Sunday, 28 December 2014

Mushrooms Take Two...

OK people, today there are two posts –you’ve got a poem and a review! But they are linked, honestly. For some reason I woke up thinking of today’s short story, Slaves to the Mushroom, (see previous post) and the final sentence which kept niggling away in my brain, even though I didn’t like the story. The last words are: “Behind them in the sheds, thousands of tiny white nodules no bigger than a pin’s head starring the black compost were beginning to swell.”  And I suddenly realised what it was that this reminded me of – Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms, which a friend recommended I should read, just a few weeks ago.

Sylvia Plath.
I love the way Plath writes about mushrooms pushing their way through the soil, but the poem is s kind of metaphor, about oppressed people rising up, in a quiet way, not through revolution or war, but simply because they are there, surviving and multiplying.
I’m not sure the poem really does help me appreciate MacKay’s tale, but it did make me look at it in a slightly different light. Anyway, here is the poem, and you can listen to Harriet Walters reading it if you follow this link to the British Library site

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Short Story Sunday: Slaves to the Mushroom

It’s Sunday again (it seems to come around very quickly!), so it’s time for a Short Story, and I’ve reached Tale Number Two in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories - Slaves to the Mushroom, by Shena MacKay. I didn’t really like this one, largely, I think, because I couldn’t warm to the central character. Sylvia works in a mushroom picking and packing factory, and we are introduced to her in the works canteen, as she tells a black man with an artificial hand how a hound bit her nipple off when she was a girl, out hunting.  Hmmm, I thought, what kind of woman says something like that to someone she doesn’t know… Frankly, I feel that as a conversation opener it leaves a lot to be desired.
And, lest you should deduce from this incident that the story, or the character (or both), are quirky, let me make it quite clear that quirky is not a word I would use in connection with this particular piece of writing. It is, I think, a rather bleak little tale set, as I’ve already said, in a mushroom factory. Green Star Mushrooms Limited, to be precise, part of a bigger company which supplies chains of pizza restaurants, supermarkets, and small stores.
Now I like mushrooms, but I admit I have no idea how they are grown commercially, so I don’t know whether MacKay’s description is at all representative of the industry. I do hope it’s not, and I can quite see why Sylvia no longer eats mushrooms.

To be honest, I should feel sympathy for her for working in such a horrible place. It’s a mind-numbingly boring job, in a cold, wet, smelly shed, and it’s physically demanding - there’s lots of climbing, lifting and carrying.
‘After her first day, her arms had been so stiff that she could hardly move them, her back felt as if it was broken and her legs felt as heavy as trees.’
The mushrooms are grown in tiered beds. Sylvia and her fellow workers crouch on the cold, wet floor to pick the lowest layer of mushrooms, using sharp knives to cut off the stalks. They perch on stepladders to harvest the second and third rows, while the walkway on the top level is reached by steps which are blocked to stop people coming down before the end of a shift. Knives, ladders, boots and so on are dipped into disinfectant each time anyone moves to a new section or leaves the shed.
Sylvia likens the vast, windowless mushroom sheds to ‘battery houses where chickens were kept in cruel and grotesque captivity’. And as they wait to dunk their ladders in the disinfectant she tells the uncomprehending women:  “At least we’ve got room to turn around and flap our wings.” She obviously hates the job, and she’s not very good at it, but we learn that she works because Jack can’t, and she has to keep them both.
A bit of a dreamer, when supervisor Shirley says she must ‘get her act together’, she comes up with this extraordinary image:
‘Sylvia saw all the mushroom pickers in a Busby Berkeley-style sequence, turning their buckets upside down and beating them like drums, swarming up the aluminium supports like sailors in the rigging, kicking out their arms and legs star-wise, their green and white gingham overalls twirling as they tap-danced in their wellies, juggling mushrooms and flashing knives, spreading out the pink palms of their rubber gloves as they fell on one knee behind Shirley, the star in her white wellies.”
It ought to be hard to dislike someone who can create such a wonderfully bizarre picture, but there was something about Sylvia that I just didn’t take to. There’s that odd story for a start, only it turns out to be a lie, which is even odder – why make up a story like that? Is Sylvia seeking attention, or trying to gain sympathy? Then there’s her attitude towards the Asian women, who she claims are picking the best mushrooms. And she takes another woman’s pickings and passes them off as her own.
There’s a twist at the end when she returns home at the end of the day to tell Jack about her day, because Jack turns out to be not a husband or brother – but a pet bird. (Sorry, I must try not to include spoilers). And at that point I realised how lonely, and how much of an outsider Sylvia actually is. But I still didn’t like her.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Haphazard by Starlight - Poems for Advent

The Adoration of the Magi, by Andrea Mantegnadd - celebrate Christmas
 by reading TS Eliot's 'Journey of the
Being a bit of a magpie, I look at what people write about books, then steal authors and titles for my own use. Sometimes I require instant gratification, which is where the Kindle comes into its own. Or, if I’m prepared to wait a short while, I order online, or make a trip to a bookshop (here in Tamworth we only have The Works, which is nice in its way but, sadly, its way is not that of a proper bookshop). Usually, however, details of the desired volume store themselves away in my mind and get forgotten unless, by some strange serendipity, I come across the book whilst mooching around in charity shops and second-hand stores. Then snippets of hidden knowledge surface, and I pounce triumphantly on my literary treasure.

