“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.

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Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):

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“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella:

 

“Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.” (Charles M. Schulz)

Harsh, Charles M Schulz!  But I chose this quote because I decided to write a post about home and I’m in a decade of my life where I’m supposed to get excited about viewing other people’s new kitchens, asking intelligent things about the organisation of the cutlery drawer/soft close cupboards/steam versus conventional oven for cooking fish, rather than say what’s really on my mind (I don’t care/is there any wine/where is the corkscrew kept?)

So, forgive my and Charles’ bitchiness.  The reason I decided to write a post about home is that I’m giving serious thought to moving, and leaving London.  I’m a Londoner born and bred so I’m wondering how I go about finding a new home. Home is an elusive thing, you can’t predict where it will be, should the feeling take you.  If only finding it was as easy as clicking your heels:

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There are lots of places I like, but the only place that’s not London where I’ve felt at home is a city bookended by meadows, which means I can never live there, or I would spend every waking moment of June with my face permanently like this:

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And so the search continues.  Now, it could easily be argued that many, many stories are about the search for home, so I’ve decided to pick two for this post that are also about houses.  Firstly, The Minaturist by Jessie Burton.  You couldn’t move for the hype about this book when it came out last year, so forgive me if I’m telling you what you already know.  In the late seventeenth century, country girl Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as a wife to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, a man she barely knows.  Johannes is often away travelling, and Nella finds herself trying to make a home with his terse, mysterious sister Marin, the manservant Otto, and giggling, nosy housekeeper Cornelia.

“Nella stands on the steps of Johannes’ house, the eve of new year passing with no ceremony.  She wants to be splintered by the cold, transfigured by light.  The canal path is empty, the ice a ribbon of white silk between the Herengacht houses. The moon above is larger than she has ever seen it, larger even than last night; an astonishing pale circle of power.  It looks as if she could reach out and touch it, that God has pushed it down from the heavens for her human hand to hold.”

Returning from one of his travels, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift, a huge cabinet replica of the house they live in:

“The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed.”

What slowly reveals itself to the new bride however, is not the construction of the house but the secrets and lies contained therein.  The process is assisted by the mysterious titular character, whose miniatures for the house enable Nella to understand more than she ever would alone.  Johannes’ success through the expanding Dutch trade company the VOC brings him more enemies than friends and their home will see its secrets opened and exposed with devastating consequences.

“Nella sees the hundreds of ships moored, their bodies spanning down the long, tapering jetties belonging to the VOC.  Fluyts and galliots, hookers , square-sterns, various shapes and purposes all for the republic’s good….Those ships that have sails look as if they are in bloom ready to catch the trade winds and take their sailors far away.”

The Minaturist is about how we set about creating our homes, how much we can ever know people, how powerfully destructive secrets can be, how our lives are rarely what we plan for them to be.  It’s about all that people can give to one another in such circumstances, despite – or maybe because of – all our flaws and imperfections.  The Minaturist was definitely over-hyped and I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it and it is well-paced.  Jessie Burton used to be an actor and I’ll eat my (Dutch, felt) hat if this isn’t filmed.

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Secondly, Gaglow by Esther Freud.  This was Freud’s third novel, and I think it’s where she really starts to get into her stride as a novelist.

Sarah is a pregnant actor between jobs, sitting for her father, an artist. He tells her about Gaglow, their ancestral pile in Germany, and the narrative switches between first-person Sarah in the late twentieth century and the third-person describing the three Belgard sisters, living at Gaglow just before the First World War.

“Marianna sighed deeply as she walked towards the house. Empty, she loved Gaglow more than at any other time. Today, with its rooms so recently vacated, the spaciousness that filled it was still warm. Each window hummed with talk and music, and the garden had a fleeting look as if a crowd of people had simply moved inside.”

Sarah’s grandmother Eva is the youngest of Marianna’s daughters, the observer of all that goes on in Gaglow as her elder brother Emmanuel , much adored, returns home with stories of impending war. He is right of course, and rather than enjoying a privileged middle-class round of summer parties to find himself a wife, he signs up:

“Emmanuel was ragged with exhaustion. He threw himself don on the sofa then immediately sat upright, swearing that he wouldn’t waste a moment of his leave in sleep. His mother and sisters crowded round him, craning forward, sniffing and smiling and trying to distinguish the unfamiliar smell of him. The burnt smell of fresh air.”

Gaglow is a very different exploration of home to The Minaturist in that while Nella is alone and Johannes a self-made man, essentially both adrift, Freud is exploring connectivity across generations, where we come from and what endures.

“I tried to imagine my great-grandmother living here, alone with her companion […] They would walk the wide paths together, not always in their widow’s black, and in the early evening, drink coffee with cream out on the porch…I thought I caught their shadows, playing cards into the night.”

Freud returned to houses in 2003’s The Sea House and again in her novel published last year, Mr Mac and Me,  about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Suffolk home. I think this demonstrates how houses are powerful symbols for us – repositories for those we love, significant events in our lives, our memories and mementoes.  Now I just have to find myself a new one!

To end a video which I dedicate to my brother, who basically wants to be Michael Buble, and my sister-in-law, who has to put up with these delusions. They move into their lovely new home next week – good luck T & Z!

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :

 

“Summer, summer, summertime.” (Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince)

On Monday this week the weather forecasters seemed fixated on the fact that it was the start of something they called ‘meteorological summer’.  If you live in the UK & looked out of the window at that point, there was only one sane reaction to such news:

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Because frankly, even by British standards, the weather’s been a total washout. (btw, this week’s GIFs are dedicated to fellow book blogger Lady Fancifull 🙂 )  However, it has brightened up considerably throughout the week and as I write this I can smell my neighbour’s barbeque, so it looks like maybe the weather forecasters’ optimism wasn’t so misplaced after all. I like to imagine the meteorologists are now running round the studio thusly:

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So here is a post to celebrate the start of the meteorological summer. Which in the UK should be good for at least, ooh, another 5 days or so 😉

Firstly, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972, my edition 2003 Sort Of books trans.Thomas Teal) which I won from a giveaway hosted by the lovely bookarino at Dawn of Books.  Apparently this was Jansson’s favourite of her novels for adults (she is best known for the Moomin series) and it’s a wonderful read.  The premise is simple: a series of vignettes detailing how a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia spend a summer together on an island in the gulf of Finland.

“When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind.. ..They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy.  It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.”

Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but Jansson evokes real meaning through the layering of small moments to create fully realised portraits of two complex, stubborn, loving, life-embracing women.

““Listen,” Sophia said. “I don’t have time to stay here with you – I’ve only been swimming twice today.  You won’t be sad now, will you?”

“I want to go too,” Grandmother said.

…They helped each other climb out of the canyon, and then they circled around the hill…off to one side of the channel marker, there was a large, deep pool.

“Is this alright?” Sophia sked.

“It’s fine,” Grandmother said.  She bared her legs and stuck them in the pool.  The water was warm and pleasant.”

There is a wonderful gentle humour running through the book, and also sadness  – Sophia’s mother has died, the elderly grandmother is aware her time is short.

““What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered.  “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda.  “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother.  “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.”  They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk, Move over.””

Bookarino’s enthusiasm for Jansson is infectious, as is Kaggsy’s, and I definitely plan on reading all her books for adults (and maybe a Moomin or two too…)

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If, like me, you live in a city, summer may not immediately bring to mind the heady waft of night blooming jasmine and the soothing chirp of crickets.  So I’m eschewing pastoral evocations of summer in favour of a short poem about London in summer, ‘August’ by Tobias Hill (from Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, 2007):

when pigeons like dei ex machina

descend improbably out of the air

 

wobble like airships skimming through the tops

of trees which sink under their tea-pink weights

 

until each grandee bungee-jumps or bellyflops

downwards in great soap-operatic terrifying swoops

 

into the sweet dark shining feather-bedness of the fruits

When the first sunny days appear, those of us used to greyer climes seem to behave with the mania of the pigeons in this poem.  It’s a glorious sight to behold, as city-dwellers sunbathe on patchy grass verges next to dual carriageways, pale blue skin gradually glowing vermilion; lager and sausage rolls sweating in plastic carrier bags beside them. Ah, the summer idyll….

I got my hair cut today (moulting in the warm weather) and the titular song from this post started to play on the radio.  My hairdresser pronounced it a classic but said her favourite summer song was this:

“I wanna be anarchy” (The Sex Pistols)

Do you ever get the feeling you want to kick over the traces and run away?  I’m really fed up with my job and while I daydream about jacking it all in through some dramatic gesture before setting off to backpack round the Greek islands, it’s not going to happen. Not if I want a home to return to – the pesky mortgage will insist on being paid.

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Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.

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So I’ll just have to compensate by watching Marlon Brando films (any excuse) and reading about anarchy.  The novel and play I’ve chosen suggest anarchy may not be the best way to go anyway.

Firstly, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). I studied this for ‘A’ level and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the bane of my life.  I hated it.  I found it so unbearable I never actually finished reading it and wrote my exam essay based on the chapter summary at the back of the edition we used (not an exam technique I recommend, kids).  Events conspired against me and about ten years later I had to read it again for a course I was doing.  Much to my surprise, I didn’t mind it so much this time and found it quite readable.  A lesson there that I should return things I’ve previously written off – at the very least I can confirm my prejudices, which is always fun.

The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual event in 1894, where a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, accidently blew himself up in Greenwich Park.  Conrad sets his story two years later, and the opening of the novels sets everything up expertly:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The TorchThe Gong—rousing titles.  And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

This basically tells you all you need to know: the grimy sordidness of Verloc’s existence, the fact that he is involved in some sort of subterfuge, and the involvement of his family at the edges, with his wife, Winnie, devoted to her brother Stevie.

