Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Fairy Tales of Ireland

Fairy Tales of Ireland by WB Yeats, published by Young Lions, is a magical, lyrical collection of 20 stories chosen from those collected by the poet. Mostly they tell of fairies, giants and witches from the Otherworld, and the dealings they have with humans, with guile and cunning used on both sides. The juxtaposition of the mundane with the miraculous makes for some fine tension as the everyday world clashes with supernatural events and beings. I was going to say there's conflict between the real world and the world of imagination, but that would be wrong because Yeats firmly believed in the existence of fairies, and he relates these stories as if they were a matter of fact – and who is to say they are not.

Within the tales you will find joy and sorrow, fear and bravery, slapstick humour and moments of high emotion. Alongside the folk tales are others which owe their their origins to ancient Celtic poems and sagas. But they are all told in simple language, in a manner which demands to be read aloud to best enjoy the rhythms and nuances of Yeats' story-telling. And, after all, for many generations these traditional tales were not written down, but were recited aloud as the listeners sat around a fire, laughing and weeping with every change in fortune experienced by the heroes and heroines.

The book opens with his poem 'The Stolen Child', which I love, but with 'The Priest's Supper', the first fairy tale, I'm as lost in the writing as I was when I was a child, hooked on fairy stories, myths and legends, which is why I couldn't resist buying this book when I spotted it in a charity shop.

It is said by those who ought to understand such things, that the good people, or the fairies, are some of the angels who were turned out of heaven, and who landed on their feet in this world, while the rest of their companions, who had more sin to sink them, went down farther to a worse place. Be this as it may, there was a merry troop of the fairies, dancing and playing all manner of wild pranks, on a bright moonlight evening towards the end of September.

See what I mean about the mix of reality and the otherworld? The mention of the season is so very precise and seems to tie these fairies to a time and place – but the Catholic Church is never far away when this kind of trouble is afoot, and these non-Christian creatures are bested by pious Father Horrigan before any harm is done. But not all tales end happily - in one, an unmannerly hunchback ends up with a second hump.

And one, 'The Soul Cages', is spookily disturbing as Jack travels beneath the waves and meets Coomara, who sets traps (like lobster pots) to trap the souls of drowned sailors.
The Soul Cages: One of PJ Lynch's illustrations.
My favourites, perhaps because they are stories I have known, in various forms, since childhood, are 'A Legend of Knockmany', and 'The Twelve Wild Geese'. In the first Fin M'Coul's clever wife Oonagh devises a scheme to help him outwit the giant Cucullin, who can make a young earthquake or flatten a thunderbolt. It's a wonderful plan, as wily as anything dreamt up by Odysseus, and is wonderfully told. Just listen to what happens when Oonagh persuades Cucullin to turn the house around:

When Fin saw this, he felt a certain description of moisture, which shall be nameless, oozing out through every pore of his skin; but Oonagh, depending upon her woman's wit, felt not a whit daunted.

In 'The Twelve Wild Geese' a beautiful princess must spin bog-down into thread and knit it into shirts so her 12 brothers, who have been turned to geese, can be transformed back into men. As a young child the story I read and loved had the young men flying about the countryside as swans before they regain their natural shapes, thanks to wearing shirts woven from nettles by their sister.

Much later I came across the legend of the Children of Lir, where Lir's daughter and three sons are changed into swans and doomed to remain in that form for 900 years – then they are blessed by monk, become human once more but, since they are now almost 1,000 years old, they crumble to dust. I am not sure whether 'The Twelve Wild Geese' owes its origins to the Children of Lir, or whether it is one of those strange tales where a successful outcome is only possible if an impossible task is completed. Perhaps it is a mixture of them both, since folk tales are often drawn from many sources.

I am posting this on the Ireland Challenge 2012,  organised by CarrieK on this link

Monday, 27 August 2012

A Mad Mother and a 'Well Hidden' Family

Queen Victoria was on the throne of England when William Peacock married Miranda Mirova. The couple are very young, barely out of childhood, but he is the precociously talented editor of a literary magazine and she is the most famous ballet dancer of generation. All goes well until baby Clare is born, when Miranda no longer wishes to dance, and develops an aversion to noise and crowds. As she becomes more and more isolated her behaviour becomes more and more strange. “We are not well hidden,” she tells her husband. She hears 'them' following her (though who 'they' are we never discover) and wanders the house at night to check all is safe.

Two other children, Hector and Viola, and William moves his family from London to the 'deserted decrepitude' of Prince's Acre, where Miranda is happy for a time. But there is a terrifying night when, because 'we are not well hidden', she takes the children outside and tries to cram Viola into a rabbit hole. After this Miranda is taken away and dies. William withdraws into himself and rarely leaves his study, so Clare, aided by faithful housekeeper Mrs Humble cares for her brother and sister, who are both disabled. Eventually, however, visitors from the outside world penetrate the family's enclosed life, and events take a tragic turn.

That's an over simplification of Rumour of Heaven, written by actress Beatrix Lehmann (the sister of novelist Rosamond) in 1934. It is, apparently, considered to be something of a curiosity rather than a great literary work, but I really enjoyed it, although it's a bit like the curate's egg – good in parts. But let us rejoin the family when Clare is 17, devoting her life to the well-being of her emotionally shattered father; Hector, who is what we would now call a person with learning difficulties; and Viola, who suffers from an unspecified debilitating disease.

