FEEL.  In short, she intends to resume her old habit of browsing in bookshops.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Western Isles- a special place for a special birthday

This was where I spent the afternoon on my 60th birthday.  You can't drive to this beach, only walk there.  That's why it's so empty.  That and the fact that it is in the Outer Hebrides.  Perfect.

And here's another one we walked to a couple of days later - on Harris.  This beach was even further away from any road, and the walk involved a cliff climb, near vertical in one place.

We wanted to get away from it all and the Islands exceeded my wildest expectations.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Goslings

Here are this year's brood.  Six, last year there were eight.  Hard to believe by the end of August they will be completely indistinguishable from their parents.

They were already swimming the day they left the nest.  Confident little creatures!  But they still like to snuggle together in a group.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Improvements and Moving On

Spring is here, buds are emerging, the goose is sitting on her nest, and the wood is full of silver and golden celandine.  I went out with my camera to take pictures of the blossom for my blog, but the camera didn't work, even with new batteries installed.  Disappointing.

Younger daughter came home from her ski season on Sunday, after an overnight coach journey from the French Alps.  We were a little concerned, but I figured that lightning would not strike twice. 

She looked really fit and well, has lost some weight, and generally seemed in control and putting the whole thing in perspective, and now looking forward to the next episode in her life.  She will be flying to Perpignan a week tomorrow where she has a job cleaning caravans.  Each to their own.

Now that the excitement is over, I am realising yet again how much the girls have grown in independence this year, from working abroad.  I knew that this would be the case, but even so, it is hard to completely accept that they are no longer my treasures.

I must find other things to occupy my mind.

I am currently reading "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker. Apparently every single book ever written can be categorised by one or more of these.  Some books greedily use three in one go!

They are:

Overcoming the Monster       eg "The Grufffalo", "Lord of the Rings"
Rags to Riches                      eg  "The Little Princess"
The Quest                             eg "The Hobbit", "Lord of the Rings"
Voyage and Return               eg "Peter Rabbit", "Lord of the Rings"
Comedy  Shakespeare
Tragedy   Shakespeare
Rebirth                                 eg "The Secret Garden"

As you can see, I am not that interested in Shakespeare.

Monday, 8 April 2013

More information About The Old House

The one that looked just like the Bronte parsonage, that is.

Well, the house was like the parsonage in that it was built of stone which had weathered to that black colour, so different from the golden honey-coloured stone of towns in the Cotswolds and Northamptonshire.  Due to the Dark, Satanic Mills, of course, the proximity of industrial activity.

It was about the same size and shape, being quite squat and more than one room deep, again unlike Northamptonshire vintage stone properties, which tend to be only one room thick until extended.  Chimneys and windows all a bit old and wobbly in our case.

UNLIKE the parsonage in that it was set on a corner of two main roads, therefore not at all peaceful, and positioned between a pub and a chip-shop on one side, and a housing estate on the other.  Therefore a lot of litter and worse ended up in our gateway.

The first thing we had to do was put on a new roof, (which we installed with the help of a council grant).  Next there was the fact that it had no central heating.  A house with stone walls a foot thick does take a long time to heat up, and, contrary to popular myth, cools down again very quickly.  So husband designed a system with the help of a book called "Install Your Own Central Heating", and fitted it himself.  OMG, he was so young and energetic then!  I remember that every floorboard in the house (or so it seemed) had to be pulled up.

I recall another epic row about food, this time a roast dinner I had cooked (again, very proud of it, saw it as a work of genius).  I was furious that husband did not immediately down tools to come and eat it at once, but rather carefully finished what he was doing.  OMG, I was so young and spoiled in those days!

The house had previously been occupied by an elderly couple and their even older mother, plus her two small dogs.  After about thirty years of the couple's constant smoking the walls were all yellow and streaming with nicotine, and the carpets stank of it.  Also the carpets (1970's shag pile) were full of dog hair.  We had nothing to spare for re-decorating or new carpets.