And that’s more or less what happened when I was visiting my mother last week, only I was browsing in a ‘real’ bookshop. Ledbury Books and Maps is one of the town’s two independent bookshops (I hope residents realise how lucky they are), and I’d been in there for ages, and bought ‘Poetry Please’ for Mum (more on this another day), and was on my way out when there, on a stand by the door, was the last copy Haphazard by Starlight, A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany, by Janet Morley. I certainly don’t remember seeing it as I went in, but as I looked at the beautiful cover, something clicked in my brain, because back at the beginning of the month Moira, over at Vulpes Libris, waxed lyrical about this book. It was the title as much as anything which caught my attention, because it’s from ‘BC:AD’ by UA Fanthorpe, and I’m a huge fan of her work – that’s why Moira’s review stayed in my mind. So I bought the book, because I felt I was meant to have it.  
It’s published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which may put some people off, but it’s not preachy, and it really is a wonderful collection of poems, which will take you from December 1 all the way through to January 6, with explanatory notes and comments on each.  

Like all good anthologies, there’s a nice mix of old favourites and unknowns (unknown to me at any rate). I may not agree with all Morley’s choices - personally I think it’s incomplete without John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal Upon St Lucie’s Day’ (but then I think any poetry anthology is incomplete if it doesn’t include Donne). And I would have liked to see something really old, like a medieval carol perhaps, but you can’t have everything, and any anthology is always a very personal choice, and I can see why Morley made the selection she did.

In this book you’ll find Auden, DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Jennings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, and TS Eliot (Journey of the Magi, one of my favourites) to name but a few. There’s also a poem by Rowan Williams (I only know him as an Archbishop, and had no idea he wrote poetry) which I enjoyed very much. There are poems about Christmas and winter, and faith, and light and dark. But many, like Ozymandias or Dover Beach are not overtly religious, or even about Christmas or the winter season. However they do contain truths about mankind and the world in the general, and the author uses them (as she uses all the poems) as a kind of meditation, giving her thoughts on the meaning, ending each piece with a question, to make you think about your own values and beliefs, and the way we live our lives. Her commentaries and questions are reflections on life which are, as Moira says, rather like Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.  
Hendrick Avercamp's Winter Scene on a Canal may not be quite as bleak
as Christina Rossetti's 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter', but it does conjure up
the chilly feel of ice and snow.
Actually, I wanted my review to be different to Moira’s but, like her, I cannot resist explaining the book’s title with some quotes from U A Fanthorpe’s BC:AD, which is the choice for Christmas Day. Here is the opening: 

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms. 

And here is the end:  

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Isn’t that wonderful? It always makes me catch my breath and think about ancient kingdoms, and where the Three Wise Men may actually have come from, and how the very beginning of Christianity was about poor people and minorities, rather than wealthy VIPs and rulers. And I love the way Fanthorpe describes the Nativity as ‘the moment when Before turned into After’, and that wonderful phrase about the three members of an obscure Persian sect walking ‘haphazard by starlight’. 
Rosseau's Tiger in a Tropical Storm always reminds me of Blake's Tyger,
which features in 'Haphazard by Starlight'.
Today’s offering is seasonal ghazal by Harry Gilonis, who I’d never heard of before. Nor did I know that a ‘ghazal’ is an ancient form of Arabic verse, dating from the 6th century and widely sung in the Arabic speaking world. According to Morley it typically consists of five or more couplets, which have the same metre, but are not necessarily linked by themes. “It is the poetic expression of the pain of loss and separation, shot through with a sense of beauty, and its normal theme is unattainable love,” She explains. “Frequently the Beloved becomes a metaphor for God, and the themes revolve around metaphysical issues.” 

This poem eschews the normal rules of grammar and punctuation, and abandons any rhyming conventions and is possibly the most ‘difficult’ in this anthology. It’s only short, but is suffused with images of Christmas from carols, songs, poems, books, the Bible, as well as touching on older, pagan traditions, challenging our perception of what a poem should be, as well as our perception of the way we celebrate Christmas. At first glance the poem seems almost like a string of unrelated words, especially the first two lines:  

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear tree 

But as you read, the allusions and layers of meaning become clearer, and words and thoughts echo each other in quick succession – it’s like a painting, packed with individual symbols, which seem to be unconnected, yet nevertheless all mesh together to form a cohesive whole.  

Having given her interpretation of this poem, Morley poses the question: “What are the connections or tensions for you between Christian beliefs and the traditional pagan practices around Christmas /Yuletide?” But you could equally well consider the connections or tensions between Christian beliefs and modern consumerism. I like her commentaries, but I only read them after I’ve gathered my own thoughts on the poems. Sometimes, to my surprise, we are in accord. Sometimes I look at her views and think ‘oh, that’s what that means’, or ‘how come I didn’t see that’. And occasionally (very occasionally) I wonder if she is right. 
 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Bruegel, vital to Auden's Musee des
Beaux Arts, which should be read on December 30.
I’m really enjoying reading this book - it's a really nice alternative to a conventional advent calendar, and I think it’s a wonderful idea to celebrate Christmas by forgetting about the glitz and glitter for a few moments each day and reading a poem. And if you’re new to reading poetry, or not very confident about your interpretation, then the notes really do help. 

Edited: I should perhaps, make it clear that there are no illustrations in Haphazard by Moonlight. I chose paintings I like to illustrate the review, because I have this thing about breaking up blocks of print with pictures to make it more user friendly. I think it's the result of working as a local reporter and sub-editor for so many years, and being ingrained with the theory that photos attract people's attention!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Short Story Sunday: The Devastating Boys

Well, we’ve had our ‘Christmas’ already, last weekend, when the Darling Daughters and their Boyfriends came home, and we had a Christmas dinner, and crackers, and presents, and wine, and sang along to Christmas music, and played silly children’s games, and had a thoroughly wonderful time. My Mother didn’t join us as originally, because she didn’t feel all that well, so on their way back to the West Country Elder Daughter and the Teacher took a detour off the M5 and dropped me at Mum’s, so I’ve been there all week, which was very nice, but very quiet, especially after our noisy, celebratory weekend!

While I was there I borrowed her copy of The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, attracted by the cover which, apparently, is taken from Sir John Lavery’s 1887 painting Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool. Here is the book:
And here is the original painting which, not unnaturally, is far, far better, and benefits from not having a title plonked on top of it:
I love the bright, joyous colour of that dress, and the matching hat – you’d have to be very happy, and very sure about yourself to wear it I think, otherwise the outfit would wear you, and you’d be lost. She’s enjoying the short time she’s snatched for herself, sitting reading while her children are swimming (unless they’re nieces and nephews, or younger brothers and sisters). And although she seems lost in her book, part of her is still listening out for the children, to make sure they’re OK. It’s exactly what I used to do when I took the DDs to the swimming pool, the local theme park, or other unavoidable sporting activities!
The picture is, I think, quite apt, since these are tales about women and how they cope with life. According to editor Susan Hill, these are ‘quiet, small-scale, intimate stories’. She adds: “They are about everyday but not trivial matters, about the business of being human and the concerns of the human heart.”

Anyway, since I have this book of 25 short stories I thought I would try and revive Short Story Sunday. First up is The Devastating Boys, by Elizabeth Taylor, where we meet middle-class, middle-aged Laura, whose husband Harold has decided to give two coloured London boys a holiday in the country. Laura, shy and diffident, accedes to his wishes just as she has always done, even though she is petrified at the prospect. Taylor says:
Laura, who was lonely in middle-age, seemed to herself to be frittering away her days, just waiting for her grandchildren to be born: she had agreed with Harold’s suggestion. She would have agreed anyway, whatever it was, as it was her nature - and his – for her to do so.
It tells us all we need to know about the relationship between the couple: where Harold leads, Laura follows. She has no confidence in herself (and would certainly never wear a red dress and hat like the woman in the painting on the front of this book!).
Her children had been her life, and her grandchildren one day would be; but here was an empty space. Life had fallen away from her. She had never been clever like the professors’ wives, or managed to have what they called ‘outside interests’. Committees frightened her, and good works made her feel embarrassed and clumsy.
Laura worries about what she will do with the boys, and how she will cope, but neither she nor her husband have any idea that their lives are about to be turned upside down. When Septimus and Benny arrive there are echoes of wartime evacuees as they step down from the train carrying cardboard cases and wearing labels printed with their names.
The boys sleep in the bedroom once occupied by Laura and Harold’s daughters Imogen and Lalage who were, it seems, ‘biddable’ - unlike Septimus and Benny who are, as a friend says, ‘devastating’. They don’t like the smell of the country, and are wary of new, unknown things. They quarrel, and make a mess, and don’t do as they’re told. But they do like the bathroom and the telephone…
Surprisingly, they are perfectly behaved when they are invited to tea with Helena, the wife of a colleague of Harold, who writes ‘clever clever’ little novels, and is everything that Laura is not. She has even put Harold into one of her books. Fortunately, perhaps (for he admires Helena) he never recognises himself in the unflattering portrait of an opinionated man with a ‘quelling manner’ towards his wife. But everyone else knows, including poor Laura. It is Helena who dubs the boys ‘devastating’, which I think she intends as a compliment.
At the start of the visit the two weeks stretch endlessly ahead of Laura: she counts the days until the boys must leave, and she can return to her normal existence. But gradually she comes to enjoy their company - she reads to them, plays the piano for them, and plays cricket with them. When they do leave, the house may be untidy and covered in sticky marks, but it is quiet without them. “Life, noise, laughter, bitter quarrelling had gone out of it,” Taylor tells us.
Even Harold, who was never involved with the upbringing of his daughters, feels their loss, for he is drawn into a new way of life, telling bedtime stories to the youngsters and even, when they request it, taking them to church. He considers the visit a success, but she wonders if they have done the right thing, or whether it will unsettle the b0ys for what they have to go back to.
Whether or not the experience has been beneficial for Septimus and Benny, it has certainly been good for Laura and Harold. It's not the boys themselves who are important, but their effect on the couple. Gradually the dynamic between husband and wife changes: she gains confidence, feels a sense of purpose and achievement, while he takes more account of her feelings, and listens what she has to say. By the end of the story the couple are talking to each other, sharing their thoughts and activities, and there are hopes of a better, happier future for them both.
Taylor, who is a terrifically understated author, manages to pack an awful lot into a very few pages, and the characters in this short story are as clearly drawn as those in her novels.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Novel Cure...

Well, it’s a very long time indeed since I’ve posted anything here – almost a year in fact, and I’m not sure why. I just reached a point where I felt I’d had enough of writing and blogging, and where writing about books, and reading other people’s reviews, seemed to have somehow become more important than reading the books themselves, and that’s the thing I’ve always enjoyed. I felt I needed a break, and never intended to stay away so long. I have missed writing, and missed the interaction with all you other bloggers, but the longer I left it to reconnect with the blogging world, the more difficult it seemed to make a start. However, during my absence I’ve still been reading, and recently I’ve even started scribbling notes in the margins once more, so here I am again, trying to take things very gently, and I’ll just see how it goes.

To start with, here are some thoughts on The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, which seems to be an apt sort of volume with which to take up my pen again.
Reading is good for you!
Much to my delight, there is actually an entry for ‘blocked, being’, which offers two alternatives – constipation (which I didn’t pursue), and writer’s block, which looked more promising, and so it was. The suggested remedy for this particular condition is Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’, one of my all-time favourites. Excellent, I thought, though I’ve always seen it more as a rites of passage novel, but yes, there is a writer who can no longer write, and yes, he is cured though, as the authors of this volume admit, Cassandra’s methods are a little extreme (she shuts her father in the tower of their castle home), and should not necessarily be copied.

In any case, that would be difficult since we have no tower. But the Man of the House spent the summer building me a little shed, where I mess around with my arty-crafty bits and pieces, instead of strewing them around the house. So I have shut myself in, with my laptop (to write on – or should that be write with?); a wireless (I like to listen to Radio 4); a pot of tea (to lubricate the brain cells); some cake and biscuits (I deserve a treat), and a woolly blanket (to keep me warm). I could just sit and read, or do some crochet, but I have promised myself I will write something, so here goes.

I just love this book and the way it provides ‘bibliotherapy’, prescribing fiction for ‘life’s ailments’, working on the premise that reading the right book will alleviate your symptoms, whether they be physical or emotional. The extensive list of contents covers all kinds of conditions, with suggested reads for each, and links to similar maladies, which recommend yet more books, and there are brief descriptions and analyses of the various volumes. In addition there are lots of lists of the ‘Ten Best’ kind, and projects to be undertaken, like creating a reading nook, or a favourites shelf.
Personally, I don’t think The Novel Cure should be read straight through, from A to Z via B,C,D etc. It’s a book meant for dipping in and out of. You could make lightning raids, looking up one thing one day, and something entirely different another. Or – and this is my favoured method – you can enjoy a long, meandering rootle through the pages, where one thing leads to another, and that other leads to something else, and so on, and on, and on.  

It’s like being lost, unable to find the right road to your destination, but equally unable to turn around and retrace your steps. But it makes for a wonderful journey, and you discover some amazing things along the way (following the book’s principles, perhaps Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ would be a good choice for ‘travellers, lost’). 

  A Duvet Day... Woman Reading in Bed,
by FB Serger (1889-1965).
For example, I looked up ‘adolescence’, reacquainted myself with Holden Caulfield, then followed the thread for ‘bed, inability to get out of’ which turned up ‘Bed’, by David Whitehouse. Somewhere along the line I ended up with PMT, where I wallowed in the comfort of ‘Ten Best Novels for Duvet Days’, which I think is a lovely notion. Perhaps we should all have regular duvet days, when we curl up in bed and do nothing but read! From there it was a short hop and a jump to ‘headache’ and a lovely little haiku, ‘Snow’, by Maxence Fermine, who I’d not come across before, so I looked him up, and assume the poem comes from the novel of the same name. At any rate, as I read I could almost feel the temperature drop, and I swear a cooling wind chilled my forehead. See what I mean about one thing leading to another…

Romance in a hammock... A Love Story,  painted by Emanuel Phillips Fox in 1903.
Skip on a little from 'headache' and you find 'holiday (not knowing what novels to take on)’ which is a problem many of us will recognise. The solution, according to Berthoud and Elderkin, is careful planning – and the Ten Best Books to Read in a Hammock. Actually, I must confess that worries me - not the books, you understand, but the hammock. A hammock always looks so romantic, but how comfortable would it be in reality? And how does one clamber in and out?  I have horrible memories of being unable to arise from a deckchair in Hyde Park, much to my Younger Daughter’s chagrin. Thankfully, there’s no Novel Cure for ‘embarrassment, caused by parents’, but I wouldn’t want a repeat performance. Most worrying of all from my point of view, would the hammock swing and sway, and if it did would I be seasick… And if I was, what would the cure be…
It turns out that the closest match for that ailment is carsickness, and the authors very sensibly suggest rail journeys instead, and even provide the names of Ten Best Novels to Read on a Train! It’s sound advice I think, since trains are the only form of transport which don’t make me ill, and I always curl up with a good book.

Reading on a train... Edward Hopper's iconic painting,
Compartment C, Car 293.
Now, it should be emphasised that if you’re unwell these bookish ‘prescriptions’ will not cure you (and the authors never say they will), but they will almost certainly make you feel better. Some are feel-good books, with happy endings, others show how characters cope in difficult situations, and a few are bleaker, edgier novels, which leave you counting your blessings because things could be worse.

There’s a good mix of books, from ancient classical works like ‘The Odyssey’ (good for ‘itchy feet’, should you wonder) to 19th Century classics and 21st Century authors, with plenty of foreign writers and a few children’s stories. You’ll probably find some old favourites here, but you won’t have read all the books suggested, and even if you have, you won’t like them all – and you may disagree with some choices, or think of novels that ought to have been included. But that’s half the fun with a book like this, and there’s nothing to stop you making your own lists and ‘remedies’.

On the downside, I would have liked an index listing all the novel titles, so I could look up novels I've read and see what they're good for! And, should you feel the urge to buy this on Kindle (like I did), don't. Resist. Stand firm. Hold out for a real book, with proper pages, which can be turned by hand as you dodge around from item to item - it will be quicker and easier to find things, and you'll be able to make your way back to the start with no trouble. The Kindle version is a nightmare to negotiate, and is driving me so doolally I'm considering splashing out on a traditional print edition.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Short Story Sunday - Telling Tales with STW

I'm not sure if  a Gainsborough portrait of Arminella Blount
in the character actually exists, so here's his painting of
his daughters chasing a butterfly.
This week a short story much more to my taste – A View of Exmoor, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose work I adore. Here the Finch family, dressed in their best, are off to a wedding in Devon, for Mrs Finch’s niece, Arminella Blount, is getting married. They make, says STW, a very ‘creditable’ contribution. Returning home, they’re still clad in their glad-rags: Mrs Finch in green moiré, Mr Finch is his ‘black-and-grey’,  12-year-old Arden looking pale and ‘owl-eyed’ in his Eton suit (he’s had measles), and Cordelia and Clara in their bridesmaids’ dresses ‘copied from the Gainsborough portrait of an earlier Arminella Blount in the character of Flora’. They also have Arminella’s piping bullfinch and the music box needed to continue its education, as well as the bridesmaids’ bouquets.

It was born in on Mr Finch that other travellers along the main road were noticing his car and its contents more than they needed to, and this impression was confirmed when the passengers in two successive charabancs cheered and waved. Mr Finch, the soul of consideration, turned in to a side road to save his wife and daughter the embarrassment of these public acclamations.

