Posts Tagged ‘London’

Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.


November 5, 2012

It’s my birthday on Thursday, which is November 8th, so I sat up a little straighter when I read the same date early on in Ali Smith’s new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite essays, but something surpassing both.

I am forever trying to remember important things that happen to have happened on my birthday, but I never succeed. Every year, I read through the list of famous people who share my birthday, and the following year I have forgotten all of them and read their names with renewed surprise. The only, quite appalling, explanation that I can suggest for this is that I spend my birthday so resolutely selfishly taken up with myself, that there isn’t room in my head to allow anything in about anyone else.

I hope that if I write down here this particular thing about November 8th from Ali Smith’s Artful then it might stick:

Then at its centre the twentieth century pivots on a vision like this one from Victor Klemperer, the Jewish academic and diarist whose career at the University of Dresden was interrupted in the 1930s by Nazi anti-Semitic laws, who lived out the war years on a knife edge, and who, having survived, just, writes the following in his diary on 8 November 1945, about sitting, not long after the defeat of Hitler’s regime, listening to a talk on the radio (translated here by Martin Chalmers):

Radio Beromünster: Reddar (that’s what the magic word sounded like), the English ray invention, which allowed them to see U-boats and guide air planes by wireless, and give them victory at sea and in the air. Inserted in the talk a piece of a Hitler speech, the very piece I once myself heard standing outside the offices of the Freiheitskampf. And if the war lasts 3 years – we’ll still have our say! – and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6 … we will not capitulate! It was his voice! It was his voice, his agitated and inflammatory furious shouting, I clearly recognised it again … And with it applause and Nazi songs. A shatteringly present past … [To think] that this is past, and that its presence can be restored to the present, always and at every moment!

It’s a shocking image, this man who has only just survived Nazism, sitting by his radio when he is jolted by the horribly familiar sound of Hitler’s voice, a voice from the past, a horror dead and buried, brought back to life with more force and presence than a mere ghost. ‘A shatteringly present past’. This is the power of technology – it brings back the past to violently disrupt the present moment.

Time is doing quite peculiar things in this diary entry of Klemperer’s. There is the bringing of the past into the present, yes, but there is also the fact that in the speech – that moment of the past – Hitler is talking about the possible future: ‘if the war lasts 3 years … and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6…’ These years of war were yet to come when he made the speech, but had passed by the time Klemperer was listening to the radio. So not only is the past brought into the present, but the future is put into the past. And in that passing, the potential nature of the future – ‘if it lasts’, not ‘when it lasts’ – is changed to certainty.

Finally, it ends with the thought of the future being made up of a series of present moments, all vulnerable to disruption from the past. This particular radio broadcast is just one instance that shows the vulnerability of every moment still to come. Now, almost sixty-seven years (to the day!) after Klemperer wrote this in his diary, we can see that he was right in his chilling prediction – Hitler is still turning up on radio broadcasts, television programmes, in books. That terrible past continues to disrupt the present moment.

This birthday link with Klemperer’s diary entry is pure coincidence. Of course Ali Smith didn’t include this entry because it was my birthday, any more than she wrote about the Gainsborough studios in The Accidental, because she knew that I was busy researching them for my novel (see this post for more about that coincidence). Smith is the supreme writer of coincidence, so much so that it ceases to be surprising when something falls into place when one is reading a book by her.

At the launch for this book, Simon Prosser, Ali Smith’s publisher, said much the same thing. He said he wasn’t the least bit surprised when earlier that very day he’d caught sight of Lord Weidenfeld for the first time. The coincidence here is that Artful was originally four lectures given for the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in European Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford; Lord Weidenfeld is thanked at the beginning. It would be on publication day that the publisher who helped bring the book to life glimpsed someone who helped enable its inception.

I particularly like it when Ali Smith’s coincidences take the form of puns. I was reading the third part of Artful, ‘On edge’, on my way to work on the morning of the launch. I looked up as the tube approached the platform and smiled as I saw the tube was, of course, terminating at ‘Edgware’. It was too perfect.

How does Ali Smith invite all these coincidences into the lives of her readers? She covers so much ground in such a short space, so many books, so many writers that it’s inevitable you have a connection with at least one of them. But moreover it’s how she writes, in such an agile, nimble way, leaping from branch to branch in her ever-expanding forest of ideas. The book is all about making connections between different books, different ideas, utterly different things, and it is done with enthusiasm so infectious, that you can’t help but start to make those connections yourself. And so you notice little things like the joyful link of travelling towards Edgware while reading ‘On Edge’, to which you would otherwise have been blind.

Reading her books, makes me think it must be extraordinary to be Ali Smith, to have her quicksilver mind that leaps and dances between so many things with such ease and flair. Reading must be like weaving a new thread into an already intricately, beautifully patterned carpet; life must be full of nice coincidences and illuminating connections. Well if we can’t be her, we can at least read her, and hope that the tiniest bit of her genius, sprinkled on the pages like gold dust, might just rub off.

Under the Net

October 24, 2012

I found Under the Net a terrifically inspiring novel. In part, of course, there’s Iris Murdoch’s astonishingly good writing – the sentences like colourful silk, her talent spread with such luxurious thickness across the pages. (Can you believe it’s her first novel?!) But moreover, it was thanks to the main character, Jake.

Jake, or, to give him his full name, James Donaghue, is a writer who is somewhat lost in the world. We meet him just as he’s being turfed out of his Earl’s Court lodgings, and accompany him on his subsequent wanderings across London in search of various friends. Drinking steadily – either in pubs or from his own supply kept at Mrs Tinckham’s Soho shop (‘For a long time I have kept a stock of whiskey with Mrs Tinckham in case I ever need a medicinal drink, in quiet surroundings, in central London, out of hours’) – Jake is down on his luck. His wanderings see him sink lower and lower until eventually he stops wandering and can’t bring himself to get out of bed. It is indeed a low point, but luckily Jake is made of stronger stuff and pulls himself together. The novel ends with him looking at his old manuscripts and feeling that he has potential:

These things were mediocre, I saw it. But I saw too, as it were straight through them, the possibility of doing better – and this possibility was present to me as a strength which cast me lower and raised me higher than I had ever been before.