As soon as we moved in, everything started to fall apart.  You know how in your own house, there is a special way of doing things, like turning a door handle, to avoid trouble? All the door handles fell off under our callous hands, and the ancient gas heater in the kitchen packed up altogether.

Then there was the drainage.  A mains water pipe was leaking in the back garden, and the house  clean-water system drained into a soakaway under the street outside, so no washing machine could be connected until mains drainage had been installed.

The mice were despatched by next-door's cat, the most efficient method I have ever seen.

Another memory I have is of being woken in the middle of the night by our next-door neighbours entering our bedroom.  In those days we both slept completely naked, so it was quite embarrassing!  Luckily Mr Next-Door worked for a brewery so they both had a great sense of humour, and were used to late nights.  Our burglar alarm had gone off, and our stone walls were so thick we had not heard a thing.  

In the kitchen (which consisted of an ancient cooker, sink and some 1950's formica cupboards), there was a large chimney breast which had once held a range and after that an Aga.  Both long gone, but had left a big problem.  The Aga fumes had caused the mortar to disintegrate and the chimney breast was in a state of collapse.  Husband's building background again to the rescue, he got some Acro-props installed to hold it up.  I am not sure what was supposed to happen next, but what did happen was that he was offered a job move 100 miles further south, with a payrise and company car.  We decamped, and put the house on the market.

Amazingly, someone bought it, complete with Acro-props and drainage problems.  I think the fact that he had no wife was probably a critical factor.  I can't imagine any wife agreeing to buy the house in the state it was in.  He had been widowed,  and his mother lived in the housing estate a few hundred yards away, which made the house a useful proposition.

We later discovered that he dug the channel and fitted the pipes to connect to mains drainage himself.

On moving to the East Midlands, we spent more than a year living in rented accommodation, determined never again to make the mistake of falling in love with a totally unsuitable house.  Eventually we picked a brand new box, which, while ugly from the outside, was warm, clean, easy to run, and equipped with state-of-the-art plumbing and heating.  A perfect place to bring up a young family, which we then proceeded to do, and we are still here to this day!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Husband and Cake

A post on Caked Crusader has led my mind to dwell on the subject of husbands and cake.  I have been married to my husband for a long time, and we have been a couple for 35 years. 

One event in particular sticks out in my mind, on the subject of husband and cake.

Very early on, when we bought our first house together, we were quite naive and romantic.  We bought an old stone house which looked very like the Bronte's parsonage in Haworth.  The house was in a suburb of Leeds which was very unfashionable then, and had structural problems, which is why we got it quite cheap.

One of the problems was that it was absolutely freezing cold.  It had no loft insulation, and no central heating.  There were also mice.  Even our house was warmer for the mice than a hilltop between Leeds and Bradford in winter.

The first year we were there, I went to some considerable trouble to make a Christmas cake.  I was quite proud of this, not being a particularly domesticated young woman in those days.  (I remember scoffing when I first read Shirley Conran's book "Superwoman", that this book was" all about housework", and I did not intend to do any!)

Husband, looking for anything near to hand to put into a mousetrap he was constructing, broke off a corner of the beautiful untouched cake I had made, thus ruining it for icing.

It took about twenty years for me to get over this and these days, I do not make a Christmas cake.  He does, or we don't have one.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013


Skype calls with both daughters over the weekend. 

Apparently it is +14 degrees in the ski resort.  I asked younger daughter why snow was not melting.  She didn't know.

"It's SO FREEZING here,"  I sighed.

Mr BB and I set off at 7.00 am on Easter Sunday (our body-clocks were saying it was 6.00 am) to drive to elder daughter's flat to clean it.  (She has been in Brussels since October). The car gave the exterior temperature as -4 when we set off, and plus 5 at the end of the day on our return. 

So "Freezing", which used to be short-hand/exaggerated complaint for any temperature which was not 20 degrees plus, is, in this case, scientifically accurate.

"The spring is just not arriving," I continued.  "The birds are not singing, the buds are not coming out, and the geese are not nesting."

