“There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” (P.G. Wodehouse)

Usually I try and pick books that explore a similar theme in different ways, but this week the choices aren’t linked thematically in any way except how they came into my life.  Both were given to me as gifts recently and I enjoyed them both, but couldn’t think what else to pair them with for a post.  Then I realised that for me they were sort of tied together, and this was a good enough (flimsy, lazy, what you will) reason for them to occupy the same post.  It’s unusual for friends to by me books – I think one sight of my overflowing bookshelves sends them scurrying to the nearest smellies store for presents, in the mistaken belief that any book they buy me I will have already read/somehow owned for years even if it’s just released/view with barely disguised contempt.  I’ve recently put the kibosh on toiletries by developing mad allergies, cause unknown, that make me look like Father Bigley (as my ever-sympathetic brother pointed out, for all you Father Ted fans out there) so this may explain the sudden enthusiasm for printed matter amongst my cohorts.  Either that, or I’ve finally taken control of my body odour, negating the need for bags of stuff from L’Occitane. Whatever the reason, two of my friends did sterling work with these recent offerings.

Firstly, At Freddies by Penelope Fitzgerald(1982, my copy 2003, Flamingo), given to me by my lovely friend C, who is an academic mega-brain, filled with boundless enthusiasm for literature, and despite these gifts and being quite beautiful as well, carries it all with such an unassuming genuine pleasantness as to make her completely likeable.  She can now add gift-giving to her long list of talents.  C chose this for me because firstly, she’d read and enjoyed it, and secondly because it concerns the theatre, which is one of my great loves.  But although it does have a dry, knowing humour about the theatre, At Freddies is much more about being a child in an adults world, about school and those teachers whose main qualification is their force of personality, and about trying to find your place in the world, which is after all, a stage (at least according to one highly regarded writer).  Freddie runs a dilapidated stage school for children in 1960s Covent Garden.  There is no money but somehow she keeps it all hanging together by being someone who everyone knows, and who no-one can refuse.

“Insane directors, perverted columnists cold as a fish, bankrupt promoters, players incapable from drink, have all forgiven each other and been forgiven, and will be, until the last theatre goes dark, because they loved  the profession.  And of Freddie – making a large assumption – they said: her heart is in it.”

There is a lot of humour in this book, the precocious kids who are manipulative and knowing, but still just children, are hilarious.

“You saved me Miss Wentworth…I’d be out of work, I’d never get work again, if you hadn’t spoken to Mr Lightfoot…I owe everything to you…”

Freddie paid no attention whatsoever.

….Mattie, with an expression of deep malignance, departed.

“He’s acting,” said Miss Blewett.

“Worse than that,” said Freddie.  “He’s acting being a child actor.”

Apparently Penelope Fitzgerald did teach at a theatrical school for a time, and some of her portrayals of theatrical professionals are drily presented, such as the director who wants to “underline Shakespeare’s concepts in the way he’d do it himself if he were here” – apparently this means having young boys played by very old men, and everyone on stage except the person going mad acting a breakdown while the character experiencing it remains stock still.  Not sure that’s quite what Shakespeare had in mind…  All this mayhem revolves around Freddie who remains resolute but ultimately enigmatic.  No-one quite knows her background, motivation or purpose, except to keep going.  When one of the teachers finds her collapsed, he reflects “No, she won’t die…She won’t change her habits so easily.” At Freddie’s is a short novel (230 pages my edition), highly readable and very enjoyable, but also unnerving and thought-provoking, as much about what isn’t said as what is.  I highly recommend it.