Her own peace of mind is broken when she meets charismatic Max Ralston, who has written a book about a mysterious island paradise which may really exist, or may be a figment of his imagination. Then there is troubled Paul Millard, on the run from a failing marriage, fashionable Bohemian London, and his memories of WWI. He hopes to write a biography of his friend Roger, a poet, who once visited Prince's Acre. But he finds the real Roger slips away as he tries to record his own memories and talk to others about the Roger they knew.

Clare and her family seem to find reality just as hard to pin down: their house is like something in a fairy tale, dusty, overgrown, something out of time, yet perfect as it is, despite its faults. The two younger children live in a world of their own, unable to grasp the realities of everyday life, while Clare and her father seem to live in a dream, and you feel you could wake them, if only you could reach out and shake them.

Over it all lies the ghost of poor, mad Miranda (is one still allowed to call people mad I wonder, or is it politically incorrect, even when referring to a character in a novel written before the term was coined) whose presence can still be felt, although she is there for such a short time. Under the rafters of the barn is a 'ghost of a room' for Clare, where old ballet-shoes, made for feet half the size of her own, dangle on frayed ribbons.

The trunks in the corner had been dusted, and one, made of wicker, displayed the name 'Mirova' on its bursting side; and all were open and their maws foamed with overflowing treasures. Yellowed ruffles of tarlatan that time and repeated packing had not quelled. Miranda's ballet frocks sprang upwards like frosted cabbage leaves when the lid of the trunk had been lifted.

There are music scores, photographs, and books – gifts from long ago admirers – all ravaged by moths and mice, mementos of a make-believe world played out in the spotlight, but now hidden in the dark. But Miranda leaves a less tangible legacy, for her husband and children are still hidden away 'safe, all safe', unable to move forward and leave the world she created. And the emotional impact of her illness on those she loved is incalculable.

Her death is glossed over , so much so that I kept thinking she was still alive, incarcerated in an institution, and would re-appear at some stage, fully restored to her old self, but, of course, she never does. The cause of her condition is never explained. Is it a form of post-natal depression? Or is she bi-polar? Or schizophrenic? But her strange behaviour is described so touchingly, and quite sensitively, so I could feel her fear and desolation. Indeed, the relationships between the Peacock family were very tenderly portrayed.

I found Max and Paul less sympathetic, while Mrs Humble and the various rural yokels never came to life at all: they were caricatures, straight out of one of those pastoral novels that were once so popular (Mary Webb perhaps). And they speak in dialect, which is always difficult to handle well, although this may be done for comic effect.

Beatrix Lehmann as a young woman.
In fact nature has a role to play here, with weather and landscape echoing plot and feelings, and there are some excellent descriptive passages describing the sea and the scenery. However, there are other passages which are much more overblown (Mary Webb again I fear – I only mention her because Simon T at Stuck in Book recently wrote the most scathing and funny review of 'Gone to Earth'). And there are times when the plot itself seems akin to something Webb might have written – then, as it gets back on track, you start to wonder if it's parody, like 'Cold Comfort Farm', but somehow I don't think it is.

The tone of the novel is variable, and there are all sorts of themes to be unpicked, but overall, I think 'Rumour of Heaven' reads like a fairy tale, with a brief 'once upon a time' period when things are happy (or at least different), followed by a section that is part Cinderella, part Sleeping Beauty. But there is no real awakening for the Peacocks who survive tragedy, although there is a happy ending of sorts, even if you feel it is somewhat unreal.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Place where Lepers were Outcast...

We passed this sign whilst out walking during our Cumbrian holiday. It's the name of an area, like a hamlet, which is certainly not big enough to be a village, and is now part of Ulverston. According to a local information leaflet, it was once the place where lepers were sent – cast out from the community where they lived before. However, there are no further details, and I'm having problems trying to find anything out, so I may contact the tourist office and see if they can recommend a local historian who may be able to help.

Anyway, the sign reminded me of 'The de Lacy Inheritance', written by my friend Elizabeth Ashworth, which has one of the most chilling openings I have ever read, with words taken from The Mass of Separation, which excluded lepers from family, home, society and church.

I'd never heard of this particular custom, so I looked it up, and found the ritual spoken by a priest even more horrifying than Elizabeth made it sound, with a curious incantatory quality, which reads like an ancient curse. It is hard to imagine listeners remaining unmoved by the rite, which banned lepers from any form of normal human contact – even touching the rim or rope of a well was forbidden unless the sufferer was wearing gloves. It must have been such a lonely life, cut off from everyone they knew and loved, unable to make a living or indulge in any leisure pursuits, and denied even the comfort of the church (although some places of worship had a special window, so sufferers could stand outside and listen to a service).

It made me realise what a terrible disease leprosy was in the days before drugs were available to cure it (it was well into the 20th century before this happened – Victoria Hislop's novel 'The Island' shows how attitudes changed). I always think of lepers living in special hospitals, or lazar houses as they were known, where they were cared for by monks, but I may have gleaned this idea from Ellis Peters' excellent Cadfael books, and I'm not sure how true it was. I understand there were also 'colonies' which were not attached to religious institutions, where sufferers lived as normally as possible, totally isolated from the rest of the world. Additionally, may beggars became became beggars, travelling from town to town, ringing a bell which warned others to keep away, eating scraps left out for them, and maybe staying the occasional night at a lazar house. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

Monday, 20 August 2012

Woods, Sea and Stars...

Woods etc. has a rather plain cover, so instead,
here is a picture in Seawood, at Bardsea, Cumbria.
I love Alice Oswald's 'Dart', and 'A Sleepwalk On The Severn', which are both long poems, but hadn't read any of her shorter work, so I was pleased when I spotted her collection Woods etc. in the library, just before we travelled up to the Furness Peninsula in Cumbria for a week's holiday in the campervan. It gave us a chance to enjoy the glorious countryside, and made us feel very close to nature, and Oswald is very much a nature poet. So I read the poems, two or three each day, curled up in bed in the early morning when the rest of the world was still asleep, and they seemed to fit the landscape.

Oswald has been compared to Ted Hughes, and I can see why, because she shows the natural world in its raw state, before it's been pruned and cultivated and tidied up, but there's a humanity there as well, and echoes of old legends and folk tales. The poems in this collection are reflective, about the elements, the moon, the stars, the sea, seabirds, birdsong, a wood, stones and flowers. There's a Lovesong for Three Children (her own, presumably), A Poem for Taking a Baby out of Hospital, and a Psalm to Sing in a Canoe.

When she's on form Oswald uses language in strange and unexpected ways, stringing words together like stray beads on a thread, making patterns and shapes that remain in the mind, even though the beads don't match. The poems in 'Woods etc' didn't grip my imagination in quite the same way as 'Dart' or 'A Sleepwalk On The Severn' which both have a curiously haunting quality, with hypnotic rhythms and evocative images. Possibly her style, with its lists and repetitions, is better suited to longer, more sustained work, But having said that, I enjoyed most of these poems very much indeed.

I particularly liked A Star Here And A Star There, where she writes

the first whisper of stars is a faint thing
a candle sound, too far away to read by

and she goes on to say

someone looks up, he sees his soul growing visible
in various shapes above the house

he sees his soul tilted above the house
all his opponent selves hanging and fluttering
out there in the taken for granted air
in various shapes above the house

I love the idea of the first whisper of a star, and the 'opponent selves' seems such a simple way of describing the many different aspects of personality that each of us has, and how beliefs and actions, and other people's view of us (and their expectations), and our own hopes and fears, can all fight against each other, but somehow we have to meld them together into a unified whole.
Seagulls, not flying (my camera is not good enough to snap
them aloft) but perched on a jetty railing.
And I thought Seabird's Blessing was wonderful, especially when read with the gulls wheeling and crying overhead, and I could imagine them calling on 'God the featherer' to lift them if they fall. The first stanza perfectly captures the way they move through the air:

We are crowds of seabirds,
makers of many angles,
workers that unpick a web
of the air's threads and tangles.

Then there's Sea Poem with:

water deep in its own world
steep shafts warm streams
cool salt cod weed
dispersed outflows and flytipping

and the sun and its refelexion
throwing two shadows
what is the beauty of water
sky is its beauty
Clouds reflected in one of the marshy pools at Bardsea, in Cumbria.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Lupins, Radishes, and Triangular Dances

August has come, and has clothed the hills with golden lupins, and filled the grassy banks with harebells. The yellow fields of lupins are so gorgeous on cloudless days that I have neglected the forests lately and drive in the open, so that I may revel in their scent while feasting my eyes on their beauty.

So opens Elizabeth von Arnim's chapter on August in her book The Solitary Summer, which is written in the form of a diary. And, as with some of the other flowers she describes, I suspect that these plants must be very different to the hybridised garden varieties we know today. Modern lupins come in a huge range of pinks and purples, but I cannot call their perfume to mind, so perhaps von Arnim's beautiful blooms were wild flowers.

And here, in her first 'entry' for the month, the writer who sought solitude seeks a companion with whom she can share the pleasure of the lupins. “I am frightened once more at the solitariness in which we each of us live,” she writes, and tells us that only one of her many friends has similar tastes – and that they almost fell out because this particular friend would not like to be a goose-girl! Von Arnim who, it has to be said, has a very romantic view of rural life and country folk, says: “For six months of the year I would be happier than any queen I ever heard of , minding the fat white things.” She would, she adds, keep one eye on the geese, and one on a volume of Wordsworth (overlooking the fact that goose-girls couldn't read, and were unable to return to 'civilised life' during the winter). But nevertheless, she does present a charming view of her imaginary rural idyll.

Visits to the 'middle class' seaside and the pleasures of food come under her scrutiny, but by August 16 she is still concerned with her garden, which should be beautiful from 'end to end'.

It makes one so healthy to live in a garden, so healthy in mind as well as body, and when I say moles and late frosts are my worst enemies, it only shows how I could not now if I tried sit down and brood over my own or my neighbour's sins, and how the breezes in my garden have blown away all those worries and vexations and bitternesses that are the lot of those who live in a crowd.

Her joy in nature, and her love of life, are so enthusiastic that I cannot help but smile with her, and sympathise when she recalls the pious missionary who told her off for being happy when we live in a 'vale of woe'. And I can only agree when she says that if she is miserable and discontented it will not help anyone else.

There's a charming interlude when she discusses naughty boys with the April, May and June babies, who persist in speaking in their usual mix of English and German, with only the occasional word of French. When von Arnim remonstrates with them, she is told that while Seraphines speak French to children, mothers do not (Seraphine is their nurse) and the conversation ends in tears – so she organises a 'ball' for them, where they dance in triangles round the pillar in the library, while she plays cheerful tunes on the piano, before they eat radishes for supper (which give them nightmares) and curtsey before they go to bed. It all sounded a bit a like the impromptu indoor picnics we used to organise for our daughters when they were small, and they ate a back-to-front meal (pudding first) and danced madly round the room while the Man Of The House played his own folk-style nursery rhymes on the guitar. My memories seemed to bring von Arnim closer, and I thought mothers and young children have not really changed all that much over the years.

Later she visits the mill, where the water is 'ablaze with the red reflection of the sky' and the pools are full of water-lilies and eels. This time she doesn't go boating, but she recalls how the miller is always uneasy when she goes punting, for he insists that 'people with petticoats' were never intended for punts and 'their only chance of safety lay in dry land and keeping quiet'. She is tired, so she sits quietly sipping tea and reading Goethe's 'Sorrows of Werther'.
Yellow water-lilies floating in the water.

Sitting there long after it was too dark to read, I thought of the old miller's words, and agreed with him that the best thing a woman can do in this world is to keep quiet... Keep quiet and say one's prayers – certainly not merely the best, but the only things to do if one would be truly happy; but ashamed of asking when I have received so much, the only form of prayer I would use would be a form of thanksgiving.

I don't know that keeping quiet is necessarily the kind of advice that would be welcomed by women in the 21st century, but perhaps counting one's blessings is not such a bad thing.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Druid's Circle

The inner ring at The Druid's Circle, at Birkrigg Common,
near Ulverston, in Cumbria.
We have been away, hence the somewhat patchy posts and lack of response to comments last week – you might as well be in outer space as far as Internet connections go in parts of Cumbria. Anyway, we are back home now and, hopefully, normal service has been resumed, and I have some holiday pictures which I'm planning to show you as Saturday Snapshots, including these, which were taken at the Druid's Circle, at Birkrigg Common, which is near Ulverston, where Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy) was born.
Me, walking around the inside.
We usually stay up there once a year, because the Man Of The House comes from Barrow in Furness, and still has friends and relatives in the area. Barrow is a ship-building town, and is not at all beautiful, but it's right at the top of Morecambe Bay, and the beaches are gloriously unspoilt, and it's very close to the Lake District (it only takes 20 or 30 minutes to drive to Windermere). The countryside is just incredible – you have to see it to believe it – and the nearby towns and villages are lovely. 
A closer view of two of the stones.
 This year we did lots of walking, and went to some places I'd never seen before, including this stone circle, which was almost hidden by the bracken and is, so we were told, much more visible during the winter, when the ferns die back. The grass inside the circle is kept short, but around it is a sea of very dense, very tall bracken, with wide grassy walkways through it. It was very lonesome, very wild, and very windy, and these prehistoric remains look like some kind of strange fairy circle, with stones sprouting up around the rim where there would normally be mushrooms - and it's on a slightly grander scale!
You can just see three of the stones in the outer ring,very
low down in the grass - almost at ground level.
It's a double circle, with 12 very weathered small stones forming an inner ring. The stones in the outer ring are difficult to count, because they are somewhat scattered, and even more weathered, and even smaller than the others. The circle is only about 27ft in diameter across the greatest part of the outer ring, and is believed to date from the Bronze Age, possibly from around 2,000 years BC. Apparently fragments of human bones were found in an urn during an excavation carried out in the early 20th century, and evidence of ancient fires was also uncovered. However the site remains as mysterious as other stone circles, and its significance is unknown. I have tried to do some research, but there doesn't seem to be much information available, and I can't discover whether it aligns in any way with the sun, moon, planets or stars. Some of the stones do line up with the spire of Bardsea Church and Chapel Island, and I think there is at least one old trackway nearby, but I don't know if Druid's Circle lines up with any other features in the landscape, or whether there are ley lines or anything like that.
This is another of the outer circle stones, right up against
the bracken, which stretches far as the eye can see.
It does feel very mysterious, and I imagine sunrise and sunset would be quite spectacular up here, but it would be a bit spooky in the dark, as its very isolated, with no lighting. The view down the hill to Bardsea village, Seawood, Bardsea Beach and out across Morecambe Bay was amazing, and I walked around the inner and outer rings, and stood in the centre, and tried to examine the stones, but it wasn't as peaceful as we expected, because a group of Scouts on an activity day were cooking soup on a little camp stove to one side of the circle. They were were very well behaved, and were no trouble, but they obviously thought I was nuts wandering round touching the stones! 
This was the view looking back over a gate as we walked up
to the stone circle. You can see Bardsea Church spire, and
Chapel Island, one of many tiny islands in Morecambe Bay.
There is a small road which runs up on to the common, quite near the stones, but it doesn't seem to be used much, and we walked along minor roads, tracks, footpaths and bridleways, going up and up and up, until we thought we couldn't go any further. It was tough going in places, because we are not really used to walking, and we are not very fit (our legs ached so much the next day), but we enjoyed looking at the wild flowers in the fields and hedgerows, and listening to the birds.  For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

*Information in this post was taken from the booklet 'Discovering Ulverston & Surroundings' by Jeff Chambers.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Told By An Idiot

Rose Macaulay's Told By An Idiot was a bit of a disappointment. I had high hopes of it, because I love 'The Towers of Trebizond' so much but, sadly, this wasn't in the same league, and left me feeling depressed, not only about the characters and their lives, but about the human condition in general. I assume Macaulay is intentionally commenting on the futility of life, since her title is from Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I think, part of my problem with this novel was that the characters never quite come to life. I always felt as if I was viewing them through then wrong end of a telescope, so they appear smaller and more distant than they actually are, and they seemed a little one-dimensional, so it was difficult to engage them. Again, I suspect this is deliberate, since the tale is told largely from the viewpoint of Rome, who is cool, detached, ironic, civilised, and does her best not to do or feel anything.

The novel opens just before Christmas in 1879 as Papa (Mr Aubrey Garden) struggles with yet another crisis of conscience, losing his faith again and adopting yet another set of beliefs. To date, he's been an Anglican clergyman, a Unitarian minister and a Roman Catholic layman; this time around he's set to become an Ethicist (with no creeds, but only conduct), so his devoted wife and six children must prepare themselves for a new home and a new lifestyle.

The children's names reflect their father's changing faith. There's Vicky, named not for the Queen, but her father's victory over unbelief in the year of her birth; Maurice, named in honour of a rationalist friend, and Rome, his second daughter, so called because when she was born he was a member of the Roman Catholic church. Stanley, another daughter, is called after a dean (noit the explorer, as people might assume), while Irving was born during Papa's time as an Irvingite (no, I'd never heard of them either, but they are – or were – a Catholic Apostolic Church). Finally, there is Una, who takes her name from the One Person (in the Trinitarian sense) that Papa believed in at the time.

So far, so quirky, and, as you can see, religion looms large, just as it did for many years in Macaulay's own life. Throughout the novel there are discussions about religious, political and social beliefs, and the right way to live. But the characters who are the happiest seem to be those who think the least about the meaning of life.

Each of the children differ in character, but Macaulay seems to have selected one over-riding characteristic for each, which somehow prevents them emerging as real people, with that mix of good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow which makes a character seem human. And, because of that perhaps, they never seem to grow or progress: the novel follows the Garden family over three generations, leaving them in the 1920s, but throughout that period people remain exactly as they were at the outset, almost as if they were different facets of a fragmented personality, or a personification of a particular 'type' or quality.

Pretty, fashionable Victoria is a bit of an airhead, who likes beautiful things, and leads a conventional life, with a nice house, husband and children. Bitter Maurice, the fighter of injustices, trapped in a loveless marriage, becomes a campaigning journalist, and enthusiastic, do-gooder Stanley espouses one radical cause after another. Irving is a financial whizz-kid who makes lots of money and Una is happy to be a farmer's wife, taking life as it comes.

Rome is an enigma. Detached, self-contained, very intelligent, independent, she observes her family, but makes a point of getting through life by never doing anything. “Negligent, foppish and cool, she liked to watch life at its games, be flicked by the edges of its flying skirts.” It's as if she's made a conscious decision to opt out of the messy business of living. “Rome could have done anything, and elected to do nothing. Rome would probably not even marry; her caustic tongue and indifference kept those who admired her at arm's length; she made them feel that any expression of regard was an error in taste; she shrivelled it up by an amused inquiring look through the deadly monocle she placed in one blue-green eye for the purpose.” She's a curiously androgynous figure who rarely shows her feelings, but she falls in love, tragically, with a married man.

Throughout the book, there's a feeling almost of weariness, as one era is superseded by another: Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian. And along the way, key events are charted – the Boer War, Suffragettes, the First World War, and so on. There are interesting references to changing times, ideas and fashions, but that still didn't make the novel or the characters come to life. I always felt as if the ideas were the important thing, pushing plot and character into second place.

I will add here that my 1983 Virago edition has a very erudite introduction by AN Wilson, who hails 'Told By An Idiot' as a 20th century masterpiece, and compares it to Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando', dealing with themes of sexual politics and marital conventions, so I feel as I've missed the point.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

There's More to AA Milne than Pooh and Piglet!

I read this on my Kindle, courtesy of
Project Gutenberg, and have no 'real'
book, so here is a frontispiece from an
edition illustrated by  Charles Robinson,
whose work I love. 
King Merriwig of Euralia sat at breakfast on his castle walls. He lifted the gold cover from the gold dish in front of him, selected a trout and conveyed it carefully to his gold plate. He was a man of simple tastes, but when you have an aunt with the newly acquired gift of turning everything she touches to gold, you must let her practise sometimes. In another age it might have been fretwork.

Into this idyllic setting comes the king of Barodia, blocking the sun as he travels along in his seven-league boots. Since no-one likes their breakfast disturbed (let alone having the sun blotted out, even for a few seconds), Stiff Notes are written, and before you can say Jack Robinson, a petty quarrel has escalated into full-scale war, in which the Barodian ruler's fearsome whiskers (or, to use the modern term, his moustache) take on a great significance, and he admits he never wanted to be a terrifying sovereign.

There, in a nutshell, you have the plot of AA Milne's Once On a Time, which is another of my Great Discoveries, and definitely a Best Book of the Year (and yes, there do seem to be a lot of Best Books, because on the whole I seem to read books I like, but since reading is supposed to be a pleasure, where's the harm in that?).

Anyway, this fairy tale for adults is one of the most delightful stories you could wish to read, and shows that there is more to Milne than Pooh and Piglet. It has a suitably happy ending, although it may not be what you would expect from a more conventional fairy tale. Milne avoids the trap of falling into tweeness (I apologise if that's not a word, but it should be)  by writing in wonderfully chatty, matter-of-fact style, which includes asides explaining his differences of opinion with 'historian' Roger Scurvilegs, who penned the monumental work 'Euralia Past and Present', in seventeen volumes! 

Princess Hyacinth, by Charles Robinson.
To return to the story, King Merriwig marches off to war, leaving the kingdom in the charge of his inexperienced daughter Hyacinth. And, since the Princess lacks a mother's guiding hand (her mother was carried off by a dragon) the king appoints the Countess Belvane (for whom he has a soft spot) as chief advisor. But the Countess has her own agenda and is not to be trusted...

The Countess Belvane! What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman? Mastered as she was by overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse. That she is the villain of the piece I know well; in his 'Euralia Past and Present' the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs, does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities I should be the last to deny.

She is by far the most interesting – and the most clever - character and, despite her scheming its hard to dislike her because she's not malevolent or evil like Snow White's Stepmother. Mind you, she's not kindly or well-meaning either, just very self-interested and self-promotional. How could you dislike anyone who writes 'Became bad' in her diary on Monday, June 1st, followed at a later date by the entry 'Became good'? And her badness is very ingenious. When the Princess asks to review the brave Women Defenders of the Home Defence Army, Belvane has a problem, because there is no such military unit, and she has taken the money allocated for paying the non-existent soldiers and flung it to the populace to boost her popularity. A lesser woman might have been worried, but Belvane rises to the occasion quite magnificently and persuades Woggs to march round and round and round a tree!

However, it has to be admitted that she is not at all nice to Prince Udo of Araby when Hyacinth, desperate to exert her own authority, asks for help. Using a magic wish stolen from Wiggs, Belvane calls for 'something humorous' happen to Udo, and manages to turn him into a strange creature with rabbit's ears, a woolly body and a lion's tail. Speaking in her defence I would have to say that Udo is a pompous ass, who is much nicer in animal form, and I would have left him like that, which probably makes me bad as well.

By the way, in case you're wondering, there is a hero with whom the Princess falls in love: Coronel, the Prince's friend, is good-looking, quick-witted, very capable, and not at all loyal to his Royal master. When it comes to getting what he wants he's quite as devious as Belvane, and uses guile and cunning to gain Hyacinth's hand and half her father's kingdom.

'Once On A Time' is absolutely enchanting, and has many of the ingredients of traditional fairy tales – cloaks of darkness, a magic ring, swineherds, spells, fairies, swords which may (or may not) be magical – but nothing happens quite as you expect. Written in 1915, and first published in 1917, it could easily be seen as a satire on events in Europe at that time, but Milne always denied this, claiming it was written 'for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing'. And he said: “But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won't. It is that sort of book.”

It is that sort of book, and I am one of those who enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others read it with just as much pleasure.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A Tale of WW2 That Will Break Your Heart

If you're the kind of person who cries over books, make sure you've got a large hanky ready and waiting when you read Alison Pick's Far To Go, because it's beautifully written, totally gripping – and very, very sad. Set in Czechoslovakia in the final few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, it describes how the comfortable life of a wealthy Jewish couple begins to fall apart under the growing threat of Nazism, and how they secure their young son's safety by bribing a place for him on one of the trains which took children to foster families in Britain. The story of the Kindertransport is now forgotten by many, but it followed in the wake of Chamberlain's triumphant 'Peace for our time' speech, made after Britain agreed that Hitler could take over the part of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland. It's against this background that Pick's novel is played out, and consequently we are aware, as she herself tells us, that this cannot be a happy story, and there can be no happy ending, for we know the outcome, and history cannot be changed, however terrible it may be.

'Far To Go' is inspired, in part, by the experiences of the author's grandparents, but is not biographical. The tale unfurls through letters, lists, official notes and straight narrative, introducing us to factory owner Pavel Bauer, his wife Anneliese, their son Pepik, who is six years old, and his non-Jewish nanny, Marta, and it is through her eyes that we see much of the action. Bit by bit public feeling against the Jews is cranked up into a frenzied hysteria, some of it so seemingly silly that you wonder, just as Marta does, how people were ever persuaded to believe such nonsense. But believe it they did, and Marta watches in horror as a gang of young Nazi thugs kill an old man, and is distraught when Pepik is forced to sit on his own in school, and can no longer play with other children.

Gradually new rules prevent the Jews leading anything like a normal life, and when Pavel is no longer allowed inside his own factory, the Bauers flee to Prague, but there will be no escape, despite their forlorn hope that this terror is only temporary, and that something will happen to halt Hitler. The Bauers, urbane, sophisticated, educated and cultured are secular Jews, who do not follow their faith but, strangely perhaps, persecution gives Pavel a clearer sense of his cultural and religious heritage, and he is determined that his son will know about Judaism. His wife, however, sees things differently. She wants to survive, and even has little Pepik baptised by a Christian priest, in the hopes that it may protect him from what is to come. 

Marta herself grows in understanding as the novel progresses, ending her affair with Nazi Ernst (who works in Pavel's factory, and has been a long-standing friend with his boss) to throw in her lot with the Bauers, who have given her the only happy home she has known.

Alison Pick, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Set against the events of the 1930s is the story told by a Canadian academic, who works with the children – now grown to adulthood – who escaped on the Kindertransport, recording their lives, and how they were affected by the past, by separation from their families, and by survival when so many others died. The time shift, coupled with the variation of style between narrative and letters, does mean the novel jumps around a little, but I thought it worked well in this particular context, as the link between past and present is revealed.

And there are themes which which link past and present, with the motif of a train running through the novel taking us on a journey of discovery. There is the toy train which the child Pepik loves so much, and the train the family cannot board because their attempted escape has been betrayed. Then there is the train that takes Pepik to his new life, swallowing him and his old life in a disturbingly sinister way.

The train was long and black, and entering it was like being swallowed by a snake. The snake had dislocated its jaw to take Pepik in, and now he was being worked down deep into its body, deep to the tip of its tail. Pepik made a little slithering motion; he put his hands on his stomach and imagined the way the snake felt, all the little bodies tumbling around inside it. There were so many children. His eyelashes were wet but he blinked and swallowed, swallowing himself, letting himself be swallowed.

Then there's the way the Canadian academic (you'll have to read the book to find out more) describes memory.