At this, younger daughter burst into howls of laughter and said she had to relay my news to her work-mate as soon as possible.

I didn't understand what was funny.  Apparently it had to do with the geese.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lost the Plot

Has anyone else noticed that "Boy Meets Girl" doesn't seem to be the plot-line of many modern film and TV dramas?

We have "The Killing" and all its imitators ("Broadchurch, Shetland, Spiral) on TV.

We have "This is 40", and "I Give it a Year" on film.

What happened to old-fashioned romance?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Ask Your Mum - History

A further reason for my interest in Lotte Kramer and Judith Kerr is that they were born in the same year as my late mother.  And my mother-in-law, in fact, and my late father-in-law.  A generation that is fast fading from view, and will leave a big gap behind - namely first-hand recollections of what it was like to be a young person during the Second World War.  Anyone lucky enough to still have the chance, I urge you to ask your relatives for their memories.  Once gone, there will only be the TV to show a picture, and TV is inevitably biased.


Friday, 22 March 2013

Low Point

Do you ever read a book so bad that it makes you feel queasy?  And I am NOT talking about any shades of grey here.  I have not so much as taken an E L James from the shelf of a second-hand bookshop - yes, they are already making their appearance in charity shops, if anyone wants a cheap copy!  No, I do know my own limits, and am not going there.

The book I have just finished (I'm a great "I've started so I'll finish" person), is a memoir by a lady who was a Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1933.  My interest was caught because she happens to be the same age, gender and nationality as both Lotte Kramer (on whom I have posted below) and Judith Kerr, the author of the inimitable "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit".  Both of those authors write movingly and with delicacy about their childhood experiences and the way these impacted on their development as young adults and beyond.

Anyway, back to the bad book.  I won't reveal the author's name, as it might be considered offensive.  The story was about her search for a long-lost ancestor, and could probably have been condensed into about three chapters.  It was of minor interest, and there was nothing tearful in it, unlike the two authors referred to above.  I am struggling to identify why it left such a bad impression, other than the fact that it was extremely repetitive.  It left me craving a really classic work to put me back on my normal level of love-affair with books.

Has anyone had a similar experience?

Friday, 15 March 2013

My First Library Book

Last  weekend being Mother's Day, pause for reflection.

I thought of my own mother, who sadly died 25 years ago.

I promised to write of my first library book.  Naturally, it was my mother who took me to the library, filled in the forms, and generally guided the experience.

How different libraries were in 1958, (I was five years old). It astonishes me that, more than 50 years later, the practice of date-stamping the required return date has ONLY JUST faded out.  Now you have to put the books in a thing like an X-Ray scanner, and print out a slip of paper telling you the return date.

In those days, you were issued literally with a card, a small piece of cardboard. Now it is a plastic credit-card shape with a bar-code.

There was no cornucopia of colourful picture books then.  Probably post-war paper shortages were still in force.  I do remember that paper was expensive, and coloured printing even more so - magazines were in black and white, and advertising catelogues of glossy things were rare.

There were no squashy sofas and child-high book troughs to delve into.  There seemed to be no children's section as such.  Children's books probably WERE stacked in one section, but they looked just the same as all the other books, because they were all bound in ghastly faux leather house binding in dreary dark green or maroon.

As I could not reach these high shelves, nor tell one dark and uniformly bound book from another, my mother made the choice of my first library book.  And it was just the one book.  In those days you were limited to three, now you can take home twelve at a time.

My mother homed in straight away on a book she must have alreaady decided on, and took it down.  Without consulting me, she marched me to the desk and we took the book home.

It was by Mrs Molesworth, and was called "The Cuckoo Clock".   I am certain that I could not have read it myself, she must have read it to me.  It is quite a substantial, dense tome, about the length for example, of "The Secret Garden".  I don't remember a thing about it except the title and the author, and the external binding, stencilled with the title in gold lettering.

I now own a second-hand copy of this book, and still haven't re-read it.  It just doesn't grip me.  However, what does interest me is that it was first published in 1877! 