Verloc is utterly unlikeable – lazy and self-serving, he is not an anarchist dedicated to a higher cause.  His ‘comrades’ are equally despicable and pathetic, except for The Professor, who is altogether more sinister:

The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition.  To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct.  He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.  By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.  That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.”

Conrad is highly sceptical of the motivation of those proclaiming themselves agents of societal change.  The group of would-be anarchists plot a violent act, and unfortunately, skirting around them is Verloc’s brother-in-law:

“There was no young man of his age in London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as people did not upset his poor head.”

Stevie is an obvious choice, for those who would not want to risk their own lives in carrying out terrorist acts, to manipulate and control.  The Secret Agent is fairly predictable, but the flash-forward/flash-back structure works well at sustaining plot tension, and its utter bleakness, while unrelenting, is effectively ironic in evoking politics where the principle is self-preservation above all else.

The Secret Agent was made into a film in 1996 starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc ,Patricia Arquette as Winnie, and Batman Christian Bale as Stevie:

Secondly, Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Italian theatre legend Dario Fo (1970), which you can read here. Like The Secret Agent,  it is based on actual events. Giuseppe Pinelli was an anarchist accused of bombing a bank who fell (?) to his death from a police station window in Milan in 1969. In Fo’s play version, events become farcical, beginning with the Maniac being interrogated at the police station by Inspector Bertozzo. The Maniac denies being a con artist and impersonator, insisting he is mentally ill:

“I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It’s called ‘histrionomania’ – comes from the Latin histriones, meaning ‘actor’. I’m a sort of amateur performance artist. With the difference that I go for ‘Théatre Verité’ – my fellow performers need to be real people, but people who don’t realise that they’re in my plays. Which is just as well, ‘cos I’ve got no money and couldn’t pay them anyway…”

 This metatheatrical theme runs throughout the play, with Fo using the dramatic form to demonstrate how public life can often involve playing a role.  The Maniac poses as a judge to interrogate the officials on the fourth floor and explore the events that led to the fall of the anarchist:

“MANIAC: We’ll stick with the ‘right at the start’ for the moment… One step at a time. So, at about midnight, the anarchist was ‘seized by a raptus’ – these are still your words – he was seized by a ‘raptus’ and went and threw himself to his death from the window. Now, what is a ‘raptus’? Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?

 SUPERINTENDENT AND SPORTS JACKET: Correct.

 MANIAC: So we need to find out who or what it was provoked this anxiety, this desperation. I suspect that the best way would be if we do a reconstruction. Superintendent, the stage is yours.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Me?

 MANIAC: Yes, go ahead: would you mind re-enacting your famous entrance?

 SUPERINTENDENT: I’m sorry, what famous…?

 MANIAC: The one that brought about the ‘raptus’.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Your honour, there must be a misunderstanding here. It wasn’t me who did the entrance, it was one of my officers…”

 As the role playing intensifies, so does the satire:

MANIAC: It’s true, I’m afraid: your careers are in tatters! Blame it on politics, friends! At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the strikes… So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a bit too far… People have got very upset about the death of our defenestrated anarchist… they want someone’s head on the block, and the government’s going to give them – yours!

 […]

  SUPERINTENDENT: Your Honour, you’re going to have to advise us. What do we do now?

 MANIAC: How should I know?

 SPORTS JACKET: Yes – what would you advise?

 MANIAC: If I were in your shoes…

 SUPERINTENDENT: Yes?

 MANIAC: I’d throw myself out of the window!

In the second act a journalist turns up, the physical comedy intensifies and it all degenerates into total…well, you know.  Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very silly, but don’t let that fool you. The satire is sharp and the theatricality informed and accomplished. It’s a play with plenty to say and it does it with great energy and verve.

There’s really only one way to finish this post:

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993)

Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!

For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer.  It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader.  Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality  – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties.  Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity.  Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:

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Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:

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But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time.  Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.

Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident).  The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny.  Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:

MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)

POTTS. Out where? Out the back?

SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?

SWEETS. Fucking hell.

POTTS. It’s a joke.  It’s Mickey’s joke.  It’s Mickey’s morning joke.

SWEETS. Out where?

SKINNY. Don’t you listen?  By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.

SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.

POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe?  If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?

SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?

MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)

With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:

MICKEY. They’re going to come here…

BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.

Pause.

MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.

BABY. They’re going to come here.

MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.

BABY. Yes, I think they are.

MICKEY. If…Listen.

BABY. If…Listen.

MICKEY. Baby –

BABY. Baby –

Pause.

MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.

BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.

Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed.  The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.

I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.

Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC.  Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain.  Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:

“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”

James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure:  used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.

“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.

[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him.  He does not know what she is saying.  Is she happy, afraid?  Frankly she seems drunk.”

He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron.  What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:

“He appears to have been born without a soul.  What, then, has he to lose?”

Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all.  It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.

To end, something that for me just is the 90s: