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Friday, December 30, 2011

Once on a blog on fire

In about 2000 Once In A House On Fire was everywhere, like a track that everyone was listening to except me. In book shops and coffee shops and on buses, the lot. I was working like a maniac for my A Levels at that time, on the final straight to my long time ambition, to get into Oxford. What with Chaucer and John Donne and Suetonius and John Stuart Mill and all the rest, a passing interest in Andrea Ashworth’s memoir, available in all good book shops and not the subject of an imminent examination, was put on the deal-with-me-another-day shelf.

That “other day” has just come to pass, and 12 years after first deciding upon it, I have read Once in a house on fire. It has set me on fire too. It is a candid, monstrous and poetic source of truth and light and I am amazed by it.

Andrea Ashworth’ story begins when she is 5 years old and her painter and decorator father dies in a freak accident, leaving her young mother a widow with two little girls to look after alone. There then follows a tale of two step-fathers, of beatings and punchings and unending anxiety. In addition to the violence, there is sexual abuse, although this is less serious and shorter in duration. It feels wrong to be calibrating such things but there you are. Andrea’s mother shrinks from a nice looking good time girl to a bruised and emaciated desperate heap of whom even kindly relations despair. All of this takes place against a backdrop of grinding poverty, potato dinners and periodical homelessness.

Most of us can remember things from childhood, but Ashworth seems able to remember things as they happened. Her memories do not have the feeling of having been re-processed and squished into convenient shapes and sizes. They are what they are. They are both real and urgent.

Like that other memoir of domestic warfare Chelsea Child, there is a mismatch between the deprived circumstances of the writer in childhood and her ability to write so fluently in adulthood: one is left wondering how she managed it. The big difference is that in the case of Once In A House On Fire, we know from the inside flap that Ashworth is (or at any rate was) a junior research fellow at Oxford. Therefore, we know that despite it all, somehow, she must find a means of escape. As a result, I for one raced through the narrative, looking for where the road out must be.

Truth, it turns out is stranger than fiction, and Ashworth was never on the receiving end of a “big break”. There were no towering intellectuals in the family or the neighbourhood, no amazingly inspirational teachers. She did get a scholarship, but could not take it up. So, she went to a bog standard school like all of her neighbours. Hers was the triumph of an outstanding mind against a sea of troubles and the terrible truth is that it must have been in some way attributable to those troubles. She is not too shy to acknowledge that.

The strange love and attachment which the abused feels for the abuser is dealt with – both in the person of Ashworth’s mother, and in the child herself who admits to remember the pulls of love towards men who beat her up and treated her as a household slave. There is nothing shy or pedestrian about this novel, and I find that I can’t say more than that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

I have always deeply loved the work of Michael Holroyd. On this blog, I have reviewed Basil Street Blues, and I have also enjoyed, but in a non-blogging way, his biographies of Augustus John, Lytton Strachey and his “group” biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their families. All of this Holroyd mania is based on something more than the simple fact that I enjoy reading about the people and periods that this writer addresses. I also find his narrative voice funny and intelligent and humane. But, even beyond that, the work of Michael Holroyd brings out some secret childhood part of me that does not otherwise get much of an airing. The reality is that if life had been different, I would vey much have liked to be a private detective.
I imagine myself, possibly in the 1920s or ‘30s with a flat in London, armed only with an A to Z, a good knowledge of Somerset House and an ability to get chatting to anyone. Like all romantic detectives, I believe that most of the time, things are traceable, and one discovery leads to another. If it doesn’t, then I am content to consign it to history. That appears to be how Michael Holroyd gathers information. He never seems to be in an awful hurry and he accepts, as all thinking biographers must, that there will be gaps, probably better described as gaping chasms, in his knowledge.
The reason for this gushing introduction is the enormous sense of sadness I felt, in reading the final chapter of his latest offering A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, in which he describes it as “my last book”.
A Book of Secrets is about a collection of women, books and a place, that all connect to Ernest Beckett, second Baron Grimthorne, a 19th Century banker and have-a-go politician. Beckett had a wife and children and he also had mistresses and they had children. Holroyd focuses on those who resided and were born on the wrong side of the blanket. He alights first on Beckett’s mistress, Eve Fairfax whose bust was modelled by Rodin during her glory days and sold to a museum in Johannesburg in more straightened times. Then he moves to the potential offspring of a liaison between Beckett’s son and a married woman (whom he later married himself). From this his focus falls on Beckett’s most famous illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis nee Keppel. His adventures weave in and around the lovely Villa Cimbrone, near Ravello and take in the modern day survivors of his protagonists, both biological and emotional.

