Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Do You Have An Odd Book Shelf? (Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman)

The late-great Flann O’Brien (aka Brian O'Nolan, aka Myles na Gopaleen) would, I feel have approved wholeheartedly of Anne Fadiman and her family. The idiosyncratic exponent of the art of Professional Book Handling ( would have been delighted by their belief that books are there to be read and enjoyed, and that it is quite right for them to look battered and well-used, because the content is more important than the book itself.

Anne’s family, as revealed in Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, are book handlers par excellence.  They leave open books face down on surfaces, break the spines, turn down the corner of pages, underline passages, and write comments in the margins. Anne’s father used to reduce the weight when reading on planes by tearing pages out as he read them, while her young son eats books.

The book is a beautifully crafted collection of essays on books, reading, language and writing, all originally written for the author’s Ex Libris column in the American magazine, Civilization. And it refutes my theory that one should never believe a book blurb, because it really is ‘witty, enchanting and supremely well written’ – just as The Observer’s Robert McCrum says.

Fadiman, who is both literary and literate, covers a range of topics. I had huge sympathy for the difficulties outlined in Marrying Libraries, which discusses the problems of merging your book shelves when you set up home with your partner. Do you discard duplicates, and if so which copy do you keep? And if each of you has a different system of storing books do you opt for volumes stacked in categories (Anne) or a miscellaneous jumble (her husband)? I’ve been through this: last summer, after nearly 30 years together, The Man of the House  have a lot of sympathy ... after nearly 30 years together, the Man of the House and I culled our books and tried to establish a joint ‘library’, with all the fiction together, in alphabetical order, irrespective of genre, but I am still not happy about the shelf full of Sharpe novels which has appeared in the middle of my classics. On the other hand, he questions whether Discworld, Harry Potter and all my childhood books need to be on general display.
Share and share alike: The nice neat row of Bernard Cornwell's
Sharpe novels belongs to to the Man of the House. My novels are
shoved in wherever I can find a space.
I particularly liked My Odd Shelf, though I cannot agree with Fadiman’s assumption that most people have an ‘odd shelf’ full of books unrelated to the main collection. On the whole, people I know are like me, and every shelf is an odd mish-mash!  However, Fadiman, who is obviously better organised, has an odd shelf which contains 64 books about polar expeditions, and her comments on Scott’s last journey are very moving.

Anyone who has ever been angered by misplaced apostrophes, double negatives, spelling errors,  and other mistakes of that ilk, will love the piece on language (I can’t give the title, because it’s got a printer’s ‘insert’ mark in it, and I can’t reproduce it on the compute, but it’s page 65 in my Penguin edition). Fadiman, her brother, father and mother are pained by such inaccuracies. Fadiman once wrote to Nabokov, listing the misprints in an edition of Speak, Memory; her brother offered to trade a complete list of mistakes in a computer-software manual for an upgraded version of the software; their mother collects newspaper mistakes, intending to send them to the editor, and before he lost his sight her father corrected menu cards, and library books.
Lost for Words by Johnny Jonas is a Medici
Card, which reminds of the Oxfam bookshop
where I am a volunteer.

Secondhand Prose, which discusses the joys of secondhand books is wonderful. Fadiman is the only person I have heard of who was whisked off to such a store as a birthday treat and returned home with a stash of books weighing nineteen pounds. Initially, explains Fadiman, she hunted out used books because she couldn’t afford new ones, but:

... I developed a taste for bindings assembled with thread rather than glue, type set in hot metal rather than by computer, and frontispieces protected by little sheets of tissue paper.  I also began to enjoy the sensation of being a little link in a long chain of book owners...

And, as you might expect from someone who loves ‘real’ books so much, she also enjoys writing with a fountain pen and ink, and has some fascinating tales to relate about writing in the essay entitled Eternal Ink. Did you know, for example, that :

One day, when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow’s blood, and captured the sentence.

Writing on a computer cannot compete with that! All I can say is that if you love books, you should love this, so please read it - and I've posted this for the Essay Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie K. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

What a Blessing it is to Love Books - and Gardens

The cover on my 1992 Virago edition
bears a detail from Vase aux Anemones,
1942, by Marevn (Maria Morobieff)
This week I have been busy in the garden, trying to restore some kind of order by pulling up weeds, which always reminds me of Persephone, because in the version of the myth I read as a child she was tugging at a particularly tough plant, and when it finally came out it left a huge hole in the ground, from which Hades, God of the Underworld, emerged and carried her off to his domain. All things considered, coping with slugs and snails should be quite simple compared to what Persephone had to contend with.

Anyway, there I was, hot, tired and cross, all ready to relax with a good book – and I decided the perfect volume to read in the garden on a hot, sunny day was The Solitary Summer, by Elizabeth von Arnim, so I’ve been joyfully rediscovering it after an absence of several years. Published in 1899, it’s a follow-up to Elizabeth and her German Garden and is, I think, even better, linking the garden, life and books in a series of essays or discourses, rather than a conventional novel.

It’s written in the form of a diary, with two entries a month from May to September, and one for October, so I’ve decided to try and post a few short thoughts, or an extract, over the summer. I’m not always in favour of splitting books into sections, because I can never manage to restrain myself to a slow read over a period of time – once I’ve started, I have to find out what happens (unless, of course, it’s a book I don’t like). But this lends itself to that approach, and is worth taking a closer look at. So, having read it in one sitting I can revisit the individual chapters in a more leisurely fashion.

It’s an enchanting book, witty, light-hearted and beautifully written – but be warned, Elizabeth von Arnim is very much a product of her time and class, and on occasions she can come across as more than a little snobbish. However, she has the ability to laugh at herself, and her joy in life is infectious.

The book opens with her desire to be alone for the whole summer, so she can enjoy her garden undisturbed by visitors. In the first entry, for May 2, she tells us: “I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no-one to bother me.” Her prosaic husband, the Man of Wrath, warns that she will get her feet damp, catch cold, and be dull. But she waxes lyrical about the joys of a solitary life, the peace she will find, and the beauties of nature.
Each chapter has one of these drawings at the beginning but,
sadly, there seems to be no attribution
I suppose these days many people might regard the way she writes about her garden as overly sentimental, but I enjoy her style, and she has a keen eye for nature. Describing her tulips, she says: “The only ones I exclude are the rose-coloured ones; but scarlet, gold, delicate pink, and white are all there, and the effect is infinitely enchanting. The forget-me-nots grow taller as the tulips go off, and will presently tenderly engulf them altogether, and so hide the shame of their decay in their kindly little arms.” Don’t you think that’s a lovely (and accurate) account of the way tulips go over, and get swallowed up by airy clouds of sky blue myosotis?

Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette
Beauchamp. Her first husband was Count
Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenchin
The Solitary Summer, like many of Elizabeth’s other books, draws on her own life, and reflects her love of the garden – and her love of books, as the entry for May 15 shows. For her, each author and book must be read in a particular place, at a particular time of day.  Thoreau, one of her favourites, is best savoured outside, by a pond, because he likes the open air, but Boswell is deemed unsuitable for the great outdoors.

“So I read and laugh over my Boswell in the library, when the lamps are lit, buried in  cushions and surrounded by every sign of civilisation, with the drawn curtains shutting out the garden and  country solitude so much disliked by sage and disciple,” Elizabeth writes.
Afternoons are for pottering in the garden with Goethe, while in the evening, when everything is tired and quiet, she sits by the rose beds with Walt Whitman and listens to what he has to tell her of night, sleep, death and the stars.

And who could argue when she says: “What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such unfailing returns as books and a garden.” 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Saturday Snapshots In A 'Royal' Village

This week’s Saturday Snaphots were taken in Newton Regis, which claims to be the most northerly village in Warwickshire, and if you think they don’t look very seasonal that’s because they were taken back in April, when my elder daughter and I were testing her SatNav by deliberately getting lost...

I love stumbling across places and discovering they have the most amazing history, and Newton is no exception. It's a lovely little village and is, apparently, 'royal' twice over. It is supposed to have been given its regal title (regis is Latin for king) by Henry II in the last half of the 12th century, but later it became known as Newton-in-the-Thistles, which I think is much better. It's an incredible name, and makes me wonder if thistles were especially plentiful in the area, and if so, why? I know Eeyore ate them, but are there really any creatures which munch these prickly plants, or are they used for anything? The local football team are called the Thistles, which is a nice link with the past, but doesn't answer my questions. Generally speaking, dates appear to be a little vague, but it is thought the village reverted back to being Newton Regis in honour of Charles I, who prayed at St Mary’s Church on the night before a battle at Seckington, which is just down the road – and the village has also been referred to as Kings Newton, so it all gets a bit confusing really. And, should you wonder, the name Newton seems to mean ‘new settlement’ - tun or ton is Old English for an enclosure or homestead.
Anyway, 'quite settled' describes how Elder Daughter and I felt as we sat in the sunshine by the tiny, triangular village pond, and watched the ducks, who seemed happier on dry land. We admired a timber-framed, thatched cottage and the Queen’s Head pub, then (deciding that exercise was good for us),  wandered along the road, past the Old Post Office (now a private house)  and a gateway to a farm, to St Mary’s Church, parts of which date back to the 13th century.

It would have been nice to look inside the building, but it was locked, so we explored the churchyard,   but we felt it was a sad reflection on the way life has changed. Once upon a time churches were always open, providing sanctuary and solace for those in need, and allowing visitors to browse at leisure: now many are kept shut up as a precaution against theft and vandalism.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Monday, 21 May 2012

A Chinese Puzzle

My copy of The Good Earth, with a postcard bookmark
featuring part of a avaguely Chinese-looking tree
I picked up The Good Earth, by Pearl S Buck, in a charity shop, ages and ages ago, because I was curious about the book. I started reading it several times, but kept putting it back on the shelf because I just couldn’t get along with it. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the May choice for the Cornflower Book Club, I don’t think I would ever have finished it. It’s a bit of a puzzle really, because I’ve always been fascinated by China, and I felt as if I should have liked it, but I didn't enjoy it. But there you are, I can’t like everything.

In its time it was very highly acclaimed, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, the year after it was published. Six years later Buck, who spent much of her life in China (she was the daughter of American missionaries), was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1938 for her portrayal of peasant life and her biographies.

Obviously, The Good Earth still has appeal because most of the other book group reviews were very favourable, but I could not bring myself to like it. I never really engaged with characters or story, and felt it remained flat and stilted, almost as if it were written by someone for whom English was a second language, or as if it were a poor translation. Buck’s writing lacks emotion, and she never judges or makes authorial comments: she simply tells it like it is, but I felt that means there’s a lack of empathy, and you never get inside the characters or find out what motivates them.

The book tells the story of poor farmer Wang Lung, who lives with his aged father somewhere in the north of China, presumably during at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th – neither place nor time are ever clearly identified. It opens with his marriage, and follows him over the next 50 years or so as he raises his family, acquires more land, installs a concubine in his home, and buys the big house where his wife once worked. He contends with feckless relatives, famine and floods. The hardship of life in rural China, and the shocking contrast between rich and poor, comes across very clearly. At one stage Wang Lung and his family survive starvation by moving to a southern city 100 miles away, where he scratches a living by pulling a rickshaw while his wife and sons eke out their meagre income by begging. Then he gets caught up in a riot and gains a fortune in silver and gold, which he uses to establish a better life when he returns home.

Despite the fact that Wang Lung is described as kind, and he’s certainly hard-working, I didn’t like him (or any of the other characters). I think the thing that alienated me most was his lack of love, tenderness or understanding for his wife O-lan: he has no consideration for her at all, and doesn’t even seem to view her as a person. However, it is difficult to apply our own standards because he is so much a product of a time, place and culture that are very different to those we know.

What struck me most forcibly was the harsh life faced by women and how little they were valued (daughters are referred to as slaves). O-lan, plain, big-footed and slow-spoken, has a harsh life and expects little from it. But the prospects for Lotus, the prostitute with whom Wang Lung falls in love, are no greater. She uses her looks to gain gifts from men and leads an idle life, but without Wang Lung’s protection she would have been left with nothing as her looks and figure fade.

Throughout it all, in good times and bad, Wang Lung holds to his land. It’s the thing he loves above all other – apart, perhaps, from his father, his old friend Ching, and his elder daughter, a ‘Poor Fool’ who cannot speak and sits in the sunshine twisting her piece of cloth. But his three sons, educated in new and different ways, have no feeling for the land, and are ashamed to be connected with a peasant way of life. His success has ensured they move away from their roots, and he cannot control the decisions they make, even if it would be right for him to so.

The novel questions about the nature of satisfaction which, for some reason, reminded me of the fairy story of the Old Woman and the Old Man who lived in a Vinegar Jar, and were granted wishes, and kept asking for more and more sumptuous homes and lifestyles, but she was never satisfied with what she got. By the end Wang Lung has lost all desire - for women, wealth or land – and is happy to return to a simpler way of life in his old home, on his first patch of land.

Pear S Buck, pictured in 132, the year she
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for
The Good Earth
His move back is part of a recurrent theme on the cycle of life. It is clear that to everything there is a season, and that as the wheel of fortune turns lives are changed and people are cast up or raised down on the whim of the Gods. What goes around comes around: near the start of the novel Wang Lung, terrified, shy, and unconfident, walks to the big house to collect the bride he has never seen, while towards the end things come full circle, and it is he who sits in the big house, waiting for a poor farmer to collect a slave girl and marry her.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about in this book, and it offers glimpses of the Chinese culture and way of life around 100 years ago but, and there are two sequels, but I don’t think I’ll bother with them. I’d much rather read anything by Amy Tan (whom I always enjoy), or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, or Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min.

Finally, having signed up for various reading challenges, I’m hoping The Good Earth qualifies for three of them:
1)  The May selection for the Cornflower Book Group at
2)  The topography class of What’s In a Name, at (I think earth is a topographical feature –I certainly remember studying soil types and crops etc in physical geography, but maybe I’m stretching a point with this one).
3)  The Classic Award Winner section of the Back to the Classics Challenge over at

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Saturday Snapshots From Paris

This time last weekend I was in Paris – my mother and I enjoyed a four-day break there, and noticed once again how green the city is, and how much the French love their parks.  Everywhere you go there are streets and squares lined with trees, and there are beautiful, tiny parks and public gardens hidden away in the smallest of spaces, with gravelled paths, statues, fountains, flowers, trees and benches. Then there are the large parks, like the Tuileries, the Bois de Boulogne, the Jardin des Plantes, and the Jardin du Luxembourg, with their grand planting schemes, sweeping vistas, wooded areas, palaces, cafes, glasshouses and even (in the case of the Jardin des Plantes) a menagerie, or zoo. Whatever their size, they are all wonderfully quiet and incredibly clean. There is no litter blowing around, no food containers festering on the ground, and no dog poo.  
Today’s photos were taken in the Jardin du Luxembourg which is one of our favourite places, and always seems tranquil and peaceful. There were drifts of delicate, pale pink forget-me-nots,  and those strange rows of trees that look like giant hedgesWe sat on our chairs, soaking up the sunshine, and watched the world go by. Children sailed boats on the ornamental, octagonal pool, while visitors admired the colourful carpets of flowers in the parterres, and the French sat quietly eating their lunch, reading, or just relaxing. But many Parisians are much more energetic, and they come here to jog along the pathways, or do their exercises beneath the trees – how much nicer to be out in the fresh air, rather than stuck in a gym.  
This park was created by the widowed Marie de Medicis (she was married to Henri IV). Homesick for her childhood home at the Palazzo Pitti, in Florence, she had a palace and garden created like those she had known and loved in Italy. Her palace, with its terraces and balustrades, now houses the French Senate, and the charming Medici Fountain is still one of the most popular features, although Marie’s grotto and fountain now include a pond and statue. The area was ignored for well over a century, but was restored and enlarged following the Revolution. 
It’s a fabulous place, full of flowers and trees, with a kind of bandstand for musical events, and a théâtre des marionnettes. The gardens also have around 100 statues including one of the Statue of Liberty which is supposed to be the model sculpted by Bartholdi while he worked on designs for his iconic New York artwork.
And Marie de Medicis is not forgotten, for she features in series of statues of former French queens, saints and famous women. Actually I always feel a little sorry for her., though I’m not sure whether she deserves sympathy. She is portrayed as being a pleasure seeking spendthrift, who didn’t have the best interests of France at heart. But life in the French court can’t have been a bundle of laughs. She married Henri in 1600, when she was 25 years old, and immediately became embroiled in very public quarrels with his mistresses, whom he refused to give up. At the same time she befriended her predecessor Margaret of Valois, who had been banished following the annulment of her marriage to Henri. 
Marie was not crowned Queen until 1610, on the day before Henri was assassinated, and many people thought she was complicit in the murder. Her son, the future Louis XIII, was only nine, so she became regent, and clung to power after he reached his majority, but she was an ineffective ruler, unable to command support 
from the nobles.
Eventually the nobles rebelled, and Louis, seizing the chance to take control, had her imprisoned. Mother and son were reconciled, but not for long, and she was exiled, fled to Brussels, then moved on to Amsterdam, and Cologne where she died in 1642, far from her beautiful garden.   
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Down With Housework!

Doing The Mending: Each chapter heading in How To Run Your  Home Without Help
is illustrated with a lovely little line drawing
Housework, as those who know me will confirm, has never been one of my accomplishments, and the Man Of The House is equally unenthusiastic about domestic activities. ‘Lived-in’ is how people describe our home. Or even ‘very lived-in’, uttered somewhat disparagingly as they shift books off the sofa, brush cat hairs off their clothes and stare in horror at the state of our coffee mugs.

When our daughters were younger their schoolfriends used to turn up at our house to practice their art homework, or colour their hair (does anyone know how to remove blue dye stains from the wash basin?), then depart telling us how much they liked our ‘cosy’ home – which was, I think, a polite way of saying we were messy, and that their mothers would never dream of letting them do such things in their own homes.

A trip down Memory Lane: This book brought
back memories of my childhood, and how hr
my mother worked to keep the house clean
Post-redundancy, you might expect me to have turned over a new leaf because I now have time for the household chores but, if anything, the situation is even worse than it was, as I have discovered all kinds of things that are far more interesting and enjoyable than cleaning, polishing, ironing and washing up.

So, you may wonder why I have a kind of theme going on with my current Books In Progress pile, and the theme is... HOUSEWORK! It started quite simply when I spotted a Persephone edition of How To Run Your Home Without Help, by Kay Smallshaw. There it was, among a stack of volumes donated to the Oxfam Bookshop, packed with useful information that must have been invaluable for middle-class housewives when it was first written in 1949, and I just couldn’t resist it, because I’m always convinced that this type of book will help me transform my home into a neat, tidy, well-ordered haven of perfection – and it is such to fun to read.

Then, by coincidence, I came across a review of House-Bound, by Winifred Peck, so I ordered a copy through Abebooks, because it sounded interesting and I deserved a treat, and whilst doing that I discovered The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, so I ordered that too (I was treating myself, remember). And the next time I was helping in the Oxfam Bookshop I came across a copy of Katie Fforde’s The Rose Revived, with a painted picture of a proper woman on the front, instead of one of those brainless, pastel-coloured, girly graphics that currently grace the covers of her work. So I pounced on it – after all, £1.99 is such a bargain, and Katie Fforde is always a good read, and it’s worth it for the cover alone.

The endpapers are taken from  'Riverside',
a 1946 printed dress fabric in rayon crepe,
and I bet it looked fabulous made up
So, reading them in the order I acquired them, first up is How To Run Your Home Without Help, written in the aftermath of the Second World War. The army of women who had been working as maids, cooks and children’s nannies spent the war years doing other things: some joined up, or became Land Girls, while others worked in munitions factories, or took on jobs left vacant while men were fighting. When the conflict was over few of those who had been ‘in service’ were prepared to return. Life had changed, and well-heeled, middle-class women were left to run their homes on their own, when rationing was still in existence, and shortages of food and all kinds of other goods were still widespread. It must have come as a terrible shock them, and there’s an excellent preface by Christina Hardyment which puts the book in its historic context.

Smallshaw covers just about everything anyone could possibly want to know about keeping house – planning, cleaning, spring-cleaning, equipment, food, shopping, washing, mending, doing the accounts, and what to do when Baby comes. There’s even a chapter on A Man About The House, and another on Beauty While You Work (a simple tin of Vaseline is a ‘hand-saver’ and rubber gloves are useful, she says). And she advises always using ‘a scarf, cap or clean duster pinned like a nurse’s square over the head and hair when doing the rooms’, as well as remembering to brush your hair each night. In addition, you can get a ‘beauty bath’ by going out in the rain with no cosmetics on, and on wash-day you should cleanse your skin and apply nourishing cream before you begin, then the steam will soften it. And, apparently, housework is good for the figure, although I can’t say it’s done anything for mine – perhaps the 1949 housewife didn’t keep stopping for snacks.

The problem with buying second-hand
Persephone is that the bookmarks are
missing, but I found this postcard which
seemed suitable
I adore the chapter on Doing The Washing, which mentions a ‘hand-operated simple washing machine’ which is an ‘elaboration of a wash-boiler’. Oddly enough, my mother had an antiquated version of something like this when I was a child. There was a rubber hose, which ran from the tap into the machine, and the gas underneath had to be lit to boil the water. I seem to remember there was a plastic paddle inside, which agitated the washing, and everything had to be dragged into the sink with enormous wooden tongs so it could be rinsed, then pushed through the mangle which was attached to the washer. When my brother was born we had a home-help, who couldn’t get to grips with this machine at all, and flooded the kitchen...

There are tips on starching, blueing and stiffening (does anyone else remember those?) as well as hints about taking the drudgery out of ironing – although personally I doubt such a thing is possible.

And the section on mending is an absolute joy. Who these days would bother to darn clothes or ‘make over’ bed linen (in the days before fitted sheets and duvet covers, cotton or linen sheets were cut up the middle, then stitched back together, with the worn patches turned to the outsides).

Ready For Action: Chapter III is all about using the right equipment
Other long-vanished household tasks include things like cleaning the front steps – again, it conjured up memories of my childhood, when my mother, along with most of the other women in our street, would buff up the step with red lead polish. I suspect that Mum, and all the other women she knew, never read this book, but just used their common sense, doing things the way their mothers had done but, as advised by Smallshaw, Mum always recycled old clothes, towels, tea towels and sheets to make cloths for cleaning, dusting and polishing (no J-cloths in those days). And, as there were no spray cans, the cupboard under the sink boasted an impressive array of cleaning lotions and solid wax polishes, just as the book recommends.

I loved this book, largely I suspect, because it was a real trip down Memory Lane, reminding me of my own childhood in the 1950s. To anyone younger than me it would probably seem very old-fashioned, but there is a surprising amount of sound advice that could still be followed and adapted to suit modern lifestyles. But it did confirm my view that progress is a wonderful thing when it comes to housework!
Spring Cleaning: Does anyone still do this?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Never Believe a Book Blurb

Never believe all you read on a book cover. That’s really all I would like to say about Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but it wouldn’t be much of a review if I stopped there. So, where to start? This was one of my charity shop buys, bought because it had excellent reviews, and because many years ago, when I was a child and we went on holiday to my grandparents in County Donegal, there was a salmon leap in Buncrana, near where they lived.

A quote from the Guardian appears on the back of this edition, proclaiming: “Salmon Fishing is extraordinary indeed, and a triumph.” On the front, the tribute ‘a wonderful novel’ is attributed to Marina Lewycka, author of A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine, which should have acted as some kind of warning, because I didn’t like that either.

Anyway, it turned out to be one of those books where the idea of the story was far more appealing than the novel itself. Here we have Dr Alfred Jones, a dull and diffident fisheries scientist (he made his name with a study on the effects of alkaline solutions on freshwater mussel populations) who is married to a high-flying economist, and is asked to help a wealthy Yemeni sheikh create a salmon river in the highlands of The Yemen.

The government sees an opportunity to improve its standing among the Arab nations, and Fred is dispatched to discover how 10,000 fish can be delivered to an arid land and survive. He embarks on a journey which proves to be as difficult and amazing as the journey undertaken by migrating salmon in their natural environment, changing his life for ever. So far, so good. It is such a barmy notion it sounds as if it would make a delightful book, but as far as I’m concerned it didn’t gel.