The train of memory sleeps on its tracks. At night, in the station, the shadows gather round it, reaching out to touch its cool black sides. The train stretches back, far out of eyesight. Where it comes from is anyone's guess.

Reading this through I see that as usual, there are all sorts of things I haven't mentioned, like the emotions felt by the characters: love, fear, confusion, hope and the betrayal of trust between people on a national as well as a personal level. The passing of the years does nothing to lessen the impact of the horrendous treatment meted out to the Jews by the Nazis, and this novel personalises one aspect of what happened, taking an imaginary family as the central point, and ascribing to them things that really did happen.

I read this as part of the Canadian Book Challenge (Pick is a Canadian author) and I really enjoyed it, even though it was so heartbreakingly sad. Pick was a new author for me, and I was interested to read the copious notes explaining how the story came about, and giving details about her own family, her discovery of her Czech-Jewish background, and her conversion to Judaism. However, I'm not sure whether quite so much information was really necessary.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Saturday Snapshots of a Garden Where Monks Prayed

The Friary Gardens in Lichfield mark the spot where monks
once prayed.
Stepping stones in a small park in Lichfield will lead you on a 800-year journey back in time. At first glance the paving slabs laid out in the grass alongside a busy road look as if they've been set there in random fashion – for some kind of children's game perhaps. But look again, and you realise they represent the lines of a building, and the name of the road provides a clue about its identity. For this street is The Friary, and the building which stood here was the church which served the huge friary established by Franciscan monks way back in 1237.
Paving slabs show the layout of the church.
Part of the wall at one end of the garden dates back to the Medieval period, and the little patch of 'public space' has been planted with sweet smelling flowers and shrubs. There's seating where you sit and think of the friars in their grey habits, kneeling and praying here all those years ago. And – oh joy of joys – there is an excellent information board, so full marks to Lichfield City Council for preserving the area and telling people about it.
The Bishop's Lodging - the only building left from Lichfield's
old Friary. The extension on the left-hand side of the photo is
the school built in the 1920s.
I assume the land must have belonged to the Cathedral (which is only a few minutes walk away) because Bishop Stavenby gave it to the Franciscans; the Sheriff of Lichfield was authorised to clothe them, and Henry III helped with building costs by giving them money, and trees from his forests in the area. The friars continued to enjoy royal patronage, for in 1281 Edward I donated eight trees from nearby Cannock Chase, for new buildings. In 1291 the friary, together with many other buildings in Lichfield, was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt – this time in stone.
The gable end of the Bishop's Lodging. Where that strange little
window  came from I have no idea - I guess it was put there
 before modern planning laws were introduced.
According to the Rule of St Francis, the friars were supposed to follow a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, and to focus on preaching and looking after the poor and sick of Lichfield. But over the centuries they amassed a fortune in gifts from benefactors, which must have made them a prime target during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Friary closed its doors for the last time in 1538, and most of the buildings were pulled down. Glass, tiles, stone and timber from the demolished buildings were sold to raise cash for the royal coffers, alongside furniture, the monks' vestments, and even a mass book, which went for 4d (we are talking old money here, remember). The land, and those buildings which were still left were also sold – though purchasers were told to 'deface' various parts of the church.
They did try to create the 'new' school (now a library) in a period
style, with matching red brick and carvings above a bay window.
After that things become more confusing, but in 1920 Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper (MP for Walsall) bought the estate and what was left of the buildings and gave it to the City of Lichfield – for a new road to ease traffic problems. So The Friary was built across the site of the friary and the last few buildings were pulled down – with the exception of the Bishop's Lodging, which was built in 1295, and can be seen on the opposite side of the road to the little garden. The medieval house, altered over the centuries, was incorporated into a new school, but today the Bishop's Lodging, with its large 1920s extension, has become the city's library.
This ruined arch is by the carpark at Lichfield College, next to
the Bishop's Lodging, but there is no sign to indicate whether
it is part of the old Friary that once stood on the site.
All traces of the church could have been lost to development, but the fragments which lie beneath the ground became a Scheduled Ancient Monument following an archaeological dig in the 1930s, and the garden was created, with paving slabs above the cloister and parts of the north wall of the nave. There's a neo-classical portico is obviously nothing to do with the friary, but creates an imposing entrance. 
Parts of the original Friary wall can still be seen in Upper St
John Street (just around the corner from The Friary). There
are  quite large sections, which look as if generations of
builders have patched the wall up.
The Friary may have virtually vanished, but its name lives on in Lichfield: there are roads, shops, a school, sports clubs and businesses all called after it. Remnants of the friary wall can still be seen in the area, as successive generations just seem to have covered or repaired them with modern bricks. And there's a ruined arch, quite close to the Bishop's Lodging, which is generally thought to be part of the old Friary, but could be a Victorian folly. Information in this post is largely taken from the Victoria County History.   For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/
A sign in the gardenss has a diagram and picture showing how the site would have looked. The odd blob at the bottom is my hands holding the camera - the board was a bit high for anyone who is five foot nothing to take a successful picture!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There I was, sitting on the floor in the backroom of the Oxfam shop, sorting and pricing books, when I came across a well-thumbed copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. I'd never come across the author before, but it was a Virago Modern Classic, with an eye-catching painting on the front showing a woman in a red dress standing in a doorway, with an empty road running past her, and a brilliant blue sky above (taken from Edward Hopper's 'Carolina Morning'. So I started reading, just to see what it was about, and had to tear myself away because I was supposed to be working.

After that, of course, I had to buy it, and found it was totally unlike anything else I have read. The third sentence in tells us:

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of the sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgement.