The story of Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Trefeusis is well known already, as is the affair between Violet and Vita Sackville-West.

Really, I was most interested in Eve Fairfax. She fascinated me because I had never heard of her, and she seemed to sit on the edge of so many things. She appears to have suffered greatly for the fact that Beckett never married her and nor did anyone else. As a result, she ended her life destitute and rightly described as a “genteel tragedy”. She was positionless and that was her problem. Her contribution to history appears to have been an enormous scrap book, in which the great and the good were encouraged to write and stick things. We must assume that many of them did so under duress and with a degree of embarrassment. By the time Eve dies, she is 106 years old, and I almost wept for the sadness of her life. I felt that Holroyd was completely right in his comment that although she lived in Victorian and Modern times, she seemed to belong to neither.

A Book of Secrets is exactly that. It is by no means all worked out, but the mysteries are there, as is the desperate desire to know about oneself and others. It has been a pleasure reading it and I recommend it warmly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Will anyone called VESEY please stand up?

As some readers of this blog may have picked up, I really love names. I like to know why names were given to people and where they come from. If you had occassion (and I don’t suggest that you would) to give me a cheque, I would almost certainly take the opportunity to ask you what your middle names are.

Thus, in reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1951 novel Hide and Seek, I spent a good deal of time pondering on the main male character’s name. Who ever heard of a man called Vesey? I certainly haven’t. I don’t even know how to say it. I wonder whether it is “vee-see” or “ve-see” or what. The name, although it is not really important speaks of the authenticity of the book. The characters are not made to please you, but readin of them one gets a powerful sense that they are real.

The novel concerns the love between Harriet and Vesey. Harriet and Vesey belong to the generation of people born in the early 1920s. In both cases, their parents were both more revolutionary and more conservative than they themselves were. Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is appalled at the lack of ambition and idealism exhibited by her daughter. At the same time, she is a social conservative, desperate for Harriet to be settled. Vesey’s mother is a much more louche character but is not really interested in him at all. His aunt, who is to an extent in loco parentis to him, looks upon him as a dangerously radical person in the house and a hopeless layabout outside of it. Harriet and Vesey, for their part are twice embarrassed, first by parental exhibitionism and second by their own failure to really “do” anything.

Vesey seems confident, but he isn’t really. He talks a pretty big game, but in reality he lets himself and other people down on most, if not all, occasions. Harriet doesn’t seem confident and she isn’t confident. They are both crying out for a normal life, preferably in one another’s arms. Their chances seem to die on the alter of pride and repression and because neither is bold enough.

Thus, like many ladies before and since, Harriet marries another, less for love and more because nobody else has turned up. Her husband, Charles pursues her slowly and tenaciously. Rather than seducing her, he persuades her, and she is persuaded because she believes that Vesey is gone for ever.

In fact, he is not gone, but I will not spoil the book for those who have not yet been delighted by it. It develops into a beautifully balanced study on marriage and fidelity and love and I enjoyed it very much. It is all the more powerful as Elizabeth Taylor had a passionate affair during her own marriage (described by Nicola Beauman in her excellent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor).

It is unquestionably well written and well constructed. I found myself caring about the characters. As a study on the nature of marriage, its powers and its frailties, I must say that it has not knocked the wonderful Someone at a Distance off my top spot.

Other excellent opinions can be found at Frisbee, Daydreams and Delights, Harriet Devine and Book Group of One.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Norwegian Wood: too much sex, not enough cats

Last year a truly lovely Japanese lady, who I now miss very much, introduced me to the work of Haruki Murakami. She recommended Kafka on the Shore which I read slowly but with great enjoyment. It is the kind of book that surprises you at every turn but not in the usual way. It is not a case of dramatic “you-didn’t-see-me-did-you” twists. Rather, it is like stepping through a series of new paradigms, each slightly stranger than the last. Just the sort of thing I like. And there are talking cats, so you can’t ask more than that.

