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.