It's not only the dead whose eyes are are flung wide open, for folk in the small all-black town, deep in the American south, are scandalised by the re-appearance of this woman in their lives. She is Janie, aged 40, unsuitably clad in overalls instead of dress, with her long hair 'swingin' down her back lak some young gal'. Worse still, the last time they saw her she left with a younger man...

Gradually Janie's story comes to light as she tells a friend about her life. Raised by her grandmother, a former slave, she is married at 16 to farmer Logan Killicks, who is much older than she is, because Nanny believes it will protect her, and give her a better life. She tells Janie:

You know, honey, us coloured folk is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of what a woman oughta be and do. Dat's one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can't stop you from wishin'.

And wishing is what Janie does. She wishes love would bloom like the flowers on the pear tree, delicate and beautiful, but her husband is unlovable, and she finds he expects her to help on the farm. So when Joe Starks walks past, with money in his pocket and a smart line in chatter, she is smitten, and she walks out of her old life and into a new one with Joe in a new town. On the face of it things are good. Joe opens a store and becomes Mayor – but Janie is no happier than she was before, and is treated like a possession rather than a person. She's given no life outside her home, and is not even allowed to sit in the porch gossiping with other women, because it's not fitting to Joe's position.

Then, when Joe dies, she meets Vergible Woods, known to one and all as Tea Cake, and discovers what she has been searching for all her life. Tea Cake is younger than Janie, and lower down the social scale, but he loves her, and she loves him. They get married and work alongside each other 'on the muck' (a farm) in the Everglades. They are equals, and Tea Cake is the only man who lets Janie be herself, and doesn't try to force into a role she doesn't want. She has fun with him. He talks with her, and laughs with her.

The novel was written in 1937, in dialect, and is often very poetic, and very moving, but it's Janie's determination to live life on her own terms, and not to settle for second best, which shines out. And the fact that this novel is written by a black woman, about a black woman, is immaterial. Janie's search for a relationship on equal terms, and to be accepted for who is she is, rather than what someone wants her to be, applies to any woman, whatever her colour or creed.

Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston seems to have been forgotten for a good many years, but apparently Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have all cited her influence on their writing. According to Holly Eley, who wrote the introduction to my edition, Hurston was one of the first African American women writers. Believed to have been born round about 1891 – she herself gave different dates on different occasions - she was brought up in Eatonville, Florida, the first black town in the United States, and held down various jobs before she enrolled at college and began to write. She was in involved in black and white literary communities, and went on to study cultural anthropology, and her work in this field took her all over the world.

She was a well known and somewhat controversial figure, but in the last years of her life (she died in 1960) she alienated the Civil Rights movement because she believed the campaign for integration did not acknowledge the value of segregated black institutions, and she claimed African Americans could be live as they wanted in their own autonomous communities, independent of white society. In a period when African American literature reflected the growing struggle for equality her work fell out of favour. People didn't like her use of dialect, and accused her of writing what white people expected.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Underneath the Arches....

This week's Saturday Snapshot hasn't moved far from Tamworth Station, because on this day (August 4) in 1839, railway pioneer George Stephenson drove one of his engines across the newly constructed 19 Arches spanning the Anker Valley at Tamworth. Behind the engine (which was named after the town) were six carriages packed local VIPs and directors of the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway Company. They had left Curzon Street, in Birmingham, earlier in the day, en route for Derby, where they enjoyed a celebratory lunch at a hotel before setting off on their return journey.
But it's the Arches which fascinate me. When I was working I drove through one of them as I went backwards and forwards to the office, and each time I walk into town, or down to the station, I reach out to touch the stonework, and wonder anew at the skills of those Victorian engineers. At the time the railway viaduct, started by Stephenson, but completed by his son Robert, was one of the marvels of the age, enabling the new-fangled trains to cross the river and its low-lying flood plain.
It's 45-feet high (which is, I am reliably informed, around 7 metres), built of huge slabs of rustic-looking rock (though these may be facings on brickwork) and it runs across the landscape for 417 feet (that's more than 200 metres), crossing two busy roads, a park, the River Anker, and an area of open land. One arch is slightly lower and wider than the others, and two have small walls which once formed part of gateways.
It's a Grade Two Listed structure which, hopefully, means it is protected, but that protection doesn't seem to extend as far as keeping it clean and tidy, and some parts look sadly neglected, with weeds and bushes sprouting from the parapet (actually, I think this top bit may be called a cornice, but I'm not very familiar with architectural terms). One year a small tree flourished above an arch, until it was removed following complaints from residents.
The trains still run across the Arches (more correctly known as the Bolehall or Bolebridge Viaduct, but no-one ever calls them this) on their way from Birmingham to Derby on the West Coast Main Line, stopping at the upper level at Tamworth Station. But two major rail lines cross at Tamworth, so there's a lower level providing a stopping place for trains on the Cross Country Line travelling between York and Bristol.
This second route, originally the Trent Valley Line, was started by a new company whose chairman was Edmund Peel, brother of Sir Robert Peel (he and his family keep popping up in Tamworth's history) but they were taken over by the London and North Western Railway long before work finished. That, in turn, merged with other rail companies (including the Derby Junction) to form the Midland Railway in 1844, and it was three years later that the Trent Valley Line opened, along with Tamworth's first station (a gorgeous Victorian Gothic affair) which was demolished in 1961 and replaced by the very nasty concrete block which is still there today, and doesn't deserve to have its photo taken.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

Sources: Tamworth, Past and Present, by John Harper; Tamworth, A History, by Richard Stone.