Because it is all so odd, I decided not to jump into Murakami feet first. I thought that he is probably the mind of writer who repays careful and considered consumption.

Thus I find myself, well over a year after Kafka, having read my second Murakami, Norwegian Wood.

As you may be able to guess from the title, this novel has its feet planted firmly in the 1960s. It is the nostalgic memoir of an enigmatic student in Tokyo, Toru, who is up to his ears in free love and student protests. He is smart and interesting and as his girlfriends comment, he does have a funny, spare kind of way of talking. His problem is that his best friend has committed suicide and Toru has responded by, essentially falling in love with the best friend’s girlfriend.

It does not take long to work out that the girlfriend is none too well either. Through her Toru meets a kindly middle age woman whose life as a mildly unhappy provincial piano teacher has been destroyed by false accusations of sexual assault from an adolescent girl.

At the same time, Toru starts seeing another girl who accosts him as he eats alone in a restaurant. Midori is vibrant and funny and seems very real. She talks about sex incessantly and in great detail. If she were a modern day girl, she would definitely be a text-pest. Apart from the girls, and Toru’s conservatively minded room mate, whom he names “storm trooper” to amuse others, Toru only really has one friend. That friend is an almost pneumatically promiscuous clever clogs called Nagasawa. Nagasawa has the sweetest girl in town and cheats on her all the while, except that he doesn’t really see it as cheating.

As I read, I imagined Toru as a young man, good looking but not extremely so, ordinarily dressed. He is standing up and surrounded by the girls and the dead friend and Nagasawa and they are all prodding him, trying to push him their way. He has before him the living and the dead and the nearly dead as well as the pursuit of love and the pursuit of non stop you know what.

I enjoyed his tale and thought it was good. I am not sure that I thought it was more than good though. I was surprised that it was a straight story, albeit quite a poetic one. I am ultimately saddened by the lack of talking cats.
For many, Norwegian Wood is their favourite Murakami and there are plenty of other, differing opinions to be found. Some of them can be seen at: Katie’s Book Blog, Steve Reads and Middlebrow Magazine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good morning, Mexico City

OK - so I am not actually there now, and this picture is about 3 weeks old. Still cool though...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Made in Chelsea circa. 1930

I ordered Chelsea Child by Rose Gamble from Amazon and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised when it turned up. It had been recommended by a friend but I didn’t know anything about it. I do however live quite near to Chelsea, so I do know about that. But when this book rocked up I was stumped. The battered dust jacket spoke of a family of 7 living in 1 room and scraping a living on the wages of a char. I knew that Chelsea, now pad of choice to the super rich, had once been popular with artists. However, Chelsea’s history as a slum town was a complete revelation to me.

But that history is here, between the covers of an almost completely forgotten and certainly out of print memoir. Reading it has been like discovering an extra blanket on the bed during a cold night.

The Chelsea Child in question is Rose Naylor, or Rowie as she is know in her family. Rowie is one of 7 children who live with their parents in 1 room of a structurally unsound shack in circumstances of staggering privation. They eat scraps, sleep on tables and wash in the water used to prepare their dinner. As I read, I squirmed at the thought but also at the knowledge of my own softness.

Each child exhibits an iron loyalty to their Mother who slaves to feed cloth and care for them. She works all hours and runs home in her lunch break to cook dinner for her family. Their Father is a different kettle of fish altogether. He is a domestic monster. Frustrated by his own unemployment and emasculated by his wife’s industry and hard work, he lingers around the inadequate home, bubbling with rage. There is, in consequence domestic violence which is terrible to read. Almost worse however, is the constant threat of temper. His disposition sits in the corner of the room like a dirty bomb that may be set off at any time by some unwitting word or action, wholly innocent and unremarkable to any other living soul.

But if I have given the impression that this is some sort of misery memoir, then I have done it wrong. It is funny, well written and wholly without self pity. Rowie and her sisters are funny, clever and enterprising, sometimes in surprising ways. When the hospital in which they are each treated demands contributions, they stage a street version of “Little Women”, with the Naylors in the title roles. Rowie describes the production thus:

We swept the yard and tried to board up the chickens. Geogie ad Lu humped the junk from the shed back to clear a space for the stage and hung the green curtain from Lu’s bed over a washing line in front of it. Ethel lent a couple of kitchen chairs in case there were any adults – everyone else would have to sit o the ground. Advertising was by word of mouth, with threatened bashings from Lu and Georgie if any of their own particular mates failed to turn up. But a concert was rare and our neighbours knew us, and they came. The yard was packed and some had to hang out of the scullery window. The play was unrecognisable and the audience totally baffled by the plot, but it was all made worthwhile by the deathbed scene”.