Actually, I suspect it is Mr Finch who is embarrassed by his family, and they’re about to get a whole lot more noticeable. He can’t find the map, and has no idea where he is, but he drives on and on across Exmoor, until they stop to look at the view and have a picnic. At this point Mrs Finch recounts a strange and seemingly pointless tale of Aunt Harriet’s ‘inexplicable’ boots, spotted by Aunt Harriet and her brother when they were children in an empty, open, horse-drawn cab on Exmoor. The duo continued their walk, and saw another pair of boots, on the ground by a sulky-looking man and a crying woman, who snatched up those boots, ran back to the cab, and off it went, leaving the man behind. The people were both wearing boots, and the strangest thing of all, says Mrs Finch, was that the woman had no hat. 
A bullfinch - in case you don't know what they look like!
Explanations for this odd story keep everyone happy and entertained, and things seem more or less normal – but this is STW, and nothing is ever normal! Arden is playing tunes on the bars of the bullfinch’s cage when the door flips open and the bird flies out, and they all rush around trying to catch it. Arden falls out of a tree and makes his nose bleed, and they all get more and more dishevelled. Eventually they heave the music box out of the car, hoping that if the escapee hears the music he will come back.

The music box weighed about fifty pounds. It was contained in an ebony case that looked like a baby’s coffin, and at every movement it emitted reproachful chords. On one side it had a handle; on the other side, the handle had fallen off, and by the time the Finches had got the box out of the car, they were flushed and breathless. His groans mingling with the reproachful chords, Mr Finch, staggered up the lane in pursuit of the bullfinch, with the music box in his arms.

Isn’t that a wonderful image? I just love the description of the music box, which is not one of the flimsy, pretty, little trinkets we know today. No, this is a solid affair (my maths isn’t good, but I reckon it’s roughly as heavy as 25 bags of sugar) and its colour and shape, and the ghostly noises it produces (playing chords of its own accord) make it seem rather sinister. But Mr Finch is ‘devoted’ to music boxes – which makes him sound a lot less conventional than he’d have his believe. I know this is set in 1936 (and written in 1948), but even then I’ll bet there weren’t too many family men with a thing for music boxes!

So, while his wife and children rush off, still searching for the missing bird, takes a moment’s ‘repose’, sits on the ground, plays some music, and lights a cigar. Then, he realises they have company - a young man whose ‘bare ruined legs and rucksack suggested that he was on a walking tour’. And at that moment:

Around the bend of the lane came two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a bloodstained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage.

The young man on a walking tour continues his journey, skirting nervously round this apparition, and Mr Finch is mortified that his family, away from his ‘supervision’, have once again made themselves conspicuous. He thinks his wife should have explained the situation to the young man. But she says:

He looked so hot and careworn, and I expect he only gets a fortnight’s holiday all the year through. Why should I spoil it for him? Why shouldn’t he have something to look back on in his old age?

That made me smile, and I thought she’s absolutely right. By saying nothing she’s given something to that young man that he’ll remember for ever more, and I could imagine him at some stage in the future telling his children and grandchildren, and everyone sitting around trying to make sense of the mystery, using their imagination to tell stories which create possible explanations… Murder perhaps, madness, ancient rituals being re-enacted. And would anyone have believed the truth if they’d heard it?

And I thought back to Mrs Finch’s story about Aunt Harriet’s boot, where everyone had their own idea about what might have happened, because nothing is ever quite as it seems. So there are issues here about truth and reality, just as there are in many of the other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I also see this as a real celebration of the power of storytelling, linking up with old oral traditions.
I like Jeanne Elizabeth Chaudet's picture Young Girl
with a Birdcage. It was painted in the late 18thC,
and her career overlapped Gainsborough, so the
 cage may  be similar to the one in the story.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Poirot's First Case

Poirot at work: Actor David Suchet as /Hercule Poirot
in the Chanel 4 TV series.
I sat and enjoyed a Poirot-fest over the weekend, thanks to ITV3, which screened enough back to back episodes to satisfy the most die-hard addict. So having immersed myself in the television version and watched the ever-wonderful David Suchet, I decided it was time to go back to basics, and I dug out a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first Poirot story, published in 1916. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, and I’d forgotten how good Agatha Christie can be – she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing.

Here we meet Hercule Poirot for the first time, and I realised that David Suchet’s interpretation of the little Belgian detective really is quite extraordinary. I suppose it helps that the two men are not too dissimilar physically - I never could believe wholeheartedly in Peter Ustinov’s Poirot, because he was too big and looked all wrong. But it’s not just appearances. David Suchet has acquired all Poirot’s mannerisms, his fussiness, his precision, his intelligence, the way he walks and everything, without ever tipping over into caricature. He makes Poirot seem very human because he brings warmth and humour to the character, and he inhabits the role rather than merely acting it.

First edition of Agatha Christie's
first Poirot novel.
Now normally I read a book first, then watch the film or TV programme (and if I really like something I rarely watch it on screen, because I’m scared it will spoil my enjoyment of the book). But with Agatha Christie it’s the other way round. I honestly cannot remember which books I’ve read in the past, and my view of the stories and characters has been shaped by movies, television shows and radio versions of her work. So I found it interesting to read Christie’s own description of her creation, and I was surprised that he and Hastings both appear here fully shaped: they are as they are, and I don’t think either of them changed or evolved in the years that followed. 

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles Poirot is a Belgian refugee, living with a group of his countrymen in the village of St Mary Styles, thanks to a helping hand from elderly Emily Inglethorp, who lives in nearby Styles Court.  And staying at Styles Court while he recovers from a war wound is Lt Arthur Hastings (not yet a captain), a friend of the family, who also knows Poirot.

So when wealthy Mrs Inglethorp (formerly Mrs Cavendish) dies from strychnine poisoning Hastings calls upon Poitrot for help. Prime suspect is Emily’s new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, who is 20 years her junior, has a strange bushy black beard and wears patent shoes every day (so we know he’s a bounder!). But he has a cast iron alibi, so it can’t be him… Or can it? And why does everyone else’s behaviour seem so odd?