It’s a wonderful feeling of optimism founded on truth and realism, rather than naïve illusions. I finished the novel feeling excited for Jake’s future, feeling that he was at the beginning of the path to success. For a writer suffering from her own little crisis of confidence, this was the perfect novel to read.

It seems nonsensical, but Under the Net can best be described as a poetical farce, underlined by philosophy. It is a comedy of errors, of everyone being in love with the wrong person, chasing around after each other in a complete muddle, but written about in perfectly beautiful prose. Underlying its silliness is the idea – discussed by Jake and his friend Hugo – that language isn’t able to convey the truth, that everything we say is only an approximation, that ‘the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods’. They decide that words lie, but actions don’t. (Incidentally, they have this discussion while taking part in a cold-cure experiment – ‘The experiment was going forward at a delightful country house where one could stay indefinitely and be inoculated with various permutations of colds and cures’ – a delightfully dotty situation.)

Jake – a writer – relies upon language, this apparently false medium. But the book sees him stop writing and rely on actions. He looks for people, he follows them, he gets physical work, he does things. He turns from words to actions. But of course the trick of the novel is that it is all a written thing, his actions are related via Murdoch’s language – and very beautiful, wonderful language it is too. So are all his actions, as they are related by words, no more than lies? Is the whole book a lie?

Well it is fiction – a creative lie of sorts – and yet it is told so well that the story has written itself into my understanding of London as much as the city’s real history.

I love the Londonness of Under the Net. The other night I found myself wandering home across Blackfriars Bridge, looking up Farringdon Road towards Holborn Viaduct and thought instantly of this passage:

The sky opened out above me like an unfurled banner, cascading with stars and blanched by the moon. The black hulls of barges darkened the water behind me and murky towers and pinnacles rose indistinctly on the other bank. I swam well out into the river. It seemed enormously wide and as I looked up and down stream I could see on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of river was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver.

Yes, that’s right, Jake has gone swimming in the Thames. It is the result of a pub crawl that began in Holborn, meandered around the City and ended in this swim, achieved with drunken canniness by catching the tide on the turn, so avoiding being pulled out to sea by the current.

Scene after scene has etched itself onto my London map. There is the bit where Jake and Finn (his right hand man) steal a film star dog – Mister Mars – from a bookie’s Chelsea apartment. There’s Jake’s long walk home from a film studio in Deptford, having escaped the police. There’s Mrs Tinckham’s shop in Soho, of course. Funniest of all – I think – is the scene where Jake is sitting on the fire escape of Sadie’s Marylebone flat, eavesdropping on her conversation with the bookie when he realises he is being watched, with some degree of concern, by the neighbours. They decide that Jake must be ‘an escaped loonie’, and the scene builds to a comic climax when the charwoman fetches ‘an extremely long cobweb brush’:

“Shall I poke ’im with my brush and see what ’e does?” she asked; and she forthwith mounted the fire escape and brought the brush into play, delivering me a sharp jab on the ankle.

Jake decides ‘this was too much’ and descends the fire escape. The neighbours confront him in the street and so, ‘uttering a piercing hiss I suddenly rushed forward toward them’, making them scatter ‘in terror’. Ha ha!! Welbeck Street will never be the same again.

Perhaps it is all lies, but lies so brilliantly told, they win over truth any day.

It’s truly a magnificent book and moments from it will accompany me on my own London wanderings. I shall just leave you with one last brilliant quotation because I can’t resist:

Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.

What a perfectly Autumnal vision of reading.

The Mousetrap

July 30, 2012

Last week I went to see The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been continuously performed in the West End for sixty years – more than double my lifetime.

It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do and have always felt somewhat ashamed of not having done. It’s been around for such a long time, woven itself into the fabric of London, that how can one really call oneself a Londoner without seeing it? To my mind, it’s akin to not having heard the chimes of Big Ben, or standing on the wrong side of the escalator on the tube.

So I was very excited indeed to be going to see it at last. The trigger was thanks to a friend who – rather thrillingly – was playing one of the starring roles. It was particularly exciting as I went with a group of friends from primary school, plus a few other halves, so it felt quite like a school trip. There was a moment when I wondered whether we should be walking in a crocodile.

I had such a fun evening. It was a very entertaining play – by turns funny, fascinating and very frightening. At half-time I hadn’t a clue as to who the murderer was, but – typically – the husband did. And he was right too! I can’t quite believe he worked it out and now I worry that he is wasted in the world of architecture and should become a professional detective.

People complain that the play has aged badly, that it feels dated. Well of course it’s dated. It’s sixty years old. And so obviously the language is from the 1950s; the references to the wireless, to the Evening Standard being sold at half-past-three, to getting coke for the central heating are all “dated”. But I thought this only added to its charm. Apparently there was a time when they tried to update the language, but thank god now they’ve sensibly decided to leave it alone. A little bit of me felt a guilty pleasure at the thought of younger audience members being baffled by wireless not referring to the internet.


But amidst all this stuff that speaks of the fifties, the central concerns of the play are timeless. At its heart is a terrible case of child abuse. The horror of this is every bit as horrific today, the sort of dreadful event that takes over the newspapers for months and etches itself into everyone’s consciousness, a sort of common ground of awfulness. And surely the suspense and the frights are also timeless. Everyone screamed when a sinister gloved hand reached out form behind a door, and a friend spent most of the performance gripping on to neighbouring legs (one of which was mine) in terror.

The more I think about The Mousetrap, the more I think it is a kind of time warp. It’s astonishing to think that this play – this very same production, with the same lines in the same theatre, with the same props – has been performed without a break for sixty years. Admittedly, that’s not quite true. It swapped from the Ambassadors Theatre to next-door St Martin’s Theatre in 1974. And the set has changed twice – once in 1965 and 1999 – but really that’s a pretty impressive stream of continuity.

What struck me is that now people go to see it and cosy into its nostalgic setting – with the tweedy outfits, stone hot water bottles and corned beef – but when it was first performed, none of that was nostalgic, it was a portrayal of the current reality. It isn’t a re-imagined period drama, a la Downton Abbey, but the real shebang. I love the thought of it being performed, night after night, and people’s reactions to it gradually changing as the years slipped past. When was it that corned beef became old-fashioned? When did people stop disapproving of vacuuming in the afternoon?