These children are literate and imaginative and industrious. In their own day they would have been known as “slum children” but they give the lie to the idea that the poor are or ever were, stupid. They survive on their wits, their humour and their hard work and they are a challenge to us all for it. Rowie is charming and confident and self-reliant and she gets that from her family. Her mother, her siblings and her neighbours are the source of her wonder. She values herself and so came to be valued by me, one of her readers.

In addition to being a touching family and individual story – the book is a disquisition on history and the little life. The family is plagued with illness. They suffer Diphtheria and Meningitis. They live on a diet which would shock a church mouse. But at the same time, they are fit as fiddles and would put my flabby frame to shame. They are of their age. History is the thing that sweeps them up and moves them on, and in a way, they don’t have much to do with it. Thus, they are transported around the city in the pre-war slum clearance and housed in a flat so spacious and luxurious that Rowie cannot sleep. After that the war comes and scatters them for good.

There is a constant tension to this memoir. The children speak cockney but the prose is perfect received English and there is no real explanation as to why that would be. Rowie is clever, and goes to a posh school, where she struggles in a good natured but very obvious way to adapt to a radically different society. She is a bright girl, but she doesn’t cover herself in glory academically and I find myself wondering desperately – what happened to her? I know that she wrote her memoir and that she read it on Radio 4 but other than that her destiny a delicious mystery.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Slightly below the Whipple line

I have been on trains a lot recently, and apart from explorations with my new iphone (how did I not realise that I needed one before?), I have mostly been reading The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. I liked it. It was fun. It was good company. That said, a corner of my soul was a bit disappointed. The reasons are firstly that I loved loved loved Someone at a Distance, and so I had extremely high expectations. Secondly, I think that in reading this book, I have finally understood what Carmen Calil meant by “below the Whipple line”. It has plenty of good features. Like all Persephones, it is well-written. The problem that it is just not a satisfactory novel.

Let’s start with the good bits. The Priory is Saunby Priory, which we are given to believe is somewhere in the Midlands. Its days as a priory are well over by the opening of the novel and it has been, for generations in the hands of the Marwood family, who live there. Its owner is Major Marwood, and because he cannot afford to fix everything, he chooses to fix nothing. Basically, it is going to rack and ruin. The novel follows the travails of Major Marwood, his family and others who know them. All of the characters are in some way linked to the Priory itself.

The emphasis of the novel shifts around like a searchlight in a forest. For the first few chapters, the focus is very much on Anthea, the big-boned, middle-aged lady whom Major Marwood chooses for his second wife. He hopes for administrative assistance rather than romance and Anthea’s struggles to get it right and to be loved are touching and convincing. From Anthea, the spotlight switches to a below-stairs love triangle between two of the Priory’s maids and Major Marwood’s most ridiculous extravagance: Thornton, his paid, live-in cricketer. In its final sequence, the stage is dominated by Major Marwood’s two daughters, Christine and Penelope, and in particular by Christine.

If the novel has a heroine, then it is Christine. Christine is the person who realises and gives voice to the fact that they are all inextricably linked to the house, but also that the house, and its lack of usefulness is the problem. Not only is it too big to house a clutch of unproductive plonkers who can’t afford it. It is not what it was meant for. It was built to house a community, and it has been diverted from its purpose, to everybody’s detriment.

History looms large but subtly over this novel. It is set in the late 1930s, and with varying levels of consciousness, all of these characters are under the shadow of the coming war. The resolution of the novel (which is an ecstatically, nay, ludicrously happy one), coincides with the Munich crisis. The novel ends with its characters, like almost everyone else in Britain at the time, believing that war had been averted. As readers, we know different. Saunby is exactly the sort of house that was either sold or given to the National Trust after the war and this provides an interesting side conceit to the whole thing.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, in order to resolve the seemingly intractable problems of the characters, Whipple sacrifices convincingness. It just isn’t credible that the novel would be resolved as it is. The characters change their positions like weather vanes. Those who have rebelled, retract their rebellions. Walls that have been built are knocked down. Themes which have been carefully developed are dropped like stones. It reads like it was finished in a desperate hurry.

