Posts Tagged ‘Patti Smith’

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:



And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

Just Kids

October 1, 2012

New York in the seventies must have been an amazing place. Artists, playwrights, poets and rock stars all knocking together, all skint, all committed to creating great work. Among those bright young stars struggling to shine were Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is Smith’s poetic, mythic telling of their story.

Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.

As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken, it was just mutually understood.

It’s an impossibly romantic account of their first night together – a wordless, spiritual communion, a shining knight in armour, staying awake all night together and then falling asleep in each other’s arms. This spirit of fairy-tale romance pervades the book, which is suffused with a dreamlike atmosphere, as though Smith and Mapplethorpe were living an eerie, blessed existence.

What saves Just Kids from suffocating through schmaltziness is the harsh reality woven through. Before the Chelsea, there is a grim stay at the Hotel Allerton, full of ‘collective misery and lost hopes, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives’, when Robert suffers the pain of gonorrhoea. They both endure acute poverty and illness – Patti resorts to supplementing their lettuce soup and stale doughnuts with stolen steaks from a butcher. She writes of her distress when, having saved the fifty-five cents for her favourite sandwich at a local café, she found it had gone up in price by ten cents so she could no longer afford it. Luckily Allen Ginsberg happened to be there to help her out. He bought her the sandwich and stood her a coffee too. They sat down together and fell into conversation until:

He leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Are you a girl?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”

I got the picture immediately.

“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”

“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”

The pages are rich with priceless exchanges and encounters like this – with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Salvador Dali (who told her she was like ‘a crow, a gothic crow’) to name just a few. Perhaps it borders on name-dropping tedium, but Smith writes with such sincerity that you can’t help but feel she’s just trying to render an accurate picture of what her life was like and these happen to be the people who populated her cityscape.

The saddest strand that is woven through – Patti’s black ribbon against her white shirt – is death. Smith reflects, when she first enters the coveted back room at Max’s Kansas City and looks around ‘at everyone bathed in the blood light’, that ‘few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation’. Deaths abound, but none is sadder than Robert Mapplethorpe’s, which opens and closes the book. The last pages of the book had me in tears. Towards the end, they meet in LA for Mapplethorpe to take a photograph of Smith, now pregnant by her husband, for the cover of her album. Mapplethorpe is very ill from AIDS but ‘somehow he marshalled his energies and took the picture’:

Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.

It was a simple photograph. My hair is braided like Frida Kahlo’s. The sun is in my eyes. And I am looking at Robert and he is alive.


“We never had any children,” he said ruefully.

“Our work was our children.”

Just Kids is a chronicle not just of an exciting time and place, but of a loving, supportive, creative and utterly unique relationship. Wildly, childishly romantic it may be, but so sincere and beautiful is Smith’s writing that you can’t help but feel she did share a deep wordless bond with Mapplethorpe, that they really were meant to find each other, they were in some way blessed. “Patti, nobody sees as we do,” said Mapplethorpe. It is them versus the world and here is their struggle – poor, ill, failing, yet bound together, happy in each other and ecstatic in each other’s work.

I meant to read Just Kids while I was staying with friends in New York, but ended up not beginning it until I got on the plane to go home. By then it was too late to wander the haunts of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – the streets and cafes, the bars and of course the Chelsea Hotel – their New York, which is recorded in the book as precisely as Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. From what I saw of New York when I was there, however, their city is gone. Theirs was a world preoccupied with talent, art and genius, not the dream of money and designer clothes which seems to preside over the city now.

Finishing it on this rainy Monday morning back in London, crying into my coffee at the heartbreaking ending, I’m left with sad nostalgia for their explosive, vibrant world and all those artists who sacrificed their lives to it. Yet, it has also left me feeling inspired and all the more determined to succeed with my own work. Sure I’m no Patti Smith but, like the younger her, I work in a bookshop, I love anchovy sandwiches and I can certainly empathise with her struggle to write and stay true to her art. I’m sure that most artists, writers or musicians at the dawn of their careers will only take heart from her story, and find in it nourishment to bolster their strength for the tough struggle onwards.

Nostalgia and sadness for what is lost, balanced by inspiration and courage for one’s own life. These are exactly the feelings that should be conjured by a truly remarkable memoir.