Secondly, The London Train by Tessa Hadley (2011, Vintage) given to me by my also very lovely friend K, who is as creative as she is kind as she is gorgeous.  I’ve got to stop hanging round with such thoroughly brilliant women, it only highlights my own shortcomings (except when it comes to choosing friends, which I am inordinately talented at). K chose this for me because again, she’d read and enjoyed it, and secondly, because it was set partly in London, another of my great loves.  See what thoughtful friends I have? The London Train is a book of two halves.  In the first half, Paul is looking for his missing daughter, Pia, who he finds living in north London with her slightly controlling boyfriend and his sister.  In the second half, Cora is travelling in the opposite direction, back to Wales, to escape a failing marriage.  I enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s first novel, Accidents in the Home, a great deal but I hadn’t kept up with her writing since, and The London Train made me regret this, as she writes with such sparse beauty:

“He wished he could remember better those passages in The Aeneid where Anchises in the Underworld explains to his son how the dead are gradually cleansed in the afterlife of all the thick filth and encrusting shadows that have accumulated through their mortal involvement, their living; when after aeons they are restored to pure spirit, they long, they eagerly aspire, to return to life and the world and begin again.  Paul thought that there was no contemporary language adequate to describe the blow of his mother’s vanishing. A past in which a language of such dignity as Virgil’s was possible seemed to him itself sometimes only a dream.”

Hadley is also brilliant at capturing small moments, both between people and within individuals:

“Her speech wasn’t slurred, but aggressive, some layer of concealment had been stripped from between them. Where their feet bruised it, the grass sent up its yearning green smell, tugging at his emotions.”

“In the library Cora sometimes felt as if she had fallen to the bottom of a deep well.  It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling.  She hadn’t known there could be a job like this, pressing so weightlessly on the inner self, allowing so much space for daydreaming.”

This great skill, at pinpointing the significance of moments that are barely tangible, make Hadley’s writing both incisive and sympathetic.  The London Train is about the journeys we take both physically and psychologically, and how we construct notions of home, sometimes in the entirely wrong places.  I’ll be seeking out the novels by Hadley that I haven’t read as a matter of urgency.

Here are the books alongside the cards which accompanied them – thanks again, C&K!

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“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” (Dorothy Parker)

I’m hopelessly late with this post, which was prompted by 17 May being the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. At first when I was looking at what was going on this past week for a theme for this post, I was resistant to choose this, as it seemed I would be attaching the potentially reductive label of “gay writing” to literature.  I’m not sure about this label for the same reason I’m unsure of the label “women’s writing” – while not necessarily inaccurate, it seems to suggest its somehow not “proper” writing, that it can only appeal to ready-designated group and have no meaning outside of that. Bullshit.  To quote Maya Angelou, we are all more alike than we are unalike, and so great writing is great writing. Who a writer chooses to sleep with is their own business, and if this informs their writing I don’t see why it should be picked out as “gay writing” unless we have the label “straight writing” which, of course, we don’t. And I guess that’s my main objection.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with literature being labelled as gay, except that because the sexuality is marked out when straight isn’t, it seems to be suggesting a deviation from some sort of norm.  And as Dorothy Parker pointed out….. So why did I decide to go ahead with it?  Because we still need an  International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, because the city I live in has seen a rise in homophobic attacks over recent years, because this sickening hate crime still exists, and so I wanted to recognise 17 May as an important day.  I hope one day it is no longer needed.  And now I’ll climb down off my soapbox to talk about books, no more ranting, I promise…

Firstly, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (who doesn’t mind being labelled a lesbian writer, so maybe I should stop being quite so precious about it) (1998, Virago).  This was Sarah Waters’ first novel and was widely well received; she has gone on to forge a successful literary career with four further novels.  I enjoy her work greatly, because she writes evocatively of the past (in TtV its Victorian London) and is a beautiful writer who also has a great command of plot.  The plot of TtV sees Nan King fall in love with a male impersonator, Kitty, and she leaves her home and family to work with Kitty in the theatres and music halls.  They begin a relationship, but when this disintegrates Nan leaves her and works in London, selling her body as a boy, becoming a rich woman’s plaything, and getting caught up in politics through her friendship with a neighbour.

“The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eyes – I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, and the  crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent – the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere – the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined.”

Waters often describes settings through smells, and it is a technique that works well, creating a vivid earthiness that engages with Victorian literary tradition but pushes far beyond it, giving a voice to those largely unheard in the literature of the time:

““You say I know nothing about you; but I have watched you upon the streets, remember.  How coolly you pose and wander and flirt!  Did you think you could play at Ganymede , for ever? Did you think, if you wore a silken cock, it meant you never had a cunt at the seam of your drawers?….You’re like me: you have shown it, you are showing it now! It is your own sex for which you really hunger!””

“Tipping the velvet” is Victorian slang for cunnilingus, something I don’t remember occurring in Dickens…

Secondly, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891, my copy 1994). I won’t go into this in great detail, because I think it’s one of those novels that everyone knows even if they haven’t read it.  A beautiful boy named Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, capturing his first flush of youth.  Under the influence of the hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian offers up his soul to stay beautiful forever.  He gets his wish, and the portrait ages in his place, growing more hideous with each passing year as a reflection of Dorian’s corrupted soul.  This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel and was hugely controversial at the time, but as my plot summary has hopefully captured, it’s actually a highly moral work.  It’s also gorgeously written, with Wilde bringing his aesthetic sensibilities to his prose, and full of typically Wildean aphorisms to raise a smile amongst the dark subject matter:

“You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius -is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it….. People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

TPoDG is a great read, with something for everyone: wit, morality, amorality, the Gothic, adventure, and almost pastoral in places with its detailed descriptions of nature.  It also, like Dorian, hasn’t aged one jot.  In this age of celebrity obsession focussed so much on appearances, the enormity of the cosmetics industry, of plastic surgery and of so much style over so little substance, TPoDG has as much to say about our society today as it did about late Victorian society.  We all have to face our portraits at some time…

Here are the novels wearing a rainbow, symbol of LGBT Pride (and surrounded by cat hair, sorry about that):

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“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week I struggled to find a theme to write about, as absolutely nothing remotely noteworthy happened.  I went to work, I saw friends, I cooked, I shopped (as little as possible, I hate shopping in all forms), I read, I watched DVDs (I’m catching up on Breaking Bad)…you get the utterly banal picture.  So I was completely at a loss until an epiphany – that’s probably overstating it, a realisation – earlier today: in my problem lay my solution.  There’s probably a tenet of some philosophy that tells you that very thing, but I took my time getting there. The theme of this week’s post is novels that take a look at the resolutely everyday, the ordinary events in ordinary lives.

Firstly, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993, 4th Estate). This novel tells the story of Daisy Goodwill, from birth to death, her life lead along entirely ordinary lines.  The Stone Diaries was showered with awards, and certainly Shields is an author gifted in finding the poetic in the everyday.  Take for example this description of eating to assuage a stomach ache (Daisy’s mother failing to recognise birth contractions):

“Frequently she sprinkles sugar on top of the buttered bread.  The surface winks with brilliance, its crystals working between her teeth, giving her strength.  She imagines the soft dough entering the bin of her stomach, lining that bitter bloated vessel with a cottony warmth that absorbs and neutralises the poisons of her own body.”

This first chapter is narrated in the first person, with Daisy telling the part of her life from before she could speak.  The rest of the novel though, is a mixed narration, including third person, letters, newspaper cuttings. This has the effect of demonstrating the difficulty of biography – how it is a patchwork of sources and viewpoints, and that there can never be a definitive telling of a life.  This distance is reflected in the character of Daisy herself, a woman who never quite becomes the protagonist of her own life.  She never quite engages with the events or people that surround her.  The closest she comes to being fully present is in her garden:

“It is, you might almost say, her dearest child, the most beautiful of her offspring…she understands, perhaps, a quarter of its green secrets, no more.  It in turn perceives nothing of her, not her history, her name, her longings, nothing – which is why she is able to love it as purely as she does, why she has opened her arms to it, taking it as it comes, every leaf, every stem, every root and sign.”

So Daisy is not necessarily the most likeable character, but this is turn adds to the verisimilitude of the story – she is just as flawed and problematic as everyone else, ordinary and yet entirely unique.