One of the main themes of the novel is how people deal with infidelity. This is a theme shared with Someone at a Distance, and it is one which Whipple takes seriously and does well. In The Priory, responses to infidelity are dealt with together with parenting. Some characters are pretty much neglected. Others are stifled with care and love and attention. Others are stifled with material comforts by their parents, and as a result are profoundly unhappy. They are unable to do anything or be anyone because they, even in adulthood, are so dependant on their parents. This theme was powerfully developed throughout the novel, but when it came to the ending, Dorothy Whipple pretty much ignores it. She rides roughshod over all of the well constructed themes that she has worked through the narrative.

I am tempted to sign myself: Disappointed, of London town.

There are other opinions to be found at My Porch and A Book A Week.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mostly being modern and romantic

I have discovered this week, just as I am closing the back cover on Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns, that she has now published another book – this time on Virginia Woolf. It is better to come to something a little late than not at all. Romantic Moderns is a book which I have had for yonks, but which I have enjoyed eating slowly and out-of-order. It is as broad as it is long, and being a history of the English imagination in the 1930s and 1940s, it is given to such staggered consumption.

The central thesis is that the English were not, as previously believed, excluded from modernism. The orthodox view is that artistically and imaginatively, the English were and are a pastorally minded lot, a nation of romantics whose art is figurative and whose literature is linear. The struggles of artistic abstraction and surrealism to take off here are often called as witnesses to this phenomenon.

For what it is worth, I have never thought that it is quite right. There isn’t a line with modernists on one side and traditionalists on the other. What Harris does is examine this issue from all sorts of angles including art, literature, food, church and village. She says again and again that English artists and writers of this period were modernists whose explorations borrowed from and were informed by the more traditional past. They were not making the world afresh; their modernism had to do with re-interpretation.

She focuses on a group of well-chosen “Romantic Moderns” who individually and collectively illustrate her point – such as John Piper, Virginia Woolf and Bill Brandt. The passage in which she talks about the paintings in Berwick Church by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell is excellent and took me right back to that wonderful church (discussed on this blog back in January).

It would be an impossible task to catalogue all of the “Romantic Moderns” of the period, but one of the best things about this book is that it feels like it is the tip of the iceberg.

The discussion of the ungodly Bloomsbury bunch using a church for a gallery, and being used themselves as the organs of religious expression put me in mind of Rupert Lee, an artist of the same period (and a friend of Bell and Grant), who has featured on this blog before. Lee, who was 10 years the president of the avant-garde London Group of Artists, and who was at the forefront of British surrealism, also produced religious art, which I discovered myself at St Mary the Less in Cambridge and at the nearby Foxton Parish Church. He was not religious himself, but this art formed a part of his cultural world. His modernism was complex and there was more than one colour in his pallet.

The same can be said of the English writer, Barbara Comyns whose writing borrows from the pastoral and the traditional but seems to write it afresh with a different eye and a different voice. Her writing has been called English magical realism, by which I think is meant that it is not full blown magical realism, but it feels magic all the same.

I particularly thought of Comyns when reading Harris’ chapter on village life. Almost all of Comyns’ adult life was lived in cities, but her writing was heavily influenced by her childhood in the Warwickshire village of Bidford-on-Avon. She focuses on village life to an extent which was common amongst writers and artists of the period, and she plainly felt that it was not an unviable mode of living, killed off by modernism. That having been said, she was not a proselytiser. Much of her work, especially the recently re-published Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead emphasises that the smallest communities can be the cruellest.

The division between the city and the country, the modern world and the old one was not and is not straight forward, and long may it continue.

Friday, September 30, 2011

And they all rolled over and one fell out: Wait for Me!

When I first read that Deborah Devonshire AKA the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire; Deborah Mitford; Debo; Stubby; Stublow etc was publishing memoirs my first thought was how can the world possibly need more Mitford porn? For 6 posh sisters from Oxfordshire of whom only 1 survives, they have sure generated a lot of literature. Maybe a little too much. There are endless collections of letters and biographies and collective biographies and so on. All except Pamela (who was famously private) and Unity Mitford (who died in 1948 after attempting suicide at the outbreak of war) contributed to the oeuvre from their own pens. So how can another one possibly be worth reading?