Take Hastings’ friend John for instance, the stepson of the murdered woman from her previous marriage (she was widowed). He is strapped for cash and is having some kind of liaison with a neighbouring farmer’s wife; his beautiful wife Mary is extremely friendly with a German doctor who is the world’s top toxicologist. John’s younger brother Lawrence studied medicine and knows about drugs and poisons, and so does orphaned Cynthia, who lives with the family and works in a pharmacy.

Then there is Emily’s companion Evie, who fell out with her mistress after warning her against Mr Inglethorp… but can her intense hatred of the man be genuine? No-one, it seems, is telling the whole truth, and everyone has hidden secrets.

A modern edition of the book.
Mystery surrounds the dead woman’s will, a locked room and a document case which is broken open. And there’s a fragment of burnt paper among the ashes in the fireplace, a strange strand of green thread, a broken coffee cup, hot chocolate dregs and a damp patch on the carpet, which all have to be considered. Are any of these things important? ~Or none of them? Two officers from Scotland Yard arrive to lliok for answers, and we get our first glimpse of Inspector Japp, looking smaller, thinner and much less important than I visualised, but it is Poirot, of course, who manages to unravel the various strands of the mystery and unmask the killer.

We learn from Hastings, who narrates the tale, that Poirot is a world-famous Belgian detective, now retired (so how old is he meant to be, I wonder?).  And we are told:

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Throughout the novel we see evidence of his fussiness and neatness, as he straightens ornaments and rearranges things. But his obsessive attention to detail is what makes him such a good detective, for it enables him to look for patterns, and to pick out the blips, the small things that don’t quite fit the picture and are overlooked by everyone else, but make him think, and think again. He’s very logical, and believes in reasoning things out, so looks at the clues, and draws conclusions from what he sees, but he also uses psychology to try and work out who could be a killer, and why they would commit murder. I think his need to see justice done is part of that urge he has for everything to be neat and tidy: he wants to put the world to rights. And he has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

I was rather shocked that in his efforts to bring criminals to justice he can be very manipulative, and quite cruel, especially in the denouement, when he plays with the characters as a cat plays with a mouse, before revealing what has happened. He even lets a man he knows is innocent stand trial for the murder, partly to lull the real culprit into a false sense of security, and partly to effect a reconciliation between husband and wife. It may be a cruel trick to play, and Poirot makes an unlikely Cupid, but he is a great believer in love, which is rather endearing.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the twists and turns of the plot kept me turning the pages to find out what happens. I have to say I thought the TV version was pretty true to the book. There were some differences, but nothing which materially alters Christie’s creation. 
Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

Oh, this was absolutely horrid and I hated it, hated it, hated it. Shirley Jackson may be highly esteemed by many of you, and she may be an excellent writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. And if her other work is any way similar to The Lottery then I don’t want to read it. All in all, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling. There are other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I disliked, but I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about them as I did about this, and it is probably a failing on my part. All I can say is that this author is not for me.

It all starts off innocently enough. It’s a clear, sunny day in a small village, and it’s the day of the traditional lottery, when everyone gathers together and takes a slip of paper from a battered old box. The slips are blank, but one has a black spot on it… So someone is selected for something… Initially it’s hard to see where this is leading. There’s a festive mood, and everyone is dressed in their best, and the word ‘lottery’ makes one think of games, and raffles, and sweepstakes, and lucky winners. But a lottery is a game of chance, where the outcome is not necessarily happy. And the boys have filled their pockets with stones, which makes you wonder what is to happen.

Whether or not I like her (and I’ve already said I don’t), Jackson is a clever writer who builds the tension, line by line, word by word, and the feeling of menace gets heavier and heavier as the story progresses. Even so, I was shocked at the spine-chilling ending, which seems all the more horrendous when set against the ordinariness of the day, and the homely activities people have been engaged in.  Why do the villagers go along with this bizarre ritual? They must know it’s wrong, and other places have given up the old ways, but here they stick to the past just as they’ve always done. I suppose it’s a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

And I began to wonder just how random the choice of victim actually was, or whether there was an element of manipulation, or sleight of hand, ensuring that outsiders, trouble-makers or those that question are removed from society. This was published in 1948 – a few years later and I might have given more consideration to that thought, and seen the story as an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ against Communism. Perhaps Jackson was inspired by the awful events in Nazi Germany, where ordinary people were happy to point fingers of accusation against others, or to become complicit in the atrocities through their silence.

But there seems to be something more ancient here, connected with those old tales about scapegoats and sacrificial victims (willing or unwilling) whose fate ensures the well-being of others for another year. 

Friday, 10 January 2014

Meeting the Moomins...

One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins. It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.

Moomintroll stood on his doorstep and watched the world nestle beneath its winter blanket. ‘Tonight,’ he thought, ‘We shall settle down for our long winter’s sleep.’ (All Moomintrolls go to sleep about November. This is a good idea, too, if you don’t like the cold and the log winter darkness.

Then family, and all their friends and acquaintances, prepare for winter. They eat a meal of pine-needles, which don’t taste very nice, but you need a tummy full of pine-needles if you’re going to sleep through winter, and they clean their teeth, and the doors and shutters are closed, and a mosquito net hung over the chandelier so it won’t get dusty, and off they all go to bed.

Isn’t that just enchanting? And don’t you sometimes think it would be so nice to dream through the worst weather, and wake in the spring when everything is new and fresh and bursting with energy? The quote above, for those who don’t know, is the start of Finn Family Moomintroll, the classic children’s tale by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. Given my love of children’s books, and the fact that I adore Jansson’s other work, I cannot understand why the Moomins have passed me by – until now! And there are other Moomin stories which I simply must read as well.