This must have been a book my mother had read in her childhood.  She was born in 1924, so most likely a grandparent or person of that generation had introduced it to her. Her adoptive father was born in about 1870 (according to family research my brother brought here at Christmas for me to look at) so it may even have been he who sat her down and possibly read it aloud. Someone certainly gave her a love of reading and a passion for the use of the library.

I still love libraries, although they are such different places now.  And children's books are so colourful and varied, and often so very funny. Troops of school children are brought by their teachers to experience the library, and a Mothers and Toddlers singing group takes place regularly. (In my childhood, you were scowled at if you so much as whispered a conversation in the hallowed place!)

All these are certainly changes for the better. Long live the library!

Friday, 8 March 2013


Yesterday was World Book Day.  Not a mention anywhere in my newspaper or normal radio news programmes.  I had to go to an actual bookshop before I could establish that it was actually yesterday, and even Waterstones only had a small corner allocated.

Today is International Womens' Day.  Again, no coverage except, (this may strike you as unbelievable), in a magazine about accountants, and in a seminar organised by an accountancy firm on the networking site "Linked-In".  Two marks for accountants, a traditionally male-dominated profession.

Instead, the media are obsessed with Red Nose Day (last night, BBC 3 had SIX hours allocated to Comic Relief).

Commerce is obsessed with Mothers' Day.  Every shop, every supermarket, huge advertising hoardings - all advertising Mothers' Day merchandise.

Now, I am a mother, and I consider motherhood to be the greatest challenge and the greatest joy of my life.

But, this year I would MUCH RATHER , instead of a gift, receive  news that the International Community was going to achieve, without escalation of violence, some peace and comfort for the mothers and children in Syria.

My newspaper did run, two days ago, a full page advertisement from Unicef, laying out in detail, in very small black and white writing, the suffering of the Syrian children.  I wonder how many people of influence read it.

The same day, William Hague was trying to restrain a colleague from calling for full-scale military intervention in Syria , and the US was rumbling along the same lines.

Today the news is that North Korea is threatening nuclear reprisals .Why oh why is the male response to nearly every crisis, the use of force?

If more men read things, they might feel a stirring of empathy, an imaginative identification with victims - "What if that was me, my family?"

Or am I just being silly?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

George Orwell

Here's the thing.  On Sunday, I was out walking with my dear friend of 27 years - we met at Mothers and Toddlers when we each had just the one baby under one year old.  We've shared a huge number of experiences since - the second baby, the passing of our parents, the trials of living with middle-aged husbands, and now we are both contemplating retirement and what activities we will take up.

DF told me that her husband (already retired) has started running a chess club at the primary school which all of our children attended.

I was interested in this, and asked to hear more.  His most recent session focussed round bringing in a game he had actually played himself at the age of 16, for the primary school kids to look at and follow.  Apparently, they were mesmerised, and all asked him to photocopy the sheet of paper on which he had noted down the moves, and then autograph it for each of them!

This of course reflected very well on all parties - the good manners and enthusiasm of the children, the energy and imagination of the leader of the club.

We both laughed, uproariously and irreverently, however, at the fact that her husband had kept this relic for nearly 50 years.  It is entirely in character, as "extraordinarily retentive" would be a polite description of him.

I said, confident that I was remembering correctly, "I don't have a single thing in my possession that I owned when I was 16, not an item of clothing, a memento, an old toy - nothing!"

It turns out that I was wrong, and what would the item be but a book, of course!

Recently Radio 4 ran a series of programmes called "The Real George Orwell."

It was an excellent mini-series, comprising some dramatic renderings of actual stories by Orwell, such as "1984" which to my surprise had never been put on radio before.  Then there was an adaptation of "Homage to Catalonia", this being an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, with commentary as to how this shaped his cynical views of Communism which later emerged in "Animal Farm" and "1984". 

A further strand was a short reading of an essay each morning, and then there was an imagined re-construction of his relationship with his first wife.  All in all, meaty nuggets and plenty to choose from.