Well, somehow it is. It is quick, sure footed, funny, unsentimental writing. As usual, I find myself rather in love with Farve: “Occasionally Farve gave Muv a night off [from chaperoning Debo to balls during her first season]. He refused to take part in the festivities and never penetrated as far as the ballroom, but sat o one of those rickety hall chairs common to all big London houses, still in his evening cloak. One distraught hostess approached him and asked “Lord Redesdale, would you take the French Ambassadress into supper?” … “NO” he said furiously, “I’m waiting for Stubby” . It must be the Telegraph reader in me.

Debo deals with the tragedy and infamy of which everyone knows, but somehow, with new eyes. The passages in which she writes about the death of her sister Unity, the separation of her parents, the re-connection with her runaway sister Decca and the betrayal of her sister Diana by her sister Nancy have a strange, restrained flatness about them. She makes it clear that these events were enormously painful, without going on about it. That is what I like so much. She doesn’t really “go on” about anything (except perhaps the foundation of the Chatsworth shop, but then everyone has their foibles). She is plainly disinclined to peer into the private lives of others and more than once comments of some famous person in her history with the words: “his private life was his own”.

My revised opinion on Mitfordia is not that there should be no more books, but that all secondary commentary ought to be banned. This is a case where the horse’s mouth is preferable and since there is plenty of it about, that is all that Mitford lovers need. On that note, I shall stop typing now, except to say that there are other interesting reviews at Book Group of One, Savidge Reads and Amused, Bemused and Confused.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A visit to Cookham

When he was s student at the Slade, the visionary painter Stanley Spencer, who regular readers of this blog will know is one of my all time favourites, was known by the name of his home village, the Berkshire then-hamlet of Cookham. This is a mere glimpse of the sights that we saw on a recent trundle there.

And if this scene looks familiar.....

This is probably why...

OK, maybe it wasn't familiar, but it *is* the same place.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I am glad that I don't live in Cotter's England

I am sitting here of a sunny September morning wondering what on earth to make of Christina Stead’s 1966 novel, Cotter’s England. On one level reading it was a bloody awful experience. In fact, Reading it reminded me of a recent visit to the Dartmoor Prison museum during which I was saying t myself “OK so this is all very interesting but how do I get out of here?”. The book is a shapeless rambling shamble of hopelessness. Its characters are either actively hideous or weak of will. Watching the nice ones amble through their disastrous lives manipulated and tortured by the very worst is right up there with A Handful of Dust for frustrating literary experiences. But then, I guess, that is kind of the point. Cotter’s England is a discursive, experimental disquisition on its subject – the radical fringe of the post-war working-class left-wing in England.

Its main character is Nellie Clark nee Cotter, and Nellie is proper-horrific. She is a morally repugnant, intellectually incoherent manipulative piece, and if you ever had the misfortune to meet her, you would give her a wide berth. She is tea-drenched, whisky-sodden and when she is not pontificating she is coughing her guts up. She feigns a cloying familiarity with everyone and is close to no one. She prays on the dispossessed and under the auspices of caring for them, drives them into depression and one case, an early grave.

The drama ricochets between grimy London and grimy “Bridgehead” (aka Gateshead). In Bridgehead we are introduced to the Cotter clan, the drunken father, the cloying mother, the frustrated sister Peggy and the butt of all sorts of abuse; poor Uncle Simon. I don’t consider myself to be a feint hearted reader (although it would not surprise me if other disagreed!), but the constant mean acts of domestic violence against this helpless old fool left me feeling drained of strength myself. A case in point: “the next day things were much worse. Tom came downstairs at one moment in time to see Uncle Simon shrink back and Peggy strike him on the temple with a greasy saucepan”.