Secondly, Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (2000, Faber & Faber), and from a book that encompasses an entire lifespan to one than concerns just a single day. However, this is not an ordinary day in the life the eponymous protagonist (hero is a bit much, Mr Phillips is far from a heroic character).  Mr Phillips has lost his job, but he gets up and leaves for work as he has done for decades.  His wife and family, and his neighbours, do not know he has been made redundant. He spends the day aimlessly wandering around London.  Through the events he experiences and his thoughts and fantasies, Lanchester creates a fully drawn and minutely observed character.  Mr Phillips may not be employed as an accountant any longer, but it is an intrinsic part of his nature.  He cannot enjoy a walk in Battersea Park without drawing up what he sees in double entry style.  For example, the lovely peace pagoda in the park is reduced to “Asset: Golden Buddha, Liability: Upkeep of Buddha, gilt paint, etc.”  It reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  But this cost/benefit analysis does make for some funny passages such as his colleagues discussing the chances of being dead before the next Lottery draw, and therefore when you should buy your ticket to maximise your chances of winning the Lottery and minimising your chances of being dead. “It had lingered in the mind.  Mr Phillips wonders what his relative chances of being dead before this week’s Lottery draw are at this precise moment.  In all probability they have never been better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.”

Poor Mr Phillips, so bound by the quantifiable realities of life.  Watching someone bungee jump he reflects how adrenalin sports hold no appeal: “You would have to see gravity as a joke or as a benign force or at the very least something you could trifle with …whereas all that Mr Phillips  has to do is look downwards, at his sagged and weighted flesh, to feel differently.” Mr Phillips also thinks about sex a lot, but calculates that “even allowing for films, Mr Phillips is still left with an average daily probability of 96.7 per cent against having sex.” It is this dour acceptance of all odds, weighing up of everything, that makes Mr Phillips so ordinary.  He will never truly experience the extraordinary because he’d never embrace the unknown.  Or will he?  On this day unlike any other, Mr Phillips is forced out of the ordinary.

I was tempted to present the books this week on my toilet, as I thought what is more ordinary than that?  You’ll be relieved to know I decided not to do this, and opted for my ordinary, everyday dining table instead:

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“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

This weekend is the May Day Bank Holiday in UK.  For those of you who don’t have this celebratory tradition, it’s very simple.  A young woman is dressed in diaphanous clothing and flowers and carried through the village.  Traditionally she would have been a virgin.  Yes, in Britain we like celebrate the purity of young girls by parading them as some sort of Springtime woodland sex fairy.  Then we get children to dance with ribbons around a giant phallic symbol – nothing inappropriate there.  Then grown men strap bells to their ankles and don knickerbockers to dance with each other (women are banned from this so inherently masculine of pursuits) and whack each other with well, that would be phallic symbols again.  It’s not as weird as it sounds.  I did the mammoth cock ribbon dance (not its technical name) as a six year old and it didn’t do me any lasting damage – my therapist promises me it’s all reversible.  The traumas of May Day aside, 1st May is also International Workers Day, and so I’ve chosen a play that picks up on themes of May Day, and a novel about workers politics.

Firstly, a disclaimer. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is set on St George’s Day (23 April), not May Day.  But hey, what’s a week? I decided to go ahead with it anyway as it lends itself to May Day – ideas of ritual, tradition, Springtime and revelry run throughout.  Seeing Jerusalem was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre;  Mark Rylance in the lead role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron put in a performance that was literally breathtaking – and that’s not a misuse of the word literally, at one point I realised I’d forgotten to breathe. I loved it so much that when a friend offered me the chance to interview Mark Rylance I turned it down – I couldn’t bear the thought that I might not like him off-stage and that I’d lose that performance. Even if you didn’t catch Jerusalem, which ran 3 times in London and also on Broadway, I still recommend the playtext.  Jez Butterworth is a highly rated playwright and his original voice and great skill mean it is an enjoyable read.