None of the characters really came to life – not even the supposedly charismatic and mystical Sheikh Muhammad who masterminds the scheme, driven by a dream of promoting peace, harmony and tolerance by introducing the sport of fly fishing (in a wadi) to his countrymen. There’s Peter Maxwell, the Government spin doctor; Ms Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, acting as land agent and consultant for the sheikh, and Fred’s coldly capable wife Mary. 
The book is written in the form of letters, official memos, reports and e-mails, including intercepted messages from al-Qaeda which I thought sounded more like an Adrian Mole  joke than something any self-respecting terrorist would have penned. I found the epistolary format rather irritating, and felt there wasn’t enough differentiation in tone and style between the various writers, so the central characters lacked depth.

There’s also a sub-plot about Harriet’s fiancé, Captain Robert Matthews, who is missing in action in Iraq, which may contrast the conflict with the sheikh’s peaceful ambitions, but doesn’t necessarily add a lot to the plot. According to the Reading Group notes in the back (which, quite frankly, should be ignored) the novel also highlights the contrast between life in the east where people still have faith, and life in the west, where they don’t, but I couldn’t say this was done in any meaningful way – it all seemed a bit simplistic, as did the satirical portrayal of the government, which was more than a bit a bit laboured.

Apart from that all I can say is that the action moves between London, Scotland and The Yemen, and there was a lot of information about salmon, and water, which I thought would be interesting, but ended up being rather boring.

Personally I think instead of reading this your time would be better spent enjoying poached salmon. Or smoked salmon. Or gravlax. And that’s not a lightly-made recommendation, because I am vegetarian, and don’t eat meat or fish, but it does show how I felt about this book! Doubtlessly, there are many of you out there who disagree with me, so if you do, please leave a message and tell me why you love it – I’d like to know what I’m missing. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Let's Drink Lavender Water Tinged With Pink!

Somewhat belatedly, today, I think, I’ll take a drink, of lavender water, tinged with pink... accompanied, of course, by a tasty dish, of eggs and buttercups fried with fish - and if that doesn’t give you a clue about the topic under discussion, then you don’t deserve to join the party! For today I’m celebrating Edward Lear’s 200th birthday. And yes, I do know he was born on May 12, 1812, but I failed to finish writing this before setting off on a four-day holiday in Paris (although I did manage to schedule some Saturday Snapshots, and they appeared right on time, which I thought was very clever, as I had never done a ‘timed’ post before).

Anyway, I am sure you are all aware of Lear’s limericks (he wrote more than 200 of them) and his nonsense verse, including The Owl and the Pussy-cat, which most people seem to think is a nursery rhyme, which is a shame, because he deserves some recognition for what must be one of the most joyful - and silliest – poems in the English language. The whole idea is just so delightful: an owl and a cat sailing away to get married – but I’d love to know why they took honey with them, and why was the money wrapped up in a £5 note.  Does the £5 note not count as money?

And who could fail to love the Jumblies, whose lands are ‘far and few’ and who went to sea in a sieve:

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees

Best of all in my view is The Pobble, whose story romps along from beginning to end in a truly magical fashion:

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said "Some day you may lose them all;"
He replied "Fish, fiddle-de-dee!"
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said "The World in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!”

The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said "No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it's perfectly known that a Pobble's toes
Are safe, -- provided he minds his nose!"

The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side -
"He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska's
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!"

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble's toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away -
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska's Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, -
And she said "It's a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!"

I love the rhyming of ‘forlorn’ and ‘were gone’ – it has to be one the greatest rhymes ever, right up there with Byron’s incredible two lines from Don Juan:

But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all.

Lear illustrated his rhymes, and also produced nonsense alphabets and nonsense botany, featuring strange plants like Stunnia Dinnerbellia, where the flower is a washtub), or Manypeeplia Upsidownia, which is self-explanatory. But he started his career as a serious artist, painting and drawing birds, animals and landscapes. He was nominated as an Associate of the Linnean Society, and in 1846 he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, so he must have been well thought of. I’d love to know how and why he turned his talents to ‘nonsense’, but he once described nonsense as ‘the breath of my nostrils’ and wrote about ‘this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers first and laughs at afterwards’. Perhaps nonsense simply made him happy – whatever the reason, his work has made a lot of people smile over the years.

He was born in Highgate and was the 20th child of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker who lost his money when Lear was four, at which point it seems his mother Ann handed him over to his sister (also an Ann) who was 21 years older than him. I don’t know if all the children survived, but I must say that after so many births his poor mother must have been quite worn out and the prospect of raising another offspring in reduced circumstances must have been less than enticing. 
A painting of Venice by Lear
Anyway, he was educated by his sister Ann and another sister, and started work as an artist when he was about 14 or 15.  His first book of limericks was published in 1846, but it didn’t become really popular until the third edition was printed in 1861. His health was never good. Even as a young child he suffered from epilepsy and depression (which he referred to as ‘the demon’ and ‘the morbids’) and was very short-sighted, as well as suffering from bronchitis and asthma. However didn’t stop him travelling widely, not just in Europe but in Jerusalem, Lebanon, Constantinople, Petra, Bethlehem, Egypt, India and Ceylon, and he painted the scenes he saw while abroad. He died in San Remo on January. 29, 1888.
Edward Lear photographed in 1887
 *If you want to know more, there is an Edward Lear page at  which includes details about his work, his limericks and rhymes.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Moorland Saturday Snapshots

And now for something completely different: Moors. Not the people you understand, but landscapes – the kind of landscape which, in novels, is invariably menacing, mysterious and moody (I do love a bit of alliteration). My interest was aroused following a walk around a local nature reserve which goes by the rather grand name ‘Warwickshire Moor’, but is not at all how I imagine a moor should be. It’s not high land, and there are no billowing waves of heather, no crags and rocky outcrops, and no bogs – though it is very muddy.

It’s just a small patch, on the edge of the town, and the railway runs alongside, but it has its own beauty. The River Anker runs through it, and there are little pools and scrapes, and all kinds of grasses and reeds, and rather scrubby looking trees. The Man of the House and I had a wander there because I've set my heart on being a 'home tourist' and exploring the area where we live. Anyway, it set me thinking about the way moors are portrayed in lieratue. First off is Mary Yellan, travelling across Bodmin Moor to Jamaica Inn in Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name. 
This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil. No trees here, save one of two that stretched  bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so black by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear the late frost should kill them. It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather and stunted broom.

You know that there will be no comfort for Mary in this bleak landscape, and that her new home will be as joyless as the moor. Emily Bronte’s depiction of the wild moor in Wuthering Heights is equally cold, hard and merciless, a suitable setting for the savage, all-consuming love between Heathcliffe and Cathy, which is as barren and grim as the land itself.
 ...the whole hill-back was one billowy, white ocean; the swells and falls not indicating corresponding rises and depressions in the ground: many pits, at least, were filled to a level; and entire ranges of mounds, the refuse of the quarries, blotted from the chart which my yesterday's walk left pictured in my mind.  I had remarked on one side of the road, at intervals of six or seven yards, a line of upright stones, continued through the whole length of the barren: these were erected and daubed with lime on purpose to serve as guides in the dark...

Moorland also plays a vital role in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, providing much-needed cover for David and Alan as they flee from the British redcoats. A Scottish friend once told me the duo take to the heather on Rannoch Moor, and that even today it is one of the wildest and most beautiful areas of Scotland – but David is unimpressed.
  The mist rose and died away, and showed us that country lying as waste as the sea; only the moorfowl and the pewees crying upon it, and far over to the east, a herd of deer, moving like dots. Much of it was red with heather; much of the rest broken up with bogs and hags and peaty pools; some had been burnt black in a heath fire; and in another place there was quite a forest of dead firs, standing like skeletons. A wearier-looking desert man never saw; but at least it was clear of troops...

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is, perhaps, the best known ‘moorland’ novel, and Dr Watson’s first view shows the landscape to be as menacing as the tale of the ghastly phantom dog that Sherlock Holmes is called to investigate.
 ……I drew aside my curtains before I went to bed and looked out from my window. It opened upon the grassy space which lay in front of the hall door. Beyond, two copses of trees moaned and swung in a rising wind. A half moon broke through the rifts of racing clouds. In its cold light I saw beyond the trees a broken fringe of rocks, and the long, low curve of the melancholy moor. I closed the curtain, feeling that my last impression was in keeping with the rest...

But the moor isn’t as bleak as it looks, for there are some wonderful descriptions of the plants and creatures that live there – flowers, sheep, ponies, butterflies and birds. And that leads me to The Secret Garden, which is my favourite literary moor, because Frances Hodgson Burnett makes it seem alive, and loved. Here is Mary’s first encounter with the area.
 The carriage lamps shed a yellow light on a rough-looking road which seemed to be cut through bushes and low growing things which ended in the great expanse of dark apparently spread out before and around them. A wind was rising and making a singular, wild, low, rushing sound.
"It's—it's not the sea, is it?" said Mary, looking round at her companion.
"No, not it," answered Mrs. Medlock. "Nor it isn't fields nor mountains, it's just miles and miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep."

Later the servant girl Martha speaks passionately about the moor, telling Mary:

I just love it. It's none bare. It's covered wi' growin' things as smells sweet. It's fair lovely in spring an' summer when th' gorse an' broom an' heather's in flower. It smells o' honey an' there's such a lot o' fresh air—an' th' sky looks so high an' th' bees an' skylarks makes such a nice noise hummin' an' singin'. Eh! I wouldn't live away from th' moor for anythin'.

 There’s no gorse, or broom, or heather on Tamworth’s Warwickshire Moor, but it is ‘fair lovely’ in the summer, although it looked a little dead when we walked round. But the leaves on the trees were all in bud, and we saw catkins and pussy willow, and bright yellow dandelions and celandines, and the pale mauve flowers of ladies smock struggling through the bleached grasses.

There were a few bees flying around, and plenty of birds (have decided binoculars and a decent wildlife book are essential for any future walks, so we can identify what we see), as well as swans and ducks on the river.  You can see details about the conservation work being carried out by the Friends of Warwickshire Moor here, and there’s more information about the site on a leaflet produced by Tamworth Borough Council, which is available here.  
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

I Want To Be A Book-Handler...

I have discovered the perfect career – as a Professional Book-Handler. I will offer my services, as recommended by the late, great Flann O’Brien, to make new books looks old. After all, I have had plenty of experience, and am a dab hand at creating dog-eared pages, creased spines, and dubious stains. I have an unlimited supply of bus and train tickets, receipts, and old bills which could be used as bookmarks (I once shook a £5 note out of a library book when I returned it, along with a hairgrip and a piece of ribbon). Crinkles and wrinkles caused by reading in the bath would be no problem, and for a small remuneration scribbled notes could be scrawled in the margins, along with any underlining that may be considered necessary.

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, Book-Handling (or Bookhandlung) is one of the funniest pieces written by Flann O’Brien in his column in the Irish Times. It is a gloriously zany assault on people who stuff their homes with books they have never read, and probably never will – the kind of wall-to-wall decoration so loved by interior designers. O’ Brien launches straight into the attack

Writer Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien
aka Myles na Gopaleen
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.

But he has a solution. After all, as he says, why should a wealthy person be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all?

Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

O’Brien even comes up with a recommended scale of charges for aging one four-foot shelf at four different levels, starting at £1 7s 6d for ‘'Popular Handling--Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark’.
One of my early efforts at book-handling
Premier would cost £2 17s 6d, but for that the illiterate but wealthy owner could have eight pages in each volume dog-eared, while 25 books could have a passage underlined in red pencil. 'De Luxe Handling would also include treatment with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and the creation of forged signatures of the authors. The suggested price is £7 18s 3d, with ‘dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume’.

I'm too sure what happened here!
The final top-of-the-range class is listed as Le Traitement Superbe (that’s ‘superb treatment’ in plain English) priced at more than £23, but worth every penny because, says O’Brien, it is ‘far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends’. Books will be handled by a qualified handler and a master handler, and will be heavily underlined in red ink, with exclamations written in the margins. In addition selected books can have ‘forged messages of affection and gratitude’ from the author, as well as ‘flawless’ forged letters from ‘some well-known humbug who is associated with ballet, verse-mouthing, folk-dancing, wood-cutting, or some other such activity that is sufficiently free from rules to attract the non-brows in their swarms’.

The article was published in several parts over several days, and even included a hilarious account of the lengths some book-handlers would go to in the course of their work.

There will be black sheep in every fold, of course. Some of our handlers have been caught using their boots, and others have been found thrashing inoffensive volumes of poetry with horsewhips, flails, and wooden clubs. Books have been savagely attacked with knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters, hatchets, rubber-piping, razor-blade-potatoes, and every device of assault ever heard of in the underworld. Novice handlers, not realising that tooth-marks on the cover of a book are not accepted as evidence that its owner has read it, have been known to train terriers to worry a book as they would a rat. One man (he is no longer with us) was sent to a house in Kilmainham, and was later discovered in the Zoo handing in his employer's valuable books to Charlie the chimpanzee. A country-born handler 'read' his books beyond all recognition by spreading them out on his employer's lawn and using a horse and harrow on them, subsequently ploughing them in when he realised that he had gone a little bit too far. Moderation, we find, is an extremely difficult thing to get in this country.

Does anyone else write in books?
Isn’t that wonderful? It’s one of the many gems in The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien, which was one of the pen names adopted by Brian O’Nolan who, as an Irish civil servant, was unable to publish his work under his own name. He wrote novels (At-Swim-Two-Birds, which I haven’t read, was praised by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce) but is possibly best known for the newspaper column he produced in the Irish Times from 1940 until his death in 1966. Cruiskeen Lawn (apparently it means Little Brimming Jug) appeared almost every day, and was sometimes written in Gaelic, and sometimes in English. The articles were (and still are) very witty, very satirical, and very, very funny – laugh out loud funny, rather than making you smile quietly to yourself.

He enjoyed the absurd, which makes him quirky, but not whimsical, and his love of language shines through – he had an ear for the speech he heard in Dublin’s streets, shops and pubs, and played with words in his own inimitable style, subverting language to his own uses as he debunked hypocrisy in society, culture and religion.

Edited May 10: By the way, .I forgot to mention that over on Vulpes Libris in April last year Hilary wrote a wonderful review of The Best of Myles, with more information about him , and a lovely, clear overview of his work (sorry Hilary). You'll find her post here

I’ve posted this in the Essay Reading Challenge being run by CarrieK at Books and Movies here - I’m not sure if newspaper articles really count as essays in the strictest sense of the word, but I think many modern columnists could be regarded as essayists. And, since Flann, Brian, Myles (call him what you will) is most definitely an Irish writer, I’ve posted it on the Ireland Challenge 2012 which also be organised by CarrieK on this link