The reason that this book feels like a creature from another planet is that people don’t really write books like this anymore. It is a political novel, a story about a class of people in politics and about politics and class. It addresses the tension between the advancement of the individual and that of the community and tries to set its characters in the context of communities that both inspire them and also shackle them down. I do not know, and I cannot decide from my reading of the novel, whether Stead is trying to make general comments about the corruption of the far left in the ‘50s, or whether she is trying to suggest that the left somehow can’t accommodate these personalities without them deserting the cause before they have actually achieved anything for the generality of people. A taster, to show what I mean:

“What do you mean by Cotter’s England?” she cried out. “What’s wrong with my England?”
“The England of the depressed that starved you all to wraiths, gave Eliza TB, sent your sister into the Home, got your old mother into bed with malnutrition, ad is trying it on with me, too, getting at my health. I never had an ache or pain in my life: I beat their England. I lived through the unemployment, the starvation, the war, I knocked out a few bloody eyes and I got me fists skinned a few times, that’s all I ever got: and now I’m going to live for my country. You stay here and die in it. Don’t you want to change it? Or is it only the beer-soaked sawdust of Bohemia that you love? The dirt and sweat of the tear-stained bachelor’s bedroom; Bridgehead in all its glory? You don’t know what you’re fighting for. To change Cotters’ England. Wasn’t that what drove you on? Or just ragged rebellion?”

Sobering stuff, and powerful, if a little toe-curling.

I have included a picture of the author and the two Virago covers (of which the one I have is of the lady standing). I have also included another book cover that I found and which I think “gets” the book rather more exactly than the Virago choices.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Hare with Amber Eyes: a world where only the smallest survive

It would be nice to think that when I finally get around to chasing down my family history, that it will be pan-global rags to riches to rags tale of glamorous balls, old master acquisition and commercial trailblazing, but I kind of doubt it. I also doubt that there is any single object that has traversed the narratives of any more than 3 generations of my family. Edmund de Waal does not have these problems, and that is why his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes is so wondorous.

The eponymous hare is a tiny smooth toggly object which you can hold in your hand and slip in to your pocket. It is one of 264 Japanese “netsuke” which were carved in wood and ivory in the 18th Century and found their way into the ownership of the Ephrussi family in 19th Century Paris. The Ephrussi were a Jewish banking family whose ascendency had begun with trading grain in their native Odessa, then part of Russia. They became rich, very rich. They spread out to Vienna and Paris and London. They founded a bank. They were a Jewish family and their sons and daughters married the children of other wealthy Jewish families. They numbered workers and shirkers and scholars and lovers among them.

The netsuke collection was stroked by Renoir and Proust in Paris. From them and there it progressed to Vienna when it was stored in the dressing room of a wealthy banker’s wife, held only by her and her children and servants. When the Nazis stormed into requisition everything in sight, the size of the netsuke, which is what makes them so curious, became the reason for their survival. Being tiny was their defence against plunder. They were squashed into a mattress upon which a lady slept and they were carried to Tunbridge Wells in a small attaché case. Not to be bound to one continent, they were displayed for many years in an idyllic house in Tokyo.

Is this a history through objects or a study of objects through history?

I was being my hasty self when I suggested that this story was wholly extraordinary. Of course, it is quite extraordinary, but it is also like many others. How many people find themselves on the wrong side of history? How many people can predict the events of their own epoch? Can know when the bastards are coming for them, and get away in time? Not many, that’s how many. The feet of history march hard and march fast. Most of the Ephrussi fortune was lost when they found themselves on the wrong side at the end of the First World War. The holocaust did for the rest. The netsuke are the legacy of the Ephrussi’s moment in the sun. They represent and illustrate loss and survival.

Now, there is a netsuke shaped hole in my life. Maybe a toggle will have to do….

For those who are interested, a gallery of the netuke can be seen here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The hand that first held mine: am I the last person here to read this book?

Mystery, family secrets and bohemian London are three of my favourite things and I am fairly well chuffed to have discovered them, in combination in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine. I know that everyone else in the English speaking world read this ages ago, but there you are.

This is a story of two halves with elements of interplay and a last minute link that I will not spoil for those who have not yet had the pleasure. The first half is the story of Lexie Sinclair, convention-challenger and independent spirit of the 1950s. The second half belongs to Elina, young artist and new mother, and her boyfriend Ted who live in modern day Hampstead.

Books are often described as “cinematic” and most of the time I find myself thinking “well, feels more like a story in a book to me…” but not this time. The Hand that First Held Mine feels quite a lot like a film. The hoving in on the subject at the beginning swoops accurately like a camera: “Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and its almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen”. There are strange and unexpected flashes forward and flashes back. Very early in the book we are instructed to visualise the following: “Watch. Innes sucks in a nimbus of smoke, lifts a cigarette stub from the ashtray, appears to envelop Lexie in a shirt and push her across the room, the pillows jump on to the bed and they are both naked and, goodness, doesn’t sex look oddly the same in reverse”. Geddit? O’Farrell has a wonderful sense of people as actors, of life as reel.