Rooster Byron lives in a mobile home in a wood.  The local council plan to evict him.  The local teenagers love him (and sort of despise him), as he supplies them with drugs and alcohol.  A local girl (dressed as a fairy) has disappeared and her psychotic step-father believes Rooster is involved, and plans to do him serious damage. Amongst these various pressures, Rooster remains resolutely upbeat and self-aggrandizing, with tall tales such as this one of his conception, whereby his philandering father is shot by his wife:

JOHNNY….The bullet passes clean through his scrotum…where it hits the number 87 tram to Andover. The bullet passes through two inches of rusty metal, clean through an elderly lady’s packed lunch and lodges in my sweet mother’s sixteen year old womb. Eight months, three weeks, six days later. Out pops him. Smiling. With a bullet clenched between his teeth.

GINGER. First of all. Babies don’t have teeth.

JOHNNY. All Byron boys are born with teeth. Thirty two chompers.  And hair on thems chest,…

Hopefully it’s apparent that Jerusalem is very funny.  Traditions surround the characters, such as the local Flintock Fair taking place, but are made resolutely current, such as when a Morris dancer arrives, talking about how his participation is due to a “Swindon-level decision”, and needing drugs to get him through it – hardly a bucolic idyll.  This take on England’s green and pleasant land lends the play a slightly surreal air, as Rooster’s outsider status gives him an askance view of the traditions, both wholly entangled (he was once the main attraction of Flintock Fair, performing daredevil stunts) and yet undermining them also.  The surreal quality exists in fairly straightforward exchanges:

JOHNNY. …Two weeks back, your brother Daffy comes round here, tries to buy three grams of whizz with a tortoise.

LEE. That weren’t his tortoise. That’s my sister’s tortoise.

JOHNNY. Well, now it’s my fucking tortoise. Little bugger pisses everywhere. It pisses pints.  It’s like the TARDIS.

LEE. He’s right. That tortoise pisses like a shirehorse.

But as well as humour, the surreal quality is unnerving, and you feel anything could happen.  When Byron claims he met a ninety foot giant “just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef. I’d been up for three days and nights playing canasta with these old ladies in a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett.” you don’t entirely disbelieve him.  What is real, what is fable, merge until you are not sure whether you watching a man in a mobile home in a wood in the West Country or a mythic being inextricably bound to the legends of the land. Maybe both. I can’t recommend Jerusalem highly enough.

Secondly, and I’ll make this brief, as my love for Jerusalem means I’ve wittered on too much already, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.   Published in 1914, 3 years after the death of its author from tuberculosis, TRTP is a classic of socialist literature.  Frank Owen, described on the back cover of my copy of the novel as a “journeyman-prophet”, joins a group of workers who are renovating a house known as The Cave.  He encourages them to consider their role within a capitalist system and how they engage in their own economic suppression.  It’s a long novel, and highly polemical, but it’s also very readable and engaging.  In one of the most famous sequences in the book, Owen uses a loaf of bread to explain his reasoning. The bread is raw materials, cutlery is machinery, the cut pieces of bread the goods made.

‘You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week’s work is -you must each produce three of these square blocks…..

‘These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is–one pound each.’

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week’s work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital,…as for the working classes,… they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work-they had nothing.”

This occurs in a chapter called ‘The Reign of Terror. The Great Money Trick’. As you may have guessed, TRTP is quite a bleak novel. Nothing changes and the workers are so indoctrinated in the system that Owen fails to raise their consciousness, turning his attention instead to George Barrington, a middle-class socialist who plans to overturn the system through elected representatives in the House of Commons (argue amongst yourselves as to how that’s working out). The Philanthropists of the title are the workers, doing so much for so little their labour must surely be an act of philanthropy towards their capitalist employers. This bitter irony captures the attitude of the novel towards the complicity of all society in a capitalist system, but although it is an angry book, TRTP doesn’t lose sight of its story amongst the politics.

Here are the books garlanded in May Day fashion:

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