I missed all the essays, as the morning "Book of the Week" slot is at a time when I am always busy, either working in the house or out of it.

Yesterday, I was searching in one of my "very-seldom used" bookcases (I have several categories of book-case scattered around the house) for a copy of the first book I ever borrowed from a library (this, I hope, will be the subject of a later post).  The book has been in my actual possession a few years: I got it from a charity shop and the price inside the cover is marked "5p".

Next to it was a Penguin paperback copy of "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell. "Oh, good," I thought, "I'll take that downstairs and add it to my meal-time reading pile". I thought it would be good to refresh my memories of the really outstanding standard of Orwell's essay-writing .

I opened the (now fragile, browning) pages and looked to see if I had bought this book as new, or from a second-hand shop.  In the flyleaf was my maiden name, in childish handwriting, black fountain pen ink, and the date, "2nd Feb 1970".   I was in the sixth form, studying A-Level English, at the time, and must have bought this as background reading, for the set text "1984".

At that date, I was 16 years old.  Wow!  Wrong, then, but wrong in a good way. And the writing, (I've slotted it straight to the top of the meal-time reading pile), is just as strong, refreshing, clear and original as it seemed 43 years ago. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Arthur Miller

Now, I have a love-hate relationship with Arthur Miller.  First, "Death of a Salesman" - it said just about everything there was to say about growing up in the world as a post-war baby boomer.  I first saw the play as a teenager, a very impressionable age. This work is a master-class in dramatic form, and never loses its power to move me to tears.

Then, as the years go by, realising that he was a misogynistic and arrogant man, a bundle of self-obsession and entitlement.  Realising that he married Marilyn Monroe because he could, because he wanted to own that beautiful dream, come home to it every night (in his own words), until he found out he had got a wounded bird on his hands, a fragile thing which he couldn't handle at all.  Utterly unable to offer the support an insatiably needy creature demanded.

Then going back to the genius Arthur Miller again, who simply expressed, apparently  with effortless clarity, a lifetime of being  an American.  (Although it was, of course, hard and dedicated workmanship that lay behind the flow of words).

And the MacCarthy witchhunts, which inspired that awfully depressing play "The Crucible" which I had to study at GCE O-level.  Again crafted to a particular and predictable conclusion, Thomas Hardy -esque in the inevitability of the hammer blows of fate which mount up to a tragedy.

Last week,  after hearing a dramatisation of the relationship between AM and his director Elia Kazan, on Radio 4's afternoon play slot, I took out of the library the playscript of  "After the Fall".  This, written by AM  and first directed by EK, "takes place entirely in the mind of Quentin" - it is thus the voice of the author.  All three of his wives appear in the play, as does his relationship with Elia Kazan.

You first think - the ego!  To write a play all about himself and taking place all inside his mind!  But then you have to respect his ability to read into the minds of women.  Particularly his first wife, who has left no lasting memory in the minds of the public, and therefore might appear as  a nobody, unlike his second, Marilyn Monroe, and his third, who outlived him and bore two children, one of whom is married to Daniel Day-Lewis.

As a first wife myself, (albeit still in situ, after more than thirty years), I could identify with a lot of what this  first wife character complained about.  Her complaints seemed entirely reasonable to me.

And here is how the errant and rebellious husband reacted to her complaints - his aide-memoire of things he could do better on:

"Know all, admit nothing, shave closely, remember birthdays, open car doors, pursue her not with truth but with attention."    

He's got it all there, and I have had issues with my husband on every one of those points. 

Of course, being a genius, he felt no need to take his own advice, but went out there and did exactly what he wanted (owned the blonde of the century).

Of course, being ordinary mortals, we ourselves at BB house could add to the list : "accept that your wife knows best on everything to do with the household, particularly kitchen management"  - but that's too mundane for AM (although the whereabouts of the household phone list did appear as a dialogue several lines long).

Probably AM  speaks for most of the husbands of the Western world.  That's genius.