There is a family mystery in this book which is not explained until then
end although I suspect that most readers will guess and get it roughly right. It is not an impenetrable puzzle but that makes it all the better. It speaks to me of how many little mysteries there must be, not all as dramatic as this one, in all families and under all noses. It also speaks of something that I for one find rather tantalising – the idea that places somehow “remember” events and that people can retrieve the long buried treasure of their memories by visiting them. This happens to Ted, subtly at first, and then dramatically. I wonder whether O’Farrell is suggesting that it is the place, or the action that has left the mark on the individual memory?

The book could easily be sub-titled “a disquisition on motherhood”, although this may not have encouraged sales. The actual title is a reference to the overwhelming power of the mother-child connection – a theme which is amply developed in the novel itself, and which I can readily recognise myself. A splendid read.

There are other opinions to be found at Harriet Devine’s Blog, Leafing through Life and The Sleepless Reader. Pictures are the book cover, the author and a random picture taken in Soho in the 1950s. If you feel a sense of recognition, there might just be a reason…

Friday, May 27, 2011

Don't say "what", say "pardon" darling, and do as the Provincial Lady tells you....

Finally reading E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady has been a proper homey sort of pleasure, and not just because I am now able to fully understand Simon at Stuck in a Book’s shorthand …. It is a funny and engaging read although, and I am wondering quite how to put this, it didn’t set me on fire if you know what I mean.

The Provincial Lady, or PL as she is known to those who love her is the married Bridget Jones of the 1930s. Now, before you all cry in protest, there are more than a few similarities. Both PL and BJ are profoundly English, profoundly middle class characters who harbour slightly lefty views without knowing quite how to express them. They both recognise the absurdities of the narrow world they live in, but in a kindly way, and knowing that they are an inextricable part of it. Neither of them know how to get out of situations they don’t want to be in. They both write a not quite daily diary, not least because they are both quite funny and intelligent and life just doesn’t offer sufficient opportunities for them to show it. Which brings me to my last, resounding similarity: these are two girls who are really of their ages.

PL is a married lady of the home counties with a husband glued to the Times, a demanding French nanny, a son at a school she can’t afford and a daughter begging to be sent to any school, a woeful lack of servants and a constantly mounting overdraft. Because she is actually rather lovely, she is much in demand. There is Our Vicar, Our Vicar’s Wife, Lady B and numerous others constantly chasing her tail. PL is a dreamer after literary recognition and an imaginer of glamour and society. She lacks social assertiveness, but maybe she would not be as nice if she had it. She is a shopper and a luncher and a reader of novels over cups of tea. She is a mum who wants to be a star, and who can blame her. I loved the slight decadence of her character.

There is another side to all the spending and the dreaming of course and that is a lack of consideration for those who are less fortunate. I see this but it does not diminish the book for me. Books, like life, are not full of perfect people. E. M. Delafield, who I suspect was writing from experience has captured perfectly the displaced arrogance of the English upper middle classes in the interwar years, when they could still recall a luxury life but could no longer afford it. I am not weeping for them, but it is good to hear the story from the horses’ mouth.

So why the lack of fire? Well, I suppose that after a while, I found it a tiny bit boring. Once I had met Our Vicar’s Wife a few times, and realised that PL’s husband Robert was never going to put down the Times and come over all Don Juan and that PL probably didn’t want him to anyway, I felt that I had got the gist. Some have loved this book more and some a lot less. There are interesting opinions to be found at Serendipity, My Porch, A Good Stopping Point, Behind the Curtain and Pining for the West. I have included pictures of book covers and of the author.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The return of the weekly portrait: Christina Stead

I am enjoying Cotter's England so much, there is simply nothing else for it. Here is a picture of its author, Christina Stead. More of it and her later ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vivia Ibiza! (and Formentera...)

I wish I could say that the reason my blog has been a bit of a wasteland recently is because I have been in Ibiza in manner of hippy ex-pat. Sadly, this is not true, but I have been there for a week, and these are some of the sights seen: