“True friends stab you in the front.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week’s post is about friendship, as  I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while.  When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long.  However, it’s lovely, so here it is:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
 (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

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(Image from http://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-blogs/the-artists-magazine-blog/pooh-and-piglet-illustration-auctioned-for-194000)

If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.

Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway).  Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition.   An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:

“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”

He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years.  Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought.  Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:

“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”

“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”

With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental.  But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.

 “The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”

I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives.  Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about.  He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:

“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step.  His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky.  He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”

Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles.  Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.

It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along.  However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:

“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet.  Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement.  One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”

Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory.  In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.

To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people.  Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance:

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Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

10 Most Influential Books – Part 2

This is the second half of a challenge looking at the 10 Most Influential Books in your life. It was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm  and I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger. Do check out their blogs and the other people taking part, it’s a fascinating challenge!

An Evil Cradling – Brian Keenan

Where to begin explaining this book?  I’m going to sound like a tosser, but I can’t think how else to say it:  this is one of the most moving, deeply profound books I’ve ever read, and it’s about what it is to be human.  I’m sorry to sound so hyperbolic, but it really is that extraordinary.  I wept throughout the whole thing.  Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Beirut and held hostage for just under 5 years, some of it with John McCarthy.  This book is an exploration of what he went through, and it’s just incredible.  It’s not a journalistic, factual account, although Keenan grounds the story in this type of detail.  It is much more a study of a human being in extremis.  If I had to quote from this book I’d never stop, so instead I googled and chose what seemed to be the most popular:

“Hostage is a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening. Hostage is the humiliating stripping away of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that make us what we are. Hostage is a mutant creation filled with fear, self-loathing, guilt and death-wishing. But he is a man, a rare, unique and beautiful creation of which these things are no part.”

The Keenan/McCarthy story was filmed as Blind Flight.  The film isn’t a patch on An Evil Cradling, but it features superb performances from Ian Hart as Brian Keenan and Linus Roache as John McCarthy:

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler – Gene Kemp

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(Image from: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/k/gene-kemp/turbulent-term-of-tyke-tiler.htm)

When I was seven, I’d read all the books in our classroom, and so my teacher sent me to another class to borrow books from there.  I was intimidated, the kids in that class were bigger than me, and the teacher was strict.  She was also kind and fair, and did she know her children’s literature.  She gave me loads of great books to read, and used to ask me what I thought about them.  This was one of the first she gave me, and I think it stands out because it was when I started to read children’s books that were written primarily not to teach you to read, but for the joy of reading. It’s aimed at late junior school age, and tells the story of Tyke and Danny, in their final year of Cricklepit School.  Tyke and Danny aren’t exactly naughty, but neither do they fit the teachers’ ideals of how pupils should behave.  It’s a touching story of friendship, following your own beliefs, and not always obeying all the rules. Worthwhile lessons, it seems to me.

 “That child has always appeared to me to be on the brink of wrecking this school, and as far as I can see, has, at last, succeeded.”

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Garden)

This book followed me throughout childhood.  I had the Ladybird version, and then when I was old enough my mother bought me the full-length original.  As a child I found the story of spoilt Mary Lennox discovering a locked garden and turning it into a paradise again with the help of her friends really magical, but throughout my adult life I’ve noticed this book has a far reaching influence. On a very basic level, I love gardening, and when I picture my perfect garden it’s always walled; my horticultural ideal carried from this novel.  But more than that, I think an interest in Victorian literature (although this book is strictly speaking Edwardian) and the Gothic can be traced back to this book.  Big house, mysterious noises, servants denying all knowledge, death a constant threat, time spent roaming around on moors – sound familiar?  If you want your child to embrace the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley… start them off on The Secret Garden.  But mostly I think this novel influenced my choice of career. I became an occupational therapist.  The Secret Garden features a young boy, Colin, who is depressed, and constantly ill and weak.  He meets his cousin Mary, they work together in the garden (what we in the trade call meaningful occupation) and Colin’s mental health improves alongside his physical health.  So there you go: The Secret Garden is really all about the holistic health benefits of an individually tailored rehab programme.

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” 

The Temple – George Herbert

This collection of poems is a lesson to me to keep an open mind.  It’s resolutely religious, and I am not.  You’d think I’d get nothing out of it, but George Herbert has become one of my favourite poets.  I discovered him in a Renaissance literature class.  We’d just had 2 weeks of John Donne: sexy, naughty, clever, complicated Donne.  Now it was time for George Herbert.  Not sexy, not naughty.  Hugely clever, but written in a very simple style.  I loved his gentle tone, his worry of not being good enough and his search for peace and solace. Herbert showed me that while beliefs are different, a common ground of experience and feeling can always be found.  And maybe he’s sexier than he first appears: my tutor is convinced the penultimate line of this poem is a blow-job joke.  It’s always the quiet ones….

Love III

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexing_the_Cherry)

If I had to recommend a Jeanette Winterson novel, I’d most likely choose Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is probably why I’ve blogged on it in the pastOranges is her most accessible novel, her most famous, and it is brilliantly written.  The Passion I believe to be her best novel.  However, I’ve chosen Sexing the Cherry as more influential on me, as it was my first foray into magic realism (although Jeanette Winterson rejects that term) and opened my eyes to what fiction can do.  If it wasn’t for Sexing the Cherry, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered Angela Carter, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Set mainly in the seventeenth century, it tells the story of Jordan, orphaned and found floating in the Thames, and his companion, Dog Woman, a gross figure in both adjectival senses, as they journey together around London and across time.  Sexing the Cherry challenges notions of outsider status, showing that there are few fixities by which to claim any sort of norm.

“Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.” 

So there it is, the 10 books that have most influenced me….so far.  Here’s to discovering new influences and making time to revisit the old ones!

I’m not tagging anyone, or I’m tagging everyone, depending on how you look at it.  If you’d like to take part please consider yourself tagged, and don’t forget to refer back to Leah’s blog when you write your post.

10 Most Influential Books – Part 1

This is a bit of a departure from my usual sort of post, but it seemed like such a pleasant thing to do that I thought I would ring the changes.   I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger  to take part in writing about the 10 Most Influential Books in your life, which was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm.  Having never been tagged before I found myself ridiculously excited at the prospect.  It also seemed like a good fit, as I think it’s a positive thing to look at books that have shaped you; hence it’s in keeping with the ethos of this blog, which is to write (mostly) positive things.  It’s also inadvertently become the ethos of this blog to never use one word where ten will do, so I’m splitting this challenge into 2 posts. So here we go: The first 5 of 10 books that have influenced me, as I thought of them today.  I’m sure if I wrote this post tomorrow I’d come up with a different 10, but onwards we go!

Middlemarch – George Eliot

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(Image: http://earlywomenmasters.net/dickinson/a_garden_tis/imaginings/slides/middlemarch_eliot.html)

I’ve blogged about this before – badly.  Middlemarch is my favourite novel ever (it’s the one I’m holding in my gravatar image) and as result I find it nigh on impossible to discuss, because I can’t get any distance.  I just adore it, and to me it has everything – love, death, humour, tragedy.  Eliot captures life by looking at a small Victorian town and its inhabitants.  It can be an intimidating read: a massive Victorian tome, but if it speaks to you, you’ll love it.  Don’t just take my word for it, Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot documents her changing relationship with the novel throughout her life, how it offers different things to readers at different times.  Which reminds me, it’s about time I re-read it….

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

Small Island – Andrea Levy

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(Image from: http://100books.co.uk/andrea-levy-discusses-her-novel-small-island-for-bbcs-world-book-club)

I’ve blogged about this novel before, too.  It changed the way I view my world, so it has to be on this list.  I grew up in London, decades after the Windrush generation had arrived.   I knew there had been a massive wave of immigration to the UK after World War II.  I knew that the UK had begged these workers to come, and then crapped all over them from a great height.  I grew up in a multi-cultural city that I loved, and went to school with kids whose parents and grandparents came from all over the world.  As the Windrush generation ages, I cared for some of them in my capacity as a healthcare professional.  I thought I had a fairly good understanding of what happened, but Small Island made me feel it like never before.  To leave your family and friends and come to a cold grey country which has promised you a grand welcome and instead treats you appallingly because of the colour of your skin.  To live in this country all these years and for it never to feel like home.  The Windrush generation are dying – talk to them now, hear their stories while you still can.  And read Small Island for a better understanding of why and how Britain is as it is today.

 “You wan’ know what your white skin make you man?  It make you white.  That is all, man.  White.  No better, no worse than me – just white.”

 Complete Works of Shakespeare

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(Image from (http://www.sky.com/tv/show/othello)

OK, so I’m cheating.  This is 39 plays (or so, debate continues), sonnet sequences, longer poems, and so on.  But he’s the love of my life, you can’t expect me to be objective about the love of my life, surely?  I survived the terrible teaching methods that cause most people to despise Shakespeare, and he’s been alongside me ever since.  If I could only have one book for the rest of my life, this is the one.  It’s all I need.  Here is Prospero’s speech from Act 4 Scene 1 of The Tempest, which many interpret as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.  Read it and weep, people:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Weir – Conor McPherson

This play was revived recently in the West End, but the tyranny of finals meant I couldn’t go.

I was so disappointed not to see it again, as it’s no exaggeration to say this play changed my life.  Until I saw The Weir, I liked theatre, but I didn’t love it.  So many people love theatre that I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t know what or how to get it.  The Weir gave it to me.  It was magical.  It held me suspended, as great drama does, in that space that the audience occupy when you’re trying to remember to breathe.  It showed me how intimate and enchanting theatre can be.  And once my eyes were opened, there was no going back.  Being in the audience of a theatre is one of my favourite places in the world.  I’m hoping to do postgraduate study from September, looking at dramatic literature and the theatre.  I’ve forgotten to breathe many times in the theatre since that night, but it was The Weir that started it all.

“He took two big slices off a fresh loaf and buttered them carefully, spreading it all around. I’ll never forget it. And then he sliced some cheese and cooked ham and an onion out of a jar, and put it all on a plate and sliced it down the middle. And, just someone doing this for me. And putting it down in front of me. ‘Get that down you, now,’ he said. […] And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat. But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me. Such a small thing. But a huge thing.” 

Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith

Delia is not my favourite cookery writer.  She’s not even close.  Her stuff is not inspirational, or even particularly interesting.  But her Complete Cookery Course is a bible for a secular foodie like me.  It’s got all the basic recipes, and it’s still the one I go to if I want to remember the right proportions for Yorkshire pudding, or pancakes.  I still use her Christmas Cake recipe (with a few tweaks) every year.  For the basics, she’s reliable.  There are no gimmicks: you know where you are with Delia.  I love cooking, and a lot of my “first goes” were from this book when I was growing up.  Here she is telling you how to make an all-in-one sponge cake.  This is why we need Delia (although I’d use butter, never margarine):

Part 2 of my 10 Most Influential Books to follow soon!