It must be because it’s not a hammed-up period drama that it still works so well. The details are right because they were observed at the time, not reimagined decades later. Really, as the lights dim, you are stepping back into 1952, watching something that is exactly the same now as it was then.

What seals the time warp is the closing request from one of the actors. He steps forward from the line of bows and asks the audience to keep the secret of The Mousetrap to themselves. So you leave knowing the whodunit but you are bound to secrecy. You feel it would be morally wrong – having been asked so nicely to preserve the tradition of mystery – to tell anyone. And so, just like its first performance sixty years ago, and every performance since, really very few people who go to see it (at least for the first time) know who the murderer is.

Well I couldn’t have enjoyed my little trip back to 1952 more. I hope it continues to run, as now I long for the day when I can take the next generation and tell them about when I first went to see it many years ago. I wonder how much more will be deemed “dated’” by then? Will there still be telephone cords and newspapers or even big old houses? Well for anyone who despairs at the things we are losing as we march ever forwards in the name of progress, rest assured it’s all there in The Mousetrap. Really, this little portal to the 1950s is one of London’s best-kept secrets.

The Old Ways

July 10, 2012

In the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition, amongst the gems of first editions, scrawled upon typescripts, and radio interviews (including Daphne du Maurier reading her diary entry for the occasion when she first saw the real Jamaica Inn!), there were some video clips of various wild writers in various wild places talking about British landscape and literature.

Robert Macfarlane was among these celebrated writers, which was a happy coincidence, as I have been reading his new book The Old Ways. It’s a beautiful big hardback, too precious a thing to be carted around in my bike bag with my oily lock and leaking packed lunch. So, quite unlike All Passion Spent, which I read all at once, I read The Old Ways discretely, chapter by chapter, half-centimetre by half-centimetre, over a few weeks. The book is split into sixteen chapters and each explores a different path, so it’s rather a good one to read like this. Rather than the sudden rushing gush that comes with reading a book all at once, this gradual process meant that it seeped into my consciousness, drip by drip, permeating down slowly but surely, etching its mark gently but repeatedly. It’s meant that I’ve had some very nice, lyrical, Macfarlaneish thoughts buzzing around the back of my mind over the past weeks.

Amongst all the brilliant ideas, beautiful descriptions and fascinating people who are strewn liberally across the pages of The Old Ways, I particularly like the links Macfarlane explores between walking and thinking. He points out that the verb ‘to learn’ etymologically stretches back to the proto-Germanic liznojan, which means ‘to follow or to find a track’. So following paths is a way of learning and our language is full of instances in which these ideas mingle together. Macfarlane writes:

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it.

I like the idea that as we tread on a path, we are also stepping along ‘lines of thought’, or following ‘streams of consciousness’; wandering is a way to ease wondering, and walking a way to ease talking.

He also writes how treading a path connects you to the ghosts who have stepped that way before you. Macfarlane quotes Richard Holmes, who compares writing a biography to:

a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past.

And so Macfarlane sets out to walk where Edward Thomas (see here and here for more thoughts about him) walked, following the Icknield Way amongst others, conjuring his ghostly presence from the chalky landscape.

But my very favourite thing Macfarlane said was in the British Library video clip. Up popped his head, which, having spent so much time reading his book, felt like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. Then he said, we have a:

densely storiated landscape.

I LOVE it.

I love the way the slippage between stories and striations brings to mind layers of stories, laid out like successive stripes across a rock. Of course it made me think of the novel I’m writing about a derelict house, where each trace reveals a story from a different time. And it also made me think of experiences I’ve had of feeling connected to a piece of literature by virtue of being in the place where it was written. Listening to Moonfleet while driving down to Dorset, for instance, or reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water while in Harris.

But it was when I was looking at Chart for the Coming Times, an exhibition now on at Rowing Projects, a friend’s new gallery on Holloway Road, that the phrase ‘densely storiated landscape’ seemed most apt.

Chart for the Coming Times is a collaborative work between Portuguese artists Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela as part of their ongoing project, Gradations of Time over a Plane. This installation’s centrepiece is a video, luminously, Bergmanesquely filmed around the chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters, East Sussex. The cliffs are an astonishing sight.

From afar you can see the deep black striations ruled across the white chalk. They look like lines on paper, ready, perhaps, for stories to be written upon. And the very pleasing thing is that that is exactly what has happened. We get a close-up and see that the cliffs are covered with names, which people have carved into the chalk. Stories have been engraved on the striations.

These cliffs are continually being eroded, and so these graffitied names, these words on the striated paper, are ever disappearing. Except for one little patch, which the artists have taken a cast of, and preserved indefinitely in a time capsule, which they ritually buried nearby.

I cycled home still thinking about this storiated cliff, being eroded with people’s names and with the force of the sea. It was only when I was half-way home, somewhere along Holloway Road, that I remembered that I was cycling along what was probably once a holloway, an example of one of the ‘old ways’ about which I’d been reading. I thought of all the cattle that once were driven along this path, trampling it deeper into the ground as they passed, now replaced with the rumble of busses and cars, bolstered up by tarmac. Now it’s part of the A1, a big, grizzly main road, but it is still a path of sorts, and its origin survives, captured in its name. And I thought that just the name – Holloway Road – is a story in itself, conjuring the layers of time that passed during its transition from holloway to road.

The lights changed and off I cycled, feeling a little dizzy at the thought of Holloway Road being the very essence of London’s storiated landscape.

The Song of Achilles

June 26, 2012

Last week I made my radio debut, talking about literary fiction on Fiction Uncovered’s pop-up radio station in Foyles. I admit I was more than a little nervous, mostly because – as many of you readers don’t know – I have quite a silly voice. I often sound more like an excited, posh fourteen-year-old from 1950s Somerset than a cool, calm, collected, terribly literary twenty-eight-and-a-half-year-old Londoner. I also have a tendency to gabble. And my arms and eyebrows flail around expressively. All of which is completely useless for the radio.