The best children’s books always seem to blend the extraordinary and the ordinary in such a seamless way that you believe wholeheartedly in what is happening, however strange the characters and story may be, and that’s very much the case with Finn Family Moomintroll. It’s a kind of fairy tale, where peculiar little creatures have odd adventures, but always behave in a way we recognise. And it’s the little, homely touches, like the tooth cleaning, that bring everything to life (it’s the same with The Hobbit, where poor Bilbo, setting off with the Dwarves on the adventure of a lifetime, forgets his pocket handkerchief, which makes everything seem so normal somehow).

Anyway, in Jansson’s book the Moomins, and all their friends and acquaintances, are woken in the spring by the call of the first cuckoo (rather hoarse, because it’s still early in the spring, as well as being in the morning - four o’clock to be precise). As the world wakes around them, Moomintroll, Snufkin and Sniff climb a mountain, and at the top they find a tall, black, hat (like a top hat), so they take it home, intending to give it to Moominpappa, but it’s too big for him, so they turn it upside down and use it as a waste-paper basket. However, it’s the Hobgoblin’s Hat, and if something lies long enough in the Hobgoblin’s Hat it begins to change into something quite different…  
Moomintroll and Snufkin. The pictures have all
come out blurry - don't know, because camera is
on same setting as usual.
Eggshells turn into soft, woolly, white clouds, like little pillows, which Moomintroll and his friends ride around on. Seawater is transformed into raspberry juice; words in a Dictionary of Outlandish Words placed on top of the hat come crawling out of the pages, and the fearsome Ant-lion, lured into it by a trick, becomes a sad little hedgehog.

But there are sinister aspects to the magic. When Moomintroll hides beneath the hat he is turned into a very strange animal indeed:

All his fat parts had become thin, and everything that had been small was big. And everything that was small had grown big. And the strangest thing about it was that he himself didn’t realise what was the matter.  

None of his friends recognise him but, thinking it is a new game, he plays along, until he finally understands what has happened. By that stage, not unnaturally, he is very frightened, and very upset, so they call Moominmamma, who knows him, and he is changed back into his true self, and she tells him: “You see, I shall always know you whatever happens.” It’s one of the moments when the book stops being ‘just’ a children’s story, and steps up a gear. There are echoes here of old folk tales, like the Frog Prince, or Beauty and the Beast, and it made me think about the nature of identity, and how appearances can be deceptive, and whether anyone really does know anyone else – and whether we even know ourselves.
Moomintroll (second left) after the hat has bewitched
him  - would you recognise him?
 There’s a similar moment when the Hemulen is in despair because his stamp collection is complete – there isn’t a stamp or an error that he hasn’t collected, and he doesn’t know what to do. But Moomintroll understands. “You aren’t a collector any more, you’re only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun,” he says. Owning things carries its own responsibilities, but the Hemulen has lost his sense of purpose, and the enjoyment and enthusiasm he had previously. And that set me off thinking about the differences between owning things, and collecting them – and what you do once you have achieved your goal.

In that respect, Finn Family Moomintroll is a bit like the Pooh stories, and Wind in the Willows, because you can read it and enjoy it as a wonderful story with unforgettable characters, but at the same time you can recognise higher truths, and read all kinds of ideas into it, and make the characters represent all kinds of people dealing with life in their own particular way. 
Does it fit? Moominpappa trying on the Hobgoblin's Hat.
I think Jansson poured much of herself and her experiences into this, just as she did with her other work. It may be a children’s fairy tale, but it seems to be very much about her world, and her responses to it. Descriptions of nature, and weather, and the natural world, which feature so strongly elsewhere, are here too, and that sense of place, and of ‘one-ness’ with place. The Moomin books were written earlier than the novels and short stories, and some of the events here can be found in greater depth elsewhere, precursors, perhaps, of more powerful pieces.

For example, the preparations made by the Moomins, their friends and acquaintances before their hibernation, are similar to the tasks carried out when the Janssons’ island summer house is shut up for the winter, and the family return home to the mainland for winter. And the scary storm encountered by the Moomins when they sail away for a picnic is Sophia’s storm from The Summer Book, with embellishments that make it even more scary.

There’s a host of characters, and storylines, which I haven’t mentioned, but I loved this, and all I can say is that if, like me, you’ve never read the Moomoins, please remedy the situation now – go and hunt out one of the books. I don’t know if they are all this good, but I’m willing to bet they are.

Bob and Thingumy comfort Moomintroll after Snufkin
leaves to go travelling.
Oh, and a word about the illustrations, drawn by Jansson, who was an artist long before she became an author. These black and white drawings capture moments from the story just perfectly, and so they should, because this is the way Jansson saw her creations.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Beautiful Bookmarks!

Woohoo people, I have proper bookmarks!!! A friend who loves books and reading as much as I do bought them for me for Christmas. She noticed that I tend to mark my place when I'm reading with old bus tickets, train tickets, letters, bills, shopping lists and anything else that comes to hand. I've even been known to bend the corners over, which makes most people throw their hands up in horror. So my friend decided the time had come for me to be to be organised, and she got me six dear little double-sided magnetic bookmarks, all with a lovely 'peace and tranquility' picture. I think my favourite is the picture of the pebbles balanced on top of each other. I always do that on beaches - I love trying to create my own 'natural' mini-sculptures.
And in addition there were six beautiful postcards, each with a picture inspired by a classic book, made from letters forming quotes from the book. There is 1984, Alice in Wonderland, and  Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.
 Then there is Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Sherlock Holmes.
I just love that whale, and the pipe, but they are are all really cleverly done, and I can use them as bookmarks as well, or pin them on my notice board. However, my absolute favourite has to be the cup and saucer, symbolising the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Around the rim are the words: 'You should learn not to make personal remarks,' Alice said with some severity: 'it's very rude.' On the whole I think that's very sound advice, and it occurs to me that Alice would have got along very well with Thumper's mother - if you remember her advice was pretty similar, for she said:"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

I think it was a really nice, thoughtful gift, and I shall make sure my bookmarks get lots of use!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Timbuktu: As far away as the Moon!

