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!