And I was anxious as to whether I was sufficiently qualified to talk about contemporary literary fiction. How ghastly if I were to make a hideous and obvious blunder live on air! I mean, yes of course I do read some new literary fiction, but rather a lot of my reading is taken up with lost classics as well. So I decided I had better read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, as it has just won the Orange Prize, so as not to come across as particularly idiotic with my finger miles off the pulse.

I am so pleased that I did! What a fun and brilliantly enjoyable book. Let me say straight away that it is not at all what I expected. I was bracing myself for a heavy classical thing, steeped in poetry, masses of over-my-head references, which would leave me longing for my beloved copy of Gods, Men and Monsters (see this old post) and despairing of my forgetful brain.

Well The Song of Achilles may be a classical story, but it doesn’t presume any knowledge at all. In fact, it’s pretty good at explaining, unobtrusively, little things, such as Menoitiades means Menoitius’s son, or the resonance of taking the pose of supplication before a King. I found the classical setting to be a welcome revisit to dusty corridors of my brain, nudging reminders of Odysseus and Hector, of centaurs and slaves, without needing to fret at not remembering all the details.

What I really love about The Song of Achilles is the fast-paced exciting plot. Reading it feels a bit like reading a teen novel – the Philip Pullman books, The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go ­– rather than anything slow, descriptive and ponderous. The story is essentially a coming-of-age one (yes, my favourite type of story):

Young prince Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus. Peleus’s son Achilles is half-god, fleet of foot, gifted on the lyre, and impossibly handsome with his golden curls. The unlikely pair make firm friends and then become lovers, in spite of the fierce disapproval of Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother. They have adventures together, first in the palace, then on Mount Pelion (with a centaur), then the Island of Scyros, and, last of all, Troy. It’s very gripping. What’s going to happen next, I kept asking myself, so absorbed in the pages that once I even missed my tube stop.

I’m not sure that I found the language particularly beautiful. There aren’t passages that stand out in my memory as lyrical or special, lifted above the rest of it. But the story is told so clearly, holding one’s attention so fast, surely this is a skill in itself – the effective telling of a tale without drawing undue attention to the words that tell it.

Instead of the words, particular ideas and scenes remain stuck in my head. When Achilles decides to go to Troy, the gods, displeased with this oncoming war and all the blood that will be shed, make the wind cease, thus preventing the army from setting sail for battle. It’s such a subtle, clever and effective move. It’s a perfect example of the sideways logic of the Greek myths that I loved as a child – slicing through the Gordian Knot, using thread to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth and a mirror to fight Medusa.

The other thing that stuck with me is that the Trojan War lasted such a long time. I had forgotten the scale of it. The soldiers are there for more than nine years before Achilles fulfils his destiny. Nine whole years! That’s a third of my life so far. The war soon changes from a brief episode into a long extended way of life, complete with routines and festivals. It’s so sad to think of all these soldiers fighting for Greece, while spending such a huge part of their lives in Troy.

Odysseus expresses this right of the book:

I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her… My consolation is that we will be together in the underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.

Ten years without seeing your wife. Ten years of living in a strange land, so far from home.

Just after I’d finished The Song of Achilles, I got an email, out of the blue, from an ex-boyfriend of a very long time ago. I’d heard that he’d become an army doctor and had been in Afghanistan for a while. He said that his father posted him out copies of the Spectator and he’d had a nice surprise when he’d read my new column in it.

It was really odd to think of him out in Afghanistan doing something so serious and reading my silly little articles about books in such an English magazine as the Spectator. And, as it was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of The Song of Achilles.

Patroclus, the narrator, goes to Troy with Achilles, but he soon stops fighting and instead puts to use all the medical training he learnt while up on Mount Pelion with the centaur. The first thing he has to do is remove a splintered arrowhead from a soldier’s shoulder. Then he helps in the medical tent more and more:

Everyone eventually made their way there, if only for smashed toes, or ingrown nails. Even Automedon came, covering the bleeding remnants of a savaged boil with his hand. Men doted on their slave women and brought them to us with swollen bellies. We delivered their children in a steady, squalling stream, then fixed their hurts as they grew older.

And it was not just the common soldiery: in time, I came to know the kings as well. Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax’s acid stomach.

There’s the feeling here of this being life, normal life, like at any doctor’s surgery anywhere. But, of course, this isn’t anywhere; this is Troy. In between the boils and the ingrown toenails, there are embedded arrowheads and spear wounds. It is uncanny to think of normal life existing around the war, worming its way in between the battles.

I suppose there was something of the same feeling when I learned that my ex was reading my little column while tending to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Magazines belong in newsagents, waiting rooms, and crowded tube carriages. They belong to normal life. It’s so strange to think of living out there, on the edges of a war, becoming normal enough to include them.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that the radio programme went very well and I don’t think I made any truly dreadful blunders. However, there was a funny moment before it even began, when they were checking the mic levels and we were each asked to say what we had for breakfast. Of course this isn’t on air, the lady said, at the moment we’re playing a recording of Colm Tóibín.

It was only at the end of the day, when the husband, who had dutifully tuned in, informed me that in the midst of Colm’s beautiful reading, a silly little voice piped up announcing, rather proudly:

I had muesli and apple juice for breakfast. And it was delicious.

My Achilles’ heel.

The Accidental

May 29, 2012

I like nothing better than a coincidence, especially when one of the coinciding things is in the book I’m reading.

Last week I wrote about a first-class coincidence which ended up in a trip to Venice. It’s hard to top that one. You might find this week’s coincidence a little more humble, although, for me, just as satisfying.

It was Saturday night. That morning, we had accidentally bought an enormous fish. (Long story. Here is probably not the place for it.) Some friends were coming round to eat it with us, but they weren’t here yet. The husband was cooking the big fish. I had been hovering over him saying annoying things like, oh I wouldn’t cut the lemons like that. Maybe you should put some almonds in too. No don’t bother about doing that with the leeks. It wasn’t long before I was told to shut up and banished from the kitchen.

So I concentrated on finishing my book – Ali Smith’s marvellous The Accidental.

I love Ali Smith. This sounds like the sort of fluff that people churn out to go on the back covers of books but I really do find her writing dizzying and exciting. There’s so much energy to it, so much pizzazz. I was struck by how similar The Accidental is to her most recent book There but for the (which I wrote about here). Both books involve a stranger turning up in a very middle-class set-up and acting as a catalyst for some big changes. Both books also feature, among others, the brilliantly imagined voice of a young girl. In The Accidental we have twelve-year-old Astrid Smart, whose geeky delight in things like the way her hand leaves a mark on her face after she’s slept on it, or how her name is only two vowels away from asteroid is completely enchanting.

So I was very happy to get out of the kitchen and return to the dysfunctional world of The Smarts. But just three and a half minutes later:

‘Oh my god!’ I shrieked, jumping up, striding back to the kitchen, where the husband was busy chopping. ‘Oh my god, oh my god, guess what?’

‘What?’ He used the kind of voice that a grown-up might use to a tiresome child.

‘You know I’m reading this book?’

‘Which book is it again?’

‘You know, the Ali Smith book. The Accidental.’

‘Which one’s that again?’

‘Oh never mind. But guess what?’


‘Well they all watch a film. And the film they watch is The Lady Vanishes!’

No reaction.

‘Listen to this:

It said it was filmed in Islington, Astrid said. Did you see? Did you see? It said at the end, when it said The End, that it was filmed here.

By the canal, Michael said. There was a film studio there.

No way, Astrid said.

No, there was, Michael said. Really. They did costume dramas, things like that. That’s definitely where they made that film.

No way, Astrid said again.’

‘Well there you go,’ said the husband.

I realise that at times of excitement I sound quite similar to Astrid, the twelve-year-old girl. Poor husband.

But I’m not just excited about the fact that Hitchcock’s brilliant film The Lady Vanishes was shot at the Gainsborough Studios, the site of which happens to be about a five-minute walk from my flat. I’m excited because right now, that is exactly what I’m writing about in my novel.

Good coincidence!

I’ve already told you about my novel, but in case you’ve forgotten, it is about a derelict house. Two very different young women make friends and then explore this derelict house, which is right next to The Rosemary Branch pub (where one of them works), which happens to be very close to where the Gainsborough Studios used to be. The interesting thing about the book (let’s hope) is that the house then tells stories of who used to live there through various traces, such as the layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, and – as you might remember from a couple of weeks ago – a forgotten piece of a 1930s toy.

I decided on one of these old train set mini advertisements – just the right size to slip between the floorboards and lie forgotten for the best part of a century, waiting to be discovered by someone looking for something else that had rolled off into a corner.

So the boy who used to have this train set – this very elaborate train set, with all these extra bits – who lived in the house in the 1930s … well, funnily enough, he loved trains. And, for those of you who haven’t seen it, The Lady Vanishes is set almost entirely on a train. It was filmed in 1938 in the Gainsborough Studios, round the corner from the house where this boy lived. According to the (real-life) lady who works in the pub (who’s lived round here forever, who I interviewed as another fun bit of research for the book), people who lived round here used to hang around the studios to try and get work as extras.

Now, if you were a ten-year-old boy who was obsessed with trains, who knew that a film all about a train was being made round the corner and that if he were to play truant and skip school for a day, he might be picked to actually be in the film – recorded forever on celluloid, on show to thousands of people in the cinema, him, there, next to a train… well you’d do it, wouldn’t you?

So you can see him in the film. Near the end, Michael Redgrave says to Margaret Lockwood. ‘Well, this is where we say goodbye.’ There he is, under the sign for platform 7, in his shorts and pulled-up socks, looking curiously at the camera and at this pair of famous actors, just before they hop into a cab. That’s him – the boy in my book.

This scenario had been whirling around my brain for the whole week. How feasible was it? What would the inside of the studio have looked like? What were the names of all the bits of equipment they would have used? Was that scene definitely shot in the studios, or could it have been done at the real Victoria Station? How would they choose the extras? Would he have got away with skipping school? Would he have made any friends while he was waiting for them to shoot that scene? Would they have given him something for lunch, while he waited? So many questions, spiralling around as I perused books in the British Library, listened to Margaret Lockwood on an old Desert Island Discs, watched and re-watched The Lady Vanishes … so you can imagine my surprise when in this completely unrelated book there was a mention of the very thing that had been so on my mind. And not just the film itself, but that it was filmed in that studio, in Islington. (Incidentally, should you be able to shed some light on any of these questions, I’d welcome your knowledge with open arms and a big thank you.)

It’s hard to describe the feeling. Shock, surprise, amazement. A sharp intake of breath. A feeling of wonder. Confusion. It really was completely extraordinary. And, of course, I began to doubt the very nature of coincidence; I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t merely accidental, but something bigger and more profound.

Thinking about it a little more logically and unexcitably, I shouldn’t be surprised at coming across some connection in The Accidental because it is a book rich in references. There’s a long, very funny description of Love Actually, for instance, passing comments on masses of authors – from Roth to Larkin to Austen to Shakespeare, plenty of songs from the seventies, and much much more. Ali Smith characterises the various members of the Smart family in part by giving them their own cultural references, things that they cling on to as their individual ways of understanding the world, their points of identity. Really it would be odd if I hadn’t found something amongst all of them that was occupying some other part of my brain.

As for The Accidental, aside from its accidental chime with my book … I found it a wonderful, inspiring read. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Some people, inevitably, will find the stream-of-consciousness style of writing irritating. Some will find the scenario of a stranger just inserting herself into a family’s holiday home too unlikely.

But if you can put these quibbles aside, if you can appreciate the experimentalism and see that Ali Smith is thinking about ideas like representation and the importance of the different points of view (I suppose a bit like Hitchcock), then really it is an astonishing feat. I love the way that the same moment is replayed in each of the characters’ minds utterly differently, each obsessing over a different aspect and missing the rest. It shows quite how hideously dysfunctional the family is, how much it is hiding behind convention and appearance. Smith also captures how terrifying teenagerhood and that awkward moment just before teenagerhood can be, and the cruelty of other children. And she shows how much everyone wants to believe in something, how much people want to be rescued, how much people will invest and imagine in a stranger.

Like There but for the, The Accidental reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which all the characters have their own voices and revolve around the empty centre of Percival, who never speaks. Here it’s the same set-up but the empty centre – the character whose head we scarcely enter is Amber, or Alhambra. I suppose The Accidental shows just how much we are capable of projecting onto emptiness.

So I really shouldn’t project too much meaning and significance onto this empty accidental coincidence of The Lady Vanishes. And yet, it’s so hard to resist feeling like it’s a sign from the universe that I am on the right track.


Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

May 9, 2012

I love Persephone Books. I admit that they momentarily sank a little in my esteem when they were featured on Made in Chelsea, but I can’t get too high and mighty about that as I was the brainless fool guiltily watching Made in Chelsea and noticing.

To clear up any possible resulting confusion, Persephone Books is not in Chelsea. It is in Lambs Conduit Street, which is one of London’s best streets, full of other Bloomsburyish delights, such as Folk, The People’s Supermarket and (nearby) Ben Pentreath. Persephone Books sells, with a few exceptions, books written by women, usually ones that were written during the fertile-yet-overlooked years between the wars. Best of all, not only do they sell books, they publish them too. Their books are paperbacks, yet have sturdy jackets, which are plain grey, drawing attention to beautifully patterned endpapers, chronologically appropriate to the book. They are printed on good thick paper, with nice solid print. To date Persephone has published 98 books. (Incidentally, there is also a very beautiful collection of Persephone Classics which have lovely paintings on the covers. I wrote about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, one of these classics and also one my all time favourites, here.)

You can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, writer and feminist extraordinaire, had discovered EmilyBooks. It made my month. In her fortnightly letter to keen Persephonites she noted my mention of Persephone in a Spectator article. It just so happens that Persephone have just published Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, so when she found my blog and saw my piece on The Tortoise and the Hare, also by Elizbaeth Jenkins, she saw fit to link to it. Oh joy! When I wrote to thank Nicola for the mention, she very generously sent me a copy of the new Persephone book.

And what a book.

Harriet is terrifying. I was gripped by it in a truly horrific way, like the way people can’t help but turn to stare out of the window when they drive past an accident on the motorway. Here is the gist of it:

Harriet is a ‘natural’. (Yes, it’s an old-fashioned word but it sounds kinder and less clumsy than saying she’s not quite right in the head.) In spite of this, she has quite a happy life, having a substantial amount of money, a well-meaning mother and taking pleasure in pretty trinkets and fine clothes. Along comes Lewis Oman, a handsome auctioneer with not much money and very bad intentions. He carries on with young, pretty, terrifically vain Alice Hoppner, whose sister Elizabeth is married to Lewis’s brother Patrick.

Lewis decides to get Harriet’s money and to this end he woos her and persuades her to marry him. Harriet may be thirty-two, but she has never yet been romantically pursued and she falls at his feet. Her mother realises something is up but can do nothing to stop them. Harriet is too old to be under her legal protection, the circumstances are too suspiciously sudden for her to be able to get Harriet certified as a lunatic, and so powerful is Harriet’s love for Lewis that she pays no attention to her mother’s objections.

So Lewis marries Harriet and gains her fortune. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated the situation so that he has farmed her out to Patrick and Elizabeth for a pound a week, as they need the money. Lewis, meanwhile, sets up a very comfortable home nearby with Alice, who pretends to be his wife.

Harriet is gradually deprived of more and more. First her fine clothes, then her own place to wash, then food, then even the freedom to move. Eventually she is reduced to a filthy, lice-infested creature, regularly beaten, kept in a small dirty room with a boarded up window, starving to death.

Worst of all, this is the fleshing out of a true story, tightly based on court records of a notorious Victorian court case – the Penge Mystery.

Elizabeth Jenkins certainly had it in for marriage. You might remember how upsetting I found The Tortoise and the Hare. Well this makes the dying marriage in that look positively heavenly! I wonder what drew Jenkins to examine unhappy marriages to such an extent in her novels. If these fictional portrayals of married life are really how she imagined it to be, then it’s no wonder that she refrained from tying the matrimonial knot herself.

A little aside here to say that I read the majority of Harriet on Saturday night when I was feeling rather unwell. I had cancelled all my plans and had slept through most of the afternoon. The husband was out on a stag do. I awoke at elevenish, feeling ghastly and not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing much to eat, other than a dwindling supply of frozen hot cross buns from Easter, and I was feeling too shaky and fragile to go out and buy anything. So I ate a hot cross bun and felt sick and read Harriet on the sofa. I finished it at about two o’clock in the morning and was in a terrible state. There I was, confined to our flat, feeling dreadful, starving to death… not unlike Harriet herself!

When the husband arrived home a little later, reeling from the stag, he found my behaviour to be peculiar to say the least. ‘What is it, Ems?’ he asked. ‘Why are you so tearful and upset? What’s wrong?’

The dreadful thing was that because I’d reacted so miserably to The Tortoise and the Hare, sobbing uncontrollably in a way that he’d found completely puzzling, I felt I couldn’t admit to being in such a state thanks to another Elizabeth Jenkins novel. All I could say, quite feebly, was that I was all alone and wasn’t feeling well and he hadn’t left me any food. He was terribly unimpressed.

Yes, this is a very upsetting and shocking novel, but it is completely brilliant. It would be so easy to write it badly. Here’s a sensational court case, full of drama – greed, murder and evil. How easy it would be to overdo it! Jenkins takes an altogether different and masterful approach. Instead of revelling in the horror, she employs a magpie’s eye for finery.

The book is as much a fashion magazine as a chronicle of despair. When we first encounter Harriet, we learn not only of her ‘sallow countenance’ but of her ‘garnet earrings and a shield-like brooch of pinchbeck pinned to the front of her dress, which was a handsome blue silk’. Throughout the novel, everything is rendered in exquisite detail, be it the rose-red velvet looped on Harriet’s mother’s mantelpiece or the lilac crepe dress of Alice’s fantasies. Appearance is everything.

Perhaps paying so much attention to fabrics and surfaces is a kind of feminising of a horror story. Certainly a surprising amount of horror lies dormant in these luxuries. For instance, Harriet’s mother catches Alice wearing one of Harriet’s favourite brooches, which confirms her suspicions of something being wrong. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Elizabeth sees Alice ironing:

Then she saw for the first time what Alice was doing. All around were spread pieces of a dress that had been unpicked and was being pressed before it was made up again; pieces of stiff silk, a beautiful, deep blue like a jay’s wing. Elizabeth looked away without saying anything.

The same comparison to a jay’s wing was used earlier in the book to describe one of Harriet’s dresses. Alice wanted the dress and now Alice has got it. What a metaphor! Alice is taking Harriet to pieces. She is taking her finery and refitting it to her own design. She is stepping into her shoes – or into her dress – as Lewis’s wife. It is a brilliantly revealing scene.

This keenly focused attention to appearance also calls up its opposite – disappearance. Harriet’s mother eventually realises something terrible is happening to her daughter and tries to find and rescue her. She looks and looks, but to no avail. Harriet has been made to disappear. Alice has ostensibly become Mrs Lewis Oman in her place. Harriet is confined to an upstairs room, seen by scarcely anyone. On Harriet’s mother’s suspicions, a policeman is stationed at the end of the road to keep an eye out for anything untoward, but Harriet doesn’t leave the house – she never appears – so he has nothing to report.

It is with tragic irony that when Harriet does actually disappear – when she dies – it is her physical appearance that gives the others away. In the words of the doctor at the subsequent trial:

The body was fearfully emaciated and filthily dirty all over, particularly the feet. The skin of the feet was quite horny, as if from walking without shoes for some time. There were lice all over the body. On the head I found real hair and false hair very much matted. We pulled the false hair off with forceps to get to the scalp.

It’s too terrible for words. Except, of course, against the foil of so many words throughout the novel describing beautiful tactile things, here Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.

The Beginning of Spring

March 13, 2012

The other day I got chatting to a young lady who used to work as a journalist for a national newspaper. She revealed that online journalism is full of tricks, such as trying to get the words ‘google’, ‘sex’ and ‘tits’ into each story, which apparently makes the article easier to find with a search engine. She also said that they were told not to write anything too long, encouraged to use bullet points and the more pictures the better.

I came away feeling that EmilyBooks is doomed to failure. I don’t think that I’ve ever used ‘google’, ‘sex’ or ‘tits’ in any of my posts. Until now that is. But, in my defence, people looking for any of those three things are unlikely to find what they’re looking for here. Perhaps I’m just writing the wrong kind of blog. Perhaps this should be a blog about googling for sex and tits.

Leaving aside the issue of the three magic words, I’m sure I don’t use enough bullet points or pictures, or write short enough articles. (I mean I’ve not yet said anything really, and I’m already 200 words in.)


After a couple of days fretting about this, I have resolved not to worry. But I am going to try to use more pictures. I suspect these will mostly be taken (badly) with my mobile phone, whose camera I have only used once before when excitedly taking a photo of the new Routemaster.

Ta da!

Do feel free to tell me if you think these new pictures add anything to EmilyBooks or if I should ignore all this rubbish and go back to my happy luddite ways.

Back to books anyway. I recently wrote a piece for the Spectator about books in spring. It was a bit of an eccentric piece, essentially written to point out that there are three very good books with the word ‘hare’ in the title, which is too brilliantly Marchlike to miss. Well I finished the article having decided to read something spring-y. Which is how I ended up with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.

What a wonderful book! I really do think the lady is a genius. I read Offshore a couple of years ago and have been longing to read something else by her ever since. What she does with great dexterity in both books is create a slightly odd situation, peopled with terribly eccentric but completely believable characters. Each book trundles along slightly quirkily until shortly before the end when something REALLY weird happens.

The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913. I enviously noted how well Fitzgerald has done her research, dropping in casual references to things like samovar sizes or routes taken by taxi sledges. It’s not brazenly in-your-face like historical research can be (such as in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White), rather it is quietly assured, the odd detail filled in perfectly, while the rest is left sketchy enough for the reader’s imagination to have some freedom.

I say that I noted it enviously because I’m currently writing a chapter in my own novel about Picasso, Braque and Kahnweiler in Paris in 1908 and it’s horribly difficult to get right. A couple of months ago I knew very little about Picasso or Braque, had never even heard of Kahnweiler, and didn’t know much about Paris or 1908 either. I’ve been spending many an hour in the British Library trying to learn useful things. The problem is it’s a chicken and egg situation. You need to know something in order to start writing, but as soon as you start writing you realise you don’t know the right thing and so have to go back and research something else. The image that most comes to mind is that of shambling through a three-legged race, the writing and research leaning on each other and helping each other along, but not at all smoothly, often, in fact, tripping each other up.

So well done Penelope. You have succeeded perfectly where many lesser beings fail.

One historical and geographical detail that I particularly loved is the opening of the windows. All through the winter, the windows in Moscow were sealed closed and opening them signifies the beginning of spring:

All morning the yardman had been removing the putty from the inner glass, piece by piece, flake by flake. Blashl [the dog], frantic at his long disappearance, howled at intervals, but the yardman worked slowly. When all the putty was off, without a scratch from the chisel, he called, lord of the moment, for the scrapings to be brushed away. The space between the outer and inner windows was black with dead flies. They, too, must be removed, and the sills washed down with soft soap. Then with a shout from the triumphant shoecleaning boy at the top of the house to Ben, still in the hall, the outer windows, some terribly stuck, were shaken and rattled till they opened wide. Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

Have I just been with an architect for too long, or is this really fascinating? As far as I can understand from this (it’s no point googling ‘opening windows Moscow’ as you just get things about computer programs or articles with obvious metaphorical titles (by the way, do you see what trick I did there??!!)), in Moscow, an extra layer of glass was put in each window for the winter months, which was properly sealed with putty to make very effective double glazing. But see how Fitgerald describes it so minutely, with such thought going into how one would open a window after months of it being sealed. It is a painstaking process. Someone else is called to brush away the scrapings. Dead flies have got in there. The outer windows have become stiff and stuck. And then, finally, she gives us the beautiful climax of the sounds of Moscow blown in on the fresh spring wind. She’s a genius.

I wish we had the same window-opening ritual today in London. How amazing to have been sealed up and cocooned all winter, and then, quite suddenly, to feel connected to the outside. (Incidentally, this all fits in rather nicely with what I was saying about windows in my last post about Ravilious.)

But we have other signs of spring. Like this beautiful tree covered in blossom, which I saw in Hyde Park this weekend!

The funny thing is, when I saw it, I instantly thought of the cover of The Beginning of Spring, with its snow-covered trees. Snow and blossom can give such similar impressions, it is as though the tree shakes off the snow and instantly replaces it with the blossom. Either way, it is covered in white and looks incredibly pretty. Be it in Moscow or in London, I do love the beginning of spring.

The Reading-Gassing Challenge

November 21, 2011

I spent rather an uncharacteristic weekend up in Scotland, shooting.

Well, admittedly, I didn’t actually do any actual shooting. That was left to the men, while we women either hovered nearby, covering our ears and watching them miss the startled pheasants, or did things like cook and sit around chatting. My friend and I were set our own little challenge of being sent home to fetch thermoses of sausages and Bullshot for elevenses. We managed to fail abysmally and abandoned the hire care in a field, only to be laughed at for being too London to understand how to open a gate and then discovering that we’d manage to cause a traffic jam for a rather unimpressed shepherd.

The other main challenge of the weekend was achieving the perfect reading-gassing balance. One of my favourite things about weekends away in lovely houses with drawing rooms and fireplaces is the inevitably large proportion of time spent semi-supine on a sofa, drinking tea or booze and gassing away. It is such fun. I can’t think of a better way of getting to know people, or a better way of whiling away an afternoon.

Yet, in such circumstances, I often get a little nagging pulse in my head telling me that I should be doing something useful. Sometimes this can be mollified by making another pot of tea, or fetching a packet of biscuits. But sometimes I feel a bit like time is slipping through my fingers and I should be spending it writing, or, failing that, at least reading something.

So, for me, the only thing better than sitting around and gassing, is sitting around and gassing while reading. This, as you might imagine, can pose various problems. Some books are too engrossing, so it really is impossible to read them, whilst even occasionally engaging in conversation. It’s just too rude to sit there in the midst of a lively conversation with ears closed off, thoroughly ensconced in one’s own private book world. Besides, it makes one feel as though one’s missing out. There’s nothing worse than being startled out of a paragraph by hearing gales of laughter and not being able to discover what’s so funny.

Conversely, if a book doesn’t hold one’s attention quite firmly enough, then it’s hard to read any of it while conversation is going on, as one’s mind is too liable to graft onto the latter. Rereading a book can be a good option. Or else, a book with short chapters or several section breaks, so that you can slip back into the conversation every page or two.

I had a brief flick though Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling, which in many ways would have been the ideal thing to read. All about shooting in Scotland, I could move between the book and the conversation almost seamlessly. I more than empathised with the bit when the girl gets told off for wearing black. ‘Whoever heard of black on a hill?’ she’s asked, more or less. Well certainly one isn’t supposed to wear yellow on a hill. For the first time ever, I was rather ashamed of my bright yellow wellies, which I rather feebly tried to pass off as camouflaging with a patch of gorse. (Luckily everyone was too polite to be all that mean about them.)

Yet I wasn’t really in the mood for Nancy Mitford. Perhaps I’d had old-school overload with the blissful Mariana – see my last post, here. In any case, I ended up reading a very new book, made up of conversation-dipping-friendly short sections, by a bright young thing of today.

Landfall by Helen Gordon follows Alice, a thirty-four-year-old art critic, who abandons her painfully trendy life in Shoreditch and moves back to her childhood home in the suburbs. It’s a very good book, but I have to say, the opening section in painfully trendy Shoreditch was nothing much other than quite painful. There were a lot of clichéd lines about silly haircuts and living in cold warehouse units and ending up accidentally in bed with artistic wastrels after drinking too much. Nothing new there. I’d rather watch an episode of the – genius – Nathan Barley.

But once Alice gets back to the suburbs, the book becomes quite brilliant. And luckily I’d already got through the Shoreditch bit on the way up to Scotland, so by the time I undertook the reading-gassing challenge, my attention was sufficiently grasped.

At the heart of the novel is a feeling of entropy. Here is a successful young woman, with opportunities offered to her on a plate, who chooses to walk away from everything. She feels like she has nothing left to say, ‘as if her imagination had emptied itself out’. Alice lets her life unravel. She withdraws, cuts her ties, watches herself become increasingly introverted, a recluse. She abandons her friends, her career, her appearance, and watches everything spiral undone.

It’s not long before the trauma at the heart of Alice’s desire to withdraw becomes clear. Seventeen years ago, her sister Janey disappeared. Disappearance is central to the book. As Janey’s haunting voice in Alice’s head says, ‘Everyone has a right to be lost.’ Janey’s disappearance is refracted in other examples scattered throughout the book. Danny, the strange boy next door, nearly drowned as a child. He has no friends, no school, and no job, drifting around silently, almost invisible, almost disappeared from society. A Scandinavian artist, who Alice eventually agrees to write a book about, has become a ‘seaside recluse’, having stopped making art and disappearing from the art world’s consciousness so successfully that Alice’s friend thinks she is dead.

Key to all this disappearance is the idea of the edge. Alice retreats from the false edginess of Shoreditch to the real, geographical edge of the suburbs – ‘the edges of the A–Z’. I expect you’ve noticed the edge on the cover image above. Alice is told, when she leans over the parapet of a multi-storey carpark:

‘You’re making me nervous … Come back from the edge now.’

What happens over the edge? Can someone really step off the edge and disappear? How can someone disappear in today’s densely-populated England of CCTV and mobile phones? This is a book about vertigo. About peering over the edge, feeling dizzy, and letting go.

I suppose there shouldn’t really have been any similarity between this cool young novel about moving from Shoreditch to the suburbs and a rather old-fashioned weekend of shooting in Scotland. But in some ways going up to Scotland, to a remote place with no internet or mobile network was a way of disappearing. Certainly, climbing up big hills, looking down on vast beautiful glens and seeing nothing but reddy-brown space stretching for miles, felt like being on the very edge of the world. So the two ended up striking rather an eerie chime. Landfall is a great book, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. Best of all, it let me complete the reading-gassing challenge with great success.