The Great Mosque of Djenné, which is in Mali 
(but not in Timbuktu, apparently, although the
building methods are the same in both places).
Courtesy of Wikitravel
When I was a child Timbuktu was one of those mysterious places that seemed to exist only in the imagination, like El Dorado, or Shangri La, impossibly far away, a city lost in time, hidden in the heart of the African desert, and it’s an image which has always fascinated me. When Nina Sovich was young her father told her Timbuktu was ‘like the moon… a nowhere place, at the end of the earth’. To her, it’s as far away as the moon, and the picture of a mythical, isolated city stayed in her mind, just as it did in mine.

But, unlike me, she actually got to see this city of dreams. She grew up, travelled widely, and worked as a war journalist. Then she fell in love with a Frenchman, got married, lived in Paris, and was a financial journalist. However, Paris and her ‘didn’t get along’ and she felt as if she had lost her soul, so, in a bid to regain her true self she set off for Africa and Timbuktu. It seems an extreme response, but once she’d been there she wrote a book, To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa, describing both her emotional and her physical journey.

Her goal was Timbuktu, or Tombouctou, once known as Timbuctoo or Timbuktoo. Is it just me, or does anyone else get confused by this constant politically correct renaming of places and people, like Mumbai instead of Bombay, or Boudicca for Boadacea? I know our knowledge of things has improved, and I’d be the first to agree it’s wrong that the British and other Europeans should have imposed their own names on the areas they colonised, but I’m so used to the ‘old’ names (even though they are really ‘new’, having ousted the originals) that I don’t recognise their replacements.

Anyway, Timbuktu really does exist, and Nina found it every bit as difficult and dangerous to reach as legend tells, for there was no road across the waterless desert sands, and no protection from the searing heat and burning winds. Actually, while reading this book (on the Kindle – can I still call it book?) I was reminded of CP Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, where the journey becomes more important than the destination. Towards the end, the poet tells us: 
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey. Without her you would not have set out. She hasn't anything else to give you. 
And that, it seems, is what happens. Nina is aware that the fabled city of myth no longer exists – if it ever did. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, it was an important place on the trade routes through the Sahara. There was even a royal palace here, and rumours of the city’s wealth spread throughout the world, but they probably had little foundation, for the buildings were made not of gold, but mud, with protruding wooden sticks, so men could scale the walls to undertake repairs. However, Timbuktu had riches of a different kind, since it was a centre of learning, culture, and religion, with mosques, and libraries full of rare manuscripts.

Times change, and for 200 years or more the city was forgotten, until 1830 when Frenchman René Caillié became the first Westerner not only to reach it, but to make it home alive. He didn’t think much of the place, and Nina wasn’t too impressed either. She found a dirt-poor town, poised on the edge of war, which failed to provide the answers she sought. “The chance that I will find some new way of living in this town is remote,” she writes. But she admits:

I came to Timbuktu for the name, and now I too am burdening the town. I am bringing my baggage to this sunbaked end-of-the-road town and asking it to provide beauty and meaning, I am asking it to be something it is not.

The ambiguity of the place – ‘the floating sand, the rising heat, the blurred outline of a town’ – throw her off balance just a little, but it has an odd beauty. There’s the stillness of the old town, where buildings have been ‘baked into a kind of flaky crust’, and mosques have been softened by the rains until they look like ‘melting ice cream that was thrown into a freezer’.

Timbuktu, such as it is, is far-off and blurry, low-slung to the earth and constructed of hardened mud. It seems smaller and more piteous than other Malian villages, which at least have the Niger to ennoble them. Without the great river there is no definite outline to either to either town or the landscape that surrounds it. All in all, Timbuktu seems not unlike a mirage.

To get here Nina has travelled from Casablanca through Morocco, WesternSahara, Mauritania and Mail; by now she is exhausted, dehydrated and ill, but is in the grip of what amounts to an obsession with travelling. She has to keep going, and keep going she does, 300 miles further east to Gao, which is even more remote (as well as being even hotter) than Timbuktu. Travel is torture:

The dust in the air thickens again and visibility falls to almost zero. We pass through sheets of sand like sheets of rain, each hotter than the next.

In Gao she finally admits defeat. She’s had enough, she’s falling apart, and knows she must return home to find healing. Slowly she picks up the threads of her life, decides to have a baby then, when four months pregnant, returns to Africa, to travel through Niger. But this time she takes advice from her husband, stays in decent hotels, and eats properly. She also learns to slow down, and is content to sit and think, to enjoy the moment, to accept what life has to offer, letting the world come to her, rather than going out and confronting it.

She is, at times, extremely irritating in her desire to prove how tough she is, how independent, how feisty, how capable. Sometimes think she is struggling to show us what she is not, rather than what she is. She reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s mother wrestling to hang out the biggest sheets in the windiest days, or my grandfather struggling to force life from the most barren patch of land. Some people, I think, are wired up to make life difficult for themselves.

For all that, it’s hard to dislike Nina, because she’s a very honest writer, who never glosses over her own feelings and motivations. And her accounts of the people she meets, and the landscapes she passes through, are fascinating. On her journeys she finds friendship and laughter, especially among women, who accept her and never judge, although her life and values are so different. I was surprised at the leading role played by some women in their family life, and the fact that they owned property, ran businesses, made decisions, and could in no way be regarded as second-class citizens. And I was also surprised at how the Islam faith was woven into the fabric of people’s lives in a way rarely seen with Christians.

Somewhere along the line Nina does find the strength to balance the conflicts within herself and her life. She allows herself to be ‘warrior and wife’, a free-spirited adventurer who craves solitude, but chooses to live with others. And somewhere inside she carries a piece of Africa, that she can call up in moments of need.